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Home Forums General Forums Engage The Faith Q&A: The Five Verses Almost Universally Misunderstood by Christians Today. Reply To: Q&A: The Five Verses Almost Universally Misunderstood by Christians Today.

  • David Bercot

    July 30, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    You have made a great observation. But there is even more to uncover about this verse. The universal mistake made by Christians today is that they think Paul is speaking here about Christ’s love for us, when he is actually talking about our love for Christ. The expressions, “love of Christ” and “love of God,” are ambiguous in that they can either mean the love of Christ or God for us, or our love for Christ or for God. This ambiguity exists in both English and in Greek.

    I did a New Testament phrase search, and I found that in the NKJV, those two expressions (“love of Christ” and “love of God”) appear a total of 14 times. Seven of those 14 times, the verse is talking about our love for God or for Christ. Six of the 14 times, it’s talking about God’s or Christ’s love for us. And in one of the verses, it’s simply unclear which of the two the writer is talking about. How do we know whether a verse is talking about our love for God or His love for us? The immediate context usually makes it clear.

    For example:

    1 John 5:2-3
    2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.

    Obviously, here John is talking about our love for God, not His love for us.

    1 John 4:9
    9 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.

    Here, John is clearly talking about God’s love for us, not our love for God.

    With that background in mind, let’s examine Romans 8:35 to see if the context reveals whether Paul is talking about our love for Christ or His love for us. Right after saying, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul goes on to say: “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”

    Now, if we read the Scriptures a lot, those words should make us think of another passage from Paul, right?

    2 Corinthians 6:4-5
    But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings;

    So in Romans 8, Paul is describing the various kinds of trials that he and the other apostles—and many other Christians had suffered because of their ministry on behalf of God.

    The conventional evangelical explanation of Rom. 8:35 is that Paul is telling His readers that God’s love for us has no conditions. No matter what we do, it will never cost us our salvation—assuming we have been validly saved. But why has it never occurred to modern Christians that if that is the point that Paul is trying to make, that he’s presenting an incredibly weak argument?

    It would mean that Paul is saying that Christ is so wonderful that even if we suffer persecution for His sake, He still loves us. Even if we go hungry or are threatened with death because of our serving Him, that will not cause Him to stop loving us. Now what kind of argument is that? What kind of Lord would He be if He did stop loving us because we suffered tribulation, persecution, famine, and the sword on His account?

    Like most of you, I grew up with the Protestant explanation of Rom. 8:35, and so I had been blinded to the obvious. This verse had always been explained to me that it was talking about Christ’s love for us (not our love for Him). So I glibly accepted that interpretation and never questioned the obvious absurdity of such an interpretation.

    And so it was one of those epiphany moments when I was reading Origen’s Commentary on Romans, and I came across this passage:

    “If the soul has ascended to this state of perfection, so that it loves God with all its heart and with all its mind and with all its strength, and loves its neighbor as itself, what room will there be for sin? After all, it is on this account as well that in the law that love is said to be the first commandment. And in the Gospels love is commanded above everything else. …

    For the Apostle Paul had ascended to this degree of perfection, and standing in it he confidently said, “For who will separate us from love for God which is in Christ Jesus? Will affliction, or distress, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” and again, “But I am certain that neither life, nor death, nor things present, nor things to come, nor angels, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from love for God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” From all of this it is plainly shown that none of these things enumerated by the Apostle can separate us from our love for God when we have ascended to the peak of perfection.”

    When I read that, I realized that Origen was understanding Romans 8 to be talking about a committed Christian’s love for Christ and for His Father—not the other way around. And, of course, it made total sense. In fact, it is the only interpretation that makes any sense.

    Paul is not making a theological statement here. He is making a triumphant, bold declaration on behalf of himself and similarly committed Christians that nothing is going to quench our love for Christ. Nothing will separate us from our love for Him. Paul is also making a bold statement of defiance against Satan and against Satan’s invisible agents and against his earthly agents. He is saying that no matter what Satan brings against us, he will not prevail against Christ’s Church.

    Justin Martyr made a similar statement in one of his apologetic works. He wrote:

    It is evident that no one can terrify or subdue we who have believed in Jesus throughout the world. For it is plain that, though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but the more such things happen, the more do others and in larger numbers become faithful, and worshippers of God through the name of Jesus.

    (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Ch. 110)

    Paul is making a similar declaration in Romans 8.

    As I’ve mentioned that the light bulb in my head suddenly lit up upon my reading Origen’s Commentary on Romans. So I was curious: Is this just Origen’s take on this passage. Or is this truly the historic faith? So I started searching to see how other early Christians understood this verse. In the end, I could not find even one early Christian who interpreted this verse the way modern evangelicals do.

    All the primitive Christians who discuss or apply this passage understand it the same way. And that should come as no surprise. It’s the only understanding that fits the context.

    I’ll read to you a few examples:

    Around the year 250, during a time of persecution, a group of group of Christians who were in prison because of their faith wrote a letter to the church in Carthage, in which they said:

    3. What more glorious or blessed thing can happen to any man … than to confess the Lord God in death itself, before his very executioners? What is more glorious than—among the raging and varied and exquisite tortures of worldly power, even when the body is racked and torn and cut to pieces—to confess Christ the Son of God with a spirit that is still free. …

    4. For to this battle our Lord, as with the trumpet of His Gospel, urges us on when He says, “He that loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loves his own soul more than me is not worthy of me. And he that does not take up his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me.” And again, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men shall persecute you and hate you. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for so did their fathers persecute the prophets who were before you.” And again, “You shall stand before kings and powers, and brother shall deliver up brother to death, and father the son. But he who endures to the end shall be saved;” and “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with me on my throne.” Moreover the apostle says: “Who shall separate us from love for Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (As it is written, For your sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.) Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors for Him who has loved us.” (ANF Vol. 5, 303–304).

    In his homily on this passage, John Chrysostom writes:

    (9) If some of us are ungrateful to God, the same was not true of Paul. He was so alive through the Spirit and was so on fire with love for God as to utter those words worthy of his spirit and to cry aloud with the words, “Who will cut us off from love for Christ?” See the point of his remark; see the passion of his overwhelming desire; see his burning love: “Who will cut us off?” What is there, he says, that has the power to deprive us from loving God—anything visible, anything invisible?

    Then, in his wish to enumerate everything individually and make clear to us all the irrepressible love he had for the Lord, he added: “Distress, hardship, hunger, persecution, nakedness, danger, the sword?” …What is there, he says, of all the problems besetting us that could separate us from our love of God? Daily distress? Not at all. Hardships? These neither. Persecutions? By no means. Hunger? Not even that. He says the onset of death itself could not succeed in achieving it.

    (10) …You see, desire for God and burning love elevated his thinking from material things to spiritual, from present things to future things, from visible things to things unseen. This is what faith is like, after all, and love for God.


    13. In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul says: “We glory in tribulations also, being sure that tribulation works patience, and patience endurance, and endurance, hope; and hope makes us not ashamed.” And again Paul writes, “And if children, then heirs, heirs indeed of God, and joint-heirs with Christ: if we suffer with Him, so that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this age are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” And therefore afterward he says: “Who shall separate us from love of God? Shall tribulation, or distress, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (As it is written: For your sake we are killed all the day long; we have been counted as sheep for the slaughter,) Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through Him who loved us. For we are persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Likewise, in recounting his own sufferings to the Corinthians, he declared that suffering must be endured, saying: “In labors, more abundant, in prisons very frequent, in deaths often. Of the Jews five times I received forty stripes, less one; three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned.” And if these severities seem to us to be more grievous than martyrdoms, yet once more he says: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake.”

    Tertullian. Scorpiace. (ANF Vol. 3, pp. 646–647).


    We must commit to walk in His ways and to fear His commandments. The Father corrects and protects us if we still stand fast in the faith during both afflictions and perplexities. That is to say, we must cling closely to His Christ. As it is written, “Who shall separate us from love for Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” None of these things can separate true believers. Nothing can tear away those who are clinging to His body and blood. Persecution of that kind is an examination and searching out of the heart. God wills us to be sifted and tested. For He has always tested His people; and yet in His trials help has never at any time been wanting to believers.

    The Epistles of Cyprian. (ANF Vol. 5, pp. 286–287).

    I could go on and on. Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Jerome—and even Augustine all understand this passage the same way. In explaining this passage, Augustine writes, “Here Paul is exhorting his hearers to not be broken by persecution, for perhaps they had been living according to the wisdom of the flesh.”

    As I’ve said, I haven’t been able to find even one early Christian who understood this passage the way it is popularly expounded today. And I didn’t just stop with the early Christians. I kept searching into the late patristic period, the early medieval times, the high Middle Ages—people like Cyril of Alexandria, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas. They all understood this passage the same way–that it is talking about our love for Christ.

    So when did it all change—and who’s responsible? The first commentator I have found who set forth the modern evangelical understanding was John Calvin—in the mid-1500s. Of course, since he taught absolute predestination—that nothing we do can affect our salvation—this innovative interpretation bolstered his doctrine. Once Calvin set the course, then most Protestant commentators after him followed suit: John Gill, Matthew Henry, etc.

    After a while, because each commentator copies previous commentators, pretty soon every Protestant or evangelical commentator was explaining this passage incorrectly.

    And so most of us—like myself—grew up being told that this passage is talking about Christ’s love for us and that nothing can separate us from it. As in so many other areas, the historic faith got ignored and forgotten. This is even though the modern interpretation makes Paul’s argument illogical. And, more importantly, even though the modern interpretation is unscriptural and contradicts Jesus.

    For Jesus said in John 15:9-10: “As
    the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just
    as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” So Jesus
    has explicitly told us that we must keep His commandments to abide or remain in
    His love. He did not say that nothing that separate us from His love for