A Commentary by John Stott
Paul now reaches his climax. He began with *we know* (28); he ends more personally with *I am convinced.* He deliberately uses the perfect tense (*pepeismai*), meaning, ‘I have become and I remain convinced’, for the conviction he expresses is rational, settled and unalterable. He has asked questions whether anything will separate us from Christ’s love (35-36); he now declares that nothing can and so nothing will (37-39). He chooses ten items which some might think powerful enough to create a barrier between us and Christ, and he mentions them in four pairs, while leaving the remaining two on their own. *Neither death nor life* presumably alludes to the crisis of death and the calamities of life. *Neither angels nor demons* is more debatable. *Demons* translates *archai*, which elsewhere are certainly evil principalities (E.g. Eph. 6:12; Col.2:15). One would therefore expect the contrasting *angels* to be good. But how can unfallen angels threaten God’s people? Perhaps, then, this couplet is more indefinite and is simply meant to include all cosmic, superhuman agencies, whether good or bad. Since Christ has triumphed over them all (e.g. Eph. 1:21f.), and they are now ‘in submission to him’ (1 Pet. 3:22), it is certain that they cannot harm us.
The next two pairs refer in modern language to ‘time’ (*neither the present nor the future*) and ‘space’ (*neither height nor depth*), while in between them, on their own, come unspecified *powers*, perhaps ‘the forces of the universe’ (REB). Some of these words, however, were technical terms for ‘the astrological powers by which (as many in the Hellenistic world believed) the destiny of mankind was controlled’. Alternatively, Paul’s language may have been more rhetorical than technical, as he affirms like Psalm 139:8 that ‘neither the highest height nor the deepest depth’, neither heaven nor earth nor hell, can separate us from Christ’s love. He concludes with *or anything else in creation*, in order to make sure that his inventory is comprehensive, and that nothing has been left out. Everything in creation is under the control of God the Creator and of Jesus Christ the Lord. That is why nothing *will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord* (39b).
Paul’s five questions are not arbitrary. They are all about the kind of God we believe in. Together they affirm that absolutely nothing can frustrate God’s purpose (since he is for us), or quench his generosity (since he had not spared his Son), or accuse or condemn his elect(since he has justified them through Christ), or sunder us from his love (since he has revealed it in Christ).
Here then are five convictions about God’s providence (28), five affirmations about his purpose (29,30) and five questions about his love (31-39), which together bring us fifteen assurances about him. We urgently need them today, since nothing seems stable in our world any longer. Insecurity is written across all human experience. Christian people are not guaranteed immunity to temptation, tribulation or tragedy, but we are promised victory over them. God’s pledge in not that suffering will never afflict us, but that it will never separate us from his love.
This is the love of God which was supremely displayed in the cross (5:8; 8:32, 37), which has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (5:5), which has drawn out from us our responsive love (8:28), and which in its essential steadfastness will never let us go, since it is committed to bringing us safe home to glory in the end (8:35, 39). Our confidence is not in our love for him, which is frail, fickle and faltering, but in his love for us, which is steadfast, faithful and preserving. The doctrine of ‘the perseverance of the saints’ needs to be re-named. It is the doctrine of the perseverance of God with the saints.
From my frail hold of thee;
In this alone rejoice with awe-
Thy mighty grasp of me.