The Groaning of Believers
And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. (8:23–25)
Not only does the natural creation groan for deliverance from the destructive consequences of sin into the promised new universe, but also we ourselves, that is, believers. It is the redemption of believers that is central to God’s ultimate cosmic regeneration, because believers—as His own children, redeemed and adopted into His heavenly family in response to their faith in His beloved Son, Jesus Christ—are the heirs of His glorious, eternal, and righteous kingdom.
Every true believer agonizes at times over the appalling manifestations and consequences of sin—in his own life, in the lives of others, and even in the natural world. Because we have the first fruits of the Spirit, we are spiritually sensitized to the corruption of sin in and around us.
Because the Holy Spirit now indwells us, His work in us and through us is a type of spiritual first fruits. They are a foretaste of the glory that awaits us in heaven, when our corrupted and mortal bodies are exchanged for ones that are incorruptible and immortal. Although we will not be totally free of sin’s power as long as we are in our present bodies, the Lord has given us complete victory over the dominion and bondage of sin. When we experience the Holy Spirit’s empowering us to turn from iniquity and to truly worship, serve, obey and love God, we have a taste of the future completed and perfected renewal He will work in us at the resurrection.
Because every genuine believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9), every genuine believer will to some degree manifest the fruit of the Spirit that Paul enumerates in Galatians 5:22–23, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Every time we see Him working His righteousness in and through us, we yearn all the more to be freed of our remaining sin and spiritual weakness. Because of our divinely-bestowed sensitivity to sin, we ourselves groan within ourselves over the dreadful curse of sin that is still manifested by our remaining humanness.
Acknowledging his own sinfulness, David cried out, “My iniquities are gone over my head; as a heavy burden they weigh too much for me, … Lord, all my desire is before Thee; and my sighing is not hidden from Thee. My heart throbs, my strength fails me; and the light of my eyes, even that has gone from me” (Ps. 38:4, 9–10).
Paul grieved over the remnants of his humanness that clung to him like a rotten garment that could not be cast off. That reality brought him great spiritual frustration and anguish. “Wretched man that I am!” he lamented, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24). In another epistle he reminds all believers of their same plight: “For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4). As long as we are in the “tent” of our human body, we will never fully escape sin’s corruption in our lives. That truth causes Christians to suffer times of deep inner distress over the debilitating sinfulness that still clings to them.
As believers, we therefore find ourselves waiting eagerly in anticipation of our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. The New Testament speaks of believers as those who are already the adopted children of God, but whose adoption awaits ultimate perfection. Just as there is never salvation that is not completed, neither is there divine adoption that is never completed. A child of God need never fear that he might be cast out of his spiritual family or never enter his heavenly home.
Puritan pastor Thomas Watson said,
The godly may act faintly in religion, the pulse of their affections may beat low. The exercise of grace may be hindered, as when the course of water is stopped. Instead of grace working in the godly, corruption may work; instead of patience, murmuring; instead of heavenliness, earthliness.… Thus lively and vigorous may corruption be in the regenerate; they may fall into enormous sins.… [But] though their grace may be drawn low, it is not drawn dry; though grace may be abated, it is not abolished.… Grace may suffer an eclipse, not a dissolution.… a believer may fall from some degrees of grace, but not from the state of grace. (A Body of Divinity [reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974], pp. 280, 284–85)
Scripture teaches that the believer’s salvation is secured by God the Father, by the Son, and by the Holy Spirit. Referring to God the Father, Paul assured the Corinthians, “He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge” (2 Cor. 1:21–22; cf. 2 Tim. 2:19). The Father not only grants salvation to those who trust in His Son but also seals their salvation and gives the indwelling Holy Spirit as the guarantor. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter declared, “who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3–5). Although persevering faith is indispensable to salvation, Peter emphasizes that, by God the Father’s own initiative and power, He “caused us to be born again” and in that same power He sustains us toward the inheritance that our new birth brings, an inheritance that is “imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away.” It is divinely “reserved in heaven” for each believer, who is divinely preserved to receive it. Whoever belongs to God belongs to Him forever.
In order to point up the absolute and incontrovertible security of those who trust in Jesus Christ, the writer of Hebrews declared, “In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil” (Heb. 6:17–19).
God the Son also secures the believer’s salvation. “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me,” Jesus declared, “and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). Paul assured the Corinthian church, which had more than its share of immature and disobedient believers, that “even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:6–8; cf. Col. 1:22). In other words, their relationship to Christ not only had been confirmed when they were justified but would remain confirmed by the Lord Himself until their glorification at His return (cf. 1 Thess. 3:13). Later in that epistle Paul reminds us that “faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass” (1 Thess. 5:24). The ongoing, mediatorial, intercessory work of Jesus Christ in heaven unalterably secures our eternal reward.
God the Spirit also secures the believer’s salvation, by a work that Scripture sometimes refers to as the Spirit’s sealing. In ancient times, the seal, or signet, was a mark of authenticity or of a completed transaction. The seal of a monarch or other distinguished person represented his authority and power. For example, when Daniel was thrown into the den of lions, King Darius had a large stone placed across the entrance and sealed “with his own signet ring and with the signet rings of his nobles, so that nothing might be changed in regard to Daniel” (Dan. 6:17). In an infinitely more significant and spiritual way, the Holy Spirit seals the salvation of every believer, which, by divine promise and protection, can never be altered.
Paul assured the Corinthian believers that “He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge” (2 Cor. 1:21–22). In similar words, he assured the Ephesians that “In Him [Christ], you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13; cf. 4:30).
The ideas of partial or temporary salvation not only are foreign to the teaching of Scripture but completely contradict it. No true believer need ever fear loss of salvation. At the moment of conversion his soul is redeemed, purified, and eternally secured in God’s family and kingdom.
Believers should be concerned about sin in their lives, but not because they might sin themselves out of God’s grace. Because of God’s promise and power, that is impossible. Until we are glorified and fully liberated from sin through the redemption of our body, we still have unredeemed bodies that make it very much possible for sin to harm us and to grieve our Lord. As the term is often used in the New Testament, body is not limited to a person’s physical being but relates to the whole of his unredeemed humanness, in particular to the remaining susceptibility to sin.
It is only the body, the mortal humanness of a believer, that is yet to be redeemed. The inner person is already a completely new creation, a partaker of God’s nature and indwelt by God’s Spirit. “Therefore if any man is in Christ,” Paul says, “he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Peter assures us that God’s “divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust” (2 Pet. 1:3–4).
Because believers are already new creatures possessing the divine nature, their souls are fit for heaven and eternal glory. They love God, hate sin, and have holy longings for obedience to the Word. But while on earth they are kept in bondage by their mortal bodies, which are still corrupted by sin and its consequences. Christians are holy seeds, as it were, encased in an unholy shell. Incarcerated in a prison of flesh and subjected to its weaknesses and imperfections, we therefore eagerly await an event that is divinely guaranteed but is yet to transpire—the redemption of our body.
Paul has already explained that “if we [believers] have become united with Him [Christ] in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:5–6). The old man with his old sinful nature is dead, but the corrupted body in which he dwelt is still present. That is why, a few verses later, Paul admonishes believers not to “let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts” and not to “go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (vv. 12–13). Because we are still capable of sinning, we should be continually on guard to resist and overcome sin in the Spirit’s power (vv. 14–17).
Paul also has already explained “that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:14–15). “But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do,” he continues, “I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not” (vv. 16–18).
It is encouragingly hopeful for Christians to realize that their falling into sin does not have its source in their deepest inner being, their new and holy nature in Christ. When they sin, they do so because of the desires and promptings of the flesh—that is, their bodies, their remaining humanness—which they cannot escape until they go to be with the Lord. Summing up that vital truth, Paul said, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (Rom. 7:25).
As noted above, our souls are already fully redeemed and are fit for heaven. But the fleshly, outer clothing of the old, sinful person is still corrupted and awaits redemption. “For our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul explains, “from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20–21).
It is hardly possible not to wonder what kind of resurrected and redeemed body believers will have in heaven, but it is foolish to speculate about it apart from what Scripture teaches. Anticipating such curiosity, Paul told the Corinthians:
Someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own. All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish. There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. (1 Cor. 15:35–41)
Paul’s point in the first analogy is that a seed bears no resemblance to the plant or tree into which it will grow. As far as size is concerned, some relatively large seeds produce small plants, whereas some smaller seeds produce large trees. Many different kinds of seed look much alike, and the total variety of seeds has yet to be calculated. If given a handful of seeds that were all different and came from various parts of the world, not even an experienced farmer, much less the average person, could identify all of them. Not until it is sown and the resulting plant begins to mature can the kind of seed be accurately identified. The same principle applies in relation to our natural and spiritual bodies. We cannot possibly determine what our future spiritual bodies will be like by looking at our present physical bodies. We will have to wait to see.
Paul also points out the obvious fact that animate creatures vary widely in their appearance and nature, and that, without exception, like produces like. The genetic code of every living species is distinct and unique. No amount of attempted interbreeding or change of diet can turn a fish into a bird, or a horse into a dog or cat.
There is also variety in the heavenly bodies, an immeasurably greater variety than people in Paul’s day were aware of. The apostle’s point in mentioning the animals and heavenly bodies seems to be that of calling attention to the vast magnitude and variation of God’s creation and to the inability of man even to come close to comprehending it.
The Bible discloses very little about the nature of a believer’s resurrected body. Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians, “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power: it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42–44).
Because we will ultimately be like Christ, we know that our resurrected bodies will be like His. As noted above, Paul assures us that, “if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection” (Rom. 6:5). In his epistle to Philippi he explains further that our Lord “will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:21).
During the period between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ body still bore the physical marks of His crucifixion (John 20:20) and He was able to eat (Luke 24:30), He still looked like Himself, yet even His closest disciples could not recognize Him unless He allowed them to (Luke 24:13–16, 30–31; John 20:14–16). He could be touched and felt (John 20:17, 27), yet He could appear and disappear in an instant and could pass through closed doors (John 20:19, 26).
Although our redeemed bodies will in some way be like Christ’s, we will not know exactly what they will be like until we meet our Savior face to face (1 John 3:2). Paul’s primary purpose in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8 is to emphasize that our resurrected bodies, regardless of their form, appearance, or capabilities, will be sinless, righteous, and immortal.
He continues to explain that in hope we have been saved. Hope is inseparable from salvation. Our salvation was planned by God in ages past, bestowed in the present, and is now characterized by hope for its future completion.
The believer’s hope is not based on wishful thinking or probability, but on the integrity of the clear promises of the Lord. As already cited above, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me,” Jesus declared, “and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). Our hope is not that we might not lose our salvation but that, by our Lord’s own guarantee, we cannot and will not lose it.
The writer of Hebrews assures us that “God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil” (Heb. 6:17–19). Paul refers to our hope of salvation as a helmet, symbolizing our divine protection from the blows of doubt that Satan sends to crush our hope (1 Thess. 5:8).
As Jesus made clear in the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13) and in the story of the fruitless branches (John 15), there will always be some who bear the name of Christ who do not genuinely belong to Him. And, by the same token, there are true believers whose lives sometimes give little evidence of salvation. But as we shall continue to see to the end of this chapter, the Word of God is unequivocal in declaring that everyone who is saved by Jesus Christ will forever belong to Him. Although it is quite possible for a sinful Christian to struggle with the assurance of salvation and with the joy and comfort which that assurance brings, it is not possible for him to lose salvation itself.
It is true, on the other hand, that the completion of our salvation is presently a hope and not yet a reality. Explaining the obvious, Paul states the axiomatic truth that hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? In other words, in this life we cannot expect to experience the reality of our glorification but only the hope of it. But since the believer’s hope is based on God’s promise, the completion of his salvation is more certain by far than anything he sees with his eyes. As we shall see later, the believer’s salvation is so secure that his glorification is spoken of in the past tense (see Rom. 8:30).
Therefore, Paul continues, if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. “For I am confident of this very thing,” Paul assured the Thessalonian believers, “that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). Because salvation is completely God’s work and because He cannot lie, it is absolutely impossible for us to lose what He has given us and promises never to take away. It is in light of that absolute certainty that Peter admonishes: “Gird your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13). It is for their faithfully holding to that hope that Paul commends the Thessalonians, assuring them that he, Silvanus, and Timothy were “constantly bearing in mind [their] work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you” (1 Thess. 1:3–4). In other words, our certainty of salvation does not rest in our choosing God but in His choosing us, even “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).
The Redemption of Our Bodies
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the passage of Romans 8 that begins with verse 22, and (in the following paragraph) ends with verse 27, we find a word that is repeated three times and yet is found nowhere else in this letter. In fact, it is found only six more times in the entire New Testament. It is the Greek word stenazō (variants, sustenazō and stenagmos), and it is translated “groan” (v. 23), “groans” (v. 26), and “groaning” (v. 22). The interesting thing is that it is applied to three different entities in these verses: to creation, to ourselves, and to the Holy Spirit.
Of creation Paul says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (v. 22).
Of ourselves he says, “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23).
Of the Holy Spirit he says, “… We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (v. 26).
Two of these references are hard to understand. Since Paul is thinking of the inanimate creation and not men, angels, or demons in verse 22, it is hard to imagine how mere matter or even plants or animals can be conceived of as groaning. It is also difficult to envision the Holy Spirit’s groans, though for different reasons. The one part of these verses that is not difficult to understand is our groaning, since groaning is a part of daily life with which almost anyone can easily identify.
Still, we need to see two things about this human groaning if we are to understand the verses to which we now come.
First, the groaning mentioned in verse 23 is that of believers in Jesus Christ and not that of all people generally. Paul makes this explicit when he writes that “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly.” I do not think this excludes the kind of groanings that Christians share with other people, expressions of grief caused by physical suffering or the loss of a loved one, for instance. But it means more. Christians grieve over the presence of sin in their lives, which unbelievers do not. In fact, believers grieve for sin increasingly as they grow in Christ. Christians also groan as the result of persecutions suffered for the sake of their life and witness, and this is also different from what non-Christians experience.
Second, the groaning of Christians is not mere grief over the things I mentioned. It is expectant grief, that is, grief that looks forward to a time when all that is causing pain will be removed and salvation will be consummated. Christian groaning is a joyful grief that gives birth to a sure hope and patient endurance.
The passage itself shows this, since hope and patience are the notes on which the verses end. But there is also a powerful image at the start of this paragraph that shows how the groans of Christians are to be interpreted. Paul uses the image of childbirth: “… the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (v. 22), adding that “we ourselves … [also] groan” (v. 23). This is an important analogy, because it points beyond the cause of grief to its joyful consummation. The pains of childbirth are real pains, severe ones. But they are not endless; they last only for a time. Nor are they hopeless. On the contrary, they are filled with joyful expectation, since under normal circumstances they climax in the birth of a child.
Paul is saying that our griefs as Christians are like that. We groan, but we do so in expectation of a safe delivery.
Groans and Glory
This is a thoughtful continuation of the arguments Paul has been working out since the beginning of Romans 8. The theme of the chapter is the Christian’s assurance that he or she has been saved by Christ and will be kept in this salvation by the love and power of God the Father.
The first part of the chapter distinguished between those who are truly saved and those who are not. Paul was aware of the dangers of presumption, of claiming an assurance that one has no right to unless one’s conduct shows that the Spirit of Jesus Christ really is within. But having made that point—that those who are Christ’s will live for Christ—Paul then got into his major argument, showing that true Christians can know they are saved and be confident in that assurance. We have seen that there are four proofs: (1) the fact that those who are Christians really do live for Christ; (2) the internal sense Christians have of being members of God’s family; (3) the Holy Spirit’s direct witness with our spirits; and (4) suffering. Paul said, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (v. 17).
But that is a problem, as we saw when we studied that verse. Sufferings? We would think that it would be the absence of sufferings, not their presence, that would prove we belong to Christ. If God loves us, shouldn’t he keep us from suffering? Or isn’t he able to? When things get hard it is natural that we begin to doubt God’s favor rather than being assured of it.
That, of course, is why Paul has digressed to talk about suffering and why he is talking about our groanings now. It is why he has explained the involvement of creation in our present distress. What he is saying is that the sufferings we and “the whole creation” endure are the sufferings of childbirth and are therefore proof that the new age is coming. And it is why, although we do groan, we do not groan hopelessly. On the contrary, our groanings intensify our hope and enable us to wait patiently for the consummation.
The Resurrection of the Body
These verses also do something else that is important. They give substance to the Christian hope. That is, they begin to flesh out the main features of the consummation for which we are waiting. In verse 23 this is done by means of three word pictures or images: (1) “the firstfruits of the Spirit,” (2) “our adoption as sons,” and (3) “the redemption of our bodies.” It is easiest to take them in reverse order.
What does Paul mean by the redemption of our bodies? This is an easy question to answer: he means the resurrection, the chief element in the hope of Christians.
This is an important idea to bring in at this point for at least two reasons. First, Paul has been talking about our sufferings, and it is chiefly in our bodies that we experience them. Physical suffering, whether from illness or abuse inflicted by persecutors, is experienced in the body. And there is even a sense in which psychological wounds are physical, though we do not usually think of them that way. We experience them in our minds, which are hard to distinguish from mere brain matter and neurological connections, but the effects are often directly physiological since they are seen in such things as sleeplessness, ulcers, hypertension, and other maladies.
Second, we are our bodies, as well as our spirits and souls. Therefore, salvation must include our bodies if it is to be complete.
Suppose someone should ask you, “Are you saved?” How would you answer? As a Christian it would be proper to answer in three ways. You could say, “Yes, I have been saved.” In that case, you would be pointing back to the death of Jesus Christ on your behalf and to that past work of the Holy Spirit in turning you from a path of sin and joining you to Jesus. You could also say, “I am being saved.” If you said that, you would be pointing to the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in your life, much as Paul did in the earlier part of this chapter. You would be thinking of the Spirit’s work of sanctification. Finally, you could also say, “I am going to be saved.” In that case, you would be thinking of the resurrection, when the work of God—begun by the death of Christ and continued by the work of the Holy Spirit in joining you to Jesus and sanctifying you—will be completed. Paul is thinking of that consummation here.
But there is one more question directly related to our text. Paul is writing about the Christian’s resurrection, but that is not the word he uses to refer to it. He calls it “the redemption of our bodies.” Redemption usually refers to the work of Christ in delivering us from sin’s bondage by his death. Why does Paul use “redemption” instead of “resurrection” here?
Robert Haldane, one of the best of all commentators on Romans, suggests an interesting answer:
When this term is … used, it commonly denotes two things—the one, that the deliverance spoken of is effected in a manner glorious and conspicuous, exhibiting the greatest effort of power; the other, that it is a complete deliverance, placing us beyond all danger. On this ground, then, it is evident that no work is better entitled to the appellation of redemption than that of the reestablishment of our bodies, which will be an illustrious effect of the infinite power of God. It is the work of the Lord of nature—of him who holds in his hands the keys of life and death. His light alone can dispel the darkness of the tomb. It is only his hand that can break its seal and its silence. On this account the apostle appeals, with an accumulation of terms, to the exceeding greatness of the power of God to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ when he raised him from the dead (Eph. 1:19, 20).
It is no wonder that we groan in these bodies. They are the seat of physical weakness, on the one hand, and of our sinful natures, on the other. But we groan in hope, knowing that these weak and sinful bodies are going to be transformed into bodies that are strong, sinless, and glorious, like the resurrection body of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Adoption as Sons
The second image that Paul offers of our sure hope of future glory is “adoption,” speaking of “our adoption as sons.” This is the same word that we have already seen in verse 15, where it was translated “sonship.”
But that creates a problem. In verse 15 our adoption was treated as something that has already taken place. That is the way we considered it when we were at that point in the chapter. I spoke of our having been taken out of the family of Satan and having been brought into the family of God. It corresponds to the way a young couple today might adopt a child who has no parents or has parents who are unable to care for him or her. But in verse 23 adoption is treated as something still in the future, something for which “we wait eagerly.” How can adoption be both past and future at the same time?
The answer, of course, is that the word is used in two senses. In one sense we have already received our adoption, since we have been brought into God’s family. Nothing is ever going to change that family relationship. Yet in a second sense we still wait for our adoption, because we do not yet enjoy all its privileges.
I am convinced that when Paul speaks of “our adoption as sons” in verse 23, he is thinking of the special Roman custom of adoption and not of what we usually think of when someone uses that word. The Romans (as well as the Greeks) had adoption in our sense, that is, when a child is taken out of one family and is placed into another. But the Romans also had an important ceremony in which the son of a leading Roman family would be acknowledged publicly as the son and heir. It corresponded somewhat to the Jews’ bar mitzvah, when a Jewish boy becomes a “son of the covenant,” though among Romans it was less religious and more a matter of adulthood and the right of inheritance.
In the opening pages of Lloyd C. Douglas’s religious novel The Robe, the young daughter of the Gallio family, Lucia, is reflecting on the day her brother Marcellus was adopted in such a ceremony. Marcellus was seventeen years old. Douglas writes, “What a wonderful day that was, with all their good friends assembled in the Forum to see Marcellus—clean-shaven for the first time in his life—step forward to receive his white toga. Cornelius Capito and Father had made speeches, and then they had put the white toga on Marcellus. Lucia had been so proud and happy that her heart had pounded and her throat had hurt, though she was only nine then, and couldn’t know much about the ceremony except that Marcellus was expected to act like a man now—though sometimes he forgot to.”
Later Marcellus describes the occasion to a friend named Paulus: “When a Roman of our sort comes of age, Paulus, there is an impressive ceremony by which we are inducted into manhood.… Well do I remember—the thrill of it abides with me still—how all of our relatives and friends assembled, that day, in the stately Forum Julium. My father made an address, welcoming me into Roman citizenship. It was as if I had never lived until that hour. I was so deeply stirred, Paulus, that my eyes swam with tears. And then good old Cornelius Capito made a speech, a very serious one, about Rome’s right to my loyalty, my courage, and my strength. I knew that tough old Capito had a right to talk of such matters, and I was proud that he was there! They beckoned to me, and I stepped forward. Capito and my father put the white toga on me—and life had begun!”
As I say, I am convinced that this is what Paul has in mind in verse 23. You will recall that earlier he had spoken of our being “heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings” (v. 17). We are sharing in the sufferings now, but the day is coming when we shall enter into the full rights of our inheritance in glory.
Firstfruits and the Full Harvest
The third picture of the consummation to which believers in Christ are moving is a harvest, suggested by the words “firstfruits of the Spirit.” This does not refer to the fruit of the Spirit, as Paul does in Galatians (“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” Gal. 5:22–23). It refers to the Holy Spirit himself as the “firstfruits,” which is a harvest image drawn from Jewish life.
The custom is described in Leviticus 23:9–14, which says in part, “When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. He is to wave the sheaf before the Lord so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath” (vv. 10, 11). The portion of the harvest presented to the priest was called the firstfruits, and it was in the nature of an offering that consecrated the entire harvest. In this Old Testament ceremony the firstfruits were something the devout Jewish worshiper gave God. But in the New Testament Paul usually reverses this and speaks of the firstfruits as what God gives us as an earnest or down payment on the full blessings to come.
The full blessing is the harvest, a joyful time for which those who labor are willing to endure great hardship.
John Stott sums this up by saying, “So the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of sonship and makes us the children of God (v. 15), and then witnesses with our spirit that we are God’s children (v. 16), is also himself the pledge of our complete adoption to be the sons of God, when our bodies are redeemed.” In this, as also in the development of the other two themes, we are reminded of some of the things Paul said earlier.
Hope and Patient Endurance
At the beginning of this study I discussed the word groan, pointing out that it is used of the creation, ourselves, and the Holy Spirit. I said that the usage we understand best is our own groaning, since we groan in our bodily weakness and fleshly sins. But groaning is not the only thing Paul says we do. He also says that “we hope” (v. 25) and “we wait” (vv. 23, 25), adding in the later case that we do it both “eagerly” and “patiently.”
- We hope. Hope is one of the very great words of the Christian vocabulary, occurring in such important phrases as our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13) and “the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). It is one of the three great virtues listed in 1 Corinthians 13:13 (“These three remain: faith, hope and love”). Paul has already written about hope in Romans 5: “… we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (vv. 3–5).
The word hope has two senses: (1) an attitude of hopefulness, and (2) the content of that for which we hope. Both uses of the word occur in our text, the idea of content in verse 24 (“in this hope we were saved”) and the attitude of hopefulness in verses 24 and 25 (“we hope”).
What is striking about the Christian attitude of hopefulness is that it is a “sure and certain hope” and not mere wishful thinking. What makes it sure and certain is the content. The specific content is the return of Jesus Christ together with the things we have been mentioning in these verses: the resurrection of the body, the adoption of God’s children, and the gathering of God’s harvest. These things are all promised to us by God. Hence, the Christian hopes in confidence, a confidence grounded not in the strength of one’s emotional outlook but on the sure Word of God, who cannot lie. If God says that these things are coming, it is reasonable and safe for us to hope confidently in them.
- We wait. More specifically, we wait for them, which is the second verb Paul uses. Verse 23 says, “We wait eagerly.” Verse 25 says, “We wait … patiently.” It is important to take the two adverbs together, because biblical “patience” is not passivity. This is an active, though patient waiting. It expresses itself in vigorous service for Christ even while we wait for his appearing.
The word eagerly makes us think of the creation waiting “in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed,” which Paul introduced in verse 19, though the Greek words are not the same. In verse 19 Paul pictured creation standing on tiptoe, as it were, looking forward with outstretched neck in eager anticipation of the consummation. It is a grand picture, and it is what we are to be doing, too. It is one mark of a true Christian.
Here is how D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it:
Hope is the measure of true Christianity, which is through and through other-worldly. Pseudo-Christianity always looks chiefly at this world. Popular Christianity is entirely this-worldly and is not interested in the other world. But true Christianity has its eye mainly on the world which is to come. It is not primarily concerned even with deliverance from hell, and punishment, and all the things that trouble us and weary us. That really belongs to the past. True Christianity “sets its affection on things which are above, not on things which are on the earth.” It is that which says, “We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17, 18).
Paradoxically, of course, it is only these heavenly-minded people who are able to make any real or lasting difference in the world.
25 Whether to translate διʼ ὑπομονῆς, di’ hypomonēs (GK 5705), as “with perseverance” (so NASB), “patiently” (so NIV; cf. NRSV), or “with fortitude” is a difficult decision. If God’s promise is chiefly in view (cf. Abraham in 4:18), then “patiently” is appropriate, but if the hardships and sufferings that remain to be faced are in view (note the emphasis on suffering in the context), then the more usual force of the word as “perseverance” or “endurance” should be preferred. One can understand the reason for the combined rendering sometimes chosen, e.g., “we wait with patient endurance” (cf. REB).
25 Paul rounds off this subsection with a return to its central theme: the need, in this age of salvation history, for “earnest waiting.” In the “if” clause, Paul resumes the point he made in v. 24b and draws a conclusion from it: hoping for what one does not see means that we must wait for it with “patient fortitude.” While this emphasis on what is not seen may be nothing more than a reiteration of what hope, by its nature, is, the logic of this verse may imply that Paul is thinking more distinctly theologically about the matter. For, as Paul puts it in 2 Cor. 4:18b, “the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (see also Heb. 11). If this thought lies behind what Paul is saying here, then the logic of this verse is strengthened. We Christians can wait expectantly and with fortitude for hope to manifest itself precisely because that for which we hope is unseen and thereby part of the eternal and sure purposes of God. The NT elsewhere makes clear that believers above all need “patient endurance” in their trials as they look forward to the climax of God’s work in their lives. The word suggests the connotation of “bearing up” under intense pressure. This is the virtue required by Christians as we eagerly await “the hope of the glory of God.”
8:23–25 / Paul now applies what he said of creation (vv. 19–22) to believers. Verse 23 contains two emphatic first person plural pronouns in Greek, stressing that we ourselves … groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons.
Paul is found to be fighting on two fronts in verses 18–30. On the one hand, he stresses human solidarity with fallen creation, which is in “bondage to decay” (v. 21). Christians too are part of this bondage. Their bodies are susceptible to cancer, their businesses to failure, their families to brokenness. But this is not the sum of the matter (Not only so, v. 23), for the firstfruits of the Spirit guarantee their future adoption as sons and daughters and the redemption of our bodies (v. 23). This is Paul’s second front. Believers are determined not by groanings, but by the Spirit; not by the way things are, but by the way they will be. The word for firstfruits, aparchē, which originally derived from the practice of ot sacrifice, carries here a metaphoric sense of something given by God in pledge of a full gift to come, similar to the guarantee of the Spirit in 2 Corinthians 1:22 and 5:5. The Spirit is God’s firstfruits or pledge, the ground of hope for living in the tension between suffering and glory.
The theme of hope continues in the memorable phraseology of verses 24–25. The opening phrase, For in this hope we were saved, is vexingly ambiguous. In Greek, hope is thrust to the beginning of the sentence and is therefore emphatic. It is unlikely that Paul means we were saved by hope, for salvation normally comes by faith or grace, not by hope. It seems more probable, as the Greek duly allows, that we were saved to live in the condition of hope, or saved for hope. The aorist passive indicative, we were saved, would make salvation the premise upon which hope rests. As in verse 20, then, hope is the condition in which those who are saved live.
What has been done for us on the cross permits us to say, we were saved, but what remains to be done in us requires that we wait for it patiently. Hope does not belong to the empirical world. It is unseen and its goal is as yet unpossessed, and hence hope is inseparable from patience (v. 25; Heb. 6:15). The Greek word for patience, hypomonē, suggests perseverance and endurance, especially in the face of toil and suffering (cf. 5:3–5). Patience renounces the ego and its claims and submits to God’s will, way, and timing. Like patience, hope is purified through submission. Only where one has forsaken personal aspirations and agendas can one stake one’s hopes on the promises of God. Hope belongs to the One who holds the future, not in the things which occupy the present.
23–25. Not only this, but also we ourselves, who possess the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, as we eagerly await our adoption, that is, the redemption of our bodies. For it was in hope that we were saved; but when once something hoped for is seen it is no longer an object of hope, for who hopes for what he sees? But since we hope for that which we do not see, we wait for it with patient endurance.
Not only does the whole subhuman creation groan, but so do also “we ourselves,” says Paul, thus including himself, as well as those whom he addresses, in the sphere of those who groan. When he adds “who possess the first fruits of the Spirit” does he mean, “We groan even though we possess,” etc. or “because we possess,” etc.? Either would make excellent sense. He may have meant, “Even though we are already so rich, we are reaching out for riches even more precious.” Or he may have intended to convey the thought, “Since we already have the Spirit, we are convinced that more, much more, is still in store for us. We are therefore eagerly yearning to receive it.” In view of the fact that we are not sure which of these alternatives was uppermost in the apostle’s mind, it may well be best, in our translation, to leave the participle exactly as it is, namely, having or possessing. Personally I, along with many other commentators, rather favor the concessive interpretation, since it seems to harmonize best with the idea of great surprise implied in the emphatic introduction, “also we ourselves … even we ourselves,” as if to say, “Though we have already received so much, we are still groaning within ourselves for more.”
Paul says, “we ourselves, who possess the firstfruits of the Spirit.” What does he mean?
From Exod. 23:19; Deut. 18:4, and other passages, we learn that the Israelites were told to offer to God the firstfruits of the soil (grain, wine, oil), and even of the wool from the shearing of the sheep. But the reverse is also a fact. God too gives firstfruits. He gives the firstfruits of the Spirit, so that Paul could state that he himself and those whom he addresses are now in possession of this blessing.
Was the apostle referring to a certain supply of the Spirit that had been poured out so far, with more of the Spirit to follow later? See L.N.T. (A. and G.), p. 81, an opinion that is rather popular, especially among people who frequently refer to “the second blessing.” It is, however, erroneous.
There is no reason to doubt that the apostle, here in Rom. 8:23, is referring to the Holy Spirit himself. That Spirit is himself the firstfruits or pledge of subsequent salvation in all its fulness, in store for God’s children at Christ’s Return. There is no reason to believe that Paul refers to one thing in Eph. 1:13, 14, and to something else here in Rom. 8:23.
“Also we ourselves … even we ourselves groan within ourselves, as we eagerly await our adoption, that is, the redemption of our bodies.” How is it to be understood that even Christians groan? Is it not reasonable to assume that the groaning of God’s children resembles that of Nature (verse 22)? If then the groaning of the whole creation consisted of two elements, namely, (a) experiencing pain and (b) looking forward in hope, we may conclude that the same holds also for those who possess the firstfruits of the Spirit, God’s dear children.
Is Paul thinking of the fact that Christians realize that they are still very imperfect? So sinful that at times they cry out, “Wretched man that I am, Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24)? That they are indeed imperfect is clear from Scripture throughout. Nevertheless, the present context—think especially of the combination pain and hope—points also in a different direction. The very fact that God’s children even now possess—that is, are indwelt by—the Holy Spirit, arouses within them a painful sense of lack. What they already have makes them hungry for more; that is, for salvation in all its fulness. It is in this sense that pain and hope are here combined.
Even now believers have been adopted as God’s sons (8:15, 16). But, in another sense, they are still waiting for their adoption. They are waiting for the public display of their standing as children of God. As of right now their bodies are still subject to death. But one day their souls will have been completely delivered from sin, and their bodies will have become transformed, so that they will resemble the glorious body of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. To that great day they now look forward in hope (Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:50–55; 2 Cor. 5:2, 3; Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:2).
Verse 24 takes up this subject of the Christian’s hope. The translation of this verse in the A.V. is, however, not the best (to put it mildly). It is as follows:
“For we are saved by hope; but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?”
We naturally ask, “Has Paul changed his theology? Did he not always tell us that we were saved by faith (Rom. 1:16, 17; 3:22, 26, 28, 31; 4:5, 11, 12, 16, 20, 24; 5:1, 2), and is he not going to confirm this same truth later on (Eph. 2:8)? Yet here I read that we are saved by hope! Besides, what does the apostle mean when he mentions “hope that is seen”? How can a person see hope?
In order to understand Rom. 8:24 we should start out by affirming that the rendering “We are saved by hope” is wrong. Paul wrote “in hope.” What he meant was that when, sometime in the past (probably at different dates for each person) we were saved, that salvation was not delivered to us complete in one package. It did not arrive “cut and dried.” On the contrary, it came to us “with a promise of more to follow.” Such elements included in salvation, as election, calling, regeneration, basic conversion, faith, justification, and even, in part, sanctification, had already occurred. Still to come were further progress in sanctification, and finally, at death, and even more fully at Christ’s Return, glorification. It is clear, therefore, that Paul could write, “We were saved in hope.”
Christian hope, however, must be distinguished from the “hope” we speak about in daily life. Such hope often amounts to no more than a desire that something nice may happen to us, plus a belief that it might just take place. In fact, such hope can frequently be defined as “that which precedes disappointment.” Its picture is at times that of a drowning man grasping at a straw. But Christian hope is “an anchor for the soul, safe and sure, entering into the inner sanctuary, behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.” (Heb. 6:19, 20).
As to the rest of the verse (24), everything becomes clear when we realize that the word hope can have three different meanings. It can indicate (a) a feeling or even a conviction that what is desired will take place; (b) the person who is considered able to make it take place, as in “Our Hope for years to come,” and (c) the thing hoped for. It would seem that in Greek this last meaning is more common than in English. So we translate the remainder of verse 24 as follows:
“But when once something hoped for is seen, it is no longer an object of hope, for who hopes for what he sees?”
The truth here expressed is obvious: when that for which a person was hoping has arrived, and is now standing or lying in front of him, so that he sees it (implying: and can take hold of it), it ceases to be an object of hope.
Paul is emphasizing the necessity of making use of the anchor of hope. He is, as it were, saying, “Just as faith is necessary to appropriate the salvation which Christ merited for you in the past, so hope is necessary to take to yourselves future blessings. Those bounties are reserved for all who humbly confess their shortcomings and rely wholly on God, the Merciful Giver. Remember, you were saved ‘in hope.’ ”
The present-day practical application is clear. There are those who seem to think that they have already arrived. They believe that the petition “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12) was not meant for them. Perhaps they also believe that they have received “the second blessing” and are therefore superior Christians. There are even those who make propaganda for the error that also the body is already perfect, sickness being a figment of the imagination. Any future “redemption of the body” (8:23) has little significance for them. To them all Paul is, as it were, saying, “You have done away with the biblical doctrine of salvation in hope, for how can one hope for what he already has … or thinks he has?”
The objection might be raised, “But the apostle was not living in our day. Was there any reason why he felt it to be necessary in this epistle to stress the importance of hope, in the life of the believer? Are we able to prove that there were people in the Roman church who considered themselves strong, and able, accordingly, to dispense, at least to some extent, with hope, since they had already arrived?”
The answer is in the affirmative. By and large the Roman church ranked high in Paul’s estimation. See 1:8; 15:14. But there were exceptions, as the following passages indicate:
“Do not think too highly of yourself” (12:3).
“You, then, why do you judge your brother?” (14:10).
“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another” (14:13).
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (15:1).
The conclusion is truly beautiful: “But since we hope for that which we do not see, we wait for it with patient endurance.”
This reminds us of a similar Pauline passage, namely, “We fix our eyes not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). In the meantime:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour,
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
William Cowper, 1772
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 458–465). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The Reign of Grace (Vol. 2, pp. 877–884). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 140). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Moo, D. J. (2018). The Letter to the Romans. (N. B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. D. Fee, & J. B. Green, Eds.) (Second Edition, pp. 544–545). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Edwards, J. R. (2011). Romans (pp. 215–216). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 12–13, pp. 269–273). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.