Paul’s view that suffering is essential for Christian growth

My dissertation explores Paul’s theology of suffering. Part of my thesis involves demonstrating that Paul’s view of suffering was radically different from that of the ancient philosophers. The view of the ancient philosophers, especially the Stoics, whose philosophy had become the standard worldview in by Paul’s day, is that suffering is to be avoided and that one’s desire should be to eliminate the emotional distress (λύπη) caused by suffering.

Paul’s prescriptions for dealing with λύπη make clear that Paul’s view is polar opposite from the philosophers (and perhaps I’ll explain that in another post). Here in Romans 5, Paul’s use of καυχάομαι coupled with κατεργάζομαι also demonstrates his departure from the prevailing view of viewing sufferings.

I note that Paul here does not use λύπη because he is not talking here about the emotional effects of the suffering so much as he is talking about the sufferings themselves. Paul uses a generic, catch-all, word for “sufferings,” θλῖψις,[1] but his claim that believers “boast” in or “glory” in (καυχάομαι) is the most striking feature of this sentence.

There are a few places in the philosophers suffering is seen as a neutral, something that one could allow to triumph over a person or that the wise person could turn around and use for his or her advantage, but nowhere will one find the advice to “glory” in or “boast” in sufferings.

Paul’s use of κατεργάζομαι to describe the result of suffering and tribulation supports this view. If Paul only intended to say that suffering can be used to bring about growth, then we might reasonably expect to see simply ἐργάζομαι. Instead, Paul uses a verb that also focuses on result. As Moo points out, κατεργάζεται “sometimes stresses the end result (“produce”) more than ἐργάζομαι.”[2] Consequently, many translations use “produce” to translate κατεργάζεται, a translation that itself focuses on result.[3]


So Paul is not simply saying that one can turn one’s sufferings around so that they bring about produce growth, Paul is saying that suffering is essential to growth as a Christian. Since suffering is so essential to growth as a Christian, when one endures sufferings, one may “boast” in those sufferings (rather than in oneself), because these are the very things that will produce the necessary and desired growth in the Christian life.

[1] Cranfield (ICC 149) notes that “θλῖψις can denote tribulations of various kinds” which is consistent with the broad use of θλῖψις both in and out of Scripture. Paul may have chosen this word because he anticipates his letters being read by a wide range of people.

[2] Moo, (NICNT 116, n. 128)

[3] NLT has “develop,” which, while within the semantic domain in κατεργάζεται falls short of how this word is usually employed.

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Every pastor should have a story like this: Beware church visitors bearing gifts

I still chuckle every time I think about this.

Several years ago, two sisters visited the church where I serve as pastor. After the service they spent twenty minutes telling me how I should have preached the text and pointed out everything they thought was wrong with my sermon. (Mind you, neither of them has, by their own admission, ever preached a sermon, taught a Bible lesson, or received any biblical, theological, or homiletical training at all.)

A few months later, as I was calling people who had visited our church to invite them back, I called one of the sisters, not realizing this was who I was calling. This time she spent fifteen minutes on the phone telling me all the stuff I did wrong that she presumably either hadn’t gotten to when they visited before or simply had thought of since then. I tried to be gracious and I invited them to worship with us again since they still had not found a church home (I can’t help but wonder why).

She and her sister returned a couple of weeks later. Since it was around Christmastime they brought me a “gift.” Their gift was…

(and I am not joking here)

a book about how to preach.

They have not returned. And that’s okay. I really do hope they found a pastor who was up to their standards.

The book, however, is a good one. But while I didn’t pay any money for it, I wouldn’t exactly say I got it for free.

You really can’t make this stuff up.

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Zacharias Ursinus on Why only the Doctrine of the Church can Provide Satisfactory Comfort

Therefore, although philosophy, and all the various sects, enquire after and promise such a good as that which affords solid comfort to man, both in life and death, yet they neither have, nor can bestow, that which is necessary to meet the demands of our moral nature. It is only the doctrine of the church that presents such a good, and that imparts a comfort that quiets, and satisfies the conscience; for it alone uncovers the fountain of all the miseries to which the human race is subject, and reveals the only way of escape through Christ. This, therefore, is that Christian comfort, spoken of in this question of the catechism, which is an only and solid comfort, both in life and death—a comfort consisting in the assurance of the free remission of sin, and of reconciliation with God, by and on account of Christ, and a certain expectation of eternal life, impressed upon the heart by the holy Spirit through the gospel, so that we have no doubt but that we are the property of Christ, and are beloved of God for his sake, and saved forever, according to the declaration of the Apostle Paul: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress,” &c. (Rom. 8:35.)[1]

[1] Zacharias Ursinus and G. W. Williard, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 18.

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Is it the person or is it the organization?

Any church can have a pastor or pastoral staff member who fails morally. This is simply a sad reality. But when a church or religious organization has person after person in leadership positions with moral failures (some of them repeated moral failures), you eventually have to ask, “What is it about this church or this organization that breeds this type of behavior?” At some point the problem is not personal but systemic and institutional and the church has to address it as such.

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We make idols when God has already given us images and symbols through which to know him

Men’s folly cannot restrain itself from falling headlong into superstitious rites. But even if so much danger were not threatening, when I ponder the intended use of churches, somehow or other it seems to me unworthy of their holiness for them to take on images other than those living and symbolical ones which the Lord has consecrated by his Word. I mean Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, together with other rites by which our eyes must be too intensely gripped and too sharply affected to seek other images forged by human ingenuity.[1]

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; vol. 1; The Library of Christian Classics; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 113–114.

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Douglas Moo on Romans 8:31-39

(I added a couple of structural edits for better online reading.)

We may view this beautiful, hymn-like celebration of our security in Christ as a response to what Paul has just said (28–30, or 18–30 or even 1–30), but it is better to see it as a concluding reflection of chs. 5–8 as a whole. It falls into two parts.

In the first (31–34) Paul reminds us that God is for us: in giving his Son, he has at the same time secured for us all that we need to get through this life and attain final salvation. No-one, then, is able successfully to bring any charge against us, to cause us to be condemned in the judgment. For it is God who has chosen us and justified us and his own Son who answers any indictment brought against us.

The second part of the hymn (35–39) celebrates the love of God in Christ for us. It is as impossible to separate us from that love as it is to bring a charge against us. No earthly peril or disaster can do so (35b–36). Though such suffering can be expected, as Paul reminds us with his quotation of Ps. 44:22, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Nor can any spiritual power separate us from God’s love (angels, demons and powers in v 38). Indeed, there is nothing in all creation that can remove us from the new regime in which God’s love in Christ reigns over us.

Douglas J. Moo, “Romans,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (ed. D. A. Carson et al.; 4th ed.; Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1142.

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“Grace to you and peace” – F. F. Bruce on Galatians 1:3

(Italics are mine)

 χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη. The normal word of salutation at the beginning of a Greek letter was χαίρειν (‘rejoice’); the normal word of salutation at the beginning of a Jewish letter was šālôm, είρήνη (‘peace’). The amplified form of ‘mercy and peace’ (cf. 6:16) seems to have been current in some Jewish circles (cf. 2 Bar. 78:2). The form χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη is characteristically Pauline; both ‘grace’ and ‘peace’ have their full Christian force. Grace is God’s unconditioned good will toward mankind which is decisively expressed in the saving work of Christ (cf. v 6; 2:21); peace is the state of life—peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and peace with one another (Eph. 2:14–18)—enjoyed by those who have effectively experienced the divine grace (cf. 5:22; 6:16).

The Christian force of the grace and peace is emphasized by the added words ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. These added words appear, with minor variations, in most of Paul’s opening salutations (they are missing in 1 Thes. 1:1; καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ is missing in Col. 1:2). As in v 2 ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘God the Father’ are brought together under the common regimen of διά, so here ‘God our Father’ and ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ are brought together under the common regimen of ἀπό. Such language bespeaks the exalted place which the risen Christ occupies in Paul’s thinking. In resurrection he wears a heavenly humanity, as ‘a life-giving spirit’ (1 Cor. 15:45–49), and has been invested by God with the designation κύριος. ‘Lord’—’the name which is above every name’ (Phil. 2:9). God and Christ are completely at one in the bestowal of salvation: the grace which lies behind this salvation is indiscriminately called ‘the grace of God’ (2:21) and the grace of Christ’ (1:6),   p 75  and the peace which this salvation produces is indiscriminately called ‘the peace of God’ (Phil. 4:7) and ‘the peace of Christ’ (Col. 3:15).

-F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1982), 74–75.

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