A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 5:3-8 d). We also rejoice in our sufferings (continued).
What about the worthiness of the recipients? We for whom God made this costly sacrifice are portrayed by four epithets. First, we are *sinners* (8), that is, we have departed from the way of righteousness, fallen short of God’s standards and missed the target. Secondly, *at just the right time…Christ died for the ungodly* (6b). Instead of loving God with all our being, we have rebelled against him. Thirdly, ‘we were God’s enemies’(10). This certainly means that we cherished a deep-seated hostility to God (‘the sinful mind is hostile to God’, 8:7), a resentment to his authority. But we cannot be satisfied with the notion that the hostility was entirely on our side and not at all on God’s. For in 11:28 the opposite of ‘enemies’ is ‘loved’, so that the word ‘enemies’ must be passive too. The context contains references to God’s wrath (e.g. verse 9), which is God’s holy hatred of sin; and since the reconciliation between God and us is said to have been ‘received’ (11), it cannot mean our turning from our hostility, but must refer to God’s reconciling himself to us. Sanday and Headlam are surely correct in their conclusion: ‘We infer that the natural explanation of the passages which speak of enmity and reconciliation between God and man is that they are not on one side only, but are mutual’. ‘There is not only a wicked opposition of the sinner to God, but a holy opposition of God to the sinner’.
Paul’s fourth descriptive epithet is that *we were still powerless* (6a), meaning that we were helpless to rescue ourselves. ‘Sinners’, ‘ungodly’, ‘enemies’ and ‘powerless’. This is the apostle’s ugly, fourfold portrayal of us. Yet it is for us that God’s Son died. Why, he adds, *very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man* (probably referring to somebody whose uprightness is rather cold, clinical and unattractive), *though for a good man* (whose goodness is warm, generous and appealing) *someone might possibly dare to die* (7). *But God* (the stark contrast is underlined) ‘commendeth’ (AV), *demonstrates* (NIV), even ‘proves’ (REB) *his own love for us* (a love distinct from every other love, a love uniquely God’s own) *in this: While we were still sinners* (neither good nor righteous, but ungodly, enemies and powerless), *Christ died for us* (8).
Human beings can be very generous in giving to those they consider worthy of their affection and respect. The unique majesty of God’s love lies in the combination of three factors, namely that when Christ died for us, God (a) was giving himself, (b) even to the horrors of a sin-bearing death on the cross, and (c) doing so for his undeserving enemies.
How then can we doubt the love of God? To be sure, we are often profoundly perplexed by the tragedies and calamities of life. Indeed, Paul has been giving his teaching about God’s love within the context of ‘tribulation’, which can be very painful. But then we remember that God has both proved his love for us in the death of his Son (8) and poured his love into us by the gift of his Spirit (5). Objectively in history and subjectively in experience, God has given us good grounds for believing in his love. The integration of the historical ministry of God’s Son (on the cross) with the contemporary ministry of his Spirit (in our hearts) is one of the most wholesome and satisfying features of the gospel.