And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
What would we do without Romans 8:28? It’s the deepest truth about our lives. This is the one thing we can count on every day of 2013, and it’s the best of all. The Bible says, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). That will be true for us in 2013. But Romans 8:28 will be even more true.
I remember hearing J. I. Packer lecture some years ago when he made an offhand reference to that year as “this year of grace, 19__.” I had never thought of it as a “year of grace.” But he was right. And 2013 will be a year of grace, because God will be in it. In fact, God is already out there in 2013. God is equally present to all points of time at once. God is already in March 4, 2013 and July 28, 2013 and October 1, 2013. He is waiting for us to show up, even as he’s walking with us right now. As we enter each new day, God greets us and welcomes us. He has a purpose of grace for you every day in the year of grace 2013, and his purpose wraps around everything that will happen without a single exception. That doesn’t allow us to be reckless or irresponsible; it assures us that God is always responsible and good and wise. It’s what the Bible says clearly and repeatedly, and the Bible was written by people who suffered for people who suffer. The Bible is the most realistic book in the world, and it’s the most confident book in the world.
“All things work together for good” cannot be true sort of. This claim is so audacious, it is either completely true or completely false. If it’s true, then let’s believe it wholeheartedly. If it’s false, then let’s burn this church down, because it stands for a lie. But with Romans 8:28 telling us the truth about our lives, we can face anything. William Tyndale, the English reformer and Bible translator and martyr wrote so long ago: “Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word, and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad, and maketh him sing, dance and leap for joy.” We just happen to live in a universe where God is moving everything forward to our advantage. When good comes, it’s for our good. When evil comes, it’s for our good. And if that’s the truth underlying the appearance of things, then the true believer is the one singing, dancing and leaping for joy.
Let’s take these words in order and think it through and let it make us confident as we enter this new year of grace.
All things work together for good
Not some things, not most things, not just the nice things, but all things. No suffering, and not even our sin, can outmaneuver the gracious purpose of God. He is an expert at taking the damaged goods of our lives and making them into something beautiful. There is nothing that God cannot redeem. And not only our past lives but also our present and future, everything coming our way has to pass God’s inspection. If it doesn’t increase God’s glory and our true happiness, he won’t let it through. We are so enveloped within the love of God that all things work together for our good. God is never asleep. He isn’t experimenting on us. He never says, “Oops!” Our confidence is that the wisest, shrewdest, kindest Person in the universe has taken personal responsibility for us – right down to the details.
All things work together for good
The Bible doesn’t say that all things are good. So much in this world is horrible. But the Bible says that all things work together for good. In 2013 you and I will see powerful evil succeeding. But behind what we can see, God will go about unseen, bending everything around for the good of those who love the Lord. It’s as if God has chained even the devil and his demons like galley slaves to the rowing benches down in the ship of your life. They have no choice. The slightest effort they make pulls you further into the purpose of God. He isn’t negotiating with evil; he’s taking command of it and forcing it to serve him and us.
Think of Joseph. His brothers sold him down to Egypt. Years later they met again. By then Joseph had seen the good that God accomplished through their treachery. He told his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). That statement is in the Bible because God wants you to know that this two-level intentionality is working in all things, with God active at the deeper level so that everything, good and evil, is advancing his purpose of grace – “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” was written into the Bible not because Joseph got lucky that one time; God is always doing this. It’s the truth about your life. And God will be steady and faithful every day, until we’re all safe with him above, swapping stories of how God worked miracles for us right here in our everyday lives.
All things work together for good
What is this “good”? How good is it? Is this “good” worth rejoicing over? Or is this something we have to settle for? Context is our guide in reading the Bible. So, what “good” do we see God working toward here in Romans 8? Paul tells us that God’s Spirit will make us righteous people (verse 4), the Spirit will give resurrection life to our bodies (verse 11), we will inherit God and be glorified with Christ (verse 17), we will receive such a glory as to make the sufferings of this life more than worth it (verse 18), we will live in a renewed creation forever (verses 19-22), our very bodies will be redeemed (verse 23), we will be conformed to the image of God’s Son in glory (verses 29-30), God will give us all things (verse 32), and nothing will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (verses 35-39). That is your story. It more than deserves the modest word “good.”
The Bible says, “The righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). We live in a world of fearful people, and fearful people are often angry people and selfish people. But an old Swedish hymn describes where the gospel relocates us:
More secure is no one ever than the loved ones of the Savior –
Not a star on high abiding nor a bird in home-nest hiding.
Though he giveth or he taketh, God his children ne’er forsaketh;
His the loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy.
It’s why Paul described his own life as “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Whatever may happen in 2013, we have this bold assurance: “All things work together for our good.”
But how do we know that? What is the foundation of this confidence, the warrant for this audacity? The next two verses explain how we know this by faith:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Romans 8:29-30
In verse 28 Paul tells us that all things work together for our good. Now Paul steps back and takes a wider view. In verse 28 he steps forward to press into the deeper truth of our experience right now, but in verses 29-30 he steps back and, with a wide-angle lens, takes in the whole sweep of God’s purpose for us from eternity past through time into eternity future. Our lives right now are the merest blink in the length of history, and the whole length of history is a brief parenthesis within the vast field of eternity. And we cannot see ourselves truly unless we see ourselves as people of eternity. Nothing in our culture encourages us to see our lives as a story of eternal grandeur. But God is telling us that we have something to live for so much bigger than the fifth-rate enticements of the moment. God has lifted us up into a grandeur only he could imagine.
Look at God’s purpose for us. Paul sums it up with five verbs: foreknow, predestine, call, justify, glorify. Let’s look at each one. First, God foreknew us. That is, God set his love on us before we loved him. In fact, he made his commitment before time began. Your life is so much more than the world can see, more than you can see. And your life is defined not by your sins and failures but by the loving purpose of God already settled in eternity past. Don’t give up. You could not be more thought about.
Second, every single person that God foreknew he also predestined. Let’s not be afraid of that word. If you are in Christ, that word means that your destiny has been pre-decided by the love of God. In eternity past, God determined your final outcome in eternity future – that you and I would be like Christ (“conformed to the image of his Son”), for the glory of Christ (“in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren”). The “firstborn” is biblical language for the pre-eminent one. And God has determined that we will share the glory of Christ with him. This includes “many brethren,” Paul says, because God has no intention of settling for a small success. After your first thousand years in heaven, recovering from your first glimpse of Jesus, you’ll finally look around and see “a great multitude that no one can number” (Revelation 7:9) – the most interesting people in history, the most charming and delightful and attractive. Isaiah will be there. Augustine will be there. Johann Sebastian Bach will be there, plus Jean-Paul Sartre and Isaac Newton and C. S. Lewis and Abigail Adams and Alice Cooper and Mr. T. And Jesus will be the hero at the center of that multitude.
Third, every single person that God foreknew and predestined he also called. Now Paul moves into time, into our actual experience here in this life. And at some point along the way, God arranged a meeting with you, though you probably didn’t see him coming. But if you are in Christ, at some point, you heard the gospel. And suddenly it was no longer a theory. You heard in the gospel the voice of God calling to you, and you said, “Yes! I’m tired of running my own life. Lord, now I’m listening to you.” When you said that to God, it was because he had set you apart to himself long, long before. And if you’ve never heard the call of God, are you listening? He may be speaking to you right now, calling you to himself. Say yes.
Fourth, everyone whom God foreknew and predestined and called he also justified. It’s a package deal. God gives himself to us so fully. He withholds nothing. But we’re sinners. So God provides for that too. He took all our sins and failures and despair and tears and the wreckage of our lives and all our terrible guilt and all our horrible righteousness and he poured it all out on Christ at the cross in infinite wrath. Our guilt was fully punished in a willing Substitute. And God took all of Christ’s beautiful righteousness and all his perfect obedience and poured it out on us in the gift of justification. God robed us, in his sight, with the beauty of Jesus Christ. So we don’t have to think, “He loves me, he loves me not. He loves me, he loves me not,” depending on our performance. We have a new, settled relationship with God. We didn’t establish it; he did. We get the mercy, he gets the glory. That’s the deal.
Finally, everyone whom God foreknew and predestined and called and justified he also glorified. This is my favorite, because I’ve always wanted to be glorious. So have you, if you’ll admit it. God has put into our hearts that we are not zeros; we are significant, and we long to live it out. Look at the world. Look at all the effort, all the accomplishment, all the genius. Human beings are impressive. But what will we be capable of, when God finally frees us from all ego and foolishness and misplaced enthusiasm and all the other glory-diminishing things that run so deep inside us and counteract our yearning to shine like the stars? God has taken that into account as well. God has purposed to glorify us forever. That is not something God is conceding to us; our glory was his idea to begin with. We will be conformed to the image of God’s Son, and our bodies will surge with resurrection power, and we will be fully human and happy, to the glory of God.
This purpose of God will be the untold story of 2013. Cable news will not report it. But here in the Bible God is telling us what he’s going to be doing this year. He will work all things for our good every single day, because his whole, massive plan is for our good. We can enter 2013 confidently, because God is for us.