Tom Wright‘s Into the Heart of Romans: A Deep Dive into Paul’s Greatest Letter was an encouraging read. It is a dense commentary and a masterful treatment of Romans 8. The book is appropriately subtitled as it addresses the rhetorical framework or overall thrust of a passage, connecting structure, and cultural / historical setting, while highlighting pastoral and theological significance. After an introductory chapter, the book is divided into 8 parts (see below) utilizing the natural flow of the biblical text for its outline, followed by two appendices. Although Paul’s argument is thick, involving many layers, I never felt lost reading Wright’s commentary, since his clarity and focus was keen throughout the book. There were few pages in my copy that did not receive an underscore or annotation in the margins. Although I would have preferred the actual Greek text rather than a transliteration alongside the English text. Those who don’t read Greek would not typically make use of a transliteration. However, this was not a genuine hinderance for anyone familiar with Greek.
Here are the book’s contents showing the structure of Romans 8 (from the Table of Contents, ix):
Chapter 2 Romans 8.1-4: No Condemnation
Chapter 3 Romans 8.5-11: The Spirit Gives Life
Chapter 4 Romans 8.12-17: Led by the Spirit
Chapter 5 Romans 8.17-21: The Liberation of Creation
Chapter 6 Romans 8.22-7: The Groaning of the Spirit
Chapter 7 Romans 8.28-30: Justified and Glorified
Chapter 8 Romans 8.31-4: If God Is for Us
Chapter 9 Romans 8.34-9: Nothing Can Separate Us from God’s Love
In my comments, I want to zoom in on Romans 8:17-22 and offer two reflections, both of which are prompted by Wright’s work and, I believe, important to embrace when confronted with suffering. The first has to do with our own glory; the second with the glory of creation.
First, I was particularly struck by how Wright treats the relationship of suffering to glory in Romans 8. Not only does the text state that suffering is antecedent to glorification (Rom 8:17), but is, in some sense, the stage on which glorification is played out. The rhetorical thrust of the passage suggests as much. If we are indeed children of God, co-heirs with Christ and sure to receive our inheritance of glorification as adopted children, then our lives will run on the same rails as Christ’s earthly life while we are being conformed to his image. This means, at least, that while glory is the goal, suffering is the means. The former emerges from the latter. As our glory increases in or even because of our suffering, we are in fact gradually becoming children who bear the image of Christ. Wright explains.
Suffering is not … a question of ‘something unpleasant we just have to get through.’ Like the sufferings of Jesus himself, Paul seems to envisage this suffering as an active quality. Strange as it may seem, this is one of the ways in which Paul understands Jesus’ followers to be exercising their vocation as the royal priesthood, as the image-bearers, the true humans, the true children of God. This is how, in fact, we are ‘conformed to the image of the firstborn, son ‘, as in verse 29. This doesn’t simply mean that we are to be like Jesus, awaiting the resurrection in which we will at last resemble his glorious body (Philippians 3:21). It means that, through our life … God’s purposes may be worked out, not only in and for us, but … actually through us.”pp 106-107 (emphasis original)
I especially appreciate how Michael Gorman puts across this idea, making glory conditioned upon suffering.
Paul attaches a responsibility, even a condition: “if, in fact, we suffer with him [lit. co-sufferer] so that we may also be glorified with him [lit. co-glorified]” (8:17b). Sharing the glory of God is humanity’s original state (1:23) and final goal, but to be co-heirs with Christ in future glory requires co-suffering with Christ now. This is not a statement about suffering as meriting glory, but a claim about the nature of full participation in the messianic story. Christ’s story is a narrative of suffering before full and final glory, of death before resurrection, of being humbled before being exalted. And that story, Paul says, is now our story.”Romans: A Theological and Pastoral Commentary, p 202
More importantly, if suffering is a necessary condition to our glorification, this logically entails there are no shortcuts, no alternative routes or bypasses. As crucifixion was requisite for Christ’s own glorification, for example, so too is suffering necessary for ours. Correspondingly, Wright says elsewhere that
being co-glorified with the Messiah — which sounds wonderful, until we recall that, for Jesus, glorification meant being betrayed, denied, vilified, whipped raw and hung up to die. This is again clearest in John’s Gospel, where the glorification of Jesus occurs when Jesus is crucified. Conformed to the image of the son, Paul will say in verse 29. And, to say it again, standing at the place of pain isn’t just something nasty to get through. It is a vital part of the means by which God is working out, in the present time, his glorious rescuing purposes for his world.p 141 (emphasis original)
Given that suffering has a role to play in the progress toward Christlikeness, how am I to view it? How do I view it while actually suffering? As a mere inconvenience or something to be tolerated until circumstances or emotions change? Or do I see suffering as an instrument to shape and form Christ in me? After all, it is “for your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom 8:36; Ps 44:22). I will say, too, that it is important we not glorify suffering. It is, after all, a means and not an end. Still, suffering in this life is more than sure, especially for Christ’s people (2 Tim 3:12). But it does not last. It is as temporary as it is necessary.
Second, after mentioning being co-glorified with Christ (Rom 8:17), Paul encourages his readers to look to the future and consider what is in store in the glorification of all creation (Rom 8:18). He brings the idea of creation into the story to show, in part, that our glorification is in fact a catalyst, as it were, for the restoration of all the cosmos (Rom 8:19, 21). Redemption is not centered solely on us; it involves the entire creation. And the means used to bring it about is no different. Just as Christ’s narrative is the same as ours, so too does all of creation share the same thrust of the story, namely suffering gives way to glorification. As the text says, “the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor” (Rom 8:22) and “we ourselves … groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). The glorification of Rom 8:17-21, as Wright says, is “not about faithful Christians going to heaven. It is about creation being rescued from corruption” (p 114, emphasis original)! This suggests that my suffering (and yours) is somehow connected to the liberation of all creation.
These things be true, then the implications are staggering for how we are to view suffering, as well as how we are to view and value creation. If indeed there is some organic link between my suffering, my response to my suffering, my glorification, and the glorification of all creation, then self care is, quite possibly, creation care and vice versa! Perhaps a healthy, mature response to the role of suffering in my life serves to enhance the glory of all creation. And, reciprocally, an unhealthy, immature response to the role of suffering in my life may further the corruption and decay of creation. To be sure there is ambiguity around the extent of the connection between my glorification and the glorification of creation, but that the linkage exists is undeniable based on Romans 8:17-22.
I’ll just leave this right here for you to ponder.
Meanwhile, do pick up the book by Wright and give it a careful read.BUY THE BOOK
For a complementary perspective to the views taken here, see my review of Eleanore Stump’s The Image of God.