Subjected to Futility in Hope of Redemption

“The End is Near” by David Sipress (The Phoenix)

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“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:18-23).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

It seems the world is getting worse and worse. There’s a good reason for that…it’s true. Despite advancements in many areas our world is winding down. One step forward and two steps back. Science even has a name for this condition—entropy. Things left to themselves deteriorate and decay. You don’t have to look far for evidence. How about your home? Do the appliances last forever? Shingles and eaves? Check inside the refrigerator. What happened to that sealed container of leftovers that got pushed to the back? It turned into big petri dish, didn’t it? Growing a colorful, perhaps pungent collection of molds and bacteria.

But the evidence is even closer to home than your home. You carry it with you. You can eat the right foods, make sure to get enough exercise, avoid too much sun and toxic substances, and you’re still going to age. The aches and pains build up, no matter how careful you are, because you’re wearing out, too. And then, there’s all the stuff outside of your control—cancers and auto-immune deficiencies, mental failures, and various viruses and infections that come along and find you. Because you are a part of creation, you are subject to corruption as well. You can work hard and try to maintain for a while, but in the end it’s futile.

Why is it like this? We’re going to do a little time travel today to find out. Not just a few years forward or back. Not even just a few centuries. No, that kind of time travel is for amateurs. Our guide, St. Paul, is going to take us to the dawn of time, then to the end of the age, and back again. In just a few sentences, the apostle gives us a brief history of the world, starting with the present suffering and futility, going back to creation and the fall, then looking forward to Judgment Day and restoration, and finally back to what this all means for us now.

Declaring, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” St. Paul sets the stage for the entire discussion to follow. He is driving toward a satisfactory answer to explain how and why these “sufferings” are to be endured, even overcome.

So, he continues: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). Paul personifies creation, ascribing to it personal qualities and characteristics. Creation “waits in eager expectation.” Creation “has been groaning.” With the phrase “eager longing,” he pictures creation stretching its neck forward, looking ahead for an eagerly awaited event. Creation seems to comprehend that it will only be made perfect when we are.

The restoration of creation will not happen apart from the revelation of the sons of God. In the everyday world, it is impossible to tell with certainty who is a child of God. We cannot read hearts. But who is and who is not among the “sons of God” will become public knowledge only on Judgment Day.

The apostle explains, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). Creation is eagerly waiting Judgment Day, when believers will be identified, because that day correlates closely with its own release from “futility.” Creation is frustrated because its original goodness is diminished by man’s fall into sin. Ever since that time, there has been a constant deterioration. Creation is in “bondage to decay” through no fault of its own.

So, how did creation end up in this situation? Not willingly, Paul says; instead, it was subjected. The one who subjected creation is not explicitly identified here. Some propose Adam or Satan. But Genesis 3:17-18 provides the answer. There the Lord God tells Adam: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.”

This subjecting of creation to futility happened in the fall into sin. But Adam is not the one who is doing the subjecting. Rather, God is the one. Through Adam, sin and death entered the world (Romans 5:12) but it is God who subjected creation to futility. It was God’s will to curse the earth and have it produce thorns and thistles. In this way it became hard to work and such served as a constant reminder to Adam and his descendants of the seriousness of their sin. But, as Paul reminds us, suffering is also a method of hope on God’s part. It is a gift to teach us that our pains have purpose and meaning.

In expounding Psalm 6, Luther reminds us his pastoral and practical way to  remember, first and foremost, that our suffering comes from the Almighty.

In all trials and affliction man should first of all run to God; he should realize and accept the fact that everything is sent by God, whether it comes from the devil or from man. This is what the prophet does here. In this psalm he mentions his trials, but first he hurries to God and accepts these trials from Him; for this is the way to learn patience and the fear of God. But he who looks to man and does not accept these things from God becomes impatient and a despiser of God.[i]

It seems strange (even blasphemous, I know) to hold that God brings suffering into our world. But it is so. After chronicling Job’s grief, the Holy Spirit tells us that our brother was comforted “for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). Some of my fellow pastors try to “defend” God by explaining, “God doesn’t want you to suffer. It’s better to say that He allowed this to happen.” But as Luther and Psalm 6 teach us, this, too, is from God. God’s permissive will is still God’s will.

This is a very painful example of what we Lutherans call the alien work of God the Holy Spirit. His main and favorite work is to comfort us with the Good News of what the Son has done for us with His own death and resurrection. But before we will become interested at all in trusting Jesus to be our Way, He must show us beyond all doubt how lost we are, and the consequences of our sin and rebellion—both to us and to all of creation.

Creation suffers collateral damage from man’s fall into sin. It is waiting to be freed “from the bondage to decay,” something it has endured ever since Genesis 3:17-18. Creation will only be freed from, this bondage and made perfect together with us on Judgment Day when our role as God’s children is fully and finally revealed to all. In fact, we, will then be heirs of the world.

Paul’s main emphasis here is for us believers to patiently endure under suffering. “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).

In Old Testament times, God commanded His people to offer the first of the harvest to Him. For the believers to cheerfully offer the first of the crop to the Lord implied their trust and confidence that God would be giving them more later. As such, the “firstfruits” came to be looked at as a pledge, God’s down payment, assuring that He would give them the rest of the harvest also. Here, Paul emphasizes the firstfruits are not our offering to God, but a gift from God to us. God’s sending the Holy Spirit into our hearts as firstfruits is God’s down payment assuring us that He will also give us the rest of what He has promised.

What has He promised? Our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Our adoption is present—in baptism, God made us His son, heirs of His inheritance. But it is also future, as is “the glory which is to be revealed to us.” The longed for “not yet” aspect is the redemption of our body.

The divine solution promised by Paul—the bodily resurrection—is in marked contrast to the dominant philosophical expectations of his day, as well as those of our own modern age. Physical creation is not something to be destroyed or from which one must escape. Neither does our future redemption consist of being permanently delivered from any physical body. As creation longs for future restoration as the solution to its own present groaning and travail, so also believers yearn for the redemption of our bodies, not from them. This redemption will take place in the final resurrection on the Last Day when we are raised with glorified bodies to live with God forever in a new heaven and a new earth. That glorious hope is to strengthen us in anticipation of God’s great day at the end of the age.

From this text, we can see in astonishing clarity the whole plan of salvation for all of God’s creation. It is the kind of view that speaks to our souls and changes our perspective. The key to understanding what God has been doing in the world, and will continue to do, throughout all of world history all pivots on the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God.

Man was created in the image of God and put in charge of creation. When our first parents rebelled, man lost the image of God, creation fell into disrepair—weeds and wild, poisonous and deadly. But even then, human hearts corrupt it further: “Exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave [us] up in the lusts of [our] hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of [our] bodies among ourselves, because [we] exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:24-25).

God allows this state of our self-enslavement to continue, not because the created order wanted to be like that, but He is determined to eventually—at the fulness of time—reclaim His usurped earthly kingdom and restore it. God sent the new Adam, Jesus Christ, to redeem mankind, so that we might take our place under God and over the world, worshiping the one and only Lord, and exercising glorious stewardship over the world.

The creation is not waiting to share the freedom of God’s children, as some translations imply. It is waiting to benefit when God’s justified-by-grace children are at last restored and glorified. It is waiting expectantly for the freedom it will enjoy when God gives to His adopted-through-baptism children that glory, that wise rule, and stewardship, which was always intended for those who bear God’s glorious image. It is an image perfected in the Son of God and gifted to those clothed in Christ’s righteousness.

This perspective on the created order has all kinds of implications for you and me; from the way we think about the ultimate future of the world and ourselves to our present anticipation of that final responsibility for God’s world. Going to Heaven, it turns out is not the final goal, but rather the staging ground for our glorification. This is a positive, world-affirming view, without any of the risks associated with pantheism on the one hand or the cult of environmentalism on the other. Yes, there is still evil, and mankind is the source of it in the world and the world continues to be affected by it… so it groans. But think about how hopeful Paul’s message is, how far-reaching the Gospel is: The Earth itself, into which the blood of Christ seeped, will be redeemed and renewed, just like our bodies on the day of the resurrection. God through Christ Jesus reclaims His kingdom and creation from corruption and, behold, all things are new.

In saying, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18), Paul is not making light of your suffering. He’s not saying it is no big thing. Rather, he is saying that no matter how terrible the wages of sin you encounter in this life, the glory of the resurrection is that much indescribably better. You simply cannot imagine how great and wonderful are the blessings of eternal life that await. But they are yours.

They are yours because Christ has died to make you His.

They are yours because the Spirit safeguards them to you as He delivers repentance and grace by His Word.

They are yours because you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 14: Selected Psalms III. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 14, p. 140). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

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