Romans 8:19-21: We are so Connected — part 3 of 7

Read part 1 of 7 (introduction) here. Read part 2 of 7 (A Lesson from the Earth) here.

The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8.19-21 TNIV)

When we turn to Romans 8 and think, “Here we have it, Green Theology”, we better hold on tight. It’s like going fishing for whale and pulling up the Titanic. When you read Romans 8, you have to be ready for the big questions: What is the nature of evil? What does it mean to be saved? How are we saved from evil? Is God good or not? What is the future of the earth? Would the earth have been better off without humans? This is complex thinking from Paul. In just twelve verses we get a flash shot of Creation Care as godly living. We get a Christian spirituality that will change our hearts for the world. When we are looking for green theology or when we’re just reading the Bible, it is easy to misunderstand Paul. We usually mis-read Romans as book about how to get saved and less about our Christian responsibility. Then we get to chapters 8 and 9-11, and we think of them as some strange addition to Paul’s real point. Here’s what I mean. We think of Romans 8 as an “escape from this world” chapter. Someday, we hear, we will be rescued from our suffering. And that’s true. However, we have to ask: what does it mean to be “rescued”, and when does that rescuing begin? On the other hand and in reaction to the escapist reading, some of us overcompensate. We hear Paul saying, “humans ruined creation with our actions; therefore we can save it with our actions.” Policy makers love to read it like this. Then they get stumped when somebody points to Genesis 3.17 (“cursed is the ground because of you”) and says, “Yes it was Adam and Eve’s fault, but God is the one who does the cursing. You can’t fix what God is cursing.” Scholars agree: even Paul seems to think that it was God who put a curse on creation: “for creation was subjected to futility, not by its own choice but by the will of the one who subjected it” (Romans 8.20). Therefore when we think, “Let’s fix the creation we destroyed”, we might actually find ourselves working against God’s enduring curse. If we don’t listen for God’s plan of rescue, we will find ourselves fighting against him. Paul is telling us something more profound than “let’s save creation with our own actions”, and he is definitely saying more than “resign yourselves and let God destroy creation.” He is offering us Creation Care in his way. Paul’s teaching about the redemption of creation is not easy, so I retranslated it from the original Greek:

“I often think about the sufferings of this age, that, compared to the coming glory that will be revealed to us, they are a faded picture. For creation swirls in hope for the revelation of the daughters and sons of God. Creation was pressed under the weight of vanity, unwillingly, so long ago. The hope was that creation itself would be set free: from the slavery of decay to the freedom of God’s children turned aright. For we know that all creation is groaning in unison and joining its voice in agony, even up until today. But there’s much more to it. Even those who possess the first fruit of the spirit––and that’s us––even we believers groan among one another as we await the adoption, which is the transformation of our bodies. We were saved by hope. Though, it is not Hope if you can see what you’re hoping for. If I do not see the thing I hope for, then I am waiting in patience. In it all, the spirit encircles us and joins in with us; the Spirit supports our weakness. For when we open our mouths to pray, we blurt out things that miss the point. But the Spirit steps in, groaning things that we couldn’t put into words. The one who searches through hearts listens to the wisdom of the Spirit, because the Spirit prays in line with God’s will for the saints. And we know that all things work together for good, in line with his plan, for those who love God and who are called. This is the point of it, the spiritual destiny: to those he foresaw, he also forged for them a sharing in the likeness of the image of his son, who is the firstborn of a large family. Those he called, he also justified. Those same bunch (for whom he forged it all ahead of time), he also called them; those he justified, he also began turning them aright.” Romans 8.18-30.

Paul’s teaching is as hard to understand as it is to translate, but if we stay focused on three points, we will do well: (1) from these verses we get a profound Christian vision about the nature of nature; (2) we need to listen carefully to Paul about God’s plan; and (3) if we let the Bible guide us, we get a surprising New Testament picture of our role as believers in God’s plan for Creation Care. (1) The Nature of Nature. Scholars agree that Romans has salvation in mind, but from these verses we see that God has more in mind than just the salvation of humans. It is the salvation of the universe. God is not the God of human beings only. Paul talks about the creation being turned over to futility. This does not mean, in the Greek, that creation is worthless. It means that it is unable to fulfill its true purpose. Though it does not want it, creation leads fallen humans to worship created things. Next, to make another point clear, it is not this world that is a faded picture. For Paul, it is our sufferings that are a faded picture of the way things will be when death dies and there is no more suffering. More so, we see that nature had an inward resistance to the fall and has its own voice, “the whole creation has been groaning.” Though it does not speak in a human language, creation has a voice. Paul is clear about the nature of nature: creation needs salvation, it groans and it experiences hope. (2) God’s Plan. When Adam and Eve unleashed evil into the world, through their disobedience, God pressed nature under the weight of human vanity, with the hope that creation would be set free. Strange plan, if you ask me. Though the creation did not fall like we did, God’s plan was to bind its salvation up with ours. He placed a hope in the universe that was, as one author put it, “a relentless anticipation of a much better situation.” A whole library of books has been written on the nature of evil and what exactly happened in the fall. For now, I will just echo the point that many scholars make. Paul thinks the body and the earth are very good, but not when we are bound up in death and decay. The hope of creation is in the complete redemption of believers––not the redemption of believers from this world––but from suffering, death, and the ongoing prospect of sin. In all of his infinite wisdom, this was God’s plan. (3) Our Role as Believers in Creation Care. Therefore creation waits, not just for a fourth green movement from post-modern Christians, but for a group of people who will be transformed and can begin living the life of God’s new age. Though all believers live with one foot in the old age, susceptible to death, suffering, and temptation to sin, creation waits for men and women who turn suffering and temptation into salvation and freedom. Creation waits for deadly addictions to be beaten and for people who can say “thy will be done” as easy as they breathe. Creation waits in hope for men and women who, though we don’t know how to fix the broken world, are brave enough to trust in God’s closeness and goodness. Creation waits for men and women who learn to live in the dissonance of their messy lives and worship God while he performs transformative surgery on their prideful hearts. This is God’s plan for Creation Care. Creation Care in God’s way is not fixing the world that we broke; rather it is submitting to the process of transformation. As we are transformed, we become co-workers with God. Up until now, modern people have shut their hearts to the true fullness of transformation. So what are the implications of this all? Maybe the United States conference of bishops was right: we need a change of heart. The revelation of God’s children can happen today. We can become the type of people that creation longs for, rather than a people at whom creation rolls its eyes. Just think: if creation was groaning 2000 years ago, what about today? We don’t need special ears today to hear the powerful expressions of creation’s waiting pains, but we do need a type of ear that can guide us into the new creation type of living. We need a type of ear that can begin hearing the voice of nature that Paul talks about so clearly. Romans 8:18-30 cannot by itself provide a roadmap for Green Theology. But Paul has given us a titanic clue. Do we want to care for Creation? We have to think of it in terms of the robust transformation of believers. We don’t need to bring hope to creation. God has already put hope within it. Rather we need to be men and women who can fulfill creation’s hope on earth. But, this is just half the plan, and the second element may be a surprise for many…   Resource Bundle: Bauckham, Richard. Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2010. Byrne, Brendon. “An Ecological Reading of Romans 8.19-22: Possibilities and Hesitations.” Chapter 6 in ed. David Horrell, et al. Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical Historical and Theological Perspectives. London, New York: T&T Clark, 2010. Horrell, David G. “Paul and the Redemption of the Cosmos.” Chapter 7 in The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology. Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World. London: Equinox, 2010. Tonstad, Sigve. “Creation Groaning in Labor Pains.” Chapter 15 in ed. Norman Habel and Peter Trudinger, Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008. Wright, NT. New Heavens and New Earth: A Biblical Picture of Christian Hope. Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 1999.

Keith Jagger first met the Sleeths when they were neighbors in Wilmore, Kentucky, and were brought together by their shared passion for creation care. After completing his studies at Asbury Seminary, Keith moved to Scotland to study with N.T. Wright. As Blessed Earth’s “Anglo Correspondent.” Keith writes both from the perspective a PhD student studying creation care and a husband/father/follower of Jesus struggling to incorporate creation care principles in his daily life. You can read more of his writing at or

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