Romans 8:37 “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
This is our final study of the eighth chapter of Romans, but before moving on to tell us of Israel’s rejection of God’s righteousness in chapters 9, 10 and 11, in this final paragraph Paul has paused and written: “What then shall we say to these things?” (v.31). In other words, now that we have grasped the truth of the inviolable nature of Christ’s salvation, what effect is it going to have upon us? How are we to use it in the struggles of daily life? Negatively he lists the main sources of opposition that we shall meet and assures us that they will prove unable to separate us from the love of Christ. Then the positive heart of the apostle’s answer is found in our text (v. 37), fourteen simple words, all but one of them words of a single syllable, but pulsating with power: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Far from every “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword” winning many a skirmish in our lives we are the ones who do the conquering, indeed we more than conquer them. We are not like Job in his own imagination when he thinks he escapes by the skin of his teeth. We enjoy an abundant deliverance and a glorious part and marvellous victories. We are hyper-successful and mega-victorious and super-conquerors in all these things. Our troubles and persecutions fail to destroy our faith; they do not separate us from the love of God; they don’t drive us off the narrow path in the ditch of lovelessness; they are unable to deprive us of our reward. On the contrary we conquer them.
There is no way for us to avoid them; we cannot even to stop their blusterings and threatenings. We cannot pretend that they are not there – those things that seem intent on separating us from the love of God and obscuring our sense of his love for us. There is no denying the fact that sometimes they place us under tremendous stress. We know that. They seem to imperil our souls, and affect our health of body and mind. They come crashing into our lives and they can seem to be all powerful. We cannot evade their full frontal attacks. But we know that there is only one way to the Celestial City and that is through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But in those trials, and through the Valley we shall be more than conquerors.
Sometimes you hear a Christian saying, or you yourself say under your breath, “If only I had a different life, a different career, a different place to live, a different church – then what a conqueror I would be. What a great Christian! What a great life I’d live for Jesus. Change my environment and I’d be a hero for the Lord.” “No!” says Paul, “not a different situation. No!” You must accept take your own things, your own place, your own position, your own providence in all its particularity as it is today. And in your today, and in the things you meet today, and in the circumstances of today you confront them! Don’t wish for another battlefield, and other enemies, and another stadium in another age and locality. Don’t be too earnest about having other sorrows and other anxieties and other difficulties. Don’t long too much for that because in all these things, in every single one of them, God says they are the places and the times in which you are going to win the victory.
1. THE SPHERE OF VICTORY FOR THE BELIEVER.
“In all these things” What things? In verse 35 Paul gathers together most of the troubles we can imagine: “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword.” Here we have life at its bleakest, with circumstances at their most difficult—what he refers to in verse 18 as “the sufferings of this present time.” Nothing that’s painful seems to be excluded. Such is the sphere of our victory. Where you are saying, “I can’t survive, and I can’t achieve anything in this place, then that is the place God wants you lovingly to labour on, toiling and struggling.” With that thorn in the flesh? Yes. In all this uncertainty? Yes. With these black clouds above? Yes. With your temperament and your limitations? Yes. That is the sphere God wants you to labour. With every appearance to the contrary that seems to saying one word – failure. There God is declaring, “Victory!”
“In all these things.” He chooses his preposition carefully. Not “after all these things have passed into a memory of former bad times.” While it is true that an eternity of happiness is coming for the Christian, that is not what Paul is saying here. Not “apart from all these things,” for he is not making the point that life isn’t always grim and that we’re often in green pastures and besides still waters. Paul is not advocating a stoic spirit, “in spite of all these things,” where we grit our teeth and make the best we can of the bad times.
No! It is “in all these things”—in the midst of them, while we are experiencing them, and by means of them, that “we are more than conquerors.” “These things” form the arena in which our victory is being won. How do we hear these sentiments?
i] These are encouraging words, for they remind us that biblical Christianity is invigoratingly honest—the polar opposite of sentimental escapism on some guilt trip. We are not on a trip anywhere, because people on a trip very soon return to the place from where they set out. We are on a journey, a pilgrimage to the Celestial City and there is no return to the City of Destruction which we have left for good. The apostle looks at life in this world as it really is. He confronts head-on what Hamlet calls “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” and he confronts and defies them all. The believer’s victory can be won, he declares, in every possible situation that we meet. Conquest is not dependent on ideal circumstances, for who would then qualify? Wherever we may be at this moment, no matter how difficult our position, wherever we may find ourselves in the future, no matter how painful or testing, we can and will overcome “in al
l these things.” Paul encompasses everything. Nothing is outside the scope of these words. The promise will never be invalidated.
ii] These are also challenging words. A better translation of the verb might be “we are in the process of more-than-conquering.” Paul isn’t referring to a time after the victory is won – the triumphal procession, the official reception, the rostrum, the victor’s laurel crown, the medals and the cheering. As Alexander Maclaren writes, “It is not that we shall be conquerors in some far-off heaven, when the noise of battle has ceased. It is here and now, in the hand-to-hand conflict that we do overcome.” The picture is of a bloody battlefield, a place of carnage and screaming. Those involved are filthy, frightened soldiers, staggering with exhaustion, aching in every limb. The sphere of victory is a place of intense struggle and pain. “Conquering” refers to war, which is never antiseptic, relaxed, or risk-free. It implies enemies, fierce fighting, and wounds. This battle is not to be won by dropping smart bombs from thirty thousand feet. Victory comes only in the hand-to-hand combat of the trenches.
Is that a fair description of your Christian life at present? Are you a warrior? Have you been wounded recently? What are you attempting for Jesus that is dangerous: when were you last terrified at what he was asking you to do? Is it not the case that many of the Lord’s servants are far too comfortable? We have tended to internalize and privatize Christian warfare. We reduce it to our personal struggles against temptation and indwelling sin. These are vital, and plucking out an eye or amputating a hand does hurt, but the battle we are called to is also more extensive and public.
But Paul’s list of troubles—“tribulation—persecution—danger— sword”—focuses particularly on those that came upon him not because he was a human being but because he was a Christian. They were the outcome of his zeal for Christ—the occupational hazards of a soldier. He suffered because he was faithful to the gospel. A preacher or a missionary suffers not simply because he was born with a weak constitution or in a place where medicine is rudimentary, but because he has been called to be a warrior for Christ. He’s left behind the cloistered life of scholarship, maybe so attractive to his reserved, studious temperament, and he’s marched into the hateful clamour of controversy. He has stood, contended, and bled in the front rank of the battle line, where the fighting has been fiercest. He hasn’t thought that he was exceptional in this, for it seemed to him to be the duty of every believer. We’ve all been sent forth as lambs amidst wolves, helpless without our Shepherd’s protection. We are all going forth as “sheep to be slaughtered.” That is the condition of the Church in all ages. It is a state of continual warfare in bearing the cross and following Jesus and thus knowing the blessedness of men reviling us and saying all manner of evil against us by divine appointment. “In all these things.”
iii] ‘All these things’ are to be examined. We must not expect to derive blessing automatically from all the things we suffer. Affliction by itself, no matter how great its intensity, does not sanctify. The most general reason for this is when we have despised chastening. How have we done this? When we can treat it with contempt. It is profitable only for those who are exercised by it. We can despise the chastening of the Lord. Remember Paul’s reaction to the thorn in the flesh. He became aware of its presence, grew anxious about it, did it the honour of supposing that it was from God and therefore purposeful, and he prayed in order to ascertain precisely what that purpose was. Suffering is unprofitable if it is not interrogated, whenever it is accepted simply as event and incident, rather than as something purposeful and intelligible, which on enquiry, will yield its meaning, and draw our attention to some weakness or some peril in our spiritual life with which it is intimately connected. It is a part of Christian watchfulness to maintain a questioning attitude towards providence as a whole, on the supposition that it is all of God and all purposeful and all connected with our redemption; when pleasant it consolatory, and when bitter it is a corrective.
iv] All these things are positively dangerous. Even our Lord was “tempted by suffering” (Heb. 2:18). There is the danger that we ‘faint’, when we are rebuked by providence. That is the first danger. The natural tendency of such an experience is to get exhausted, to overtax the mind and break the heart. We may become so pre-occupied with pain that we neglect Christian duty, imagining that our obligations to God must for the moment be forgotten, since we cannot be expected both to do and to suffer. It is quite possible for sorrow to reduce the Christian to impotence. An interesting instance of this is seen in the conduct of the disciples in Gethsemane – they were sleeping (and thus neither watching nor praying) for sorrow (Luke 22:45). The same situation seems to have prevailed among those addressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews. They were nursing their sorrows, long inactive and they were loath to bestir themselves, so that the writer has to urge, “Lift up the hands which hang down and the feeble knees.”
The second danger is that adversity may embitter us. “Looking diligently lest …. any root of bitterness springing up trouble you,” (Hebs. 12:15). Complaining against God, envying the more privileged, and a morbid outlook on life in general are by no means uncommon reactions to suffering. It may even reduce us to a condition where we hold in contempt those who, in our estimation, have an easier time, and lead us to relegate them, if only unconsciously, to an inferior spiritual order.
So, affliction is not a situation in which spiritual benefit is inevitable, and in which we can relax in the belief that we’re in no danger. The Biblical teaching is quite to the contrary; adversity is perilous. If it’s independent of God’s presence and of our own gracious response, then it is exhausting and embittering, demanding constant watchfulness, urgent prayer and the whole armour of God. Nor are we to suppose that our sanctity is commensurate with our suffering. Certainly it ought to be! Our sanctimoniousness may be, too! But the poor and the persecuted are not always blessed. Of the three crosses on Calvary, one was atoning and the other was sanctifying. But, quite as certainly, the third was hardening.
v] These are also galvanizing words. They motivate and fire us. It is all too possible to build tombs for the prophets while being careful at the same time to insulate ourselves from most of what they suffered. To read and admire Luthe
r and Calvin and Knox and Latimer and Tyndale, to become an expert in their theology, to attend conferences held in their honour, does not necessarily mean that we have inherited their passion.
One of their favourite terms for a mere believer was “hero,” and there are too few heroes in our churches today. We are captivated and nourished by the God-centred grandeur of Reformation theology, and we are eager to see it taught to others. We seek to live by God’s grace, in the path of his commandments, and for his praise. Our people are solid and stable, and they pass on the faith to their children and their children’s children. For all this, we should be profoundly thankful, but don’t you see in Wales today an inertia, a timidity, a lack of enterprise, and a love of ease among us? We are fond of quoting William Carey’s exhortation about expecting great things from God, and attempting great things for God, but we are less prominent in obeying those words. Persecution? Danger? Can we honestly say that we are “in … these things”?
vi] These words are a summons to be heroes, a wake-up call from the soul-numbing enjoyment of personal peace and affluence. We need to live an uncompromising life of following the Lord Christ so that we find ourselves “in all these things.” That is our calling, so that by proclaiming, evangelizing, ministering, caring, loving, forgiving, and suffering with a self-sacrificing passion we can make beautiful the faith that we profess. We need to pursue reformation in our churches, whatever the cost. We need to move out of our comfort zones into the dark places of a needy world. We need to assault the citadels of Satan in our culture. We are called to sweat and bleed, to weep and tremble. There is no victory available for those who do not fight. But if we want to overcome, opportunities are all around us.
In God’s mercy, a new generation of young people is turning to biblical Christianity. They are hungry for transcendence, for the solidity of historic confessionalism, and in places like Korea and Zambia and the U.S.A. they are coming in their thousands to be taught. But they will not be satisfied with theory or with business-as-usual Christianity. They are in earnest, on fire, and they won’t be tame or tidy or easy to manage. What draws them is the strange thrill of lives given over to God—devoted completely to glorifying and enjoying him forever. And if we are to commend the truths taught here in Romans 8 by the apostle we must also, in all integrity, become more involved in the warfare in which he ceaselessly engaged.
2. THE SUPERLATIVE OF VICTORY FOR THE BELIEVER.
In the face of enemies so powerful, and pressures so daunting, what can we hope for? Should our goal be mere survival, coping somehow with what comes against us? Are we to expect nothing more than winning through by the skin of our teeth? “We are more than conquerors,” says Paul. The rare word he uses means total, overwhelming victory. We will utterly overcome the troubles that come upon us. They will prove unable to defeat or even significantly damage us. We conquer them.
i] These words tell us that our sufferings are turned to our advantage. A conqueror defeats his enemy. A more-than-conqueror turns his enemy into an ally and enlists him in his own cause. Paul the apostle is the perfect example of this. He had once been Saul of Tarsus, but the risen Jesus had met him on the Damascus road. He could simply have struck Saul down, taking away his life, which would have been victory, but the Lord had a greater triumph in mind. The persecutor of Christians was to become a preacher of the gospel and the supreme interpreter of the person and work of his Saviour. The next thirty years of service and suffering were to prove that, in Paul’s life, Jesus Christ had been “more than conqueror.” It is exactly the same with our troubles as Christians. Not only do they fail to harm us—they help us. Instead of defeating us, we find ourselves strengthened by them. What seems to be a curse is transmuted into blessing.
This can be hard to accept while we are in the depths of pain. We aren’t ready at that moment to hear how valuable suffering can be. “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day” (Prov. 25:20), and it sounds horribly glib to suggest to someone in agony that troubles are blessings in disguise. But that is not what the apostle is saying. “These things” in themselves are not blessings. They are intruders in the world; they are due to sin, and God hates them. Death is not in the nature of created things, but is instead “the last enemy” (1 Cor, 15:26). “Jesus wept” at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He was “deeply moved” by a mixture of sorrow and outrage (John 11:35, 38). Paul himself knew far too much about trouble to treat it lightly or to think that it could be anesthetized with pious phrases. When he wrote of “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger,” he had already experienced all of these in his missionary endeavors. Only the “sword” was still to come when, on the day of his death, a Roman soldier could have thrust a short-bladed sword up through his solar plexus and into his heart.
ii] These words tell us that God overrules our sufferings and eventually delivers us from shame. God takes all these things, painful though they were, and he brings lasting benefit from them for us. As he himself tells us, Paul learned lessons through them that he could have assimilated in no other way: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Rom. 5:3-5). God organizes a chain reaction of blessing from our suffering. What had been intended by Satan to damage him was being used for his benefit.
Spurgeon’s testimony would have been identical. He became the man he was and he achieved what he did not in spite of the suffering that he experienced but because of it. His trials shaped him, and his theology was forged in the furnace of affliction. The controversies with which he had to wrestle compelled him to clarify his understanding of Scripture. Betrayals and disappointments cast him back on God. Persecution purified the church, and in some cases awakened sympathy for the gospel, as again and again the devil overreached himself. It is no coincidence that evangelicalism at its most devout and orthodox is a fighting faith, producing men and women with backbones of steel, for this is the matrix out of which it sprang. It was the “all these things” that made them “more than conquerors.”
It is still the same today, for we have found it so in our own experience. Troubles have come, some of them trying us to the limit, but what has happened? Our faith has been strengthened, our priorities corrected, our vision sharpened, our character refined, our hunger for heaven intensified. Like the psalmist, we have been able to testify: “I know, O lord, that … in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Ps. 119:75).
iii] These words tell us that our sufferings are the antidote to unbelief. This is the promise that can persuade us to throw off caution and renounce the easy path. For everyone who fights this holy war there is certain, overwhelming victory! We should not fear “all these things,” but welcome them, for it is as we venture boldly into them that the gospel triumphs. In this life, the victories are paradoxical and often look like defeat. Like the heroes of Hebrews 11, we will be derided as losers by the world. But faith assures us that our triumphs, though not yet complete, are already real and will be fully revealed in God’s time.
It is a thrilling perspective! No disaster can touch us apart from the sovereign will of our loving Father. Not a single person can be lost for whom the Saviour died. Nothing in all creation can hinder the building of Christ’s church or the irresistible advance of his kingdom. God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11), and before his mighty, redeeming purpose, Satan’s worst is powerless. “In all these things we are more than conquerors.”
3. THE SOURCE OF VICTORY FOR THE BELIEVER.
Does it sound arrogant? If the text ended at this point, it would be. But Paul adds the transcendent factor that turns weakness into strength and defeat into victory: “through him who loved us.” Apart from Jesus Christ, all our talk of conquering would be empty boasting or pathetic whistling in the dark. With him, we are certain to overcome.
i] Jesus’ particular love for his suffering people. He enables us to overcome by his presence – “through him.” “I am with you always” is his permanent promise to all his people, but to those who are suffering he is particularly close. A mother loves all her children equally, but when one of them is ill, there is a particular outflow of affection to that little one. It doesn’t mean that the others are any less dear to her—just that when extra love is needed, it is instinctively given. So it is with Christ, that while he loves us all, always and to the end, he has a special concern for those in trouble. The context here is the constancy of his love in circumstances in which it might be questioned, as Paul answers his own rhetorical question: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” by affirming that not anything in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 35, 39).
Our Lord has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18), and it would be a simple matter for him to remove our troubles or to overcome our enemies with a word, no matter how impossible that might seem to us. But he chooses not to, for “all these things” are part of his sovereign plan. Mustn’t he then care for us in the trials that he decrees shall come upon us? In our struggling, isn’t his heart moved with compassion toward us more tenderly than we can imagine? Isn’t he unceasingly and effectively channeling his infinite power to help and sustain us when we need him most? Throughout history, God’s people have found Christ to be especially near in times of darkness. They sense his presence; they feel his upholding hand; they know themselves to be empowered, far beyond anything they could have expected. They are “more than conquerors through him.”
ii] Jesus’ particular atonement for his people. There is more here than the assurance of Christ’s presence. The source of victory is ultimately in his passion “through him who loved us.” He always has loved his people and always will, from before the creation of the world, during all time and throughout the endless ages of eternity, but the tense of the Greek verb points to one supreme moment in the past when Christ’s love was extended in a uniquely significant way. That moment was Calvary, for “greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). When Paul speaks elsewhere of “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20), the love of which he is thinking is that seen in the body on the cross outside Jerusalem, Here is the source of victory – “him who loved us.”
Victory because, on the cross, Christ paid the full penalty for our sins, robbed death of its sting, and broke the power of the grave forever. By the sacrifice of himself and his subsequent resurrection, he secured everlasting life for every one of his own. More than that, in this act of love the Lord faced the full force of evil and not only overcame it but used it to serve his good purpose. In that moment of deepest despair, with the Son of God hanging accursed and dead, it seemed as if hell had won. But in all these things God was more than conqueror. For every act of cruelty, every blow of Satan was helping to atone for sin and being overruled for the salvation of Christ’s people. It was not a tragedy but a triumph, not a defeat but a victory.
Souvenirs, as the word itself means, are reminders of something important. The holiday souvenir serves as an aid to memory by representing something characteristic of a place we have visited—a model of the Eiffel Tower from Paris or the Parthenon from Athens. And Jesus Christ has left his church a souvenir. It isn’t a reminder of his incarnation or of his heavenly glory. He has given us, rather, bread and wine—symbols of his broken, bleeding body, a reminder of his cross. “When you remember me,” he said, “remember me like this.” For here is where our salvation was accomplished and where victory was won. “Conquerors through him who loved us.”
Christ’s path to victory is to be ours also. The key verse in understanding the Christian life is Matthew 16:24: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Whoever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship, ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome and unquiet life,
crammed with very many and various kinds of evil. This should not daunt us, for since Calvary we can look at suffering without fear and confront all that Satan can do without being shaken in our faith. Why? Because Jesus Christ has been there before us. He loved us with a bloodstained love, and we are privileged to follow in his steps. Our victories aren’t marked by swagger and bombast. We aren’t smooth or impressive; we don’t give the impression that we are riding high above the troubles of less enlightened men and women. We are often tired and troubled; we make mistakes and fall down a lot; we struggle and are sometimes sad. But Christ is with us; he is seen in us; he bears witness through us—and we do overcome! This is how his work is done in the world. He is the source of our victory, and for it he receives all the praise.
For more than 20 occasions we have looked at Romans chapter 8. Do we believe what is written in this glorious chapter? I am asking you whether you are living this life, showing the commitment that its truth demands. Are you willing to say, “I know that I am not my own master. I offer my heart to the Lord in sacrifice.” For Romans 8 role-models we could hardly do better than look to the five young men who were burned for Christ in Lyons on May 16, 1553. John Calvin had written them a letter and urged them to be faithful: “Be ready to give your life at any time . . . May the Son of God be glorified by your shame . . .This is sufficient cause to despise the whole world with its pride, till we be gathered into that everlasting Kingdom where we shall fully enjoy those blessings which we now only possess in hope.” His students proved true as steel. Dressed in gray shirts and tied together, they were taken in a cart to the place of execution. And as they passed through the streets, they began to sing. It was the ninth psalm. Listen to them:
Wholehearted thanksgiving to you I will bring;
In praise of your marvellous works I will sing.
For joy I will shout and exultingly cry in praise of your name,
Lord my God, O Most High.
The Lord is a stronghold, a refuge, a tower,
For all the oppressed in their dark, troubled hour.
Those knowing your name, Lord, trust you for your grace;
You have not forsaken those seeking your face.
Sundays are real life but so are Mondays and every other day. August Conference weeks in the resort of Aberystwyth do not challenge our commitment to be following Christ. There are too many Christians around us, too many old friends, bus trips, huge gatherings of Christians and orators addressing us. There is no cooking for many and no washing dishes. There is delightful fellowship. These are aids, stimuli to the Christian life – no more. The value of such times together will be demonstrated in the days that follow, in our homes, churches, communities, nations, in our labouring and contending and enduring and rejoicing—and in our keeping on.
When the five young men had been fastened to the stakes, they were bound together with a heavy chain and the fire was lit. They stood fast and for a little while, until they entered glory, they could be heard calling to each other, “Courage, brother, courage!” We who have gathered here today will never be exactly together again on this earth. But until we do meet once more, let us cry to each other as we separate and take up our crosses, “Courage, brother, courage!” “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
2nd September 2012 GEOFF THOMAS
* I heard Edward Donnelly preaching on this text at the Calvin500 Conference celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the great reformer’s birth, just two days earlier than the actual anniversary on July 9 in 2009. Ted was speaking from the Reformer’s own pulpit in the St. Pierre Cathedral, Geneva. I have taken much of this material (with the permission of my dear friend) and used it in this sermon. It is to be found in Preaching like Calvin, edited by David Hall, p.225ff, P&R Publishing.