“More than Preserved”
Eric B. Watkins
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Romans 8:18
God does far more than just preserve his church through hard times. It would be something of an understatement to say that life has not always been easy for Christians. When Paul wrote to the Romans, they were undergoing a remarkable trial, and this fledgling church seemed to be on the brink of destruction almost as soon as it was formed. Situated in the pagan country’s capital, a wave of persecution began to roll through the newly formed church, mixed race church. Whether Jew or gentile, their association with the name of Jesus was perceived as an attack on the identity and well-being of Rome, and Christians living there during that time quickly learned what it means to be bear Christ’s cross—even unto death.
It was for this reason that the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit gave us the sweet gift of Romans 8. This chapter particularly encourages the people of God to find themselves participating in the drama of redemptive history, in which even creation itself longs and groans for its eschatological renewal. The sufferings that the people of God were experiencing then were unworthy to be compared with the glory that awaited them in heaven. But the trials that they were enduring also had a refining, conforming effect. God was conforming his people to the image of Christ—through their suffering (Romans 8:29). Their grip on the passing things of this world were slowly loosening as they found their comfort and consolation in the only thing that could truly last: the hope of heaven.
God was also using these hard times to cultivate good fruit in his people. The newly formed, ethnically mixed church in Rome would love to love and lay down their lives for one another. Their identity would rise above the earthly things that were fading. They would even learn that their true family was the church, and remarkably churches from the outlying regions would come to the aid of the Roman church. The spread of the gospel and the growth of church could not be stymied by waves of persecution. God was an unmovable rock for his people, and not even death could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39). The church was not simply being preserved, but also refined and used by God.
Whether through plagues or persecution, the people of God have learned to entrust themselves as to a faithful Creator, who always does what is good and right, and who is always worthy of glory. But again, God does far more than just preserve us through hard times; he is pleased to refine us and even to use us in ways that make us a blessing to others. Two brief cameos from church history serve to illustrate this point well.
In 1521 Martin Luther was under tremendous pressure from the Roman Catholic Church for his Reformation teachings on the gospel. So great were the threats upon his life, Friedrich the Wise, Elector (civil ruler) at that time had Luther hidden away in a tower in Wartburg for an extended period of time. This “tower experience” was for Martin Luther’s protection. It was a struggle for Luther to be hidden away in seclusion like this. Isolation is never an easy thing, especially when it is imposed upon you by others. Luther complied with the plan, albeit reluctantly, as in his heart he felt he needed to be near the action and did not want to waste what little time he had upon this earth. But God never wastes time and Martin Luther used this time wisely. He spent eleven weeks translating the Greek New Testament into German and was able to put the Bible into the ears of God’s people in their own language. He also grew his hair and beard out during this time! Even the threat of persecution was turned to good, in God’s providence, and God used this season to do far more than simply preserve Luther.
Not too long afterwards, as the plague was ravaging Europe, many churches and pastors found themselves in situations much like our own (only theirs was far worse). The plague made the Coronavirus look like the common cold. Lacking the modern advances of medicine and communication as we have it, the people of God were faced with similar questions of whether or not to meet for worship, socialize, etc. John Calvin, ministering in Geneva at this time was confronted with a dilemma: should he visit those who were sick with the plague? Bear in mind that during this time, long before modern hospitals, churches were often used as triage stations for the sick. Calvin was given something of an out: members of his city council thought he should abstain from visiting those who had the plague, lest he catch it himself and his gifts and ministry come to a swift, bitter end. Calvin decided, albeit reluctantly however, to visit these who were afflicted by the plague for he believed that being called by Christ as an under-shepherd required him to visit even the least of Christ’s sheep. In God’s kindness, Calvin did not contract the plague and his ministry continued on. He was not only preserved, he was mightily used.
In each of these stories, we see God’s upholding and sustaining providence, as well as his plan to refine his servants through these hard times that they might become even more fruitful. From our perspective, all that we so often see is the hard struggle. We see persecution. We see plagues. We feel the isolation and the concern for self-preservation. This is why it is so important that we maintain an eternal perspective on earthly things. God will preserve his church. Neither plague nor persecution can destroy it. But God has always been interested in far more than simply preserving his church. The trials we experience in this life have a way of reefing our faith and our focus. The conform us to the image of Christ, make us more heavenly minded, and compel us to be even more earthly good.