Sonship and suffering at the heart of Romans

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Mike was preaching about sonship yesterday and the need for Christians to discover or claim for themselves the full blessings of having been adopted as sons. I have more sympathy for prosperity theology than is probably good for me, and I take quite seriously the argument that we are often a long way from grasping what it means not to relate to the Father as orphans or slaves or beggars – though the standard model is far too individualistic, far too easily subverted by greed, insecurity, and self-interest.

But what really struck me was that Mike read through Romans 8:14-17, placing great emphasis on the fact that those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God, have been adopted as sons, have been liberated from slavery and fear, have been made heirs of all that the Father has – all the marvellous spiritual and material and relational stuff that he is only too willing to give away to his children if they would just ask for it – and yet he made nothing of the shocking condition that Paul inserts at the end:

…and if children, then  heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided (eiper) we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Here we have the clearest indication that Paul’s teaching in Romans 8 was not intended to address a general ‘Christian’ state of affairs in the sense that we are likely to understand it and preach about it today. Undoubtedly there are some lessons that may be drawn indirectly from the passage about life in the Spirit. But at the heart of this celebrated text, at the heart of Romans, indeed at the heart of the New Testament from the Beatitudes to the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, is the definition of a community that was called to emulate Christ in his sufferings for the sake of the future of the people of God.

It’s worth saying something here about eschatology. The New Testament depicts apocalyptic outcomes not in order to satisfy our curiosity or anxiety about what will happen at the end of the world – it barely does that. It does so in order to provide a discourse that would give realistic hope and purpose to communities of Christ-followers scattered across a very inhospitable pagan landscape, who faced an extremely uncertain and hazardous future.

This is partly why I dislike the ‘preterist’ label. The issue is not whether certain types of prophecy have been fulfilled or not. The question we should be asking is: Whose future were these prophecies meant to describe? What historical conditions made these prophecies so urgent and so pertinent? (See also: ‘Narrative-realism, Preterism, and the relevance of scripture’.) The reason why the Son of man symbolism, for example, features so prominently in this discourse is that it fuses the story of the suffering community – the persecuted ‘saints of the Most High’ in Daniel’s interpretation of the vision – into the story of the singular Son of man who preceded them.

So when we read Romans 8, we should keep in view the fact that only eight years later the Roman Christian community was subjected to appalling and terrifying persecution by an increasingly deranged Nero. That is why they needed to be so forcibly told that nothing could separate them from the love of Christ – not tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword (8:35).

When Paul says that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (8:18), he is not thinking about the ordinary sufferings of humanity and the prospect of going to heaven when we die. He has in mind the distinctly Christlike vocation – to suffer and be killed as Jesus suffered and was killed in the expectation of being raised, vindicated, glorified in the way that Jesus was raised, vindicated and glorified.

That is what baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus signified – a dying to the old self that resisted the will of God, that clung to life, and an embrace of the hope of life for the age to come. Jesus then, as firstborn from the dead, becomes the firstborn of many brethren. He becomes the pattern for their own suffering and vindication. They are conformed to his image; they pray as he prayed in the garden, facing the prospect of a dreadful death: ‘Abba, Father.’ To be a fellow heir with Christ is, as Paul puts it in Philippians 3:10-11, to share in his sufferings in order (if possible) to share in his resurrection.

To engage as the church today with Romans 8 is to engage with this story – not merely with selected, recontextualized fragments of Paul’s argument.