You are Assured of TriumphErwin W. Lutzer | December 7, 2008
Selected highlights from this sermon
Paul wraps up Romans 8 by listing circumstances, personalities, and events that God’s love for us not only endures, but triumphs over. And to sum it all up, and to make sure he hasn’t overlooked anything, he says that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love.
Even when we’re in the midst of horrible suffering and can’t see God’s love for us while there – rest assured, He still loves us.
I speak to you on the difficult topic of the love of God. It is difficult because you think of all of the power that God has to change circumstances and then you are reminded that He doesn’t change circumstances too often, and it becomes a difficult doctrine for us to understand and to believe.
Larry Crabb says that he had a friend who wrote these words to him: “When God does so little about things that matter so much to me I have no categories for understanding God’s statement that he loves me. I’m grateful that my sins are forgiven and I’m going to heaven and I know that all of these troubles are somehow useful for good purposes, maybe necessary for making me a more godly person, but I can’t get past the thought that real love wouldn’t let me suffer like this.” Every one of us has struggled in the same way.
How do we understand God’s love?
Just over a week ago this letter arrived. Someone who used to attend Moody Church sent it to me. She was married to an abusive man, and she says, “My baby and I were placed in protective custody and sent to live in a woman’s shelter with drug addicts, prostitutes and women who were fleeing abuse, yet abusing their own children. My first week there my laundry was stolen out of the washing machines. My apartment was broken into and the kitchenette flooded. We had to stay at this facility an entire year after my daughter was born before I could manage to get on my own two feet and get a house of our own.” And then she said that she had a child previously with this man, so they have two children, and she said, “I have taught the children to love our Lord. My son is age six. He has severe autism, and my daughter has autism with another disorder (that I can scarcely pronounce the name). I have been so blessed by them and have grown so much from their daily courage and strength. The children teach me to take nothing for granted,” and she says, “I teach them the love of the Lord.”
How do you put that together? Where is love when you need it, and what does Jesus do with all of His power standing by and His servants suffer? It is a difficult topic—the love of God, but it’s also a topic that I like to preach about.
Paul faced this directly in Romans 8. If you have your Bibles, please turn to Romans 8. Paul has said that God is for us, God has justified us, God has accepted us, God has foreknown us, and even glorified us. And he comes now to the end of this wonderful chapter, really in some senses the high point of the entire Bible, and when Paul gets there he ends by saying in verses 35 and 36, “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.”
What a message! What a text!
What the Apostle Paul has decided to do is to list seven different kinds of circumstances that might be used in our minds to count against the love of Christ. After all, if God loves you, why the difficulties? Why does He stand by with awesome power and apparently do little or nothing? That’s a problem we’ve all faced. So what the Apostle Paul does is he concludes by saying that God’s love endures, and now let’s look at those seven categories, those seven different circumstances over which God’s love triumphs. Notice them in the text, and I’m looking at verse 35.
“Shall it be tribulation?” That word tribulation means to be squeezed, to be placed under pressure. “Shall distress?” Distress is the confinement of the soul. We’re thinking of the young woman having to live in this shelter with others who have been abused and who abuse their own children, and where you can’t trust anyone, and where do you go without your partner who has turned his back on you? So that’s distress.
“Persecution” is affliction for believing and trusting in Jesus Christ. “Famine”—you’ve been fired from your job and you don’t have enough food for your family. Believe me when I say that many Christians throughout the centuries have starved to death and they’ve cried up to God and they died nevertheless. Shall famine separate us from the love of Christ? Paul is going to say no, famine doesn’t count against Christ’s love. What about “nakedness”? That’s complete destitution. It means that you have nowhere to turn for clothing. Your apartment is cold. There is no way to obtain heat, and you don’t know where to turn. You are naked and you are destitute. You are in peril or in danger, as this translation says, and not even the “sword” (Paul says) will separate you from the love of Christ, and there he’s speaking, of course, about martyrdom, and that’s why he quotes here Psalm 44: “We are led like the sheep to be slaughtered,” and that’s the way Christians have often been treated throughout the many eras of the Christian Church.
From time to time I read The Voice of the Martyrs. It’s a magazine that tells us about persecuted Christians around the world, and yesterday I just happened to have one next to where I was sitting, and I read these words. It’s the story of a woman by the name of Rachel who was brutally abused because of her faith in Christ in the country of Iran, and I won’t go into the details of the abuse. It was horrid. You can imagine what she endured when those men came to her apartment, but she is married to Ali, and this is, of course, a made-up name because you can’t even mention names when you are talking about a country like Iran, but that’s her husband, and he’s a convert from the Muslim faith. And I read that they are victims of a battle raging in Iran. Iranian leaders, incensed by the success of Christian evangelism, have launched a powerful attack on Christianity. Raids on Christian house churches have increased. Dozens of Muslim converts have been arrested, imprisoned or tortured. Earlier this year a husband and his wife were beaten so badly that they died from their injuries, and Paul is asking this question: Can the sword, can death separate you from the love of Christ, and Paul is saying no, it can’t, remarkably.
Not only does he say that these seven circumstances can’t separate us from Christ’s love. Now we might say to ourselves that if I were a father and you were my child, there’s no way that I would allow you to endure every affliction that the Christian church is going through. We’ll deal with that in just a moment. Hold on to that thought, but Paul says, “It’s not just that God’s love endures, but it triumphs.”
Now we’re looking at the text in verse 37. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” We have to take out a moment now and look at that compound word—more than conquerors. Some translate it that we are overwhelming conquerors. Someone else translates it, “We gain a surpassing victory.” It’s really a compound word—first of all hyper. Now when we think of the word of the word hyper we think of a three-year old who is driving everybody crazy and we say, “He’s hyper.”
There’s a better way to translate hyper, and that is, as the Latin does, super. That’s the Greek word. The second word is the word nikaō; at least that’s the verb form. Nikaō means victory. We translate it as Nike, and it’s known, of course, in the sports world, and on sports equipment, and that means victory.
Now put those two words together. Paul says, “In all of these circumstances, we are super victorious.” It’s the only place in the New Testament where he puts those two words together. It’s used nowhere else. In the midst of all of this we are super conquerors, more than conquerors through Him who loved us. Amazing! Paul, what do you mean? How do we conquer because of Him who loved us in the midst of circumstances when there’s no evidence, really, that God is with us that we can point to?
First of all, of course, what Paul wants to say is that these kinds of trials gain blessings for us. It’s really Romans 8:28 where we already had a message where it says so clearly that “all things work together for good to them who love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” And they do us good because these trials make us begin to realize…they wean us from the things of this world, and they begin to help us to understand that eternity is coming and eternal values are really where it is at.
I want to talk to you about martyrdom, since Paul refers to the sword. When I led a tour to the sites of the Reformation in England and Scotland, we went to Oxford. If you’re ever at Oxford, ask where the place is where three famous martyrs were put to death. They were burned to death in the middle of a street and there is a plaque that marks the spot, and if you go somewhere else you can actually still see on a door some of the damage from the flames of the fire that took place when they were burned.
One was Bishop Ridley. Nicholas Ridley was the Bishop of London. The other was Latimer, who was a great preacher, and these two were burned together and it was Latimer who said to Ridley, “Play the man, Ridley. Today we shall light a fire in England that shall never go out,” and they were burned at the stake, but watching it was Thomas Cranmer, who had been the Archbishop of Canterbury. You have to understand that this persecution took place during the reign of what we call Bloody Mary, a very tragic story in British history in the life of this young woman, Mary, who was so troubled. She wanted Cranmer who had been the Archbishop of Canterbury, to recant, because she believed that if she could get him to recant, then all of the other Protestants would recant, and Catholicism would be secured in England.
Now, interestingly, Cranmer did recant the faith, and let’s not be critical of him. You and I have no idea what we would do if we had a gun pointed to our heads and all that we’d have to do is deny the Lord to get out of that jam, so let’s not be critical of people who, from time to time, under pressure, sometimes denied the faith, not because of themselves but they’ve been told that “if you do not deny the faith we will destroy your family, we will persecute your children,” Horrid things have happened to Christians.
Cranmer denied the faith, but later on, even as he watched them burn (and it was because he watched them burn, and he didn’t want to go through that) he recanted his recantation, and he refused to deny the faith, and he also was burned to death there, and when he was, he put his right hand in the fire first until it was charred and he said, “Let this hand that had recanted burn first,” and then he burned for the faith.
Does that count against God’s love? Were they winners or were they losers? It depends on the perspective that you have. If you look at it from the point of this earth, of course they lost (what a way to die), but if you look at it from the standpoint of eternity, and you remember the martyr’s crown that is promised to all those who endure, why of course they were winners. They were super conquerors thanks to Him who loves us. You see, we become conquerors, and we become super victorious no matter what happens to us, but also God gains in the midst of this. He is glorified.
Many of you have perhaps read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (and if you’ve gone to see Max McLean’s rendition of The Screwtape Letters you know that Max pronounces his name Screw Tape-uh). But there is one section that has often touched my heart, and I’m giving it to you as a paraphrase.
C.S. Lewis says in this that Screwtape, the lead demon, says to one of his demons, “The worst possible thing that can happen to us, and that which glorifies our enemy the most (and he’s talking about the Most High God) is when a man looks around and sees no reason to go on believing in God’s love and still believes anyway.” Anyone who trusts God like that is a super conqueror, no matter what possible thing could happen to him. And God is glorified in the midst of our faith, and in the midst of our circumstances.
Now the Apostle Paul has said that God’s love not only endures, but God’s love also triumphs, and then Paul thinks to himself, “Maybe I’ve left something out. Maybe in the back of somebody’s mind, as they begin to think about God’s work in their heart.” and of course, he’s speaking to believers here: “Maybe they will think there’s something else that counts against God’s love.” So in addition to these seven circumstances, Paul lists eight personalities or events or circumstances, and he makes another list because he wants to include them all, and so Paul begins and says, (you’ll notice verse 38) “I am persuaded.” Notice what he’s not persuaded of. He doesn’t say, “I am persuaded that God is going to give you a job. I am persuaded that your child is going to be healed of autism or whatever infirmity your child might have. I’m not persuaded that you’re going to have a long life that is going to be free of illness. I’m not persuaded that you are going to be free of pain. No, no, no, no.” But this is what Paul says he is persuaded of, and now he begins with a list of eight circumstances or events of personalities that cannot separate us from the love of God.
Number one, he lists death, which is our greatest enemy. He says that doesn’t count against God’s love. In fact, it says in the book of John that Jesus loved Lazarus, and Lazarus died. God loves His people and He loves to take them to heaven. When the wife of [Donald] Barnhouse, that great preacher, died, he was coming home from the funeral and he was trying to comfort his children who were in the car crying, and suddenly a big truck drove up beside them, and when it did its shadow overcame the car and overshadowed the car, so he immediately thought of something and said, “Children, would you rather be hit by a truck or just the shadow of the truck?” And of course they said, “We’d rather be hit by just the shadow of the truck because the shadow doesn’t hurt,” and he said, “You know, in the very same way, your mother has not been hurt by death. She’s only passed through the valley of the shadow of death. She’s not been hurt by it. We are saddened because she is gone, but death does not separate us from the love of Christ.”
Will life with all of its circumstances and its dangers? No, and then Paul says, “Angels, would they separate us from the love of Christ?” Of course not! They wouldn’t even think of it, but Paul here is just considering every possibility that one could imagine. Principalities—it’s translated rulers here – is a reference to the demonic world. Can it separate us from the love of Christ? Can demons that harass Christians, can demons that sometimes confuse Christians, can demons that sometimes struggle with Christians—can they in some way separate us from the love of Christ? Paul says no. Principalities can’t.
What about things present? What about the events of today? Will they separate us from the love of Christ? Paul would say, “No, that won’t happen.” Things present, things to come, tomorrow, the events that you are going to face at work and the unemployment slip that you might be getting—will they separate you from the love of Christ? Paul says, “No, things to come won’t do it.”
Will powers do it? This is another reference to demonic powers. Paul wanted to make sure that they were included—the supernatural powers and the superstitions of the day, and he’s saying in effect, “Curses can’t. Living on the thirteenth floor of a building can’t. It can’t separate you from the love of Christ,” and then he says, “What about height?” He’s actually referring to astronomy. Astronomy talks about the highest star, and of course astronomy is often turned into astrology, which is condemned in the Bible, but twelve million Americans make their decisions based on their horoscopes, based on the stars. Will the height of a star at its point of zenith—at its strength— will it separate you from the love of Christ because it has power? No. Will the star that has depth—will it separate you from God’s power? The answer, of course, is no, it can’t. Stars can’t. Height or depth can’t do it, and then Paul says, “You know what? There may be somebody out there who thinks I’ve overlooked something,” so he says, “nor anything in all creation,” or as it says literally, “Anything that has been created” can’t separate you from the love of Christ.
Now think about this for a moment theologically. Is there anything that exists that hasn’t been created by God? I don’t think so. God created even Satan. He was created perfect but then he fell, but there is nothing in the entire Universe that exists that has not been created by God, and Paul says that no created thing can separate you from the love of Christ.
You say, “Well, couldn’t I do it myself? Couldn’t I just choose to be separated from the love of Christ?” Not if you are a believer, and this is a message to those who have put saving faith in Jesus Christ. No, there is no way that you can do it. Do you realize today that if you belong to Jesus (and that is an “if”); if you are a believer and therefore you belong to Jesus, there is nothing that you can do to get God to stop loving you.
The love of Christ! [applause] What an assurance that God has decided to love you and no created thing can separate you from His love. No wonder the hymn writer wrote,
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell.
Could we with ink the oceans fill,
And were the sky of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade?
To write the love of God above
Would drain the oceans dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.”
Nothing san separate you from the love of God.
Now, what we need to do is to make sure that this has come home to us, so let me give you some conclusions that should send you home rejoicing in God’s love. The first is simply this. Remember that divine love is based on the lover. This is critical. It’s based on the lover. Now, human love is based on the person loved. I love you because of what you do for me. I love you because you are beautiful. I love you because you make life easier. I love you because I love to be seen with you. I love you and when you change, I’ll love somebody else. That’s human love.
Divine love is based on God. Look at what Paul says in verse 36: “‘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.” How does Paul put those two ideas together? Sheep? Victorious? Shepherds tell us that sheep are stubborn. They are difficult to get along with. They take false paths. They are weak. They are incredibly vulnerable to enemies. I mean, how in the world can a sheep be a super conqueror? Maybe an elephant or maybe a lion can be, but a sheep a super conqueror?
It has nothing to do with the sheep really. It has everything to do with the shepherd. That’s why Paul says, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” This is all of God. It is not that we ourselves have all of this love within us, and when David said in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” he in effect said, “Because the Lord is my shepherd there’s nothing that I really, really need that I don’t have,” and so it’s dependent upon the lover. It is God who has chosen to love us. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and gave his son as a propitiation for our sins.” It is all dependent on God, and there is no other person out there who can dissuade Him from loving those whom he has chosen to redeem.
So, first of all, divine love is based on the lover, and secondly, divine love guarantees our security. Now, if you have been with us in these eight messages on Romans 8, you know that the whole last part of this chapter is devoted to the subject of security. The fact that once God has decided to choose you and justify you and glorify you, you will arrive safely in heaven. If God lost you along the way, He would have more to lose than you would. His whole reputation would be at stake. He would have made a promise to somebody, and given us the ability to believe that promise and then in the end, have taken away that ability, or in the end, have lost someone whom He chose to save, and that would not be a credit to God. So what Paul is saying when he says, “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ,” in effect or in context he’s saying nothing can really separate us from the power of the Gospel to change a life. Nothing can separate us from what God is doing in our lives, and even though we at times are not faithful, it says in the book of Timothy, “When we believe not, yet he is faithful.” Why? It’s because he cannot deny himself.
It’s all in God’s hands. We participate, of course, and we are obedient, but ultimately standing back of all of that is the will and the purpose of God, and divine love guarantees our security if you are a believer in Jesus Christ.
Finally, divine love is really a matter of faith. It’s not blind faith, but it is faith in God’s promises, because there are times when you look around and you say, “I don’t see love. What does God do with all of His power? Where is He when I need Him? Where is the love?” And it’s at those moments that we recognize that it is a matter of faith, and that’s why what God does in the midst of our tears and our hurt is He births hope and we begin to look beyond this world to the next.
Larry Crabb says, “The hurt doesn’t feel good but it does feel clean.” Through our tears we actually can sing, ‘Great is thy faithfulness.’ We don’t sing without an ache but rather with an ache, but we do sing,” and that’s why at the beginning of this message I read that paragraph from that mother, taking care of two special needs children with a husband who has been abusive and from whom she has had to separate, and yet she says, “I teach my children the love of God.” Why? She looks beyond the circumstances. She can see more than most of us can, because she can see in it that what God does is He oftentimes takes us and He takes good food away from us that we might hunger for something that is even better.
It was Spurgeon who said, “Oh blessed axe of sorrow that cuts a pathway to my God by chopping down the tall trees of human comfort.” Paul says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Who is out there? What created being can separate us from a God who has chosen to love us, love us, love us, and love us all the way into eternity, and of course, beyond? There is nobody out there that can Circumstances can’t. The devil can’t. You can’t. God’s love transcends it all.
Now for those of you who are listening, you need to understand that there are times of doubt in our Christian life, and I’m speaking first of all to those of you who have never trusted Christ as Savior. You may say, “This message just blows past me because I don’t believe that God loves me like this,” and it may well be because you’ve never trusted Christ. You have not had the love of God birthed in your own heart, and I urge you today to believe in Jesus, and receive the free gift of eternal life. But for those of you who know Christ as Savior, are there times of doubt when we doubt God’s love? Yes.
In 1842, a man by the name of George Matheson (who became blind but went through college at the University of Glasgow because his sister read all the text books to him) became a pastor. He memorized all of his sermons. He memorized all of the Scripture that he would use every Sunday, and therefore really knew the Word. But he went through a time of depression and a time of doubt. He doubted God’s love. He said, “Why is it that I can’t see when everybody else can?” His doubt was so severe that he left the ministry, but then after leaving the ministry he came back, and he came back with renewed vigor and renewed faith, and he wrote these lovely words.
Oh love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee.
I give thee back the life I owe
That in the ocean depths it’s flow
May richer, fuller be.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? If you are a believer, nobody shall. Not even you can do it, because God has chosen to love us.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, as we think about all that God has done for us in Jesus, we want to thank You, and even as we have communion together, we are reminded of the fact that this is the supreme example of the fact that You do love us that You would give Your Son for us. Now Father we ask in Jesus’ name that You shall birth faith in our hearts. I pray for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior. May they know that they need to believe in Jesus, and for those of us who do know You, we pray that we might love You back because You love us so much. Help us to be secure in that love. We thank You that it is based upon Your Word and the rock of Your promises.
In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.