A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 8:31-39. c). Five unanswerable questions.
Paul introduces the last nine verses of this chapter with a concluding formula, which he has already used three times (6:1, 15; 7:7): *What, then, shall we say in response to this?* (31a). That is, in the light of his five convictions (28) and five affirmations (29-30), ‘what is there left to say?’ (JBP), or ‘what can we add?’ (JB). The apostle’s answer to his own question is to ask five more questions, to which there is no answer. He hurls them into space, as it were, in a spirit of bold defiance. He challenges anybody and everybody, in heaven, earth, or hell, to answer them and to deny the truth which they contain. But there is no answer. For no-one and nothing can harm the people whom God has foreknown, predestined, called, justified and glorified.
If we are to understand the significance of these questions, it is essential to grasp why each remains unanswered. It is because of a truth which in each case is either contained in the question, or is attached to it by an ‘if’ clause. It is this truth, whether explicit or implicit, which renders the question unanswerable. The clearest example is the first.
*Question 1: If God is for us, who can be against us?* (31b).
If Paul had simply asked, ‘Who is against us?’ there would immediately have been a barrage of replies. For we have formidable foes arrayed against us. What about the catalogue of hardships which he lists in verse 35; are they not against us? The unbelieving, persecution world is opposed to us (cf. 1 Cor.16:9: ‘there are many who oppose me’.). Indwelling sin is a powerful adversary. Death is still an enemy, defeated but not yet destroyed. So is he ‘who holds the power of death, that is, the devil’ (1 Cor. 15:26; Heb.2:14), together with all the principalities and powers of darkness which are mentioned in verse 38 (cf. Eph. 6:12). Indeed, the world, the flesh and the devil are together marshalled against us, and are much too strong for us. ‘Sometimes under calamity the whole universe seems to be against us’.
But Paul does not ask this naive question. The essence of his question is contained in the ‘if’ clause: ‘If [rather, ‘since’] God is for us, who can be against us?’ Paul is not saying that the claim ‘God is for us’ can be made by everybody. In fact, perhaps the most terrible words which human ears could ever hear are those which God uttered many times in the Old Testament: ‘”I am against you,” declares the Lord.’ They occur most frequently in the prophetic oracles against the nations, for example, against Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Tyre and Sidon, and Edom. (Assyria and its capital Nineveh, Na.2:13; 3:5) – Babylon, Je.50:31; 51:25 – Egypt, Ezk.29:3, 10; 30:22 – Tyre and Sidon, Ezk.26:3; 28:22 – and Edom, Ezk.35:1ff.). More terrible still, they are sometimes spoken against Israel herself in her disobedience and idolatry (E.g. Lv.26:17; Ezk,5:8; 14:8; 15:7; 21:3), and specially against her false shepherds and false prophets (E.g. Ezk.13:8f., 20; 14:9; 34:10).
But this is not the case in Romans 8:31. On the contrary, the situation Paul envisages is one in which ‘God is for us’, since he has foreknown, predestined, called, justified and glorified us. This being so, who can be against us? To that question there is no answer. All the powers of hell may set themselves together against us. But they can never prevail, since God is on our side.