Not the Cause but the Path

For a long time I’ve  loved Romans 8:17.

“…and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17 ESV).

The sheer grandeur of this promise is exhilarating. We are “fellow heirs with Christ”! I mean, holy smokes! All because God has adopted us to be His children.

But the last phrase of verse 17 has also long been a bit of a struggle for me. I knew it couldn’t mean that we have to in some way earn our salvation through suffering… even though the verse does say, “provided we suffer with him”. Because for Paul to say that we have to earn our salvation, even just a little bit, or even that our qualification for salvation depends in some way on us, this would entirely undo his whole point in chapters 3 and 4, where he summarizes,

” Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:17-18 ESV).

So whatever Paul means in Romans 8:17, it could not undo or contradict the whole point of his earlier chapters. We are saved by grace through faith apart from ANY works of our own (that’s necessary if it is by grace, and that’s why it can only be received in faith). Faith is about depending on Christ instead of depending on what we do.

So then, I was delighted this afternoon while preparing a study in Romans 8 to come across this helpful explanation by John Calvin, in which he points out that the condition is Romans 8:17 (indicated by the words “provided that we suffer”) is not about the way we get saved, but about the process of waiting for the goal of our salvation. To put it differently, it’s not about what qualifies us for Heaven,  but about our journey on the road to that great day. Again, it is not about the cause of our salvation, but about the path. What I’ve called, our “path” or “journey” or “process of waiting”, Calvin talks about in terms of the way “God governs his people”. Romans 8:17’s conditional “provided that we suffer” is not saying we need to suffer in order to get saved. It is saying that since we are saved, adopted by God as His children, our experience between the present time and the day we enter our “inheritance” is going to be marked with suffering–just as it was for Christ during His years on this Earth. But in the next verses, Paul encourages us to be patient: Don’t give up; don’t think your suffering means God is angry with you. Our present suffering isn’t even worth comparing to what’s in store for God’s children. Just think about Christ–what He went through even though He was God’s most beloved Son EVER. Jesus already secured our salvation. Guaranteed. And what God starts, He always finishes. So hold on.

Here’s the whole quote from Calvin.

“We are co- heirs with Christ, provided, in entering on our inheritance, we follow him in the same way in which he has gone before.” And he thus made mention of Christ, because he designed to pass over by these steps to an encouraging strain, — “God’s inheritance is ours, because we have by his grace been adopted as his children; and that it may not be doubtful, its possession as been already conferred on Christ, whose partners we are become:but Christ came to it by the cross; then we must come to it in the same manner.” Nor is that to be dreaded which some fear, that Paul thus ascribes the cause of our eternal glory to our labours; for this mode of speaking is not unusual in Scripture. He denotes the order, which the Lord follows in dispensing salvation to us, rather than the cause; for he has already sufficiently defended the gratuitous mercy of God against the merits of works. When now exhorting us to patience, he does not show whence salvation proceeds, but how God governs his people.

Calvin’s Commentaries, (Romans 8:17).