Apologies that the next three posts won’t have a Christmas feel. With three Christmas sermons to preach any inspiring (or mundane!) thoughts on Christmas are going to land in those!
I’ve just finished preaching through Romans 5-8. However, the sermon on Romans 8:18-27 didn’t record properly. One or two people have asked me about it so I pondered preaching it again into a microphone but thought instead that I would write it up as three successive blog posts.
In many ways Romans 5-8 describe the blessings of being a Christian. Having been justified the Christian enjoys huge privileges. Three times in the opening verses of the section, Paul says “We rejoice.” We are those who reign in life, we are united with the risen Christ who has broken the power of sin and we serve now in the new way of the Spirit. The verses before our section pick up the wonder of our relationship with God as we cry “Abba Father.” As we’ve worked through Romans 5-8 we have seen week by week all that God has given us to enjoy in Christ.
Yet an objection may strike us. Life isn’t permanent joy. There is pain involved. During the week that I prepared this talk I went down with a stomach bug for three or four days. Being a man I assumed that I was dying. But, of course, intense physical pain is an ongoing reality for some. Or there is the emotional agony of bereavement, family difficulties, unfulfilled longings for marriage or family or perhaps feelings of rejection. Perhaps there are intense struggles in terms of mental health. All of these things can cause a deep sense of pain. They can become the dominant realities in our lives almost blotting out the realities of Romans 5-8. When we consider our life the first things we see are not the spiritual realities like union with Christ but the sufferings that we endure.
So how does God’s plan deal with that? That’s the question that Paul deals with in the last few sections of Romans 8. He touched on the issue of suffering briefly in chapter five but he expands it in these verses. Suffering is the backdrop to the whole section- seen especially in v.17 and v.35-36. It is something of which Paul has personal experience. At the beginning of chapter 9 he talks of his own unceasing anguish- in this case over his unconverted country. If much of Romans 1-8 is about God dealing with sin through the Lord Jesus paying for it and the Spirit uniting us to Christ so we can put it to death, then this last section is about how God deals with suffering.
The first thing we need to know is that suffering is to be expected. That’s the burden of v.17:
Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (NIV)
We are children of God and so we are His heirs. Gloriously all that belongs to God will be ours one day. Notice that we are co-heirs. We will receive all the blessings of God with the Lord Jesus. But there is a condition to us receiving that inheritance: the same condition that faced Christ. He would only enjoy the Father’s glory by going through the suffering of the cross. The same is true for us. The path to glory is marked by suffering.
Paul is saying that the suffering in the Christian’s life is not an indication that God’s plan has gone wrong. Rather suffering is part of His plan. We need to be clear on that. In some parts of the church a health and wealth Gospel is preached: come to Jesus and you’ll be wealthy, never get sick and so on. Most of us can spot the excesses of that. But it does seem to me that we can embrace a subtle form of it. Essentially I expect my life to be nice. We expect a good house, a good job, a good family and a good church along with the peace and hope that we have as Christians. When it doesn’t turn out like that, when it costs to live for Christ, when there are unanswered prayers then we think to ourselves- “This isn’t what I bargained for…” But of course if we read the Bible then we know it is what we bargained for.
“If we share in his sufferings…” says Paul in v.17. Consider for a moment the sufferings of Christ. He was homeless, his own family did not believe him, he was mocked by crowds, he faced opposition and loneliness and was in agony over those who were lost. That’s before we get to the unspeakable agonies of Gethsemane and Calvary. And Paul says the Christian’s path is to suffer with Christ. Some of these things are precisely what we should expect.
We need to have that clear in our minds before it happens. When suffering comes it is easy for our faith to be shaken. Don Carson has spoken about the time when his wife Joy had breast cancer, had to have a double mastectomy and almost died. He said that at some level they didn’t learn anything new from the experience because they already knew that Christians suffered. Their faith was not shaken: this was what they expected to happen. It is what we should expect. Indeed there is an extent to which Christians should expect to suffer more than just the natural pains of the world- we face persecution and battle with temptation in a way that a non-Christian won’t experience. It’s the normal Christian life.
So why bother? We’ll look at that tomorrow…