The Epistle to the Romans is widely considered ‘The Greatest Letter Ever Written’ and understandably so. The author Paul takes the reader into the very heart of justification apart from works. The crescendo of his argument is found in Romans 8 which begins, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The rest of this chapter builds upon that theme over and over. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.”
The teaching in Romans 8 concerning the effect of the atonement of Jesus Christ is only matched with that found in Hebrews. It is here that we find a clear foundation for one of the most controversial doctrines in all of Christianity, Limited Atonement. The clarity and forcefulness with which the Apostle Paul writes cannot be ignored. Paul not only provides an affirmation of Limited Atonement, but also a beautiful application of this controversial doctrine.
Before looking at the passage let’s get a working definition of Limited Atonement.
Limited Atonement is that glorious doctrine that affirms the unity of the persons of the trinity in the work of redemption. It affirms that the scope of the atonement of Jesus Christ is neither greater nor lesser than the scope of the Father’s election, and neither great nor lesser than the scope of the application of the atonement by the Holy Spirit in the lives of the elect. What this means then is that the work of atonement is performed for those the Father chose, and that the Holy Spirit will apply it.
From another angle Limited Atonement is the teaching that affirms the perfect saving nature of the substitutionary (in place of) atonement that Jesus Christ performed. His is atonement was perfect and is able to save perfectly all for whom it is made.
The verses we are concerned with are Romans 8:31-35a.
31) What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32) He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33) Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34) who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35) Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Without having to exegete the passage we can plainly see two relevant statements. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all,” and “Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” Taken by itself, without any context, these passages don’t really tell us anything; in fact with the constant repetition of “for us” one might think that the passage supports a universal atonement. That notion is quickly and dismissed with prejudice when a full examination of the passage is made.
Let’s move onto the exegesis of the passage and try to let it speak for itself.
31) What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?
Both of these questions have a reference to what has been said immediately prior. This is plain since the first question does not ask “what shall we say”, but “what shall we say to ‘these things’”. It is clear that ‘these things’ must be what was spoken of immediately prior, namely v.28-30. It could also be in reference to the entire chapter or even the book of Romans, but taking it that far is at odds with the word ‘these’ which conveys the idea of, “with regard to what I just said, what shall we say?” But then what exactly are these things from v.28-30. From v.31a we can conclude one thing for certain; v.28-30 is how God is ‘for us’. Let’s consider then how God is ‘for us’.
28) And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 29) For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30) and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
The last question to be asked of this verse is, who is the ‘us’? It is clear from v.31b that the ‘us’ are all for whom God is for. From the first part of the verse it is also clear that the ‘us’ are those for whom ‘these things’ apply. If ‘these things’ refers to verses 28-31 then the ‘us’ are all whom God causes all things to work for good, whom he foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. This relevance of this initial identification will become clear as we work through the following verses.
32) He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?
We now will look at the first verse that sheds light on the nature of Christ’s atonement. It should be without any controversy that the ‘He’ is God the Father and v.32a is referring to the crucifixion. God the father did not spare Jesus Christ, His Son, but delivered Jesus over for ‘us all’. When the Father delivered/spared not His own Son, it was ‘for us all” Again a simple skimming along the surface may lead us to believe that ‘for us all’ means for every single person on the planet. This is not valid, however, since the last part of the verse continues speaking about the ‘us’. When we look at v.32b we see that those for whom Jesus was delivered over for also receive all things. “How will he not also freely with Him give us all things?” The statement is forceful. How can the Father give ‘us’ the son, and not give ‘us’ all things. It’s almost blasphemous to suggest such a thing. Taken as a whole we can see the argument. Why do you think the father will not give you all things, why do you think he is not For You, He gave you His Son. Isn’t that evidence enough that he will also give you all things? It should be plain now that whoever the ‘us all’ for whom the son was delivered over for also receive all things from the father. Perhaps the question is in what these things are. Perhaps there’s wiggle room there that will allow us to say, the Father gives every person on earth all things, but these things aren’t salvation. When we continue on however the passage continues to build upon this groundwork making it more and more difficult to avoid the truth of Limited Atonement.
33) Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies;
The ‘us’ who was the subject up till now has suddenly vanished and been replaced with ‘another’ group, God’s elect. But is this really another group, or the same group being identified by another title?
It’s clear that v.33 is a continuation of the idea from v.31, namely, ‘if God is for us, who is against us.’ Here, however, we have God justifying, and the elect being charged against. “If God is the one who justifies, who will bring a charge against God’s elect?” The author intends to communicate a few things here.
1) God is the one who justifies.
2) God justifies His elect.
3) Therefore, the elect cannot have a charge placed against them.
This is not to say that there are not those who will place charges against God’s elect, but this is another realm, the realm of God’s justifying or condemning. Since God is the supreme authority, when an issue is brought to Him He has the final decision over it. If someone brings a charge against God’s elect, God just declares, JUSTIFIED. In the flow of the passage it only makes sense that this is intended to build upon the truths already laid out for us, namely that God freely gives all things to those whom he gave his son, and that if God is for us, who can be against us. By implication we can conclude that since this is part of the same argument started in v.31 then God is for ‘us’ by being the one who justifies ‘us’, and the ‘us’ in v.33 are identified as ‘God’s elect.’ Therefore God is for his ‘elect’. Moreover again by implication we can also conclude that this justification that God gives is part of the ‘all things’ found in v.32. Therefore since the father delivered the son over ‘for us all’ he will also justify ‘us all’. It can properly be said in this passage that God justifies his ‘elect’ and contextually he justifies ‘us all’. This however cannot be taken that he justifies everyone, but rather must be understood, as should be plain, that by ‘us all’ he means ‘all of us’ and the ‘us’ is God’s elect, those for whom God is for, those whom the son was delivered over, those whom the father freely gives all things. But if this still is not evident let’s observe this before continuing to the next verse.
What shall we say of these things?
If God is for us,
Who is against us?
He who did not spare his own son, but delivered him over for us all, how he not also with him freely give us all things.
Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?
God is the one who justifies [God’s elect].
Who is the one who condemns [us]?
Christ Jesus is he who died, yes rather who was raised, and who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
When viewed this way the parallels are striking.
34) Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.
This is the second relevant statement that answers the question, what is the result of Jesus’ atonement. Again this continues to build upon what the Author initially stated, ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’ This time the question is ‘Who is the one who condemns?’ We again have the same idea, if God is for ‘us’ then there isn’t anyone who condemns us. This is not to say that in this present age the ‘us’ are not condemned, but is to say before God there can be no condemnation, since he is the one who is the final authority. This verse gives us even more reasons why if God is for us, no one can be against us, namely Christ Jesus is He who died. This statement is laid out in and of itself as a reason why we cannot be condemned, but it is also reinforced, ‘yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.’ The second half of the reason why the ‘us’ cannot be condemned is supportive of the initial statement. It’s clear that in the mind of the author the mere fact that Jesus is the one who died negates the possibility of condemnation. If Jesus died for us, who can condemn? If Jesus rose for us, who can condemn? If Jesus is at the right hand of God for us, who can condemn? Lastly, if Jesus intercedes for us, who can condemn? The point is that no one can condemn where Jesus has done these things. On the issue of intercession scripture makes it plain elsewhere in Hebrews 7:25 that, “Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” When viewed in connection with Romans 8:34 we see the connection between the intercession of Christ and the death of Christ. This connection or unbreakable unity between the death and intercession of Christ is actually present in Hebrews 7:25-27,
25) Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. 26) For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; 27) who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.
Observe that Jesus is able to save forever since he always lives to make intercession. And his intercession is intimately connected to his death, because He made one offering for all time when He offered up Himself. This offering in v.25-27 (which is perfect because of v.26) is His intercession.
35) Who can separate us from the love of Christ?
This is the culminating question of the book of Romans. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? When viewed in the context of everything that has come before it is plain to see that the ‘us’ in this verse is the exact same us in verses 31, 32, implied in 33, and 34. Because of this we can correctly view the love of Christ identified in this verse as for a specific group, namely ‘us’. Moreover we can also deduce from the verse itself that the ‘us’ can never be separated from this love. This love is an eternal love, an unstoppable love. This is not the kind of love that God has for everyone, since no one can separate ‘us’ from this love. It is clear from the parallel verses before it that this love is a love that expresses itself in God being ‘for us’, delivering the son over for ‘us’, justifying ‘us’, Jesus dying rising seated and interceding for ‘us’. This is the love that the ‘us’ cannot be separated from. By this point the Apostle Paul does not underlie this question with another reason as to why it is impossible. The mere fact that it is the ‘love of Christ’ on top of everything that was said before is implied as a sufficient reason in itself. Verses 35b-39 go on to explain all the different ‘things’ that can’t separate us, and can properly be said to be unable to condemn, charge, and be against us. Even with this onslaught the Apostle is still convinced that none of it can separate the ‘us’ from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
By now there is no doubt the death of Jesus for ‘us’ is the basis in the passage for no one being against the ‘us’. Because of this anyone for whom Jesus died is also whom Jesus intercedes v.34. Anyone for whom Jesus was delivered over for the father freely gives ‘all things’. The death of Jesus is so intimately connected with salvation itself that everyone whom he died for will be glorified. To the Apostle this is not a doctrine to shy away from; it is the very heart and joy of the Gospel. The Apostle here presents four threats to the Christian, those being against, condemning, charging, and separating us from the love of Christ. The apostle presents along with these four strong assurances and foundations for the Christian to base his hope and assurance upon. God is for us, He gave his Son over for us, He justifies us, and Christ Jesus died rose sits and intercedes for us. Not once is our action in view here, rather every reason given is based in the nature and work of God. It’s straightforward and simple. These are the reasons why Paul is convinced in v.35-39 that neither
tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword …… neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We see then that for the Apostle Limited Atonement is not a doctrine to shy from because it’s exclusive, but a doctrine to embrace because it’s powerful. To the apostle the teaching that Jesus perfectly saves all for whom he died means that all of ‘us’, that is those who believe in Jesus, can have a strong assurance that He will save us perfectly.
Harrison, Everett F. “Romans.” Pages 98-99 in Romans, 1Corinthians, 2Corinthians, Galatians.Vol. 10 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976
Haldane, Robert. “An Exposition of Romans,” Pages 408-420. Mac Dill AFB, FL.: Mac Donald Publishing Company, 1958
Stott, John R.W. “The Message of Romans.” Pages 253-257 of The Bible Speaks Today Series. Edited by John R.W. Stott. Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994
Murray, John. “For Whom Did Christ Die? The Extent of the Atonement.” Pages 10-13. Birmingham, AL.: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2010
Smeaton, George. “The Doctrine of the Atonement According to the Apostles.” Pages 178-184. Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988