From the beginning of his letter Paul’s purpose in writing has been to make sure we understand justification by faith and its implications –

That, left to ourselves, we can never be justified (that is, acquitted by God) (1:18 – 3:20).

That justification is achieved by the atoning death of Jesus Christ, and granted freely by God’s grace to all who believe in his Son (3:21 – 4:25).

That because of this justification by faith, we have peace with God – a reconciliation with God that is unbreakable because it is grounded solely in Christ, through whom grace reigns (5:1 – 21).

That believers are so united to Christ in his death and resurrection that God no longer relates to them on the basis of their own actions, good or bad, but always and only ‘in Christ’ (6:1 – 8:17), where there is no condemnation.

Paul wants believers to know with grand assurance that God now relates to us always on the basis of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He wants us to know that we are justified/acquitted.
He wants us to know that we have peace with God.
He wants us to know that we are reconciled to God.
He wants us to know that we are forever safe from God’s wrath.
He wants us to know that we are beyond condemnation.

He wants us to know that this grand salvation is guaranteed (4:16) because it has nothing to do with our personal merit, but totally dependent on God’s grace. Because of this he talks about suffering in Romans 8:18 – 39.

Paul understands the legalistic mindset. He knows that our human hearts and minds automatically want to relate to God on the basis of our own merit. He knows the popular theology of suffering which consistently perceives suffering to be an indication of God's judgement. He knows that the religious human response to suffering is to attribute the suffering to some sin or failure on the part of the sufferer.
The truth of justification by faith, of the 'righteousness from God apart from law', sets us free from this daily threat of condemnation. For the believer, suffering can never again be viewed as God's punishment and condemnation, for God no longer relates to the believer on the basis of personal performance, but always and only in and through Christ. When a believer suffers it is never a pay-out because of inadequate faith or hidden sin. This common misconception about suffering cuts right across the good news of justification by faith, and annihilates the peace with God which the believer has in Christ.

In 8:28 – 39 Paul continues to press home this important and impactive truth because he wants to liberate us from the common assumption that suffering is God's punishment that indicates a severance between the believer and God.

In 8:28-29, rather than suffering indicating God’s judgement and condemnation, Paul assures us that no such thing is the case. On the contrary, even in these things that seem opposed to us and hell-bent on the destruction of our bodies and our faith, God works for us - 'for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose'.

In 8:28-30 Paul gives us a great list of strong words, intended to assure us forever that there is no way that suffering has the ability to disqualify the believer: called, foreknown, predestined, headed for conformation to the likeness of Jesus, brothers of his Son, predestined, called, justified, glorified. No suffering that we experience can undermine these truths: believers are in God's hands, and he is at work both in us and for us. In his hands, suffering becomes just another tool by and through which he will bring about our 'good'.

In 8:31 – 34 Paul affirms that God is for us. God has chosen us. God gave his Son for us. God justifies us. No one - neither Satan, nor people, nor we ourselves - can legally bring a charge against us or condemn us. To lay a charge against those whom God has acquitted through the death of his Son, to say that a Christian is suffering as a punishment for some sin or failure of faith, is to infer either of two things:

Either, that Jesus Christ did not die for that sin or that failure,

Or, God is unjust in punishing the believer for something for which Christ has already paid the penalty.

Both are wrong. Both demonstrate a failure to understand the death of Christ.

Let us therefore, even in the midst of suffering, indeed, especially in the context of suffering, hold fast to the guaranteed salvation God has graciously given us in Christ, and not insult his grace by doubting the ‘no condemnation’.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020

Check these new study series for further discussion on Christians and suffering:

Suffering Revisited