For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (8:38–39)
This chapter closes with a beautiful summary of what has just been said. The apostle assures his readers that he was not teaching them anything about which he himself was not fully convinced. He was convinced first of all because of the nature of salvation, which God had revealed to him and which he presents so clearly in these first eight chapters. His counsel is also a personal testimony. He was convinced because he had experienced most of the things mentioned and they did not separate him from Christ. Both revelation and experience convinced him. Paul was saying to believers in Rome the same thing he would say some years later to Timothy: “For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” (2 Tim. 1:12).
Paul begins his list with death, which, in our earthly life, we experience last. Even that supreme enemy cannot separate us from our Lord, because He has changed death’s sting from defeat to victory. We can therefore rejoice in the psalmist’s affirmation that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones” (Ps. 116:15), and we can testify with David that “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4). With Paul, we should “prefer rather to be absent from the body” because that will mean we are finally “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
Donald Grey Barnhouse told a personal story that beautifully illustrates death’s powerlessness over Christians. When his wife died, his children were still quite young, and Dr. Barnhouse wondered how he could explain their mother’s death in a way their childish minds could understand. As they drove home from the funeral, a large truck passed them and briefly cast a dark shadow over the car. Immediately the father had the illustration he was looking for, and he asked the children, “Would you rather be run over by a truck or by the shadow of a truck?” “That’s easy, Daddy,” they replied. “We would rather get run over by the shadow, because that wouldn’t hurt.” Their father then said, “Well, children, your mother just went through the valley of the shadow of death, and there’s no pain there, either.”
The second supposed hindrance does not seem like a hindrance at all. We think of life as something positive. But it is in our present earthly life that spiritual dangers lie. Not only does death itself hold no harm for believers, but it will bring the end of all harm. It is while we still have thislife that we face tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword (8:35) and the many other trials that Paul could have mentioned. But because we have eternal life in Christ, the threats during our present life are empty.
The third supposed threat is angels. Because the next danger on the list (principalities) doubtless refers to fallen angels, it seems likely that the ones mentioned here are holy angels. Paul’s reference here to angels presupposes a purely hypothetical and impossible situation, just as did one of his warnings to the Galatians. He told the Galatian believers to stand firm in their salvation through Christ’s shed blood on the cross and to refuse to accept any contrary gospel, even if preached, if that were possible, by an apostle or “an angel from heaven” (Gal. 1:8).
The fourth supposed threat is not in the least hypothetical. As already noted, principalities seems to refer to evil beings, specifically demons. Like the Greek term (archē) behind it, principalities indicates neither good nor evil. But the obvious negative use of archē in such passages as Ephesians 6:12 (“rulers”), Colossians 2:15 (“rulers”), and Jude 6 (“own domain”)—as well as its apparent contrast with the term that precedes it here (angels)—seems to indicate fallen angels, the demons. If so, Paul is saying that no supernatural created being, good or evil, can sever our relationship to Christ.
Things present and things to come represent everything we are experiencing and will yet experience.
Powers translates dynamis, the ordinary Greek word for power. But in its plural form, as here, it often refers to miracles or mighty deeds. It was also used figuratively of persons in positions of authority and power. Regardless of the specific meaning Paul had in mind here, powers represents another obstacle that Christians need not fear.
Paul may have used height and depth as astrological terms that were familiar in his day, hupsōma (height) referring to the high point, or zenith, of a star’s path, and bathos (depth) to its lowest point. If so, the idea is that Christ’s love secures a believer from the beginning to the end of life’s path. Or perhaps he used the terms to signify the infinity of space, which is endless in every direction. In either case, the basic meaning is that of totality.
To leave no doubt that security is all-encompassing, Paul adds nor any other created thing. Since only God Himself is uncreated, everyone else and everything else is excluded.
There is nothing anywhere at any time that shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is Christ Jesus our Lord. Our salvation was secured by God’s decree from eternity past and will be held secure by Christ’s love through all future time and throughout all eternity.
Earlier in this epistle Paul declared that, “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good.’ ” To make sure that no person could make an exception for himself, the apostle added, “there is not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12). In a similar way, Paul allows absolutely no exceptions in regard to the believer’s security in Christ.
In this marvelous closing section of chapter 8, verses 31–34 focus on the love of God the Father, and verses 35–39 focus on the love of God the Son. One is reminded of Jesus’ high priestly prayer, in which He prays on behalf of believers, “that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; … And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me. Father, I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am” (John 17:21–24).
George Matheson was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1842. As a child he had only partial vision, and his sight became progressively worse, until it resulted in blindness by the time he was eighteen. Despite his handicap, he was a brilliant student and graduated from the University of Glasgow and later from seminary. He became pastor of several churches in Scotland, including a large church in Edinburgh, where he was greatly respected and loved. After he had been engaged to a young woman for a short while, she broke the engagement, having decided she could not be content married to a blind man. Some believe that this painful disappointment in romantic love led Matheson to write the beautiful hymn which begins with the following stanza:
O love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
Because our God is infinite in power and love, “we confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What shall man do to me?’ ” (Heb. 13:6). Because our God is infinite in power and love, we can say with David, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in Thee” (Ps. 56:3) and, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for Thou alone, O Lord, dost make me to dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8). Because our God is infinite in power and love, we can say with Moses, “The eternal God is a dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27). Because our God is infinite in power and love, we can say with the writer of Hebrews, “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast” (Heb. 6:19).
The Love of God in Christ Jesus
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 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.
There are times in every Christian’s life when what is called for is a clear and ringing testimony, and there are times when what is most needed is a careful and persuasive argument supporting Christian truth. Overall, both are essential, for a personal testimony is no adequate substitute for an argument, when that is needed. Conversely, an argument is no substitute for a testimony, when that is needed. In today’s wishy-washy, subjective Christian climate we need arguments especially. But, and this is the point I am making, we need personal testimonies, too.
I say this because of the final verses of our chapter. Paul has been offering arguments for why we who believe in Christ can consider ourselves eternally secure. Indeed, he seems to have brought out every possible argument he can think of. These are the arguments behind each of the five undeniable doctrines and five unanswerable questions of verses 28–37. They are basic to Christianity itself. But there is also a time for testimony and, being a good teacher and persuader, Paul does not forget it. That is why, in verses 38 and 39, he once again writes in the first person. It is the first time he has done so since verse 18. He has given his arguments. Now we are to hear his personal convictions.
What does he write? “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, not any powers, 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.”
What a glorious testimony! There is no false optimism here, for what Paul says is based upon the sound arguments of the preceding verses. But this is no mere academic presentation either. For, as anyone can immediately sense, it flows from a great and dedicated heart and is so passionate, so stirring, that most people instinctively regard this as both the climax of the chapter and the highest point of the entire letter.
In this testimony Paul faces all the possible “separators” of Christians from the love of God in Christ he can think of—he lists ten of them—and then dismisses each one.
The Gates of Death
For most people in our age, as also in the past, the most fearful of all adversaries is death—and rightly so. Apart from what we are told about death and the afterlife in Scripture, death is an unknown, save that it ends our existence here and is inescapable. That is frightening. Francis Bacon wrote rightly, “Men fear death as children fear the dark.” They do. They tremble before it.
Moreover, death is the greatest of all separators. Obviously it separates us from life itself. But it also separates us from places and people we love. And it separates the soul and the spirit from the body, and separates both from God if the individual is not saved. Terrible! Yes, but for the believer in Christ this is not the final word. Death does separate us from things of the world, including other people. But it can never separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
How do we know this? We know because Christ has conquered death. He has triumphed over it. Paul assured the Corinthians that, “ ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’ [cf. Isa. 25:8]. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ [cf. Hos. 13:14]. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54–57).
Paul wrote to Timothy in the same fashion, saying that “our Savior, Christ Jesus, … has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to life through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).
As a matter of fact, death, far from separating believers from the love of God in Christ Jesus, actually ushers them into an even closer relationship with him. Alexander Maclaren, who calls death “the separator,” puts it nicely: “The separator becomes the uniter; he rends us apart from the world that he may ‘bring us to God.’ ” We know God now, but only in part. In that day we shall know “fully,” even as we also are known (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12). And there shall be no soul “asleep” and no purgatory for those who are in Christ Jesus. Paul said that “to be away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). His personal testimony was: “… I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil 1:23).
When William Borden of Yale lay dying in Egypt on his way to mission work in China, which he never reached, he left a farewell note that expressed a similar testimony. The note said, “No reserve, no retreat, and no regrets.” Of course not! Death did not separate Borden from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Nor Even Life …
The second possible separator that Paul mentions is “life,” which at first glance seems to be a strange choice of word—until we remember that life sometimes seems even more cruel than death. It is why we sometimes call death a “release” or “mercy.”
Life brings separations, just as death does. The political aftermaths of wars sometimes separate members of families from one another. This has happened in Eastern Europe, China, North and South Korea, and other divided countries in our lifetimes. Sometimes poverty forces people to move away from loved ones if they have to leave their homes to find jobs. And consider sickness or the encroaching limitations of old age. As we age, mobility becomes increasingly limited, eyesight and hearing fail, minds and memories dim. In these things we experience separation from the simple pleasures the world once offered us. But there is no separation from God’s love.
Let me give you an example.
In the week I prepared this study I received a letter from a man who had attended Tenth Presbyterian Church about twenty-five years ago. His story was a sad one. He had slipped into homosexuality in his youth, and by his own confession his lifestyle had cost him his family—he had a wife and children—his profession, and his health. This man now had AIDS, and he was writing to say that during his terrible illness he had found the Lord and wanted to receive the weekly cassette version of “The Bible Study Hour,” which he knew of and had found spiritually nourishing.
Here is what he wrote: “Unfortunately, I am losing my eyesight due to AIDS. I’m reading your material as fast as I can, before I find myself unable to do so. … Your tapes will enable me to continue my studies after the light fails. … I have become obsessed with God. I can’t get enough of his Word. He literally has become my sole incentive to live. I have lost so much already and am losing everything else, but I cannot lose him. He is the only reason I hold on to life, miserable as it is. My living now is preparing me for eternity.”
I found myself greatly touched by that letter, particularly at this point in our studies, since it is such a marvelous testimony to the truth that even life’s misery cannot separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Neither Angels Nor Demons
When Paul mentions “angels” and “demons” as his next pair of possible separators, he confuses most readers, since we cannot be absolutely certain of what he is referring to. The word angels usually means “good angels,” but many have wondered how beneficent beings can be thought of as ever trying to separate believers from Christ. For that reason, some commentators have taken the word to refer to fallen angels or demons, and the second term to refer to the “principalities” or earthly “authorities” they are sometimes said to control. The King James Bible and some other versions translate this second word as “principalities.”
The problem with this is that Paul seems to be deliberately introducing contrasting pairs of terms in these verses: four pairs, with two single terms thrown in. If that is his pattern, the contrast in this pair must be between good and bad angels.
Can good angels ever try to separate us from Christ? No. But Paul may sometimes speak of them hypothetically as doing what we know they could never actually do, as in Galatians 1:8—“Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” I favor this view and judge that here Paul is not thinking so much in rationally exclusive terms as he is simply sweeping over all creation to deny that anything or anyone anywhere could ever succeed in destroying our eternal security in Christ. In the first pair of possible separators Paul has looked at our most immediate experiences: life and death. In the second he looks to the realm of spirit beings and declares that not one of them, whatever that being may be like, can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
It is good for us to know this, because—although we do not fear the good angels (they are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation,” Heb. 1:14)—we are rightly on guard against the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). These forces create havoc among all types of people. They produce separations, because evil divides. Indeed, the very name “devil” (Greek, diabolos) means “separator.” But although the fallen angels can produce many kinds of divisions, there is nothing they can do that can ever separate us from Christ.
How do we know this? We know it because Jesus has defeated these evil forces at the cross. Paul told the Colossians, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:13–15).
The Tide of Time
Having addressed the experiences of life and death and expanded his circle of possible separators to include angelic forces, both good and evil, Paul now thinks in terms of time, arguing that neither present things nor future things can separate us from God’s love in Christ. “Time is powerless against believers,” says one commentator.
The fact that Paul speaks of “present” and “future” and not “past” and “future” (which we might expect) shows that he is still thinking carefully, even though casting about in the broadest possible fashion. He does not say “past,” because nothing in the past has separated us from Christ. We are in Christ now. Ah, but what of the present? What about those hard things that are pressing in on us at this very moment? They cannot separate us from Christ, says Paul. Jesus is equal to them. What about the future? What about things to come? They cannot separate us from Christ either, Paul adds.
In my judgment, there are two equally valid ways to think of this pair of words, and both may be correct.
On the one hand, we might think solely of earthbound circumstances, what we regard as the flotsam and jetsam of history and our daily lives. We are buffeted by circumstances now, and we will be buffeted by circumstances in future days until we die. But none of these circumstances will separate us from the love of God in Christ, because the God who has loved us in his Son controls history. He is the God of circumstances. So there is nothing that has come into our lives, is already in our lives, or will come into our lives that has not been filtered through the perfect and loving will of our heavenly Father and been directed by him to our good. That is why Paul was able to say just verses earlier, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him …” (Rom. 8:28).
Joseph said the same thing, in spite of the terrible experiences God allowed him to pass through. He told his brothers, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:19–20).
On the other hand, Paul’s use of the words present and future may refer to what we would call “this life” and “the life to come.” Nothing here and nothing hereafter can separate us from God’s love. We have talked about “here.” What about “hereafter”? We remember a verse saying that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Ah, judgment! That is what lies in our hereafter and what we indeed must fear, if we are not in Christ. Yet how can we fear it if we are “in him”? In that case, we know there is nothing to fear, for Jesus has borne the judgment in our place. There are still judgments to come, true enough. But even these cannot separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Nor Any Powers
It is hard to know what Paul is thinking of when he speaks of “powers,” particularly since he adds it as a freestanding term, without linking it to a matching word, as he has done with the other possible separators thus far. The word in Greek is dynameis, which can refer to miraculous signs or miracles, though here it would seem to mean heavenly or spiritual forces. The only problem is that we find it hard to think of spiritual powers that are not already included in the phrase “neither angels nor demons.” I suspect that in this context “powers” probably looks back to those that have already been mentioned—powers of death and life, powers of angels and demons, powers of the present and of the future—and says in summary fashion that there are no powers anywhere that can divide us from Christ.
Can you think of any? Can any force anywhere separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus, if neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future can do so?
Neither Height Nor Depth
In the fourth (and last) of his matched pairs, Paul turns from human experience, spiritual powers, and time and considers space, saying that “neither height nor depth” will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
What does this pair of terms mean? If the words merely describe space, the phrase means that nothing above us and nothing below us can separate us from Christ. Alexander Maclaren takes this view, expressing it well. He says, “The love of God is everywhere.” If this is the meaning, it would be an expression of the thought found in the well-known verses of Psalm 139:7–10:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
On the other hand, it may be significant that the Greek words translated “height” (hypsōma) and “depth” (bathos) were used in the ancient world in astrology to describe a point directly overhead, above the horizon, and a point directly downward, below the horizon. These points were used in forecasting horoscopes. Some commentators find this to be their meaning. If this is correct, the teaching is that even so-called astrological powers cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Nor Anything Else
After the sweeping terms of the first part of these verses the closing single item “nor anything else in all creation” is almost an anticlimax. But that is all right. In fact, it is effective precisely for that reason, for it is as if Paul has run out of words in his verbal search for possible “separators” and ends up saying simply, “nor anything else, anything else at all.”
What does “anything else in all creation” include? The answer is that it includes everything that exists except God, since God has created all these other things. Thus, if God is for us and if God controls everything else, since he has made it, then absolutely nothing anywhere will be able to separate us from his love for us in Christ Jesus.
That reminds me of the word we looked at briefly as we began this section, the word convinced. This is Paul’s personal testimony, as I said, but it is a testimony based on the soundest evidence, evidence that had persuaded Paul and should persuade us also. What are the grounds of this persuasion? Paul’s conviction is not based on the intensity of his feelings or a belief that the harsh circumstances of life are bound to improve or that any of these separating factors will somehow be dissolved or go away. Rather, it is based on the greatness of God’s love for us in Christ, and that awesome love has been made known in that God sent his Son to die in our place.
There is nothing in all the universe greater or more steadfast than that love. Therefore, nothing in all the universe can separate us from it:
Not death, not life
Not angels, not demons
Not the present, not even the future
Not any power
Not height, not depth
Not anything else in all creation.
I do not know of anything greater than that. And I do not know of any better way of ending our studies of Romans 8 than to say again that this is Paul’s testimony, born out of his own careful study of the Scriptures and his own personal experience of the love and grace of God.
So I ask of you: Is this your testimony? Have you been persuaded of these truths, as Paul was? Can you say, “I no longer have any doubts. I know that salvation is entirely of God and that he will keep me safe until the very end”? If you are not certain of these truths, it is because you are still looking at yourself. You are thinking of your own feeble powers and not of God and his omnipotence.
As far as I am concerned, I am persuaded and I am glad I am. There is nothing in all of heaven and earth to compare to this assurance.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 515–518). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The Reign of Grace (Vol. 2, pp. 999–1006). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.