This paper has been written by me in the course of my theological studies at European Nazarene College (www.eunc.edu). You may use this text as a part of your work provided that you give credits to its author – Petar Neychev. If you have questions – please, leave a comment or contact me through the Contact Us page.
The excerpt of Romans 8:31-39 is a passage in which Paul skillfully addresses concepts crucial to the Christian faith without using the traditional terminology for that. Yet, his words are powerful and with no doubt, when properly interpreted in their context powerfully communicating the apostle’s message. In the following pages I would like to walk with the reader on the hermeneutical road of interpretation of this passage, bringing clarity to its intended meaning, and giving guidance as to how to approach the difficulties scholars face with it today. However, before one takes this step some background information needs to be provided as a safeguard against misinterpretation.
Based on the evidence of the text itself it is firmly accepted that apostle Paul is the author of this letter to the church in Rome. Given the further details in the text it is also agreed upon that Paul “writes Romans while in Corinth during the third missionary journey (Acts 20:2-3). This is probably in A.D. 57, give or take a year” (Moo 17). Commentators argue that this late period of Paul’s ministry is also the reason for the “doctrinal discussion” (Moo 17) in Romans.
The church in Rome itself is different from the other churches Paul has written to. From Scripture we know that Paul is not the one who has organized the church, as he himself states that he has never been there. In fact, the Bible does not tell us in detail how this church has come to be. All there is concerning this is the reference in Acts 2:10 that there were Jews from Rome, who supposedly went back and started the church. However, at the time of Paul’s letter the church consisted mainly of Gentiles, who have just recently become the majority.(1)
Concerning the purpose of writing and the overall theme of the letter commentators throughout the centuries have come up with various conclusions. The purpose of the letter, which is accepted by the author includes but is not restricted to: Paul’s mission, the Roman church itself, the proclamation of the Gospel, and unity in Christ. Thus, the overall theme also becomes hard to distinguish. Probably the most encompassing suggestion would be that of the Gospel with a more distinct emphasis on Christology and God’s righteousness (Moo 21-26).
The final piece of background information which requires special attention is the context of the passage within the letter, as well as in relation to the passages straight before and after it. Although some scholars disagree, the general opinion is that the passage of chapter 8:31-39 is a logical conclusion (supported by the Greek text itself) to the arguments laid out by Paul in chapters 5-8 (Wright 609). The Greek text of verse 31 clearly points out that what is to follow has to do with what has been said so far: “What shall we then say to these things” (Romans 8:31a, KJV)? Concerning the immediate connection with the previous verses – 31 through 39 are a powerful confirmation of the arguments for the Jews’ belonging to God from chapter 7 on, and at the same time a good foundation for the claim that Gentiles also belong to God – chapter 9.
As we have laid out a firm foundation for the proper understanding of the passage, we now turn to the more in-depth discussion.
For good or bad Romans 8:31-39 does not present any extreme cultural challenges to the reader today. Yet, it will be beneficial for the reader to acknowledge two aspects of the passage with special attention.
The first is to be found in verse 32: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all” (Romans 8:32a, NASB). This is a clear reference to Abraham’s offering of Isaac in Genesis 22:12,16. The power of this connection becomes obvious when one considers the importance of this event in the Old Testament in its proper interpretation. By using this analogy Paul beautifully connects to the Jewish minority in his audience to proclaim once again that it is not by works but by faith in Christ, His Spirit, and God’s promise that one is declared righteous and thus God’s own. Earlier in his ministry Paul has written to the Galatians that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Galatians 3:6). This emphasis of Paul’s words not only connects to the Jews, but also, and I would suggest – especially to the Gentiles. It prepares the ground for Paul’s further explanation in chapter 9 that Gentiles are also adopted on the very same grounds – God’s promise. Considering all this one can now see how before saying something Paul makes it clear that this something concerns all believers, both Jews and Gentiles. Only then he continues to elaborate more on his point.
The second aspect of the passage which needs further clarification of a historical nature is found at the very end – verse 39. Here Paul, after he has made his point, concludes that nothing is able to separate us from the love of Christ. A clarification is necessary here because of the culturally specific meaning of height and depth. In the ancient world these words were used to “denote the celestial space above and below the horizon” (Arnold 53). This could lead to the misunderstanding that Paul is referring to spiritual beings since then it was understood that they dwell in these places. However, commentators agree that “there is little lexical evidence that these terms have such a denotation” (Arnold 53). The use with which also Moo and others agree is spacial – for the sake of a stronger emphasis. Thus, the message Paul is communicating is simply that nothing, truly nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
Surprisingly enough, the discussed passage from the message to the Romans does not raise any crucial differences in translation of words. Modern translations agree with the core thought of the Greek text, adding only minor changes for clarity’s sake. The main struggle for scholars, however, is connected to the punctuation of verses 33 and 34. Wright points out that if taken as in the RSV the treatment of verse 34b as a question disrupts the natural flow of Paul’s expression.(2) The NIV and NRSV, however, maintain the suggested flow of the passage thus claiming “that because God is the justifier, and because the Messiah has died, was raised, and now intercedes, there can indeed be no one to lay a charge against God’s elect” (Wright 613). This punctuation suggests the possibility of further trinitarian claim: “Who will separate us from Christ’s love? (Expected answer: No one; the Spirit, after all, has poured out love for God into our hearts)” (Wright 613). Paul, however, continues differently, thus not explicitly in defense of this suggestion.
Concerning the overall flow of the passage I see two main sections. The first one is Paul’s series of rhetorical expressions – verses 31-34, which leads to the theme of God’s love, and the second constitutes of verses 35-39, which emphasize this love’s inseparability from the believers. Although he could have presented his point, which is summarized in the last two verses of the chapter, right away, Paul wants to make sure he has established a good foundation to build on. Throughout both sections he escalates the tension in the reader, and only when he has received the full attention does he present the main point. Moo points out how the technique of “omission of connecting words between sentences” which is more obvious in the Greek text supports this escalation. Lastly, by the use of rhetorics Paul “is not asking his readers for information; he is trying to draw us into the discussion in a way that a flat assertion will not” (Moo 285). Witherington III agrees with Wright that Paul’s opening in verse 31 introduces what is to come as a conclusion of what has been said so far in the first part of the letter (Witherington III 231). Thus, the connection which was mentioned above is established.
Following this, verse 32 is seen as a mini set-up for the list of things which believers face, not as a mere possibility but as a reality (Witherington III 231). One term which requires special attention in this verse is charizomai. The meaning according to Strong’s Greek Dictionary is “to grant as a favor, that is, gratuitously, in kindness” (Strong G5483). The same word is used in Luke 7:21 for Jesus giving sight to the blind, as well as in Galatians 3:18, were Paul talks about Abraham’s inheritance given to him by God by promise, which is on God’s account. Thus, one can notice Paul’s emphasis that it is God who has given Christ, but even more – together with him we are given all things – a connection which the NIV makes more visible.
In verse 33 Paul presents a metaphor of a court room. Wright supports the deep theological importance of this and suggests a connection with the beginning of the letter where “the whole human family faced the judgment of God;… the whole world was in the dock, with no defense to offer against massive charges” (Wright 613). This time, however, Jesus is elevated to be the justifier, the defender, even more – the intercessor for those who are in Him. It needs to be emphasized that the term “justify” in this verse is the one carrying the meaning of “to show or regard as just or innocent” (Strong G1344). This is the term used by Paul on multiple occasions in Romans and other letters to communicate the concept of being declared righteous by God.
The metaphor is followed by the reality in the lives of believers – Christ’s love (Wright 613). This stated in the form of a question introduces a list of hardships, which is known as a type of affliction lists. These lists are used in Paul’s time for various reasons, and one of them is suggested to be Paul’s reason in Romans 8:35 – “demonstrating the triumph of virtue in all circumstances of life and over all adversity” (Fitzgerald 17). This is how far Paul extends his proclamation of Christ’s love! Special attention is to be given to the word “separate”, in Greek chorizo. This verb has been used eighteen times in twelve verses throughout the New Testament (Blue Letter Bible). The use of the term with the meaning of separation is found in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9 as well as several other occasions referring to the division between a husband and a wife, between what God has put together and made one flesh. Now, for the Jewish minds in the audience this would be a powerful comparison. Paul is talking about being made one with Christ through His love. It is a personal intimate relationship, which bears fruit. Before we turn to see that there is more to the affliction list, let us consider also the use of “love” as it is so crucial to the passage.
The noun for “love”, agape used in this case derives from the verb agapao, the meaning of which in Greek in relationship to persons is “to love dearly” (Blue Letter Bible). This noun occurs multiple times throughout the New Testament in relation but not limited to the Father’s love for humanity (1 John 2:15), the Father’s love for the Son (John 17:24), and Jesus’ love for people (Mark 10:21). Thus, it becomes clear that in this passage, as well as in 1 Corinthians 13, for instance, Paul refers to the unlimited and perfect love of God which is available to all, and from which nothing can separate us. This is not love as in friendship love (phileo as in Matthew 6:5), nor is it a mere physical love (eros), but God’s type of love.
Back to the affliction list, in the same article Fitzgerald explains that “it was axiomatic in the ancient world that adversity is the litmus test of character” (Fitzgerald 17). This is to say that a person’s integrity is measured by the greatness of the hardships overcome. With this in mind we move on to Paul’s quote of Psalm 44:22: “For your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36, NASB). So far it would seem that Paul is boasting about his own integrity, for he has undergone the listed hardships except the one of “sword” (Wright 614). However, one needs to continue reading in order to see the whole picture. In the very next sentence – verse 37, Paul gives all the credit to “Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37b, NASB). I see this as a powerful tool which Paul uses to combine God’s justifying and overcoming power from the court metaphor with the love of Christ, thus reaching the peak of his arguments exactly before concluding with his main point.
The closure of the passage, verses 38-39, is often interpreted differently by different commentators. However, I would like to emphasize Moo’s interpretation since it creates fewer difficulties than those greatly differing from it. He suggests that the four pairs and “powers” are there to emphasize that nothing can separate believers from the love of Christ (Moo 284). For instance, he suggests that “death” and “life” refer to the “two basic states of human existence” (Moo 284). Dunn, however, proposes that what Paul is talking about through “death” is a hostile power, and “life” – the “life in this age to as one of suffering and not-yet-achieved salvation” (Dunn 507). Paul continues the list by mentioning all spiritual beings, the whole spiritual world – through the pair “angels” and “demons”, as well as the oddly inserted “powers” (Moo 284). Through these, as well as the often misinterpreted as spiritual beings “things present” and “things to come” Paul is trying to encompass all there is to the life of the believer and say that none of it can separate him or her from the love of Christ. This is also valid for “height” and “depth”, which were explained earlier on. About verse 39, Moo suggests a connection of the last phrase of the chapter with the beginning of the book: “as the chapter began with “no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1), so it ends with the bookends of “no separation” (8:25,39)” (Moo 284). I agree with this, but would add that it is also a good wrap-up of what has been said in the previous verses of the passage, stating the main theme in a distinct way.
Having discussed the passage as a whole and in details, and pointed out some specifics it is now due to turn to some more specific theological implications of the text. As is was stated earlier this passage’s main theme is God’s love which is in Christ Jesus and it’s inseparability from the believer. This is in a nutshell what Paul is communicating to the Romans. Romans 8:31-39 powerfully supports the general theme of the letter – the Gospel, and especially the Gospel as Christological and theocentric. This, however, is only the overall main emphasis. As one goes into details they can discover that Paul is also addressing through his court room metaphor the proper understanding of the believers’ justification. In verses 32-34 he points out that it is declared on the basis of Christ’s death (Greathouse 192), and that “it is God who justifies” (Dunn 510). More specifically through his question and answer in verse 34 Paul expresses that Christ’s justification is all-encompassing. Period.
In this address to the church in Rome Paul does not omit to talk about God’s grace either. As it was shown above, this grace is freely, or as some other translations state it – graciously given to all. One can easily sense the tension here because of the predestination notions of the passage. This section of Romans has been badly misinterpreted as speaking of God choosing only a particular group, and thus all said so far would apply to them only. This, however is due to taking the passage out of the wider context of chapter 7, and especially 9, in which Paul extends his arguments, as mentioned in the beginning. Thus, God’s grace, one can conclude, is freely given to all and all are subject to Christ’s justifying love.
This love, which is in the center of the Gospel Paul proclaims to be, as outlined earlier, the crucial personal connection between humanity and God. This claim stresses the strength and power of the personal relationship with Christ, which is initiated and sustained by His love. Paul’s outstanding conclusion on the strength of Christ’s love, I believe, suggests a constantly open door for the believer’s reconciliation.
Although it is difficult to simply conclude on Paul’s words from Romans 8:31-39, I will make an attempt to summarize the main points, in order to present the reader with an even clearer and more distinct picture.
In his conclusion to chapters 5-8 Paul addresses the believers in Rome with one of his most powerful rhetorical arguments concerning God’s love expressed in Christ. His main concern for this moment seems to be the assurance of this love, portrayed in its strength and closeness to the believer. He states all this in a way which clearly confirms the reality of this love in the life of people – it is not an occasional event but a continuous activity. Paul skillfully succeeds to implement this conclusion also as a preparation for what he is to say in the coming chapters.
Thus, we are given a God-inspired masterpiece of encouragement and assurance of God’s utmost expression of believers belonging to Him.
Arnold, Clinton, ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol. 3: Romans to Philemon. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Blue Letter Bible. “Dictionary and Word Search for ‘agapao (Strong’s 25) ‘ ” . Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2002. 5 May 2006.
Blue Letter Bible. “Dictionary and Word Search for ‘agape (Strong’s 26) ‘ ” . Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2002. 5 May 2006.
Blue Letter Bible. “Dictionary and Word Search for ‘chorizo (Strong’s 5563) ‘ ” . Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2002. 5 May 2006.
Dunn, J.D.G., Romans, vol.1, Word Biblical Commentary, Waco, TX, Word, 1988.
Fitzgerald, J. T., Dictionary of the New Testament Background. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, pp. 16-18
Greathouse, William M., “Romans,” in Beacon Bible Commentary, Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, MO, 1968.
James Strong, S.T.D., LL.D., Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries., 1890, e-Sword.
King James Concordance, e-Sword
Moo, Douglas J., Romans. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Textus Receptus Greek New Testament from Stephanus 1550, e-Sword
Witherington III, Ben. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
Wright, N. T. “The Letter to the Romans.” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 10. Nashville: Abingdon, 2002, pp. 393-770.
The Bible in the following translations: NIV, NASB, RSV, KJV, KJV+TVM (e-Sword), NKJV, LITV, GNT, The Bible in Bulgarian by United Bible Societies, 2003