III.9. Romans 8:18-30. The Hope of the Creation.
St. Paul has touched upon the familiar topic of Christian suffering, and he ends his great argument with a splendid encouragement to believers to suffer gladly, and that for a manifold reason. First (18-25), that the suffering is altogether inconsiderable by comparison with the glory to which it leads, and is in itself only a part of the universal travail-pang through which created nature as a whole is to produce a glorious new earth to be the habitation of righteousness. Secondly (26-30), that we are not alone in our sufferings. We have the support, within us and around us, of the Holy Spirit as our effective intercessor, and the consciousness of an eternal and infallible purpose of divine love which is taking effect stage by stage in the case of each one of us whom God has made members of His elect body. The following is a paraphrase.
The sufferings in which this present situation involves us Christians are quite inconsiderable by comparison with the heavenly glory which is destined to be disclosed and to include us. The sense of this glorious future pervades the whole creation. Nature is like some on-looker at a spectacle craning the neck to see what is coming. She is waiting for the final disclosure of the children of God in their true position; knowing that she too — as a new heaven and a new earth — will share that glorious future. At present her powers are continually frustrated; failure is everywhere; the law of corruption is upon her like a bondage. This curse she was subjected to, through no will of her own, by the simple fiat of her Creator — but not for ever: she was left to hope for deliverance from this bondage into a state of freedom — a share, that is, in the freedom which is to belong to the final glory of the children of God. With this in mind we can bear the universal spectacle of pain. What we have always heard until the point in time, wherever we have lent our ear all through nature, has been groans; but they are the groans as of a woman in travail: and in these groans we, God's chosen people, though we already possess the first instalment of the divine Spirit, the pledge of what is yet to come — in these groans we bear our part, and also in the hope that accompanies the groaning. We groan expecting to realize our sonship, as that can only be realized when body as well as soul is redeemed from all evil. Hope is thus the very condition on which we received our spiritual deliverance when we became Christ's. And hope means nothing else than a condition of expecting good things not yet in sight. It means the readiness to endure till they come.
And there is another reason why we should be glad to bear our present sufferings. It is because, though we are weak in ourselves, we are not left alone. Of ourselves we should be bewildered and not know even what we ought to ask God to give us. But we have in the Spirit who dwells in us a divine advocate and intercessor. His intercession makes itself perceptible to us in groaning desires after a better condition, desires which cannot be put into words, but which are intelligible enough to God. He who searches the hearts interprets the longings we cannot express — understands, that is, the Spirit's meaning; for He is God's own Spirit, and the intercessions He makes for us, the consecrated people, express God's own intention. And what that intention is towards us we know. We know that it is an intention of good which cannot fail for those who love God; or, in other words, for those who are the subjects of the divine purpose and call — an intention of good to which everything, even seeming evils, must minister. For God's purpose reaches from eternity to eternity, and cannot be baffled from without or fail by the way. Those whom in eternity He designated beforehand as instruments of His will, those He also eternally destined for the highest human perfection — for the blessed lot of being made like His own Son, as He should be hereafter incarnate, so that He might be an elder brother in a great human family: and those who were thus appointed beforehand for this high destiny, in due course He called into the elect body. And those whom He thus called He acquitted and accepted for righteous: and whom He thus accepted He crowned with glory.
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward. For the earnest expectation of the creation waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only so, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For by hope were we saved: but hope that is seen is not hope: for who hopes for that which he sees? But if we hope for that which we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.
And in like manner the Spirit also helps our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and he that searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose. For whom he foreknew, he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren: and whom he foreordained, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
There are passages in the New Testament which are unique. Such is the passage in St. Peter's epistle about Christ preaching in His disembodied human spirit to other spirits in Hades — a passage vaguely suggestive of wide thoughts and hopes, and leading us to suppose that the ideas which it contained were familiar in the apostolic circle, but standing alone, with practically nothing to elucidate it from outside. And the passage just read about the groaning of creation in travail-pains is unique, not because there is not a good deal to elucidate it in other parts of the Bible, but because St. Paul in his treatment of common material strikes a note of sympathy with nature from nature's point of view, which is heard nowhere else in the Bible.
In Genesis we read that 'the ground was cursed' because of man's sin, in the sense apparently that, as the penalty of his sin, nature was to be made a rougher home for him, and he was to extract his food from it only with pain and sweat. Isaiah is perhaps interpreting this primitive lesson in more modern tones when he cries that 'the earth is polluted under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the ever-lasting covenant. Therefore has the curse devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are found guilty: therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left. The new wine mourns, the vine languisheth.' In this sense certainly, if not in some more recondite sense also, the ground is stricken with a curse as a result of human sin. And there are parts of the world where no lesson seems more patent. At any rate, whatever be the interpretation given to it, it was part of the common Jewish teaching that 'though all things were made very good, yet when the first man sinned they were corrupted, and shall return no more to their proper state until the son of Pherez shall come.' For the curse was not to be for ever. There was a good time to come — a new heaven, a new earth, wherein righteousness should dwell — 'A restoration of all things,' and not merely of man, which should accompany the coming of the Messiah. This was a most popular idea in Jewish hearts. 'I will transform the heaven and make it an eternal blessing and light. And I will transform the earth and make it a blessing and cause mine elect ones to dwell upon it: but the sinners and evil-doers shall not set foot thereon.'
Here then we have the common belief which St. Paul inherits and uses. He lays indeed very little stress upon the connection of the earth's present condition with human sin, if he even alludes to it. He only says it was 'subjected to vanity' by the decree of the Creator, and that with a glorious prospect. It is upon the present aspect of the creation and its great prospect that his eyes are set. And his superiority to contemporary Jewish thought is shown by the fact that in his vision of the future he is catholic and cosmic. What he is contemplating is not a world renovated in order that one chosen race may be happy and glorious, but a renovated world for a perfected humanity. And in his representation of the present aspects of nature he strikes an extraordinarily modern note by exhibiting, as it were unintentionally, a deep and real sympathy with nature in her pain from her own point of view. The Psalms can supply examples of a real sympathetic fellowship in the happiness of creation — a happiness which modern pessimists strangely ignore. But here we have, as nowhere else in the Bible — perhaps nowhere in ancient literature — a man who feels with the pain of creation. He notes how much 'vanity' there is in nature — how much that is ineffective and disappointing, how much waste and sadness — by reason of the omnipresent law of corruption, dissolution and decay under which she is laid. He feels this as from nature's own heart. And he has an ear for the universal cry of positive pain, pain as of a woman in travail, which is one at least of the most unmistakeable voices of nature. But he has got an explanation of this universal pain which makes it tolerable to him. It is the pain which accompanies a birth. The pain, as in the case of the woman, is to be justified by the issue. Nature 'eagerly expects' as well as 'groans': and will doubtless 'remember no more the anguish, for joy' of that which is the fruit of her agony. For there is a destiny for the whole material world which includes man. As man is to be perfected and spiritualized in body no less than in mind; so the whole man, perfected in glory, is to have his place in a world emancipated in like manner from failure and pain.
Perhaps the most important consideration to be derived from this passage is that St. Paul's thought is equally alien to a one-sided spiritualism and a one-sided materialism. A one-sided spiritualism, such as is represented to-day by (most falsely-called) 'Christian Science,' either disbelieves in the reality of matter altogether, or regards it with its attendant qualities of weakness and pain as evil and a thing to be ignored. The religion of the Incarnation, on the other hand, as represented by St. Paul, recognizes it as God's creation and the temple of His presence. In our humanity, as scientific investigation assures us, we can exercise no activity of spirit except as parts of a material world, through the senses and by the instrumentality of the bodily organs. Spirit and matter are in us so linked together that the real difficulty to a thinking Christian is to conceive at all of a 'disembodied' state of the personal human spirit after death which is in any sense a living state. But such a 'disembodied' state — if the word really represents the truth — is unnatural and temporary. The perfected human spirit is to have an embodiment which is to be material, as being truly a body, but also spiritual, because it is to be the fitting organ of the perfected spirit, in no way embarrassing or clogging its activity by any grossness or corruption. This is the Christian hope, definite in principle, if quite unaccompanied by any anticipated knowledge of method or details. And this destiny of the human body cannot be separated from the destiny of the material universe as a whole. Matter as a whole is to have an unending development like spirit, and a development with a justifying purpose of glory in it.
And St. Paul is equally opposed to the materialism which gives to matter a substantive existence apart from spirit. Metaphysical inquiry assures us that we can have no conception of a material object, or of matter in general, except as related to a consciousness or spirit; or, in other words, except as an adjunct to some sort of personality. Such metaphysical inquiry did not lie in St. Paul's way. But he is in harmony with its results when he contemplates a glorified nature as still relative to glorified personalities. Nature is to share the revelation of the glory of the sons of God.
We cannot help wondering, as we read these verses, whether St. Paul had in mind that occasion when, before the chosen witnesses, Christ was bodily transfigured on the holy mount by an anticipation of the glory destined for His sonship; and the apostles felt their hearts thereby encouraged to believe more surely in the teaching of the prophets about the general glory that was to accompany the final manifestation of the Christ.
When St. Paul talks of nature 'groaning' and (still more) 'eagerly expecting,' is it merely a poetical personification, as Chrysostom and most commentators suppose, like that of the Psalmist when he makes 'the floods clap their hands'? It may be so. George Crabbe, in his Delay is Dangerous, draws a singularly beautiful picture of a late autumn morning as it appeared to a dejected man, and he ends the description with the lines: —
These things were sad in nature, or they tookSadness from him, the likeness of his look.
Is the latter the true explanation? Is there no sadness or eager desire in nature independently — I will not say of spirit, but of the human spirit? It is sometimes very difficult to believe this. And may not the Christian belief about angels make the fancy legitimate, that every created thing has some accompanying intelligence — higher or lower — which consciously realizes its beauty and its joy, and also its pain and its hope? If this be so, then there is not merely deficiency and pain, but the consciousness of this deficiency and pain, a real groaning and a real expectation, in the great fabric of nature. We may legitimately imagine this; but we have probably no right to attribute such an imperfectly-based speculation to St. Paul.
It is very interesting to notice the various points of view from which St. Paul contemplates the great ideas of 'redemption,' 'adoption,' 'salvation.' Christ redeemed us by the shedding of His blood, and we entered into the redeemed state individually and were adopted as sons when we became Christians. This is, beyond all question, St. Paul's belief. But when he contemplates the outward conditions of the redeemed man, and finds them quite incongruous with freedom and sonship, so wholly unashamed is he to require that these outward conditions shall be transformed, and body as well as spirit shall be redeemed, that he speaks as if the great hope were still unrealized and we were still only expecting to be redeemed and adopted — 'waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.' He thus retains the intensely Jewish language of what we may call Christ's own Apocalypse, when He bids His disciples, as the Day of the Lord approaches, to 'look up and lift up their heads: because their redemption draws nearly.'
The uses of the words 'saved' and 'salvation' are still more remarkable. If we are contemplating the finished work of Christ, we are led to say, 'By grace have we been saved.' If we are considering our own individual entrances into this great salvation at the time of our believing or becoming Christians in baptism, we say, 'It was upon a basis of hope that we were saved.' If we are considering the progressive life of the believer, we say, 'He is being saved.' If we are looking to the great and final hope, we say, 'We shall be saved.' 'Our salvation is nearer than when we became believers.' This simple set of facts about New Testament language throws a great light on the popular revivalist question — 'Are you saved?'
Our Lord once asked one who came to Him to be healed — 'What will you that I should do to you?' and a very devout modern writer builds upon this an argument that we ought to learn continually to pray with more definiteness and detail. Probably it is true to say that the advanced Christian learns to pray more definitely for spiritual things, as he grows in spiritual discernment and sees more distinctly what God's moral will is for himself and others. But there is no similar growth to be expected in the knowledge of what outward gifts will really help or hinder us and others. And it is with his eye chiefly on the outward conditions of the Christian's life that St. Paul here says — 'We know not what we should pray for as we ought'; and teaches us that 'The Spirit makes intercession for the saints according to God.' We must be content to recognize, even while we half-ignorantly pray for what we think we need, that 'all (outward) things work together for good to them that love God.' St. Paul had learnt that lesson when he himself 'urgently requested the Lord thrice' that his great physical trouble might be removed from him, and was refused. The Son of Man Himself prayed only 'Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,' and learned in experience that it was not possible. These lessons may suffice to humble any one who grows over-confident that he knows what outward circumstances are best for himself or his friends or the Church.
We all feel deeply the imperfection of our prayers: how weak, how ignorant they are! And St. Paul consoles us with the belief in an intercession — perfect, all-knowing, divine — which supports and sustains and, we may say, includes ours. The 'intercession of the Spirit' in our behalf, carried on, it is implied, 'in the hearts' of the saints which only God searches, is mentioned nowhere in the New Testament but here. But it is not to be separated from the intercession of Christ which is mentioned just below. Christ's intercession is 'at the right hand of God,' but also He has by the Spirit taken us up into His own life. He dwells in us by His Spirit. By His Spirit we are knit into one and made His body. Doubtless, then, dwelling thus by the Spirit in the body, Christ intercedes for us. This is the intercession of the Spirit, which is also the intercession of Christ — an intercession gathering up into one, and sustaining and connecting and perfecting, all the imperfect prayers of all the saints.
This interceding Spirit is in Himself perfectly conscious of God's mind and purpose, and God is perfectly conscious of His. He intercedes 'according to God.' This intercession is but a form of the perfect divine life. But in the heart of the Church this desire of the Spirit can make itself felt only in groanings for the divine manifestations which, like the aspirations which music suggests or expresses, are too deep to admit of articulate utterance. St. Paul, when he speaks of groanings which cannot be put into words, is perhaps thinking of the 'tongues' in which the spiritual emotion of the first Christian churches found expression. And we should think of some earnest act of corporate Christian worship when, under the workings of the one Spirit, the strong desire after what is holiest and highest possesses men, and binds them together with a sense of longing for the divine manifestation which could not be put into definite words.
St. Paul speaks of the groaning of suffering nature (ver. 22), and the groaning of the individual Christians (ver. 23), and also the groaning of the divine Spirit in the Church (ver. 26). No word could express more powerfully the intense desire after the manifestation of the divine kingdom which, in St. Paul's mind, should lie at the heart of true Christian prayer.
And the true prayer of the Spirit — the prayer which is according to God — is described (ver. 27) as 'on behalf of saints' — on behalf of a separated and consecrated body. It follows, that is to say, the lines of Christ's own prayer — 'I pray not for the world, but for those whom you have given me.' It is through the sanctified life that the divine influences are to spread over the world: and by praying for the consecrated body we are praying that that life may be exhibited more and more perfectly among men so as to strike their consciences and move them to conversion; that through our good works which they now behold they may glorify God in the day when they themselves are visited. The New Testament method of praying for the world is thus in great part indirect. But the direct method is also enjoined. We are also to pray directly 'for all men.'
There is, I think, no point on which St. Paul has been more misrepresented than on his teaching about predestination. He teaches plainly that it is God's purpose to 'have mercy upon all': that He 'willeth that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.' But He works towards this universal end through a method of selected human instruments — through an elect body. Such an elect body had been the Jewish nation — selected, we cannot tell why, but very possibly in part because of its capacity for coherence and toughness, coupled with a singular aptitude for simple religious ideas — qualities which in themselves of course were the gift of God. This nation might have expanded, as was intended, into a catholic church. But, as it refused to correspond with its vocation in this respect, in fact the catholic Church appears in history as taking its place, even while it was developed out of it — an elect body gathered out of 'every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues.' The election of this catholic body to be the heirs of salvation and to bear the name of God in the world was, it would have been held, a self-evident fact. St. Paul reasons not up to this fact but from it. He uses the admitted fact to strengthen its individual members under stress of trial. They must bear earthly troubles because they form the appointed discipline for the individuals who form the select body. Let men but love God, and then all outward things whatsoever work together for good for them. The fact that they love God is the sufficient evidence of their election. Those who love God are also those who are 'called according to His purpose.' But, we ask, Have none received the call and rejected it? were none called, who do not love God? is it not true, that 'Many are called and few chosen'? St. Paul says not a word to the contrary. But that is not the question he is considering. The members of the Christian Church, devoted to God, to whom he is writing have been called. This call of which they have become the subject is, St. Paul assures them, no afterthought, no momentary act of God, which as it came into being in a moment so may pass away. It is not a being taken up by God and then perhaps dropped again. His gifts and calling are without repentance on His side, because they represent an eternal will. In the eternal mind God 'foreknew' this chosen body. To 'know' as used of God (in contexts where it is implied that others are not 'known') means to 'take knowledge of or mark out for a divine purpose, as God said of the Jews, 'You only have I known of all the families of the earth,' that is, your nation only have I singled out or designated. This divine marking out then was an eternal act. God eternally marked out certain persons, those presumably whom a certain preparatory discipline and moral education, Jewish or heathen, should have made apt for His purpose, such aptitude being of course again His gift. Anyway, for reasons which we cannot probe, God did eternally foreknow or mark out beforehand a body of men to be His catholic church. And those so marked out were in the eternal counsels appointed for a high spiritual vocation, to be made like the divine Son, who was to be made man, so that, with Christ as heir and elder brother, they together might represent in the world the divine ideal for man. And upon those so marked out and foreordained, in due time the divine call came by the apostolic preaching. And, at the first movement of corresponsive faith, they had been acquitted of all their old sins and planted all at once upon a new basis in Christ Jesus. And those thus set upon the new basis God also had already in His divine counsels clothed with glory, their share in the glory of the divine Son which is only waiting to be fully manifested. Every Christian therefore who has felt a movement of God in his heart, under which he has become a Christian, knows that he is in God's keeping. God will not fail him. He who has begun the good work will perform it. Trouble and anxiety within or without need not alarm him. He has but to keep himself, joyful and confident, in God's hands. The movement of God upon him and within him, as it proceeds out of the eternal mind, so it passes securely on into the eternal issue. No doubt St. Paul would say they might tear themselves by utter wilfulness out of the divine hand, as for the time at least the Jews had mostly done. But short of that they are safe. The movement of God, the protection of God, the purpose of God, is upon them and around them, and goes before them preparing their way, individually and corporately.
This is the moral use St. Paul makes of the doctrine of predestination. And it is to do egregious violence to his general teaching to suggest that he entertained the idea of persons created with an opposite predestination — to eternal misery. St. Paul is dealing here only with what God has already shown of His purpose in the actual vocation of some. Ultimately he assures us all men share the divine purpose for good. But, on the other hand, he never suggests that they may not resist it, or allows us to say that so far as concerns themselves they may not defeat it.
 iii. 17-19; v. 29.
 xxiv. 5-7.
 i.e. Messiah, son of David, son of Pherez (Ruth iv. 18).
 Bereshith Rabbah, xii. 5.
 Isa. lxv. 17, lxvi. 22; cf. 2 Pet. iii. 13; Rev. xxi. 1; Acts iii. 21.
 Book of Enoch, xlv. 4, 5.
 St. Paul's word 'creation' (verses 30-22) is used in St. Paul's sense in Wisd. xvi. 34, xix. 6.
 2 Pet. i. 16-19.
 Cf. Latham, Service of Angels (Cambridge, 1894).
 Eph. ii. 5.
 Rom. viii. 24.
 1 Cor. xv. 2; 2 Cor. ii. 15. (The present tense in both cases.)
 Rom. v. 9, 10; xiii. 11: cf. 1 Tim. iv. 16; 2 Tim. iv. 18.
 Andrew Murray's With Christ in the School of Prayer (Nisbet 1891), p. 71.
 2 Cor. xii. 8: cf. Phil. i. 22, 'What I shall choose I wot not.'
 Verse 34.
 Not 'the saints' in the Greek.
 1 Tim. ii. 1.
 Rom. xi. 32; 1 Tim. ii. 4.
 Amos iii. 2: cf. Ps. i. 6; Hos. xiii. 5; Matt. vii. 23.
 Cf. Hort on 1 Pet. pp. 19, 80.
 See especially Rom. xi. 29-33.
From St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, Vol. I A Practical Exposition by Charles Gore D.D. Reprinted in 1900. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Reach for the Calling Creator
To the Romans, vol I - C. Gore
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your calling be the best.