26th September 2002
This talk is the seventh in a series of twelve in which we plan to study the whole of Paul's letter to the Romans.
We now continue into the last part of the very dense chapter eight, which is concerned with the certainty and unshakability of God's love for us. It's quite a short text, so here it is in full:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 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? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 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. 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, neither angels nor demons, 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 our Lord.- Romans 8:28-39
Of all the passages in the New Testament, this is perhaps the one in which God's sovereignty is most apparent (which, incidentally, sets us up nicely for the following chapters.) The focus in these twelve verses is firmly on God rather than on us - yet the cumulative sense of the verses is one of enormous security for us.
The passage can be broken into three sections - two very short and one rather longer - addressing how God works for us in our lives today, his eternal plan for us, and the security that we find in his sovereignty. Rather neatly, each of these sections has five main points to make.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.- Romans 8:28
This incredibly dense verse makes five points about God's work in our lives in the space of twenty-five short words.
It's important not to misinterpret this verse, as some translations have done, as meaning that ``all things works together for good''. Paul is not claiming that bad things happen to us for our good - so that, for example, bereavement should be an occasion for rejoicing - but that when bad things happen, God works good through them anyway. The emphasis here is not on the ``all things'' but on God himself: it is he who works.
In other words, God is not blessing blindly, merely for the sake of blessing - although that would be perfectly in character for him. More than that, he is working in us toward his ultimate purpose: our total union with Jesus. This is a mystery, but we are told a very little about it: ``The wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready'' - Revelation 19:7.
Throughout the bible, we see this paradox of God using adverse circumstances and even the most extreme wickedness to achieve good ends. For example, there is the story of Joseph, who in the end says to his brothers, ``You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done'' - Genesis 50:20. And more significant still, Peter describes the crucifixion of Jesus both as the work of ``wicked men'' (Acts 2:23) and being what God's will ``had decided beforehand should happen'' (Acts 4:28).
The final thing to notice about Romans 8:28 is that Paul begins it with the bold declaration ``We know that ...'' He does not expect what he is teaching here to come as a surprise to his hearers; he expects them to know and understand it as a basic part of their faith. Not only can we take all this for granted; we are supposed to.
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.- Romans 8:29-30
Having said that God works things for the good of those who are called according to his purpose, Paul now expands on what that purpose is. Here we see a five-stage process of God's dealings with us. First, he foreknew us; then he predestined us; then he called us and justified us, and will glorify us.
Again, this is a very complex verse with a lot of material in it. What do all these things mean?
It's a recurrent theme in both the New Testament and the Old that God has known us from before our birth - even from before the foundation of the world. For example, in Ephesians 1:4 we read that ``He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.'' This theme is more fully developed in Psalm 139:
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.- Psalm 139:15-16
In the bible, the concept of knowing someone indicates much more than awareness of them, or of intellectual knowledge. The connotation is of care, intimacy and love. For example, in Hosea 13:5, when God says ``I knew you in the wilderness'' (NKJV), more idiomatic translations such as the NIV render this as ``I cared for you in the desert''. Similarly, we could legitmately read ``Those God foreknew'' as ``Those God foreloved''.
Now predestination is famously one of the most difficult doctrines, and there is no way we can cover it adequately here in two or three minutes. The absolute basics are these: that the term refers to God's having chosen us before we chose him - so that in fact we choose him because he has already chosen us.
The intent here is certainly not to encourage fatalism - a sort of ``it-doesn't-matter-what-I-do'' attitude - but to acknowledge that the initiative behind our salvation lies first of all with God. As Paul writes elsewhere:
Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.- Ephesians 2:4-9, emphasis added
And Jesus himself says ``You did not choose me, but I chose you.'' (John 15:16) and ``No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him'' (John 6:44). But in the previous chapter, Jesus has also said (to the pharisees), ``you refuse to come to me to have life'' (John 5:40) - so clearly, there is also human choice.
How can we reconcile God's sovereignty and man's free will? Easy: we can't. Time, I think, for my favourite digression:
Digression: Balance in the Bible
I have the NIV on my computer, which makes it easy to do word-searches with 100% accuracy. The word ``balance'' occurs only four times in the whole of the bible, once in the sense of difference, and three times in the sense of scales:
The ``virtue'' of balance is never promoted in the bible. So let's not, for example, waste our time trying to find a balance between the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit; or working out theology that's a balance between sovereignty and free will.
- Leviticus 25:27 - ``He is to refund the balance.''
- Psalm 62:9 - ``If weighed on a balance, they are nothing.''
- Proverbs 16:11 - ``Honest scales and balances are from the Lord.''
- Isaiah 40:12 - ``Who has weighed the hills in a balance?''
In fact, the closest the bible comes to talking about ``balance'' in this sense is in Revelation 3:16 - ``Because you are neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.''
A final point on this verse: it's worth noticing that Jesus is here described as ``the firstborn among many brothers''. We are called Jesus' brothers and sisters! Elsewhere we read that ``Jesus is not ashamed to call [those who are made holy] brothers'' - Hebrews 2:11. That's what comes with being made the children of God along with Jesus.
If predestination refers to God's eternal decision to make us his own - a decision made before the foundation of the world - then his call refers to the specific moment in our lifetime when he draws us to him. It is the working out of the eternal here on earth.
God's call is first of all to repentance. We see this clearly in the words of Jesus: ``Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near'' - Matthew 4:17; ``The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!'' - Mark 1:15; ``I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance'' - Luke 5:32.
To those who respond to the call to repentance, God freely gives the gift of justification - that is, being made just, free from sin and saved from all condemnation (as discussed extensively in the earlier study on Romans 5).
The important thing to grasp about justification is that it is something that God does; and that once it has been done, it can never be undone. Romans 5:1 tells us that ``since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God'', And verses 33 and 34 of this very chapter make it clear that there can be no condemnation for those whom God has justified. It is a finished work.
Glorification here refers to our final completion - our being made perfect in heaven. The interesting thing here is that Paul describes our glorification - which clearly lies in the future - using a past tense. In fact, the word ``glorified'' in the Greek is in the aorist tense, which we don't have in English. The closest equivalent would be something, like ``those he justified, he also did glorify''. The connotation is of something which has been completed. In effect, Paul is saying that our future glorification is so certain that he can write about it as though it were already accomplished. This use of the aorist has been described as ``past prophetic'' tense.
The key thing to take from this five-step process of salvation is that in all five steps, the initiative and power lie with God. It is he who knew us before the made the world, who chose us, who called us, who gave us the free gift of righteousness, and who will ultimately bring us to perfection and completion in him.
What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 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? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 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. 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, neither angels nor demons, 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 our Lord.- Romans 8:31-39
The first half of the book of Romans reaches its climax with these verses. The first eight chapters have been a carefully worked argument that presents the spiritual history of humanity, depicts its current spiritual state, shows God's solution, explores some of its ramifications and here - finally - exults in its glory. The prose seems to shift up a gear here, as Paul's writing sheds it usual analytical flavour and starts piling glory on glory.
The first phrase, ``What, then, shall we say in the response to this?'' seems to refer to the whole of Romans 1-8, not just the immediately preceding passage. To crystalise our thoughts, we are given five rhetorical questions, of which only the last is explicitly answered (though the answers to the other four are clearly implied.)
The answer to this question is in two parts. First, consider how we would answer the question if it were couched without the proviso ``If God is for us ...''. The fact is that there are many people and things against us - a culture hostile to Christianity, systematic persecution of Christians in many countries, our own indwelling sin, and death (that enemy that is defeated but not yet destroyed) - not to mention the devil himself.
But the second, and more important, part of the answer is apparent in the light of that ``If God is for us'' rider. Since this is the case, none of those things that would oppose us can do so successfully.
In effect, Paul is saying that it just doesn't matter who is against us. He doesn't care. If God is for us, what's the difference? Remember that he wrote these words from his perspective of having been repeatedly whipped, shipwrecked, and stoned and left for dead; if he counts all his enemies as unimportant, I think we can do the same!
What limits are there to God's generosity to us? We already know the answer: there are none. We know because we've seen what God has already given us - his own son.
As with the first question, the answer on one level is not encouraging: there is no shortage of people and things wanting to accuse Christians and Christianity of all sorts of things, from narrow-mindedness to financial corruption - and most damaging, the accusations of sinfulness, whether from within or without, that paralyse some Christians and cripple their relationship with God. Not for nothing is Satan described as ``the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night'' (Revelation 12:10). The very word ``devil'' (diabolos) means ``slanderer''.
Yet, again as with the first question, we need not and should not be intimidated by the foes arrayed against us. The second half of the verse places all these accusations in context. Paul's response to any charges brought against him is simple: ``It is God who justifies''. Those whom God has justified need not fear condemnation from any source. We can simply respond to all accusations, as Nehemiah did, with ``Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head'' (Nehemiah 6:9)
This questions is basically a re-statement of the previous one. And the answer is the same: we don't care who condemns us, because ``Christ Jesus is at the right hand of God and is interceding for us.''
Verses 33 and 24 have echoes of Isaiah's great declaration:
He who vindicates me is near.
Who then will bring charges against me?
Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser?
Let him confront me!
It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me.
Who is he that will condemn me?
- Isaiah 50:8-9
Here are some of the things that Paul says can't separate us from God's love:
And, in fact,
That doesn't leave a great deal! Even though all these afflictions are real and painful - and we certainly don't want to get into a false spirituality of pretending they're not - Paul remains convinced that ``in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.'' (By the way, that word ``loved'' is in the aorist tense, with its sense of a completed action: so it's referring to Jesus' definitive demonstration of his love for us, on the cross.)
So we finish the chapter with the ringing affirmation that `Nothing is able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.''
Paul's five questions are not arbitrary: all of them are about the kind of God we believe in. We can rtake enormous comfort and security in knowing the answers to them.
As John Stott observes, in his book The Message of Romans:
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. The doctrine of ``the perseverance of the saints'' needs to be re-named. It is the doctrine of the perseverance of God with the saints.
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/romans/08c.html.