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Seeing Ourselves as God Sees Us: Eternally Loved


 Romans 8:29-39


I: — “For I am sure that nothing, nothing seen or unseen in the entire creation, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing can separate us from God’s love?   Much seems to. Much intends to. And if we have ever ministered to people whose faith once flamed and has since flickered out, people whose faith catastrophe or torment or bewilderment has extinguished, we shall say that much appears to separate us from God’s love and seems to succeed in separating us from God’s love.

In the course of my work as a pastor in Mississauga I went to the church on a Saturday afternoon to conduct a wedding.   After the wedding I called on a church-member who was dying of AIDS. He was haemophiliac.  He needed thirteen pints of transfused blood per month.  He had acquired HIV-AIDS through the ‘tainted blood scandal’ involving the Canadian Red Cross. (You will recall that the Red Cross collected and passed on blood from people whose sexual history should have disqualified them, as even a child knows, from donating blood.) While I was visiting this man and his wife, Maureen phoned to tell me that Toronto General Hospital was trying to contact me. I phoned TGH, was told what I needed to know, and immediately drove downtown. There I found a 23-year old woman, mother of two children, who in her suicidal desperation had drunk as much bleach as she could get down.  When I saw her (specifically her colour) I knew she was dead.  Her chest was rising and falling, to be sure, since she was wired up to everything that could make her seem alive.  I prayed for her and I prayed with her family, gathered around the bed. (If you are wondering what I was doing, praying for someone I already knew to be dead, we can sort it out later.) As soon as I said “Amen” the nurse turned off the apparatus.  The oscilloscope went flat. Now everyone knew she was dead.

Sally was the dead 23-year old.  Sally’s mother had been raised in one of the poorest areas of England . Sally’s mother had worked exceedingly hard at the most menial, low-paying jobs since immigrating to Canada . She didn’t have a spare dime. Now she was left with having to care for her dead daughter’s two children.  Sally’s husband? He was an improvident alcoholic who had distressed Sally and who would soon cause more trouble for the heartbroken family.

A few weeks later, and it’s Saturday afternoon again in Mississauga ; another wedding. Ten minutes before the wedding commences (I’m about to solemnize the marriage of the Board Chairman’s daughter) the phone in my study rings. I’m told that a couple I married five years ago is dead, together with their two-year old son. Could I go to the family’s home right away? I told the caller I’d be over as soon as possible.  I stepped into the sanctuary and married the couple in front of me wearing my best wedding smile throughout the service.  (You wouldn’t want me to rain on your daughter’s parade, would you?) Then I went to the home that death had harassed.

Five years earlier I had married this couple, both of them schoolteachers. Recently the husband had become depressed. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward of Etobicoke General Hospital . On this Saturday afternoon he had walked out of the hospital, gone home, picked up an axe and decapitated his two-year old son in front of the boy’s mother.  Then he had decapitated his wife.  Finally he had hanged himself in the basement.  The dead mother’s parents, both 65 now, were left caring for their two-year old grandson and his dog.

In the aftermath of all of this I ministered to the grandparents as they were faithful members of my congregation.  One Sunday morning, ten minutes before the service, the grandfather knocked on my study door.         I don’t like being interrupted ten minutes before worship, since leading worship and preaching are awesome matters and I’m getting my head and heart around what I must do.  Still, I couldn’t refuse to speak with this man in his torment.  And what was on his mind, so very important that it couldn’t wait until after the service? It was the dog’s bowel movements. At one time they had been thus and so, but now….

Some of you are fond of dogs.  I’m not. I’m not eager to talk about their bowel movements – ten minutes before I conduct worship and preach.

I knew that what had brought his stammering fellow to my door wasn’t the dog’s bowel movements.  It was his anguish, an anguish that had suspended his judgement.  He was with me because he couldn’t not be there – and I knew it. I spoke with him, prayed with him, and together we went into the sanctuary to worship.  Six months later he came to see me again.  He had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

I’m not suggesting that every Saturday afternoon wedding concludes like the two I’ve mentioned.  But I do agree with Dr Leslie Weatherhead, notable British Methodist preacher and sophisticated psychologist.  In one of his books Weatherhead wrote, “If you were aware of the suffering found in the smallest hamlet in England , the smallest, you wouldn’t sleep at night.”

I can’t speak for you, but my exposure to people’s suffering has found me agreeing with Martin Luther.         Luther maintained that if faith is to thrive we have to shut our eyes and open our ears. We must open our ears because the gospel is heard, heard with our ears and heard in our hearts. We must close our eyes, on the other hand, because what we see whenever we look out on world-occurrence; what we see contradicts the gospel.  The gospel (heard) assures us that God loves us so very much he couldn’t love us more. World-occurrence (seen) shows us that God doesn’t love us at all.

Please don’t think that the incidents from my pastoral ministry that I’ve laid before you tonight are rare.  If you wanted, I could stand here all night and relate stories that would leave you aghast.

So what do you think? Does God love us? Is his love strong enough, and his love’s grip on us firm enough, that nothing will ever be able to separate us from an oceanic love vouchsafed to us in Christ Jesus our Lord?

Tonight my heart resonates with Paul’s.  Like him I am persuaded that nothing can separate us from God’s love. And like him I have every confidence in what I hear (the gospel) even as I am horrified at what I see.


II:         — At the same time Paul is aware that much in life aims at separating us from God’s love and may seem to have separated us.

One such thing is tribulation.  According to scripture tribulation or affliction isn’t the same as suffering-in-general. Suffering-in-general is what comes upon us because we are finite, frail, fragile creatures living in a turbulent world. Disease victimizes us. Infirmity threatens us. Pain warps us. In all such cases scripture mandates us to seek relief.  Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus consistently relieved suffering.

Tribulation, affliction, however, is different.  Tribulation is pain visited on us on account of our discipleship.         It’s pain visited on us account of our love for Jesus and our loyalty to him. In short, tribulation is pain arising from our crossbearing, which crossbearing, be it noted, Jesus appoints us to and will not relieve us of until we are in glory. Now we can always rid ourselves of our tribulation; all we need do is apostatise.  All we need do is renounce faith in Jesus Christ, strangle our love for him, withdraw the loyalty to him by which we have been publicly identified. To rid ourselves of the pain of tribulation all we need do is deny our Lord and refuse to be identified with him. As soon as we do this the world will leave us alone.  Since scripture abhors apostasy, however, the Christian response to tribulation is steadfastness.

Let me say it again: the Christian response to everyday suffering is to seek relief; the Christian response to tribulation is steadfastness, since we can’t be rid of it unless we rid ourselves of our Lord.

Then will the torment of tribulation drive a wedge between us and God’s love? We should ask those who have been tormented on account of their love for their Lord.

Ian Rennie, former minister in this congregation and my first academic dean at Tyndale Seminary; Ian Rennie quietly pointed out to me one day that for the last 25 years of his life there was a price on Martin Luther’s head. Anyone at all could have made himself wealthy by killing the man.  No one in the history of the church, Rennie insisted, had lived the truth of Ephesians 6:12 as Luther had lived the truth of this verse: “For we are contending not against flesh and blood but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness….”  And amidst it all; on days that were dark, other days darker, and some days indescribable; on all such days Luther stood steadfast.

And then I think of Edmund Campion, Jesuit martyr in Elizabethan England. On the morning of his execution his detractors mocked him on account of his belief in transubstantiation, the notion that Jesus Christ himself, body and blood, is in the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine.  “How can Christ be exalted in heaven,” his detractors mocked, “and be in the bread and wine at the same time?”   “Heaven is Christ’s palace”, Campion informed his accusers, “and you have made it his prison.”   (Did it ever occur to his accusers that if Christ couldn’t be in heaven and in the elements simultaneously then neither could Christ be in heaven in their hearts simultaneously?)         Campion, like Luther before him, died proving that tribulation cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Then Paul speaks of famine and nakedness. Famine is lethal lack of provision inwardly; nakedness (meaning death by exposure) is lethal lack of provision outwardly.  But didn’t Jesus promise his followers adequate food and clothing? In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said his followers won’t lack adequate food and clothing just because their Father knows what they need before they even ask him. Paul is saying here we can prioritize and privilege God’s kingdom and righteousness and still lack what we need. If famine and nakedness overtake us (make no mistake; they have overtaken millions), has a wedge been driven between us and God’s love, and driven twice over, since now we both lack what was promised and have every reason to be anxious?

I have never been hungry in my life, hungry through having nothing to eat day after day. But I’m told that starvation is an exceedingly painful way to die.  When Maureen and I spent a month touring Ireland (Maureen is descended from Protestants in the north, Belfast ; I’m descended from Catholics in the south, Cork) we drove to Stroketown one Sunday morning. We went to church there (and, I must add, were startled to hear the local priest welcome us to the Lord’s Table.)   After the service we visited the famine museum in Stroketown.  We staggered from exhibit to exhibit.  The Irish people who were living in ditches during the famine of the mid-1800s and who hadn’t been allowed to send their children to school; those people attempted to survive by eating grass.  Humans, however, can’t digest grass; grass makes us vomit.  They kept trying, their mouths ringed green, only to hasten their death as their grass-induced vomiting weakened them still faster.

What made the famine all the more horrible was this: the famine victims had to stand by helplessly and watch their social superiors eat sumptuously. While the poor Irish starved by the million (only one crop was affected, potatoes), rich English landowners living in Ireland exported wagonload after wagonload of food to England and the continent. Weakened Irish folk had to languish in roadside ditches while overfilled wagons rumbled past them to feed wealthy people who were already overfed.  Could any cruelty be crueler?

Next Paul speaks of peril and sword.  To speak of peril is to say that life is shot through with danger; life abounds in danger. There is the danger that arises from sheer accidentality. When Jesus spoke of the tower in Siloam that collapsed and killed a dozen men he was speaking of a construction mishap, accidentality that is no less perilous for being unintentional.

And sword? The apostle means warfare. Once again I’m surprised when my students tell me how glad they are that they didn’t live in the Middle Ages.  During the Middle Ages, everyone knows, people were mean to each other: they disembowelled each other with swords; they ‘brained’ each other with battleaxes. They burned people at the stake. They dismembered them on the rack. Weren’t people barbaric during the Middle Ages?

Alas, the students appear to be ignorant of history subsequent to the Middle Ages. All of my students were born in the 20th Century, and they appear to be wholly ignorant of that century. Tell me: do you think Auschwitz was a human improvement on swordfighting?   When atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki human beings were vapourized alive, while survivors were condemned to lethal, lingering agony.

Does the Tyndale Seminary student really think that nerve gas is a humanitarian advance on spear-chucking?         All the major nations of the world have stockpiled nerve gas.  One lungful of it and every muscle in the body contracts.  Immediately there is intense sweating, blindness, uncontrollable defecation and vomiting, convulsions, paralysis, and inability to breathe. In the early 1980s a whiff – only a whiff – of nerve gas escaped in Colorado . Two thousand sheep perished on the spot, having undergone everything I’ve just mentioned.

Can nerve gas, nuclear explosion, you name it – can any one of these, or all of these together, separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?

Neither can “life or death”, Paul announces next.

Death we’ve already said enough about.

Life? How could life, life at full tide, ever threaten to separate us, ever separate our faith in such love? Let me ask you a question. How many marriages do you think I’ve seen thrive when a couple was financially challenged, only to fail when the same couple was financially flush?  How many people have you seen appear to possess ironfast faith when they were needy for any reason only to jettison such ‘faith’ when they were no longer needy? We should admit that life at its best is no less a spiritual threat than death at its worst.

Finally Paul speaks of principalities, powers, angels, things present, things to come, height and depth.  He has in mind cosmic powers; any and all cosmic powers, some of which we can identify and some of which we never shall.         Paul’s point is this: regardless of the nature, scope and virulence of cosmic forces, no one of them, nor all of them together, will ever be able to separate Christ’s people from Christ’s love.


III: — What reason does Paul have for his exuberant exclamation?  What’s the ground of his impregnable confidence?         His ground or reason is twofold; namely, what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and what God is doing in us through the Holy Spirit.  What God has done for us in Christ is the ‘outer’ foundation of his confidence; what God is now doing in us is its ‘inner’ ground.

Now every Christian is aware that the work of Christ for us and the work of the Spirit within us are always to be distinguished but must never be separated. Therefore the one ground of Paul’s confidence is the one work of God in its twofold nature as outer and inner.

Let’s look first at the outer aspect of Paul’s confidence.  In this regard the apostle puts five unanswerable questions to us.


Question #1:  “Since God is for us, who can be against us?”  Plainly, nothing and no one can be against us finally, conclusively, effectively, because nothing and no one is going to overturn the Creator himself.

If Paul had simply said, “Who or what can be against us?” we’d be ready with a hundred replies: famine, peril, sword, disease, death, betrayal, treachery, accident.  If we thought a minute longer we’d also mention intra-psychic booby traps, those psychological fissures and deformities that distress us and pain others. If the apostle had simply said, “Who or what can be against us?”, and we thought two minutes longer, we’d mention sin, the old man/woman who continues to haunt us, even Satan himself.  Not only can Satan be against us; he is; he is by nature, and therefore is without let-up.

Paul, however, doesn’t ask, “Who is against us?”  He asks, rather “Since God, the living, lordly sovereign creator of heaven and earth; since God is for us, who or what could ever rival him or threaten us?” Nothing, obviously.


Question #2:   “Since God didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t God also give us all things with him?”   Note that Paul hasn’t simply asked, “Won’t God give us everything (i.e., everything we need)?”  If he had asked that, I at least would be ready with my retort: “I’ve seen countless people live and die who appeared not to be given everything they need.”

The apostle’s question, however, is more profound than this.  “Since God didn’t stop short of giving up his Son, would he ever stop short of giving us what we need to be his people, the apple of his eye?”

There’s an allusion here to Abraham of old; Abraham and Isaac; Abraham and Isaac trudging with leaden foot and breaking heart up Mt. Moriah . Abraham’s faith is to be tested by the summons to offer up Isaac, his long-awaited son, his only son, only son, (the text in Genesis drives home to us.) And then, when obedient Abraham raises the knife above Isaac, a ram appears and Abraham’s son is spared.

Does God love you and me less than Abraham loved Isaac?  He loves us more. After all, when God’s love for us met our profoundest need God’s long-awaited Son, his only Son, wasn’t spared but rather was given up for us all.         Abraham’s love for Isaac was ultimately spared the most terrible heartbreak. God’s love for you and me didn’t spare God heartbreak.  Instead God loves you and me at the price of incomprehensible anguish.


Question #3:   “Since it is God who justifies us, who is going to accuse us?” Justification is one of Paul’s favourite descriptions of God’s people.  Here’s what he has in mind.

You and I are sinners. We are covenant-breakers. We repeatedly, characteristically, break our promise to God that we are going to live as his people. Instead we live as if we were sons and daughters of another parent, the devil.         In his mercy God has given us Jesus of Nazareth, the covenant-keeper. Jesus of Nazareth is the only instance anywhere in the world of a human being who keeps humankind’s covenant with the Father.

As you and I cling by faith to Jesus Christ, our faith binds us to him. In fact our faith binds us so very closely to him that we are identified with him.  Identified as we are with him, when the Father now looks upon that Son with whom he is ever pleased, he sees you and me included in the Son. When the Father looks upon the Son with whom he is pleased he looks upon you and me as those with whom he is now pleased too.  Humans who are wrongly related to God and chargeable as such; humans wrongly related to God who now cling to Christ in faith are deemed rightly related to God and therefore are beyond accusation.  Formerly capsized in our relationship to God, in Christ we are turned right side up, ‘rightwised’, rightly related to God.  God now declares us righteous in Christ; we are now ‘justified’ and can’t be charged.


Question #4:     “Since Christ died, was raised, sits at the right hand of the Father, and now intercedes for us, who is going to condemn us?”  Will Christ condemn us? He went to hell and back for us. His ongoing intercession for us is effectual.  He pleads on our behalf the ongoing efficacy of his atoning, pardoning sacrifice. Since the efficacy of his sacrifice he pleads effectually, nothing and no one can negate his forgiveness and find us condemned.


Question #5:         “Then who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?” We’ve already answered this question.

In these five unanswerable questions we have dealt with the outer aspect of Paul’s confidence. “Since…, since…, since…, since…therefore no one can be effectively against us; no will deprive us all that we need to be God’s people; no one can lay a charge against us, and no one will condemn us.


We must look now at the inner ground of Paul’s confidence; namely, the Spirit, and the Spirit’s work within us.

The Holy Spirit is God, God in his utmost immediacy, intensity, intimacy. The Spirit is God in his immediacy, intensity and intimacy surging within us, rendering us certain that we are God’s child now and shall never be forsaken.  The Spirit is God within us making us vividly aware of his presence and power and purpose.

Paul, we know, was angered at the congregation in Galatia . The Galatian Christians were warping the gospel into an anti-gospel legalism.  When Paul cools off enough to begin correcting them, he doesn’t begin by developing a theological argument against legalism.  Instead he appeals to their Christian experience; specifically, to their experience of the Holy Spirit.  Bluntly he asks them, “Did you receive the Spirit through hearing and believing the gospel or by submitting to legalism?”   When he asks, “Did you receive the Spirit…?”,  he’s referring to their experience of God, experience that they can no more deny than they could deny a headache if they had one, since no one can deny experience. If we were in intense pain right now it would never occur to us to deny that we were.

“Did you receive the Spirit through….?”   It’s as if Paul were asking the Galatian Christians, “That raging headache you have: did you get it because a brick fell on your head this morning or because you drank too much red wine last night?”   They could then answer the question as they saw fit.  Any answer they gave, however, would presuppose their present headache, undeniable experience. “Did you receive the Spirit through embracing the crucified in faith or by slavishly adhering to rule-keeping?”  The apostle knows two things: one, their experience of God they can’t deny; two, they came to it through faith in the gospel.

In Romans 5 Paul exuberantly exclaims, “Since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ….”   He concludes his exuberant exclamation with “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” When Paul says “Spirit” he has mind believers’ experience of God’s love flooding them.


When we bring together the outer and inner grounds of Paul’s confidence we understand why he is able to say with conviction that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love.  The outer ground of his conviction is the truth and reality of all that God has done in Christ for him.  The inner ground of his conviction is his experience of what God the Spirit is doing in him.

The experience of the simplest Christian is identical with Paul’s. It all leaves us exclaiming with the apostle in Galatians 2:20, “He loved me, and gave himself for me – and I know it as surely as I know my own name.”


IV: — “Nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The immediate ground of Paul’s confidence is his awareness of what’s been done for him and his experience of what’s being done in him.  The ultimate ground of his confidence, however, is God’s eternal purpose for his creation.

[a]         First Paul says God “foreknew” us who are his people.  Everywhere in scripture, when God is said to ‘know’ someone (Amos, Jeremiah, Abraham, Hannah) it means that God has put his hand on someone and singled out that person for a special purpose and made that person the beneficiary of a special promise.

When God not merely knows you and me but even ‘foreknows’ us it means that God’s purpose and promise come before he has even created the world. In other words, God wants a people for himself even before he has fashioned the universe. In Ephesians 1:4 Paul declares that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” Even before he created anything God wanted a people who live to glorify him.

[b]         Then Paul says in Romans 8:29, “Those whom he foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”  God’s people are to glorify him by being conformed to Jesus Christ, our elder brother. In Colossians 1:15 Paul maintains that Jesus Christ is the image of God. You and I were created in that image. Sin has marred it. Now, however, the image of God in you and me is to be re-engraved because God had pre-appointed his own people to resemble his Son incarnate.

[c]         But God’s plan and purpose to know us, foreknow us, bring us to resemble his Son; God’s plan and purpose in this regard has to be implemented in time and space. Therefore God now calls men and women; he invites them, summons them. We who are Christ’s people have heard and heeded that call; we have ‘RSVPd’ the invitation; we have fallen in love with someone who long ago fell in love with us.

[d]         Next, says Paul, those who have responded to God’s call God has justified. We’ve already seen this word. To be justified, righteous, is to be declared rightly related to God through faith in the Son who is rightly related to his Father.

[e]         And such people, the apostle declares, God has glorified.  Has glorified ? Has already glorified? We aren’t going to be glorified until we are ‘in glory’, in heaven, and we manifestly aren’t there yet. (We are in Knox church on a summer Sunday evening.)

But, you see, so very confident is Paul that God’s undeflectable plan and purpose and promise are going to be realized that he speaks of a future event as though it had already happened just because it’s ‘as good as happened.’         Christ has already been glorified, hasn’t he?  Then his people, whose future glorification is certain, are as good as glorified now. It’s as good as done.


V: — And then, lest we be so thoroughly swept up in Paul’s exuberance that we’ve lost touch with our present existence, Paul brings us down to earth by insisting that on the basis of everything he’s said we are right now, at this moment, “more than conquerors.”

It’s wonderful to be a conqueror – i.e., victorious, resilient. But it’s always possible to be a conqueror (we haven’t been defeated by anything) yet be grim or sour or bitter or resentful or suspicious or simply as “edgy” as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.  To be more than a conqueror is surely to be victorious, resilient, yet also radiant.

I had listened to African-American spirituals for years, had enjoyed them (as everyone seems to) but had never reflected on them at any depth.  Then one day a man in the small, rural congregation I was serving pointed out to me that that there was no trace of bitterness in the spirituals. Think of it: slavery, with its brutality, degradation, suffering, and seeming hopelessness – and yet no bitterness in its music, no incitement to revenge, no zeal for vicious vindictiveness; only a patient waiting for God’s vindication and his people’s victory. The music is radiant.

A woman with advanced neurological disease began to tell me of an incident that had recently befallen her and her husband, himself ill with the same neurological disease.  Her story sounded grim. My face sank. She saw my face and laughed, “Oh, it’s really quite funny.”   Here’s her story.

Needing to use the toilet in the night, she transferred herself from bed to wheelchair to toilet.  In attempting to pull herself up from the toilet she lost her balance at the same time as she jammed her arm between the handrail and the wall. She fell down onto the floor with her arm up, wedged between the handrail and the wall.  Her husband heard the commotion.  He transferred himself from bed to wheelchair and set off to help her. In his excitement he capsized his wheelchair. Now he was on the floor too (in a different room), couldn’t get up, and therefore couldn’t get to a phone.         “What on earth did you do?” I asked the woman weakly.  “I knew no one was going to come along to help us until morning”, she said, “and so I spent the night reciting over and over again Psalm 34: “I will bless the Lord at all times.         His praise shall continually be in my mouth.  Look to him and be radiant.”

Just because nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord (we are loved eternally), we are certainly conquerors. More than conquerors, however, we may ever look to him and be radiant.
                                                                                       Victor Shepherd                                      
24th June 2009

Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto

Knox Church Summer Fellowship 2009