When we ask what the “groaning of creation” in Romans 8:19-22 means, many today expect an answer addressing environmentalism and creation-care. The desire to relate this passage to such contemporary discussions is certainly a good one. But first we need to place this passage in its original context to be sure of its own meaning.
Romans, Worldview, and Groaning in Paul’s Own Context
More than people often realize, Romans is a book about worldview, that is, about how to view the world itself and the ways in which God’s saving power is and is not presently at work within it. When Paul writes this letter, the Christians in Rome are divided over how God’s saving purposes relate to outward distinctions between Jews and Gentiles and outward practices regarding diet and calendrical distinctions (e.g., Rom. 14:1-15:13). In Paul’s view, such divisions betray a problem of worldview. So he sets out to describe the true nature of God’s power at work in the world, both now and in the future.
Many in Paul’s day believed that God’s saving work would come about directly in and through the present world order and the distinctions and abilities present within it. Evidently, the Romans too were influenced by such expectations, as their divisions over ethnicity, foods, and days helped show.He begins his letter by describing various things that are visible in the world right now and what they do or do not show about God’s saving purposes. Yet Paul knows that the gospel he preaches, centered as it is on a suffering and resurrected Savior, will not meet such pre-conceived expectations. So he begins his letter by describing various things that are visible in the world right now and what they do or do not show about God’s saving purposes.For more detail about the following statements about Rom 1-3, see my book: Uncovering the Theme of Revelation in Romans 1:16-3:26: Discovering a New Approach to Paul’s Argument, WUNT 2:445 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017).
For example, Paul recognizes that, within the good world that God created, some people already experience the clear effects of God’s wrath in their lives, since they have been handed over to unrighteousness and so pursue a path of shame and self-destruction (1:18-32). Similarly, Paul also recognizes that other people experience God’s patience and kindness right now, giving them a more favorable situation in this life (2:4). But, even as he acknowledges this distinction, Paul also denies that it reveals anything about God’s ultimate favor. Instead, he insists that the full measure of God’s judgment is simply hidden right now, to be revealed on the future day when God will also judge the secret things of each person’s life (2:5-16).
In this way, Paul begins to shape the Romans’ view of how God’s power is and is not at work in the world right now. Importantly, what is visible in the world now must also be interpreted in light of what will only become visible later on the final day of judgment.
After this, Paul goes on to make a similar point about the visible distinction between Jews and Gentiles. In Romans, Paul frequently describes the Jew-Gentile distinction as a difference in nature (2:14, 27; 11:21, 24). Israel, like a cultivated plant, was separated off from the Gentiles and given distinct privileges like the written Law and circumcision (2:18, 20, 25-29). Yet, as valuable as such privileges are (e.g., 3:1-2; 9:4-5), the outward distinction that results between Jews and Gentiles is still not of saving significance in itself. Rather, what matters is a hidden circumcision brought about in the heart by God’s Spirit (2:28-29).
Then in Romans 4, Paul again makes similar points regarding Abraham. On the one hand, Abraham received a promise that he would inherit the world, placing a future of holistic blessing before him (4:13). Yet on the other hand, this blessing would clearly not come through distinctions or abilities inherent within nature. Rather, Abraham received this promise while he was still uncircumcised (4:10, 13), and its initial fulfillment came about despite the inability of Abraham’s and Sarah’s bodies, which could no longer produce children naturally (4:19). Clearly then, Abraham did not trust in natural ability but in God’s supernatural intervention. He believed “in hope against hope” (4:18), trusting in God’s own power to bring about blessing into the world, yet not through the resources inherent within the world.
All of this sets the context for Romans 8 as well, where Paul’s message continues about a still-unseen future hope brought about by God alone.
Turning to Romans 8
Many in the ancient world viewed suffering in this life as a sign of God’s disfavor.We can think, for example, of how Job’s friends interpreted the suffering he endured in his life. Yet Paul knows that Christians often experience significant suffering (8:17-18), including persecution from others (8:35-36) and outward hardships such as hunger, nakedness, death (8:35). Would such things cause the Romans to doubt the gospel’s true efficacy? To avoid this, Paul urges the Romans toward a hope like Abraham’s, which remains confidently focused not on their outward condition now but on God’s power to raise the dead later. In particular, this means recognizing the inward work of renewal already accomplished in Christians by God’s Spirit (8:9-10, 14-17) as they also await his future work of bodily renewal on the day of resurrection (8:11, 23).
Moreover, similar things must also be said for the creation itself. While some ancients believed in a natural harmony between righteous people and creation, such that the natural world order was designed to bless the righteous now,The most relevant background here may be Wisdom of Solomon 16:17, 24. But Robert Jewett also points out related ideas in Roman civic cult propaganda that could also be at issue (Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007], 513-514). Paul describes a different kind of connection between God’s creation and God’s children, namely one in which they have a shared hope for holistic blessing later but also a shared experience of hardship and travail now.
Specifically, Paul says, creation presently experiences “futility” (8:20) and “bondage to corruption” (8:21). The term “futility” refers to the inability to produce lasting good. Interestingly, Ecclesiastes finds certain kinds of futility evident in the present design of the natural world itself, with its never-ending cycles of seasonal change and circulation of water and wind that allow no permanent progress toward a final goal (e.g., Eccl. 1:5-7; 3:2b). Some kinds of futility may therefore be inherent within creation’s present design, making it impossible, even apart from sin, to achieve full fruitfulness from within. But the bigger concern in Romans 8 is certainly with the futility that comes about because of sin. This is especially clear in the phrase “bondage of decay.” In Paul’s letters, the main association that decay has is with the decomposition of the body in death (1 Cor. 15:42; cf. Rom. 8:35, 38), and Romans makes quite clear that human death came about as a consequence of Adam’s first sin (Rom. 5:12, 14, 17, 21).These connections between decay, human death, and sin are helpfully pointed out by Leander E. Keck, Romans, ANTC (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 211. Evidently then, “bondage of decay” especially refers back to the results of the curse that God instituted upon creation itself in Genesis 3, subjecting it to greater degeneration and fruitlessness.
Yet, while the curse in Genesis 3 was levied by God in response to Adam’s sin, Paul’s focus in Romans 8 is actually upon God’s own agency in subjecting creation, while the relation between creation and humanity is cast in overall quite positive tones here. We can notice, for example, how Adam’s sin is not mentioned directly in this chapter but is only implied as part of the background. Instead, Paul’s main focus remains on God’s own decision, who is the only one who could be said to have “subjected” creation “in hope” for something greater to come later. By comparison, what creation longs for is connected positively to humanity: obtaining “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21). More than being humanity’s victim, then, creation is primarily described here as its sympathetic co-sufferer, as it “eagerly awaits” (8:19) the time when God’s children will be revealed on the day of resurrection.
And just as the problem for creation is traced directly back to God’s own agency in this passage, so also is the solution to that problem. Since the present groaning of creation will continue until God’sLike God’s children themselves, the creation must look not for a natural solution to its travail but for God’s powerful intervention as he “liberates” the creation on the day of final renewal. children experience resurrection glory, this means that the ultimate solution to creation’s plight will not come about from human efforts in the meantime. Rather, like God’s children themselves, the creation must look not for a natural solution to its travail but for God’s powerful intervention as he “liberates” the creation on the day of final renewal.
In the end, then, the groaning of creation describes both its present experience of limitation and decay and its present longing for still-unseen, final blessing later, which will not emerge from within this world order but will be granted directly by God himself. Even though both Christians and creation suffer now, this is not a reason for doubt, because God has ordained it for them both for the present time.
So then, while the gospel promises ultimate, holistic blessing in the future, this hope for the world will not come about through the world or the distinctions and abilities resident within it but through God’s own supernatural intervention. All of this should help transform the Romans’ minds (12:2), so that they will know how God’s purposes are meant to come about in this world and thereby enjoy proper unity (14:17; 15:7).
Romans, Worldview, and Creation-Care Today
It should be clear by now that Romans 8 does not directly address many of the topics at issue in discussions of environmentalism and creation-care today, like the degradation of creation caused by human irresponsibility and sin subsequent to Adam’s fall or what humans should do to reverse it.Paul’s focus remains on a larger and even more fundamental problem that exists in creation, concerning the futility and decay that God has imposed now and the larger and more transcendent solution that he will one day also provide. Instead, Paul’s focus remains on a larger and even more fundamental problem that exists in creation, concerning the futility and decay that God has imposed now and the larger and more transcendent solution that he will one day also provide. In some ways, then, Romans 8 is not as relevant to questions about creation-care as people often suppose.
Yet Romans 8 certainly does not negate the importance of creation-care, either. In fact, it has several important implications for understanding it aright.
First, Romans 8 is as clear as anywhere in Scripture about the whole creation’s eventual hope for complete blessing. As such, it flatly opposes annihilationism, in which the earth will simply be destroyed. It also encourages Christians to view the creation sympathetically as a fellow pilgrim on the path from present suffering to future, God-given glory.
Second, while Romans 8 focuses on God’s own subjection of creation more than on human sin itself, it still assumes the larger biblical narrative in which sin leads to degradation in the natural world. By implication, even though the fundamental problem and the ultimate solution for creation both transcend human action in Romans 8, such action can still participate in and extend the effects of that fundamental problem or help provide at least some partial remediation of such extended effects. In this way, environmental stewardship, though limited in what it can accomplish for creation, is still both important and good.For more detailed reflection on both the positive importance and the temporary nature of Christian culture activity and its effects, see my article: “Eschatology and Protology, Christ and Culture: Marriage as a Biblical Test-Case,” in Mid-America Journal of Theology 25 (2014): 117-140.
Third, Romans 8 reassures believers that the future destiny of the creation-order is not ultimately dependent upon the actions of people and therefore is not fundamentally put at risk by people’s actions either. As bad as human degradation of creation is and may become, we can be encouraged that Romans 8 still guarantees final blessing for creation, which God himself will infallibly bring to pass.
Fourth, since human efforts will not solve creation’s ultimate problem or bring about its ultimate state of blessing, people who love the beauty of creation and desire to experience it in its full glory should be most concerned to know that they themselves are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ through faith in the gospel, who will therefore enjoy the ultimate glorification of all things. Likewise, those who want others to experience this same creation-fullness with them should be most concerned for those people to be God’s children too by this same faith. In these ways, Christian concern for effective proclamation of the gospel should still outstrip concern for creation-care, not because the latter is worthless but because only the former is God’s power unto the eschatological blessing and glory (1:16) for which both we and creation continue to groan.