I CANNOT UNDERTAKE ANALYSIS of a Scripture passage without saying something about exegesis. This process involves careful historical, literary, or theological analysis of a text or passage. Exegesis can be called scholarly reading; reading in a way that determines the essence of the text through complete, systematic examination—grappling with arguments that speak for or against a specific conclusion. Exegesis is “close reading,” a term borrowed from literature that means deliberate, word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase consideration of all parts of a text in order to aid in understanding it as a whole. Exegesis goes hand in hand with expository writing in works like Martin Luther’s Commentary on Romans. It also includes newspaper articles, how-to manuals, assembly instructions, and most academic writing—any writing that seeks to explain, illuminate or ‘expose’ (which is where the word ‘expository’ comes from).
Romans 8 contains critical doctrine regarding the indwelling Spirit of God and His impact on our lives as believers in Christ. Paul explains how it is impossible to please God “in the flesh.” God has condemned all sin in the flesh. Frankly, the carnal mind will always be an enemy of God. In Commentary on Romans Luther writes, “…reason seeks itself and its own benefit.”(1) I learned this truth after a rather lengthy addiction to pornography. Until I got the gospel in my heart, I was incapable of not watching. I learned that we cannot “not” while in the flesh. Be assured, however, that because of our belief in the atoning death of Christ on the cross we are no longer stuck with walking in the flesh, and we become able to walk by the Spirit. The Spirit of God dwells in us. Paul teaches, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9).
Martin Luther called Paul’s epistle to the Romans “…the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel.”(2) It is critical that we learn what Paul means by words like law, sin, grace, faith, righteousness, flesh, spirit. Our deeds cannot please God when they come from a reluctant and deceptive heart. Motives of the flesh have nothing in common with motives of the spirit. These truths aid us in evaluating what lies at the bottom of our hearts and what resides in our flesh. They help explain God’s enmity with sin and, accordingly, with our flesh. If we fail to grasp these critical first principles, we end up teaching others but not ourselves. Perhaps without even meaning to, we become hypocrites.
When Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1) he is saying that as believers we have been placed beyond the reach of the condemnation of God. This is the gospel in just a few words! Our redemption started with justification and began the process of sanctification. Through this, we have assurance of acceptance by the Father. We must understand this concept before we can continue in sanctification and start to become conformed to the image of Christ. Failing this, we grow frustrated thinking we can never truly be “like Christ” while in the flesh. Many new believers give up at this point. But this misunderstanding is the result of trying to “reason” God’s grace and mercy. We need only accept in faith that we have salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. Once grounded in this vital truth, we can begin our spiritual growth and maturity. For this, the Holy Spirit is required as He is the Spirit of Power.
Our flesh has not be eradicated! We reside in our physical bodies until we put on new glorified bodies. Because of this, sanctification is not a luxury or a “nice addition” to our Christian life; it is a necessity. After all, temptation of the flesh is virtually continuous. Therefore, we must “put to death” daily the misdeeds of the body (see Rom. 8:13). Paul tells us we do not owe the “old man” anything. We are, however, indebted to the Spirit. Paul adds, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (8:14). R.C. Sproul boldly states, “The first test we have as to whether we are children of God is whether we are led by the Spirit.”(3) Paul simply states, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor” (1 Thes. 4:3-4).
Our life on earth comes with pain, suffering, violence, and wickedness. Although we are powerless over the existence of such things, we are equipped through the Holy Spirit to rise above them. Grief and pain are a direct result of the reality of sin. Paul touches on the contrast between our present sufferings and the future glory God has prepared for us (see Rom. 8:18-21). R.C. Sproul says, “The difference between the present degree of pain we experience and the blessedness to which God has appointed His people is so immensely different that there is no way to compare them.”(4) Paul said, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Paul also tells us, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NRSV). Some of the ancient writings say, God makes all things work together for good, or in all things God works for good. Matthew Henry writes, “That is good for the saints which does their souls good. Every providence tends to the spiritual good of those that love God.”(5) Henry believes this passage means God uses all circumstances to aid in breaking us off from sin, bringing us nearer to Him, weaning us from the world. He adds, “When the saints act out of character, corrections will be employed to bring them back again.”(6)
Romans 8:28 brings comfort, direction, and hope to Christians every day. Paul is explaining that those of us who love God and are seeking to obey his commands will eventually come out on top even when bad or wicking things touch our lives. God will always use whatever happens to us to ultimately bring about good. There is obviously nothing good about cancer, sex trafficking, addiction, rape, murder, mental illness, etc. Such evils exist in the world because of man’s fall from grace in the Garden, and will remain so until Jesus returns to conquer Satan and restore creation to its intended purpose. Romans 8:28 serves to remind us that although sin and Satan are powerful forces on earth, God is most powerful. He is able to redeem and restore any situation, and He will continue to do so until Christ returns in all His glory.
Romans 8:29 says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.” This is a companion verse to the promise in verse 28. God allows everything into our lives for one of two purposes—either to bring us into a relationship with Himself or, if we already know Him, to make us more like Jesus Christ.
Some biblical scholars consider Romans 8:28-29 the “the golden chain of salvation.” It is important to read Romans 8 in its entirety. Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” God did not spare His only Son; rather, He sent Christ to be a propitiation for our sins. Jesus paid the wages of sin for everyone who has ever lived, and He destroyed Satan’s authority over the believer. Paul said, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?” This verse can be interpreted as saying, Shall Christ who has died so that we might live thereafter condemn us? Or, by inference, does Jesus bring about calamity in our lives? Does He put a snare before us that prevents our circumstances from turning out for good in the end? No! Instead, Jesus is constantly interceding on our behalf before the Father (8:34).
The Hidden Will of God
The hidden will of God—His decretive will—includes all He has ordained through every event in history, including the thoughts and hidden intentions of every person. It is critical to realize that, although God works out everything according to the counsel of His sovereign will (see Eph. 1:11), not everything God ordains in His hidden will is pleasing to Him. God’s decretive will is defined as the sovereign, efficacious will by which He brings to pass whatever He pleases by His divine decree. God’s will in this instance can have no other effect or consequence than what He intends and therefore commands. He did not request light to shine in the universe. Neither did He coax, cajole, or woo it into existence. It was a matter of the absolute authority and power of His decree. He told the light to come into existence. No creature, including man, can possess this kind of will power.
As finite beings, we cannot know or comprehend the hidden will of God. We can merely look back in history and know at best only part of what God’s hidden will was for any particular situation. God’s decretive will always come to pass. Whatever happens has been ordained by God to bring about His sovereign will. As Christians, we are not permitted to know (nor should we seek to know) the hidden will of God. Instead, we must live by what has been revealed in Scripture, trusting that regardless of the circumstances God will bring about good. Rather than being anxious or fearful about what will happen, we need to take comfort. God protects us from annihilation no matter what the circumstances (Phil. 4:6-8). Augustine said, “In some sense, God wills everything that happens.” The immediate question raised by this comment is, In what sense?
Believers can rest in the knowledge that God is and will always be as He has revealed Himself to be in His Word. He is unchanging (Heb. 13:5-6). Christ alone is sufficient for meeting our every need (Phil. 4:13). He is our Rock of Refuge (Psa. 18:2); our very present helper in time of need (Psa. 46:1). We can rest in the knowledge that God’s communicable attributes—wisdom, goodness, love, mercy, holiness, righteousness, and justice—are at the root of His will for us and his love for all mankind. God always exercises His power according to His wisdom and knowledge. He sees all time at the same time, allowing Him to see what happened, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future all at once! His wisdom and knowledge are inseparable from His goodness, love, and mercy. He is good toward all He has made. His attributes are identical to His essence.
Martin Luther said of Romans 8:28 that we must not be surprised that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, working together with us all things.(7) Luther remarked that God makes all things work for good even though they might be evil in themselves (e.g., sickness, persecution, etc.). There is an underlying suggestion in this passage that predestination for good does not apply to those who walk in the wisdom of the flesh; who are not called according to the purpose of God. Luther notes that Paul’s use of the word purpose in Romans 8 is meant to signify God’s predestination—or His free election—to use whatever happens to further His will. A man once said to me after a frank conversation about addiction and its consequences, “God wants me to tell you something. Everything you have been through from the moment of your birth to this moment right now has been ordained by Him to mold you into the person He needs you to be to carry the message of recovery.”
The footnote in the NIV Biblical Theology Bible says, “…in all things God works for the good.”(8) Paul suggests the believer can “wait patiently” (8:25) for their ultimate redemption: we can be confident that God works in all the circumstances of our lives to accomplish His good purpose. He uses every person, every situation, every trial, every failure, and every victory! The NIV footnote specific to Romans 8:28 says, “This is one of the great promises of Scripture.” But we are not always patient. God’s good is not necessarily what we have in mind. Eugene Peterson notes in The Message that “we get tired in the waiting.” Yet, we can be sure that every detail in our lives will work into something good. God weaves everything together for good no matter how long it takes.
Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theological Studies
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references contained herein are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
(1) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, J. Theodore Mueller, editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 118.
(2) Ibid., xiii
(3) R.C. Sproul, Romans: An Expositional Commentary (Sanford, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2019), 234.
(4) Ibid., 243.
(5) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 1080.
(6) Henry, 1080.
(7) Luther, Ibid., 127.
(8) NIV Biblical Theology Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 2034.
(9) Eugene Peterson, The Message//Remix (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006), 1654.
(10) Ibid., 1655.