Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
It Is Right to Risk for the Cause of God
Two weeks ago I directed your attention backward to some biblical risk-takers.
- To Joab, who took up arms for the cause of God, and said, "May
the Lord do what seems good to him!" (2 Samuel 10:12).
- To Esther, who risked her life for the Jewish people in exile,
and said, "If I perish, I perish!" (Esther 4:16).
- To Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who stood unflinching before
the fiery furnace and said, "Even if God does not deliver us, be it
known to you, O king, we will not serve your gods or worship the
golden image" (Daniel 3:18).
- To Paul, whose life seemed to be round-the-clock risk, but who
said, "I do not count my life of any value nor as precious to
myself if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I
received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace
of God" (Acts 20:24).
And we concluded from these Bible stories that it is right to risk for the cause of God. God does not mean for us to know what our future will be in this world, and he does not want our response to that uncertainty to be fear or paralysis or the love of security or excessive caution; instead he teaches us again and again to risk for the cause of God.
So last week we turned our attention from the past risk-takers of the Bible and heard the Word challenge us to take risks in four areas of our own lives.
- Risks in relationships for the sake of righteousness and
- Risks with our money for the cause of the gospel.
- Risks in our personal witnessing to the truth and beauty of
- Risks in ministry ventures.
The text last week was Luke 21:16, "You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death." We focused on the word "some." For some, obedience to Christ will result in suffering and death. For some, not for all. And neither you nor I will know whether we are in that number. Therefore obedience is always a risk. This is the will of God, and therefore it is right to risk for the cause of God.
Identifying an Underlying Assumption
Now today I want to make explicit something that has been assumed for the past two weeks. I have been assuming that the power or the motive behind taking risks for the cause of God is not heroism, or the lust for adventure, or the courage of self-reliance, or the need to earn God's good will. Rather I have been assuming that the power behind all biblical risk for the cause of God is faith in the triumphant love of God.
I have been assuming
- that the strength to risk losing face for the sake of Christ is the faith that God's love will lift up your face in the end and vindicate your cause;
- that the strength to risk losing money for the cause of the gospel is the faith that we have a treasure in the heavens that cannot fail;
- that the strength to risk losing life in this world is faith in
the promise that he who loses his life in this world will save it
for the age to come.
This is very different from heroism, and self-reliance. When we risk our face and money and life because we believe God will always catch us and turn our loss into glory, then it's not we who get the praise because of our courage; it's God who gets the praise because of his care.
That has been my assumption for two weeks, and my aim this morning is to lay it out in the open and to show its biblical foundation.
Luke 21:16–18 Explained by Romans 8:35–29
Let me begin in last week's text. In Luke 21:16 Jesus says, "Some of you they will kill. But then in verse 18 he says, "But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives." "Some of you they will kill . . . But not a hair of your head will perish"!!
What does this mean? What is Jesus trying to say to us when he says: "Go ahead and risk obedience; some of you they will kill; but not a hair of your head will perish"? I think the best commentary on these verses is our text for today, Romans 8:35–39.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, "For thy 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 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.
Remember that the words of Jesus were: "Some of you they will kill . . . But not a hair of your head will perish." Now what does Paul say?
1. Christ's Love Does Not Eliminate Our Suffering
Like Jesus, he says, first of all, that the love of Christ for us does not eliminate our suffering. On the contrary our very attachment to Christ will bring suffering. What is Paul's answer to his own question in verse 35: "Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword separate us from the love of Christ?"
His answer in verse 37 is a resounding NO!
Some of You They Will Kill
But don't miss the implication of the question: the reason that these things will not separate us from the love of Christ is not because they don't happen to people whom Christ loves. The quote in verse 36 from Psalm 44:22 is Paul's way of saying that these things do in fact come upon Christ's people.
"For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." In other words, Christ's love for us, referred to in verse 35, does not remove us from these sufferings.
This is the meaning of the little word "in" in verse 37: "In all these things we are more than conquerors." Not by escaping them!
So Paul agrees with Jesus: some of you they will kill.
Some Risks in the Cause of God
Obedience is risk. And it is right to risk for the cause of God. Notice some of the risks in verse 35:
- "tribulation"—Christians will experience tribulation! I.e., trouble and oppression of various kinds.
- "distress"—stressful circumstances occasioned by all kinds of dangers and threats and worries.
- "persecution"—active opposition from the enemies of the gospel.
- "famine"—note this well! There is no guarantee that Christians will be spared when there are food shortages. When Jesus says that we should not be anxious what we shall eat or drink because our Father knows what we need, he doesn't mean that Christians will never be hungry or starve. He means that there will always be enough food so that we can do his will and glorify his name. And if famine strikes, it will not cut us off from the love of God. This has tremendous implications for our understanding of various national catastrophes and how we might expect to be involved in them. I urge you to think about it.
That is enough to show that Paul shared Jesus' conviction that obedience is risk and that "some of you they will kill."
2. Nothing Can Separate Us from Christ's Love
But the second thing Paul says is that none of these miseries will ever separate us from the love of Christ. He asks, "Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword separate us from the love of Christ?" His answer in verse 37 is, "NO!"
This is what Jesus meant when he said, "Some of you they will kill . . . But not a hair of your head will perish."
God's Love Triumphs in the End
In other words, no misery that a true Christian ever experiences is evidence that he has been cut off from the love of Christ. The love of Christ triumphs over all misery. Verses 38–39 make this crystal clear:
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.
On the far side of every risk—even if it results in death—the love of God triumphs. This is the faith that frees us to risk for the cause of God. It is not heroism, or lust for adventure, or courageous self-reliance, or efforts to earn God's favor. It is childlike faith in the triumph of God's love—that on the far side of all our risks for the sake of righteousness God will still be holding us.
Not a Hair of Your Head Will Perish?
But Jesus seems to say something more than this. He says, "Not a hair of your head will perish." It seems ironic that he could know that his cousin John was beheaded for the cause of righteousness, and yet say that not a hair of your head will perish. It's one thing to say that God will be there after you have suffered and will catch you and love you and restore you. But it seems like so much more to say to a tortured and dying saint, "Not a hair of your head will perish." What does he mean?
3. Christ's Love Can Make the Enemy Serve You
Well, Paul has this same kind of statement—and this is the third thing Paul says. He raises the same question for us. Look at verse 31: "If God is for us, who can be against us?" That is the same as saying, "If God is for us, no one can be against us." But if no one can be against us, why are we counted as sheep for the slaughter and killed all day long, as verse 36 says we are?
Saying More Than That We Will Survive Suffering
"No one can be against us" seems just as excessive as "Not a hair of your head will perish." Both Paul and Jesus seem to want to say more than that we survive suffering and live forever. They want to say something more than that tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and sword and peril can't separate us from the love of Christ.
And this something more comes out clear as a bell in verse 37. Do these things separate us from the love of Christ? "NO!" says verse 37, "in all these things we are more than conquerors through him whom loved us." This is the "more" that seems to be implied in the statement that no one can really be against us (v. 31), and the statement that not a hair of your head will perish (Luke 21:18).
How Can You Be More Than a Conqueror?
But what does this mean? How can you be "more than a conqueror?" when you risk for the cause of God get hurt for it?
If you attempt some act of obedience to Jesus Christ and get attacked by one of the enemies mentioned in verse 35, say famine or sword, what must happen for you to be called a conqueror? Answer: you must not be separated from the love of Jesus Christ. If the aim of the attack is to destroy you and cut you off from Christ and bring you to final ruin without God, then you are a conqueror if you defeat this aim and remain in the love of Christ.
But what must happen in this conflict with famine and sword if you are to be called more than a conqueror? I would say that a conqueror defeats his enemy, but a "more than conqueror" subjugates his enemy. A conqueror nullifies the purpose of his enemy; a "more than conqueror" turns his enemy to his own purposes. A conqueror strikes down his foe; a "more than conqueror" makes his foe his slave.
Practically What Does This Mean?
Let me use Paul's own words in 2 Corinthians 4:17. "For this slight momentary affliction is preparing [literally: is effecting, or working, or bringing about] for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison."
Notice "affliction" is one of the attacking enemies in Romans 8:35. What has happened in Paul's conflict with it? It has certainly not separated him from the love of Christ. But even more, it has been taken captive. It has been enslaved and made to serve Paul's best interest. Affliction, the enemy, is preparing for Paul an eternal weight of glory. His enemy is now his slave. He has not only conquered his enemy. He has more than conquered him.
Affliction raised his sword to cut off the head of Paul's faith. But instead, the hand of faith snatched the arm of affliction and forced it to cut off another part of his worldliness. And so affliction is made the servant of godliness and humility and love. And in this way it is forced to be Paul's slave and to prepare for him an even greater weight of glory than he would have ever had without the fight.
The Three Things Both Paul and Jesus Say
So now we have seen three things that Paul and Jesus say:
- The love of Christ does not remove his people from suffering,
and so all obedience is risk. "We are regarded as sheep to be
- But none of this suffering will ever separate us from the love
of Christ. On the far side of risk, the love of God always
- But even more. When we risk for the cause of God and meet the
enemy of affliction with the weapons of faith, the enemy is not just
defeated, it is captured and made to serve the eternal good of the
Christian warrior. And all this is through the triumphant love of
Christ. "In all these things we are more than conquerors through
him who loved us."
So in the last two weeks I have not been appealing to the impulse of heroism, or the lust for adventure, or the courage of self-reliance, or the need to earn God's favor. I have been appealing to faith in the triumphant love of God.
Risk and the Cause of God
And so I conclude where I began: it is right to risk for the cause of God. It is right to engage the enemy and say, May the Lord do what seems good to him! It is right to serve the people of God and say, If I perish, I perish! It is right to stand before the fiery furnace and refuse to bow down to the gods of this world.
Because in all these things we are more than conquerors! "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?" Indeed he will—even our enemies—and make them serve us forever and ever. Amen.