“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” – Romans 5:3-4
In verse 1 of this chapter, Paul has made a statement of confident assurance, grounding the believer’s hope of salvation on faith in Christ alone. He has expanded on this confident expectation in verse 2, describing it as “hope of the glory of God”. So far, this certainty has had no reference at all to the results of faith in the believer’s life. Assurance has happened prior to any kind of fruit inspection.
But now Paul goes a step further, and provides another source of hope. It is an ironic one, since it starts with the kind of circumstance that would tend to crush the normal human kind of hope. The line that he draws to hope begins with suffering. This suffering, in God’s economy, produces good things for the believer. In particular, it produces endurance. This is not simply because the believer has become a better person, but because the believer has seen more of God’s trustworthy love. What has grown is not the believer himself, but the believer’s faith, which looks away from the believer’s capacities to the all-sufficient resources found in God.
As suffering produces endurance, so endurance produces character. These two kinds of producing happen in much the same way. The believer who looks to God over and over again in the midst of trials gets to see God in transforming ways. As this happens, the character of Christ is manifest with increasing clarity through the believer. And as the believer becomes more like Christ, he gains a fuller experience of the hope that began in verse 1. This is very similar to the connection that Peter describes between sanctification and assurance (2 Pet. 1:3-11).
In Paul’s description as well as Peter’s, this kind of assurance is secondary. It must be, because without a clear sense that I am accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, no amount of Christian growth will be able to convince me that I am justified. There are simply too many problems mixed in with my growth at every point. For every evidence of growth, I can come up with evidence of remaining sin. An evaluation of my motives makes things even messier. There is no good thing that I can do that will guarantee, by its nature, that I will do it for the right reason. I can run myself in circles, and eventually into the ground, if I try to start with assurance based on my growth.
On the other hand, if I can stand firmly on the fact that I have peace with God because I am justified by simple faith, then I can have a brand new way of looking at my halting, imperfect growth. Suddenly, the good things I do become evidence that the righteousness of Christ is actually at work in me, since I know I could never produce those things on my own. The remaining sin is what I contribute on my own, but the fact remains that I am not on my own. God justifies the ungodly, and my knowledge of my remaining sin reminds me that I am exactly the kind of person that God justifies, through faith in Christ alone.