MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 28, 1999 FROM ROMANS 8:35-39
Last week, we saw in verses 33-34 that because of what God has done for us in Christ at Calvary, we will never need to be afraid of any legal condemnation at the last judgement. God has worked through Christ so comprehensively and completely that no legal loophole remains against us. He has taken the full weight of condemnation upon Himself at the cross. He has paid the entire penalty for sin—He has totally met the requirements of the law and has transferred that payment and even the perfect legal standing of his Son to our records, expunging all our crimes against Him. And just in case anyone has any questions about the sufficiency of His justifying work on our behalf, Christ sits in authority and intercedes for us before the Father. There is an insurmountable legal wall of protection for all true believers in Jesus Christ so they need never fear any charge being leveled against them. The Judge has once and for all declared His children “not guilty” and even, “righteous in his sight.” This provides enormous assurance to anyone who has even the slightest idea of the enormous weight of sin they would have to answer for apart from Christ’s satisfaction of our legal penalties.
Verses 33-34 answer the legal question for us. In verses 35-39, Paul turns to the relational element of our standing before God. To put it another way, verses 33-34 settle the question once and for all, “is there anything that can legally separate us from God?” We saw that there is nothing that could cause Him to re-write His will and leave out his true children of faith. He will never disinherit his true children. His verdict, signed and sealed with the blood of His Son, can never be changed or influenced in the slightest. All of those are legal consideration. As Paul moves to bring further assurance to us, he moves to the arena of God’s affections. We know God will never allow us to be legally condemned, but another question remains. That is, how does God regard us personally? This is a different area of consideration. We have moved out of the realm of legal categories and into the personal sphere.
We know that there is nothing which can legally condemn us, but is there anything which can cause Him to not like us—to lose His personal regard for us? His legal verdict is fixed forever, but what about his personal regard for us? For the sincere believer, this area is even more important in some ways than the legal categories. We have a profound need to know whether there is anything which can legally condemn us, but even more—is there anything that can cause God to stop loving us on a deep, personal level? Arguably, our greatest need is intimacy with God. There are so many people today in and out of the church who are trying to find that need met in all the wrong places. In fallen human relationships, in careers, in family ties, in media outlets, television, movies, videos. Yet, they remain horribly empty until they find through God’s grace what they were looking for all the time, the smile of God. His acceptance, His approval, His love.
We have a profound need to know that God is glad to be with us—that He is glad that we were born and that he delights in us as a Father delights in his children. That need cries out to be met in us. Paul knows that we need to experience this love. In Ephesians chapter three he prays for the believers at Ephesus. He prays, “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know that love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Here Paul is pleading with God that believers will be given the supernatural capacity to grasp the ungraspable and know the unknowable—the boundless love of God. That is, even though this love is so vast that no one could ever get their arms around it, he prays that we might experience it. Even though this love is so profound that no one can understand it or comprehend it, he prays that we could be filled with it experientially. Its not wrong for us to ask God to give us the ability to experience his love. This is just how Paul prays for the church. It is crucial to our spiritual health that we have regular doses of assurance of His love. No child can ever be healthy unless the question of his/her Father’s love for them is a settled matter.
Unless we have this assurance of His love for us, we will have a vacuum in our heart we will try to fill with the junk of this world. And frankly, at times we wonder whether God does love us—whether there is anything that can separate us from that love—whether there are any walls that can be erected to keep this love from us that we need so desperately. Is there anything that can drive a wedge between us and God’s love, or is the bear hug He has on his children utterly unbreakable? Paul takes up that question in verses 35-39. He says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels or demons, nor the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
After asking the question, “who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul answers by listing off several of the afflictions he himself had experienced in his service to Christ. He clicks off seven possible threats to God’s love for us. He begins with “trouble” or, more accurately, “tribulation.” One scholar has defined this word translated “tribulation” as “anything that makes life harder and threatens your faith in the goodness and power and wisdom of God.” Can a severe health problem, for instance separate us from Christ’s love? Can losing our job or having our name unfairly drug into the mud separate us from God’s love? NO. Next, Paul asks about “hardship.” The word literally means “that which puts the squeeze on us.” When we haven’t got enough money in the bank to buy our kids anything for Christmas or even pay this months bills. When our friends have taken a hike and on the way out have left their knives in our backs—those things that put us under great pressure. Can that drive a wedge between us and Christ? NO.
Third on the list is “persecution.” The meaning is self evident. Are those Christian women in the Sudan who are raped and sold into prostitution because of their faith in Christ—are they separated from the love of Christ? No, as they are forced to do unspeakably sinful acts, God’s love is just as near to them as it ever has been. After “persecution” comes “famine.” Are those believers in Ethiopia or other drought-ravaged countries kept from God’s love? Are those nursing mothers whose milk dries up and who hold their dying children in their arms, only months later to die themselves—are those women kept from Christ’s love? No. His love cannot be held at bay by famine or starvation. Next is “nakedness.” Are those believers in Kosovo who lie outside in sub freezing temperatures every night with practically nothing on—are those people who right now are looking at four months of bitter cold due to exposure—are they outside the circle of Christ’s love? No. Though there is cold all about them, they are held in the spiritual warmth of being close to the heart of God.
Does being in eminent danger keep you from God’s love? Those believers in Uzbekistan who day in and day out anxiously wait to see if the government officials will break down their door and send them to prison for being a Christian. As they wait for that day when they will be separated from their family, can the love of Christ still penetrate that environment? Yes. Finally, how about that Sudanese Pastor, the father of five who is forced to place his neck in the guillotine” for his faith? That’s what Paul means by the “sword”--actually having your life violently taken from you for your allegiance to Christ. As that Sudanese Pastor looks down at the floor waiting for the guillotine blade to quickly end his life, is the love of Christ available to Him? Or does that blade above his head have the power to separate him from Christ’s love? No. No more than that Roman soldier who separated Paul’s head from his shoulders could ever separate the apostle from the love of God.
After Paul lists all these potential afflictions which some might suppose would separate us from Christ love, he does something which at first might seem curious. He seems to break the flow of his argument when he comes to verse 36. If you notice, if you were to take verse 36 out and read from verse 35 right into verse 37 and it would flow more naturally. Verse 36 completely breaks the flow. Why would Paul do that? The point Paul makes is crucial to help us understand this text properly. In verse 36 Paul quotes Psalm 44:22 where the Psalmist writes of the cost the righteous pay for following God. Paul is making a case that the Christian can never be cut off from the love of Christ in the midst of affliction. But there is one thing that, without fail, will make it seem as if Christ’s love is cut off from us and that is having a distorted belief system which doesn’t include suffering as a necessary part of being a Christian.
If having a God who loves you means to you that a big part of His job is to keep you from suffering or, if you in some way equate God’s love for you with having an comparatively easy time of it, it won’t be long until you start posing angry questions about God’s love for you. When the first big trial comes along to a person who has believed the lie that God’s love is for the purpose of insulating them from suffering, they will be forced to assume in their hearts that God doesn’t love them. Now, we are all well aware in our minds that suffering does not mean that we have been cut off from God’s love. But if you are in the midst of a deep trial, you will, like Job, almost certainly at some point wonder where God is and how He could love you and still allow this happen to you. In reality, God’s love will soon be holding you firmly, but because there is a lie in your belief system, you will be tempted, strongly tempted to believe that God cannot possibly love you.
Because Paul is trying to convince us of the invincibility of God’s love for his children here, it is logical, even mandatory that he disarm this lie which holds that God’s love is equated with ease and a lack of affliction. If we in any measure believe that lie, we will eventually question God’s love for us. So he states the truth about following Christ when he says, “For your [that is, GOD’S] sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” Paul here says in graphic terms that to be a Christian is to be in a state of continuous martyrdom. For those who follow Christ, the possibility of dying for Him is not theoretical. It is real. Proof of that is no further away than the Columbine massacre or the reports of countless martyrs all over the world.
In Acts 14:22, Paul preached to the disciples of Christ, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” That word “hardships” is the same one found in verse 36. So here in Acts as well as Romans, Paul is on record as saying that the Christian life is filled with hard things which can threaten our faith in God. If we can’t, with great ease, reconcile God’s unfailing love with the presence of sometimes horrible affliction in our lives, then everything else Paul writes here about the invincibility of God’s love will be irrelevant. That’s why he intentionally breaks the flow of his argument to make this crucial point.
After he has clarified that, Paul makes one of the more gloriously encouraging statements in the New Testament. Reflecting on the seven possible threats he has just mentioned, he says in verse 37, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Notice two truths here. First, we are “more than conquerors” in the midst of these afflictions. What does Paul mean by that? To conquer in this context means that we would not be separated from Christ’s love, but to “MORE than conquer” what does that mean? It means simply this, that instead of separating us from the love of God, Christ uses these afflictions in the life of the true believer to bring him/her into a deeper awareness of God’s love for them. These afflictions don’t separate us from God’s love. Just the opposite. They actually intensify our awareness of God’s love.
For the true believer, because of the work of Christ for us, these fiery darts turn into surgical lasers which burn off our rebellion. These blunt instruments become the sharp chisels in God’s hand to make us more and more into the image of Christ. These swords of death have been hammered by God’s love into plowshares to harvest in us a crop of righteousness. These switch blades of painful circumstance have been, by the love of God, transformed into the scalpels God uses to carve away all of us that doesn’t look like Christ. This blast furnace of destruction has been, by the love of Christ turned into a refining fire that melts away the dross and distills the pure metal of love and devotion for Christ. These potentially destructive weapons, for the true Christian, have become instruments of God’s redemptive process which, rather than distance us from Christ’s love, instead put it under a microscope for us to see more clearly. The more serious the trial, the more profound the work of Christ in us. The deeper the incision, the more of the cancer of rebellion can be taken out of us. And the more Christ-like we are, the more we will stand in awe of God’s unspeakable, invincible love for us.
In verses 38-39 Paul brings this section to a close with a powerful testimony of the invincibility of God’s love. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.” In verse 36, Paul lists seven possible afflictions which unsuccessfully attempt to separate us from God’s love. In this text, Paul is thinking on a bigger scale. He is painting with a bigger brush. He does not list possible afflictions or occurrences. His language is more comprehensive in scope. He speaks in the language of realms. There is nothing in any of the five realms of existence he lists here that can separate us from the love of God.
First, the realm of life or death—nothing in between the covers of this earthly book from beginning to end can separate us from the love of God. Second, there is nothing in the heavenly realm—not angels, (presumably evil angels) or principalities—larger evil angels or what Paul later calls “powers”—another reference to the spirit or demonic realm. There is no evil power, from Satan on down that can break God’s bear hug on us. Third, there is nothing in the realm or dimension of time—“neither the present or the future” that can drive a wedge between us and God’s love. There is nothing in the realm or dimension of space—neither height, nor depth that can pull us out of the orbit of God’s love. And finally, Paul adds something of a catch-all to cover anything he could have possibly missed—“nor anything else in all creation.” There is nothing in the realm of all creation that can pull us out of God’s arms. That realm includes everything in existence. This final list is Paul’s way of shutting the mouth of anyone who would try to think of anything that might separate us from God’s invincible love.
Yet, even with all that, there are people who would look at this text and say, “You’ll notice there is one thing missing from this text. It doesn’t say that our own sin can’t separate us from God’s love.” Their point is to say that even though there is nothing by way of affliction or realm that can separate us from God’s love, there is one thing that can push God away, our own rebellious hearts. Let’s be honest, THIS is where the rubber meets the road for most of us. Most of us in this room will never be called upon to stretch their neck across a chopping block or starve or lay exposed in sub freezing temperatures. Those things will probably not be part of our experience.
But this sin issue is a different one. We all sin every day. We all have turned our backs on God. We resonate with the hymnist who says our hearts are prone to wander, Lord I feel it. If our sin can separate us from God, then the rest of this text, however glorious it may be doesn’t scratch our backs all that much on a day to day basis. But what about it? Does the fact that Paul does not explicitly mention it mean that our own sin against God will cause us to spring from God’s arms of love? Let me give three reasons why that cannot be true. First, this text is all inclusive and that means our sin is included.
The one thing we can say about this text is that Paul takes pains to close every possible escape hatch through which God would leave us and take His love with Him. He’s made it clear that there is nothing in this time/space dimension where we spend every moment of this life that can separate us from God. Because our behaviors and yes, our sinful behaviors and attitudes are all exercised within this time/space dimension, then he has already covered that base. Our sin cannot separate us from God’s love.
Second, perhaps the reason why he doesn’t mention it explicitly is because he has already clearly made the point that our sin can’t separate us from God’s love in verses 29-30. If God is completely sovereign in our salvation process from eternity past when he set his affection on us till eternity future when we will be glorified in His presence. And if every single person who he sets his affection on will see their way, by his grace to completion to be glorified, that means that no sin can separate us from God because all those people sin in this life and some sin horribly. If our sin can separate us from God’s love, then some of those people who God set His affection on, would never make it to be glorified. But that option is not open to us. Paul makes it clear that this cannot happen. All will be saved who he begins with.
Finally, we must understand that those who have been brought into covenant with God have been adopted into God’s family. God’s love for us is a familial love—a fatherly love. Now, it is a fact that a human father can watch his son commit unspeakable crimes against humanity and, at his son’s execution stand outside the execution room crying like a baby with love induced grief. That happens. How do you suppose that fallen, weak, frail human father’s love compares to the invincible love of God? The one time Jesus made a comparison between our human, parental love and the Father’s perfect love, it wasn’t even close. “HOW MUCH MORE will your Father in heaven…” If the Father’s love for us was made possible by the death of Christ, then doesn’t it follow that anything which would negate that love would have to have more destructive power than the cross was able to absorb? Does any such destructive power exist? Absolutely not!
Does this mean, to use Paul’s words in chapter six, that we can “continue sinning that grace may abound?” Not at all for the reasons we discussed there. Anyone who would use God’s invincible love as a license to sin doesn’t have the foggiest idea what it is like to be loved by the Lord of the universe. What Paul is saying here is that there is nothing, not even our sin that can break us out of the orbit of God’s love. It means there is nothing that can pull us out of the circle of God’s love for us. Christ’s work for us gives us not only the assurance that there will be no condemnation for the believer, it also gives us the assurance that we will never be separated from the most precious commodity in the universe, the love of God.
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