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Romans 8:26-39

There is something very intimate about suffering with others. When grief is shared, a connection is formed and the bond is often strong enough to overcome other significant differences such as culture, race, gender, and religion. In many respects, Romans 8:26-39 speaks of this kind of shared suffering and the bond that we are invited to understand and embrace as part of our identity in Christ.

​The theme of “groaning” appears multiple times in Romans 8 and finds attestation in multiple OT passages that highlight God’s deliverance in the midst of suffering. For example, Exodus 2:23-24 speaks of the people crying out to God in their slavery and how “God heard their groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (cf. Exod 6:5).[1] And Isaiah 35:10 anticipates the return to Zion from exile of God’s people where “they will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (cf. Isa 51:11).[2] Many of these OT passages took on eschatological significance in later generations of Judaism and within the early Christian Church.

​In verse 26 of our passage. We learn that the Holy Spirit intercedes in our weakness with “groanings too deep for words.” While these words have been seen by some as evidence of speaking in tongues, this interpretation does not do justice to the wider context. Roman 8:22-23 reads:

22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 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.

Like the OT passages above, the concept of groaning in Romans 8 is connected to suffering (cf. Rom 8:18) and especially suffering resultant from the fall (Gen 3). Furthermore, these references anticipate God’s eschatological deliverance, restoration, and renewal of all creation. Just as the creation groans under this weight, so do those who have been filled with the Holy Spirit as they come to realize the depths of pain and anguish present in all creation and even present in the heart of God to which the Spirit bears witness.

​The “weakness” verse 26 speaks about is our inability to pray in the face of such overwhelming anguish; we are compelled to pray but know not what or how. Here the Holy Spirit intercedes. Some translations add the words “for us,” which are not present in the Greek, but are consistent with verse 27 where we are told that the intercession is “for the saints.” In other words, this is a corporate affair; it is not about “me” and “my desires” but about the suffering the community experiences in this world and for this world. Additionally, could it be that the action of the Holy Spirit is not only (or even not primarily) about making an appeal to God on our behalf but is also about the Holy Spirit coming alongside us in our pain and joining the chorus of our wordless groans, becoming one with us and with the whole of creation? The image that comes to mind is that of the wolf pack. When one wolf howls the others almost instinctively and involuntarily join the howl. In the same way, the Holy Spirit, representing the Trinity, shares the experience with us and in so doing shows us the depth of our connection to God.

​Furthermore, this connection is meant to shape and transform us, a point highlighted in verses 28-30. Many have used these verses to endorse a theological position that stresses God’s unconditional election, believing therein that God has arbitrarily chosen some and not chosen others for salvation. However, this is to misunderstand Paul’s words in their context. The word “foreknew” represents God’s desire and determination to enter into relationship with us even while we were still sinners (cf. Rom 5:8) and the emphasis of the word “predestined” is upon the goal to which the believer is called; God invites us into relationship so that we might be conformed (or formed together) into the image of God’s Son (v. 29; cf. 2 Cor 3:18).

The translation of verse 28 is both difficult and highly debated. The two main translations being: (1) “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (NASB; cf. NLT; NCV; ISV; GNB); (2) “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (NRSV; cf. NIV; NKJV; HCSB). Option 1 focuses on God’s sovereign action, which is biased toward those who love God (or those God has chosen; cf. v. 33). Option 2 is more nuanced and can be seen as emphasizing the perspective of those who have entered into intimate relationship with this God; they make a choice to see their external circumstances through a Kingdom lens. Likewise, the phrase “those who love God” denotes a conscious choice on the part of the follower to be in such a relationship.

​The sovereignty of God is seen in verses 31-34. However, these verses do not stress God’s removal of free will. Instead, they highlight the supremacy of God over and against all other persons, things, or powers. “If God is for us, who can be against us” (v. 31b); the answer . . . no one! God’s sovereignty is seen in God’s giving up of the Son and in God’s willingness to give us all things. Furthermore, it is seen in God choosing us first (although still allowing us to respond), in God’s justifying believers, in God’s withholding condemnation (cf. Rom 8:1), and in God’s raising Christ from the dead. In other words, God’s sovereignty is governed by God’s love.

​This is a love that no one can separate us from (vv. 35, 39). And Paul stresses that while we will no doubt experience suffering in various ways and to varying degrees (especially those who are leaders), we should have a sure confidence in this God and in this God’s love for us. We should embrace our connection to this God and embrace our identity as “more than conquerors” (v. 37) who are able to overcome every obstacle and every attack because of the Holy Spirit working with us.

As we can see, this passage is filled with examples of God’s deep love for humanity and of his deep desire to enter into an intimate and sustaining relationship with us. Those preaching on this passage should be aware of the predominately reformed interpretations of this passage a might want to consider how they can provide their congregants with an alternative reading.