It’s hard, for me anyway, to discuss anything in Romans without it coming across like a theology lesson. Well, it is a theology lesson, but it’s very practical theology. I can testify that it can become very personally real as well.
Paul tells us we have peace with God through Christ—whether we feel like it or not. It’s an outcome of the very nature of God. God expelled sinners from the Garden of Eden and chased them from his presence, but not before he told them of his plans to redeem them from sin.
In Wesleyan terms, prevenient grace started right then and there. That’s the kind of grace that goes before everyone so that it is always possible for them to repent any time they want to.
Justification essentially means that rebels have laid down their arms and surrendered. They admit that on their own strength, they can only sin, and that they can only live godly lives through faith in Jesus Christ.
If God’s objective is to restore fellowship with rebels, what will he do when they surrender? Throw them in jail? Treat them harshly? Of course not. As soon as we surrender, we have peace with God. Justification by faith becomes an introduction to a new life of faith, and we rejoice in the hope that we will see and live in God’s glory
That hardly means all of our troubles are over. Repentant sinners have lots of wounds to heal and bad habits to change, and God does not reveal them all at once.
Not only that, peace with God means intensified enmity with the devil, and he hinders us in obvious ways and in ways that perhaps we’ll never notice as long as we live. Life under the sun is a hard slog, frequently an exercise of futility.
For years, I looked at the futility and at the Bible. As much as I wanted to believe the Bible, I believed the futility more. Hope was a religious word I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around.
It was hard for me to remember that all of the heartbreak of life under the sun cleanses believers as we continue to walk in faith. Some day, all of the futility will be behind us, and we will see that glory clearly. We will no longer rejoice in the hope of that glory, but in the reality of living in it.
So how do we get there from here? The Bible answers our most difficult questions by insisting on something entirely counterintuitive. In this case, Paul says that the way to overcome suffering is to rejoice, exult, while we suffer!
The suffering itself is the means to the glory we hope for. In Wesleyan terms the process is called sanctification. That is the kind of grace that causes a justified sinner to become more and more like Christ.
First, suffering trains us to endure. It impels us to keep seeking God, to keep meditating on his word and his nature, to keep praying, to keep worshiping.
I know that I went through years of doubting whether God really loved me. Eventually, he pointed out to me that I had to believe first and see the evidence later.
That was hard spiritual labor, but I kept at it. My troubles at the time, though a heavy burden, were not nearly as serious as what I’m going through now, but I have never again been tempted to doubt his love.
The Greek for the NIV’s “character” must be difficult to translate. It literally means “proof,” but it would be overly cryptic to say that perseverance produces proof. KJV translates it experience, and NEB says that “endurance brings proof that we have stood the test.”
I like that. I endured through my suffering to learn that God really does love me. That perseverance gave me the experience of victory and proved to me that I had passed the test. That gave me additional hope.
And here’s the key. Christ died for me while I was still a sinner, still ungodly–prevenient grace. Justification gave me hope of the glory of God. That’s at the moment of salvation, before the faith that God gave me ever came to a time of testing.
The testing produced perseverance, and the perseverance gave me the experience of victory, which added to the hope that I already had. Salvation gave me hope of the glory of God and the experience of sanctification added to that hope.
We can hope for lots of things in this life and be let down, but the hope we get from God’s grace cannot disappoint us. God has given us not only hope, but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And through the Holy Spirit, God has flooded our inmost being with his love. That’s how we can rejoice in suffering.