Hymn of the Justified

Romans 8:31-39 is better sung than commented upon. It’s a thrilling, ecstatic hymn of boisterous assurance that God’s purposes will be accomplished. Yet, I will attempt to comment on them. If we sing Paul’s hymn, let’s make sure we sing with understanding.

Given the character of these verses, it’s easy and understandable that they, like Romans 8:28-30, are often cited apart from their context. But these verses form the climax of Paul’s discussion of the gift of the Spirit and the hope of new creation that he has been talking about throughout the chapter. Paul’s excited confidence is a confidence that God will accomplish His purpose of bringing the sons of God to glory, and His purpose of renewing His creation through those sons. Though Christians in Paul’s day (as in ours) suffer affliction, those afflictions are the birth pangs of new creation.

This, as N.T. Wright points out, is the great climax of Paul’s teaching on justification. He notes that what justification by faith produces in us is not ultimately justification itself but assurance. That is, the psychological, moral, cultural effect of God’s justification is confidence that God holds nothing against us and therefore the world holds no terrors. In a word: Justified people are fearless people.

As many commentators point out, the theme of these verses is stated in verse 31. “These things” are the things that Paul has been talking about in chapter 8, and throughout the first 8 chapters of the epistle. In the light of God sending His Son as a propitiation for sin, in the light of our delivered by the Spirit from the bondage of Sin and Death, in the light of God doing what the Law was incapable of doing – in the light of these events and actions of God, what is our response to be?

All “these things” are summed up in the proposition implied in the protasis of the second sentence in verse 31: “God is for us.” That is the sum and substance of the gospel. God has not left humanity in wickedness and sin; He has not delivered His world over to death. He has determined to put His righteous power and His powerful righteousness to work in order to bring about the fulfillment of the creation in His chosen people, those who have been predestined before the foundations of the earth. As Barth emphasized, God has determined not to be God except as He is “God for us.” The Father has sent His Son for us; the Son has died and risen again for us; the Spirit indwells us and intercedes for us. All of God has put Himself to work for us.

Paul completes the thought with a rhetorical question: If God is for us, then who is against us? This does not imply, as Paul makes clear in the following verses, that no one opposes the church. On the contrary, there are many who stand “against us.” Paul’s point is that such opposition is wholly ineffectual if God is for us, since God is for us. All the hosts of the earth can ally against the elect of God, but the Divine Warrior has taken our side in that conflict. And He will scatter His enemies like mist, like chaff before the wind. With this champion on our side, all opposition is nothing and less than nothing. Immanuel is the name of Jesus. It is also the experience of the church of the justified.
The great sign of God’s being “for us” is His action in Christ. Paul’s reasoning in verse 32 is from the greater to the lesser. God, a Father greater even than Abraham, has made the greatest sacrifice, offering His only Son, His beloved Son, “for us all.” “Delivered up” alludes to Isaiah 53:6, 12, where the LXX uses the same verb that Paul uses to describe the death of the Servant of Yahweh. This is the greatest gift that the Father can give, the gift of His own Son, the gift of Himself in His Son. If He has given that gift, then we can be confident that He will with Jesus also give us all things (Greek, panta).

Thomas Schreiner argues persuasively that this “all things” should not be restricted to an eschatological promise. Paul teaches that the “sons of God” will inherit the new creation at the eschaton. That world, that new heavens and new earth, will be completely the possession of the elect, those who have been justified and glorified through Jesus. There will not be a single plot of ground that is not under the ownership and dominion of the righteous.

That is not all Paul intends here. Just a few verses earlier, he has used the same word to proclaim that the whole of creation and history, every event and every thing in creation, is orchestrated for the good of those who love God and who are called in Christ (v. 28). The word in verse 32 is just as extensive. The fact that God has given His only Son for us means that now already, in the present, all things are ours (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:21-23). God’s gift of Jesus is the great sign that everything that happens in our lives, and in the life of the church, is a gift from God for our good. It is the great assurance that every last item in creation belongs to the sons of God who share in the inheritance of the Son of God. This common ownership of all things by the church is the fundamental economic reality in the new covenant.

Paul goes on to describe two sorts of threats that stand against us. First, there are threats that are framed in legal and judicial terms. That is to say, those who stand against us “bring charges” (v. 33) and seek to condemn (v. 34). In the first-century context, the accusations were primarily coming from the “synagogues of Satan,” Jews who challenged and accused the Christians (cf. Revelation), and later from Romans who denounced Christians as atheists. Paul’s statement, however, obviously also applies throughout the history of the church, to any who would bring accusations against the people of God.

The answer to these accusations is ultimately not self-defense (though Paul engages in his share of self-defense in various letters). The ultimate answer to these accusations is confidence that we stand in the right in the most important court, the court of heaven. Whatever our reputations, whatever lies or slanders are spread here on earth, we can be sure that none of them ultimately stick, none of them have any weight before God.

And the reason for that confidence is the same as the reason for our confidence in general: God is for us, and has expressed this by justifying us, by declaring us to be in the right, by a favorable judgment that has delivered us from Sin and Death. We can be confident that the charges won’t stick because we have a defense counsel at the right hand of God.

(Paul’s rhetorical questions here are no doubt drawn from Isaiah 50:8-9: “He who vindicates Me is near, who will contend with Me? Let us stand up to each other; Who has a case against Me? Let him draw near to Me. Behold, Master Yahweh helps Me, who is he who condemns Me?” In this context, the “me” is the servant of Yahweh, the representative Israelite. This is ultimately Jesus, but also the people of Jesus. As the “Elect One,” Jesus is vindicated by His Father; and we, elect in the Elect One, are also in the right before God.)

For Paul, justification doesn’t mean merely that we are accepted by God. It means that, because we are accepted by God, we will be vindicated over-against enemies. Justification is repeated and public, as God defends those who are in the Son.

Second, Paul lists various threats that might threaten to “separate us from the love of Christ” (v. 35). These threats are real. Paul himself suffered tribulation, distress, persecution, peril, and all the rest. And the reality of these threats to the righteous is already evident in the OT. Paul quotes from Psalm 44 (v. 36), a Psalm about the suffering of the righteous.

These threats might appear to be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Psychologically, Christian suffering distress and persecution they might be tempted to believe that God has abandoned them, that they are outside the love of God. The threat of suffering produces fear, and fear can lead us to shrink back from confessing Christ. When the persecutor puts a gun to our head and says, “Renounce Jesus or die,” we are in danger of buckling.

Paul covers both of these threats. He makes it clear that persecution is no sign that we are out of favor with God, no sign that God has withdrawn His love. Rather the opposite: Persecuted, we are privileged to share the suffering of the prophets and of the Prophet, Jesus. And, more importantly, God’s love itself powerfully holds us. We who are in Christ’s hand cannot be snatched away; we are held by the fingers of the Spirit. When the gun is put to our temple, and we cannot stand in our own power, Christ holds us firm in His love and does not let us fall.

Paul is confident that we are conquerors in the midst of all things. The victory of Jesus works itself out in our victory. In the face of accusations, we are conquerors because those accusations cannot stand in a court where we have already been justified. We can be confident of our victory in law, our vindication. In the face of persecutions and other hardships that attend faithful Christian living, we can be confident that God will hold us in His love and not abandon us. In the face of persecution and hardship, we sing the song of the justified.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.