Chapter 5 – Perspectives on Eternal Security
Testamentum Imperium’s First Collection
Editors Kevaughn Mattis and Kirk R. MacGreggor,
Foreword by Michael G. Maness (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock,4 c2008).
1 This article is dedicated to the memory of my friend and colleague John Peet (1940–2005).
Before he went to be with the Lord, John was the pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Cobden,
Victoria, Australia. As he struggled with cancer during the last year of his life John drew great comfort
from this passage, which was also the text for my sermon at his funeral on 28 January 2005.
he relationship between the eternal security of the believer and
the saving love of God is nowhere stated more compellingly than in
Romans 8:31–39. This is Scripture’s locus classicus for the doctrine
of the perseverance of the saints or the eternal security of the believer:
31 What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us,
who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but
gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him,
graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge
against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34
Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than
that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also
interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of
Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or
nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,
39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.5
These verses are dominated by four controlling who? questions,
which in turn determine the structure of the passage:
1. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (v. 31)
2. “Who will bring a charge against those whom God has chosen?” (v. 33)
3. “Who is the he that condemns?” (v. 34)
4. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (v. 35)
Questions 1–3 are legal or forensic in nature, while the fourth question is relational. In v. 35 the language of law makes way for the language of love. Hence the passage divides neatly into two constituent parts:
5 Unless otherwise indicated all Scripture quotations are from the NIV.
(a) The legal section (vv. 31–34). Here the language of the law court is most prominent, namely “delivered (for sentencing)” (v. 32), “bring a charge against,” “justifies” (v. 33), “condemns,” and “intercedes” (v. 34).
(b) The relational section (vv. 35–39). These verses are embraced by a neat inclusio of love—“the love of Christ” (v. 35) and “the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 39). It is from this love that the elect are declared to be inseparable, no matter what natural or supernatural forces may be arrayed against them (vv. 35, 38, 39).6
The transition from a legal to a relational emphasis in these verses becomes more comprehensible in the light of Paul’s earlier emphasis on adoption (vv. 14–17). Here Paul draws an illustration from a practice that was common in the Roman world. Under Roman law adoption involved a legal transaction by which the adoptee was released from his natural father’s legal authority (or potestas) and was then transferred to the potestas of the adoptive father.7 A son who was thus adopted received all the rights of the new family and became heir to his adoptive father’s estate.8 If his new father had natural sons, the adoptee was treated as their equal. “The debts of his old life were cancelled,” writes David Williams, “and no claim could be made against him in the courts on that account. In the eyes of the law, he was no longer the person he had been. He was a new man.”9 This practice has obvious parallels to the adoption of the believer into the family of God.
6 Cf. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament;
Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 458: “Most scholars divide the verses into five sections (vv. 31a, 31b–32,
33–34, 35–37, 38–39) . . . A more persuasive analysis splits the text into two sections (vv. 31–34 and 35–
39) in which the first part has a judicial emphasis and the second focuses on love.” Thus also Douglas J.
Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 538: “I think it is simplest and most natural to divide the paragraph into two
parts: vv. 31–34 and vv. 35–39. The first is dominated by judicial imagery . . . In vv. 35–39, Paul
expands the picture by adding to our assurance for the ‘last day’ assurance for all the days in between.”
Paul develops this metaphor most fully in Romans 8:12–17. As Williams further explains:
There was a time when we were under the potestas of sin (Paul has argued this, although not in these terms, in the earlier chapters), but God, in his mercy, has made us God’s children by adoption. The past has no claim on us now. Our adoptive Father, on the other hand, has an absolute claim (e.g., we have no right to our assets; they are rightfully his). The past is no more; our debts have been cancelled; a new life has begun. We are heirs, Paul declares, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (v. 17).10
The background of Paul’s thinking in a practice that would have been well known to his Roman readers explains his easy transition from legal to relational language in vv. 31–39. Because all the legal requirements for the believers’ adoption into God’s family have been met, God is able to lavish his love upon his children without let or hindrance. Because we are God’s very own through the process of adoption, no counter-claims can be lodged against us. Our opponents have had their day in court and none of their accusations will stand. Nothing from our past life can be held against us. Just as under Roman law the adoptee’s old life was left behind, so for the believer his adoption into God’s family brings with it a new legal status. As a son of God nothing can come between him and the love of his adoptive Father. It is only within this strongly legal-relational context that the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer can be fully appreciated.
Important as this feature of Paul’s immediately preceding argument is for understanding of the doctrine of eternal security, verses 31–38 can be more deeply understood in the light of the overall context. Precisely how these verses fit into Paul’s overall argument has been a matter of some dispute among scholars. Yet it is imperative that this matter be resolved if we are to adequately examine the meaning of the passage before us.
10 Ibid., 65.
The passage opens with a crucial question: “What then shall we say to these things?” (v. 31 NASB) But what precisely is the antecedent to these things? The question is pivotal. How far back is Paul reaching into his earlier argument? In our paragraph Paul is clearly drawing an argument to a close. But precisely what argument is it? It is obvious that these things should include the teaching of vv. 28–30, which embraces God’s providence and his eternal purpose. Yet these doctrines are not stated de novo in these verses, but are firmly anchored in Paul’s earlier discussion. But how far back does this discussion go, and to what argument is Paul now giving such a resounding conclusion? On this point there seem to be two major schools of thought:
(a) There are those who hold that Rom 8:31–39 forms an inclusio with 5:1–11, as both passages, according to Thomas Schreiner, “feature the confidence that comes from the hope of believers.”11 Moreover, “Paul reflects back on 5:1—8:30 and considers the greatness of what God has accomplished on behalf of believers.”12 This inclusio does not exclude the fact that in these verses Paul is also bringing chapter 8 to a climax. The point is more fully developed by Douglas Moo:
[T]he similarity between the language and contents of this passage and Rom. 5 suggests that this paragraph, while responding immediately to what Paul has been saying in chap. 8, and especially 8:18–30, is intended to cap Paul’s many-sided discussion of Christian assurance in chaps. 5–8 as a whole. Thus, we hear again, as in 5:1–11, of the love of God in Christ for us and the assurance that that brings to us; of the certainty of final vindication because of the justifying verdict of God; and of how these great forces render ultimately impotent and unimportant the tribulations of this life.13
11 Schreiner, Romans, 456.
While this view has an obvious appeal because of the symmetry that it
uncovers in Paul’s argument, there is a more convincing alternative.
The phrase These things has an even further reach than either Moo or
Schreiner seems willing to allow.
(b) There is a loud chorus of commentators who believe that these things points not only to the immediately preceding context (especially vv. 18–30) but through that context to Paul’s entire argument up to this point. Leon Morris, for example, makes a bold claim:
“The whole [of vv. 31–39] should be seen as the conclusion and summing up not only of the immediately preceding section, but of the whole of the letter up to this point.”14
Charles Hodge has argued the same case with equal emphasis:
“The conclusion of the chapter is a recapitulation of all his former arguments, or rather the reduction of them to one, which comprehends them all in their fullest force; God IS FOR US.”15
James Dunn has likewise argued that our passage serves to sum up Paul’s whole argument in Romans 1–8. “What shall we then say to these things?” (v. 31) evokes the following comments: The question obviously introduces a conclusion, certainly to the final section 8:18–30; but since 8:18–30 is itself the climactic conclusion of the whole sequence of chap. 6–8 (matching the role of 5:12–21 in the section 1:18—5:21 . . . ), the tau`ta [“these things”] can be taken to refer to the whole developed line of argument in chaps. 6–8; and since 8:18–30 effectively rounds off the argument so far (1:18—8:30) it is not going too far (despite Wilckens, n. 767) to refer the tau`ta to the whole (cf. Cranfield).
14 Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 334.
NEB catches the mood well, “With all this in mind, what are we to say?”16
Although some of the more recent commentators view our passage as the conclusion only of Paul’s argument in chapters 5–8, there is much to be said for these verses being a rousing appeal to Paul’s readers to personally appropriate all of his teaching up to this point. He is passionately urging his readers—whatever their circumstances—to make his gospel of God’s love their own. As such, this passage occupies a central position in the epistle as a whole and has a climactic place in the mainstream of Paul’s overall argument.
In the exordium (1:1–7) Paul introduces himself to his readers in terms of his gospel. The heart of this gospel was the message of justification by faith, a doctrine for which Paul argues strenuously in chapters 1–5. All human beings, whether Jews or Gentiles, lack the righteousness that God requires (1:18—3:20). Therefore their only hope lies in God providing that righteousness through Christ by means of the propitiation in his blood (3:21—5:21). Hence the only way that people can be right with God is through faith in Christ. But before Paul applies that doctrine to life in 12:1ff., he addresses two major objections that might be raised against it.
Objection 1: If salvation is by faith, rather than by works, doesn’t
that lead to a careless (and perhaps even lawless) way of life? This
objection is stated quite explicitly at the beginning of chapter six:
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may
increase?” (6:1). Paul gives the short answer in the very next verse:
“By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
This short answer is then unpacked in the remainder of chapters 6–8:
(a) We died to sin by being raised with Christ to newness of life (ch.
(b) We also died to the law which merely succeeds in identifying and diagnosing our sin, not in overcoming it (ch. 7).
16 James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8 (Word Biblical Commentary; vol. 38A; Dallas: Word, 1988), 499.
(c) We live in the newness of resurrection life by the power of the
indwelling Holy Spirit (ch. 8).
In chapters 6–8, therefore, Paul demonstrates the transforming power of God’s righteousness. Justification leads to sanctification.
Objection 2: The second major objection to Paul’s teaching is met in chapters 9–11: If the message of justification by faith is true, and if it demonstrates God’s justice, then why was it rejected by those for whom it was originally intended? If, by and large, the gospel was rejected by Israel, how can it demonstrate the justice of God? If Israel fails to believe, how can the gospel be “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (1:16)?17 Have not Paul’s own missionary journeys disproved the principle of Jewish priority? And—most seriously— haven’t God’s purposes failed, if Israel remains in unbelief? Objection 1 seems to have been raised by Paul’s opponents (3:7– 8). The second objection also deeply affected the apostle himself. For him Jewish unbelief was a very personal and heart-rending issue (9:1– 5). “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart,” he writes. As Paul pens these words, his emotions are deeply stirred. He then addresses the turmoil of his own soul by way of a clear and cogent argument. At the outset he states the proposition that he is about to defend: “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (9:6). In the chapters that follow he both explains and develops this claim, and supports it from Scripture.
Hence Romans 8:31–39 comes at a crucial juncture in Paul’s overall argument. He has just answered one major objection and is about to tackle a second. In this passage he not only draws his entire earlier argument to a close, he also lays the groundwork for meeting the second major objection raised against his doctrine of justification by faith.
17 Cf. Mark Harding, “The Salvation of Israel and the Logic of Romans 11:11–36,” Australian Biblical Review 46 (1998): 57: “Paul’s argument in 1:18—8:39 has cast a shadow over his claim that the gospel is for Jew first since it is clear that the Jews have largely insisted on keeping the Torah when confronted by gospel preaching. They need to be persuaded that Paul’s message is to be believed, and that it comprises God’s diagnosis and prescription for the Jew first. It is therefore totally expected that Paul, having declared at the outset that this is the case, should open the issue to a large-scale discussion as to why Israel has not been persuaded and what her destiny might be.”
If no one can bring any charge against God’s elect because God is the one who justifies (v. 32), then what will become of God’s elect in the Old Testament, the chosen nation of Israel? We have seen how God deals with his adopted sons, but now what about his “natural” sons?18 How does God propose to deal with his ancient covenant people? As Schreiner explains:
Israel was God’s chosen people and the only one foreknown among the nations (Amos 3:2), and yet now the church is said to be foreknown and chosen by God (Rom. 8:29–30). Yahweh had promised never to forsake Israel (Deut. 31:6), yet now this promise is extended to the church (Rom. 8:38–39; cf. also Heb. 13:5). With the application of so many OT promises to the church in chapters 5–8, the relationship of Israel to God’s saving plan cries out for resolution, and Paul turns to that question next.19
The place that our passage occupies in this epistle is therefore pivotal. It brings Paul’s earlier argument to both its logical conclusion and climactic crescendo. Clearly his argument peaks at this point. As a compelling preacher Paul drives home the point of his argument with driving force. He also sets the stage for meeting the second major objection to his gospel. More modestly, he is also drawing chapter 8 to a fitting close.
In chapter 8 Paul is still answering the objection raised in 6:1: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?” In chapter 6 he has begun to answer this question by appealing to the new life that the believer has in Christ. Not only has such a person been united to Christ in his resurrection (vv. 3–15), he has thereby also become a slave to righteousness (vv. 15–23). Yet this new slavery does not mean bondage to the law (7:1–6). Rather, the believer has died to the law. As Paul further explains in 7:6, “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
18 The language of adoption / sonship remains prominent throughout chapter 9. See vv. 4, 7–9,
This verse proves to be a watershed for the chapters that follow. The old way of the written code is graphically described in the remainder of chapter 7. There Paul depicts the man who in his struggle against sin calls upon the law as his ally, and the outcome is ignominious defeat. Then Paul describes the better way— the new way of the Spirit. This is the subject of chapter 8. Those who live according to the Spirit are those in whom the righteous requirements of the law are fully met (8:4). Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set them free from the law of sin and death (v. 2). They therefore have set their minds on what the Spirit desires (v. 5). Their minds are controlled by the Spirit, resulting in life and peace (v. 6). Hence God will give life to their mortal bodies through the Spirit who lives in them (v. 11). Those who by the Spirit put to death the misdeeds of the body will live (v. 13). It is in this context that believers are first called “sons of God” (v. 14) and “children of God” (vv. 16–17) in Romans. They are defined as “those who are led by the Spirit of God” (v. 14). It is here that Paul’s adoption theology comes to its finest flower:
15 For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to
fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.20 And by him we cry,
16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.21
17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
The glorious inheritance that God’s sons will enjoy is nothing less than the new creation (vv. 18–25). The old order in which they still live is pregnant with the new. The convulsions now observed in the created order are compared to the pains of a woman in labor. The creation’s groans are “a symphony of sighs”22 shared by the sons of God (v. 23), and even by the Spirit himself (v. 26).
20 The Greek word used here is uijoqesiva and means “appointment or acceptance as a son,
adoption.” “The Spirit received by the believers . . . allows them to experience the new father-son
relationship” (EDNT 3:381).
As the sons still share in the futility of the creation the Spirit helps them in their weakness and joins in their sighs. These are not the sighs of desperation but of hope (v. 24). The object of this hope is variously described as “the revelation of the sons of God” (v. 19), “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (v. 21), and “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23).
From v. 23 in particular it is clear that the adoption of believers as children of God is intimately related to the resurrection of their bodies on the last day. It is then that they will be perfectly conformed to the likeness of the Son of God, who through the process of adoption has become their elder brother (v. 29). This process began when God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering” (v. 3; cf. v. 32). The process is complete with the glorification of the children of God (v. 30), when finally the adopted sons will resemble the natural Son (v. 29), and will share in his inheritance (v. 17). All of this is the work of the Spirit who transforms them into the likeness of Christ through sanctification in this life, and who will perfect that transformation through the resurrection on the last day (v. 11). It is therefore not surprising that in this chapter all the references to God’s sons and children (vv. 15, 16, 17, 19, 21) and to their adoption (vv. 15, 23) are “embraced” by the references to his Son that precede and follow (vv. 3, 29, 32). God’s gift of his Son as a sin offering is the basis for their adoption,23 while their conformity into his likeness is its goal.
The new way of the Spirit is the subject of the chapter in which our passage stands. He is the Spirit of adoption who transforms the sons of God into the image of the Son of God. This transformation does not happen immediately, but the Spirit brings it about progressively through the process of sanctification. He will finally bring his work to completion through the resurrection of the body on the last day. What he has begun in sanctification he will complete in glorification. This is the assurance which our passage so eloquently celebrates.
23 Cf. TDNT 8:399: “Institution by God is set forth as the only ground of sonship. . . It is the all-transforming act of the Son that changes bondage into sonship. Eph. 1:5 backs this with a reference to God’s foreordination which rules out all the boasting of man with his natural or acquired qualities.”