17. A Solace in Suffering: The Sovereignty of God (Romans 8:28)
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.
The story is told of an airliner which began to develop trouble in mid-air. One engine began to smoke. Over the speaker came the pilot’s reassuring voice informing the passengers of a small problem. One engine had caught fire, but it had been extinguished. With three remaining engines, the plane would easily reach its destination. Then a second engine failed. Once again, the pilot calmly assured the passengers there was no danger; two engines would suffice. A third engine failed. Now the pilot informed the passengers that it would be necessary to land short of their destination. Finally, the fourth engine failed, and from their windows the passengers saw the plane’s crew in parachutes descending to the earth.
The pilot’s calm and reassuring voice again came over the speaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are having a problem with the airplane. We will need to make an emergency landing. The pilot and crew have abandoned the plane and are parachuting to safety. There is no need to panic. The plane is operating on automatic pilot, and everything is under control … control … control …”
There are times in life when things seem to be out of control. At those times atheists and agnostics are quite convinced, following our analogy, that the plane has no pilot. If ever there was a pilot, he has bailed out, leaving them to themselves to face threatening dangers.
We who are Christians believe there is a God. When life goes smoothly for us and God’s blessings are evident, we are tempted to believe we are in control. We may even think we do not need God. When the bottom falls out and the trials of life seem to be swallowing us up so that we seem to lose control, we may still believe that God is in the cockpit. But we may begin to question whether God is really in control. We may be tempted to think God’s control over creation might be limited and fallible.
When Paul speaks of the spiritual life in Romans 8,197 he speaks much of suffering. We who are in Christ need not suffer from guilt or fear, for our sins have all been forgiven. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1-4). When we sin as Christians, we need never doubt that we are justified by faith because God’s Spirit dwells within us, bearing witness that we are God’s sons. Further, because the Spirit of God indwells us, He not only leads us to do the will of God, but He empowers our dead bodies to do so (8:5-17).
Justification by faith and the ministry indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit are not promises of present perfection. We are still fallen creatures with mortal bodies, awaiting our future adoption and bodily redemption. Not only are we imperfect beings, but we live in a fallen and imperfect world resulting in suffering and groaning in this life as we await that which is perfect. This will only come when our Lord Jesus Christ appears on the earth again to overcome His enemies, to renew the earth, and to rule over it. As sons of God, we will share in this reign, but we must be prepared and proven by suffering, just as Christ had to suffer. We are comforted by the certainty of the hope of glory, and we are sustained by the ministry of the Holy Spirit until that day.
Paul turns in verses 28-30 to yet another truth which should sustain the Christian in the midst of the suffering and groanings of this present life—the sovereignty of God.198 Whatever the Christian sees happening, we may be assured that it is not only under God’s control, but its purpose is to produce what is for God’s glory and for our good. When life’s trials cause some to wonder if God even exists, and others to wonder whether He is in control, the Christian may be assured that God is there. He is in charge of bringing about His purpose for His glory and our good. Let us savor the truth of God’s sovereignty. While His sovereignty brings terror to the hearts of unbelievers, it is music to the Christian’s ears.
The Context of Our Text
The broad context of the Book of Romans is the gospel of Jesus Christ; a major theme of the book is God’s righteousness. God’s righteousness requires the condemnation of sinners. God’s righteousness is provided for those whom He justifies. It is also required of all who have been justified so that they would honor God by obeying His Word. Our text is a part of the section pertaining to the sanctification of the Christian found in chapters 5-8 of Romans. Romans 8:28, our text in this lesson, is quite near the conclusion of this section. Chapter 8 contains Paul’s description of God’s provisions for righteousness in the lives of those who are the sons of God. The immediately preceding section, Romans 8:18-27, deals with the suffering and groanings of this life, especially of the Spirit-filled Christian. Verses 28-30 serve as a transition between Paul’s dealing with suffering and groanings (verses 18-27) and his concluding words of praise (verses 31-38). Verses 28-30 provide the Christian with the key to understanding how life’s problems should lead to our praise of God. Our study will show us how and why.
The Structure of Our Text
While verses 28-30 constitute one paragraph and should be understood as a whole, we must focus our attention in this lesson on verse 28 and consider verses 29 and 30 in our next lesson. Verse 28 is a general statement concerning the implications of God’s sovereignty for every Christian: God’s sovereignty means that all of life’s experiences are orchestrated by Him to produce that which is for our good. The particulars of the general statement in verse 28 are spelled out in more specific terms in verses 29 and 30. The entire process from the beginning to the end of the Christian’s life is described here. It begins with God’s sovereign election or choice and ends with God’s divinely purposed conclusion—our glorification. We may therefore summarize the structure of our text in this way:
God’s greatness assures us of our good — Romans 8:28
(1) In choosing to save us
(2) In guaranteeing our godliness — Romans 8:29
(3) In drawing us to Himself
(4) In declaring us righteous
(5) In securing our glorification — Romans 8:30
Our Approach in This Study
Even though our approach to the study of this verse may seem unusual, it is absolutely necessary. Every passage of Scripture should be studied in this way, although often we do not do so in the actual exposition of a text. We will study this one verse phrase by phrase, in some instances considering even a single word. Every word is packed with meaning; we dare not overlook any detail.199 After studying the text in this way, we will seek to draw out the lessons of the text with several summary statements and then suggest some practical implications of what Paul has taught in this one verse.
This word “And” hardly seems to be worthy of notice. What can it tell us? A great deal! If the first word of this verse was “therefore,” we would look for a conclusion. If it were, “but,” we would look for some kind of contrast to what had just been written. If it were “for,” we would expect an explanation or some supporting evidence. “And” tells us that Paul wants us to see the connection between what he has been saying and what he is about to say. The sovereignty of God, of which Paul is speaking in verses 28-30, must be understood in relationship to the spiritual life and specifically to suffering (verses 18-27). The sovereignty of God has many avenues of application, but here Paul applies it to suffering.
When Paul comes to verse 31 he begins with the phrase, “What then shall we say to these things?” Here he has come to the conclusion and climax of his teaching in chapters 1-8. Before praising God, the last thing Paul talks about is God’s sovereignty and His love. When these two attributes merge, along with His other attributes, there is every reason for praise.
Paul does not say here, “I know.” He says instead, “We know.” The “we” speaks of both Paul and the entire Roman church. Paul is saying, “All Christians know this …” The truth of which Paul speaks is a truth he believes is universally held by all Christians. It is also appropriate to infer that the truth taught here is not one understood or believed by non-Christians. That truth of which Paul is about to speak is known to all believers, but not to those outside the faith.
“We know …” A definite note of certainty is here. Paul does not say, “we think,” or “we hope,” but rather, “We know.” Other matters were more inferential, less clear and certain, or matters of personal interpretation and conviction not to be argued about or imposed on others but kept to oneself (see chapter 14). Paul was convinced that all, including him, knew and believed God’s sovereignty.
Paul wanted to teach the Romans a number of truths, truths which, it would seem, he doubted they knew. Why else would he bother to write this very systematic, theological epistle? There were things the Romans either did not know or seem to have forgotten. Thus Paul sometimes writes, “Or do you not know?” (6:3, 16; 7:1). Here the sovereignty of God is something Paul presumes all his readers know.
The sovereignty of God must therefore be a very foundational and fundamental doctrine. It must be a doctrine clearly taught which every Christian should know. It should not be obscure, hidden amid other truths. It is not a doctrine which only the mature can extract from the Scriptures. The sovereignty of God is a truth every Christian is assumed to believe and understand. Somehow many Christians today fall far short of what Paul assumes to be the case in his own day. He does not assume that Christians knew all the truth, but he did assume that the Roman saints knew of the sovereignty of God.
How did these Roman Christians, and Paul, know of the sovereignty of God? On what basis could Paul assume this? I wonder if the sovereignty of God is not so self-evident in one’s salvation that no one can miss it. How could Paul, for example, not have concluded that God was sovereign in His salvation as he considered the way in which God brought him to Himself (see Acts 9:1-30)? Had the Romans not found in their own salvation that it was God who sought and saved them and not they who sought Him? Does Paul see the sovereignty of God as so evident in the truths he has taught in chapters 1-8 that one could not reasonably think otherwise? In the next major section of Romans, Paul illustrates, clarifies, and defends in very specific terms the sovereignty of God in the context of God’s dealings with the nation Israel (Romans 9-11). Surely the sovereignty of God is self-evident both in His dealings with us and with others as seen in the Scriptures.
“God Causes …”
A comparison of several Bible translations discloses a fairly significant difference in the way verse 28 begins:
And we know that all things work together for good … (KJV).
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him … (NIV).
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good … (NASB).
There is a significant difference between “all things work together for good,” and “God causes all things to work together for good.” The difference in the translations represents the translator’s decision of what the original text actually said. The vast majority of the original texts support the rendering of the King James Version. A few manuscripts, which some scholars believe to be superior, support the rendering of the NIV and the NASB.
When all is said and done, it hardly matters. Whether or not the words in the original Greek text literally indicate God is the source of the good which comes to the Christian, the inference of the text is clear and undeniable.201 God causes. God is in control. As Paul states in verses 29 and 30, God is the one who chooses us to be saved. God is the one who purposes our sanctification. He is the One who calls us to Himself and justifies us. He is the One who glorifies us. And, to be more precise, He is the One who has done all these things so that they are as good as done, even if their final consummation is yet future. This is why he uses the past and not the present or future tense.
“God causes all things to work together”
We must be careful to note that God is not the cause of all things. In particular, He is not the cause of sin.202 God is the Creator. As such, He created the universe, including this earth and all that is in it. God is the originator of many things. But in this verse, Paul is not speaking of those things which God brings into existence; he is referring to God as the orchestrator and controller of all that takes place in this world. God has given certain tasks and responsibilities to men. He has ordained governments to punish evil doers and to reward those who do what is right (see Romans 13:1-7). He has even given a certain degree of liberty to Satan (see Job 1 and 2). While God permits things to happen which displease Him, He does not allow anything to happen which is contrary to His sovereign purpose.
Taken individually, the events and circumstances God allows may not, in and of themselves, appear to be of any value or good to the Christian. But Paul does not say that each event is good or even that each incident will produce that which is good. He informs us that all of the events, working together, produce what is good.
To illustrate, the ingredients which go into a cake are not very tasty when eaten individually. Flour, sugar, shortening, eggs, salt, baking powder, and spices are not something we want to eat one ingredient at a time. But mix all of these together in just the right proportions, and then bake the combined mixture, and you have a delicious treat. Each event in our life is like one ingredient in a cake. It may not seem good, by itself, but when mixed by God with other correct events, it will surely produce what is good.
Paul speaks here of God’s sovereignty in terms of His choosing and blending of all of our experiences, in such a way as to produce that which is good. God causes all things to “work together” for good. This means we cannot judge the goodness of God’s work until His program is finished. Have you ever been too hasty in testing the cake batter? Almost always the result is unsatisfactory. Until God’s recipe for our lives is complete, we dare not judge God’s cooking. We had best entrust ourselves to Him as the cook, knowing that He always blends the right ingredients, at the right time, in the right way, and in the right proportions.
When God causes all things to “work together” for the good of His children, His “working together” is such that one believer is not blessed at the expense of another. All that God brings to pass, or allows, in my life is for my ultimate good. More than this, when God works in behalf of the good of His children, He does not “rob Peter to pay Paul.” He works in the lives of each believer in such a way that other believers are benefited as well.
In war, a commanding officer may be required to sacrifice some of his troops for the good of the cause. He may send one group to fight a losing battle to divert attention from another group by which he hopes to win the victory. God’s sovereignty far surpasses this kind of control. God does not work in such a way as to bring about the casualty of one believer so that another believer will be blessed. God works so that the good of each and every Christian is accomplished.
Think of the incredible power of God suggested and required by the truth of His sovereignty. Since all things “work together” then the more things included in the category of “all things,” the greater God’s power and control must be. It is difficult for anyone to orchestrate several different events at one time—just try patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. But God controls all of the events in the life of every believer. More than this, God controls what He is doing in the life of one believer in such a way as to harmonize with what He is doing in the lives of all the rest. Such a task is beyond human comprehension. It is a task only a God with infinite power can accomplish.
“God causes all things to work together”
We have seen that “all” means that everything which affects the life of the Christian is under God’s control and thus is a part of God’s will for us. God causes “all things” to work together for our good. We are much more willing to attribute the pleasant events of our life to the hand of God than we are the painful experiences. We find it difficult to believe that an act of deliberate cruelty intended by the offender to hurt us is really being used by God for our good.
If we are to take Paul’s words in Romans 8:28 literally and seriously, we must face the fact that “all things” includes those things which we find painfully unpleasant. We may even think they are unbearable. “All things” includes the sin of others and even our own sins. “All things” means there is nothing which falls outside of God’s control and which works contrary to our good. Not one thing falls outside of God’s control. “All things” are caused to work together so that God’s will—our good—is accomplished.
“God causes all things to work together for good”
The word “for” is significant. God does not necessarily bring into our lives those things which are, in and of themselves, good. He often brings into our lives those things which are painful which cause us to groan. Often these unpleasant experiences are the result of our own folly or sin. Sometimes we may suffer through no fault or failure of our own. Our Lord’s suffering was not due to any sin on His part. The chastening of the Father is not necessarily that which we have experienced because of our sin or disobedience (see Hebrews 12:1-13).
It is vital that we understand the term “good,” or we will completely reverse the meaning of this verse. Asaph, the psalmist who penned Psalm 73, went through a period of great anguish and anger toward God because he failed to understand the meaning of “good.” A portion of this psalm is cited to illustrate the importance of correctly defining the term “good.”
A Psalm of Asaph. 1 Surely God is good to Israel, To those who are pure in heart! 2 But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling; My steps had almost slipped. 3 For I was envious of the arrogant, As I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 For there are no pains in their death; And their body is fat. 5 They are not in trouble as other men; Nor are they plagued like mankind. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; The garment of violence covers them. 7 Their eye bulges from fatness; The imaginations of their heart run riot. 8 They mock, and wickedly speak of oppression; They speak from on high. 9 They have set their mouth against the heavens, And their tongue parades through the earth. … 12 Behold, these are the wicked; And always at ease, they have increased in wealth. 13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, And washed my hands in innocence; 14 For I have been stricken all day long, And chastened every morning. 15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,” Behold, I should have betrayed the generation of Thy children. 16 When I pondered to understand this, It was troublesome in my sight 17 Until I came into the sanctuary of God; Then I perceived their end. 18 Surely Thou dost set them in slippery places; Thou dost cast them down to destruction. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, Thou wilt despise their form. 21 When my heart was embittered, And I was pierced within, 22 Then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before Thee. 23 Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. 24 With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, And afterward receive me to glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee. 28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:1-9, 12-28).
Asaph’s first words were “God is good to Israel.” He is also good to those who are pure in heart. But Asaph was wrong in his definition of “good,” for he thought good must be understood in terms of peace, prosperity, and a comfortable life. He thought of good in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain and more in terms of this present life than of eternity.
Asaph thought this way until he came to the sanctuary of God. There he began to view life from the divine perspective and from the vantage point of eternity rather than in terms of this present age. From the divine perspective, the good life of the wicked was uncertain and incredibly short. He now saw “good” in terms of intimacy with God. He could say, “the nearness of God is my good.” He recognized that while his sufferings drew him nearer to God, the prosperity of the wicked only drew them further from Him. Asaph’s definition of “good” changed from a warm, fuzzy feeling now to enjoying God’s presence, now and for all eternity. He saw that if suffering draws one nearer to God, it is not evil but good. He recognized that if prosperity and the absence of pain turns one from God, that is evil. His definition of “good” made the difference. We must be very careful to define “good” as Asaph came to understand it, in terms of eternity and in terms of intimacy with God.
The “good” God brings to pass is the result of the “all things” which God has brought into our lives. The “good” may therefore be viewed presently in terms of our attitude toward God and in terms of the faith and perseverance which trials are intended to promote and produce. But most of all, “good” must be viewed in terms of our full adoption as sons when our Lord returns to the earth.
God is represented as the source of that which is good. Paul does not tell us that God causes everything. He surely does not tell us that God causes evil. He does tell us that God causes that which is “good.” This is consistent with the teaching of our Lord and of James:
“Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” (Luke 11:11-13).
Let not one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt any one. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then, when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (James 1:16-17).
The “good” which God brings about is His “ultimate good” or “final good” for us. Since God causes all things to work together for good, we dare not assume that every individual event or circumstance will be perceived as good at the moment. It will only be recognized as good at the end of the process, when God is finished with His work in and for us. In the light of verses 29 and 30, we can reasonably say that the “good” of which Paul speaks here is the “good” of His purposes and promises. The “good” of which we are assured is that good which God long ago planned, predestined, and presently is bringing to pass. We cannot see this good with our physical eyes, but God’s promises and His prophecies set it out for us to see through the eyes of faith. Such was the faith of the saints of days gone by:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).
The rejection of Jesus by His people, Israel, and His subsequent sham of a trial, conviction, crucifixion, and death can hardly be seen as good—apart from His resurrection and the salvation which His work at Calvary achieves and assures. The persecution of the apostles, and of Christians down through the ages, is good only in the light of God’s approval, His eternal blessings, and His rewards for those who have been faithful.
The “good,” which God is presently bringing about for us through His control and arrangement of all our circumstances and experiences, is the good which He has purposed. It is the good which His Word has promised. It is not present pleasure or happiness. It cannot be found in one or a few experiences, divorced from the rest of life. It is the culmination, the climax, of all the experiences and events of our life. It is a good that is so good we cannot even fathom it. We would not even know what we should ask for because it is beyond our mental grasp:
But just as it is written, “THINGS WHICH EYE HAS NOT SEEN AND EAR HAS NOT HEARD, AND WHICH HAVE NOT ENTERED THE HEART OF MAN, ALL THAT GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM” (1 Corinthians 2:9).203
“To those who love God”
“To those who are called according to His purpose”
These two statements must be understood together and separately. Together, these two phrases inform us that those who are the recipients of the good God is bringing about are the sons of God, those who have been justified by faith. Those who are the enemies of God look forward to a very different end: “… wrath … in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who WILL RENDER TO EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS” (Romans 2:5-6).
The expression, “those who love God,” is a description of Christians with respect to their response toward God. Unbelievers are born sinners with an innate anger and hostility toward God:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature, children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).
Of all the expressions which describe the relationship of the Christian to God, why this one? Why does Paul describe the believer as one who loves God? I think we will better understand when we consider the references to loving God in the Old and New Testaments:
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
“Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9).
“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).
“You shall therefore love the Lord your God, and always keep His charge, His statutes, His ordinances, and His commandments … And it shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul … For if you are careful to keep all this commandment which I am commanding you, to do it, to love the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and hold fast to Him” (Deuteronomy 11:1, 13, 22).
“You shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 13:3).
“If you carefully observe all this commandment, which I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in His ways always—then you shall add three more cities for yourself, besides these three” (Deuteronomy 19:9).
“Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live … In that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it” (Deuteronomy 30:6, 16).
“Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God and walk in all His ways and keep His commandments and hold fast to Him and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Joshua 22:5).
“So take diligent heed to yourselves to love the Lord your God” (Joshua 23:11).
And I said, “I beseech Thee, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Nehemiah 1:5).
And I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed and said, “Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Daniel 9:4).
And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42).
“But I know you, that you do not have the love of God in yourselves” (John 5:42).
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me” (John 8:42).
But just as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, And which have not entered the heart of man, All that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
But whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him (1 John 2:5).
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins … If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also (1 John 4:10, 20-21).
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:2-3).
From these texts, we may draw the following conclusions:
(1) Loving God is the essence of what God desires of men, whether that be in Old Testament times or in the New. It is God’s principle and primary commandment to men (see Deuteronomy 6:5; 19:9; Joshua 22:5; 23:11).
(2) Loving God is inseparably linked with the keeping of God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 7:9; 11:1).
(3) Loving God and loving men sums up the requirements of the Law (Matthew 22:37).
(4) God’s blessings are poured out on those who love Him (Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4; 1 Corinthians 2:9).
(5) Loving God is not the natural response of men toward God, but that response which God Himself makes possible through the work of His Spirit (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Loving God sums up the relationship which God desires for His children. His initiating love, shown to us, is reflected in our love for Him. And our love for Him is reflected in our obedience to His commandments. If we but love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, then we will love others, and we will keep His commandments. In so doing, we will show ourselves to be His sons. And because we are His sons, He works all things together for our good.
The other side of the coin of our sonship is that we not only love Him but He has called us according to His purpose. It is very important to understand that God does not adapt or modify His purpose in order to bless us. God blesses us, He brings about our good, in accordance with His purpose. Our good is subordinate to the purpose of God.
This is not always the way God’s relationship to His people is represented. There are some who see God as a lonely God, desperately in need of our fellowship and love. God does desire our love, as this text informs us, but He does not need our love so that He caters to our wants and needs to obtain it. As we shall see in very dramatic terms in chapters 9-11, God is in charge. God saves some, to the praise of His glory. And God passes over others, to the praise of His glory. His grace is sovereign grace, determined by His own sovereign will and purposes, and not determined or directed by men. We do not use or manipulate God. God uses us, to His glory—some as vessels of mercy, others as vessels of wrath (see 9:21-23).
In our text, Paul does not speak of the purposes (plural) of God but of His purpose (singular). Why is this? I believe we must conclude there is only one all-encompassing purpose. That purpose is not to save men or to bless those who believe in Him, but to manifest His own glory, not only to men, but to the heavenly hosts as well. Paul makes much of this in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:3-14, emphasis mine).
God’s singular purpose is to display His glory. His subordinate purpose for those who are His children is to save us, which involves that process outlined in verses 29 and 30. It begins with our divine election and ends with our final glorification. God’s purpose is to save us, to the praise of His glory. In accordance with this purpose for us, He controls all those things which touch our lives, bringing about only that which is good for us in the final analysis.
God is sovereign. He is in complete control of every event and of every circumstance in His creation. He does not cause all things, such as evil, but He does control all things so that His will is accomplished. God’s sovereign control extends to the acts of unbelievers, of angels, fallen or unfallen, and even to Satan. The sovereignty of God is specifically applied in our text to those who are Christians—those who have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ.
God exercises His sovereignty toward the Christian in such a way that everything that touches our lives has been allowed or brought about by Him. Those things which would prove to be detrimental to our good have been kept from us. Those things which will work together for the “good” God has purposed for us, God arranges and controls in such a way as to produce that good. Everything which touches the life of the Christian is purposed and designed for accomplishing the “good” God has purposed for us.
The “good” which God purposes for the Christian is primarily that which is still future and which we cannot presently see. It is a good we can hope for based upon God’s Word and believed by faith. That “good” includes our salvation, sanctification, and our future full adoption as sons of God. This will take place after we have been prepared and proven by suffering, and at the time when our Lord returns to this earth to subdue His enemies and to reign over the whole creation as God’s king. The “good” which is spoken of here is not so much our present happiness as our holiness.
The “all things” which God causes to work together for our ultimate good includes everything which touches our lives. In the context of Romans 8, it includes suffering and groaning. Our faith and obedience are a part of that which God uses to bring about our ultimate good. The well-intentioned deeds of others is also a part of God’s program. But the “all things” of Romans 8:28 includes our failures and our sins. It includes not only our innocent suffering, for the cause of Christ, but that suffering which results from our sin and stupidity. “All things” includes the malicious things others do to us. It includes, at times, Satan’s attacks by which he hopes to destroy us, but which God allows for our own growth (see Job 1 and 2).
The “all things” includes events which took place before we were even born, such as our divine election which Paul is about to describe. “All things” includes those things which happened before we were saved. It surely includes the things which have come about after our conversion and also those events yet to come. The “all things” over which God has control and which He is causing to work together for our good includes the minute details of our lives and not just major decisions and actions.204 God is not a distant Creator who has distanced Himself from His creation and allowed it to run by itself. God is in control over His creation, assuring that all that happens works together to achieve His purpose.
The truth of God’s sovereignty which achieves our good sheds light on other biblical texts. For example, Romans 8:28 helps to explain this command from the pen of Paul written to the saints at Thessalonica: “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Romans 8:28 gives us one very important reason why we can give thanks to God in all things: God causes all things to work together for our good. There are many things for which we will find it very difficult to give thanks apart from the truth of our text in Romans.
Another verse is closely related to our text as I understand it:
Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17, NASB).
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (NIV).
I like the way the King James and the New International versions have rendered this verse:
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (KJV).
Let me suggest a new way of looking at this old and well-known truth based upon the implications of Romans 8:28. When one is in rebellion against God as an unbeliever, all of his deeds, without exception, are worthy of death. None of his deeds meet God’s standards or merit His approval or blessing. Thus, as Paul has said in Romans 6:21, there is no benefit from anything we have done as unbelievers. Indeed, their only outcome is shame and certain death.
I would like to suggest that when we come to faith in Christ, God causes all these “old things” to become “new” in a wonderful way, based upon the truth of Romans 8:28. When we come to faith in Jesus Christ, not only are our former sins forgiven, but the things of our past are now changed with us, in such a way as to work for our good. Think of Paul as an example. His religious zeal and activities as an unbeliever were really fighting against God. But once Paul came to faith, his background as a Jew became a help to him and not a hindrance. Paul could see, as a Christian, that he had been set apart as an apostle while he was still in his mother’s womb (Galatians 1:15). Thus, at his conversion, his past changed from that which condemned him to that which helped equip him to preach the gospel. In Christ, the “all things” encompasses not only those things which come into our lives after our conversion, but those things which were a part of our lives before our conversion.205
There is a third biblical text which Romans 8:28 helps us to understand more clearly:
No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Since every event in our lives has been ordained of God to bring about His purpose and our good, then no temptation which arises in our life will destroy us. God does allow temptations to come to us to test us. Satan brings temptation into our lives, hoping to destroy us. 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us that God always provides the means by which life’s temptations may be endured, without sin, to the glory of God. Temptations, along with all of our other experiences in life, work together for good. God allows them, and He also enables us to overcome them. If we should fail, He remains faithful. The chastening and suffering which God may very well send our way because of our failure to trust and obey Him will also work to bring us to maturity. God sometimes allows us to be tempted, but He always provides the means to overcome the temptation. In this way, God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
The truth of Romans 8:28 is illustrated in the lives of many biblical characters. Let me suggest three illustrations for your future consideration and meditation. First, consider Joseph as a very positive illustration of Romans 8:28. Joseph was cruelly sold into slavery by his brothers. They acted sinfully out of jealousy. Joseph was treated badly by others. He was not kindly treated by his father (his favoritism was no favor to Joseph). He was not treated fairly by Potiphar, and especially by Mrs. Potiphar. He was not treated kindly by the king’s cup bearer. He could have wallowed in the suffering which he experienced. And yet Joseph seemed to understand the truth of Romans 8:28 better than we. He could tell his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (see Genesis 45:5; 50:20). Belief in the sovereignty of God, at work for his good in the midst of his suffering, encouraged Joseph to be faithful, to look to God and to the future for his final “good.” It enabled him to forgive his brothers, knowing that God’s gracious hand was behind their sinful actions.
We can see a more negative illustration of Romans 8:28 in the life of Jonah. Jonah was a man who came to expect and even demand “good” from God. The “good” which he demanded was his own pleasure and comfort and the destruction of those who were his enemies, even those who were innocent. He forgot that the “good” God is bringing about is the result of His grace and not human merit. God was good to Jonah, by working in his life through a great fish, through pagan seamen, through a plant, and even through a worm. God was gracious not to destroy the Ninevites but even more so not to destroy Jonah. He was gracious to allow Jonah to suffer so that his sin might become more evident and repentance might result (whether it came or not, we do not know).
These two men, Joseph and Jonah,206 provide us with contrasting illustrations of the truth of Romans 8:28. Joseph is a good example of acting in accordance with the truth of our text. Jonah is a good example of God’s acting in accordance with the truth of our text in spite of Jonah’s sin. In both cases, however, let us remember that God’s will was accomplished, just as He had purposed and promised. God fulfilled His promise when Joseph was faithful. He also fulfilled His promise and purpose when Jonah rebelled. God’s purposes are always fulfilled.
If you are a Christian, the good which God promised you will surely be accomplished. It is as certain as the fact that Jonah arrived at Nineveh. You cannot prevent God from fulfilling His promises to you and His purposes for you. Whether in spite of your sin, like Jonah, or with your cooperation and obedience, like Joseph, the good God has purposed will be accomplished.
I have said, “You can get to Nineveh first class or tourist, but when God purposes for you to go to Nineveh, you will arrive there.” If you choose to sin and to disobey God, there will be many painful experiences. You will not recognize God’s hand, but He will be at work causing all things to work together for your good. If you choose to obey God, you will still suffer tribulation as Joseph did. The difference will be that you will know God’s hand is at work and that God’s purpose and promises are certain to be fulfilled. In disobedience, you will fail to experience the joy and the hope which God gives to those who trust and obey Him.
Let me seek to conclude this lesson with some very practical suggestions. First, let me speak to any who are not sons of God by faith in Jesus Christ. You can never have the hope of the “good” which God has promised those who love Him who are called according to His purpose. For you, there is only the frightening fact that God’s sovereignty assures your eternal doom. Just as surely as God will bring about the good of those who are His sons, He will eternally punish the wicked who reject Him. Let me urge you, at this moment, to trust in God and His provision for your good. Jesus Christ is that provision. By trusting in Him, God will forgive your sins, give you a new future, a new and living hope. He will cause all things to work together for your good.
Second, I want to call your attention to something from your past you may have interpreted wrongly as the reason for your failure and as the cause of evil in your life. The word abuse is one of the overused terms of our culture. There is psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and on and on the list of abuses grow. It does not surprise me that non-Christians seek to scour their past, looking for explanations or excuses for their failures. They look upon these past tragedies as crippling. If these childhood disasters can be surfaced and understood, they believe they will get better.
If I understand the truth of Romans 8:28 correctly, no Christian can point to any past experience as the cause for his failure and the explanation or excuse for his sin. Every experience of our life God has allowed. Each experience in our past God is working together with every other experience in order to bring about our good. Whatever experience in our past we think to have been devastating, God meant it to develop us.
I challenge you to think of those experiences which have been your excuses for failure or sin. I urge you to identify the things you have been blaming God for bringing into your life, as though He meant to destroy you. I challenge you, like Joseph, to trust God, that He has brought this experience into your life for your good even though those who were responsible for your suffering meant it for evil.
I often hear Christians speak of some failure in their past for which they were responsible and which they consider to be the source of a life-long purgatorial existence outside the “perfect will of God.” It may be moral impurity, marriage to a non-Christian, or failure to respond obediently to God’s leading. But Romans 8:28 informs us that such failures cannot keep us from that “good” which God has purposed and promised. If our deeds cannot earn us the “good” God has promised, our failures cannot keep us from the “good” which is all of God’s grace. No sin can ever wipe out the Christians’ hope for the “good” for which God has chosen us and to which He has appointed us. We may fail. We will fail. For this we may very well suffer. But God’s purpose will never fail. Our failures will never separate us from God and from the good He has purposed.
For every Christian, his eternal hope is certain and secure. The sovereign God intimately involves Himself in the events of this world and of our lives, preventing anything that would destroy us and causing all things to work together for our good. With this certainty, we may live confidently, not because of our infallibility but because of His infallibility. What He began, He will finish (see Philippians 1:6). Our eternal “good” is certain because it rests on the promise and on the power of the God who is sovereign.
200 The Greek word, rendered “and” here is de and not kai. Either way, the point of the term is to indicate that what is said here in this verse is related to what has been previously taught. God’s sovereignty must not be understood apart from the context of suffering and the spiritual life.
201 It may be that the reading which names God as the source of the good is the result of a scribe’s conviction that the context was compelling proof of this fact, and thus he may have paraphrased the passage to highlight this truth.
204 We see this in the Old Testament, for example, in 1 Kings 19 when God spoke to Elijah through a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-14) or when God cared about the lost axe head (2 Kings 6:1-6). It can also be seen in the New Testament, when our Lord spoke of God’s concern for the sparrows and for us, even to knowing the number of hairs on our heads (Matthew 10:29-31).
205 There is some danger of being misunderstood here, and I want to try to guard against this. I am saying that while one may have had a former life of sin or crime, those acts must still be viewed as sin. But these sins are nevertheless a part of the “all things” which God causes to work together for our good. One who has been saved from a life of crime may find that he has been prepared by God to minister to those who have lived a similar life of crime. What Satan meant for evil, while we were still in his grasp, God meant for good. Furthermore, if loving God is the highest calling of the Christian, then those who have been forgiven much love much. The greater our sin in the past, the greater the forgiveness, and the greater our love and praise.
206 A third illustration of the truth of Romans 8:28 would be Job. Job was a righteous man, a man whom God could point to as a model man (see Job 1:8). Nevertheless, God allowed Satan to bring suffering into his life. It soon became evident that Job was not perfect. Job grew in maturity and in his walk with God as a result of his suffering. In the end, God blessed him even more that at first.
It is Job’s friends, however, who are noteworthy. They did not seem to understand the principle taught in Romans 8:28. I believe they were legalists at heart. To them, every act had an equal and opposite reaction. Good deeds were thought to bring immediate rewards. Sinful deeds were expected to produce suffering. Consequently, when Job was allowed to suffer, his friends felt compelled to find a reason. They were looking for a direct cause-effect relationship. Romans 8:28 indicates otherwise. Every event in our lives cannot be viewed as the result of some act on our part. While they attempted to link Job’s suffering with some specific sin, our text suggests that this suffering was but one thing among the “all things” which God will cause to work together for our good. Legalists do not like the teaching of Romans 8:28, because it keeps them from linking suffering with sin and prosperity with piety, thus providing a formula for success and a quick and ready explanation for failure and suffering. Romans 8:28 simply tells us there is a plan and a purpose, that the outcome will be good, but the particulars may be inexplicable and their reasons and role may not be apparent in this life.