Q&R with Brad – Romans 8:37-39 – “Nothing can separate WHO from God’s love”?
I have just finished reading your book A More Christlike God, and I have a question. In chapter 13, you quote Rom. 8:35-39. Do these verses apply to all of humanity or just Christians?
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered 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 convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 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.
Great question and, to be fair, honestly debatable. I see at least three possibilities:
When Paul says, “Nothing can separate us from the Love of Christ,” who exactly is “us”?
1. One can argue that “us” it is ‘the elect in Christ,’ probably a reference to Christians. For example, in the immediate context, we can see phrases that limit the scope of this promise to “those who love God” (vs. 28). And in the historical context, verses 31-37 certainly apply to the Roman Christians’ persecution under Nero. Paul is addressing those who are being threatened, condemned, persecuted and martyred for the sake of Christ (31-37). He wants them to know that no matter what their oppressors do to them, even feeding them to the lions, God’s love for them stands strong. Even death at the hands of a demonized empire cannot overcome them. So in this case, Paul is giving them a much-needed pep talk to hang in there.
2. But one can also make the case that this inseparable love extends to ALL people. Is there a sense in Romans that all of humanity is in Christ? Yes. Romans 3:23-24 says that “ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and ALL are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Further, in Romans 5:18, we read that “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for ALL people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for ALL people.” And then we have his punchline in Romans 11:32: “For God has bound EVERYONE over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them ALL. Who is included “in Christ”? ALL who had previously been included in Adam.
At one time, I would have said, “Yes, Christ has accomplished this for ALL, but it is only applied when we give our lives to Jesus Christ. In other words, I located the actualization of Christ’s provision in my conversion. But does Paul do that? Not in Romans 5. He locates forgiveness, justification, and reconciliation at the Cross “when we were still helpless (vs. 6), sinners (vs. 8), and even when we made ourselves enemies of God (vs. 10).” As Jesus said from the Cross, “It is finished (accomplished).”
Why, then, is a willing faith response so important if we are already found “in” the saving work of Christ? Because we are meant to experience the inheritance that is already ours… to participate in the grace that is already poured out… to enjoy our son-ship or daughter-hood in the Father’s house (the One who never disowned us).
3. Perhaps we could also propose that in Romans 8, Paul starts this section with “us”–not simply Christians versus non-Christians, but anyone who follows the Spirit rather than the demands of the flesh, i.e., our broken compulsions (8:1-8). For Paul, those who are “in the Spirit” or “in Christ” actively participate in and enjoy a living connection or communion with God, by which we have assurance that God is our loving Father and we are God’s beloved children (8:14-17).
But then Paul quickly extends the truth of divine love to all people. We could say that he obviously starts by addressing the faithful who love God and are being persecuted for the sake of Christ. But that by the end of the chapter, we can ask the simple question, “Does Paul imagine ANYONE can be “separated from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord'”? No! That’s the whole point of Romans: that God’s love includes both Jews and Gentiles in the purposes of God through Jesus Christ so that ALL are already participants of grace, and ALL are invited to experience that love now.
The key to this understanding is in that last phrase: “the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vs. 39). What is “in Christ Jesus our Lord”? In that verse, Paul doesn’t say God loves those who are in Christ (whether that means only the elect or all people). Rather, the thing that is “in Christ” is “the Love of God” and that’s something nothing can separate us or anyone from, since Christ through his Incarnation, united himself to every human being on the planet for all time… inseparably.