Victory over Fear

mark-dunn
| Romans 8:31-39 | March 26, 2017

Week of April 2, 2017

The Point:  Believers have no reason to fear separation from God and His Love.

God’s Everlasting Love:  Romans 8:31-39.

[31] What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? [32] He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? [33] Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. [34] Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. [35] Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? [36] As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” [37] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. [38] For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, [39] nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.   [ESV]

“Five unanswerable questions [31-39].  Paul introduces the last nine verses of this chapter with a concluding formula, which he has already used three times [6:1,15; 7:7]: What then shall we say to these things? That is, in the light of his five convictions [28] and five affirmations [29-30], what is there left to say? The apostle’s answer to his own question is to ask five more questions, to which there is no answer. He hurls them into space, as it were, in a spirit of bold defiance. He challenges anybody and everybody, in heaven, earth or hell, to answer them and to deny the truth which they contain. But there is no answer. For no one and nothing can harm the people whom God has foreknown, predestined, called, justified and glorified. If we are to understand the significance of these questions, it is essential to grasp why each remains unanswered. It is because of a truth which in each case is either contained in the question, or is attached to it by an ‘if’ clause. It is this truth, whether explicit or implicit, which renders the question unanswerable. The clearest example is the first.

Question 1: If God is for us, who can be against us? [31b].  If Paul had simply asked, ‘Who is against us?’ there would immediately have been a barrage of replies. For we have formidable foes arrayed against us. What about the catalogue of hardships which he lists in verse 35; are they not against us? The unbelieving, persecuting world is opposed to us. Indwelling sin is a powerful adversary. Death is still an enemy, defeated but not yet destroyed. So is he who has the power of death, that is, the devil [Heb. 2:14], together with all the principalities and powers of darkness which are mentioned in verse 38. Indeed, the world, the flesh and the devil are together marshalled against us, and are much too strong for us. But Paul does not ask this naïve question. The essence of his question is contained in the ‘if’ clause: If (rather ‘since’) God is for us, who can be against us? Paul is not saying that the claim God is for us can be made by everybody. In fact, perhaps the most terrible words which human ears could ever hear are those which God uttered many times in the Old Testament: ‘”I am against you,” declares the Lord.’ They occur most frequently in the prophetic oracles against the nations. More terrible still, they were sometimes spoken against Israel herself in her disobedience and idolatry, and specially against her false shepherds and false prophets. But this is not the case in Romans 8:31. On the contrary, the situation Paul envisages is one in which God is for us, since He has foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified us. This being so, who can be against us? To that question there is no answer. All the powers of hell may set themselves together against us. But they can never prevail, since God is on our side.

Question 2: He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? [32].  Again, suppose the apostle had asked the simple question: ‘Will God not graciously give us all things?’ In response, we might well have demurred and given an equivocal answer. For we need many things, some of which are difficult and demanding. How then can we possibly be sure that God will supply all our needs? But the way Paul phrases his question banishes these doubts. For he points us to the cross. The God concerning whom we are asking our question whether or not He will give us all things is the God who has already given us His Son. On the one hand, and negatively, He did not spare his own Son, a statement which surely echoes God’s word to Abraham: you … have not withheld your son, your only son [Gen. 22:16]. On the other hand, and positively, God gave him up for us all. The same verb is used in the gospels of Judas, the priests and Pilate who delivered Jesus over to death. Yet Octavius Winslow was correct to write: ‘Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews, for envy; – but the Father, for love!’ Here in 8:32, as earlier in 5:8-10, Paul argues from the greater to the lesser, namely that since God has already given us the supreme and costliest gift of His own Son, how can He fail to lavish every other gift upon us? In giving His Son He gave everything. The cross is the guarantee of the continuing, unfailing generosity of God.

Question 3: Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies [33].  This question and the next (asking who will accuse us and who will condemn us) bring us in imagination into a court of law. Paul’s argument is that no prosecution can succeed, since God our judge has already justified us; and that we can never be condemned, since Jesus Christ our advocate has died for our sins, was raised from the dead, and is seated at God’s right hand, and is interceding for us. So who will accuse us? Once again, if this question stood on its own, many voices would be raised in accusation. Our conscience accuses us. The devil never ceases to press charges against us, for his title means slanderer, and he is called the accuser of our brothers [Rev. 12:10]. In addition, we doubtless have human enemies who delight to point an accusing finger at us. But none of their allegations can be sustained. Why not? Because God has chosen us and because God has justified us. Therefore all accusations fall to the ground. They glance off us like arrows off a shield.

Question 4:  Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us [34].  In answer to the opening question as to who will condemn us, there are without doubt many who are wanting to. Sometimes our own heart condemns us [1 John 3:20-22]. It certainly tries to. And so do our critics, our detractors, our enemies, yes, and all the demons of hell. But their condemnations will all fail? Why? Because of Christ Jesus, who rescues us from condemnation, in particular by His death, resurrection, exaltation and intercession. First, Christ Jesus … died – died for the very sins for which otherwise we would deservedly be condemned. But instead God condemned our sin in the humanity of Jesus [8:3], and so Christ has redeemed us from the curse or condemnation of the law by becoming a curse for us [Gal. 3:13]. There is more than that, however, in the saving work of Christ. For secondly, after death He was raised to life. It is not just that He rose, although this is affirmed in the New Testament, but that He was raised by the Father, who thus demonstrated His acceptance of the sacrifice of His Son as the only satisfactory basis for our justification [4:25]. And now, thirdly, the crucified and resurrected Christ is at the right hand of God, resting from His finished work, occupying the place of supreme honor [Phil. 2:9-11], exercising His authority to save, and waiting for His final triumph. Fourthly, He also is interceding for us, for He is our heavenly advocate and high priest. His very presence at the Father’s right hand is evidence of His completed work of atonement, and His intercession means that He continues to secure for His people the benefits of His death. With this Christ as our Savior, we know that there is now no condemnation [8:1] for those who are united to Him. We can therefore confidently challenge the universe, with all its inhabitants human and demonic: Who is to condemn? There will never be any answer.

Question 5: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? [35a].  This fifth question is the top step of a staircase that Paul has us climbing. As we stand on it, Paul himself now does what we have been trying to do with his other questions. He first asks who will separate us from Christ’s love and then looks round for an answer. He brings forward a sample list of adversities and adversaries that might be thought of as coming between us and Christ’s love. He mentions seven possibilities [35b]. He begins with tribulation, or distress, or persecution, which together seem to denote the pressures and distresses caused by an ungodly and hostile world. He goes on to famine or nakedness, the lack of adequate food and clothing. Since in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus promised these to the heavenly Father’s children [Matt. 6:25-33], would not their absence suggest that after all He does not care? Paul concludes his list with danger or sword, meaning perhaps the risk of death on the one hand and the experience of it on the other. A willingness for martyrdom is certainly the final test of Christian faith and faithfulness. In order to enforce this, the apostle quotes from a psalm, which depicts the persecution of Israel by the nations. They were not suffering because they had forgotten Yahweh or turned to a foreign god. Instead, they were suffering for Yahweh’s sake, because of their very loyalty to Him [36]. So what about these seven afflictions – and others too, since the list could be considerably lengthened? They are real sufferings all right – unpleasant, demeaning, painful, hard to bear and challenging to faith. And Paul knew what he was talking about, because he had himself experienced them all, and worse. Perhaps the Roman Christians were also having to endure similar trials. Indeed some of them did a few years later, when they were burned as living torches for the sadistic entertainment of the Emperor Nero. Those of us who have never had to suffer physically for Christ should perhaps read verses 35-39 alongside verses 35-39 of Hebrews 11, which list unnamed people of faith who were tortured, jeered at, flogged, chained, stoned, and even sawn in half. Faced with such heroism, there is no place for glibness or complacency. Nevertheless, can pain, misery and loss separate Christ’s people from His love? No!. On the contrary, far from alienating us from Him, in all these things (even while we are enduring them) Paul dares to claim that we are more than conquerors. For we not only bear them with fortitude but triumph over them, and so are winning a most glorious victory through him who loved us. This second reference to Christ’s love is significant, and the aorist tense shows that it alludes to the cross. Paul seems to be saying that, since Christ proved His love for us by His sufferings, so our sufferings cannot possibly separate us from it. In the context, which began with a reference to our sharing Christ’s sufferings [17], they should be seen as evidence of union with the crucified one, not a cause for doubting His love.

Conclusion.  Paul now reaches his climax. He began with we know [28]; he ends more personally with I am sure. He deliberately uses the perfect tense meaning, ‘I have become and I remain convinced’, for the conviction he expresses is rational, settled, and unalterable. He has asked questions whether anything will separate us from Christ’s love [35-36]; he now declares that nothing can and so nothing will [37-39]. He chooses ten items which some might think powerful enough to create a barrier between us and Christ, and he mentions them in four pairs, while leaving the remaining two on their own. Neither death nor life presumably alludes to the crisis of death and the calamities of life. Neither angels nor rulers is more debatable. Rulers translates the verb which elsewhere are certainly evil principalities [e.g. Eph. 6:12; Col. 2:15]. One would therefore expect the contrasting angels to be good, but how can unfallen angels threaten God’s people? Perhaps, then, this couplet is more indefinite and is simply meant to include all cosmic, superhuman agencies, whether good or bad. Since Christ has triumphed over them all, and they are now in submission to Him [1 Peter 3:22], it is certain that they cannot harm us. The next two pairs refer in modern language to ‘time’ (nor things present nor things to come) and ‘space’ (nor height nor depth), while in between them, on their own, come unspecified powers, perhaps ‘the forces of the universe’. Some of these words, however, were technical terms for the astrological powers by which (as many in the Hellenistic world believed) the destiny of mankind was controlled. Alternatively, Paul’s language may have been more rhetorical than technical, as he affirms like Psalm 139:8 that neither heaven nor earth nor hell can separate us from Christ’s love. He concludes with nor anything else in all creation, in order to make sure that his inventory is comprehensive, and that nothing has been left out. Everything in creation is under the control of God the Creator and of Jesus Christ the Lord. That is why nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Paul’s five questions are not arbitrary. They are all about the kind of God we believe in. Together they affirm that absolutely nothing can frustrate God’s purpose (since He is for us), or quench His generosity (since He has not spared His Son), or accuse or condemn His elect (since He has justified them through Christ), or sunder us from His love (since He has revealed it in Christ). Here then are five convictions about God’s providence [28], five affirmations about His purpose [29-30] and five questions about His love [31-39], which together bring us fifteen assurances about Him. We urgently need them today, since nothing seems stable in our world any longer. Insecurity is written across all human experience. Christian people are not guaranteed immunity to temptation, tribulation or tragedy, but we are promised victory over them. God’s pledge is not that suffering will never afflict us, but that it will never separate us from His love. This is the love of God which was supremely displayed in the cross [5:8; 8:32,37], which has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit [5:5], which has drawn out from us our responsive love [8:28], and which in its essential steadfastness will never let us go, since it is committed to bringing us safely home to glory in the end [8:35,39]. Our confidence is not in our love for Him, which is frail, fickle and faltering, but in His love for us, which is steadfast, faithful and persevering.”  [Stott, pp. 253-260].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How does this passage connect with the convictions and affirmations found in 8:28-30?
  1. List the five questions that Paul asks in these verses. Why does Stott say that these questions are unanswerable? Are they unanswerable for you?
  1. What do these verses teach us concerning God the Father and God the Son? Note that these truths concerning God is the foundation for our confidence in living the Christian life?
  1. What importance does trusting in the implications of these five questions have for your Christian life? List the problems and obstacles that cause you to despair and suffer in life. How do the truths in this passage give you confidence for victory over these problems and circumstances of any kind? Are you living a more than conquerors Christian life? Pray that God will enable you to grow stronger in your faith in God’s work in your life.

References:

The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Romans, Thomas Schreiner, BENT, Baker.

Romans, John Stott, Inter Varsity Press.