Commentary on Romans 5:1-8
“Peace sells, but who’s buying?” asked Dave Mustaine, the heavy metal minor prophet and leader of the band Megadeth in the 1986 breakthrough album of the same title. Well, I’m not sure who was looking for peace in the ‘80s (I was only five years old) but whoever was pursuing it probably did so in epic style, rockin’ some tube socks and a hair style so big that a small family of birds could comfortably nest in it. I can tell you this: in 2023 the pursuit of peace—and especially inner peace—is at the forefront of a post-Covid push to combat mental health decline and a rampant uptick in anxiety disorders resulting from years of social disruption and distance. Given the advertisements for mindfulness apps and psychological services on my social media, these days peace sells and everyone’s buying.
And yet, as helpful as meditation and apps that play ocean sounds can be in this chaotic time in which we live, and noting the important health outcomes that can be achieved through therapy, the peace that Romans 5 offers us is something altogether different. Gospel peace does not provide us with an escape hatch from human suffering. The peace of the gospel is not a way of eliminating the difficult realities of life so that they don’t harsh our christological mellow. Rather, the peace achieved and offered to us through Jesus often comes to us alongside affliction (verses 1-5). Furthermore, instead of attempting to erase or avoid affliction, Paul instructs us to “boast in our afflictions” (verse 3). So, what is going on here, and how can we make sense of a peace that inseparably coexists with suffering, and that even uses our present catastrophes as catalysts for growth in character and hope?
First, we must note that the apostle Paul is continuing an argument in Romans 5 that has been going on since the beginning of the letter. He draws an inference here from his prior focus on justification by faith to state that “since we have been declared ‘in the right’ on the basis of faith” (New Testament for Everyone), we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Some commentators will argue that this should be translated as a hortatory subjunctive, “Let us have peace with God.” The Greek could be taken either way, though almost all contemporary translations render the verb in the present tense and as a statement: “we have peace with God.” Either way, the reality remains the same: because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, we are no longer at enmity with God.
It is essential to recognize in our post-Sergeant Pepper culture that peace is being spoken of here not as a feeling but as a relational reality. Prior to our justification, our minds were “set on the flesh” and were “hostile to,” that is, at enmity with God. Since we have been “justified by his blood,” Paul argues in Romans 5:9, how much more “shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” The peace that justification brings, then, is less about the pacification of stress and more about the reconciliation of enemies. This is evident when we look a few verses later and discover that “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10; see also Colossians 1:21-22). The word rendered “enemies” here is the Greek exthros. It refers to those who “hate” or “are hostile to” God. In our sin, we hated God, we were at enmity with God, but the other side of our forensic justification is our relational reconciliation. If justification declares us righteous in God’s courtroom, reconciliation invites us to take a seat at God’s dinner table. Justification is the restoration of right legal status; reconciliation is about the restoration of friendship.
The second notable aspect to Romans 5 is the fact that this right legal status (justification) and right relational reality (reconciliation/peace) allows us to boast in both “the hope of the glory of God” (verse 2) and in our afflictions (verse 3). The relationship between these two realities is parsed out in verses 3-5. We can boast in God’s glory and our afflictions because, surprisingly, our afflictions by way of endurance “produce” hope (verses 3-4). Therefore, the ability to boast in our ultimate hope in “God’s glory” is contingent upon a boast in the formative sequence of perseverant affliction on which hope depends for its paradoxical cultivation (verse 3).
Reading Romans 5 in light of Romans 8 allows us to peer more intently into the perfecting pattern of suffering that is a penultimate prerequisite to glory. In Romans 8 we learn that, our present afflictions “are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (verse 18) and that those whom God predestined “he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (verse 30). Paul speaks here in the past tense about our future glorious reality because the basis of our future hope has already been fully accomplished in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus on our behalf. As Romans 5:1-2 makes clear “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have access by faith” into the grace of salvation.
Verse 5 reminds us that even though we suffer in the present, the result of this suffering will be doxa, that is glory (which also means “honor” or “respect”) rather than shame. Paul then provides the ground for such a paradoxical statement: suffering leads to glory and honor rather than shame and dishonor “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (verse 5). This is the language, not of our love for God, but God’s own love—a theological virtue that exceeds our natural human limitations and lifts us up beyond our own finite capabilities to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) by an infusion of God’s love.