A sermon on Romans 8:31 to 39 preached on June 17, 2012
In one of his books, my good friend Leonard Griffith tells the story of an man dying in hospital, having struggled all his life against grinding poverty and ill-health. The hospital chaplain, wanting to know if the man belonged to any church, asked him: “What persuasion are you?” “Paul’s persuasion”, he replied. The chaplain was puzzled. He thought he knew the name of every denomination under the sun… Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican. So he asked the man, “Paul’s persuasion? What exactly do you mean?” With difficulty the old man raised his head and quoted from the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans chapter 8:
I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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.
We’ve looked at Romans 8 for the last two Sundays and discovered both Paul’s faith and Paul’s frustration. He was frustrated by his inability to live the life he knew he ought to live as a Christian. He was frustrated by the problems and pain that mark not just individual lives but the whole creation. The whole world suffers, groans, and is in bondage to decay, Paul wrote. Was he having a bad day? No, he describes the fact that everything we touch and everything and everyone we love will pass away. Everything! Yet Romans 8 doesn’t end on the note of frustration. The words with which Paul finishes this famous chapter are these: frustration and suffering there may be, yet of one thing in this fragile world I am persuaded. It’s this: “I am persuaded that neither death, life, angels, rulers, things present or things to come....nothing...will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”.
We all need one thing in this world of which we’re persuaded, one thing on which we can depend, one thing to which we cling when, as the hymn says, ‘Change and decay in all around I see’. What is the one thing that change and decay cannot destroy? When we’re young, we harbour the illusion that our health is indestructible. But time changes that. As we mature, we’re tempted to think the one guaranteed thing in life is our partner: “As long as I have her, I can face anything”. Time changes that too. Now it’s true that we welcome certain changes. Not everything is to our liking. But there are some things on which we depend. I resent it when my favourite shirt gets ripped and to be cast off. I’ve had the same dentist for twenty-eight years; I don’t want him ever to retire. I’m put out when my favourite restaurant goes out of business.
Long ago, Paul too was disappointed by change and decay. We live in a world, he says in Romans 8, where disaster and death break things apart. So what is the one thing that change and decay cannot destroy? For Paul, and for the old man lying in hospital, the one thing of which they were persuaded, was the love of God, a love that would never end, and that nothing can destroy.
Of what are you persuaded? Often we’re persuaded of something when we ought to not to be. We’re persuaded by advertizing that tells us that owning a big house will make us happier; persuaded that a bigger bank account will guarantee our future, or persuaded that if we buy a brand new Volvo or Mercedes, it will come with a blonde bombshell who can make us feel nineteen again! It’s not going to happen. Perhaps you pride yourself on the fact that you’re not easily persuaded, and that you can resist all attempts to persuade you of anything...even preachers trying to sell you on God. “Come off it”, you say, “I’m not the gullible sort; so don’t even try to persuade me of the love of God, in light of the suffering in this world”.
In Romans 8:35 Paul addresses this suspicious point of view. “Are there things that can separate us from God?” he asks. Can hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword? Paul knew that such experiences had the power to make believers cynical, especially about the love of God. Tragedy of any kind can cause us to become wary, perhaps to even withdraw from God. When cancer strikes, so does doubt; when twin towers turn to rubble, so does confidence in God. Paul knew all about it. The list of troubles he names in Romans 8 wasn’t a theoretical list. It was a list of the realities that the early Christians in Rome to whom Paul addressed his letter faced every day, and that he himself had endured. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians Paul mentions that ‘five times I have received...the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea’. He had experienced the hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness and peril of which he wrote in Romans 8. And yet he insists, “I am persuaded... that...nothing...in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God”.
What persuaded him? In face of life’s fragility and frustrations, Paul had to make a choice; either to trust God, or to conclude that life is a matter of random chance. Is life just ‘a journey from nothingness to nothingness’, as Ernest Hemingway once put it? Is God for us or against us? ‘What then are we to say about these things?’ he asks at verse 31. Paul’s answer is this: that despite everything, God is for us. If that is so, then asks Paul, “who is against us?’ Commenting on this verse, Ray Stedman tells how one of his congregational elders had a thirteen-year old grandson in Missouri who was being bullied. The boy was Mexican, and was regularly beaten up by a group of older boys who figured they were a junior branch of the white supremacist movement. The Mexican boy’s parents didn’t know what to do to help their son. One night, the biggest boy at that school came to their home. Mike announced that he was a Christian and then announced that he’d gone to every white supremacist kid in the school to say that if any harm ever came to the Mexican boy again, they’d have to take him on. Well, the Mexican boy was never touched again… because Mike was on his side. With Mike on his side, who would dare be against him?
Do you have confidence like that in God, asks Paul? Are you confident that God is for you and not against you? It’s a vital question; because if you think that God is against you, it will drain your confidence away. If you conceive of God as out to get you, you’ll always live in fear. But if, like Paul, you’re persuaded that God is for you, you can face anything. As the opening verse of Psalm 27 puts it, ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; of whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’ That’s how Paul felt in the face of hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or sword.
But where did Paul get such confidence in God? What persuaded him that God was for him and not against him? “I’ll tell you how I know that God is for me and for you”, he writes in verse 32. God ‘did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us’. That being the case, Paul adds, ‘will he not with him also give us everything else?’ God proved his love by giving his Son, and through his Son, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. To the chaos and conflict we humans create, God gave his Son; to the wretchedness of our sin and sorrow, God gave his Son; for a compromised and corrupt world, God sacrificed his Son, in that sacrifice taking responsibility for the evil of which we are guilty. God, in the person of his Son, stooped to the place of judgment and stood condemned in our place. We’re talking about a love without limits, writes Paul, a love that took on hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. And this Son, Jesus, who suffered and died, insists Paul, God raised in victory. “That’s why I’m persuaded”.
Do you recall the British musical Oliver? Of course you do; before Andrew Lloyd Webber came along, it’s was the only British musical of which you’d ever heard. Based on the novel of Charles dickens, Oliver is a young waif at the mercy of unscrupulous thieves who populate the underworld of Victorian London. But young Oliver meets a woman called Nancy whose motherly instinct tries to protect him from a life of crime. To her, a grateful Oliver sings: ‘I’d do anything, for you dear anything, for you mean everything to me’. What Paul says in Romans 8 is that God doesn’t just sing about what he’ll do for us; God has done it...everything!
It made Paul burst with confidence. ‘If God is for us’, [and he is], ‘who will bring any charge against us? Who can condemn us’, asks Paul at verse 33. All sorts of people could bring charges against us and sometimes do; though the most persistent person who tries to condemn us is ourselves. But there’s no point, writes Paul. God knows every mistake you’ve ever made or ever will make, and every charge that could be pinned on you. God knows them all. God isn’t blind to our sin. But it makes no difference. Christ died for our sins, judging them, and removing them, forever. But it gets even better, writes Paul. Jesus, who has the sole right to be our judge, hasn’t only paid our debts, but has risen in resurrection power to intercede for us [verse 34]. Instead of being our accuser, he has become our advocate. Instead of being our condemner, he’s our champion before the face of God.
No sin, no sorrow, no failure, and no famine can undo what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. God’s love is not only unshockable but unstoppable. Of that Paul was persuaded. Are you?