In the previous two verses Paul wrote about the idea that the saints are ‘found’ “in Christ.” Salvation is sola Christos – only in the Christ, that we are declared righteous through the righteousness of Christ. However, our salvation does not stop at justification. Regeneration is what brings a change in us that also comes about, so that Paul can add here, that his number one goal is “to know Him.” (10a) It certainly must start with a mind renewed by His word (Rom. 12:1-2), but Paul also knew that he needed the power of God, the very same power that rose Christ from the grave, to be at work in him (10b).
Lest we view power in pagan or secular humanistic terms, he added that he also knew that this relationship comes with suffering, in fact, “the fellowship of His sufferings.” (10c) So what does he mean by “being conformed to His death?” (10D). This is made even more troubling by verse eleven – “if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” This seems somewhat akin to a kind of penance, and not the true repentance and faith consistent with Paul’s, and the whole of the protestant canon’s, doctrines of grace. How do these verses stand with verses like Eph. 2:8-10?
Well, for anyone familiar with Paul, when it comes to being ‘conformed’, Paul believed that it is predestined for the elect (Rom. 8:29). Also, in reference to having our minds renewed (cf. Rom. 12:2), he also warned us to not be “conformed to the world.” Everyone has a worldview which includes both belief and practice, and the biblical one is the only true, coherent, and life transforming one. As to ‘sufferings’ and “being conformed to His death,” Romans 12:1 also helps us. Our “reasonable service” is to “by the mercies of God” to present our bodies as “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God.”
So, we see that the ‘conformed’ hearkens back to the preceding context – the righteousness of Christ. Being ‘conformed’ to His sufferings, and knowing the power that was at work in His resurrection, is why our ‘living sacrifice’, can be living, and “holy, acceptable to God.” Two verses, especially the last, in this chapter, in other words, in the same immediate context, also sheds light on what Paul meant – 20-21. Just as we will have a heavenly body conformed to His, His battered and bruised body became conformed to our sinful bodies by taking our sins upon Himself on the cross.
3:21 also refers to God’s power “by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” God’s will, power, sovereignty, providence, and predestination are all absolute. If we endure suffering, it is because He enables us to persevere. If we are victorious, it is because He gives us the power. So also, if the reprobate is destined for hell for all eternity, it is because God willed it, before creation, just as He willed the fall – a mystery to some. They ask, “How could He do so without sinning? However, the same people say He only willed what He foresaw – so then why didn’t He stop it all from ever happening in the first place?
Either God is absolutely powerfully sovereign, or humans have a more powerful will than His, and we brought ourselves into being – both physically and spiritually. Both cannot be true. For those who are able and willing, this is my answer to this conundrum. We all love stories. Furthermore, any really good story, or movie, always pits good against evil. I cannot, nor do I believe that scripture tells us how the two above truths can be taught in scripture and not seem to us to be contradictory, but I do know that God is a story teller, in a good way, and this is as far as I have gone. Like Calvin, I choose to go as far as scripture takes me, but no further.