QUESTION: I have a question about Romans 8:17. If we do not suffer for Christ or share in His sufferings, does that mean we will not have eternal life at all? I kept struggling with the thought that if I do not suffer for Christ or share in His sufferings, I do not belong to Him at all.
ANSWER: Thanks. You ask an excellent question. There are several points we need to deal with to provide a full answer.
First, the implication that there is something else necessary for salvation, other than trusting in the saving work of Christ. The simplest explanation of how to be saved comes from Paul’s encounter with the Philippian jailer. He asks the apostle, “What must I do to be saved?” And the answer comes back, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:30-31). It’s not “Believe and suffer...” or “Believe and join a church...” or "believe and do good works...” It’s simply “believe.”
Each of the things mentioned has its place in the Christian life, but not in terms receiving the gift of salvation. And that’s an important point–it is a gift. That’s what God’s grace is all about. It’s unearned and unmerited favour. Something God gives us that we haven’t paid for. Christ did the paying on the cross (I Cor. 15:3). Salvation is not a do, but a done. By putting our faith in Christ, we are accepting what He did as being for us, personally, and receiving God’s gift.
The Bible is quite clear that grace excludes any kind of works (Rom. 4:4-5; 11:6; Eph. 2:8-9). Instead, to be saved, we are to receive (believe on) Christ as our personal Saviour (Jn. 1:12-13). Something like a hundred times, the New Testament gives simple faith in Christ as the one and only means of salvation (e.g. Jn. 3:16, 36; 6:40, 47; Acts 13:38-39; Rom. 1:16; 5:1; Gal. 3:26, cf. 4:6-7). Sufferers for Christ will be rewarded one day, but that is not to say that suffering is how we're saved.
This should be enough to raise a question about adding suffering as a requirement for salvation. And there’s a logical problem with doing that, as well as a biblical one. The question must be raised: How much suffering is enough suffering? Will I get to heaven if I’m mocked for being a Christian and bear it humbly? Or do I have to lose my job, or be put in prison? Or be burned at the stake? You can see the problem!
Since these things are so, we should ask whether there is another acceptable interpretation of the verse in Romans–and I believe there is. Here’s the verse, in context, in the New King James Version:
“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (Rom. 8:16-17).
About this passage, William MacDonald writes, “[Paul] is not making heroic suffering a condition for salvation....Rather, he sees all Christians as being co-sufferers and all Christians as glorified with Christ. [The Greek word for] “if” is equivalent to ‘since.’...All who acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Saviour are seen here as incurring the hostility of the world, with its shame and reproach” (Believer’s Bible Commentary, p. 1711).
Notice the alternate translation of “if” (ei per in Greek) that MacDonald offers: since. The Bible Knowledge Commentary suggests, “if, as is the fact” (Vol. 2, p. 471). William Newell, in his classic commentary Romans Verse by Verse, suggests, “inasmuch as” (p. 316). M. R. Vincent, in his Word Studies in the New Testament says, “the conditional participle with the indicative mood assumes the fact: if so be, as is really the case” (p. 709).
A note in The NIV Study Bible sums it up this way: “The Greek construction used here does not set forth a condition but states a fact. The meaning, then, is not that there is some doubt about sharing Christ’s glory. Rather, despite the fact that Christians presently suffer, they are assured a future entrance into their inheritance” (p. 1717).
Let’s render the Romans passage with the acceptable option discussed, and see what happens. “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, since indeed [ei per] we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (Rom. 8:16-17).
What is being described is not an optional choice, but an actual fact. We do suffer. The only other place in the New Testament where that phrase “suffer with” is used is in First Corinthians 12:26, which says, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” The point there is that the church is a body, and what happens to one part (or member) happens to all. Therefore, what happens to all should be a concern of each one.
In other words, if the church, the body of Christ, suffers (which it does), that means we suffer as Christians, because we are a part of the body. If you have a toothache, your whole body feels miserable until it’s somehow dealt with. That’s all Paul is saying about the spiritual body of Christ, and it’s the key to the meaning of Romans 8:17. Just as surely as we can look forward to future glory, as members of the body of Christ, we also face the world’s antagonism and opposition as His body, here below. It’s not something added on; it just is.