Thanksgiving sermon preached on Romans 8:28-30 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/02/2012 in Novato, CA.
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Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
As our previous pastor at Trinity likes to say, Romans 8:28 is still in effect. This is a verse I’ve been looking forward to preach as I know it has been a profound encouragement to so many, myself included. And yet as we consider verse 28, let’s not miss the surrounding context either. Chapter 8 has talked of the plight of humans, particularly Christians. We have sufferings, persecutions, and weaknesses. We groan for glory. And then we have this verse. A reminder that all things are at work for our good, even until that day of glory. And then you have verses 29 and 30 which give a snapshot of how God is working all things for our good. And so we’ll consider today how all things work together for good. Second, we’ll consider to whom this is promised. Third, we’ll think about the big picture of what this all looks like.
Let’s begin then by thinking about verse 28, and those words that all things work together for good. This is a profound idea. Everything that happens, every detail, in one way or another, serves a common purpose. A good purpose. What’s behind this idea is God. Not just any God. A sovereign God. One who has complete power and complete control. This is not a world that actually operates on luck and coincidence, even though from some simplistic perspective things can sometimes have that appearance. Nor is this a world with a God who is somewhat powerful and somewhat in control and barely doing his best to try to keep the world afloat. No, rather this is a world that all things are under his power. All things. Not just some. All. This could only be the case, if the world is governed by a God that is fully sovereign. A God that has the power to do what he wants in all circumstances. A God who can see even the potential outcomes of an infinite number of possible choices and choose to direct the world in exactly the way he so ordains. This is the mighty God who control every little detail of human history. This is expressed with these simple words of “all things.”
But what is especially encouraging is that his direction of all things is for good. Our good God has a good purpose and plan. This verse always reminds me of Jeremiah 29:11. Jeremiah 29:11 “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” That verse sounds nice, but many people aren’t aware of the context. God gave that promise to the remnant of Israel who was being taken away in captivity to Babylon. That was after God allowed Babylon to completely wipe out their nation. After that, God tells the few survivors that he has a good plan for their future, but that for now they would have to settle down in a life of Babylonian captivity. And yet, this is a nice snapshot of the tension we face when we start thinking about how God works all things together for good. When we start thinking about “all things,” we realize that lots of the “all things” are not very good in themselves. Sometimes great evils come into our lives. We’ve already talked about all the sufferings and persecutions we face, and all our weaknesses and struggles with sin we have.
Some of what we might falsely label an evil, is not necessarily a morally bad thing for God to do. I’m thinking of the fact that sinners are chastened by God. That is not wrong of God to do. It actually is a good. Other times, there are legitimately evil things that God allows a man to do, but he turns it around for good. An example would be in Genesis, when Joseph’s brothers beat him and sold him into slavery. In the long run, God used that to rise up Joseph to political power in Egypt that ended up saving Joseph’s life and the lives of all his family when a severe famine hit the land. Joseph could look back on what his brothers did and tell them that they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. That’s a nice example of how God can use even the evil acts of man and turn it into something good.
But of course, what can be frustrating for us, is we want to know exactly how each and every thing will work together for good. We often try to figure it out. The reality is that we tend to look far too simplistically. We don’t have the mind of God to fully grasp how all things are so intricately woven together to achieve the good God has in store. Take for example the reference I made a moment ago to the Israelites taken away in Babylonian captivity. I mentioned the destruction Babylon did to them. On the one hand, God used Babylon to bring judgment on the Israelites. Jeremiah 25 even specifically says that God was using the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar as his servant for this very purpose. And so God used him to bring this destruction on Israel. And yet in this, God spared a remnant of Israel and was going to use this destruction for them as a form of chastisement. To ultimately forgive and restore them. Furthermore, it’s not even that God was pleased with King Nebuchadnezzar, despite using him for this purpose, because Jeremiah 50 says that Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon would be punished for their actions of what they did! This is all presented in the one book of Jeremiah. What an amazing picture of how God can work all things for good, but it’s a very complex picture. In the midst of all these things working for good, there are many evils and calamities. Some being the evil acts of men. Some being the judgment or chastisement of God. All interwoven together. So often so very hard to understand. God in his perfect wisdom and power directing them all for good.
I think the key to note here is that it says in verse 28 that the all things “work together.” They “work together.” In other words, taken individually, and in isolation, we may have no clue how good will come of it. But we can know that it will, because when you bring together the countless aspects of history, the one in control is making them all work together for this good. Verse 28 says we can know this. But it doesn’t say that, at least for now, that we will know how it will all work together. Sometimes we get a glimpse. But we aren’t promised to know how it all does work together, just that it does.
Well then, since God works all things together for good, let’s turn now to our second point, which clarifies this. Verse 28 does not say that all things work together for everybody’s good. This is a sobering thought. But this says that God works this all together for, one, the good of those who love him, and two, for those who are called according to his purpose. These two references, are one in the same group, of course. Those who love God are also those who are called according to his purpose. This group of people is the same one referenced in verses 29 and 30 as the ones God has foreknown and predestined to this good purpose and end. Of course, this is the group, that we as Christians belong to. It’s the group that the unbelieving world does not. Christians are those who love God, specifically the one true God of the Bible. And Christians are those whom God has effectually called toward a purpose. It is this purpose which is good. He has a good outcome in all things for us his people. And Christians, are ultimately not Christian because of something they’ve done on our own. The reason we are Christian is rooted first in the fact that God has foreknown and predestined us to be a Christian. That is ultimately why we love God. That is why we believe in God through Jesus. It’s to us, the chosen ones of God, that Romans 8:28 is in effect for. God tells us that all things work together for good for his chosen saved ones. Not for the rest of the world.
This is a difficult teaching for the uninformed to swallow at first. We all know people who aren’t saved. We know people who’ve not believed. We have a tendency to want give credit to ourselves for believing, and hate that they are so stubborn themselves for not believing. The Bible, is more nuanced than this, however. The Bible presents a picture that shows that every human is stubborn in their sin. The reason why you or I believe and someone else doesn’t is more complex than just to put it on free will. The sinner, on his own, doesn’t want to freely will to come to Jesus or love God. What’s needed is for God to effectively reach out to us and call us unto himself. But the Bible says that God only does that for some people. We’re talking here now about an effectual calling. Lots of people receive the call of the gospel externally. God does give a universal call to everyone in that external sense. In the sense that the gospel is told to them and they are called to believe. But if they don’t actually turn and believe, then that calling is not an effectual calling. The Bible talks of effectual callings that produce a response of faith, and just mere external callings that fall on deaf ears. This passage for today is talking about effectual callings. Callings that result in someone being justified, and ultimately glorified. We see that in verse 30 which shows that if you have been called the way described here, that you end up justified and ultimately glorified. You don’t have one without the other. There’s a causal chain.
Well, given that, we see that the causal chain goes back even further. It goes back in verse 29 to those whom God foreknew. To those God foreknew, he predestined. He predestined to this effectual calling. He foreknew them and so he chose them to have all things work together for their good. And so this is whom this promise of good is made to. The chosen of God. Those foreknown by him. Now it is typically asked at this point, who are these foreknown by God? Some would like to suggest every human being is in view here. But that is clearly not possible because we know from elsewhere in Scripture that not everyone receives this effectual calling that results in someone’s justification and ultimate glorification. And this passage says that if your are foreknown and predestination, that will be your outcome. So, not everyone falls into this category.
This is of course the classic debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvin, as well as many others before and after him, believed that the Bible teaches that God chose ahead of time who he would save, and who he would leave to their sins. People like Calvin believed that because of verses like this. Next chapter will make this even more clear. But some have not like how that sounds. They think it unfair of God to pick some to rescue from their sins. They think it only fair if God is picking who to save based on some worthiness within that person. And so Jacob Arminius and his followers thought the answer lied here when it talks about God’s foreknowing of the elect. They argue that God is foreknowing or foreseeing that these elect people will believe in the gospel, and that is why he chooses ahead of time to save them. Well, that might sound nice, and it might sound like it solves someone’s emotional dilemma, but the reality is its putting words in God’s mouth. God does not say here that he foreknows some character trait in his chosen ones. No, he says he foreknows them. Arminius has to mentally add to this verse. He’d have to add that God foreknows someone’s faith. But it doesn’t say that. It says God foreknows the person.
Well, doesn’t God foreknow every person? Yes, he does, in terms of information. But not in the sense used here. We see it a lot in the Bible. The Bible uses this word to know someone in a very intimate way. It’s a relational term. It’s about setting your love on someone in a relational way. And so in Amos 3:2, God could tell Israel that he has known them, but has not know the rest of the nations. It’s not that God wasn’t aware of the other nation’s existence — he obviously is, but he knows Israel in a special way. Or in Jeremiah 1:5, God tells the prophet that he knew him even in the womb; God’s point there is that he set apart Jeremiah as a prophet even before he was born. Or in John 10:14, Jesus says as the Good Shepherd, he knows his sheep. There it’s the relational idea. Jesus knows who are his sheep and they know him and so follow his voice. Unknown sheep wouldn’t do this. And so this idea of knowing can be used to express a special intimate relationship. This is what God is saying he had in advance of our birth. From before the creation of the world, God had foreknown us. He already had in his mind to make us someone who would be in a special relationship with him. And because of that, he had to predestine to save us.
Yes, some have argued this is unfair of God. But why is God obligated to save any of us? It’s not like God has worked sin in people. In Adam, all mankind chose to rebel against God. Since then, humans have been walking that path. The fact that he chooses to intervene in any of our lives, is a testimony of his grace and mercy. It’s not strictly fair that he save any of us. But he makes it fair through the sacrifice of Jesus. Instead of accusing God of unfairness, we should instead be thankful that he has foreknown and predestined us.
Well then, we’ve explained how God’s at work for good in all things. And we’ve said that’s a promise that only applies to believers, to God’s elect. What I’d like to do then in our third and final point for today is make sure we understand what the big picture is here. In other words, if God’s at work for our good, what’s that really mean? What can we expect to happen in these “all things”? What is this “good purpose” for us for which he’s working all things? Well, that is why I said verses 29 and 30 are very helpful for understanding this. His good purpose is summarized in verse 29 and then again in verse 30. Verse 29 tells us that his good purpose is to transform us, Christians, from rebellious sinners, to obedient saints who look like Jesus. Verse 30 spells out some of the key steps in start to finish of how this is worked out in our lives: foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified.
Now I don’t mean to say that this is all God is doing in your life. No, remember, it says all things work together for our good. But why I’m highlighting verses 29 and 30 to explain that, is because it really gets at the bigger picture. We often think about our good in a very superficial way. For a Dad trying to feed his family, maybe his most immediate thought is how to get food on the table. For a Mom, maybe it’s how to get dinner on the table, while changing two diapers at the same time. Maybe for some, our immediate focus is on relationship troubles we are having with someone. Again, don’t get me wrong, these are all important things. But they are all very immediate day to day things. Verses 29 and 30 help us to see the bigger plan that God is working out for us. It’s the plan which is all about my salvation, from start to finish. God’s salvation includes all these steps and all the details in between. But the details bring us through these milestones which highlight God’s work in our life.
Again, from a big picture, verse 29 says God’s making us to look like Christ. Christ is called the firstborn here, but yet he’s making us like Christ. This is like the only-begotten idea. Jesus is the natural son of God, the first and eldest and original Son. But God is making us, as his adopted children, like Christ. This doesn’t mean we are going to become divine, per se. But it does mean that there are many attributes that we will take on that reflect Christ. Ephesians and Romans tells us three such attributes: knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. That’s a good summary of what this transformation looks like. We are growing in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, reflecting Christ’s knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. God’s conforming us to this image, and he’s literally using “all things” to make it happen.
And so verse 30 explains this further. This is sometimes called the chain of salvation. James Boice called them the golden chain of five links. You can’t have one without having all five. If you’ve experienced the first one, then you will experience all of them. We’ve already begun to discuss them, but let’s walk through them now and make sure we understand what we are saying. First, foreknown. God foreknows those who he will save. We’ve already explained that. And so verse 29 says that those whom God foreknows, he also predestined. In other words, if you are foreknown, then you are predestined. This word appears in several places in the New Testament. Sometimes the similar word of election is used to get at the same thing. Next chapter will flush out divine election or predestination more. Ephesians 1 is a great chapter about it as well, and makes it clear that this predestination happened before the world was even created. But the basic idea is that God graciously knew and chose a people ahead of time to be saved from mankind’s rebellion. We’ve said that already today.
The next link in the chain is our effectual calling. Verse 30, those who God predestines, he also calls. This too we have spoken about earlier in the sermon as that calling that actually results in a response. We know that this must be an effective call, because of the next items in the chain. The next item is our justification. Those God calls, he justifies. Do we need to say much about justification? We’ve spent weeks and weeks now in Romans talking about it. But yes, justification is that declaration of us being in a right standing before God. It’s us being declared righteous, when we don’t actually live righteously yet. We declared that when we put our faith in Christ who paid for our sins on the cross. Our faith of course is in responses to that effectual call. The result is receiving justification as a free gift. All for the sake of Christ and his atoning work on the cross.
Lastly, the final chain is that of glorification. Those who are justified, are also glorified. This is when Christ comes back. Then we are brought to glory. At that time, the conformity to Christ’s image will be complete. John says in 1 John 3:2 that when Christ comes back we will become like him. In other words, the glorification is the completion of what is described in verse 29 with being conformed to Christ’s image. That also is the time when we will enter into our final heavenly rest, with no more death, pain, or sorrow.
It’s interesting to note that all of these are put in past tense, even this one of glorification. Language people call this a proleptic aorist verb. What that means is that the author speaks from a perspective of such certainty of outcome, that this is put in the past tense as if it’s fulfillment is such a given. And indeed it is. From God’s perspective, this has been his plan from the beginning. From his perspective these are all certainties for his elect. And did you notice that God is the subject of all these verbs? God is the one doing the foreknowing, the predestinating, the calling, and justifying, and the glorifying. God’s doing it. He’s doing it in your life, if you are his. And he’s doing it in all the details. In everything that’s happening, whatever it is, God’s using it to make these things a reality in your life.
Just think back to when you became a Christian, however that happened. Everything before that was somehow leading you to that moment when God called you and justified you as you repented and turned to him in faith. Now, everything thing that happens is part of God growing you, unto the point of final glorification.
Some point out that sanctification isn’t mentioned in here in the chain — that process for our growth in godliness. But I would say that it is present here. It’s the point of all these verses. It’s especially what’s a part of verse 29 — the being conformed to Christ’s image. Read that in light of verse 28 — how God is currently working all things for this good purpose. That tells us that he’s doing the sanctifying work here and now. Glorification is the end of it. But right now he’s growing and sanctifying us. It may not be listed in the chain of salvation explicitly. But it’s clearly the backdrop of this whole passage. We, as his adopted children, are being shaped into his children, by his Spirit inside us, by Christ speaking for us, and by God the Father, working all things together around us.
So, then brothers and sisters, let us close today with two final applications. First, in light of this, love God. Verse 28 says that these benefits come to those who love God. If you are a Christian, then of course you love him. But let us act like we love him. Let us love him especially for how he works, even in the trials we don’t understand. Let us love him more and more as we know he has our best interest in mind all the time.
And that’s the second application. Know this. Know what we’ve talked about. You see, verse 28 started out by saying that we know this to be true. That we know Romans 8:28. That God is working for our good in all things. We know this. Or at least Paul says we should! My point is that this is something the Christian should know. God is making sure today you know it. Make sure you really get this. It’s life changing for the Christian. You see, since you know this to be true, it will help in so many ways. You’ll be able to find the peace of God instead of anxiety and worry. You’ll be able to rejoice in all things, and give thanks in all circumstances because you know this. You’ll be able to counsel others about this. To the Christian you can make sure they know this, and thus encourage the broken-hearted. To the non-Christian you can help them to see that apart from a relationship with God, they don’t have the good promise of this passage. And so knowing that all things work together for a Christian’s good is good for us. Meditate on this knowledge. Keep it in the forefront of your brain. Remember, Romans 8:28 is still in effect, no matter what trial or hardship or pain comes your way. And remember it as well in the good times of life and the times of wonderful joys and blessings. Then keep it in mind too. In all things, remember that God is at work. Praise be to him who only does good things… for us who are his beloved. Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.