Commentary on Romans 8:26-39
This reading includes some of the most familiar and comforting words we have from the apostle Paul.
Nearly every sentence is a new way of stating the promise that God has not abandoned “us,” and is in fact working–across the past, present, and future–on our behalf. (While the first person plural verbs originally referred to Paul and those he calls “brothers and sisters” in 8:12, succeeding generations of Christians have of course understood themselves, also, to be directly addressed by the words.) The text has three units, and any one of them could be the basis of a sermon. Together, they offer a look into the way God’s love bursts forth into action over time.
“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul writes in Romans 8:26. The language of these first two verses has more in common with what preceded than what follows them. As the Spirit had helped us to cry, “Abba, Father,” (Romans 8:16), so also the Spirit helps us pray when we do not know what to pray.
James Dunn points out that Paul’s syntax in verse 26 defines the problem differently than we usually think of it. The problem is not that we know what we need and merely lack the right words for requesting it. As Dunn puts it, we “do not know what to want,”1 let alone how to ask for it. In the midst of this confusion, the Spirit intercedes, aligning prayer on our behalf to the will of God for us.
In verses 28-30, Paul adds a layer of argument. It is not just that the Spirit intercedes for us in the present. The past tells the same story of God’s intention for Christ to be “firstborn within a large family” (8:29), a family that includes us. The word translated here as “predestined” appears rarely in the New Testament.
Once it is in Acts, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, and twice it is in Ephesians. In Acts and 1 Corinthians, it refers to the events of Christ’s death and resurrection, testifying that they unfolded according to God’s plan. In Ephesians and Romans, the word describes the Gentiles’ eventual inclusion among the people of God as having been planned. In both cases, the word points to God always having had something beyond wrath in mind for sinners and the decaying creation of which they (we) are a part.
In Romans 5, Paul had drawn a parallel between Adam and Christ: as sin had come into the world through one man, Adam, so righteousness came through one man, Christ. Romans 8:29 may echo the creation story again when it speaks of recipients of God’s call being “conformed to the image of his Son.” Humans had been made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), so now God is working out the plan by which humans are recreated in that image which has been perfectly reflected in God’s Son, Jesus.
As past and present have been arenas of God’s action on our behalf, so also is the future. Romans 8:31-39 has the immediate future in mind, that time before God has, as Paul says elsewhere, “put all enemies under [Christ’s] feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25) and before “the glory that is about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
In the immediate future, hardship remains for those in Christ. Paul lists various difficulties, most of which he has experienced himself, and then he adds a Psalm text to state the problem even more graphically, “For your sake we are being killed all the daylong; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (8:36). Suffering from “garden variety” hardship is covered here, as well as suffering that comes as a result of faithfulness to God. Neither of these is elevated over the other, as if one were more desirable or less difficult than the other. And while both threaten to separate us from the love of God, neither can.
Michael Gorman explains Paul’s witness to the solidarity of God with those suffering by contrasting the apostle’s Paul’s view of suffering from contemporary Jewish and Stoic views. Gorman writes that for Paul, “Suffering was not merely to be apocalyptically or faithfully or pedagogically endured, and especially not stoically ‘conquered.'”2
We are “more than conquerors.” That is, we are more than Stoics who endure and are eventually rewarded with relief. Explaining the difference between Paul and the Stoics, Gorman continues, “Believers do not ignore suffering because it has no effect on the true self, but rather they see in the suffering of Christ the full involvement of the self of God and of Christ in and for the world” (Cruciformity, 329). God and Christ are fully involved in suffering and involved in it “in and for the world.”
What’s more, because of God’s faithfulness in raising Jesus from the dead, both the present experience of suffering and what we can expect of the future are transformed. We not only know God’s solidarity with us now but also anticipate a time when even the worst that the powers of Sin and Death have to offer will be shown to be a “slight momentary affliction” (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:17) when compared with the “glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Without the present solidarity of God with humanity and the rest of creation, the future hope Paul speaks might be received by those suffering as so much pie in the sky: a promise, yes, but one of little use to those hungry now.
Without the future hope, God’s present involvement in the lives of the suffering might amount to little more than a feeble expression of the company that misery loves. Together, the actions of God–past, present, and future–on our behalf testify to a fierce, compassionate love from which nothing in all creation can separate us.
1James D. G. Dunn, “Spirit Speech: Reflections on Romans 8:12-27,” in Romans and the People of God, ed. Sven K. Soderlund and N. T. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 89.
2Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 328.