10 Aug 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
The ‘sufferings’ in mind are usually translated ‘tribulations’. These are not what we sometimes call ‘the trials and tribulations’ of our earthly existence, meaning our aches and pains, fears and frustrations, deprivations and disappointments, but rather *thlipseis* (literally, ‘pressures’), referring in particular to the opposition and persecution of a hostile world. *Thlipsis* was almost a technical term for the suffering which God’s people must expect in the last days before the end (cf. Mk. 13:19, 24; cf. Rev. 7:14). So Jesus warned his disciples that ‘in this world’ they would ‘have trouble’ (Jn. 16:33, *thlipsis* (again), and Paul similarly warned his converts that they ‘must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22, same word).
What attitude should Christians adopt to these ‘tribulations’? Far from merely enduring them with stoic fortitude, we are to *rejoice* in them. This is not masochism, however, the sickness of finding pleasure in pain. It is rather the recognition that there is a divine rationale behind suffering. First, suffering is the one and only path to glory. It was so for Christ; it is so for Christians. As Paul will soon express it, we are ‘co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory’ (8:17). That is why we are to rejoice in them both.
Secondly, if suffering leads to glory in the end, it leads to maturity meanwhile. Suffering can be productive, if we respond to it positively, and not with anger and bitterness. *We know* this, especially from the experience of God’s people in every generation. *Suffering produces perseverance* (3, *hypomone*, endurance). We could not learn endurance without suffering, because without suffering there would be nothing to endure. Next, *perseverance* produces *character*. *Dokime* is the quality of a person who has been tested and passed the test. It is ‘a mature character’ (JBP), ‘the temper of the veteran as opposed to that of the raw recruit’. Then the last link in the chain is that *character* produces *hope* (4), perhaps because the God who is developing our character in the present can be relied on for the future too.
Thirdly, suffering is the best context in which to become assured of God’s love. Of course many people will immediately assert the contrary, since it is suffering that makes them doubt God’s love. But consider Paul’s argument. He has traced the sequence of chain reactions from tribulation to perseverance, from perseverance to character, and from character to hope. Now he adds that *hope does not disappoint us* (5a), and never will. It will never betray us by proving to be an illusion after all. ‘Such hope is no fantasy’ (REB). But how do we know this? What is the ultimate ground on which our Christian hope rests, our hope of glory? It is the steadfast love of God. The reason our hope will never let us down is that God will never let us down. His love will never give us up.
But how can we be sure of God’s love? To be sure of the love of his or her parents is almost indispensable to the healthy emotional development of a child. To be sure of the love of a spouse or friend is marvellously conductive to human fulfilment. To be sure of God’s love brings even richer blessings. It is the major secret of joy, peace, freedom, confidence and self-respect.
The apostle spells out two major means by which we come to be sure that God loves us. The first is that *God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us* (5b). This is the first mention in Romans of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, and it teaches us some important lessons.
The first is that the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to all believers (since Paul is listing the consequences of justification), so that it is not possible to be justified by faith without at the same time being regenerated and indwelt by the Spirit. Secondly, it teaches us that the Holy Spirit was given to us at a particular time (*dothentos*, an aorist tense), namely at what is popularly called our ‘conversion’, or when we were justified. Thirdly, having been given to us, one of the Holy Spirit’s distinctive ministries is to pour God’s love into our hearts. Indeed, he has done this in such a way that the initial outpouring remains a permanent flood (*ekkechytai*, a perfect tense). It is understandable that many see here a reference to the effusion of the Spirit at Pentecost, since the same verb is used (*ekcheo*, ‘pour out’) (Joel 2:28f. = Acts 2:17f.). But to be strictly accurate the apostle writes here not of the outpouring of the Spirit but of the outpouring of God’s love by the ministry of the Spirit in our hearts. The genitive in the expression ‘love of God’ must surely be subjective, not objective, in that it is God’s love for us, not ours for him, which is in mind. ‘Under the vivid metaphor of a cloudburst on a parched countryside’, what the Holy Spirit does is to make us deeply and refreshingly aware that God loves us. It is very similar to Paul’s later statement that ‘the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children’ (8:16). There is little if any appreciable difference between being assured of God’s fatherhood and of his love.
Tomorrow: Romans 5:3-8. d). We also rejoice in our sufferings (continued).