Romans 8:28

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NRSV).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

WE CANNOT UNDERTAKE ANALYSIS of a Scripture passage without saying something about exegesis.  This process amounts to careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text. Exegesis has been called by some as scholarly reading, which means reading in a way that determines the essence of the text through the most complete, systematic notation possible, examining the phenomena of the text and grappling with the reasons that speak for or against a specific understanding of it. Another appropriate description of exegesis is “close reading,” a term borrowed from literature. Close reading means the deliberate, word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase consideration of all parts of a text in order to understand it as a whole.

I find several biblical commentaries to be helpful in unpacking the exegetical meaning of Scripture. In particular, I speak highly of Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Tremper  Longman and David E. Garland,  and Zondervan Bible Commentary, edited by F.F. Bruce. I also frequently use The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), and The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, translated by Alfred Marshall. I often refer to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Daniel J. Treier and Walter Elwell. Reference texts like these can be quite useful when examining a passage of Scripture.

Exposition

Paul introduces yet another benefit of life in the Spirit. He writes, “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 authorities read, 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” (1). 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” (2). Romans 8:28 brings comfort, direction, and hope to Christians every day. 

This verse contains a promise for believers. Paul is telling us that those of us who love God and are doing our best to obey his commands will come out on top even when bad or wicking things touch our lives. God will always use whatever happens to His chosen to ultimately bring about good. There is obviously nothing good about cancer, sex trafficking, addiction, or death. Such evils exist in the world, 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 more powerful. He is able to redeem and restore any situation, and He will continue to do so until Christ returns in all His glory.

It is not likely Paul literally meant “all things.” This would be rather general, including any and all situations anywhere and everywhere on earth no matter who is involved or affected. He is instead referring specifically to those things that are generally considered adverse and are turned around and used for good; i.e., for accomplishing God’s will for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. This fits nicely with Romans 5:3-5: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Indeed, no matter what we face God is there, working all things out in such a manner that it will ultimately bring about His will for us.

Certainly, we don’t like to fall victim to adverse circumstances. We want God to rescue us from bad situations. Why should a pastor and his family die in a head-on car crash with a drunk driver? Why did Nabeel Qureshi, after converting from Islam to Christianity and joining Ravi Zacharias in a global effort of evangelism and apologetics, die of stomach cancer? Why are churches wiped off the face of the earth by tornadoes? Perhaps the answer is hidden in a remark a Christian said to me nearly two years ago when I was still struggling in active addiction and facing some serious challenges. He said, “God wants you to know that everything you’ve gone through from the time of your birth to this moment right now was ordained by Him to help make you into the man He needs you to be in order to fulfill His purpose.” Whoa! That’s pretty heavy.

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 to the end. 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 and 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 decretive will can have no other effect or consequence than what He commands. He did not request the light to shine in the universe. Neither did He coax, cajole, or woo it into existence. It was a matter of His absolute authority and power through decree. No creature, including man, enjoys this power of will.

As finite beings, we cannot know  or comprehend the hidden will of God. We can only look back in history and know 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 causing anxiety about what will happen, we need to take comfort in Paul’s words. Because Christ intercedes on our behalf in every instance, we can enjoy true shalom. God protects us from annihilation no matter what happens in our daily lives (Phil. 4:6-8).

Believers can also rest in the knowledge that God is and will always be as He has revealed Himself 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). God’s hidden will is never meant to be punitive; rather, it testifies to His infinite goodness, mercy, and grace. 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 know 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 with His essence.

Martin Luther expounded upon Romans 8:28 in his Commentary on Romans. He wrote, “We must not be surprised that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, since He works together with God’s saints in all they do… He works together with us all things” (3). Luther remarked that God makes all things work for good even though they are evil (in themselves, e.g., sickness, persecution, etc.). There is an underlying suggestion in this Scripture passage that such predestination for good does not apply to those who walk in the wisdom of the flesh and are not called according to the purpose of God. Luther notes that Paul’s use of purpose in Romans 8 means God’s predestination, or His free election, to use whatever happens to further His will.

Regarding Predestination in Romans 8:29

It is critical that we understand the scope of predestination as it is used in this passage. There is much debate between the early Reformers as to whether God chooses to save “only a certain person or persons,” thereby condemning all others to damnation. I believe God preordained the redemptive plan, not who will live and who will die. In any event, “predestination” in Romans 8:29 has a broader scope than identifying those who will receive salvation. The backdrop is “adoption.” It refers to our sharing in the suffering of Christ, and our ongoing sanctification. As we shared in His suffering and death, so also shall we share in His resurrection and new life. As children of the Father, and brothers and sisters of the Son, we enjoy the benefit of God’s will working through whatever circumstance we might face.

Accordingly, Paul assures us that we are more than conquerors through Christ who strengthens us. Therefore, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:38-39). God works everything God for good for those who love him, and who are called according to his purpose. Praise God!

(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nahsville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 1080.

(2) Henry, 1080.

(3) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, J. Theodore Mueller, editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954).

 

The Law of Willingness

Willingness Will Result in Growth

Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the LORD and not men” (RSV). In Psalm 51:12, David writes, “Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (RSV) [Italics added.] There is the childlike part within all of us that wants to say, “I can do it on my own.” We typically prefer to do things our way. But true recovery begins when we are willing to do it God’s way. This isn’t easy, but without a willingness to be open to God’s plan, we will limit our growth. It all begins with a willing and open heart.

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This is such an obvious law that you might be tempted to skip over it. Don’t! It’s important. A lot of marriages die, a lot of alcoholics and addicts die, and a lot of life missions fail simply because of a lack of willingness. The corollary to this law is equally clear: Without willingness, you either die or kill something. You can either imprison yourself in your futile, self-confident ways of existing, or you can step across the line to initiate healing and growth by being willing to do whatever it takes to change.

Willingness is a mental attitude that helps insure success in recovery from active addiction. This is not always an easy concept to grasp. I’ve often prayed, “God, grant me the willingness to be willing.” Step Three (of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous) says, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Practicing Step Three involves opening a door which is closed and locked. All you need is a key and the decision to swing the door open. There is only one key and that’s the key of willingness. The chapter Into Action in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “We have emphasized willingness as being indispensable.” Bill Wilson—co-founder of AA—said, “Belief in the power of God, plus enough willingness, honesty and humility to establish and maintain the new order of things, were the essential requirements.”

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The dynamic of willingness applies to breaking every sort of obsession, addiction, or bad habit. It applies to every kind of weakness or addiction we face. Willingness opens the door to new paths that lead to growth. Resistance or stubbornness are signs of foolishness and self-delusion. If all we have is a stuck stance, it will stop all forward progress toward growth—with God and with others. In order to get unstuck we must have willingness.

Effective Christian living begins with willingness. God calls the willing, not the able. Moreover, He does not call the qualified; rather, He qualifies the called. We must remember that we’re talking about God’s will, not our own. The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 8:12, “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have” (NIV). God wants willing, wholehearted service. He never forces us to do His will. Even Jesus said, “I seek not my will, but the will of Him that sent me” (John 5:30). Our spirit might be willing, but unfortunately our flesh is weak. Paul said, “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18, NIV). Typically, this is not because of any reluctance on our part. It is simply because weakness of the flesh hampers even our best intentions.

Spirit-Over-Flesh

Sacrifice and willingness go together like ice cream and apple pie. Romans 12:1 says, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service to worship” (NASB). Consider this precept against the backdrop that Jesus gave His body—that is Himself—out of love, as a gift and sacrifice for us. His willingness should serve as an exemplar to be emulated. Christ’s willingness was apparent even before His crucifixion. Philippians 2:6-8 tells us, “Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by being obedient to death—even the death of the cross” (NIV).

Ephesians 3:17 makes it quite clear how willingness is supposed to work: “Christ will make his home in your heart as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.” Why do we dig our heels into the ground when God wants us to sink our roots down into his soil of marvelous, life-giving, strengthening love? There is a big difference between dug-in heels and healthy roots growing deep. But your roots won’t have a chance to grow deep if you’re not willing to trust God, enabling Christ to become more at home in your heart. The more access you give Him to your heart, the more growth you will experience. Paul says, “Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means” (2 Corinthians 8:11, NIV).

The Hebrew word for willingness is the verb-form abah, which means to consent or desire. Ordinary obedience in human behavior is a form of social influence in the face of perceived authority. Interestingly, obedience is different than compliance, which is behavior influenced or coerced by others. This is more like behavior that matches the majority. With this type of obedience, the result is compelled by circumstances. It is worth noting that personality plays an important role in how one responds to authority.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Our very life depends on our willingness to change. Certainly, our eternity hinges on what we do with God’s revealed truth, which leads to eternal life. But head knowledge is not enough. God wants us to act according to what we believe. And He wants us to do so willingly. Through the ages, every true servant of God has preached a message of change. We have always tended to go the way of human nature—the way of vanity, selfishness, hate, lust, and war. Repentance involves a turning away, which includes a willingness to change. Repentance is not merely being sorry for our disobedience. It includes being willing to stop doing what is wrong, do a 180, and go the other way. True repentance involves real change. Willingness ultimately means changing our way of life to conform to the will of God.

 

The Cost of (Non) Discipleship

JESUS SAID, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) But He also said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) So, which is it? Is a life of discipleship a comfort or a crucifixion? C.S. Lewis points out the seeming paradox. On the one hand, Jesus proclaims the delights of discipleship; on the other, the seemingly crushing cost. Faced with the high cost of discipleship, many Christians compromise by attempting to ensure their self-interests while still trying to be good. But a halfway approach to discipleship is impossible:

Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work; I want YOU. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and there. I want to have the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself.” (Lewis, 1952)

Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24) There will ultimately be a conflict of interest between self-will and God’s will. A choice will have to be made between surrender and self-rule. With this tension in mind, it is vital to re-examine the emphasis of the Great Commission. Jesus tells us to make disciples who learn to do all that He commanded. (See Matthew 28:19-20) However, what it means to be a Christian has taken on a different definition in many Western church traditions. It has unfortunately come to mean someone who has agreed to a set of beliefs about Jesus, or has become a member of a church. What is omitted is the necessity of actually following Jesus. We are to become His apprentice.

The result is that churches are full of members who have affirmed the tenets of faith in order to get to heaven, but have no intention of obeying Jesus on earth. Ironically, these converts feel prepared to die, but they are not equipped to live. Many church members would be shocked if confronted with the necessity of a life of continual obedience to Jesus, since that is what Jesus meant when He described masses of self-professed Christians coming to the end of their lives only to stand before God and be told, “I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:23) I don’t know how you feel, but I don’t want that to happen to me when I stand before God.

The heart of true discipleship is a settled intent to become like Jesus. A disciple is like the man who in his joy went and sold all he had in order to buy the field with the great treasure. (See Matthew 13:44) Disciples gladly rearrange everything in their lives around Jesus because of a firm persuasion that He is everything they want.

So, is it hard to follow Jesus? That is, to be more than just a fan or an admirer? Yes, because He demands total allegiance. Only those who give all to Christ find all. This is the paradox of Christianity. I am personally aware of a parallel in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Recovering alcoholics are told that half measures avail nothing. In fact, the beginning of “How It Works” – which is read at the start of virtually every meeting in the world – says, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.”

Disciples of Jesus obey Him because they believe He is the way to eternal life. Their confidence in Jesus and the joy of life with Him greatly outweigh the price. Consider for a moment the alternative – the life of non-discipleship. If Jesus is right, then failing to follow Him will cost the very things that He alone can bring: peace, love, hope, power to do good, health, and life with God, now and forever. It turns out that the life of non-discipleship is the costliest life of all.

References

Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics anonymous, 4th edition. New York, NY: AA World Services

Lewis, C. S. (1952). Mere Christianity. New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Co.

We, Too, Are Risen

Easter marks an important date for Christians. Christ promised us that even though He was to be crucified, He would raise from the dead on the third day. His ministry included teachings from the Scriptures, preaching, and healing. He was doing the Father’s will. God wants us to be set free from the bondage of sin and death. He wants us to walk in His will. He desires that we be healed from sickness. Jesus said He came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. Certainly, being sick in our bodies does not make for an abundant life. Living in bondage to our fleshly desires does not make us free.

Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) Once Jesus realized dying was the will of His heavenly Father, He assented to going to the cross. Jesus didn’t just die for us. Jesus wasn’t looking at mere death and pleading, “Father, don’t let me die!” That’s not what his agony and consternation were about. Death would have been easy. It’s not that Jesus was trying to avoid a torturous death; He was trying to avoid something else—something far worse.  We can see what He is trying to avoid in His words, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” Jesus wasn’t trying to avoid death. He was trying to avoid “the cup.”

What was the cup?  It was the cup of God’s wrath, as describe in Psalms 75:8, “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and He pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.”  Jesus asked for the cup of God’s wrath to be removed. The cup of God’s wrath is His infinite punishment of and hatred toward evil. The cup is His fiery wrath, destined for sinners. The cup is meant to wipe out sin and make the world clean. It is God’s vile of ferocious purging.

Jesus didn’t just die for us. He bore the full judgment of God for us. He didn’t just get beat up by some run-of-the-mill Roman soldiers. He was crushed under the omnipotent fist of God. He received infinite punishment, which was supposed to go to sinners, had He not intercepted it first. Mere death is a walk in the park, a gentle sleep, compared with absorbing the eternal wrath of God against sin.

But there’s more. This prayer wasn’t just supposed to show us the humanity of Jesus.  It was mainly to show us the victorious obedience of the Second Adam, the world’s first Perfect Human, who did not capitulate beneath the weight of life and temptation. We’re meant to see that there is no other way. The perfect obedience of Jesus is our only hope. We’re meant to hold our breath in this moment, for if Jesus had backed out, then we were lost forever, and would forever drink the cup of God’s wrath ourselves.

Easter is not the time of year to ponder Jesus for a few days, before returning to life as usual.  Easter is our opportunity to be saved from our sins. To cross over from death to life. Jesus didn’t drink the cup of God’s wrath so that we could continue to sit on the fence, quietly meditating on the existential cries of Jesus’ humanity.  Or to continue in sin because we are saved by grace. Jesus bore the wrath of God so that we could be saved. Jesus wanted to die for us. He said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:18).

Romans 6:2 tells us that we died to sin when we accepted the death of Christ. How can we live in it any longer? If we want to escape death, then we should also want to escape the cause of death – sin. But more importantly, when we believe in Christ, we become new people. In the language of Romans 5, we are no longer people of Adam, but now we are people of Jesus Christ. We are to live in Him. Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase? Absolutely not.

Paul explains in Romans 6:3, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” We are baptized not just in the name of Jesus Christ [such as at the time of our water baptism] – we are baptized into Him and united with Him. When we are identified with Adam, we get the death that Adam brought. When we identify with Christ, we get the righteousness and life He brought. When He died, we died. When He was buried, we were buried. And when He rose, we rose also. We were with Him because He represented all of us.

Our abundant life was bought with a huge price. The only way we can thank God for this new life is to practice living in His will.