Romans 8:35-39

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The concluding paragraph of chapter 8, as we shall see, is a summary of the argument to this point and a final declaration of the certainty of the salvation of those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose (v. 28).

Text Comment

v.35     One more rhetorical question; we had three of them in vv. 31-34. The rhetorical question has been one of Paul’s favorite literary techniques in this letter. Shall we sin that grace may abound? Is the law sin? And so on. And, as with all rhetorical questions, the point is to throw emphasis on the unstated but obvious answer.

It is an interesting observation, made long ago by the great early Christian preacher Chrysostom, that it is a matter of indifference to Paul whether to say “the love of Christ” as here in v. 35, or “the love of God” as in v. 39 or earlier in 5:5. It is an important indicator of how completely Paul identifies Jesus with God.

v.36     The main effect of the citation of Psalm 44:22 is to remind Paul’s readers that the trials and afflictions that believers face are nothing new. It has always been the lot of God’s people to face troubles in life. The Jewish rabbis appealed to the same text for the same reason. Paul probably learned to think of this verse as an illustration of the inevitability of the suffering of the righteous during his days as a Jewish rabbi. [Str.-B, iii, 258-260]

v.37     The NIV and ESV begin v. 37 with “No!” as if Paul were answering his rhetorical question, which, of course, one is not supposed to do. Actually Paul’s triumphant declaration in vv. 37-39 begins with a strong adversative: “But…” “But in all these things we are [literally] “super-conquerors.” [Bruce, 181] And, of course, Paul hurries on to explain that our triumph is due not to any courage or strength on our part; it is not due to our hold on God, but to his on us. We triumph in the power and the faithfulness of God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. As Paul has made a point of saying throughout this great chapter, all three persons of the Godhead are at work to secure our safe arrival in heaven.

v.38     The powers that threaten us are now listed in pairs and we should probably not try to divine precisely why each was mentioned. Paul is after a complete resume of everything in human life that might be thought to have power to separate us from God. Neither death nor life can, because, as Paul writes to the Philippians, for a Christian to live is Christ and to die is gain and as he will say later in Romans (14:8) “if we live, we live to the Lord and if we die we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Next, there is no spiritual cosmic power, either benevolent or malevolent, that can separate us from God and his love. [Cranfield, i, 442] Good angels do God’s bidding and are the servants of our salvation; bad angels have been subdued by Christ. Powers is likely another term for supernatural beings, as it is elsewhere in the New Testament.

v.39     “Height and depth” are probably an echo of Psalm 139:8 where again the idea is the impossibility of finding a place where God’s reach does not extend. “If I ascend up to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” With things present and things to come in the previous verse we have in effect “nothing in the expanses of space or in the course of time” can separate us from the love of God. [Bruce, 181]

As one commentator finely says, “the love of Christ is not truly known until it is recognized as being the love of the eternal God himself, and it is only in Jesus Christ that the love of God is fully manifest as what it really is.” [Cranfield, i, 444]

The final few verses of Romans chapter 8 reprise, in a magnificent peroration, the two great themes of the second half of the chapter. The first of those themes is the inevitability of suffering. Christians will and must suffer and it is that reality that requires the assurance of their security through it all, the second of these great themes. Christians must suffer because they live in a cursed world, as we read in vv. 20 through 23 and because, as we read here in v. 36, of their identification with Jesus Christ. “For your sake we face death all day long,” that is, for God’s sake and for Christ’s sake. As Jesus himself once put it, “As they hated me, so they will hate you,” speaking not only of the inhabitants of this world but of the evil spiritual beings whose bidding they do however unknowingly. It was the reality of this suffering that led to Paul’s assurance that Christians were secure in their salvation, the section that begins in v. 28. The “all things” that work for good, are of course in context primarily the hard things, the sorrowful things, the painful things. Christians must suffer, but they remain safe and secure in the salvation of God and the sure hope of eternal life.

My professor and thesis supervisor at the University of Aberdeen was a world-class New Testament scholar and a fine Christian man. Every Sunday afternoon he taught in a Sunday School for children in the poorer parts of the town. His scholarship was loyal to the Bible in a university world in which such loyalty could cost a man his reputation, even his livelihood, though thankfully it did not in his case. But he was an Arminian in his theology, being Methodist in his background. His own doctoral thesis, later published under the title Kept By the Power of God was a study of the texts of the New Testament bearing on whether a believer might lose his salvation. In regard to Romans 8 he would say, he did say, that nothing can separate us from God’s love except our own will. God will not let us go, but we might let go of God!

I have a great respect for the man and his scholarship, but frankly to conclude that Paul here meant that though nothing else could undo our salvation, we could undo it ourselves I think is genuinely preposterous. For any thoughtful Christian that assurance would be no assurance at all.

Augustus Toplady tartly made that very point in a famous verse.

If ever it should come to pass
That sheep of Christ might fall away,
My fickle, feeble soul, alas!
Would fall a thousand times a day.

Whatever danger might be posed to my salvation by demonic powers or by the temptation arising from the trials of my life in this world, they pale in comparison with the danger posed by my own love of sin, my weak will, and breathtaking capacity to take the most serious and precious things of life for granted.

Paul’s entire point in the latter part of the chapter – from verse 28 – has been to ring the changes on the absolute certainly of our salvation. He is determined absolutely to exclude any possibility of its failure. He did this in vv. 29 and 30 by pointing out that our salvation rests upon the immutable and eternal counsel and purpose of Almighty God. So certain is its eventual consummation that that consummation can be put in the past tense, as if it had already happened.. “Whom he called, he justified, and whom he justified, he glorified.” It is as if he said, whom he justified he has already sent to heaven. Which manner of speaking is, as you know, precisely what we find in Ephesians 2, when Paul writes that those who are in Christ have already sat down in the heavenly places with the Lord Jesus who sat down at the Right Hand for them. If you are already in heaven, you are and you must be safe and secure! Can an enemy find you there and pull you down? Will you want to leave?

What is more, Paul goes on to say, our salvation rests upon the redemption purchased for us by the Son of God. Who may bring a charge against us if it is God who has justified us? Who could condemn us if Christ Jesus, who died for us and rose from the dead for our salvation, is now at the Right Hand interceding for us? What man, what demon can undo the accomplishment of the Son of God? In all of this, the role we play in our salvation – our faith, our obedience, our loyalty – recedes into the background. In the final analysis it means little or nothing. God has determined to save his people and in Jesus Christ his Son he has saved them. And in saving them he has determined that they be conformed to Jesus Christ, which is to say, they will believe and continue to do so; they will obey and continue to do so; they will be loyal to God and will remain so. God has made them willing in the day of his power.

The final apostrophe of Paul’s argument, vv. 35 to the end, only confirms this viewpoint. After all, we are subject to death, we must live in this life subject to the temptations of the Evil One, but nothing in all creation – obviously including ourselves – can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

To be sure, not everyone is included in this magnificent and climactic statement. You will notice Paul’ particularism all through this final section. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” He is, of course, talking about the same people he identified at the beginning of the section as those who love God, who have been predestined, called, justified, and glorified. He is speaking of God’s elect: those for whom Christ gave his life and for whom he now intercedes with God the Father. Of these people he says, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. And, finally, nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And in the next chapter he will make unmistakably clear that the elect of God includes not everyone but those and only those whom God has loved forever, upon whom he has set his heart of mercy, and for whom he has predestined that they share in his glory.

Very clearly, in vv. 35, 37, and 39, as before in chapter 5, the love of God that Paul is speaking of is not our love for God but God’s love for us. It is upon that immutable, eternal, omnipotent love that our security is found. We might change, absolutely we might. But he will not and his love will never fail. That is Paul’s argument and given his premises, which are, after all, the commonplaces of Holy Scripture, it is an argument that places the matter beyond doubt.

But believers have known this for themselves throughout the ages. It is not only a conclusion of biblical theology; it is a fact of Christian experience. The suffering is, of course, a fact of our experience. There are many things during our lives that cause us pain – many things – and death remains a sad and difficult experience for most Christians, not least for the separation from their loved ones that it entails. We Christians in the West are not as attuned to the great amount of trouble we suffer because of the demonic realm – Christians in other parts of the world are much more sensitive to this – but no doubt, as the Bible plainly teaches, we suffer because of the ill-will and the malevolence of the fallen angels and of the Devil their chief. Some Christians’ lives are made heavy and hard by the things of the present; others struggle with fears about the future. But, the fact is, we all know the reality of suffering and will continue to experience the trials of life until our lives are done.

But as much as suffering is a fact of Christian experience, so is our security in the love of God, the redemption of Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That too we know not only from the Bible but from the observation of believing life.

When we were making plans for our trip to the Holy Land earlier in the year, my mother encouraged us to stay at the American Colony. She and my father had stayed there before; it was a Christian hostel and inexpensive and close to everything a tourist would want to see on his or her first trip to Jerusalem. So we went to the website of the American Colony Hotel. Between my mother’s visit and the present it had undergone a change of management and a complete facelift. It was now an exclusive and very expensive hotel. A double room would have cost us $480 per night. We found something for less!

But, in investigating the American Colony Hotel we discovered something of its history. This has happened to us before. Years ago we found ourselves staying in a hotel on one of the canals in downtown Amsterdam, only to discover that it used to be the home of Abraham Kuyper. In this case we discovered that the origin of the American Colony Hotel lies in the tragedy that befell the life of Horatio Spafford, a prosperous Chicago attorney and devout Presbyterian elder, known to most Christians only as the author of the much loved hymn “It is Well with My Soul,” a hymn we will sing at the conclusion of this service.

Spafford met his wife Anna Larssen, an émigré from Stavanger, Norway, when she attended his Sunday School class at a Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He was immediately smitten, but he was 14 years older than she and she was but 15 years of age. They married three years later in 1861. In rapid succession they had four girls. And then the troubles began.

Spafford had large holdings in Chicago real estate, most of which were destroyed in the great fire of 1871. Two years later, with his fortune in recovery, plans were laid for an extended vacation in Europe, part of the reason being an effort to recover his wife’s health. At the last minute a pressing business matter came up and Spafford sent his wife and daughters ahead according to plan on the ship S.S. Ville Du Havre. That is “The City of La Havre.” La Havre, as you may know, is a city located on the French coast of the English Channel. You will notice later when you turn up “It is Well With My Soul” that the musical setting, written by Philip Bliss, is entitled “Ville Du Havre.”

While crossing the Atlantic in November of 1873 Ville Du Havre was struck by an English ship, the Lochearn, and sank with the loss of 226 souls. Mrs. Spafford, Anna, was taken unconscious from the water, by the crew of the Lochearn but the four girls – Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta, all drowned. The survivors were taken to England on the Lochearn. Upon reaching England nine days later, Anna sent the terrible news to her husband in a telegram, dated December 1, 1873, that began with the words, “Saved alone. What shall I do…” Spafford immediately left Chicago and boarded a ship for England to bring his wife home. According to his daughter, Bertha, born five years later, the hymn itself was written in the mid-Atlantic. Whether it is true, as often reported, that during the passage the captain of the ship summoned Spafford to tell him that they were now passing over the spot where his girls had died and it was then and there that Spafford penned the lines of his hymn, I cannot say. He did write to his wife’s sister, saying,

“On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”

Parents can scarcely imagine a greater blow than the sudden loss of four dear children and perhaps Christian parents will feel that loss in even greater ways. But the trials of this dear family were not finished. A son, Horatio, was born in 1876. But four years later he contracted scarlet fever and died.

Unable to continue on in Chicago after this last blow, the Spaffords together with some friends from their church left the United States for the holy city of Jerusalem. There they set up a small Christian community whose purpose it was to find peace for themselves and to offer help to those in need. They never intended to be missionaries in the strict sense. Their intention was to live simply, as the early Christians did, and to love their neighbors. And this they did so beautifully and so generously that they made friends among the various communities living there, already deeply divided by race and religion. People referred to them simply as “the Americans.” They would eventually be joined by some Christians from Sweden and would buy a large estate originally built for a local pasha and his four wives. That estate and its inhabitants then came to be known locally as the American Colony.

Horatio Spafford himself died and was buried in Jerusalem in 1888, four days before his 60th birthday. The ministry continues today providing charitable services for the needy and the hotel is still owned by descendants of the Spafford family. Just to complete the story, Philip Bliss, the composer of the music to “It is Well with My Soul,” died tragically when Bliss was just 38 years of age when a trestle collapsed and the train upon which he and his wife were returning from spending Christmas with their family fell into a ravine and caught fire. Bliss had escaped the flames but his wife was trapped and when he returned to rescue her both were burned to death. They were survived by two young children.

Is this not life in this sin cursed world? Is this not the suffering that Paul said would be the lot of not only every human being, but every child of God? And, of course, there is so much more: Pain and heartbreak that all of you know either as your own experience or that of others.

But is this not also the secure and imperishable faith of God’s people, kept by his power, secure in his immutable and sovereign love and power? Is the fact that such tragedy is borne in faith and does not lead to despair, is this fact not also perfectly obvious to anyone with eyes to see? The Spaffords suffered incalculable losses, but their faith did not waver, nor their determination to make something of their lives in the service of the Lord. And so they did. Not only with a hymn that has been of immeasurable comfort to multitudes of believers around the world in the midst of their own trials – it was a hymn we sang around my sister’s hospitable bed in St. Louis the last time I saw her alive and while we sang it, the hospital maid who was remaking the other bed in the room sang it with us on the other side of the curtain – but still more to countless people in Palestine who received the help and love of these Christian folk who served them in Jesus’ name: Bedouins, other Arabs, Jews, and Christians. When Christians retain their faith in the midst of trial, when they give glory to God who has given and taken away, when they continue to do the work of God when their earthly hopes have been blasted, they not only prove once more the truth of Romans 8:28-39 but they offer a most powerful witness to the fact that God himself is in the world saving sinners, that he loves his people, and that he will never let them go.

Let the world, the demonic realm, let our own flesh do their worst, they cannot remove us from the mighty hand of the God who has loved us and given himself for us. That is Paul’s great conclusion and it is a certainty, a conviction, an assurance in which you and I, in which we who love God and who are the followers of Jesus Christ are to live every day of our lives. Every single day up to and including the last day of them all!