Romans 8:18–30 (ESV)✞: Future Glory
In the last passage Paul continued with the theme of assurance to his fellow believers that we are all heirs with Christ, and in verse 17✞ he said that we will “be glorified” with Him. He will now go deeper into the topic of “glory.”
To start with, because he knows that his readers are suffering for their faith, he offers them some hope:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
It should be noted that Paul is not minimising or trivialising his readers’ suffering when he says that it isn’t worth comparing with the glory revealed to them. Paul, more than anyone, knows what it means to suffer for Christ!
No, he recognises that his readers are truly suffering. It’s not that their suffering is less than they think it is, it’s that the glory being revealed is even greater. (I’d like to think of a good example to illustrate this, but every example I come up with trivialises the suffering, which is exactly what I don’t want to do!)
This does take faith—it’s glory that is “to be” revealed in us, not glory that is already revealed—but there’s every reason to have that faith. God is true to His Word.
In fact God’s children aren’t the only ones waiting for that glory to be revealed:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
Even creation is awaiting it – eagerly!
But what does it mean that “creation” is “eager” for this?
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
I sat staring at these verses for a few minutes, trying to figure out what to write.
First of all, Paul is obviously personifying “creation” for dramatic purposes. That is, he’s treating God’s creation as if it is a sentient being, such that it has a will (i.e. it wasn’t subjected to futility willingly), and hopes. As if all of creation—other than humans, I guess—thought to itself, “Well, I’m not happy about being subjected to futility, but I’ll do it for God’s sake, and just hope that eventually I’ll be set free from this bondage to corruption. Maybe I’ll even have the freedom of the glory of the children of God!”
Maybe this is another passage I need to go through bit by bit.
|For the creation was subjected to futility
|What does “subjected to futility” mean? If we don’t get caught up in the language, we instinctively know exactly what Paul means. I like some examples given by the ESV Study Bible on this verse: “One thinks of the thorns and thistles that were to accompany work in Gen. 3:17–19, the pain in childbirth for the woman (Gen. 3:16), and the repeated refrain that all is vanity in Ecclesiastes (where the Septuagint uses the same Greek word here used for ‘futility’).”
|As mentioned, Paul is personifying creation here. The point is not for us to think of creation as a sentient entity, it’s that things are not the way they should have been. In the beginning, creation was good. (See… well, all of Genesis 1–2, I guess.)
|but because of him who subjected it
|There have been religions—past and probably present—that viewed creation as something on par with God. There have been religions that viewed creation as something that pre-dated their gods, and/or where the gods were subject to the same laws of nature that we are. But Christianity, and Judaism before it, and I assume Islam, teach that God created creation – hence the name. He does with it what He pleases. Or, as in this case, what needs to be done. As Paul is personifying creation, he is showing it as not being “happy” about the state of the universe, but subject to God, regardless.
|in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption
|There is an end game in mind. The world—the universe—is not as it should be, but someday it will be again.
|and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
|Here’s the crux of the matter: all of this is for our sake. For Christians’ sake. One day, when creation is restored to its proper state, it will be for the glory of the children of God – us!
In fact, Paul says, you could treat the entire current state of creation as a precursor to something better, as with a woman giving birth:
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
Paul purposely uses this analogy because we all know what comes after the pains of childbirth: the joy of a new child!
But it’s not like creation is groaning and humans are just fine. We also feel that things aren’t right – especially those of us who are saved, who have the Holy Spirit and who have a taste of how things should be. It’s all well and good for us to be called children of God, but it also feels like the adoption hasn’t quite gone through, yet:
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
In fact, this is exactly the hope we had when we got saved:
For in this hope we were saved.
And now let’s talk about this word “hope:”
Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
The fact that we’re not yet experiencing this glory—or not experiencing it as fully as we one day will—is exactly why we need to have hope. If we had it, we wouldn’t need to hope for it! But we can also be patient while we hope; this isn’t a matter of crossing our fingers and wishing, it will happen. Christian hope is not a matter of wondering if God will do what He said He would do, Christian hope is knowing that He will, and patiently waiting for it. Well… as patiently as sinful humans are able.
Luckily, we have the Spirit in our lives. He is not only helping us to live as we should, He’s even praying on our behalf!
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
And let’s be clear: we’re often at a loss as to how we should pray! There are times when someone brings me a problem and asks me to keep them in my prayers, and I simply don’t know what to ask God for – let alone how to ask Him! It’s reassuring to know that the Spirit has no such limitations; even when I don’t know what to pray, He does.
He even does it “according to the will of God,” because my sinfulness even extends to my prayer life. There may be times when I might be tempted to pray for sinful things. If you come to me and ask me to pray for you because you’re afraid you’re going to lose your job, but I happen to want that job, I might be tempted to pray that you do lose your job! It would be sinful, but I’m a sinful man! But the Spirit isn’t sinful, and only ever prays good things on my behalf.
This passage closes with a couple of famous verses, though they might sometimes be misunderstood.
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
A light reading of these verses—or rather, of one specific verse, verse 28—could be used in support of a “health and wealth” mentality. It could be read that Paul says in verse 28 that God will only let good things happen to His children. More on this below, but if we look a bit more closely we’ll see that that’s not what he’s saying. The overall flow of this passage is that Paul talks about how “creation” has been groaning, but that we can have hope in the midst of this, and that even when we don’t understand—to the point we don’t even know what to pray for—the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf, that this is all part of God’s plan—that “all things work together for good”—and that, in fact, this has been His plan all along.
As a Christian I can rest in the fact that everything that’s happened through me and to me is leading toward my own future glory, in God’s presence, and, somehow and some way, is also leading to the building of His Church. Maybe some day I’ll say the right thing to the right person in the right moment and they will come fo faith; maybe some other day I’ll commit an egregious sin, but God will use that in His larger plan. It’s all working together for good. Even when I don’t see how my circumstances could possibly be helping, the ESV Study Bible points out that, “The ‘good’ in this context does not refer to earthly comfort but conformity to Christ (v. 29), closer fellowship with God, bearing good fruit for the kingdom, and final glorification (v. 30).”
In verses 29–30 he breaks this down step by step:
|For those whom he foreknew he also predestined
Ah, predestination! Of all the contentious topics Christians argue about, this is probably the most contentious, and it’s obvious why that would be the case. But in this context, it’s pretty clear that Paul is saying that everything that has ever happened to me, and ever will, has all been part of God’s plan.
It’s also clear that Paul is not saying this to fight a fight about predestination vs. free will; again, he’s writing this to give comfort to his fellow believers! “Don’t worry,” he’s saying, “this is all part of God’s plan. It always has been.”
|to be conformed to the image of his Son
|What were we predestined for? To be conformed to the image of Jesus.
|in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers
|This is just the continuation of the previous thought: we were predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus, so that there might be many children of God, not just One.
|And those whom he predestined he also called
|I never would have come to God on my own, and neither would anyone else have done so; but He called me to Himself.
|and those whom he called he also justified
|I’m not trying to hit the predestination thing over the head, but it’s inescapable as we read Paul’s words: if God called someone, He also justified that person. Paul doesn’t say that “many of whom He called He also justified,” he says that it’s one set of people: the people that God called, whom He then justified, whom He then glorified. We’ve talked about the word “justified” before, but it means more than just the forgiveness of sins; it’s not just a matter of taking away my sins. I can now stand before God, in His presence, because He justified my being there.
|and those whom he justified he also glorified.
|I don’t feel very glorious. On my very best days, when I’m closest to God, I feel… less sinful than usual. However, as we saw in the previous passage, God has glorified me – it’s as good as done! In the future, when I shed my sin, it will be perfected, but it has already begun now!
I mentioned the prosperity and/or health and wealth gospel above so let me address it here, because the message some Christians will have received is that God blesses His children, and therefore if you aren’t being blessed it’s because you’re not living right! If He works all things for good for the Christian, and you don’t feel that all things are working for your good, then maybe you should examine your life! (Or maybe you haven’t been sending enough money to your favourite preacher?)
Except that can’t be what Paul is saying because he’s spent the last seven chapters saying that that is exactly not how Christianity works. In the last few passages Paul has been trying to offer hope and comfort to his readers and we have once again come upon a verse that, when used flippantly, can do exactly the opposite.
So what we need to do, when reading these verses, is examine what Paul means by “good” when he says that “all things work together for good.” In the previous passage he talked about the fact that all Christians should expect to suffer for Jesus’ name – how is that “working together for my ‘good?’” Unless Paul means something different than health, and wealth, and power, and all the things that we think of as “good.” Which, given the larger point (and all he says in his letters about suffering for Christ), must be the case!
First of all, read the larger context of verses 18–30✞. If we are to believe that verse 28 is trying to promote a “health and wealth” style of gospel1, then it’s coming out of nowhere. Paul would be doing the following: in verses 18–23 he would be talking about how “creation” has been groaning, waiting for our future glory, but then saying in verses 24–25 that we have hope this will happen. Then, in verses 26–27, he’d be saying that even when we don’t know how to figure all of this out (to the point we don’t even know how to pray about it), we’ve got the Holy Spirit praying on our behalf. Then, out of nowhere, in verse 28 he’d be saying that Christians will always be blessed by God! And finally, in verses 29–30, he’d come back to his point saying that this has been God’s plan all along.
The reading of verse 28 in which it promotes the prosperity gospel—the reading in which we try to make Paul say that God will ensure that good things happen for His people—requires Paul to completely switch topics, just for one verse, from his larger point.
However, if we stop trying to make Paul say that, and read this verse in the larger context, his point becomes quite clear.
If you’ve only ever heard verse 28 preached at you in isolation, then it could be used in service of the prosperity gospel (though it would be awkwardly worded). If you only ever read the Bible in tiny, verse-by-verse snippets, you might also come away with this conclusion when reading this verse on its own. But if you read the Bible in larger chunks Paul’s original meaning becomes more clear.
- I continue my tradition of always capitalising the Gospel when talking about the Gospel, and not capitalising it when I talk about the “prosperity gospel” or the “health and wealth gospel.” ↩