I grew up in a home with a grandfather clock. It chimed every quarter hour, and at the top of each hour it would dong out the number of hours. It did this 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was really a beautiful clock and the chimes were, I think, the Big Ben chimes. However, since I was around it all the time, I got to where I simply ignored the chimes without even realizing that was what I was doing. I could sit right next to the clock at the noon hour and never hear a thing. Five minutes later if I wanted to know the time, I would have to turn and look at the clock to see it was a little after noon. One day, an older couple who were passing through stopped at our home to spend the night. We put them up in the living room on the couch which made into a queen-sized bed – right next to Big Ben. The next morning, we were mortified to realize that the lady had hardly been able to get a wink of sleep – she was continuously awakened by the chimes every quarter hour. We could have turned them off, but it never occurred to us because we never really heard them anyway!
There are some glorious theological truths that are like that clock. They chime out beautiful rhythms of hope and promise and glory, but we have heard them so often that we just don’t hear them anymore. I think Romans 8:28 is like that. How many times do we hear people remind us that all things work together for our good? At least if you are in the right theological circles, you are going to hear that a lot. But the problem is that familiarity too often leads to neglect. So the challenge of considering passages like this one is to do so in a way that we hear the clear and beautiful tones of its truth so that we enjoy it and embrace it and believe it as we ought.
I think one way we can do this is by carefully considering what the verse actually says. When my grandfather bought a John Deere tractor lawn-mower, the first thing he did was to take it completely apart to see how it ran. Those of you who know me well know that I could never do that! But it is a fitting analogy for what we need to do here. Let’s take this verse apart and look at it closely, and hopefully we will get a new appreciation for the great hope that we have in Christ.
The first place to start is the context. How can suffering saints, the kind mentioned in verses 17-18 (and verses 35-36), know that their hope will be realized? How can they be sure that between now and then nothing will intervene to destroy that hope and render it invalid? This is surely a valid concern, especially when we consider the nature and number of the enemies of our souls. We believe that there is a vast armada of demons, led by the archenemy of Christ himself – Satan – who would like nothing better than to sift our souls as wheat so that we will deny Christ and go back as slaves to the world. And then there is the world itself, arrayed against the Christian, sometimes in outright persecution, and always trying to make the faith less believable and credible, so that we will slink back under its dominion. Finally, there is our own self. And the fact of the matter is that we are often our worst enemies.
I know that some teach that God can protect you from the world and the devil but he cannot ultimately protect you from yourself. Frankly, I don’t know how the verses that supposedly teach the preserving and protecting power of God on our behalf are anything more than cold comfort if they also don’t teach that God protects us even from ourselves if necessary. That’s why I love the explicit statement of 1 Peter 1:5, which teaches that we are kept by the power of God.
There are of course many answers to the question – how will I be kept? But the answer given here in our text is a wonderful and full and hope-giving answer. The answer is that God is working all things for our good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. This is a truly amazing promise. What does it tell us? It tells us three things: to whom the promise belongs, what good we hope for, and how this good comes to us. Let us consider these three things in order.
To whom does the promise belong?
The answer is that the promise belongs to lovers of God: “for those who love God.” The ESV puts this phrase first because that is the place it holds in the original text.
It is important to understand that this is not a universal promise. It is not a promise that everything is going to work out for everyone in the end. The fact of the matter is that there are going to be many people who will discover in the end that everything has worked against them, not for them. All the good they experienced in this world only worked to dull their hearts to God. And the evil they endured only served to harden their hearts against God. Like Judas, of whom it was said, it would have been good if he had never been born, there will be a multitude who will find that there was no good in this world that made their judgment worth it. There is a kind of inverse of verse 18: the blessings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the wrath that is to come. I do not say that lightly: our Lord himself said more about hell than anyone else.
This is a promise to those who love God. But this does not just limit the promise to those who profess Christianity, because unfortunately there are many who claim to be Christian, but it is also clear that there is no real love for God in their hearts. The NT gives examples of people who for a time professed faith in Christ, but who came to show that their faith was not a saving faith. Saving faith is inseparable from real love to God. Simon the Magician professed a kind of faith and was even baptized, yet Peter told him later that his heart was not right before God and that he was in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity (Acts 8:21-23). This is no promise to those who hitch their wagon to the Christian faith for world-serving reasons but who do not truly love God.
What then does it mean to love God?
First, it means that we love God as he is revealed in the Bible, and supremely as he is revealed in Jesus Christ. This is no promise that if you love some generic “god” then all things will work well for you. It is not a promise that as long as you are not an atheist, all will be well. We must remember the warning implicit in James 2:19 – even the devils believe in God and tremble!
But though faith in God as he is revealed to us in Scripture is not a sufficient condition, it is a necessary one. Those who come to God must believe that he is (Heb. 11:6). For you cannot love someone you do not know. And though God has to some extent revealed himself in nature (Ps. 19; Rom. 1:20), this does not give the clearest knowledge of himself; in particular, it does not give a saving knowledge of God. That comes to us in the gospel. Paul will draw a straight line from a prayer that calls upon God in truth to the gospel that comes to us by heaven sent messengers (Rom. 10:13-15).
What this means is that we can test whether we love God in the sense of Rom. 8:28 by asking ourselves the question: do I love the God who is revealed in the pages of the Bible? Or do I find my spirit rising up against him as he is revealed there? Nowadays, you hear people say that even if you could convince them that the God of the Bible existed, they could never worship such a God. Very well, I appreciate the honesty. But we will be honest too: such people will perish forever.
I think it’s interesting that in John 3:36 believing in Jesus is contrasted with not obeying him. Those who refuse to trust him as their Savior do so ultimately because they will not have him as their Lord, and you cannot have Christ as Savior without also submitting to him as Lord. They will not receive him as he comes to them. How often we would like to believe in a god we have created in our own minds! But that is the root of idolatry and the foundation of all our false worship.
There are some who argue that if they believe in God and love the God they believe in, that’s enough, even though they don’t embrace Jesus as Lord. But the Bible does not allow us to make that move. Jesus himself does not allow us to make that move. “Whoever hates me hates my Father also” (Jn. 15:23). If you hate Jesus Christ as he is revealed in the pages of the NT then you hate God the Father. You don’t love God at all; in fact, you hate him.
Second, it means that I will obey God. If I love him, I will obey him. Again, our Lord put it this way, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn. 14:21). Though this is not a definition of love, it does tell us that obedience is a necessary concomitant to loving Christ. You can say you love God, but if you don’t obey him, your love is phony.
The Bible of course teaches that our good works, our obedience, don’t save us in the sense that they don’t contribute one ounce to our justification before God. The foundation of our relationship to God is the grace of God that comes to us through Christ and his finished work. However, it is also true that when God saves us he gives us a new nature, a nature that loves God as God, which loves Jesus as Lord and Savior. And if we love him as such, we will obey him. To refuse to obey him is to demonstrate that we really don’t love him – or even believe in him. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments (1 Jn. 5:3). Those who love God keep his commandments. And those who love God have all things work together for their good. Therefore if you keep God’s commandments, all things are working for your good. But if you refuse to keep God’s commandments, then you have no hope that all will work for your good, either now or in eternity.
Third, we must also say that love is not just obedience – it does not consist in will-power over the flesh, but in a genuine delight in God for who he is. But it is related to our obedience and grounds it, for those who delight in God for who he is in the fullness of his attributes revealed in Scripture will gladly and joyfully obey him. Such people don’t love God simply for his gifts, but for who he is in himself. To love him for just for his gifts really means that we don’t love him at all. It follows that they love God through trials, and when he takes things away they don’t stop loving him (cf. the example of Job).
But what does it mean to love God as he is in himself? What does it mean to delight in God? Well, it means that we will want to see him glorified. We will want to magnify him and to see him magnified. For such people, the opening to the Lord’s prayer is no idle preface but expresses the heart of their petitions: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Furthermore, they want to have fellowship with him, and this is the pinnacle of their happiness and joy. It is expressed in places like Psalm 63:1-4: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will life up my hands.” Or Psalm 84:1-2, which reads, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” Do these ancient hymns express our hearts? Or are their sentiments foreign to our hearts? It is a searching question, and gets at the heart of whether or not we truly love God.
What good do those who love God hope for?
We must be careful how we interpret “work together for good.” For one thing, it is not a guarantee that we will be surrounded all our lives with earthly comforts. Here the context is so important. Beware of people who take a verse and import meaning into it which is impossible from the context. Someone has wisely said that a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext. That is never more true than it is for this verse.
The context is suffering. In fact, you could say that it is sandwiched between passages that speak to the suffering of the saints. On one side we hear the groaning of the saints who are suffering and weak and ignorant (18-27). On the other side we see the persecution of the saints who are being “killed all the day long” and “regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (35-26). The story of the beggar Lazarus did not have a happy ending in this life.
Nevertheless, it is interesting that Paul uses the present tense: “All things are working together for good,” not simply will work together for good. So however, we interpret the good that is spoken of here, we must interpret it (1) as that which is consistent with suffering in the here and now, and (2) as that which brings good not only in the future but in the present as well.
What then is the “good”? Well, given that this is a promise given to those who love God, I would say that the good includes everything which increases our delight in God, which builds up a believer in his or her faith, brings us closer to God, and ultimately issues in final salvation and eternal glory which consists in perfect unbroken fellowship with the living God. To those who love God, the comforts of this world are so many mud pies compared to the blessing of knowing God.
Now it certainly includes eternal life as the connection between verse 28 and 29-30 shows. They are connected by the word “for”: “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.” All things work together for the good of the saint because everything is working for the believer to bring him or her to final glorification.
But is the only good promised to the believer future No. We do experience the “good” in this life because even the suffering that we go through (as well as the multitude of earthly comforts we receive) produces good right now. Paul says that godliness is a blessing now as well as in the future: “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
Here is a test: does this promise really encourage you as Paul meant it to? What is the “good” that we really want? What is my hope set upon? Are we like those in John 6:26 who only seek Jesus for the bread that fills our bellies, or do we seek him because he gives us the bread of life? This is why it makes sense that Paul introduces the promise with “for those who love God.” Because lovers of God see God himself as the greatest good. If this promise disappoints me, I need to do some self-examination and ask myself why I name the name of Christ.
How does this good come to those who love God?
First of all, it comes through all things. Literally everything – if even suffering itself, produces our good, then surely all things do as well. But the point is that even those events in our lives we normally view as bad – things like tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and the sword – are working for our ultimate good.
Now we must be careful here. The text does not say that all things are good. It says that all things work for good. The thing that is working for our good may not in fact be good in itself. It was not good for Joseph to be sold into slavery. But it worked for his good and the good of his entire family – indeed for our good since the preservation of the nation of Israel and the coming of the Messiah depended on his preservation! It was not good for Job to lose his flocks and family and fitness, but it worked for his good in the end: “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (Jam. 5:11).
So when we say all things work for good, we are not saying that cancer is good, or that infidelity is good, or that financial loss is good. What the Bible is saying is that the cancer and the infidelity and the financial loss will work for the good of those who love God. It doesn’t mean we don’t weep when we lose our loved ones or pretend that we are unaffected when presented with a terrible loss. But it does mean that the pain and the hurt we feel can only go so deep, and that underneath it all there is hope in the goodness of God who will bring good out of our suffering.
I am so thankful for the comprehensiveness of this text – all things! This is true because the God we serve is truly sovereign over his entire universe. There is no corner over which God does not ultimate control. Demons may cause pigs to throw themselves over a cliff, but it is only because the Lord gives them permission. Because of the fact that God is over all things, we know that he can work all things for our good. And because he will work all things for our good, we can be absolutely sure that our hope will be finally realized. This leads to our final point.
The good comes to us through the purpose and power of God. That Paul understood God as behind this is shown in those for whom this happens – those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. It is God who discriminates, and thus it is God who is causing all things to work together for our good. Paul is not teaching some Pollyannaish doctrine that everything will somehow work itself out in the end. Nor he is teaching a materialistic determinism in which everything is naturally trending upwards. Rather, he teaches that a personal and powerful and holy and sovereign God is moving all things for the eternal good of his people. I frankly feel sorry for people who think God is constantly running defense and having to fix things. No my friends, he is the immutable God who is working all things for the good of his people.
Let us therefore learn to trust in God through every eventuality in life knowing that God is behind it all with a good purpose. He is perfecting us and conforming us to the image of his Son. And he is doing it for our good and joy.
How are you hearing this promise? Can you hear the sweetness of its music waft its way into your heart, even when it is groaning under the strain of some trial? If so, it is because God has called us to love him, and it is God who is working all things for your good, so let us give him the praise for which he is so worthy.