Do All Things Work Together for Good?
A sermon on Romans 8:28 by Coty Pinckney, 7/15/01
What do you say to a friend who has just suffered a terrible loss? Are there any Bible verses you know that might be especially helpful at such a time?
Imagine a woman – let’s call her Mary – whose husband has just died after a long, painful illness. A friend – call her Jennifer – comes to see her and says, “Mary, I know this has been a hard time for you – but cheer up! All this is for the good! Listen to Romans 8:28:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (NRSV)
Everything will work out ok.”
Mary responds, “Jennifer, did you see him die? Do you know how much pain he suffered? Do you know how for the last three months he laid there with tubes coming out of him, helpless – this big, strong husband of mine? Do you know that every penny we had saved was spent on medical care, and I’m left with a huge debt? Do you know the hole that’s left in my heart after my soulmate has been ripped from me? What do you mean, ‘all things work together for good?’ His pain, and suffering, and death were not good!”
What should Jennifer say? What would YOU say in this situation?
Did Jennifer misuse this verse? What does Paul mean when he says, “God causes all things to work together for good”? How can that statement be true given the pain, sorrow, and anguish that so many of us experience?
That’s the question we want to face this morning: What does Paul mean by “good” in Romans 8:28? We’ll look first of all at four things this text does NOT mean, and then consider from the immediate context in Romans 8 four things it does mean.
See if you can identify some of these points as I read selections from 8:17-39:
17 If [we are] children, [we are] heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. . . . 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. . . . 26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 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. 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? . . . 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, "FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED." 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NAU)
“Good” Does Not Mean:
1) “Things have a way of working out.” Frequently we hear people say something like this. In a time of sorrow, friends will pat you on the back and say, “It will turn out all right in the end. Things have a way of working out.” Or, in its more extreme form, “In every day in every way things are getting better and better.”
This is NOT what Romans 8:28 says. And it is not a true statement. This is generic American optimism rather than Christian truth. Indeed, this country is one of the few places in the world where you could get away with saying that. Try saying that to an untouchable in Calcutta, living on what he can pick out of the garbage. “I’m sorry you’re sick and poor and living under a piece of cardboard and wearing rags. But don’t worry! Things have a way of working out! It will all get better!”
He might reply, “What are you talking about? All my life I’ve eaten other people’s refuse, and my ancestors for a thousand years have eaten other people’s refuse – and you tell me this will get better? When will it get better?”
There are many verses in Romans 8 – and indeed throughout the Bible – that we might cite to show that this generic optimism is not biblical. But let’s look at only one:
8:13 if you are living according to the flesh, you must die;
Are things working for the good of the one who is living according to the flesh? Is it right to say to someone living like this, “Don’t worry; all will work to the good”? No! Paul is not optimistic about the future for the one who rejects God and lives according to the flesh. So certainly there is no general rule in verse 28 that good will predominate in the future.
Second, “good” in verse 28 does not mean:
2) “In every way, I am good! I’m free from sin, and the consequences of sin!”
This passage teaches the very opposite.
Rom 7:19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.
If we truly belong to God, then we are “putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit” (verse 13); we are “walking according to the Spirit” and not according to the flesh – but Romans 7:19 still holds. We still sin. And we still face the consequences of our sins.
Third, “good” does not mean:
3) “Random calamity and disease will never hit me”
This is the way many people want to understand Romans 8:28 – “God wants to do good to me – he will protect me from disease and disaster – none of this will come my way if I belong to Him.”
But this verse cannot possibly mean that. Look ahead a few lines to verse 35: “[Will] famine, nakedness, [or] peril [separate us from the love of Christ]?” If Paul had meant to tell us we would never experience severe hunger, or danger from the elements, or threats from storm, earthquake, or calamity, he could have given us that assurance. But instead, he assures us that when we face these troubles, Christ’s love still surrounds us. Indeed, Paul’s life is a testimony to this truth. He himself lived through natural disasters (see, for example, Acts 27 and 2 Corinthians 11). No. Paul does NOT say Christians won’t suffer from natural disasters; instead, he says even these will not separate us from God’s love. There is no promise here that we will experience an easy, pleasant life.
(4) “No evil act of another person will affect me.”
This is the type of protection so many of us want: Remember in the Star Trek series, how the starship Enterprise activates its energy shields when under attack? Then the Kling-on’s phasers bounce off, and have no impact on the ship. That’s what we want, isn’t it: a powerful energy shield surrounding us, so that evil acts cannot affect us.
But once again the very context shows us that this cannot possibly be Paul’s meaning: In verse 36, Paul quotes Psalm 44, saying
FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.
Paul says God does not protect His servants from being put to death for their faith. And, of course, history bears this out, in Paul’s life, in the lives of the other apostles, in the lives of millions of Christians through the centuries. Those opposed to the gospel have persecuted millions of men and women – and this persecution continues, to the point of death, even today. God does not stop all those attacks. The evil deeds of evil men hurt Christians emotionally and physically, even to martyrdom.
So this verse does not mean
Maybe you’re thinking, “What kind of comfort is this? Romans 8:28 doesn’t even mean I won’t be killed? Thanks a lot, Coty! In helping me not to misuse this verse, you’ve watered it down so much I don’t want to use it at all! If it doesn’t mean any of those four things, it’s a worthless promise! The verse provides no comfort at all!”
I understand how you could feel that way, particularly if you have listened to some of the prevalent false teaching about the health, wealth, and prosperity God is just waiting to give to believers. But I contend that the false ways of looking at this verse provide no comfort at all! In the opening story, why was Mary offended by Jennifer’s use of this verse? Why was the untouchable in Calcutta offended by American optimism? Because the false ways of interpreting this verse all DENY THE REALITY OF SUFFERING.
So these false interpretations provide solace only to those who are willing to live with their eyes closed to reality. That’s no genuine comfort.
Even worse, if we do finally acknowledge the presence of suffering, these false interpretations tend to make us blame the victims of suffering and violence:
· “If you’re suffering that much – God’s not protecting you, so you must not love God.”
· “If those people in Sudan are starving – they must not belong to God. God wouldn’t let His people starve.”
So we’ve seen the misinterpretations of this verse; but what does it mean? What promise does God hold out to us? Why has my friend John Piper written, “No promise in all the world surpasses the height and breadth and weight of Romans 8:28.”
Verses 17 to 30 of Romans 8 provide us with four answers to this question. The first two answers – found in verses 18 to 25 -- look forward to the last day. Verse 18 summarizes the first two reasons, and verse 19 gives details of the first:
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.
Our present sufferings cannot be compared with our glorious future because:
1) The whole creation is eagerly waiting for YOU to become what God intends you to be.
Paul uses an awkward expression here, piling up words to get across his thought. The awkwardness comes through in the New American Standard translation: “the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.” What does this mean?
A picture might help here. In 1996, we were privileged to be able to attend the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Our first tickets were for a morning session that included the start and finish of the women’s marathon. One hundred and fifty women began the race in the stadium, running twice around the track, and then ran out through the tunnel for more than two hours of running on the roads. But the big screen in the stadium showed us the progress of the race – how Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia made a smart, courageous move at the 15 mile mark to take the lead and break away from her competitors. An hour later, we knew from the screen that she was getting close, but we didn’t know the exact moment. All of us spectators were leaning forward in our seats, staring at the tunnel, waiting, waiting for her to enter the stadium. And then she appeared! The stadium burst forth with shouts and applause for this tremendous runner.
That’s the picture of verse 19. But instead of 50,000 people in a stadium, all creation is waiting eagerly for you and me and all our brothers and sisters in Christ to finish the race. And instead of waiting for two hours, all creation has been waiting ever since the fall of man for us to complete the race. And furthermore, as verses 20 to 22 tell us, these spectators not only see the victory, but they are changed themselves – they become what God intended them to be at long last, only when we complete the race.
So all creation is waiting eagerly for you to enter that great stadium and complete your final lap. Fatuma Roba experienced pain and suffering during the Olympic marathon, but the glory of the finish was worth much more than that pain. Just so, the glory of our joint finish is worth much more than the pain and suffering we experience along the way.
Verse 23 provides us with our next point:
And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.
So, our present sufferings cannot be compared with our glorious future because:
2)You yourself will be changed into the glorious likeness of Christ.
Did you note the use of the same verb in verse 23 as in 19? In 19, the whole creation was waiting eagerly; now we ourselves wait eagerly. Again, the picture is the same: we are leaning forward, straining, waiting eagerly for what we know will happen.
Do you think of this? Do you think of what is to come, after Jesus returns?
There will be a new heavens and a new earth. We will have new bodies, which are not stained by sin. There will no longer be any sin in us or in any other person. Our bodies will be renewed physically – we will run and not grow weary, walk and not faint.
Furthermore, consider these verses from Revelation 21:
and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, 4 and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.
We will all stand before the throne praising God, learning each day more and more of His infinite goodness, learning more of His work in other believers across the centuries, growing and maturing year after year, living with sinless people – this is what is ahead for us.
There is pain and suffering now. It is real. We must not belittle it or deny it. But this suffering cannot be compared with the glory that is coming.
This hope is absolutely vital: As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, if our hope is only in this life, of all men we are most to be pitied. But our great, fundamental hope is in the glories of the life to come. Tremendous glory for us and for all creation awaits our becoming what God intends us to be.
But in Romans 8 Paul does not limit God’s promise to the life to come. This is our greatest hope – but there is also hope and comfort for our life today:
26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
So our third point:
3) God knows our every need, and He cares.
This verse presents us in a confused state; “we do not know how to pray as we should.” Should we ask God to end the pain? Should we ask to die? To live? Should we ask for His protection from specific trials and difficulties we face?
Frequently we don’t know the answer to those questions. But the Spirit knows, and He intercedes for us. And did you note how He intercedes? With groanings. The Spirit Himself groans on our behalf. He takes our longings, our confusion, our hurt, our pain, and lifts them all up before the Father, asking the Father to do exactly what is best in this situation – best for us, best for the cause of Christ, best for all God’s people. The Spirit knows how to intercede for us.
Furthermore, verse 27 tells us that God searches our hearts, He knows our mind, He knows our every care, our every sorrow. And He cares! The shortest verse in the Bible is also one of the most comforting: “Jesus wept.” God doesn’t pretend that evil doesn’t exist. God doesn’t contend that sorrow isn’t real, or doesn’t matter. God knows our pain, and He cares; He weeps; He is full of sorrow for sin and its impact.
Now, He doesn’t stop there – He is in the process of rectifying all wrongs, of ending all sorrow. That’s the message of our first two points. But the third point is, God knows and He cares.
For our fourth and last point, look at verses 17 and 29:
17) [We are] fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him
29) For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren (NAU, emphasis added).
4) God uses all our sufferings to make us like Jesus
All suffering has a purpose – our glorification, our being made like Christ. While we are suffering, we rarely understand this. We don’t know how God will use pain to conform us to His image, but God promises that He will.
In this regard, it is helpful for me to remember that, in many ways, I am like a two-year old. I know quite a bit about two-year olds; for fourteen years, from Sept 8, 1983 until Dec 12, 1997, Beth and I had a child two years old or younger in our family. Two-year olds cannot understand what is best for them. At times, they think they are suffering terribly, when what is happening is really for their own good. Two-year olds often cry out, protesting loudly, when their diapers are changed, when they have to take a bath, when they are put to bed.
We are like two-year olds – we cannot understand what our Father is doing. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are far above our thoughts. The difference in understanding between God and me is much, much greater than the difference in understanding between a parent and a two-year old. Just so, Romans 8:17, 28, and 29 promise us that in ways we cannot understand, our loving Father takes suffering – real evil, real suffering, suffering for which He weeps -- and uses that very suffering to make us into the glorious creatures he intends us to be. We can’t understand it; we won’t understand it completely until the Last Day. But God assures us all this suffering has a purpose.
This is the tremendous, present promise of Romans 8:28: All things – good things that happen, random calamities that happen, evil that happens – all things work together for our good and God’s glory. So Paul can say in verse 37 we “overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” Not only do we conquer these sufferings, but we overwhelmingly conquer. For as long as we remain in the love of God in Christ, as long as we are not separated from His love, then we have all things.
As John Piper says:
The confidence that a sovereign God governs for your good all the pain and all the pleasure that you will ever experience is an absolutely incomparable refuge and security and hope and power in your life.
So evil exists, and can have an impact on Christians. We must never deny this. But our great God knows all your pain, and He cares. He uses this pain to make you into the likeness of His Son. And He not only will perfect you, enabling you for all eternity to rejoice in His presence in a perfect body, living with perfect people, but he also will perfect the entire creation as a consequence of the work He is doing in you and me.
Conclusion: Who can hold on to this promise?
So if this is the greatest promise of all – can you hold on to it? We have already seen that the promise that all things work together for good is not aimed at everyone – there is no general rule operating in the universe that causes things “to work out” for everyone; so is the great promise of Romans 8:28 for you?
The verse itself tells us who can hold on to this promise: “those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.” Elsewhere in this chapter these people are identified as those who are in Christ, who walk according to the Spirit, who are God’s elect, who by the Spirit are putting to death the deeds of the body.
Are you in this group? Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength? Are you living day by day by the power of the Spirit within you? Does your life show that by the Spirit you are putting to death the natural deeds of the body?
Does that standard seem impossible to meet? It should! Who among us this morning can say that he loves God with all his being? But Romans 8 is a chapter of great assurance, of great comfort – for it shows that salvation is God’s work, not ours; He is the one who foreknows and predestines and calls and justifies and glorifies, and no one is lost along the way.
So if you have any question about whether or not these promises apply to you, throw yourself at the mercy of our great and loving God! Treasure the mercy of God in Christ! Hate your sin, and turn from that sin to God! Cry out for mercy, saying, “Oh Lord God, could I be among those who come to know more and more of your infinite goodness for all eternity? Could you give even me a new heart of flesh, replacing this heart of stone? I hate my sin; does Your love and mercy in Christ extend even to a sinner like me?”
David assures us that God never despises a broken and contrite heart. This is the God we have: a God who loves us even while we are despicable sinners; a God whose love will never leave us, a God who will carry us through every trial, every trouble, every tribulation; a God who uses all these for His good, wise, and holy purposes in our lives. Praise Him, and fall before Him!
This sermon was preached at the Bennington, VT, Missionary Alliance Church on 7/15/01. The quotes from John Piper come from his sermon “Called According to His Purpose,” preached October 13, 1985.
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