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More Than Conquerers

Delivered on Trinity XI
Trinity Anglican Church, Lebanon, NH
August 11, 2013

Today’s reading of the second half of Romans chapter 8 brings to a rather exuberant conclusion an argument that Paul has begun in chapter 5. We should note, however, that the tone is not a cocky triumphalism, as if Christians can relax, put their feet up, and await the Second Coming without facing any trials. Rather, Paul is quite realistic about the present world of suffering from which Christians are not exempt. Indeed, as followers of a crucified Lord, they will likely be called to face such suffering in abundance. Still, he has great unshakeable confidence that the Lord’s great and glorious purposes will win out.

But as in so many places in Paul, we have to live in the tension and paradox of "already, but not yet." God has reconciled the world to Himself through Christ Jesus, yet the creation is still groaning in travail. We who are in Christ, that is, the Church, have already received the spirit of sonship and adoption; we are already children of God. Yet we long for that full redemption of the body that Paul speaks of in verse 11. So the Church likewise "groans" for that full salvation. Even God’s very spirit intercedes for us "with groanings which cannot be uttered." (v. 26) The groaning of the Church, in the midst of this groaning world, is sustained and even inspired by the groaning of the Spirit. Definitely there is a lot of groaning going on.

This is because the creation is out of joint. It is full of disorder, pain, death, and futility. It awaits its full redemption when the right and good order of God is fully established and things are as they were meant to be. Bringing it back to where it should be is going to involve pain. Following Jesus involves, among other things, a refusal to accept the story the world tells about itself. That story puts man, his desires, his understandings, his priorities, his vision of the proper order of things at the center of the universe. Christians subvert that scheme and assert the rights of the King of Kings. Jesus is the true King and Lord over all, not Caesar, in whatever guise he might exist. The new and rightful king, Christ, has been inaugurated; but His Rule faces much opposition. As Christ experienced this, so will His Church. This should not surprise us.

One time I was listening to a Christian radio station while driving somewhere. Some of the big names in American Conservative Evangelicalism were talking about how they had been attacked by various organizations and media. It quickly turned into a session of whining about how they were being persecuted in a multitude of ways. I was a bit shocked that they found this so surprising. Did not Jesus tell us that if they persecuted me they will persecute you? These folks should have been glad that they were doing the will of God consistently. Being obedient to Jesus and following Him involves some pain. Because we are fellow heirs with Him, we also must share in the suffering that reclaiming His world involves. God’s ultimate purpose is a cosmos in which all is under the full lordship of Christ, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth." (Eph. 1:10) But before all of this comes to fruition, there will be many vested interests that must be toppled, and they will not give up without a fight. It is an offence to many moderns that the fate of the cosmos is so tied to God’s purposes for humankind. Some might see it as hubris, a kind of "species-ism" that places too much importance on mankind. Some neo-pagan or New Age devotees might see mankind as the problem and destroyer of the environment. The best thing for the planet and the universe at large, according to these folks, would be our complete disappearance.

But this is not the biblical view. God’s original and final purpose is for humans to take their place at last as His image-bearers, the wise stewards they were always meant to be. Paul sees that this purpose has already been accomplished in principle in the resurrection of Jesus, and that it will be accomplished fully when all those in Christ are raised and take their place in the new world. It is God’s intention that redeemed human beings should be set in authority over the world, should indeed thereby be the agents through whom the cosmos that still groans in travail should be set free. That is why, Paul says, creation is now waiting with eager longing. But at the present we are still weak and are subject to decay and death. We very often are not sure which way to go and are at a loss as to what to pray. We want a clear path, but we find ourselves surrounded by fog. We grope around and stumble. The Spirit’s task is to enable us to live with integrity before God and follow Him despite our weakness and uncertainty. He helps us to be genuinely human, to adopt a stance of humbly trusting the One who will never forsake us even when our circumstances seem grim. So we are to engage in intercessory prayer even when we are not sure what an answer to our prayer might look like. We must pray even if we cannot form a very articulate and elegant request. The living God is, of course, in intimate touch with the Spirit, so that these inarticulate but Spirit-assisted groanings come before God as true prayer, true intercession. Paul is saying that the Spirit, active within the innermost being of the Christian, is doing the very interceding the Christian longs to do, but feels he or she cannot.

And so, God will make it the case that all things will work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. The intercession spoken of earlier will be heard and answered in ways that, though we cannot at present see them or even conceive them, will turn out to be that for which our groaning prayers have been yearning. All things, the entire range of experiences, both good and bad, that face God’s people, are taken care of by the sovereign God Who is planning to renew the whole creation, and us along with it.

We have received the spirit of sonship and adoption, and so are co-heirs with Christ of a glory that we cannot now imagine. This future glory is undergirded, made totally secure, by the fact that God works all things together for good to those who now keep the most basic command of the Torah: "thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all thy soul, and all thy mind." Those in the flesh do not and cannot submit to God’s law; they cannot please God. But those in the Spirit now do that which the law commanded but could not of itself produce. They love God from the heart. The people of God in Christ are now God-lovers. They are the true law-keepers, the true Israel. Through them the whole creation will be liberated into the freedom that goes with the glorification of God’s children. The suffering of the Church, groaning in longing and prayer for the redemption of the world, and of the present body, is the means by which Christians are "conformed to the image of God’s son." When this is fully accomplished, they shall rule as Christ’s regents over a good and righteous world. God’s whole purpose for the cosmos was always designed to be brought to completion through Christ and the agency of His image-bearers. This purpose has been decisively fulfilled in Jesus Christ. But that Rule which was inaugurated has now to be consummated. Those in Christ are the people through whom God intends to accomplish this task. They, like Israel, are assured that they have been called for a purpose—namely, to show forth the praises of the one true God in all the world. (cf. Eph. 1:11-12 and 1 Peter 2:9) Those in Christ can be assured that this purpose will be fulfilled.

God’s plan from the start was to create a Christ-shaped family, a renewed human race modeled on the Son. We are fellow heirs with Christ, younger siblings, if you will, of the Firstborn. After we have been adopted into God’s family we are transformed, as we surrender our self-centered will, into the likeness of His Son. Though this process will only be complete when the body itself is transformed (either in resurrection or at the Lord’s coming) it is to begin here and now precisely through the holiness, suffering, and prayer of which Paul has elsewhere written. This process will bring God’s people to the point where they truly reflect the Son’s image, just as the Son is the true image of God. They are to become true, because renewed, human beings. The image of God, distorted and fractured through idolatry and immorality, is restored in Jesus the Messiah; and the signs of that restoration are visible in those who, like Abraham, trust in God’s life-giving power and so truly worship and give glory to God. As true image-bearers humanity can then reflect that same image into the world, bringing to creation the healing, freedom, and life for which it longs. And so those who trust in Christ will form the Temple of the Living God, through whom it will be made known that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the world’s true Lord. In the final consummation the world will be liberated from its present slaveries, as Israel was from Egypt, and the true Kingdom of God will be established.

Paul’s substantial argument in chapters 5-8 is done. What remains is to celebrate, and to do so in a way that draws together the threads of all that has been said so far in Romans. And so Paul ends by reiterating the great theme of God’s love. He repeats in a different form what he so beautifully laid out in the beginning of chapter 5. Since God’s love has done for Christians all that has been done in Christ, there is no power that can shake that love now, or turn it aside from completing the job. The love of God, enjoyed already in the present, will outlast and defeat all enemies, including death itself.

"If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" God is the final court of appeal; there is no one who could countermand his will and purpose. There is no force on earth that can ultimately stand against Him and those who follow Him. The whole world belongs to the Messiah and because we are fellow heirs with Him, the world also belongs to those who are His. Who can condemn us? No one. Because God is the justifier, and because the Messiah has died, was raised, and now intercedes, there can indeed be no one to lay a charge against God’s elect. Earlier in Romans, Paul points out that the whole human family faces the judgment of God, the whole world is in the dock, with no defense to offer against massive charges. Now we look around for possible accusers and find none. Any that might appear have to face the fact that God, the judge, is the justifier. The verdict has already been pronounced by the judge whose righteousness has been fully displayed. And that verdict is this: those in Christ, marked out by faith, are already to be seen as "righteous." His death was the condemnation of sin; His resurrection, the announcement that sin had been dealt with and we are justified; His glorification, the glorification of His people.

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" Answer: No one and no thing. There are certainly many candidates that would appear to: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and death. As the world sees it, these are evidence that God has withdrawn His love. Not so for Paul; and he is not saying this from a comfortable armchair. He has faced all of these. And still he can say that "In all these things we are more than conquerors." In other words, we are not only able to win a victory over these enemies—we are able to see them off the field entirely.

Of course this does not mean that we are now able to defeat all of these enemies and so able to maintain a tranquil and trouble-free pursuit of happiness. But it does mean that we can have utter assurance that the victory has already been won on the cross and will be fully consummated when Christ returns in glory. All that tries to break the bond of love between God and the Church are in the end a defeated rabble. Nothing can separate us from the love God has for those in His Son. We should carry this wonderful truth with us, think on it throughout every day, and have our prayers constantly informed by it.

Robert Philp

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