Romans 8:28-34

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I have been firmly adhering to my plan to preach Romans as I preach any other book of the Bible, taking a paragraph at a time and dealing with its main point. But I confess that I have been defeated by these next seven verses, the summit of the acropolis of the New Testament. I will need several sermons here. I will confine my remarks on the text this morning simply to the first verse of the seven.

Text Comment

v.28     As those of you who are reading the ESV will have recognized as I read the NIV, there is a question as to the original text of Paul’s sentence. Did he say that “God works in all things for the good of those who love him” or did he say that “all things work together for good to those who love God”? There is significant textual support in the Greek manuscripts for both readings and, to be frank, it hardly matters because it is not in dispute that Paul wrote “for those who love God” and “who have been called according to his purpose.” It is obviously God who is at work and it is clear that he is at work in all things on behalf of his people.

It is also important to note, all the more given the accent upon the divine initiative and divine purpose and divine sovereignty in salvation that will be found in the verses that follow, that here the children of God are defined simply as those “who love God.” Often in the Bible true Christians are described as “believers” in God or in Christ; but sometimes, as here, they are described as “lovers” of God. Think of Paul in 1 Cor. 2 where he speaks of the things that God has prepared “for those who love him.” Or think of 1 Cor. 16 where Paul concludes his letter by saying “A curse on all those who do not love our Lord Jesus Christ.” We know, of course, that all men are commanded to love God; but for the believer in Christ that love for God is the inevitable response to God’s love for him or her. The Christian’s love for God is the response that he or she eagerly and willingly offers “in the totality of his being” because of what God has done and what God has given. [Cranfield, i, 425] To say that a child of God is one who loves God teaches us many things, but it is first and foremost a reminder, often given us in the Bible, that love is the first principle, even the whole reality of true religion. Here too the Christian faith marks out an utterly unique place among the religions and philosophies of mankind. Where else can you find the notion that God’s love is the beginning of all hope for human beings and that man’s love for God is the sum of all to which he has been called?

Now the readers of the ESV among us will have noticed that the editors of their Bible did not break the paragraph between vv. 27 and 28 as do the editors of the NIV. Paragraph divisions, of course, are not original to the Bible. They are added by modern editors for the sake of their readers and are put in different places depending upon how the progress of the argument is understood. One of the reasons we are switching to the ESV from the NIV at the beginning of next year is that usually in such matters as translation and paragraph division and so on the judgment of the editors of the ESV is to be preferred. Verses 28 through 30 are completing the thought of the previous verses and the new thought begins in v. 31 with its “What, then, shall we say in response to this?”

Paul, in other words, is still talking about life in the groaning universe, about living in a world that is in bondage to decay, about our suffering in this world while we wait for the day of redemption of our bodies. He has comforted us with thoughts of what is to come when the sons of God shall be revealed and, most recently, with the thought that the Holy Spirit himself intercedes for us in our weakness and our finitude. And now he adds a further comfort or consolation to suffering believers.

It is that God has everything in our lives under his complete control and that everything that happens – even the worst things that happen – is intended in the divine plan to foster our good, our happiness, and our safety. In a dying world; in a world in which a contest for the eternal souls of men and women is being waged to the death between God and the Devil, in a community of human beings who have fallen into the deepest rebellion against God and, spiritually speaking, have become blind, deaf, and dumb, hard and difficult things are often necessary to secure a person’s eternal welfare. As a scalpel cutting deep is often necessary to save a life, as terrible wars are sometimes necessary to secure freedom and justice, so troubles and trials and sorrows and afflictions and crushing disappointments are often necessary to create the conditions in which souls might go at last safely to heaven.

And vv. 29 and 30 supply the proof of that astonishing assertion. Not only may we take comfort in the midst of our troubles from the fact that we are the children of God and that he is our loving heavenly Father; not only may we draw strength from the fact that our sorrows in this life are only the prelude to glory in the next; not only may we take courage from the promise that the Holy Spirit is not only with us but so intimately concerned for us that he prays in us and alongside us for what we truly need; but the children of God, those who love God are the objects and the focus of God’s eternal purpose. God has intended for them before the foundation of the world that they should live forever in his glory and in the happiness of intimate communion with him. He is at work in the world and in them to make that so. What happens in their lives, good and bad, is all part of that plan. There is nothing accidental in our lives; only the outworking of God’s plan for our salvation.

Or, to put it another way, in v. 28 Paul lays down the proposition. Everything works for the good of those who love God. No doubt Paul is thinking primarily about bad things, hard things, sorrowful things, painful things. That is what he has been talking about in the context up to this point; that is what he will continue to talk about in the remaining verses of the chapter. We don’t tend to need so much assurance that good and happy things work for our good; but we need very much the assurance that hard and heart-breaking things actually promote our welfare. To be sure, what Paul says applies equally to the happy things of life as to the hard; but we need the assurance in respect to the hard things. And in v. 28 Paul assures us that they too are meant for our good and they serve the grand purposes that God has to secure our everlasting life.

And in the next two verses Paul proves the point. And the proof comes in this form. God’s entire purpose for your life, if you are his child, from the origin of that purpose in the divine decree in eternity past to the consummation of it in eternity to come has been that you might be conformed to the likeness of his Son and that you might live with him forever in heaven. That is what “glorified” means at the end of v. 30. That is the terminus of God’s plan, the ultimate end: you, a perfect man or woman now safe and happy with God in heaven.

Remember, it was God’s intention at the outset, at the time of man’s creation that man should be made in the image of God and in God’s likeness. That was so that he might enjoy communion and fellowship with God his Maker. Sin has marred and distorted man’s likeness to God. In more ways than we know, we are now not at all like God. But by the redemption of Jesus Christ that likeness is being restored and will some day be perfectly restored. We won’t be God, of course; but in every way that human beings can be like him we will be like him. That is what God is about in your life and all that happens in your life, however difficult, sad and sorrowful, is serving this ultimate and wonderful purpose. Many think, perhaps especially unbelievers, but often Christians too, that God’s chief purpose in life is that we should be happy. But obviously that is not so. If it were, we would always be happy! God’s purpose is that we be saved and be made like Jesus Christ and go to heaven and for that it is necessary that sometimes we be unhappy, even very unhappy; just as it was necessary that the Lord Jesus be unhappy, even very unhappy, so that he might grow up into the fullness of his perfect manhood and become the man he needed to be to be our Savior from sin and death. Sin has made it necessary for people to suffer in order to be saved. Not only for Christ to suffer for us but for us to suffer as well.

What a remarkable thinker Paul was. He is making here what logicians call an “inference.” The “for” at the beginning of v. 29 is an indication that he is making an argument and that the argument is an “inference.” If God has long before planned your life with the end in view that you should live forever in happy and holy communion with him and with the Lord Jesus Christ; if God had in mind before the world was made – and that is what foreknow and predestine in v. 29 indicate – that not only would your sins be forgiven but that you would be transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ, to be a man or a woman as perfect, as good, as pure a human being as he was – then obviously the troubles through which you must pass in this world must have something to do with that; must have everything to do with that! Things do not happen in this world outside of God’s plan. Everything must in some way advance that plan. God is bringing his will to pass. And if he loves his children as much as he does, and if his Son suffered terribly for them as he did – a consideration that Paul makes explicit in v. 32 – and if God has a definite and altogether happy purpose for them as he does, then the comfort and consolation of v. 28 follows by rigorous necessity. All things in your life are working good for you; it cannot possibly be otherwise.

But it is a Christian argument that Paul is making; the logic works only to assure those who love God, who are called by God, who are justified, and so on. You will sometimes meet people who are by nature and disposition cheerful and optimistic. If they happen to live in a time of prosperity, if they themselves and their loved ones enjoy good health and reasonable success, they may well be inclined to think and to say such things as “the world is getting better and better,” or “adversity only makes us stronger,” and so on. There was a great deal of this sort of attitude in Victorian Britain, a time of great peace and prosperity, a time when many people indulged the illusion that progress was relentless and soon would lift everyone up by its arms.  Think of the famous lines of the poet Robert Browning speaking for a generation:

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his heaven –
All’s right with the world!
[Lloyd-Jones, Romans 8:17-39, 161]

But, of course, things weren’t right with the world. The private lives of many people in Victorian Britain – poor and wealthy alike – were deeply sorrowful and unhappy. And then the twentieth century put paid to the notion that progress was inevitable and we have begun our new century and a new millennia acutely aware of how much is wrong with the world and with the lives of people in the world. No one believes Browning any more. Even folk who are deeply invested in popular forms of health and wealth optimism – in either their religious or their secular forms:  from Benny Hinn to Deepak Chopra –  are seduced into the ridiculous pretensions and outright dishonesty peddled by those snake-oil salesmen precisely because they want their lives to be better than they are.

Paul’s assurance in v. 28 has nothing to do with this. It is for Christians only because his argument is a theological one. He is not drawing an inference from his observation of life. He is drawing an inference from the facts of divine election and the redemption of Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life that is in the gospel of God. His is not some wooly-headed false optimism. Paul was no “Pollyanna.” His is the confession of Christian faith in a sovereign God. There is nothing that happens in a Christian’s life, nothing at all, that is not serving God’s great purpose to conform his children to Jesus Christ and to get them safely to heaven. And the inevitable implication of that fact is that the sorrows and troubles through which we pass in this world must also have those purposes and so must be appointed for our ultimate good. We may indeed wonder how they serve that divine purpose, but that they do is beyond doubt.

I said that this is a theological argument Paul is making; it is not an argument based on the observation of life. But life certainly does provide us with many illustrations of how hard and difficult things can be turned to good results. We heard of one this past Thanksgiving morning. Dr. Darby’s calling on Jerry Savage and the discussion that those two men had about Jerry’s detached retina – a medical condition Dr. Darby does not ordinarily see or treat in his work – prepared him to recognize the next day the symptoms of a patient who came to him and to speed him to a specialist so that his sight might be spared. I suspect it would have made Jerry’s own ordeal easier to bear had he been told beforehand that the result of it would be the sparing of another man’s eyesight. But such observations only encourage us because we already believe that God works out everything for the good of those who love him. The unbeliever is likely to see only a fortunate coincidence and would quickly remind us of the many detached retinas in the world that are never treated and of the many who lose their sight or never had it. They would argue that every now and then a bad thing ends up leading to a good thing, but that is hardly always the case. And, in that they are certainly correct.

Paul is certainly not arguing that every bad thing that happens to someone turns out happily in the end. To begin with he is speaking only of the lives of Christians; of those who love God. For the unbeliever, many things make matters worse not only in the short term but forever! Nor is Paul saying that even in the case of Christian experience we will be able to connect the dots from difficulty or trial or affliction to happy outcome. God works in mysterious ways; his ways are beyond our ways and past finding out. A thousand years for us are but a day for him.

Ravi Zacharias is one of the most able evangelists and Christian apologists at work in the world today. Some of you have listened to his lectures at Harvard or have read some of his books. You know how well he argues for the Christian Gospel. Ravi’s great, great, great grandmother was the first Christian in the family. She became a Christian in part because a cholera epidemic broke out in her village and she was required to be quarantined for two weeks with some Christian missionaries because she happened to be at their house when the epidemic was declared. That was in the south of India in 1858. She knew that her confession of Christ would greatly offend her Hindu family, would even expose her to some genuine danger and, therefore, she might never have made that confession as a result. But after several weeks isolated with the missionaries her questions were answered and her mind was made up. But no one could have seen then that a cholera epidemic in the mid-19th century – which must have taken lives and caused great sorrow in that village – would be a remote but essential cause of many finding life in Christ in the 20th and 21st centuries because a distant descendant of hers, raised as a result of her long ago conversion in a Christian, not a Hindu, family – would be a world renown evangelist and apologist for the Christian faith. We cannot see what God sees perfectly well.

And lest we doubt the truth of Paul’s assertion here in Romans 8:28, the Bible provides us its own illustrations of this connection between the “all things” of our human lives and the “good” that God is doing in and through them. Take one of the most celebrated illustrations of divine providence – of God’s ordering all things for the good of his children – given us in the Bible.

Joseph was Jacob’s eleventh son, but the first child born to his second and much favored wife Rachel. For all the years of Joseph’s life Jacob had made it perfectly clear that he preferred Joseph to his other boys. On one occasion he gave Joseph a fine coat, a gift that demonstrated Jacob’s favoritism. Jacob was a bad father. It is not easy being raised in a family overseen by a bad father and there are lots of such families! In a fit of jealous rage the unloved and unfavored sons of Jacob kidnapped their younger brother one day and sold him into slavery in Egypt and tricked their father into believing that his favorite son had been killed by a wild animal. It was a deeply dysfunctional home, full of bitterness and recrimination; a home in which Jacob had so completely lost the affection of his sons that they were perfectly content to let their father spend his latter years in deep misery, crushed by the death of a favorite son whom, they knew very well, was probably still alive. You’ve got to hate your dad to be willing to do that and watch him endure suffering like that!

You know, of course, the rest of the story: Joseph’s success as an overseer in the house of a prominent Egyptian politician, his catching the eye of the politician’s wife, his being cast into prison as a result of his refusal to betray his boss; from prison, his eventual rise to great power in the Egyptian court; his becoming the means of Egypt’s prosperity during a great famine, of the provision of food for his own family, and eventually of the spiritual rebirth of his brothers and his reunion with his father. So much woe, much of it, of course, the direct result of sinfulness on the part of his father and his brothers. And yet, however much those men meant evil to their brother, however much Joseph suffered in the years of his slavery, God worked all things for their good. What did Joseph say to his brothers years after they had betrayed him? “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Is that not precisely what Paul is asserting here? God means it for good. All things work for the good of those who love God. A stupid father, jealous brothers, an angry family, a vicious crime: and out of it all came the salvation of the 12 tribes of Israel and eventually the proclamation of eternal life to the four corners of the world.

At one point in that history, as you may remember, Jacob, commenting on all that had gone wrong, said “Everything is against me!” When he uttered those words he was on the cusp of discovering that his long-mourned son was not only still alive but was the second most powerful man in the world and that his family had been marvelously restored to spiritual and godly life, no thanks to him. When he said “Everything is against me!” he was at the point of learning that God had ordered everything for his happiness and that of his family. How little he understood what God was doing! How little he understood how all things were working for the good for those that love God!

We may not be able to see the good that God is doing or all of that good. God’s ways are far above us and past finding out. Paul is not saying that you will be able to figure out how a particular hardship or heartbreak will work to your good. Paul is not saying that you will have the right to determine what good is going to be done in and through the afflictions through which you must pass. God is on his throne and he does what is right in heaven and on earth. He knows the connection of things when we cannot and his wisdom is far above ours.

And that is our problem is it not? It is not obvious to us how some particular suffering or sorrow leads to our good or how it serves our salvation. If we could see the good, the happy outcome that is coming, it would be so much easier to bear our trials. But we cannot see how things are working together for good. Quite the contrary, it seems to us that God is playing fast and loose with us. But that is only because we do not know what God knows and we cannot see what God sees. You parents often require your children to endure pain – a spanking or a shot at the doctor’s office or eating vegetables or the requirement that he or she practice piano or violin – not because you enjoy making your children unhappy, but because you know very well that someday they will thank you for it. It really is, as you remind them so often, for their own good. You want them to grow up to be healthy, happy, holy, and useful people and live a full, rich and important life as a follower of Jesus Christ; and, like it or not, that requires some pain. It simply does.

Florence and I have to shove pills down our dog’s throat three times a day. He doesn’t like being treated that way, understandably enough. But he grasps only the discomfort; he doesn’t know that his health is directly dependent upon the medicine we give him. He doesn’t know, as I have often told him, that those pills are all that stand between him and being euthanized! Well as with a child and still more with a pet, their ignorance, their inability to understand and appreciate the connection between one thing and another twists everything. If only they knew, if only they could only see… But they do not know and cannot see. To some extent every Christian is in the same position. But not entirely.

There is something that we can know and know for sure. God has a plan; he is working it out; and it has for its great purpose bringing his children to their rest and joy in the eternal country making them the kind of people they ought to be. Notice, in fact, the difference between Paul’s statement in v. 26 – “We do not know what we ought to pray for…” – and his statement in v. 28 – “We know that all things work together for good…”.  The Christian does not know many things. The immediate cause and effect of things are often unknown and unknowable. The specific whys and wherefores of a particular sadness or trial are usually unknown. But the Christian knows some things; he or she knows the ultimate issue of things and the ultimate purpose of things. Look at the Christian in v. 26 unsure of what to pray for. He or she is baffled by the things that are happening; baffled and discouraged and disheartened. The situation is so confusing to him, so disheartening that he can’t even figure out what is the right thing to pray. “I don’t know why these things are happening or what I am supposed to do about them or even how I am to pray!” How many of us have found ourselves in such situations! But, no matter our ignorance, we Christians know with a certainty that all of this is known to God, part of God’s plan, and will conform us to the Lord Jesus Christ and is sure to lead eventually to our entrance into the city of God.

Sometimes we can see quite clearly at least some of the good our trials and afflictions produce for us. We are humbled by them, or we have because of them far greater experiences of God’s nearness and power. Or we learn not to count on the things of this world or we find ourselves longing for heaven in a way we did not before. John Bunyan went so far as to say that his sorrows had done him so much good, had brought him so much nearer to God, that “I may say, I had perished unless I had perished.” In other words, he could hardly imagine his being a true follower of Christ or his having remained one without all that sorrow and trouble had done for him, in taking him out of himself and keeping his sights on Christ and heaven. [Grace Abounding, paragraphs 321, 323, 327] Another great preacher put it simply this way: “Relax life’s hardships, remove its difficulties, and who among us would be safe?” [J.S. Stewart, The Strong Name, 149]

It is not all that difficult for us to see what sorts of good can come from our trials, how we can be trained by them to be humble, to be heavenly minded and to be sympathetic with others in their troubles. Surely there is much of true godliness that can be produced in us only by trial and sorrow. Otherwise why would it be said, as it is in the epistle to the Hebrews in chapter 2 and 4, that suffering was necessary even for the Lord Jesus, perfect man that he was, to grow up into mature godliness?

But to say that is not at all to say that we know very much about why particular sorrows are  appointed for us to bear, why those and not others, why now and not then, why us and not someone else? We have no idea what God is doing specifically in our case with the trials and sorrows that come our way. We may get some noticeable good from them, but the great purposes of God in them we cannot see; nor can we begin to understand how our sorrows are connected to the future, or how they serve the purpose of our eventual safe arrival in heaven or the safe arrival of our children or others. And be sure of this: if Christ’s sufferings were not only for the development and maturation of his own inner life, his own perfection as a man and as our Savior, but also for our salvation, certainly in a similar way our sufferings are not only for our good but for the good of others. Here too we live not for ourselves and our happiness is not to be found in our own circumstances alone but also in those of others.

But this much is clear. Given the assurance Paul has given us in Romans 8:28, founded as it is upon the unshakeable foundation of vv. 29-30, when we are in the midst of a trial and when our hearts have been broken by some great sadness, we are to thank God that he has our welfare in view and that he is willing to do anything in, to, and for us that is necessary to ensure that our feet finally land on the golden streets. And after you have given thanks, look sharp. See what you can see, see if you can see at least some of the good God is working out for you.