The Believer’s Possession of Divine Love
because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (5:5b–8)
A fourth marvelous link in the unbreakable chain that eternally binds believers to Christ is their possession of the divine love of God, which has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. When a person receives salvation through Jesus Christ, he enters a spiritual love relationship with God that lasts throughout all eternity.
As the apostle makes unambiguous in verse 8, love of God does not here refer to our love for God but to His love for us. The most overwhelming truth of the gospel is that God loved sinful, fallen, rebellious mankind, so much “that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And as the apostle proclaims in verse 9 of this present chapter, if God loved us with so great a love before we were saved, when we were still His enemies, how much more does He love us now.
As if that were not enough, God even graciously imparts His love to us. For those who accept His offer of salvation, God takes His indescribable and undeserved love and pours it out within the hearts of those who believe, through His own Holy Spirit who he gives to them. Taking the truth of eternal security out of the objective area of the mind, Paul now reveals that, in Christ, we are also given subjective evidence of permanent salvation, evidence that God Himself implants within our deepest being, in that we love the One who first loved us (1 John 4:7–10; cf. 1 Cor. 16:22).
Poured out refers to lavish outpouring to the point of overflowing. Our heavenly Father does not proffer His love in measured drops but in immeasurable torrents. The very fact that God gives His Holy Spirit to indwell believers is itself a marvelous testimony to His love for us, because He would hardly indwell those whom He did not love. And it is only because of the indwelling Spirit that His children are able to truly love Him. Speaking to His disciples about the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’ ” (John 7:38; cf. v. 39). Those rivers of blessing can flow out of believers only because of the divine rivers of blessing, including the blessing of divine love, that God has poured into them.
In the same way, our spiritual security is not in our ability to live godly but in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to make us godly. Only God can make men godly, and the Spirit’s leading us into godliness is one of the great evidences of salvation. “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God,” Paul declares, “these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).
With the longing to love, even the genuine desire to be godly is produced by the Holy Spirit. Whenever we sincerely aspire to righteous living, whenever we have an earnest desire to pray, whenever we yearn to study God’s Word, whenever we long to worship the Lord Jesus Christ with all our hearts, we know we are being led by the Holy Spirit. Whenever we experience the awesome awareness that God is indeed our heavenly Father, it is “the Spirit Himself [who] bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16–17). The natural man has no such desires or experiences, and even Christians would not have them apart from being indwelt and led by the Holy Spirit.
Because acknowledging His promises with the mind does not necessarily bring personal confidence to the heart, God makes provision for the emotional encouragement as well as the mental enlightenment of His children. When the Lord is given free reign in our lives, the Holy Spirit will bear fruit in and through us, the first fruit of which is love (Gal. 5:22). But when we grieve Him through our disobedience (Eph. 4:30), He cannot produce what He intends. Therefore, when we live in disobedience, we not only will not feel loving toward God but will not feel His love for us.
With perhaps that truth in mind, Paul prayed for the Ephesian believers: “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God” (Eph. 3:14–19). The Holy Spirit strengthens the inner man and enables him “to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.” By the gracious work of the Spirit within us, our hearts are able to experience a depth of love that our minds are unable to grasp, “the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.”
Knowing that his readers would want to know more about the quality and character of the divine love that filled them, Paul reminds them of the greatest manifestation of God’s love in all history, perhaps in all eternity: For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. While men were utterly helpless to bring themselves to God, He sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us, notwithstanding the fact that we were ungodly and completely unworthy of His love. When we were powerless to escape from our sin, powerless to escape death, powerless to resist Satan, and powerless to please Him in any way, God amazingly sent His Son to die on our behalf.
Natural human love is almost invariably based on the attractiveness of the object of love, and we are inclined to love people who love us. Consequently, we tend to attribute that same kind of love to God. We think that His love for us is dependent on how good we are or on how much we love Him. But as Jesus pointed out, even traitorous tax collectors were inclined to love those who loved them (Matt. 5:46). And as theologian Charles Hodge observed, “If [God] loved us because we loved him, he would love us only so long as we love him, and on that condition; and then our salvation would depend on the constancy of our treacherous hearts. But as God loved us as sinners, as Christ died for us as ungodly, our salvation depends, as the apostle argues, not on our loveliness, but on the constancy of the love of God” (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974 reprint], pp. 136–37).
God’s immense love is supremely demonstrated by Christ’s dying for the ungodly, for totally unrighteous, undeserving, and unlovable mankind. In the human realm, by contrast, Paul observes that one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. Paul is not contrasting a righteous man with a good man, but is simply using those terms synonymously. His point is that it is uncommon for a person to sacrifice his own life in order to save the life even of someone of high character. Still fewer people are inclined to give their lives to save a person they know to be a wicked scoundrel. But God was so inclined, and in that is our security and assurance. Saved, we can never be as wretched as we were before salvation—and He loved us totally then.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That sort of self-less, undeserved love is completely beyond human comprehension. Yet that is the love that the just and infinitely holy God had toward us even while we were yet sinners. The God who hates every sinful thought and every sinful deed nevertheless loves the sinners who think and do those things, even while they are still hopelessly enmeshed in their sin. Even when men openly hate God and do not have the least desire to give up their sin, they are still the objects of God’s redeeming love as long as they live. Only at death does an unbeliever cease to be loved by God. After that, he is eternally beyond the pale of God’s love and is destined irrevocably for His wrath. In Christ, we are forever linked to God by His love, demonstrated in (positive) blessings and (negative) mercy.
God’s Love Commended
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
There are a number of preachers today, some of them quite famous, who do not want to say anything unpleasant about sinful human nature. They describe their approach to Christianity as “possibility thinking” and argue that people are already so discouraged about themselves that they do not need to be told that they are wicked. I do not know how such preachers could possibly preach on our text.
They should want to, I think,
Romans 5:6–8 (and verse 5, which precedes this paragraph) speak about the love that God has for us. The greatness of this love, which is mentioned here in Romans for the very first time, is an uplifting and positive theme. Besides, it is brought into the argument at this point to assure us that all who have been justified by faith in Christ have been saved because of God’s love for them and that nothing will ever be able to separate them from it. This is the climax to which we will also come at the end of Romans 8. Nothing could be more positive or more edifying than this theme. Yet Paul’s statement of the nature, scope, and permanence of God’s love is placed against the black backdrop of human sin, and rightly so. For, as Paul tells us: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (v. 8).
How can we appreciate or even understand that statement without speaking about the evil natures of those whom God has thus loved?
This is a very practical matter for two reasons. First, since Paul is describing the love of God against the dark background of human sin, he is saying that it is only against this background that we are able to form a true picture of how great the love of God is. In other words, if we think (as many do) that God loves us because we are somehow quite lovely or desirable, our appreciation of the love of God will be reduced by just that amount—just as a beautiful but very vain woman might have trouble appreciating the love of her husband, or of anyone else. If we think we deserve the best of everything, we will not appreciate the love we receive irrespective of our beauty, talent, or other supposedly admirable qualities.
The second point is this: If we think we deserve God’s love, we cannot ever really be secure in it, because we will always be afraid that we may do something to lessen or destroy the depth of God’s love for us. It is only those who know that God has loved them in spite of their sin who can trust him to continue to show them favor.
God’s Love for Sinners
I begin with Paul’s description of the people God loves and has saved, and I ask you to notice the four powerful words used to portray them, three in the passage we are studying and one additional word in verse 10. They are “powerless,” “ungodly,” “sinners,” and “enemies.” It is important to know that we are all rightly described by each of these words.
- Powerless. This word is translated in a variety of ways in our Bible versions: “weak,” “helpless,” “without strength,” “feeble,” “sluggish in doing right,” and so on. Only the strongest terms will do in this context, since the idea is that, left to ourselves, none of us is able to do even one small thing to please God or achieve salvation.
One commentator distinguishes between “conditional impossibilities” and “unconditional impossibilities” in order to show that this kind of inability is truly unconditional. A conditional impossibility is one in which we are unable to do something unless something else happens. For example, I might find it impossible to repay a loan unless I should suddenly earn a large sum of money. Or I might be unable to accept an invitation to some social event unless a prior commitment is canceled. An unconditional impossibility is one which no possible change in circumstances can alter, and it is this that describes us in our pre-converted state.
What specifically were we unable to do? We were unable to understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). We were unable to see the kingdom of God or enter it (John 3:3, 5). We were unable to seek God (Rom. 3:11). Paul elsewhere describes this inability vividly when he says that before God saved us we were “dead in [our] transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1). That is, we were no more able to respond to or seek God than a corpse is able to respond to stimuli of any kind.
- Ungodly. This word conveys the same idea Paul expressed at the beginning of his description of the race in its rebellion against God: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18).
In these verses, “ungodly” and “godlessness” mean not so much that human beings are unlike God (though that is also true), but that in addition they are in a state of fierce opposition to him. God is sovereign, but they oppose him in his sovereignty. They do not want him to rule over them; they want to be free to do as they please. God is holy, and they oppose him in his holiness. This means that they do not accept his righteous and proper moral standards; they do not want their sinful acts and desires to be called into question. God is omniscient, and they oppose him for his omniscience. They are angry that he knows them perfectly, that nothing they think or do is hidden from his sight. They also oppose him for his immutability, since immutability means that God does not change in these or any of his other attributes.
- Sinners. “Sinners” describes those who have fallen short of God’s standards, as Romans 3:23 says: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It means that we have broken God’s law and in this sense is probably parallel to the word wickedness in Romans 1:18, which was cited above. “Godlessness” is being opposed to God; that is, to have broken the first table of the law, which tells us that we are to worship and serve God only (cf. Matt. 22:37–38). “Wickedness” means to have broken the second table of the law; we have failed to treat others properly, to have respected them, and to have loved them as we love ourselves (cf. Matt. 22:39).
- Enemies. The final word Paul uses to describe human beings apart from the supernatural work of God in their lives is “enemies,” though the word does not appear until verse 10. This summarizes what has been said by the first three terms, but it also goes beyond that. It affirms that not only are we unable to save ourselves, are unlike and opposed to God, and are violators of his law, but we are also opposed to God in the sense that we would attack him and destroy him if we could. Being like Satan in his desires, we would drag God from his throne, cast him to hell and crush him into nothingness—if that were possible—which is what many people actually tried to do when God came among them in the person of Jesus Christ.
What a terrible picture of humanity! No wonder the possibility thinkers choose other, more uplifting themes to speak about!
Yet it is only against this background that we see the brightness of God’s love. “You see,” writes Paul, “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (vv. 6–8).
Love at the Cross
Any contrast has two sides, of course, and thus far we have looked only at one side. We have looked at the dark side: ourselves. We have seen that God loved us, not when we were lovely people who were seeking him out and trying to obey him, but when we were actually fighting him and were willing to destroy him if we could. That alone makes the measure of God’s love very great. However, we may also see the greatness of the love of God by looking at the bright side: God’s side. And here we note that God did not merely reach out to give us a helping hand, bestowing what theologians call common grace—sending rain on the just and unjust alike (cf. Matt. 5:45), for instance—but that he actually sent his beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die for us.
There is a further contrast, too, as Paul brings these great ideas together and compares what God has done in dying for sinners with what human beings might themselves do in certain circumstances. Paul points out that, while a human being might be willing to give his life for a righteous or, better yet, a morally superior woman or man under certain circumstances, Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, which is the precise opposite of being good, or righteous.
In his excellent study of this text Donald Grey Barnhouse gives two illustrations of exceptionally great human love.
In one story two men were trapped in a mine cave-in, and poisonous gas was escaping. One man had a wife and three children. He also had a gas mask, but his mask had been torn in the underground explosion and he would have perished apart from the act of the man who was trapped with him. This second man took off his own mask and forced it on the man who survived, saying, “You have Mary and the children; they need you. I am alone and can go.” When we hear of an act like this, we sense we are on hallowed ground.
The other story concerns a tough youngster from the streets of one of our large cities. His sister had been crippled and needed an operation. The operation was provided for her. But after the operation the girl needed a blood transfusion, and the boy, her brother, was asked to volunteer. He was taken to her bedside and watched tight-lipped as a needle was inserted into his vein and blood was fed into his sister’s body. When the transfusion was over, the doctor put his arm on the boy’s shoulder and told him that he had been very brave. The youngster knew nothing about the nature of a blood transfusion. But the doctor knew even less about the actual bravery of the boy—until the boy looked up at him and asked steadily, “Doc, how long before I croak?” He had gotten the idea that he would have to die to save his sister, and he had thought that he was dying drop by drop as his blood flowed into her veins. But he did it anyway!
These stories sober us, because in them we recognize something of the highest human love. Yet, when we read of the love of God in Romans 5, we learn that it was not for those who were close to him or who loved him that Jesus died—but for those who were opposed to God and were his enemies. It is on this basis that God commends his love to us.
An Argument for Hard Hearts
Isn’t it astounding that God should need to commend his love to us? We are told in the Bible, though we should know it even without being told, that all good gifts come from God’s hands (James 1:17). It is from God that we receive life and health, food and clothing, love from and fellowship with other people, and meaningful work. These blessings should prove the love of God beyond any possibility of our doubting it. Yet we do doubt it. We are insensitive to God’s love, and God finds it necessary to commend his love by reminding us of the death of his Son.
So it is at the cross that we see the love of God in its fullness. What a great, great love this is!
You may recall that when the Swiss theologian Karl Barth was in this country some years before his death, someone asked a question at one of his question-and-answer sessions that went like this: “Dr. Barth, what is the greatest thought that has ever gone through your mind?”
The questioner probably expected some complicated and incomprehensible answer, as if Einstein were being asked to explain the theory of relativity. But after he had thought a long while, Barth replied by saying: “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”
This was a profound answer and a correct one. For there is nothing greater that any of us could think about or know than that Jesus loves us and has shown his love by dying in our place.
The Greatness of God’s Love
I would like to close this study by reflecting on the greatness of God’s love for us, but I wonder how anyone can do that adequately. How can any merely human words sufficiently express this wonder?
Some years ago I was preaching through the Gospel of John and had come to that greatest of all verses about the love of God: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” I wanted to say that the love of God is great, remembering that Ephesians 2:4 uses that very word: “But because of his great love for us.…” But the English word great is not great enough for this subject. The week before, I had been at Houghton College in New York, and I remembered having said that I thought the work of the college was great, that some of the points the other speakers had made were great, and that I had had a great time. I was sincere in my use of the word great. But what were such uses of the word compared to the use of the word to describe God’s love?
Someone once tried to express the greatness of God’s love by printing on a little card a special arrangement of John 3:16, with certain descriptive phrases added. The twelve parts of the verse were arranged down one side of the card, and the added phrases were printed across from them. It went like this:
|the greatest Lover
|the greatest degree
|the greatest company
|that he gave
|the greatest act
|his only begotten Son
|the greatest gift
|the greatest opportunity
|the greatest simplicity
|the greatest attraction
|should not perish
|the greatest promise
|the greatest difference
|the greatest certainty
|the greatest possession
The title placed over the whole was: “Christ—the Greatest Gift.”
Let me try to express the greatness of the love of God by the words of a hymn by F. M. Lehman. Lehman wrote most of this hymn, but the final stanza (the best, in my opinion) was added to it later, after it had been found scratched on the wall of a room in an asylum by a man said to have been insane. The first and last verses of the hymn and the chorus, go as follows:
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave his Son to win:
His erring child he reconciled
And rescued from his sin.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Tho stretched from sky to sky.
Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.
Did you know that the love of God seemed so great to the biblical writers that they invented, or at least raised to an entirely new level of meaning, a brand-new word for love?
The Greek language was rich in words for love. There was the word storgē, which referred to affection, particularly within the family. There was philia, from which we get “philharmonic” and “philanthropy” and the place name “Philadelphia.” It refers to a love between friends. A third word was erōs, which has given us “erotic,” and which referred to sexual love. This was a rich linguistic heritage. Yet, when the Old Testament was translated into Greek and when the New Testament writers later wrote in Greek, they found that none of these common Greek words was able to express what they wanted. They therefore took another word without strong associations and poured their own, biblical meaning into it. The new word was agapē, which thereby came to mean the holy, gracious, sovereign, everlasting, and giving love of God that we are studying here.
Alas, I feel that even yet I have not begun to explain how great the love of God is. There is nothing to be done but to go back to our text and read again: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Perhaps I should say one more thing on this subject: If you do not yet fully appreciate (or perhaps have not even begun to appreciate) the greatness of the love God has for you, the explanation is probably that you have never really thought of yourself as God saw you in your fallen state.
Perhaps you have never thought of yourself as someone who was utterly without strength or powerless before God saved you.
Perhaps you have never considered yourself to have been ungodly.
Nor a sinner.
Nor God’s enemy.
But that is what you were—and still are if you have never come to Christ in order to be justified. It is only if you can recognize the truth of these descriptions that you can begin to appreciate the love that God holds out to you through the death of his Son.
If you have never responded to this great overture of the divine love, let me encourage you to do that, assuring you that there is no greater truth in all the universe. Can you think of anything greater? Of course, you can’t. How could anybody? God loves you. Jesus died for you. Let those truly great thoughts move you to abandon your sin, love God in return, and live for Jesus.
8 In contrast to the very best of human love is God’s love; for he “commends82 his own love for us,84 in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Again we see the assumption that God’s love is shown in Christ’s death (cf. v. 6). We notice also that Paul finds a basic unity, even identity, between the love of God as it is shown in the objective, factual event of Christ’s death on the cross and as it is experienced “in the heart” by the believer (v. 5b). An emotional feeling of God’s love, in itself, is little comfort to the person who is lost, condemned, doomed for hell. But a cold, sober, historical interpretation that indeed God “loved the world” on the cross is of little benefit to a person until that love is experienced, is received, by faith in Christ. It is when these are properly experienced as two aspects of one great love, ultimately indivisible, that our assurance that “hope will not put us to shame” (v. 5a) will be strong and unshakable.
5:6–8 / Verses 6–8 present one of the most profound descriptions of divine love found in Scripture. Poor Richard’s Almanack said that “God helps them that help themselves.” That is vintage deism, but it is not biblical Christianity. Romans 5 teaches that God helps them that cannot help themselves. Note Paul’s descriptions of the human condition: when we were still powerless (v. 6), ungodly (v. 6), sinners (v. 8), “God’s enemies” (v. 10). A miserable list of credits if ever there was one! God’s love is not a matching fund bestowed on the worthy. God’s love is love for the undeserving. Christ died for humanity not when it made amends or turned over a new leaf, but for humanity as rebellious sinners (v. 8) and “God’s enemies” (v. 10). This is a shocking thing to realize, indeed quite an offense to moral people who nurse the idea that their goodness is somehow responsible for God’s love. The radical news of the gospel is that Christ died for the godless, which means that God loves the godless. And to say that God loves the godless is to say that God justifies the godless. The offense remains: to say that a person is a sinner is to say that that person is the object of God’s love!
God demonstrated his love at just the right time. Paul was of the conviction (Gal. 4:4; Eph. 1:10; Phil. 2:6f.), as were other nt writers (Mark 1:15; John 1:14; Heb. 9:26), that the Christ-event was no arbitrary happening, but an integral part of the divine economy, the constituent element in the plan of salvation which happened “in the fulness of time,” according to Galatians (4:4), “once for all at the end of the ages,” according to Hebrews (9:26). God did not send his regards to the human race, he did not merely possess noble intentions for the human race, but he did something absolutely without precedent or analogy—God became a human being. The word “incarnation” in Latin literally means “in human flesh,” and the enfleshment of God in Jesus Christ is the supreme manifestation of God’s love (v. 8).
In verse 7 Paul considers the limitlessness of God’s love, a love which, in comparison with human guardedness, must appear utterly profligate. Verses 6–7 are not a little awkward, however. Verse 6 is complicated by a textual variant in Greek. This is followed by a redundancy in verse 7, the first half of which says that death on behalf of a righteous person hardly ever occurs, with the implication that death on behalf of an unrighteous person never occurs. But the second half of the verse continues that death on behalf of a good person is still thinkable. Exactly how we should understand the difference between a righteous and good individual is debatable. Attempts to argue an interpretation of the passage from these two words alone ring a sour note. More plausible is Barrett’s suggestion that Paul, realizing that he overstated the case at the beginning of the verse, attempted to rectify it in the latter half, but that Tertius, his amanuensis (16:22), failed to omit the first statement, thus accounting for the repetitiveness of the verse (Romans, p. 105).
There can be no doubt about Paul’s meaning, however, for verse 8 avers that God’s love is humanly inconceivable. God’s love for the ungodly is greater than human love for the godly. Three times in as many verses Paul includes the little Greek particle eti, “yet” or “still,” driving home that God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice were offered contrary to all expectation, while we were still sinners and enemies. Here is no bloodless essay on “the idea of the good.” Paul speaks of an enactment, a manifestation, a demonstration of divine love in the death of Christ for sinners that has transformed history itself. The German artist Matthias Grünewald (1460[?]–1528) captured something of Paul’s sense in his “Crucifixion.” Dwarfing the mortals who surround him, including John the Baptist who points to him with outstretched finger, Jesus hangs heavy in human agony on the cross as an awesome demonstration of the weight of sin and the magnitude of divine love.
The climax of the passage comes in the final pronouncement, Christ died for us (v. 8). Here is the gospel in four words, a combination of history and theology, event and interpretation. Christ died is a historical statement; for us is a theological interpretation. Both are essential to the gospel. Without theological interpretation Christ’s death becomes a meaningless datum of history; but without history theology evaporates into speculation and idealism. Each word in this confession is a vital tenet of salvation. Not just anyone, not even a very good person, but Christ, who appeared at the right time, died for our salvation.
The Greek text of verses 6–8 contains four sentences, each of which ends with reference to Christ’s death. Thus, when Paul speaks of God’s love, or of righteousness, or of eschatology, he must speak of the cross, for the cross is the constitutive criterion of salvation. Whoever thinks God begrudges the world a pittance of goodwill finds that notion dispelled forever by verse 8. Christ did not die of natural causes. In the face of animosity and rejection he offered his life as a supreme sacrifice for us. The Greek preposition translated for means “on behalf of.” Unlike most prepositions, this one is concrete: Jesus took our place. It is one thing to say Christ died; quite another to say Christ died for me! Thus, Christ died for us is not only the gospel distilled to four words, it is by necessity the personal confession of every Christian.
Ver. 8.—But God commendeth his own love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. The emphatic “his own” is lost sight of in the Authorized Version. It is not in contrast to our love to God, but expressive of the thought that the love of God himself towards men was displayed in the death of Christ. This is important for our true conception of the light in which the mysterious doctrine of the atonement is regarded in Holy Scripture. It is not (as represented by some schools of theologians) that the Son, considered apart from the Father, offered himself to appease his wrath—as seems to be expressed in the lines, “Actus in crucem factus es Irato Deo victima”—but rather that the Divine love itself purposed from eternity and provided the atonement, all the Persons of the holy and undivided Trinity concurring to effect it (cf. ch. 3:24; 8:32; Eph. 2:4; 2 Thess. 2:16: John 3:16; 1 John 4:10, et al.). If it be asked how this Divine love, displayed in the atonement, and therefore previous to it, is consistent with what is elsewhere so continually said of the Divine wrath, we answer that the ideas are not irreconcilable. The wrath expresses God’s necessary antagonism to sin, and the retribution due to it, inseparable from a true conception of the Divine righteousness; and as long as men are under the dominion of sin they are of necessity involved in it: but this is not inconsistent with ever-abiding Divine love towards the persons of sinners, or with an eternal purpose to redeem them. It may be added here that the passage before us intimates our Lord’s essential Deity; for his sacrifice of himself is spoken of as the display of God’s own love.
6–8. For while we were still powerless, at the appointed time Christ died for the ungodly. Now a man will scarcely die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this, that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
In this passage Paul states the reason for saying that God poured his love into the hearts of sinners. He tells us that he was justified in making this assertion because “while we were still powerless,” that is, helpless, totally unable to rescue ourselves from the effects of the fall, Christ, motivated by sovereign love and not by any human merit or accomplishment, died for us, the ungodly.
The unique character of this love becomes apparent when we consider the fact that while for a righteous person a man will scarcely die—though, by rare exception, it might after all happen that for such a good person someone would dare to die, God, on the other hand, demonstrates his own love in this remarkable way, namely, that while we were still in our helpless and sinful state Christ died for us.
In connection with this explanation note the following:
- The “ungodly” people of verse 6 are the “sinners” of verse 8, namely, those sinners for whom Christ died, the “beloved of God, saints” of 1:7.
- The distinction between “a righteous person” and “a good person” should not be pressed, as if the apostle were saying that for a person who is merely “righteous” it would be almost impossible to find someone who would die, but for a “good” person, or benefactor, it might under exceptional conditions be possible to find a substitute who would be willing to offer his life. This is over-interpretation. We should adhere to the one basic point Paul is making, and not obscure the thought by introducing unwarranted distinctions. Room should be left for stylistic variation.
- What Paul is saying is that God’s love, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is both unprecedented and unparalleled. No merit from our side could have moved Christ to die for us, for he died for us “while we were still sinners.” Moreover, he died for us “at the appointed time,” that is, at the time appointed by God (cf. Mark 1:15; Gal. 4:4), not by us.
This death was unparalleled with respect to the marvel of the implied condescending and pardoning grace. Christ died for those who were bad, bad, bad! In them there was no goodness that could have attracted this love. In the death of Jesus for sinners God demonstrates “his own” sovereign love. See Isa. 1:18; 53:6; 57:15; Dan. 9:17–19; 1 John 4:10.
- Note the word “demonstrates,” present tense. Although it is true that for Paul, at the time he wrote this letter, as well as for us today, the death of Christ was an event that had occurred in the past, its lesson remains an ever present and glorious reality.
- Note “his own love for us.”
- Though it is true that no less than four times in these three verses Paul uses a preposition (ὑπέρ) which has a very wide range of meaning, stretching all the way from about or concerning (cf. περί) to in the place of (cf. ἀντί), and which frequently means “for,” “in behalf of,” “for the sake of,” “in the interest of,” it would seem that here in Rom. 5:6–8 this little word, though not by itself meaning “in the place of” implies as much. Does not the context (see verses 9, 10) indicate that by means of the shedding of his blood Christ removed from us God’s wrath? See also N.T.C. on Galatians, p. 130; on Philippians, pp. 82, 83; and on 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, pp. 375, 376.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 283–286). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The Reign of Grace (Vol. 2, pp. 535–542). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 309). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Edwards, J. R. (2011). Romans (pp. 139–141). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). The Pulpit Commentary: Romans (p. 124). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 12–13, pp. 172–173). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.