God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Notice that “demonstrates” is present tense and “died” is past tense. “God demonstrates His own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The present tense implies that this “demonstrating” is an ongoing act that keeps happening in today’s present and tomorrow’s present, which we call the future.
The past tense, “died” implies that the death of Christ happened once for all and will not be repeated. “Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
Why did Paul use the present tense (“God demonstrates . . .”)? I would have expected Paul to say, “God demonstrated (past tense) His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Was not the death of Christ the demonstration of God’s love? And did not that demonstration happen in the past? So why does Paul say, “God demonstrates . . .” instead of saying, “God demonstrated . . .”?
I think the clue is given a few verses earlier. Paul has just said that “tribulations work patient endurance, and patient endurance works proven character and proven character works hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (vv. 3-5). In other words, the goal of everything God takes us through is hope. He wants us to feel unwaveringly hopeful through all tribulations.
But how can we? Tribulations by definition are anti-hope. If they felt hopeful in themselves they wouldn’t be tribulations. What’s the underlying secret of actually growing in hope through tribulation?
Paul answers in the next line: “Because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (v.5). God’s love “has been poured out in our hearts.” The tense of this verb means that God’s love was poured out in our hearts in the past (at our conversion) and is still present and active.
So Paul’s point is that the Spirit-given assurance and enjoyment of the love of God is the secret to growing in hope through tribulation. Tribulation works patient endurance and proven character and unashamed hope because, at every point of the way, the Spirit of God is assuring us of the love of God in and through all the trouble.
Now we can see why Paul uses the present tense in verse 8: “God demonstrates His own love toward us . . .” This is the very work of the Holy Spirit referred to in verse 5: God, the Holy Spirit, is pouring out and shedding abroad in our hearts the love of God.
God did demonstrate his love for us in giving his own Son to die once for all in the past for our sins (v. 8). But he also knows that this past love must be experienced as a present reality (today and tomorrow) if we are to have patience and character and hope. Therefore he not only demonstrated it on Calvary, he goes on demonstrating it now by the Spirit. He does this by opening the eyes of our hearts to “taste and see” the glory of the cross and the guarantee that it gives that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39).