Freed from Futility

Freed from Futility July 26, 2017

Paul encourages the Romans to endure because the sufferings they endure pale in comparison to the glory that will be revealed “into” them. Paul’s language suggests that glory will not merely be shown to the sons of God, but that it will be bestowed on us (Romans 8).

The reason (“for,” v. 19) that the glory is greater is because the glorification of the sons of God goes beyond the restoration of humanity to its created glory. When the sons of God are revealed, the creation’s longings will be fulfilled. Creation was subjected to futility by the curse of Genesis 3. The creation never was in rebellion against God, and so it has been longing since that time for liberation from the futility and corruption that Adam brought to it. When the new Adamic race, the true Israel, is revealed, the creation’s waiting will be over because the creation will be handed over to the lordship of those who are filled with the Spirit who first formed the creation as “good.” As the Spirit-filled Church spreads over the creation, the Spirit is again hovering over the formless void to renew the cosmos.

“Futility” is a keyword in Ecclesiastes, and there the futility or “vaporousness” of creation is largely due to the reality of decay and ultimately death. Ultimately, the creation will not be delivered from futility until death is finally defeated; but through the life-giving Spirit of the Risen Christ, futility is already being overturned.

Paul describes the futility and corruption of the creation as a form of “bondage” (v. 21) that leads the whole creation to “groan.” As Wright points out, this language suggests a connection with the exodus story. The whole creation is longing for an exodus, groaning under the burdens imposed on it by Sin and Death, waiting for a new Moses to lead it out of corruption. Israel’s liberation was a matter of a change of lordship. So also creation is freed as it is given into the care of Jesus and His people.

In this situation of futility, creation, the Church, and the Spirit all groan in pains of childbirth. Creation is waiting for the sons of God to serve as midwives of a new creation; believers are awaiting the “redemption of the body” and the Spirit also groans to give birth to a new world. A couple of details here are worth noting.

First, the word “body” in verse 23 is singular. If Paul were talking about the final resurrection, as Wright says, we would expect a plural. The fact that it is singular suggests that what’s being redeemed is the body that is the Church. The body was “redeemed” in the great exodus at the end of the old covenant, which was simultaneously the public revelation that the Church was the true Israel, the sons of God. “Conformed to the image of His Son” (v. 29), we are made rulers with Christ.

It’s important to notice the role of prayer in this whole process. The Spirit assists us when we do not know how to pray with “groanings too deep for words” (v. 26). Our prayers (as in verse 15) arise from within the Triune fellowship; indwelt by the Spirit, we call on the Father with the same words that Jesus used in prayer. Here, the Spirit “intercedes” for us, and apparently transforms our inarticulate anguish into petitions to the Father through the Son. Prayer thus is not a human speech attempting to cross the infinite distance between creature and Creator; we can pray because we have been introduced into the Triune community. 

Further, the groanings of the Spirit, which produce groanings within us (v. 23), are part of the pain of childbirth. Prayer is a means for the birthing of a new creation. Prayer is not a retreat from the history of redemption into private ecstasies of communion. Prayer is a chief instrument by which the Father renews the world through His sons who are in the Son and who have received the Spirit.

Verses 28–30 provide a ground for assurance that what Paul has been describing will certainly take place. We can be confident that our groanings, and the groanings of the Spirit with us, will be heard, and that the creation will be delivered from its bondage to futility, because God causes all things, “the sufferings of the present age” in particular, to work together for good for those who are called. The righteous God will accomplish His righteous purpose of bringing righteousness to fruition on earth. This is not a divine whim but part of a settled plan (vv. 29–30). God’s aim is to bestow glory on the sons of God, to raise them to the throne never reached because of Adam’s sin, and this glorification fulfills the purpose of God from the foundation of the world. He has a fixed predestined purpose to form a body of believers who are conformed to the image of His Son, who are sons of God, and who therefore participate with Jesus in the deliverance of creation.

Verse 30 sketches out a kind of “order of salvation,” stretching from God’s foreknowledge (His eternal electing love), through the predestination of the sons of God, through call, justification, and glorification. In Genesis, both Noah and Abraham are “justified” or “reckoned righteous.” Both are called, picked out from evil generations to be the objects of God’s favor, and as the righteous ones they are called to be partners with God in restoring creation. Their justification leads to glorification: Noah is “righteous in the eyes of Yahweh,” and glorified through the judgment of the flood when Yahweh bestows royal authority on him. Abraham is reckoned righteous, and as a covenant partner with Yahweh, becomes the father of Isaac, the heir of a land, and is promised that kings will come from him. Having been justified, He is glorified.

This is the sequence of Romans 8 as well: The “no condemnation” for those in Christ issues in the promise that the sons of God in Christ will be “glorified.” On this understanding, in short, “glorification” is not merely an eschatological prospect for believers. When the new covenant comes, the sons of God are exalted. 

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