Of the many wonderful and precious promises in the Bible the greatest of all, for me, is the promise found in Romans 8:38 and 39: "For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any thing else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (R.S.V.).*
The phrase "love of God" refers, not to our love for God, but to God's love for us. This fact is clear from verse 37, which says, "We are more than conquerors through him who loved us." In fact, the context of this entire passage focuses on what God and Christ do rather than on what we do. God spared not His own Son; God justifies; Christ died, rose, and intercedes. Therefore, the love from which nothing will be able to separate us is God's love.
Actually, God and Christ are so identified in this section that Christ's love and God's love are spoken of in inter changeable terms. In verse 35 Paul asks, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" In verse 39 he says that nothing can "separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." God's love is seen in Christ's death for us.
But what does this promise really mean? Does it mean that we who have become Christians can rest secure that no matter what we do we shall be saved? Does it mean that God will love us regardless of our response? On the other hand, does it mean that this promise can be fulfilled only if we, in our own strength, maintain our faith in Him? Will God continue to love us only if we continue to love Him? Or is there more to it than that? Let us explore this question by asking: What can actually separate us from the love of God?
Can sin separate us from the love of God? The answer is both "Yes" and "No." Isaiah writes: "Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you so that he does not hear" (Isa. 59:2). If we go on to read the whole chapter, we find that the iniquities and sins that separate are more than individual acts; they are murder, lying, in justice, and violence practiced as a way of life. Those who live thus have exposed themselves for what they are: enemies of God, rather than His people. For the repentant, sin does not permanently separate from God. Zechariah 3 pictures Joshua, the high priest, standing before the angel, clothed in filthy garments, a symbol of the sin of the nation. Yet God does not regard his sin as requiring separation. God does not hide His face, but orders " 'Remove the filthy garments from him.'" Then He says to Joshua, " 'Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with rich apparel' " (verse 4).
Because of our sin, it would not be surprising if God should be against us. He has every reason to be. It would serve us right, since we have chosen to go our own willful way in the path of disobedience and sin. We deserve God's wrath, not His grace, and justice would demand that we receive what we deserve. But God is more than a God of justice. He is a God of mercy and love. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son" (John 3:16).
The greatness of God's love is measured by two things: the manner in which His love is expressed, and its object. God expressed His love by giving up His only Son to dwell among us and to die for us. In this sacrifice Christ willingly participated. "Though he was in the form of God, . . . [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and be came obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6-8).
We cannot begin to comprehend what it meant for God to give His only Son. We cannot comprehend infinite love, but we can understand that when God gave us His Son, He gave us the ultimate gift. Anything else would have been easier. God withheld nothing to redeem us. His love was total.
The other measure of God's love is seen in its object. Jonathan Edwards said that love is more remarkable and wonderful when there is a very great distance between the lover and the beloved. The distance between the infinite God and our finite selves is limitless. C. S. Lewis wrote that in order to get a little glimpse of what it meant to Christ to die for man, just imagine what it would mean to you to become a slug or a snail in order to save those creatures! And yet the distance between you and a snail is finite; you are both creatures. The distance be tween God and you is infinite! No wonder Paul exclaims, "Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift" (2 Cor. 9:15)!
The incredible love of God in dealing with our sins becomes the basis, then, for clinging to the promise of His love. Romans 8:31 to 34 echoes this very thought—"If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?"
Does sin separate us from God? Not in the light of God's willingness to forgive. By giving up His own Son for us, God showed that He would do anything to keep us from falling. Our forgiven sins keep reminding us of how much God loves us. Our sins cannot separate us from God if God does not condemn us. He is our judge, but if He is for us, if He justifies us, who can condemn? The love of God is so clearly certain in the cross that no matter what happens, all reason to doubt is removed. Instead of separating us from God's love, our forgiven sins are actually a sign of God's love. They remind us that God did not spare His own Son and will do anything possible to keep us from falling.
The second question is, Can suffering separate us from God's love? Paul asks, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" (Rom. 8:35). How are we to understand this question? Does he suggest that suffering can so embitter and defeat us that we lose our hold on God? This can and does happen, as Robert McCracken points out: "In calamity, that is how some instinctively react. Their minds turn at once to God; their feelings toward Him are harsh and rebellious. Lord Londonderry set down this entry in his journal: 'Here I learned the Almighty God, for reasons best known to Himself, had been pleased to burn down my house in the country of Durham.' A man whose three children were killed when a schoolhouse col lapsed screamed curses against God because of their death." —Putting Faith to Work, p. 26.
It is true that people sometimes react to suffering by cursing God and losing^ their faith in Him. However, Paul is not talking here about our love for God, but God's love for us. He is asking, Will suffering keep God from loving us? not, Will suffering keep us from loving God? Does God stop loving us when we suffer? The answer is No. These sufferings cannot separate us from the love of God. If anything, God is closer to us when we suffer. We tend to think that because we are Christians, God should protect us from suffering—from tribulation, dis tress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or the sword. So when we suffer, we think that God has abandoned us. What Paul is saying here is that when we suffer it is not because God has abandoned us; He loves us in our suffering. Instead of looking at suffering as a sign of God's neglect of us, we should look at it as a privilege. Paul says, "It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine" (Phil. 1:29, 30).
The memory of the cross and of the One who spared not His own Son for us should encourage us that tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or even the sword cannot separate us from the everlasting love of God.
The third thing that might separate us from God's love is self. We normally interpret these verses in Romans 8 as referring only to what we can expect from God's side. The implication is that God cannot fulfill His side if we do not fulfill ours. That is to say, Nothing will separate us from God's love if we maintain our faith in Him.
This is true in the sense that God will not force us to remain His children. It does not mean, however, that if we are once saved we are always saved, and cannot repudiate the commitment we once made. There is no irresistible grace. The Bible speaks of tares and wheat growing together and fishes of all types caught in the gospel net. And throughout Scripture we find warnings against falling into temptation and apostasy. The complacency that comes from a sense of absolute security is out of place for the Christian.
Yet too often we go to the other extreme. Because the possibility of falling is a reality, we feel insecure and unsure of our relationship to God and to Jesus Christ. If our salvation depended on our own efforts, we could not be saved. But it depends on the One who is behind all the promises. We need to look to "him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing" (Jude 24).
Paul speaks of us as slaves to God and to righteousness, but this type of slavery is the greatest freedom, as the poet George Matheson has written, "Make me a captive, Lord, And then I shall be free." To think of ourselves as prisoners of God's love may serve to illustrate something of the meaning of Romans 8:38 and 39. It is possible for us to escape God's prison, but it is not easy. God's love is so great toward us that we cannot hope simply to drop Him and forget Him.
Matheson also wrote: "O Love that wilt not let me go ..." We think of Hosea and God's long-suffering love ex pressed through that prophet's relation ship to a wayward wife. "O love that wilt not let me go"! It is relatively easy to get married, but much more difficult to get a divorce. And when that lover is God, a divorce becomes doubly difficult. It is relatively easy to become adopted as a child of God, but it is very difficult to leave that household. God pursues us with an everlasting love. It is difficult to escape from prison with its doors, its gates, its walls, and its guards, and it is just as difficult to escape from God's prison of love. Peter tried to escape. He denied his Master three times, but still he could not escape God's love. God would not let him go. The prodigal son forsook his father and thought he could forget all about him. But the father's heart of persistent love pursued him. When he came to himself and decided to return to a father who he knew still loved him, the father saw him afar off and welcomed him back without reservation. God's love is like that. It is difficult to run away from.
Thus it is not simply that God will love us only if we continue to love Him. God will also help us to continue to love Him! He will do everything short of usurping our will to keep us from falling. "O love that wilt not let me go"! Thus while it is true that self can ultimately separate us from God when sin and suffering cannot, it is not as easy as we sometimes think.
John Bunyan wrote in Grace Abounding, "But one day, as I was passing in the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest yet all was not right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven; and methought withal, I saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God's right hand; there, I say, is my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was a-doing, God could not say of me, He wants my righteousness, for that was just before Him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself, the same yesterday, and today, and for ever." —Page 229.
The promise of Romans 8:38 and 39 has meant much to me through the years. When my 14-year-old died suddenly from an accident, my faith in God did not waver, but the pain and suffering of that experience was so intense that God did not seem so near. The one thing that stands out in my memory of the funeral service is the Scripture reading. The minister read from Romans 8:31 to 39, closing in a climax of triumphant affirmation and assurance that I can hear even now: "For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, 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" (verses 38, 39).
As I listened to those words, I still could not understand the reason for this tragedy, but my heart was strangely warmed with the presence of the Father and the assurance of His everlasting love. Today I still join with the apostle in this confident assurance that nothing will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.