Editor's Note: This address was originally delivered at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology in 1974. The present form has been adapted with permission from Our Sovereign God (Baker, 1977, pp. 147–153).
An optimist does not cut a very impressive figure among Christians. There are too many bad things around us—how can anyone be optimistic when faced with our world situation? There is the threatening of evil on varied horizons. There is the fact that the United States of America is not always tremendously well loved in the world. The Church is despised. There are people who are turned off by Christianity altogether and who think of Christians only with contempt (and sometimes verbalize that contempt).
In the presence of the quasi-collapse of our very civilization, how can we be optimists? When there are so few signs of redeeming value on the horizon, how can we possibly expect that somehow things will turn out for the best?
There are people who like to contrast optimism not only with pessimism, but with realism. They say that if you have an understanding of what is really going on, you cannot be an optimist. And yet, Romans 8:28-39, written in circumstances and times hardly more promising than those in which we live, contains an expression by Paul of the most far reaching optimism: "All things work together for good to them that love God" (v. 28). We do not have to fear anything, he says. There is no problem which can defy the power of God to solve it.
The climax of this optimistic passage is the great statement that nothing "shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord." Separation is the great source of human sorrow. The places where separations occur—the airport now, previously the wharf or railroad station—are often places of tears, because people who love each other are separated there, at least for awhile. The cemetery is a place of tears because it separates us for this life from those we have loved.
One of the great concerns we have is that somehow we cannot stay with the things and people we love. We cannot take them with us. Separation, therefore, represents a most formidable threat to human life. It is the constant threat of disruption in the middle of the quietness and peace of our lives. So the Christian naturally may raise the question, "Can the blessings that I have found in Jesus Christ be taken away from me? Does separation threaten this as well? Could it be that after I have for awhile found the loving arms of the Savior I may be ripped away from his embrace and lost forever?"
It is in answer to these questions that the apostle speaks to us. He says, "I am persuaded, I am absolutely convinced, I am positive." It is difficult to translate this exactly in English. "I am persuaded" refers to a finished product, a completed act which issues into a present attitude. It means, "I am completely sure and positive that nothing can separate us from the love of God manifested in Christ Jesus, our Savior."
In listing those items that cannot separate us from the love of God, Paul begins with the most formidable threat: Death. Surely death is the key representative of separators. It separates those who die from their labors, belongings, and activities. It separates them from the fulfillment of their careers. It separates those who remain from their fellowship, company, and presence. Moreover, it is a separation which has a tone of finality that other separations do not have. We may be sent to a concentration camp, but there is always a hope that somehow we might come back. But when death has spoken, there is no return. In that sense, death is the king of fears; it is the emperor of separators.
This is where Paul starts. He starts at the highest pitch, as it were, saying, "Death cannot separate us from the love of God manifested in Jesus Christ." Here we must think of the situation of the Apostles when the Lord died. They thought that death had separated them from him and him from them. They were confused and bewildered. They were distraught. They were using the verb "hope" in the past, saying that they "had hoped," meaning that they did not hope anymore (cf. Lk. 24:21). They were grieved about their own weakness in his last moments and uncertain about their future. It seemed that lightning had struck in the middle of the highest experience of their lives and that it had broken down and dispersed everything they held dear.
But it did not separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
In fact, Christ's death is the principle of salvation and union which he came to accomplish. The Apostles did not understand it then, but later on they learned that the death of Christ was the seal of his love for them, and the basis of their acceptance with God. Far from being a separation between them and God, Christ's death was actually a great bridge of union. In it the words of the Lord became literally true—"unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). In the death and resurrection of Christ the Apostles were to see and understand this great and eternal unity which was secured and established by God between himself and his people.
Now the question arises: Granted that the death of Christ did not separate, what will happen at our death? Will our death separate? Will death produce a barrier between Christ and us, as it does between human beings? What is behind this dark barrier that marks the passage from one life to the other?
The Scripture teaches that our death in no wise separates us from Jesus Christ. Paul, in the Epistle to the Philippians says that he was in a quandary as to what he should prefer—to continue his labor on the earth or to die (Phil. 1:19-26). To die would be far better, he says, because then he would be with Jesus Christ. Our death, then, is not to be seen as a catastrophe that writes a final period after a life of many weaknesses and vacillations. On the contrary, it is a climactic bridge that leads us into a firmer and fuller fellowship with God than anything we have known in the days of our flesh. Beyond the doors of death, the Christian can see the Lord of glory waiting and welcoming him to his presence and to the joy of heavenly fellowship. Even as Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, could look beyond the doors of death and martyrdom to see the Son of Man rising from his seat at the right hand of God, so too can we see the welcoming gestures of the Savior who, having died for us, is prepared to receive us into the place which he has prepared for us.
We ought not be overly mournful at Christian funerals. It is true, of course, that the Christian, even more than the non-Christian, senses the loss of someone he has loved. But the time when a Christian passes from this scene into eternity is a time in which we ought to sing, "Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Hallelujah; here is one whom God has redeemed, one who has come to the fulfillment of his time on earth, and death has not separated him from the Lord..."
To hear the full address, download the audio at ReformedResources.org.
Roger Nicole (1915–2010) was a Reformed Baptist theologian and professor, teaching at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He was also a founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.
Giveaway: PCRT Anthology (over 45 years of conference messages)
Our Sovereign God, edited by James Boice