Life in the Spirit: Nothing! Hallelujah!

Sermon by David Strain on August 16

Romans 8:35-39

And then if you would turn in your New Testament scriptures or look down at the bulletin and you’ll find our New Testament text for this morning from our ongoing studies in Romans chapter 8, as we consider verses 35 through 39.

You will remember that beginning in verse 31 Paul asked a series of four questions. “Who can be against us?” raised the possibility of opposition. “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” the possibility of accusation. “Who is to condemn?” raises the possibility of condemnation. And “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” the possibility of separation. And we said that these four steps really trace the common strategy of the devil and his allies in attacking the people of God. Opposition, accusation, leading to condemnation, resulting ultimately in separation from God and from His love. That’s what the devil is about; that’s what he’s trying to do. And in response to each we saw Paul show us that God has made a full, perfect provision for us in the Lord Jesus Christ so that nothing and no one can ever effectively oppose, accuse, condemn, or separate us. We are utterly secure in the saving love of Christ.

But a glance at the text and you will notice the climactic question of the four receives an extended response from the apostle. John Stott quotes Martyn Lloyd Jones as saying that with each question Paul asks we are “climbing a grand staircase,” and then Stott adds, “and this last question is the top step.” John Murray changes the metaphor but makes the same point. “With this final question,” says Murray, “the notes of victory and assurance are now to reach their highest pitch.” And if you think about it, I’m sure you will agree that it’s a fitting end to a remarkable chapter to conclude not with some bare doctrinal assertion merely, nor with a searching ethical admonition and exhortation, but instead to dwell on the sweetness of the love of God in the Lord Jesus Christ for each of us who are His children. If in verses 1 through 30 we’ve been taxiing along the runway gaining speed and momentum, and if in 31 through 35 we’ve finally taken off and really begun to fly, then in 35 through 39, our passage for this morning, we have climbed to maximum altitude. We are soaring above the clouds at last, bathed in the unobscured sunshine of the love of God in Jesus Christ. And really, it ought to take our breath away.

So Paul’s question, verse 35, remember, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Is there anything that can drive a wedge between us and Jesus? And of course Paul expects an answer. In the words of James Montgomery Boice’s hymn that we quoted last time, he expects our answer to be an unambiguous, “Nothing! Nothing can separate us! Nothing! Hallelujah!” Christ’s love is invincible. That we are secure in His love is the immoveable anchor of our assurance forever. And I suppose that as Christian people we all know that. We confess that Jesus loves us. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It’s an article of faith. But haven’t you found it easy to say the right thing and not to feel it, to affirm the love of Christ for us but no longer to have much of a sense of wonder at it? It’s become a given, a presupposition. It’s been factored in, in our thinking.

But the barest glance at the passage before us this morning will demonstrate that Paul is not content with the love of Christ as a presupposition, as a data point factored into our thinking. He wants affections in our hearts that will match our convictions. He wants us to feel it and taste it and revel in the love of Christ. And so he rhapsodizes here. This is not bare, wooden prose, is it? It’s doxology. It is verbal delight that we read about in these closing verses. And so to be faithful to the text, we have to do what we can, which I’ll admit may not be all that much but we have to do what we can to try and get some sense of that delight pressed down again into our hearts. So we’re going to meditate on four dimensions of the love of Christ from our text in verses 35 through 39.

First of all, I want you to notice the realism of Christ’s love. The realism of Christ’s love. It’s a real world love. Secondly, this is more than a theoretical explanation of the love of Christ. This is a remembrance of Christ’s love on a personal level for the apostle Paul. He’s speaking firsthand about what he knows. The realism. A remembrance of the love of Christ. Thirdly, the roots of Christ’s love. From where does it flow to us? The realism. A remembrance. The roots. Finally, the reach of Christ’s love. How far does it go? Is there anything beyond it? Is there anything stronger than it? Are there any depths into which we may descend of suffering or trial or even of sin too deep for the love of Jesus to reach us? The reach of the love of Christ. The realism, the remembrance, the roots, and the reach of the love of Christ. That’s our agenda this morning. Before we consider the passage, however, let’s pause and pray and then we’ll read the Scriptures together. Let’s pray together.

O Lord, open our eyes, we pray, by the Holy Spirit, that we may indeed behold marvelous things out of Your holy Word. For Jesus’ sake, amen.

Romans 8 at the thirty-fifth verse. This is the Word of God:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 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.”

Amen.

The Realism of the Love of Christ

Now love is a subject not usually associated with down-to-earth level-headedness. Is it? Aided and abetted by Hollywood, of course, our romantic idea is that love makes people a little crazy. It dislodges their grip on reality. People in love are goofy, aren’t they? That’s how we think. But we do need to resist that modern notion at all costs when it comes to understanding the Bible’s teaching about the love of Christ for His people. Knowing His love in our lives is not about escaping reality into a warm, intoxicating soup of endorphins. That’s not what knowing the love of Christ is about. The love of Christ is a real world love. Okay, that’s the first thing I want us to think about – the realism of Christ’s love. “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we faced death all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Just look at that list of difficulties for a moment. “Tribulation.” The Greek word is “thlipsis.” It carries the idea of pressure like grapes being squeezed in a wine press. It’s trouble. It’s the crushing weight of difficult days, bearing down on your shoulders. And to match pressure from without, there’s “distress” – pressure from within. The word highlights perhaps the emotional trauma caused by adverse circumstances beyond our power to change. It is the psychological burden of a toilsome life. Then there’s “persecution” – suffering caused by others because of our faith in Jesus. Then there’s the starvation of famine, the exposure of nakedness, the threat of danger, and the looming possibility of martyrdom by the sword. And then notice the quotation in verse 36 comes from Psalm 44. Paul has chosen it to highlight the normalcy of suffering, especially the hands of a hostile world arrayed in opposition to the rule of God.

Let me quote Ray Ortlund on this point. “He draws upon Psalm 44 to remind us how brutal life can be, the flock of God herded to the slaughter. ‘As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ The world is one vast slaughterhouse.” What a perspective. It’s not pretty, but it does match the facts because God’s people do suffer, and they cannot always make sense of it. That is the whole point of Psalm 44 which Paul is quoting here. So when Paul talks about Christ’s love, he’s not inviting us to engage in some delusional fantasy, some exercise in make believe or in wish fulfillment or in escapism. He is not papering over the cracks of our lives. He’s not running away from the ugly, open wounds festering in our hearts. He’s facing it all head on, isn’t he? External pressure, internal pressure, suffering caused by the hatred of the world, by natural disaster, by economic misadventure – that’s the real world; a world of tears and sickness and loss and sorrow and death. And in such a world, does the love of Christ crumble like a tin can in the street, crushed under the wheels of a passing truck? Can the juggernaut of suffering break the grip of the love of Christ for you? No, Paul says in verse 37, not only do we not forfeit the love of Christ, but in fact “in all these things we are more, more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Look at that language carefully for a minute with me. “More than conquerors” – three English words really translates a single compound Greek word, “hupernikomen”, – hyper-conquerers. That’s what he says. Super-abounding conquerors. We don’t merely squeak out a victory, snatching it at the last moment from the jaws of defeat as if the love of Christ were some Hail Mary pass thrown on the closing seconds to win the game. No, if you are the object of the saving love of Jesus Christ, you win an absolute and a complete victory. It’s not even close. That’s what he’s saying. It’s not even close.

But look at verse 37 again and notice the context of that victory. Let’s be clear about what Paul is really saying. It’s not that the love of Christ rescues us from every tear-inducing trial. It’s not that the love of Christ takes sorrow or sickness or suffering away. He often chooses to do that, doesn’t He, in His great kindness and mercy toward us. Of course He does. But that’s not the scene of the victory that Paul is talking about here. Look at the text. “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” – where, according to verse 37? – “in all these things.”

Now think about that for a moment with me. The question in verse 35, “Who shall separate us?” does not lead us to expect a list of abstract circumstances – tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword. “Who shall separate us?” leads us to expect a list of personal enemies trying by willful malice and intrigue to harm us. So how do you put these two things together – the personal enemies, the “who” that is trying to separate us, and the abstract circumstances, tribulation, distress, and so on?

Well by framing it like this, I think the point Paul is trying to make is that for Christians those trying circumstances, they become the battleground between the believer and the great enemies of our souls. Haven’t you found that to be your own experience? The devil seeks in every adverse circumstance to take the opportunity to do everything he can to derail our faith and to undermine our assurance. Every sorrow and every suffering brings its own unique temptations, doesn’t it? But verse 37 is teaching us that while our trials and struggles and sorrows and losses may be the battleground, the love of Christ has already defeated our enemy, and so we are not in any danger of losing. It will not always feel that way at times, to be sure, but when the work is over at last and we are finally glorified in heaven with our exalted Savior, I am persuaded we will look back over those moments in our own personal histories when the battle raged hottest, when our sufferings were most acute, and we will see with new eyes the ways that the Lord kept us and held us fast and did not let us go.

You see, the promise is not that we will always feel happy go-lucky and carefree, no matter our circumstances. The promise, rather, is that if the love of Christ rests on us in the spiritual war raging in our hearts, nothing can conquer us in the end. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors.” He will hold you fast. You may lose a battle here and there, but the war has already been won. You have already conquered in Christ who loves you. The realism, the real world character of the love of Christ.

But then notice also, this is a remembrance of Christ’s love. Paul knows firsthand what he’s talking about. He’s not writing purely in the abstract. These are not theoretical possibilities that he throws out for your consideration. He’s offering personal testimony. You get some sense of that when you see in verse 38 he says, “I am sure.” Since verse 31, he’s only been using the first person plural, “we” and “us” – “You” and “me” – You Roman believers and me and my team, we Christians, all Christians everywhere, this is true of us. “What shall we say? If God is for us, who can be against us? If He did not spare His own Son, how will He not also along with Him graciously give us all things? Who can be against us?”

The Remembrance of the Love of Christ

And then now all of a sudden he interrupts that pattern and speaks in first person singular – “I, I myself am sure.” The verb that he uses there means he is personally persuaded of the truth of his proposition. He’s speaking out of the deep mines of his own conviction, shaped and molded by personal experience, you see. You get to see some of that in passages like 2 Corinthians chapter 11 beginning in verse 24 where Paul is giving us a dramatic account of his own sufferings for the sake of the Gospel. “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” And in chapter 12 verse 10 he adds, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

It’s not insignificant, I think, that all the terms from Romans 8:35 that Paul says describes the normal Christian are here in his description of his own ministry, with the exception of the sword, alluding to martyrdom, which Paul would eventually endure, interestingly enough, in the city of Rome. But the point is clear enough, isn’t it? When he tells the Romans that the love of Christ can’t be defeated, when he insists that we are secure and safe in the grip of the love of Christ no matter the hardships or trials that come our way, he is himself a walking, talking demonstration of that fact. And there’s great reassurance in that, isn’t there?
 

One of the questions search committees will sometimes ask candidates when they’re interviewing them for a ministry position in a church is, “Tell us how you’ve suffered in the course of your life.” It’s a great question to ask a candidate for Gospel ministry because a minister without scars, a minister who doesn’t know how to limp can only ever speak about suffering hypothetically. But there’s empathy, there’s credibility to his words when you know he himself has suffered as he speaks about being “more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Paul is “comforting others with the comfort he himself has received.” And actually, you know, that’s part of God’s design in sending us trials and then sustaining us and making us more than conquerors in them, isn’t it? He does it in part so that, like Paul, we in turn can be instruments in His hand in the support of others in their trials. Many who struggle in suffering are strengthened to hope in God when their faith wavers by seeing how the Lord has kept you when you walked through similar trials of your own. Our sufferings and the lessons that they teach us about Christ’s infinite sufficiency are great ministry tools and we must not neglect to use them.

The Root of the Love of Christ

The realism of Christ’s love. There’s a remembrance of Christ’s love. Thirdly, there are the roots of Christ’s love here in this passage. The love of Christ flows from a particular root. Look again at verse 37. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” It’s that last phrase I want you to focus on with me. In verse 35, he said, “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.” And again verse 39, “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” And in both cases it’s very clear, isn’t it, the love of God, the love of Christ is a present, fixed, stable, eternal, everlasting and enduring present reality. That’s the overwhelming emphasis of the passage. Jesus, who has loved you from eternity, will love you to eternity and nothing can change it. Praise the Lord.

So isn’t it interesting that in verse 37 Paul suddenly uses a past tense when he speaks about the love of Christ? He has a specific, climactic moment in history in mind when the love of Christ was poured out for us in a particular and unique way. What is he talking about? He’s talking about the cross, isn’t he? There, He loved us and gave Himself for us. The love of Christ for you, brothers and sisters, is not a momentary surge of irrational emotion in his heart. It’s not merely a feeling; it is a feeling, but it’s more than a feeling – fleeting, impermanent, unstable. He has loved you through beatings and mockery and thorns on His brow. He has loved you under the Roman lash and loved you unto nails in His hands and feet. He loved you though everyone around Him has deserted and abandoned Him. He has loved you under the darkness of the wrath and curse of God, poured out on your sin, on my sin, though falling on His shoulders. He loved us down into the grave, and that love secured your pardon and your peace and your purity. That love paid your penalty and secured your perseverance.

The reason you are safe in the love of Christ right now in your crisis is because of the love of Christ for you then in the great crisis of the cross. When Paul describes how no trial, no suffering, no pain can break the grip of Christ’s love on His people, he’s confident in it. “I am sure,” he says, not ultimately because he had experienced it for himself, though he had, but because he understands the love of Christ is a crucified love. It goes to such lengths to secure our deliverance. It flows to us from Calvary. It’s rooted in the cross.

The First World War was a Pyrrhic victory for the Allies. In many communities, especially in rural communities in the highlands and islands of Scotland, the war decimated the male population. Those communities still, many of them, have not really recovered. So it was a victory, yes, they conquered, but at a terrible, tragic cost. In the spiritual conflict that rages over our souls, we are more than conquerors, and to be sure, our victory comes at a terrible price. But it’s not a price we ever pay. The One who loved us has paid in full for us. Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord because Jesus Christ our Lord was separated from the love of God in our stead. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” was His cry. He was given up to the wrath and curse of God for us that we might never forfeit the love and grace of God in Him. The roots of the love of Christ. Do you see them? They’re found in the cross. Because of the cross, you, beloved in Christ, are more than conquerors.

The Reach of the Love of Christ

The realism of the love of Christ. A remembrance of the love of Christ. The roots of the love of Christ. Finally, the reach of the love of Christ. Is there any depth of pain or grief or loss into which you can descend beyond the reach of His love? Can your trials rise in intensity to such a degree that the love of Christ is no longer any match for them? Look at verses 38 and 39. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 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.” Paul structures his message here loosely around pairs of opposites. Do you see that? I say loosely because the mention of powers at the end of verse 38 rather upsets the pattern, but generally speaking he piles up these contrasts simply to make the point that from pole to pole, from one extreme to another, from horizon to horizon, the love of Christ holds us fast. Perhaps he has Psalm 103:11 in the back of his mind as he’s writing. “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

On whichever plane we chose to examine it, the love of Christ is sufficient to save and to secure. That’s the message. There’s natural existence – whether death, with all the fear that it holds, or life with all its troubles. There’s supernatural existence – whether angels or rulers or powers, probably a reference to demonic forces. There’s time – whether things present or things to come. There’s space – whether height or depth. In fact, Paul says there is nothing that is not God. Nothing in all creation mightier than the grip of the love of Jesus Christ.

Now that means, dear believer, you can say as we’ve been singing, “No matter what your trials, in Christ alone, my hope is found. He is my Light, my strength, my song. This cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm. What heights of love” – hear the echo of Romans 8? “What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled and strivings cease. My comforter, my all in all, here in the love of Christ I stand. No guilt in life, no fear in death. This is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand. Till He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.” You are secure. Do you see it? You’re utterly safe in the love of King Jesus. Your assurance is not to be founded on your strength, your goodness, your love, even your faith in Jesus. It is founded ultimately, rather, on the strength of the love of Jesus for you and there is no force in creation mightier than that.

“What can separate us from the love of Christ?” Nothing! Hallelujah! Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we praise You, though the words are so impoverished to express it. We adore You. We love You, for such love lavished on us in Your Son. Thank You that You love the unlovely like us. Help us to marvel at it, to savor its sweetness, to rejoice in the wonder of it, and then make us ambassadors of it to the ends of the earth. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.

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