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Who Loves Whom?

By Pastor James Burke

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" (Romans 8:35, NKJV). This verse is as familiar to me as my own name. I've read, heard and quoted it many thousands of times. I've heard it preached repeatedly as an encouragement to depend on the unchanging love of Christ for me. Unfortunately, the verses that are the most familiar are often the easiest to gloss over and miss the real meaning of because we think we already understand it.

Every time I read the whole chapter, though, I felt uncomfortable about what this verse is saying in context about the love of God. So, Christ loves me no matter what my circumstances: I get that. The next verse, however, seems to say that because Christ loves us, He has us killed all day every day. I know God sometimes expresses tough love, but is that the encouragement Paul is offering the suffering church? "Hang on, Christ loves you so much He's having you killed"?

We never doubt the eternal, sacrificial and unconditional love of Christ. Scripture attests to it repeatedly, but not in Romans 8:35. The problem comes from interpreting the genitive tou Xristou (of Christ) without comparing the context. I'm going to get a little bit technical, but I believe this is easy to follow, so stay with me.

When a genitive case (which "of Christ" is, in this verse) follows an action noun such as love, there are three possible functions it can fulfill. Only the first two would fit the grammar of this sentence, so I will leave off the third. The only clue we have to choose which function is appropriate is context. In this place, the subjective function always has been used, making "love of Christ" the subject of the sentence. In other words, Christ is the Lover, the One doing the action. There is no grammatical barrier to this usage, but does it fit the rest of the passage? Possibly, but I believe there is a better way.

The second possibility is the objective function, placing "of Christ" in the position of the direct object of love. In other words, Christ is the One receiving the love or being loved. If we were to use this function, we could translate the verse, "Who shall separate us from our love for Christ?" In other words, after discussing the brevity and insignificance of our suffering compared with the glory Christ has purchased for us, and then going on to consider the help and hope He offers through His Spirit even though we brought suffering on not only ourselves but all His creation, Paul asks, "How much do we love Him?" He then goes on in Romans 8:36 to quote Psalms 44, indicating we willingly lay down our lives for the One who loved us so.

It's interesting to compare the lists from verse 35 and Romans 8:38-39. The things Paul lists as possibly coming between us and our love for God are all earthly -- tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword. The things he lists as not possibly coming between us and God's love for us are all spiritual -- death nor life; angels, principalities nor powers; things present nor things to come; height nor depth; nor any other created thing. Because God defends us from what we cannot overcome, He gives us the strength to overcome the things we can.

After all Christ has done for you and been for you, what would it take to separate you from your love for Christ?

Pastor James Burke spent his teen years in South East Asia with his missionary family before returning to North Carolina to earn a B.A. in Biblical Studies from Piedmont Bible College. After several years serving in youth and music ministry while also working as an international marketing coordinator, he accepted the call to pastor Grace Brethren Church in Riner, Va., and has led this church since 2003. He has a passion for practical exposition.

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