Suffering and Sonship – Rom. 8:17-18
“What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Such is the pronouncement of our Lord concerning the marriage bond. But the principle is far more extensive. There are some things that God in his wisdom has married together, put together. Things like faith and works, holiness and heaven. And, surprisingly, suffering and sonship.
The crowing blessing bestowed by grace upon those who are saved by Jesus Christ is adoption into the family of God, so that we become sons and daughters of God. We saw last time at least partly what this means and how the Holy Spirit testifies to this reality in our hearts and lives (14-16). However, this is not all the apostle has to say about this. In the two verses before us we have two further implications of adoption into God’s family, both of which are surprising, though in very different ways. So I want to talk about these two things, what they are, and then to consider how they fit together.
Heirs of God
The first thing the apostle says of the sons and daughters of God is that they are his heirs. We might expect that, for it is normal for children to be their parents’ heirs. However, we should not expect that this works exactly the way it works down here. For in this world, it is usually not until the parents die that the children inherit their possessions, or possibly a title or position (as a prince or princess inherits the crown when the King or Queen dies). But God does not die, and he is never going to vacate his throne. There is a very real sense in which his glory he will not give unto another (Isa. 42:8). What does it mean, then, for the children of God to be the heirs of God? It means at least three things.
It means they are heirs of all the promises of God has made to those who belong to his Son.
In Romans 4:13, Paul summarizes the promises which God made to Abraham, and through Abraham, to those who share his faith, “that he would be the heir of the world.” In Hebrews 6, we are encouraged by the fact that, “when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had not one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you’” (13-14). But again this was not just a promise to Abraham, but to all who belong to Abraham’s seed, the Lord Jesus Christ. And so the author goes on to apply it to his readers: “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (17-20). We are, with Abraham, heirs of the promises of God. These are the promises of blessing and salvation in Jesus Christ, for, as the apostle puts it to the Corinthians, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him [Christ]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20). It is the promise of eternal life (Tit. 1:2). It is the promise of being kept by God until the end, that he will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5-6; Mt. 28:20).
The wonderful thing about God’s promises are not only their content (eternal life, God’s protection and blessing and fellowship), but also the fact that they are sure. This is emphasized in almost every passage where God’s promises are talked about. Unlike us, God doesn’t say yes and then no. He cannot lie and he doesn’t go back on his promises. He isn’t weak, so he always fulfills them. God’s promises are always something you can take to the bank. We truly “have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”
To be heir of God is surely to be an heir to his promises. There are no promises like the promises of God. They support us in the present and point us to the future. But that is not all it means to be an heir of God.
It means they are heirs of the glory to be revealed.
Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (18). This glory is a sharing in the glory of Christ, since the apostle says in the previous verse that we are to “be glorified with him [Christ]” (17). This, in turn, explains what the apostle means when he describes our being “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” So being an heir of God means that we will one day share in the glory of our Lord.
Now there is, as we’ve already pointed out, a very real sense in which God does not share his glory. We never shall, nor even can, become divine in the sense of sharing in the essential nature of God. God is infinitely greater than us, and there is no way a finite being could ever be absorbed into the being of God. That is pantheism, not biblical theism. There is now and will always be an infinite distance between us and the Triune God. He is transcendent, and will ever remain so.
However, there is another sense in which we will share God’s glory. It must be so because any glory that is true glory, and not a false, fake, and fading glory, must come from God in the first place. There is coming a time when the saints will “shine like the brightness of the sky above” (Dan. 12:3). When Moses saw the glory of God, his face shone. When our Lord was transfigured, even his clothing shone so bright that they could not possibly be any whiter. These are images that point us to glory to come, a glory we will share with Christ: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). It is the glory resulting in immediate access to the place where God’s glory is most fully revealed. It is the result of being without sin, and being unstained by anything impure or corrupting. It is the glory of the resurrected body, a body which will be raised imperishable, in glory, and in power (1 Cor. 15:42-43). “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man in heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49).
It is a glory which Paul says is not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us (18). That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? Why doesn’t Paul compare the glory to come with the glory of this world, instead of its suffering? One might argue that of course the glory to come is not to be compared with the coming glory! That goes without saying. Now one reason, obviously, is because of the connection of verse 17 to 18. If we are to suffer, what about the glory to come makes it worth it? Paul’s answer implies that there is no suffering here on earth that makes it worth it to ditch to coming glory in order to avoid present suffering. There is always the temptation to do that when suffering comes, and Paul reminds us that the glory to come makes that choice look stupid.
But I think there is another reason. There is suffering that can take away the glory of any earthly advancement. We all know this to be true. There are certain things people go through that, no matter what power or privilege or pleasure they have access to, does not make it worth it to go on living. There is suffering that can undo any earthly glory. But no so the glory to come. As the hymn puts it, “There is no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” It is a glory which will swallow up all the unsavoriness of the present age. There is coming a day when death will be swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54), and we would do well to be mindful of that.
It means they are heirs of God himself.
Paul writes, “If children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (17). Our Lord said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3). To know God is the greatest glory. Everything good we have or experience comes from the hand of God in the first place. Now there are instances in this world where we may prefer the gift over the giver. But not so God. He is infinitely exalted above every gift, infinitely greater than every blessing, so that to desire the creature above the creator is not only idolatry, it is insanity. But this also means that to know God and to love him and to have fellowship with him is the sum of all blessings.
I think this is what Paul means when he says that we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. We are allowed the holy privilege of one day entering into the very fellowship of the Trinity. It is what our Lord spoke of when he prayed, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24). Like the Levites, God will be our inheritance (Num. 18:20).
Now the reason why Paul adds the phrase, “and fellow heirs with Christ” is to remind us that our inheritance is not merited in any sense of the term, but rather is a gift of grace from first to last. The only way we have access to God and nearness to the throne of grace, is because of what Christ did for us on the cross, absorbing our debt and meriting righteousness for us. But it also reminds us that our inheritance is certain. If it were to depend upon us, we would be in trouble. But it doesn’t; we are safe in Christ, who as the Good Shepherd, keeps his sheep and no one can take them out of his hand – not even themselves.
Now the fact that this inheritance is future ought to warn us against a view of the Christian life that leaves no room for present suffering. We ought to beware of what theologians call an over-realized eschatology; that is, saying that the future promises are already present. That happened in NT times when Hymenaeus and Philetus swerved from the truth and argued that the resurrection had already happened (2 Tim. 2:17-18). But this tendency is present in our time as well, through the preaching of the prosperity gospel peddlers. Therefore, the other reality that Paul speaks of in these two verses is a healthy reminder in the face of these aberrations. And that brings us to our second point.
Suffering with Christ.
We are heirs of God, yes. But the apostle adds this condition – “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (17). Many of us would rather that Paul had not written that! No one wants to suffer. However, this is a helpful reminder because it keeps us from holding on to that soul-destroying belief that because we are children of God, now life has to be good. There are tons of false teachers out there who say that if you have enough faith and if you sow enough good deeds, God is going to prosper you materially, physically, relationally, and so on. That is not true. It is a false gospel. For, as Matthew Henry put it, we are not got into heaven so soon as we are through the gate. There is a narrow way that follows the strait gate.
There is however, another wrong turn we can take. We go wrongly if we think that this verse means that our suffering merits eternal glory, or that by suffering we become worthy of eternal life. That cannot be what that means, for that would undermine everything else the apostle has said and will say about salvation. If salvation is by grace and not by works, it cannot be that our suffering makes us worthy of it. We are joint heirs with Christ, because it is only by virtue of what Christ has done that we will make it to heaven. Moreover, the fact that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory to come implies that there is nothing about present suffering that can make us worthy of the glories of the age to come. But then what is the force of the “in order that”?
It is the result of our union with Christ. Note the words “with him” in verse 17. Because we are united to Christ by faith, we inherit with him. But this also means that we suffer with him. Now we do not suffer in the same way as he did. He suffered as a propitiation, to atone for our sins. We cannot do that. But that is not what the apostle says in any case: we do not suffer like him; rather, we suffer with him. Union with Christ means that we have fellowship with him in his sufferings as well as his glory. And you cannot have one without the other. Those who are not prepared to suffer with Christ should not expect to reign with him either (cf. 2 Tim. 2:11-12). Our Lord himself said as much: “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (Jn. 15:20).
In what sense do we suffer with Christ? There are at least two ways.
There is suffering for righteousness’ sake.
Our Lord tells us, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when other revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt. 5:10-11). There is no doubt this is partly what Paul is thinking, especially in light of Rom. 8:35-37. Paul would tell the Philippian believers, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). Paul and Barnabas would encourage the churches in Asia Minor by bracing them for persecution: “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). As he would tell Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
There is ordinary suffering.
But I don’t think we should rule out ordinary suffering that comes from the result of living in a fallen world, scarred by sin and death. Through the course of our life we will have to endure sickness, pain, trials, bereavement, loneliness, and so on. Jesus himself did not just suffer the contradiction of sinners against himself; he also was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
Now it is true that everyone is going to have to endure some bit of suffering, whether they are saved or not. However, there is a difference between a Christian and non-Christian. There is a difference in the way we suffer. We suffer differently because we don’t see the disappearance of our comforts in the same way. We know that whatever we lose here, nothing can take away what is supremely valuable to us – namely, our relationship to God through Christ. In the same way, we don’t look at death the same. As Paul puts it to the Thessalonians, we grieve, but not as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Thus, the believer who has his head on straight is going to suffer with patience and with faith.
Now that brings me to my third point. How do these two realities: being an heir of God and suffering with Christ fit together?
How is suffering compatible with being an heir of God?
If God loves us, why does he make us suffer? If he has adopted us into his family, how is this consistent with bringing us through painful trials?
I cannot answer that question by pointing you to the reason behind every affliction or tragedy you have had to endure. As I’ve pointed out many times in the past, Job was never told, as far as we know, why he suffered the way he did. God did answer Job, but the answer God have to Job was basically that he was not in the position to judge God! Neither am I. And neither are you. There is a place for faith here. But then the question becomes, “Why should I trust in God when I am in pain, especially if he is the one who has allowed it to happen to me?”
For me the answer to that question, and the answer to the question of how suffering is compatible with God’s love for me, is the cross. As I put it in a blog post several years ago, the Cross of Christ is the answer to my cross. How so? It tells me that God – for that is who Christ is, he is God manifest in the flesh – willingly embraced suffering for the glory that would follow. There is a glory that would not have emerged apart from the cross, and the Son of God was willing to embrace that suffering in order to bring about that glory. Isn’t this what the Bible says? “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2). So the way I put it to myself and to you is this: if God was willing to embrace suffering – suffering that he was under no obligation to embrace and under no constraint whatsoever to endure – if he was willing to embrace suffering for the joy that would follow, then why not I? If there was no incompatibility between Jesus being the Son of God and Jesus being the suffering Servant, then there is no incompatibility between me being a child of the Father and suffering according to his will (cf. 1 Pet. 4:19).
There is another pointer in Scripture. It is found in places like Rom. 8:28 and 2 Cor. 4:16-18, the idea that through suffering God is preparing us for glory. Paul put it like this in the Corinthians passage: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” I don’t claim to fully understand all the implications of that passage. But one thing seems indisputable, at least to me. It is that our suffering now is in some sense necessary for our enjoyment of the glory of the age to come. Not necessary for our worthiness of it. But necessary for our capacity for the enjoyment of it.
I think it was Jonathan Edwards who likened the capacity to enjoy the pleasures of heaven to the size of a cup. He says that the cup of every believer in heaven will be full – there will be not cups half empty or half full. But some cups will be bigger than others. Everyone with a full cup, but some with more in their cup than others because their cups are bigger. What might make one cup bigger than another? 2 Cor. 4:16-18 indicates that it is suffering that does that.
If that is the case, then we can see why Paul would say that God is working all things – even the bad things in our lives – for our good. The suffering we are experiencing now is producing in us a capacity to enjoy more fully the pleasures of heaven. And if that’s the case, we have good reason, as Paul put it, to not lose hope.
We can also see how that suffering is not incompatible with our sonship. I am reminded of the man who helped a butterfly out of its chrysalis. In doing so he basically condemned the butterfly to an early death because the butterfly needed the painful struggle to get out of the chrysalis in order to strengthen its wings in order to fly. When the man short-circuited that process, he didn’t help the butterfly, he killed it. In a similar manner, God is in a real sense helping us when he brings us through suffering.
This is true not only in the age to come; it is also true right now. Through his fatherly discipline, he is making us more holy (Heb. 12:5-11). Paul himself tells us that it is through our weakness that God shows his strength and when we are weak then we are strong (2 Cor. 12:5-10). All this tells us that our position as sons and daughters of God is not in jeopardy when we pass through suffering. On the contrary, it is in some sense of sign of this great privilege.
When we suffer, we should learn from them, not let them rot out our hearts in bitterness. So let me close with three lessons that the sons and daughters of God should take away from their suffering.
First, when you suffer trials (whatever they are), do not think God has abandoned you (Heb. 13:5-6).
Second, learn to trust God in your trials. Know that he never works without reason.
Finally, let the hope of eternal life encourage you in your present condition. Let the certain hope we have in Christ shine through the darkness of whatever situation you are facing. This is not the end. No one and nothing can rob us of our hope in Christ.