Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Today I have the most wonderful news for everyone who loves God, in other words, for all the people whom God has called. I have received this word that I have read to you in order to assure you that in all the things that have happened to you in the past, and also that are happening to you today, and even in what will happen to you in the future God has been working, and God is working now, and God will be working in everything for your present and eternal good. The apostle says, “We know this.” Here is something certain and sure. Paul doesn’t say, “It would be wonderful if in all things God is working for our good.” He doesn’t say, “Let’s pretend they do . . . let’s imagine it . . . let’s dream that this is so.” Paul quietly affirms, “We know that this is so . . .” He is standing in solidarity with the whole congregation in Rome to whom he is writing and he is giving each of them this sweet peace, “All of us know that this is so.” Paul is also standing in solidarity with Jesus Christ his Lord, the one who recreated and illuminated him on the road to Damascus, and the one who commissioned him to be his spokesman and ambassador and herald. The one who reminded Paul of the high rank he possessed telling him, “He who hears you hears me; he who believes what you preach and write is really believing me.” “We know this,” says Paul, “in other words, the Son of God who is my Lord, and I myself who am his apostle and plenipotentiary – we two speak as one and we definitely know this, and we want you to know it also, that in all things God is working for the good of those who love him.”
There is a whole book by Thomas Watson on this text. It was once called The Divine Cordial, but now it has been renamed, All Things for Good. The first chapter of the book is headed, “The best things work for good to the godly,” and the second chapter says, “The worst things work for good to the godly.” In the very opening words of the book Thomas Watson, says, “Two things I’ve always looked upon as difficult. The one thing is to make the wicked sad, and the other is to make the godly joyful,” and with that conviction he proceeded to write this book on our text. The wicked want to take away all our joy; militant atheists mock our happiness. How frustrated they would be to discover what we know that God has used their wicked attitudes to be our blessing. The godly who have suffered so much at the hands of the wicked can be comforted from the fact that the worst things they’ve experienced have worked for their good. You can see why Thomas Watson called the book The Divine Cordial. This indestructible reality cheers and comforts us greatly. In our text Paul assures us of four things about the providence of God that we know, without the shadow of a doubt.
- CHRISTIANS KNOW THAT GOD IS AT WORK IN THEIR LIVES.
Let us understand that we are not simply spectators of a great cosmic machine with all its wheels silently turning, which is working by itself for our good. All things do not automatically work themselves together patterning our good. Many of you know this text in the familiar words of the Authorized Version, “All things work together for good.” We are not to think of it describing some kind of system that is in operation. That translation is presuming the sovereign guidance of God undergirding and directing all the events of our lives. Another translation is the one before us in which the subject is God; “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” God is ceaselessly, energetically and purposefully active on their behalf.
In other words, there are no laws of ‘nature’ in action; ‘nature’ is a philosophical and romantic concept. It is the living God who is at work consistently in the world he’s designed and made. He is maintaining it. He is not having a well-earned rest after the effort of making it all. He is not sitting back and watching the cosmic machinery humming along running by itself, needing once every million years a spot of heavenly oil. Automation has not taken over in heaven. The world lives and moves and has its being in God in ever action from the sub-atomic to the movement of the planetary system. The natural order that we see around us, the steady movement of the earth, the apparent rising and setting of the sun, the consistency of the pull of gravity, and pi = 3.141, and 2+2=4 these things are all the result of the constant direct work of the God of providence. Nothing happens automatically; God is the director of it all.
Every movement of the stars, every change in the seasons, every shift in the weather, every part of the life-cycle of the smallest and most common creatures are all the direct work of God the Creator. He is the one who feeds every living thing. You protest that the rising and the setting of the sun, and the time of the tides ebbing and rising, and the laws of physics and mathematic are predictable. Yes, that is true, but that is because God has decided to make it so. There is a fixed order because the Lord has covenanted to keep it so.
All the affairs of men and women are viewed in the same way. Our conception was of God; our genetic mix was of him; our development in our mother’s wombs was of him; our first breath and every other breath has been in his hands; our going out and our coming in is of him; he provides our daily bread; our dying is to him, and our deaths are determined by him. While there is breath in our bodies he rules our thoughts and our actions; “A man’s mind plans his way; but the Lord directs his steps” (Provs. 16:9). “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established” (Ps. 19:21). This applies to our thinking – and how much depends on a thought. Jacob thinks he will send his beloved son Joseph on a message to his brothers in Dothan, and what consequences for Joseph and all the children of Israel came from that thought. God had planted it in the mind of a father. This divine control applies to the greatest and most influential figures in the world today; politicians, scientists, bankers, soldiers, entrepreneurs, media figures, God “brings princes to nought and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (Isa. 40:23). Their hearts are in God’s hand. All of human history on the largest scale is His Story. It is not just that God watches and permits: he directs. Empires rise and fall. The Third Reich which boasted it would last for ever was over under a decade. King Cyrus was amazingly successful in
his conquests. What was with Cyrus in his rise to triumph? God says, “I, the Lord, with the first of them, and with the last; I am he” (Isa. 41:4). That God who is not squeamish runs 21st Century history.
God also operates in the tiniest details in life, in the sub-atomic world. Think of the excitement this past week of the results coming from the Large Hadron Collider –the particle accelerator – in Switzerland. A circular tunnel has been built about 20 miles in length around which protons are fired at almost the speed of light in opposite directions so that there are millions of collisions, in fact a thousand million million of them, and then these collisions are examined. All the excitement came from twelve which were different, which have been claimed to be the Higgs boson. Even if scientists have got it wrong, and sometimes their excitement carries them away, then we still say God was there in the tunnel and in the trillions of collisions as well in the dozen that were different. God is in the tiniest places.
But God’s involvement in our lives also touches the commonplace, for example, the sparrow that we hit driving down a narrow country lane; that little tragedy did not happen without God. His involvement also applies to our skills of physical dexterity, and the development of trades and apprenticeships, fishing, farming, carpentry, space travel, optics, metal working, the manufacture of perfumes and jewelry, dentistry, computer design, and even warfare. All of a man’s actions are directed by the Lord. We live and move and have our being in him. Men may give themselves credit for their own achievements and may award one another prestigious prizes for their gifts, but God looks on and says, “Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass” (2 Kings 19:25).
Psalm 139 is the great song of praise to the God who is here and now. He knows all that a man is going to do, every thought of his mind before it even turns into words. It’s impossible to escape from his scrutiny. Everywhere is his guiding and protecting hand. In every corner of the world, even if it’s in the middle of nowhere, or in the heart of the Milky Way, or the depths of the earth . . . wherever . . . we are going to encounter, inescapably, the living all-powerful God. Even where the dead go after they have breathed their last on earth they all must confront the living working God. If men say that they will make their bed in the grave then let them know that their bed-fellow will be Jehovah the Lord. Then let us submit to his scrutiny and humble ourselves under his direction for our existence. Let us order our lives by his word. If God is pleased to work in our lives so that we come under the influences of his gospel and are invited to listen to what it says of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, then let us hear his gospel, and do what he commands. If he says that we should go to his Son and bow before him, and find the provision of pardon and forgiveness that comes to those who are joined to him, then let us by faith be joined to him. Let us know God is working in our lives in justifying us and sanctifying us.
See in particular how Paul uses the present tense here, God works. Sometimes we quote this verse and we insert the future tense and we change its meaning to say that at the end of the day God will work and collect everything that has happened and cause them to bring about a good end. No doubt that is true, but that is not what Paul is saying. He is affirming that God is active and in each thing that occurs from a world war to the fall of a sparrow God is ensuring that it all has a positive end for those he has called. It all works for us. Then there is something else that we know:
- IT IS FOR THE GOOD OF HIS PEOPLE THAT GOD WORKS.
What does God have in mind for us? Paul says that “All things work together for good.” But what is the “good” he is talking about? For most of us, “good” equals things like health, happiness, solid relationships, long life, money, food on the table, meaningful work and a nice place to live. In general, we think the “good” life means a better set of circumstances. They may be good things, but they are not the best things for us. The good that Paul is speaking about here is not something we have to search for and debate with one another about . . . “Oh, what is the good life?” No. We know it. We are not left wondering what Paul means. He defines it for us in the very next verse; “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (v. 29). That makes it very clear. God has predestined his favoured people to a certain end. The chief end of man is to glorify and enjoy God and that is the “good” of Romans 8:28. The glorious end to our journey is being conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ.
Let’s not abuse Romans 8:28 by keeping God out of our lives and defying and disobeying him, and then without heart-aching repentance mumbling that it’s all been for the best. Here’s a man I know of and he ate himself to death. He’d win any eating contest he entered. His name would be there in the Guinness Book of Records if they still printed such self-destructive activities. Of course he died before he was old enough to die. He died. Then his wife turned to a friend and said, “The will of the Lord has been done.” It was not the will of God that that man eat to excess, any more than it is for a man to drink to excess. That man killed himself. He persistently broke the sixth commandment and then God killed him. God warned him; “The wages of sin is death,” but he pushed his fingers in his ears at the sound of the gospel, and he pushed food down his throat, and then one day he died of that. Men have no right to find any comfort from this verse for the sad ending of stupid sin-loving lives. Let us not abuse Romans 8:28. Fear God and keep his commandments and Romans 8:28 is your verse.
Let me put plainly to you what this verse is saying, that God is at work in the lives of all those who believe in his Son, and he is working all things together for one glorious end, to make those believers like Jesus Christ. He has chosen and predestined them to that end. He’s at work in their lives making that happen. Therefore, anything that makes them more like Jesus Christ is good. Anything that pulls them away from Jesus Christ is bad. Those are the criteria for what are the good and lovely and eternal things.
When Paul says that all things work together for good, he is not saying that the tragedies and heartaches of life will guarantee a better set of circumstances. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. God has made no promises about making you healthy, wealthy and the parents of many children. No. He is committed to making you like his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and whatever it takes to make you more like Jesus is good. In the providence of God we can learn more in our hours of darkness than we have in the years of light. We gain more from a bout of sickness than we do
from decades of good health. We pray more when we are scared than when we are confident.
I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way.
But I was none the wiser,
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she.
But, oh, the lessons I did learn
When Sorrow walked with me.
What is God doing in the life of every true Christian? He is changing every one of them into the image of Jesus Christ. God has predestined us to be like Jesus. That’s a long road for most of us. Along the way tragedies come; there are many setbacks. But God is determined and will not be set aside, and everything that happens to you—the gut-wrenching grief, the unexplained circumstances, even the stupid choices you make—all of it is grist for the mill of God’s loving purpose. He will not give up even when we feel we are.
Consider the work of a great sculptor. He begins by choosing a rough chunk of marble. He intends to make from it a beautiful statue. In his mind, he knows exactly what he will do. He predestines that unsightly stone to become an image of breathtaking beauty. That determination guides everything he does. He hammers and chips and chisels but he won’t harm the stone or allow anyone else to harm it. He will remain at the task until it is finished. And in the end what started as an unsightly piece of rock has become a thing of beauty. In the same way, God is at work in your life. Right now, you are rough and uncut and God is patiently chipping away at you. In fact, he’s been chipping away at some of you recently, hasn’t he? Remember this. He will never intentionally hurt you. In the end, you are going to look like the Lord Jesus Christ.
This, I think, is the greatest problem some people face with Romans 8:28. Our good and God’s good are not the same. We want happiness and fulfillment and peace and long life. Meanwhile, God is at work in us, through us and by everything that happens to us he is transforming us into the image of his Son. Then there is something else that we know.
- IT IS IN ALL THINGS THAT GOD WORKS FOR THEIR GOOD.
Paul says it utterly unequivocally: “in everything God works for good.” He has been talking of our sufferings (v.17), and our groanings (v.23), and he will end the chapter with a list of all the things that can separate us from the love of God. All of those things are included in the ‘everything’ that God is working for our good. Paul is embracing all that is negative in this life. All the bad vibrations, in the light of God’s powerful purposes, are seen to have a positive and glorious end in accomplishing God’s eternal plan.
This means that there is nothing haphazard taking place. God never shakes his head in wonder saying, “I never knew that that was going to happen.” As individuals, we go through sequences of events, some expected, others surprising. We often look at them and see no connection. But God is the initiator of all these events; he does not merely respond. For example, when a Christian sins, God the initiator has allowed it to happen; but God’s involvement is not merely trying to remedy a bad situation. His purpose had included allowing that person to fall. He permitted Peter to curse and deny ever knowing Jesus. This never justified Peter’s sin or any of our sins. It was they who sinned, not God. He cannot be the author of sin, but neither are we to regard our sins as things that happened when God was looking the other way, or that he was helpless to prevent us doing what we did. He taught Peter much from his fall and restored him and used him greatly.
In all things God works for the good of those who love him. If you go into Derek Thomas’ study you will see a photograph on the wall of a girl who suffers from a terrible brain malformation. She is now in her thirties, though the picture shows her when she was ten. If you ask him who that girl is Derek will tell you something like this, “From the moment of her birth, and the departure (within days) of her father, who couldn’t face the prospect of raising her, her mother has cared for her with undying grace and devotion. As her daughter lives life in a minor key, her mother has found refuge in the assurance that the Lord is sovereign. His overruling providence explains the circumstance she now finds herself in, but it also gives her the resources by which she provides the love and tenderness that she shows each day. The doctrine of providence stated here in Romans 8:28 is for her is more than a mere statement of doctrine, abstract and detached; it is the daily source of assurance that there is meaning and purpose in what is otherwise cruel and senseless” (Derek Thomas, How the Gospel Brings us All the Way Home, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2011, p.93).
What we are being asked to believe is this, that for every Christian every obscene evil that we can imagine is turned by God to our best interests: death, illness, marital strife, vocational problems, persecution because of your belief, your child being diagnosed with an incurable disease. In all these things God works for our good. Your back is broken in a diving accident in a lake. God works it for good. Your husband is having an affair. God works it for your good. Your wife wants a divorce. God works it for your good. Your sister has been kidnapped, your job has been terminated, your car has failed its M.O.T., you did not win the grades you needed to get to university, your beautiful Son was falsely accused and crucified on a cross and God worked it for good, on, and on, and on. God works every single isolated, individual event in your life and experience for your ultimate good. No matter what the circumstances, his purposes will ripen fast unfolding every hour. The bud may have a bitter taste but sweet will be the flower..
Paul is holding out for us this truth of the special providence of God over his children. And men and women, you can kick against it and it will be a goad, or you can receive it and appropriate it and then it will be one of the most comforting truths of the Bible, because in it we learn that there is no meaningless suffering in our life. There is no wasted suffering in our experience. There is no purposeless experience at all in the totality of our life. Every single isolated event, God in his wisdom uses to bring about his purpose for your glory. These are the words before us in Romans 8:28 and they are stated as an encouragement to every believer that we would only appropriate them in the difficult circumstances of life.
Let me a
sk you, how long has the church known this truth? What do I mean? I am saying that the professing church in each generation thinks that it is remarkable people with wonderful scholars and theologians who have discovered new truths in the Christianity. “This is an exciting time to be a Christian,” people say. So I am challenging that idea; I am in fact disdaining it, that there is something here in Romans 8:28 that earlier generations have missed! That cannot be because what is found here is so plain and clear, and the church has known life and revival and growth when truths like this are believed and declared. When Daniel Rowland was the preacher in nearby Llangeitho he loved and preached these very truths, and people would sail down from the island of Anglesey, around the island of Bardsey and across Cardigan Bay here to Aberystwyth and then they would walk past where this church stands today on to Llangeitho not for the music there for there was only an accompanied hymn singing. They went there in order to hear Daniel Rowland preaching sermons on texts like the one before us. We know this is so because we have a sermon of Rowland on this text, and we know exactly what he said. Listen!
“Paul does not say that all things will, but do, work together for good. The work is on the potter’s wheel, and every movement of that wheel is for your benefit. Not only the angels who encamp around you, or the saints who continually pray for you, but even your enemies, the old dragon and his angels, are engaged in this matter. It is true, this is not their design. No! They think they are carrying on their own work of destroying you, as it is said of the Assyrian whom the Lord sent to punish a hypocritical nation, ‘Howbeit, he meaneth not so,’ yet it was God’s work that he was carrying on, though he did not intend to do so. All the events that take place in the world carry on the same work—the glory of the Father and the salvation of his children. Every illness and infirmity that may seize you, every loss you may meet with, every reproach you may endure, every shame that may colour your faces, every sorrow in your hearts, every agony and pain in your flesh, every aching in your bones, are for your good. Every change in your condition—your fine weather and your rough weather, your sunny weather and your cloudy weather, your ebbing and your flowing, your liberty and your punishment, all turn out for good. Oh, Christians, see what a harvest of blessings ripens from this text! The Lord is at work; all creation is at work; men and angels, friends and foes, all are busy, working together for good. Oh, dear Lord Jesus, what hast thou seen in us that thou shouldst order things so wondrously for us, and make all things – all things to work together for our good ?”
- FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM GOD WORKS GOOD IN ALL THINGS
This promise, this encouragement, this providence is not generic. It is not for everyone. It is restricted; it is limited; it is discriminatory. Romans 8:28 is not some general principle of the universe. It applies only to one group of people who may be described in two ways. Here are two descriptions of the same people. He is describing Christians in two ways. He says that they are the ones that God has called, that is, God has summoned them to be his people. Paul is going to describe them in this same way – the divinely called ones – twice in the next but one verse (v.30). So we will look at that more fully then, but he also describes them here as those who love God.
All Paul’s references to love so far in this epistle have been referring to God’s love for us, and now for the first time here, in the midst of this wonderfully encouraging verse, he talks about our love for him. He’s not talking about us loving a church, or preachers, or a denomination, or a movement, or a publishing house. There is no need for you spend your life making those things the final objects of your affection, because then there’s bound to be disappointment and pain. They are all imperfect and they are all going to perish. All that is passing away, and if you love them then you are going to be discouraged. The psalmist says, “I love the Lord.” Jesus said that when we’re doing that then we’ll be showing the greatest obedience. We love the glorious power and unchangeable beauty of our Creator. We love the Father, we love the Son and we love the Holy Spirit. We love their character, their works, their achievements. Everything about the members of the Godhead is lovable. We love God because he first loved us.
When Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi, their backs broken and bruised and bleeding from the lash, their feet in stocks, in complete black darkness, then what did they do? They showed they loved God. They showed that they believed this text. What did they do? What did they do at midnight? You say, “Pastor I know the answer. They sang.” It doesn’t say that. It says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25). Plenty of people sing. Fifty thousand Welshmen will sing a great hymn in a rugby match, but not to God. They will sing it again on the buses going home if Wales won, but not to God. A lot of people sing without praying. A lot of people in Wales think that singing is as important as praying, but it’s not. I expect at some time Silas turned towards Paul and he asked him, “How do you think this is going to work out?” Paul said, “We don’t know, but we do know that in all things God works for the good of them that love him. So let’s thank him for that. Let’s pray . . .” And they prayed, and then naturally they sang to the God they loved. It was a musical night in the prison in Philippi and the two singers were men head over heels in love with our wonderful God, and the audience consisted of all the prisoners in the prison, and one could say that the walls and the doors and the chains and the bars and the stocks all clapped when the praying and the hymn singing was over. Of coursed I am referring to the whole building being shaken when the praying ended. Paul and Silas loved God even when their backs were hurting – far more than your backs have ever hurt you, and they prayed and sang to him. And it is for those who love him that God works injustice, and wicked magistrates, and beatings, and bleeding, and pain, and scorn, and prison, and total darkness for the good of them that love him
When Paul was spending months in prison he was not frustrated because he couldn’t preach and travel and worship with a congregation. He still had God and could love God and be loved by him, and so he wrote to the worried Christians in Philippi and told them, “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (Phils. 1:12). It’s only a man who loves God who could say that. He said to the Ephesians Christians who were getting depressed because he was in prison, “I ask you . . . not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you” (Ephs.3:13). Paul was in prison facing an uncertain and maybe cruel future kneeling before the Father he loved and he praying for discouraged Christians who were not in prison asking God that he would lift up the downcast. Only a man who loved God could think like that. Once Paul said, “None of these things move me, neither
count I my life dear unto myself, that I might finish my course with joy” (Acts 20:24). Men and women, if you and I could only feel today what Paul felt we’d never experience another day when worry won, when discontentment robbed us of our peace. We would be afraid of nothing. For those who love God in everything God is working for our good.
When Paul came to the end of the journey I can imagine some of his enemies taunted him saying, “You’d better get ready. Tomorrow it’s the execution block. Head chopping day is tomorrow,” Paul would say, “I’m ready now,” and when the fellow came with the axe and the hood over his head, Paul didn’t flinch. He kneeled down and winked at brother Luke and said, “I’ll see you in the morning. But I’m going home first. It’s been a wonderful trip. I’ve rejoiced in every step of the journey. I just want to say that Romans 8:28 has been my experience all along the way.” “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”