Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

We are called to join God in the work of making the world good

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July 30, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 8:26-39

From theological platitudes to doctrines of predestination, this passage is full of verses that make a good pastor squirm. As you read and reflect on Romans 8:26-39 this week, it is possible that you will find yourself asking the exact same question as the apostle Paul, “What then are we to say about these things?” (verse 31).

The key to interpreting Romans 8 is to recognize that Paul is writing to a collective community. He repeatedly refers to the first-person plural (we and us) and to “those (plural) who” love God. In a culture that tends to read Romans as a roadmap for individual salvation, we must remember that Paul’s letter does not address the faith or belief of single believers; it addresses a faithful, corporate body of Jesus-followers—God’s beloved in Rome (1:7). 

In 8:18-39 Paul emphasizes that God will end the present age marked with suffering and establish God’s good purposes on earth. Paul assures the Romans that their present realities, such as hardship, distress, persecution, famine, impoverishment, peril, and war (verse 35), will cease when the full glory of God is revealed (verse 18).

In this time of present suffering, the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (verse 26). This image of the Spirit groaning recalls for me the image of Jesus greatly moved by the sight of Mary and the Jews weeping over Lazarus’ death in John’s gospel (11:33). Just as we suffer with Christ (verse 17), the Spirit of Christ joins us in our suffering (verse 26). Paul assures the Romans that God is on their side. Despite how things seem, they are not alone. 

Amid America’s gun violence epidemic, a continued rise in Christian nationalism, and an increase in laws that seek to limit the rights of those who live outside the boundaries of socially constructed norms, we too might feel like we have reached the breaking point, unable to see an end to the present sufferings of the world. We might even feel helpless and at a loss for words, unsure about what or how to pray. In this moment, Paul assures us—God is listening. 

Verse 28 continues Paul’s reassurance. He tells the Romans that despite their present circumstances, all things are good. He writes, “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purposes.” 

Paul’s reassurance should not be mistaken for a theology in which one’s positive actions result in positive life outcomes. Nor should we hear in Paul’s words that all things that happen in life are good in and of themselves. A promotion at work is not the result of diligent prayer. And a personal tragedy is not a gift from God. On the contrary, this verse explains to the Romans that God is presently at work in the world transforming it for God’s good purposes. 

Paul elaborates. The following two verses detail this good activity in the world (verses 29-30). Five verbs describe the actions God is taking to redeem the world:

  1. Foreknew—God knew beforehand that God would save the world. 
  2. Predestined—God foresaw (proorizō) that Jesus would lead God’s people through his image. 
  3. Called—God called God’s people to follow, or imitate, Jesus. 
  4. Justified—God restored God’s people to right relationship with God, creation, and one another. 
  5. Glorified—God declared this work good. 

These verses demonstrate that God is in control and is already at work in setting things right. Paul assures the Romans that even though the world seems unmanageable at times, God is faithfully at work in the world making it good. Paul promises them a better world is on the way. 

Hidden at the end of verse 28 is a helpful reminder—we are called according to God’s purpose. The work is not God’s alone. We are called to join God in the work of making the world good. What does this work look like? It looks like walking in the way of the Spirit (verse 4); it looks like modeling our lives according to the image of Christ (verse 29). 

In Romans 4, Paul appeals to Abraham as a model of faith. He emphasizes Abraham’s obedience and his lived faithfulness to God’s good purposes: “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (4:13). Faith, then, requires activity. It is not a passive belief, but a life dedicated to active participation in making the world good. 

Verse 32 evokes Paul’s prior linking of the faith of Abraham and Jesus in Romans 4. This link with Abraham in verse 32, then, is less about sacrifice and more about faith. We have nothing to worry about, Paul argues, God is as faithful to us as Abraham was to God. 

One final image brings us back to where we began. God intercedes. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. This bold conviction gives the reason for Paul’s confidence in the previous verses (31-37). He knows that God is on our side because “neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (verses 38-39). 

I offer one final thought. Given our role in bringing about God’s good purposes, what happens if we turn Paul’s powerful question around? Paul strings together a list of questions in verses 31-35 that all anticipate the same answer—nothing! But instead of asking “Who or what can separate us from the love of God?” what if we asked, “What does the love of God separate us from?” Would the answer be the same? I suspect Paul would list the things in the second half of verse 35: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and the sword. It seems we still have a lot of work to do. 

Paul’s audience, in the end, is not singular persons of faith, but his message is singular in scope—God, he affirms, is at work in the world. It is a message of hope for all who are loved by, encouraged by, supported by, equipped by, and empowered by God. Thanks be to God.