“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.”
We will be better prepared for what God teaches us through trials if we have a basic understanding of His providence.
I believe it is vital that all Christians have an essential awareness of God’s providence if they want to be fully prepared to cope with life’s adversity. Providence is how He orchestrates, through natural means and processes, all things necessary to accomplish His purposes in the world. It is the most frequent way He works and controls the daily course of human events. The only other means the Lord uses to intervene in the flow of history is miracles. But He does not perform miracles in the same way now as He did during the days of Christ, the apostles, and the prophets. However, God has continuously used providence from eternity past to coordinate the infinite variety of factors necessary to accomplish His perfect purpose.
Think about it. The vast scope and endless outworking of divine providence, in which God draws together millions of details and circumstances to achieve His will each day, is a far greater miracle than the relatively uncomplicated, one–time supernatural occurrences that we usually term miracles. Belief in God’s providence is, therefore, one of the greatest exercises of faith we can have and a major contributor to our general preparedness and peace of mind as we encounter trials and hardships.
Paul trusted wholeheartedly in the providence of God, no matter how easy or challenging life was (Phil. 4:11). Joseph the patriarch stated his confidence in providence this way: “You [his brothers] meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50:20). Until we come to a similar acceptance of God’s providential control of everything, we will not fully realize the rich lessons He wants to teach us through trials, and we will not be able to apply the truth of Romans 8:28.
Suggestions for Prayer: Thank the Lord that His providence is always at work for your benefit. If this concept is new to you, ask Him to help you understand it better through His Word.
For Further Study: Read more about Joseph in Genesis 39–50. Jot down some of his positive character traits. ✧ What events in the narrative were possible only because of providence?
The Certainty of Security
And we know (8:28a)
In the context of the truths that follow in Romans 8, these three simple words express the Christiaffs absolute certainty of eternal security in the Holy Spirit. Paul is not expressing his personal intuitions or opinions but is setting forth the inerrant truth of God’s Word. It is not Paul the man, but Paul the apostle and channel of God’s revelation who continues to declare the truth he has received from the Holy Spirit. He therefore asserts with God’s own authority that, as believers in Jesus Christ, we know beyond all doubt that every aspect of our lives is in God’s hands and will be divinely used by the Lord not only to manifest His own glory but also to work out our own ultimate blessing.
The phrase we know here carries the meaning of can know. Tragically, many Christians throughout the history of the church, including many in our own day, refuse to believe that God guarantees the believer’s eternal security. Such denial is tied to the belief that salvation is a cooperative effort between men and God, and although God will not fail on His side, man might-thus the sense of insecurity Belief in salvation by a sovereign God alone, however, leads to the confidence that salvation is secure, because God, who alone is responsible, cannot fail. Beyond that theological consideration Paul is saying that the truth of eternal security is clearly revealed by God to us, so that all believers are able with certainty to know the comfort and hope of that reality if they simply take God at His word. God’s child need never fear being cast out of his heavenly Father’s house or fear losing his citizenship in His eternal kingdom of righteousness.
The Extent of Security
that God causes all things to work together for good (8:b)
The extent of the believer’s security is as limitless as its certainty is absolute. As with every other element of the believer’s security, God is the Guarantor. It is He who causes everything in the believers life to eventuate in blessing.
Paul emphasizes that God Himself brings about the good that comes to His people. This magnificent promise does not operate through impersonal statements, but requires divine action to fulfill. God’s decree of security is actually carried out by the direct, personal, and gracious work of His divine Son and His Holy Spirit. “Hence, also, [Christ] is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). And as Paul has just proclaimed, “The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 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” (Rom. 8:26–27).
All things is utterly comprehensive, having no qualifications or limits. Neither this verse nor its context allows for restrictions or conditions. All things is inclusive in the fullest possible sense. Nothing existing or occurring in heaven or on earth “shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus” (8:39).
Paul is not saying that God prevents His children from experiencing things that can harm them. He is rather attesting that the Lord takes all that He allows to happen to His beloved children, even the worst things, and turns those things ultimately into blessings.
Paul teaches the same basic truth in several of his other letters. “So then let no one boast in men,” he admonishes the Corinthian believers. “For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you” (1 Cor. 3:21–22). Perhaps a year later he assured them in another letter: “For all things are for your sakes, that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). Later in Romans 8 Paul asks rhetorically, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (v. 32).
No matter what our situation, our suffering, our persecution, our sinful failure, our pain, our lack of faith-in those things, as well as in all other things, our heavenly Father will work to produce our ultimate victory and blessing. The corollary of that truth is that nothing can ultimately work against us. Any temporary harm we suffer will be used by God for our benefit (see 2 Cor. 12:7–10). As will be discussed below, all things includes circumstances and events that are good and beneficial in themselves as well as those that are in themselves evil and harmful.
To work together translates sunergeō, from which is derived the English term synergism, the working together of various elements to produce an effect greater than, and often completely different from, the sum of each element acting separately. In the physical world the right combination of otherwise harmful chemicals can produce substances that are extremely beneficial. For example, ordinary table salt is composed of two poisons, sodium and chlorine.
Contrary to what the King James rendering seems to suggest, it is not that things in themselves work together to produce good. As Paul has made clear earlier in the verse, it is God’s providential power and will, not a natural synergism of circumstances and events in our lives, that causes them to work together for good. David testified to that marvelous truth when he exulted, “All the paths of the Lord are loving-kindness and truth to those who keep His covenant and His testimonies” (Ps. 25:10). No matter what road we are on or path we take, the Lord will turn it into a way of loving-kindness and truth.
Paul likely has in mind our good during this present life as well as ultimately in the life to come. No matter what happens in our lives as His children, the providence of God uses it for our temporal as well as our eternal benefit, sometimes by saving us from tragedies and sometimes by sending us through them in order to draw us closer to Him.
After delivering the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, God continually provided for their well-being as they faced the harsh obstacles of the Sinai desert. As Moses proclaimed the law to Israel, he reminded the people: “[God] led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end” (Deut. 8:15–16). The Lord did not lead His people through forty years of difficulty and hardship to bring them evil but to bring them good, the good that sometimes must come by way of divine discipline and refining.
It is clear from that illustration, as well as from countless others in Scripture, that God often delays the temporal as well as the ultimate good that He promises. Jeremiah declared, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the captives of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans. For I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will bring them again to this land; and I will build them up and not overthrow them, and I will plant them and not pluck them up. And I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the Lord; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart’ ” (Jer. 24:5–7). In His sovereign graciousness, the Lord used the painful and frustrating captivities of Israel and Judah to refine His people, and by human reckoning, the process was slow and arduous.
“Therefore we do not lose heart,” Paul counseled the Corinthian believers, “but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:16–17). Even when our outward circumstances are dire-perhaps especially when they are dire and seemingly hopeless from our perspective-God is purifying and renewing our redeemed inner beings in preparation for glorification, the ultimate good.
First of all, God causes righteous things to work for our good. By far the most significant and best of good things are God’s own attributes. God’s power supports us in our troubles and strengthens our spiritual life. In his final blessing of the children of Israel, Moses testified, “The eternal God is a dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27). In His parting words to the apostles, Jesus promised, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
In order to demonstrate our utter dependence upon God, His power working through us is actually “perfected in weakness. Most gladly, therefore,” Paul testified, “I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
God’s wisdom provides for our good. The most direct way is by sharing His wisdom with us. Paul prayed that the Lord would give the Ephesian believers “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Eph. 1:17). He made similar requests on behalf of the Colossians: “We have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col. 1:9), and later, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (3:16).
Almost by definition, God’s goodness works to the good of His children. “Do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience,” Paul reminds us, “not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4).
God’s faithfulness works for our good. Even when His children are unfaithful to Him, their heavenly Father remains faithful to them. “I will heal their apostasy, I will love them freely, for My anger has turned away from them” (Hos. 14:4). Micah rejoiced in the Lord, exulting, “Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love” (Mic. 7:18). When a child of God is in need, the Lord promises, “He will call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him, and honor him” (Ps. 91:15). “My God shall supply all your needs,” Paul assures us, “according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).
God’s Word is for our good. “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). Every good thing we receive from God’s hand “is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:5). The more we see sin through the eyes of Scripture, which is to see it through God’s own eyes, the more we abhor it.
In addition to His attributes, God’s holy angels work for the good of those who belong to Him. “Are they not all ministering spirits,” the writer of Hebrews asks rhetorically about the angels, “sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:14).
God’s children themselves are ministers of His good to each other. In the opening of his letter to Rome, Paul humbly assured his readers that he longed to visit them not only to minister to them but to be ministered to by them, “that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom. 1:12). To the Corinthian believers the apostle described himself and Timothy as “workers with you for your joy” (2 Cor. 1:24; cf. v. 1). It is both the obligation and the joy of Christians “to stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24).
Although the truth is often difficult to recognize and accept, the Lord causes even evil things to work for our good. It is these less obvious and less pleasant channels of God’s blessing that Paul here seems to be emphasizing-those things among the “all things” that are in themselves anything but good. Many of the things that we do and that happen to us are either outright evil or, at best, are worthless. Yet in His infinite wisdom and omnipotence, our heavenly Father will turn even the worst of such things to our ultimate good.
As mentioned above, God used His people’s slavery in Egypt and their trials in the wilderness not only to demonstrate His power against their enemies in their behalf but to refine and purify His people before they took possession of the Promised Land. Although the afflictions and hardships in the Sinai desert hardened the hearts of most of the people and made them rebellious, God intended those trials to be for their blessing.
When Daniel was threatened with death for refusing to obey King Darius’s ban on worshiping any god but the king, the monarch reluctantly had the prophet thrown into the den of lions. When it became evident that the lions would not harm him, Daniel testified to Darius, “ ‘O king, live forever! My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, inasmuch as I was found innocent before Him; and also toward you, O king, I have committed no crime.’ Then the king was very pleased and gave orders for Daniel to be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no injury whatever was found on him, because he had trusted in his God” (Dan. 6:21–23). The suffering and martyrdom of many of His saints, however, is clear evidence that God does not always choose to bless faithfulness by deliverance from harm.
The evil things that God uses for the good of His people may be divided into three categories: suffering, temptation, and sin.
God uses the evil of suffering as a means of bringing good to His people. Sometimes the suffering comes as the price of faithfulness to God. At other times it is simply the common pain, hardship, disease, and conflicts that are the lot of all mankind because of sin’s corruption of the world. At still other times the suffering comes by God’s permission, and not always as punishment or discipline. The godly Naomi lamented, “Call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). After the bewildering afflictions with which God allowed him to be tormented by Satan, Job responded in simple trust: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
Often, of course, suffering does come as divine chastisement for sin. God promised Judah that, despite the rebellion and idolatry that caused her captivity, “I will regard as good the captives of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans” (Jer. 24:5). God chastened certain members of the Corinthian church because of their flagrant and unrepentant sins, causing some to become sick and others to die (1 Cor. 11:29–30). We are not told what good God brought to those sinful believers themselves. Perhaps it was simply His means of preventing them from falling into worse sin. It is likely that He worked good for the rest of the Corinthian church as He had done in the instance of Ananias and Sapphira, whose severe discipline was a purifying force, causing “great fear [to come] upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).
Regardless of what our adversities might be or how they might come, James admonishes us to “consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2–3). Trials that come directly because of our relationship to Christ should be especially welcomed, Peter says, “that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7).
Joseph is a classic Old Testament example of God’s using unjust suffering to bring great good, not only to the sufferer himself but to all of his family, who constituted God’s chosen people. If he had never been sold into slavery and cast into prison, he would not have had the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and rise to a position of great prominence, from which he could be used to save Egypt and his own people from starvation. Understanding that marvelous truth, Joseph told his fearful brothers, “And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).
King Manasseh of Judah brought foreign conquest and great suffering upon himself and his nation because of his sinfulness. But “when he was in distress, he entreated the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. When he prayed to Him, He was moved by his entreaty and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God” (2 Chron. 33:12–13).
Although Job never lost faith in God, his incessant afflictions eventually caused him to question the Lord’s ways. After a severe rebuke by God, however, Job confessed, “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees Thee; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6).
An enemy aggressively afflicted pain on the apostle Paul. Very likely he was the leader of Corinthian hostility toward Paul. Paul knew that, although this person belonged to Satan’s domain, his activity against the apostle was permitted by God to keep him (Paul) from exalting himself because of his visions and revelations (2 Cor. 12:6–7). Nevertheless, Paul pleaded earnestly three times that he might be delivered from the man’s attacks. The Lord responded by telling His faithful servant, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” That explanation was sufficient for Paul, who said submissively, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10). Instead of turning down the trouble, God turned up the sufficient grace, so that Paul could endure the situation gladly and be humbled by it at the same time.
Through suffering of all kinds and for all reasons, we can learn kindness, sympathy, humility, compassion, patience, and gentleness. Most importantly, God can use suffering as He can use few other things to bring us closer to Himself. “And after you have suffered for a little while,” Peter reassures us, “the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:10). The Puritan Thomas Watson observed, “A sick-bed often teaches more than a sermon” (A Divine Cordial [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981], p. 20).
Suffering can also teach us to hate sin. We already hate sin to some degree, because it is the direct or indirect cause of all suffering. But personally suffering at the hands of evil men will teach us more about the wickedness of sin. Martin Luther said that he could never understand the imprecatory psalms until he himself was persecuted viciously. He could not understand why the godly David could call down God’s vengeance on his enemies until he himself [Luther] had been tormented by enemies of the gospel.
We also come to hate sin when we see its destruction of others, especially its harm to those we love. Jesus groaned in agony at Lazarus’s tomb, but not because He despaired for His deceased friend, because He would momentarily remedy that. He was angry and saddened because of the grief that sin and its greatest consequence, death, brought to the loved ones of Lazarus (see John 11:33). He also realized that such agony is multiplied a million times over every day throughout the world.
Suffering helps us see and hate our own sin. Sometimes it is only when we are mistreated, unfairly accused, or are debilitated by illness, financial disaster, or some other form of hardship that we come face-to-face with our temper, our self-satisfaction, or our indifference to other people and even to God. By helping us see and hate our sin, suffering is also used by God to drive it out and purify us. “When He has tried me,” Job said, “I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). In the last days, “ ‘It will come about in all the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘that two parts in it will be cut off and perish; but the third will be left in it. And I will bring the third part through the fire, refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them; I will say, “They are My people,” and they will say, “The Lord is my God”’ ” (Zech. 13:8–9). Through that final and unparalleled period of suffering, the Lord will refine and restore to Himself a remnant of His ancient people Israel.
Suffering divine discipline confirms that we are indeed God’s children. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives. It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Heb. 12:6–8; cf. Job 5:17).
As the writer of Hebrews notes, wise human parents discipline their children for the children’s own welfare. Even secular psychologists and counselors have come to recognize that a child who is overindulged in what he wants, but given no bounds and held to no standards by his parents, realizes innately that he is not loved.
Three times the writer of Psalm 119 acknowledged that the Lord used suffering to strengthen his spiritual life: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Thy word” (v. 67); “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes” (v. 71); and, “I know, O Lord, that Thy judgments are righteous, and that in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me” (v. 75).
Suffering is designed by God to help us identify to a limited extent with Christ’s suffering on our behalf and to conform us to Him. It is for that reason that Paul prayed to “know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:10), and that he boasted, “I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). When we willingly submit it to our heavenly Father, suffering can be used by Him to mold us more perfectly into the divine likeness of our Lord and Savior.
God uses the evil of temptation as a means of bringing good to His people. Just as suffering is not good in itself, neither, of course, is temptation. But, as is the case with suffering, the Lord is able to use temptation for our benefit.
Temptation should drive us to our knees in prayer and cause us to ask God for strength to resist. When an animal sees a predator, he runs or flies as fast as he can to a place of safety. That should be the Christian’s response whenever he is confronted by temptation. Temptation causes the godly believer to flee to the Lord for protection.
Whether Satan approaches us as a roaring lion or as an angel of light, if we are well taught in God’s Word we can recognize his evil enticements for what they are. That is why the psalmist proclaimed, “Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee” (Ps. 119:11).
God can ago cause temptation to work for our good by using it to devastate spiritual pride. When we struggle with temptation, we know that, in ourselves, we are still subject to the allurements and defilements of sin. And when we try to resist it in our own power, we quickly discover how powerless against it we are in ourselves.
In His incarnation, even Jesus did not resist Satan’s temptation in His humanness but in every instance confronted the tempter with the Word of God (Matt. 4:1–10; Luke 4:1–12). Our response to Satan’s enticements should be the same as our Lord’s while He was on earth. Christ’s experience with temptation not only provides us with a divine example but provided Christ with human experience-in light of which the writer of Hebrews could declare, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
Finally, temptation should strengthen the believer’s desire for heaven, where he will be forever beyond sin’s allurement, power, and presence. When in frustration we cry out with Paul, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” we can also proclaim with him, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (Rom. 7:24–25). We can also confess with the apostle that, although we are willing to remain on earth to fulfill the Lord’s ministry through us, our great longing is to be with Him (Phil. 1:21–24).
God uses the evil of sin as a means of bringing good to His children. That would have to be true if Paul’s statement about “all things” is taken at face value. Even more than suffering and temptation, sin is not good in itself, because it is the antithesis of good. Yet, in God’s infinite wisdom and power, it is most remarkable of all that He turns sin to our good.
It is of great importance, of course, to recognize that God does not use sin for good in the sense of its being an instrument of His righteousness. That would be the most obvious of self-contradictions. The Lord uses sin to bring good to His children by overruling it, canceling its normal evil consequences and miraculously substituting His benefits.
Because it is often easier for us to recognize the reality and the wickedness of sin in others than in ourselves, God can cause the sins of other people to work for our good. If we are seeking to live a godly life in Christ, seeing a sin in others will make us hate and avoid it more. A spirit of judgmental self-righteousness, of course, will have the opposite effect, leading us into the snare about which Paul has already warned: “In that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. And do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment upon those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?” (Rom. 2:1–3; cf. Matt. 7:1–2).
God can even cause our own sins to work for our good. A believer’s sins are just as evil as those of unbelievers. But the ultimate consequence of a believer’s sin is vastly different, because the penalty for all his sins-past, present, and future-has been paid in full by his Savior. Although the foundational truth of Romans 8 is that, by God’s unspeakable grace, a Christian is forever preserved from sin’s ultimate consequence, which is eternal condemnation (v. 1), a Christian is still subject to the immediate, temporal consequences of sins he commits, as well as to many continuing consequences of sins committed before salvation. As noted several times above, the sinning believer is not spared God’s chastisement but is assured of it as a remedial tool for producing holiness (Heb. 12:10). That is the supreme good for which God causes our sin to work.
God also causes our own sin to work for our good by leading us to despise the sin and to desire His holiness. When we fall into sin, our spiritual weakness becomes evident and we are driven humbly to seek God’s forgiveness and restoration. Evil as it is, sin can bring us good by stripping us of our pride and self-assurance.
The supreme illustration of God’s turning “all things,” even the most evil of things, to the good of His children is seen in the sacrificial death of His own Son. In the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, God took the most absolute evil that Satan could devise and turned it into the greatest conceivable blessing He could offer to fallen mankind-eternal salvation from sin.
The Recipients of Security
to those who love God, to those who are called (8:28c)
The only qualification in the marvelous promise of this verse has to do with the recipients. It is solely for His children that God promises to work everything for good. Those who love God and those who are called are two of the many titles or descriptions the New Testament uses of Christians. From the human perspective we are those who love God, whereas from God’s perspective we are those who are called.
The Recipients of Security Love God
to those who love God,
First, Paul describes the recipients of eternal security as those who love God. Nothing more characterizes the true believer than genuine love for God. Redeemed people love the gracious God who has saved them. Because of their depraved and sinful natures, the unredeemed hate God, regardless of any arguments they may have to the contrary. When God made His covenant with Israel through Moses, He made the distinction clear between those who love Him and those who hate Him. In the Ten Commandments the Lord told His people, “You shall not worship [idols] or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving-kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Ex. 20:5–6; cf. Deut. 7:9–10; Neh. 1:4–5; Pss. 69:36; 97:10). In God’s sight, there are only two categories of human beings, those who hate Him and those who love Him. Jesus was referring to that truth when He said, “He who is not with Me is against Me” (Matt. 12:30).
Even during the time of the Mosaic covenant, when God was dealing with His chosen people Israel in a unique way, any person, even a Gentile, who trusted in Him was accepted by Him and was characterized by love for the Lord. God’s redeemed included “also the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the Sabbath, and holds fast My covenant” (Isa. 56:6).
The New Testament is equally clear that those who belong to God love Him. “Just as it is written,” Paul reminded the Corinthians, “ ‘Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him’ ” (1 Cor. 2:9; cf. Isa. 64:4). Later in that letter he declared, “If anyone loves God, he is known by Him” (1 Cor. 8:3).
James says that those who love God, that is, believers, are promised the Lord’s eternal crown of life (James 1:12). Paul refers to Christians as “those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with a love incorruptible” (Eph. 6:24).
Saving faith involves much more than simply acknowledging God. Even the demons fearfully believe that God is one and is all-powerful (James 2:19). True faith involves the surrendering of one’s sinful self to God for forgiveness and receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And the first mark of saving faith is love for God. True salvation produces lovers of God, because “the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). It is not by accident that Paul lists love as the first fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).
Love for God is closely related to forgiveness, because the redeemed believer cannot help being grateful for God’s gracious forgiveness. When the sinful woman, doubtlessly a prostitute, washed and anointed Jesus’ feet in the Pharisee’s house, the Lord explained to His resentful host that she expressed great love because she had been forgiven great sins (Luke 7:47).
Love for God is also related to obedience. “And why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ ” Jesus said, “and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). The persistently disobedient heart is an unbelieving and unloving heart. Because “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14), His Word will also control us. “You are My friends,” Jesus said, “if you do what I commanded you” (John 15:14). In context, it is clear that Jesus uses the term friend as a synonym for a true disciple (see vv. 8–17).
Obviously we do not love Christ as fully as we ought because we are still imperfect and are contaminated by the sinful remnants of the old self. It is for that reason that Paul told the Philippians, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment” (Phil. 1:9). Their love for Christ was genuine, but it was not yet perfect.
Genuine love for God has many facets and manifestations. First, godly love longs for personal communion with the Lord. It was that desire which led the psalmists to proclaim, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps. 42:1–2), and “Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth” (Ps. 73:25).
David prayed, “O God, Thou art my God; I shall seek Thee earnestly; my soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh yearns for Thee, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Thus I have beheld Thee in the sanctuary, to see Thy power and Thy glory. Because Thy loving-kindness is better than life, my lips will praise Thee” (Ps. 63:1–3). Speaking for all faithful believers, the sons of Korah exulted, “My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. The bird also has found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even Thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. How blessed are those who dwell in Thy house! They are ever praising Thee” (Ps. 84:2–4).
Second, genuine love for God trusts in His power to protect His own. David admonished fellow believers: “O love the Lord, all you His godly ones! The Lord preserves the faithful” (Ps. 31:23).
Third, genuine love for God is characterized by peace that only He can impart. “Those who love Thy law have great peace, and nothing causes them to stumble” (Ps. 119:165). As believers, we have a divine and secure peace that the world cannot give, possess, understand, or take away (John 14:27; 16:33; Phil. 4:7).
Fourth, genuine love for God is sensitive to His will and His honor. When God is blasphemed, repudiated, or in any way dishonored, His faithful children suffer pain on His behalf. David so identified himself with the Lord that he could say, “Zeal for Thy house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach Thee have fallen on me” (Ps. 69:9).
Fifth, genuine love for God loves the things that God loves, and we know what He loves through the revelation of His Word. Throughout Psalm 119 the writer expresses love for God’s law, God’s ways, God’s standards, and all else that is God’s. “The law of Thy mouth is better to me Than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (v. 72); “O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (v. 97); and “How sweet are Thy words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (v. 103). David testified: “I will bow down toward Thy holy temple, and give thanks to Thy name for Thy loving-kindness and Thy truth; for Thou hast magnified Thy word according to all Thy name” (Ps. 138:2).
Sixth, genuine love for God loves the people God loves. John repeatedly and unequivocally asserts that a person who does not love God’s children does not love God and does not belong to God. “We know that we have passed out of death into life,” the apostle says, “because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (4:7–8). In the strongest possible language, John declares that “if someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also” (4:20–21). In the next chapter he declares just as firmly that “whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments” (1 John 5:1–2).
Seventh, genuine love for God hates what God hates. Godly love cannot tolerate evil. The loving Christian grieves over sin, first of all for sin in his own life but also for sin in the lives of others, especially in the lives of fellow believers. When the cock’s crow reminded Peter of His Lord’s prediction, he wept bitterly over his denial of Christ, which he had just made for the third time (Matt. 26:75).
On the other hand, to love the world and the things of the world is to love what God hates, and John therefore solemnly warns, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
Eighth, genuine love for God longs for Christ’s return. Paul rejoiced in the knowledge that “in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).
Ninth and finally, the overreaching mark of genuine love for God is obedience. “He who has My commandments and keeps them,” Jesus said, “he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him” (John 14:21). As noted above in the citation of 1 John 5:1–2, obedience to God is inextricably tied both to love for God and love for fellow believers.
Although we are commanded to love God and fellow believers, that love does not and cannot originate with us. Godly love is God-given. “Love is from God,” John explains, and therefore it is “not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:7, 10). We are able to love only because God has first loved us (v. 19).
Recipients of Security are Called
to those who are called
Second, Paul describes the recipients of eternal security as those who are called. Just as our love originates with God, so does our calling into His heavenly family. In every way, the initiative and provision for salvation are God’s. In their fallen, sinful state, men are able only to hate God, because, regardless of what they may think, they are His enemies (Rom. 5:10) and children of His wrath (Eph. 2:3).
When Jesus said that “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14), He was referring to the gospel’s external call to all men to believe in Him. In the history of the church nothing is more obvious than the fact that many, perhaps most, people who receive this call do not accept it.
But in the epistles, the terms called and calling are used in a different sense, referring to the sovereign, regenerating work of God in a believer’s heart that brings him to new life in Christ. Paul explains the meaning of those who are called in the following two verses (29–30), where he speaks of what theologians often refer to as God’s effectual call. In this sense, all those who are called are chosen and redeemed by God and are ultimately glorified. They are securely predestined by God to be His children and to be conformed to the image of His Son.
Believers have never been called on the basis of their works or for their own purposes. As Hebrews 11 makes clear, faith in God has always been the only way of redemption. Believers are not saved on the basis of who they are or what they have done but solely on the basis of who God is and what He has done. We are redeemed “according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Tim. 1:9). Because it operates completely according to God’s will and by His power, the gospel never fails to accomplish and secure its work of salvation in those who believe (1 Thess. 2:13).
Later in Romans Paul uses Jacob and Esau to illustrate God’s effectual call, which is also a sovereign call. “For though the twins were not yet born,” he says, “and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’ ” (Rom. 9:11–13).
Although human faith is imperative for salvation, God’s gracious initiation of salvation is even more imperative. Jesus declared categorically, “No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65). God’s choice not only precedes man’s choice but makes man’s choice possible and effective.
Paul not only was called by Christ to salvation (see Acts 9) but was also “called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (1 Cor. 1:1). He describes himself as being “laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12). Paul addressed believers at Corinth as “those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling” (1 Cor. 1:2), and later refers to all Christians as “those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks” (v. 24). All believers, without exception, are called by God, “having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11).
In its primary sense, God’s call is once and for all, but in a secondary sense it continues until the believer is finally glorified. Although he acknowledged his permanent call both as a believer and as an apostle, Paul could yet say, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
As already noted, although salvation is by God’s initiative and power, it is never accomplished apart from faith. It is therefore impossible, as some teach, that a person can be saved and never know it. No person is saved apart from conscious and willful acceptance of Christ. “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead,” Paul says, “you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation” (Rom. 10:9–10). It is possible, of course, for a weak, unlearned, or sinful Christian to have later doubts about his salvation. But a person cannot come to Christ without knowing it.
As Paul explains a few verses later, God also uses human agents in making effective His call to salvation. “How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14).
It is through the content of His Word, specifically the truth of the gospel message, and through the power of His Holy Spirit that God brings men to Himself. Peter succinctly states the first of those two principles: “You have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). Paul states the second principle in these words: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13; cf. John 16:8).
The Source of Security
according to His purpose. (8:28d)
At the end of verse 28, Paul states the source of the believer’s security in Christ. God causes all things to work together for the good of His children because that is according to His divine purpose. Although the Greek text does not contain the term for His, that meaning is clearly implied in the context and is reflected in most translations.
Paul expands on and clarifies the meaning of God’s purpose in verses 29–30, which will be discussed in the next chapter of this volume. Briefly explained, God’s broader purpose is to offer salvation to all mankind. As our Lord declared at the beginning of His earthly ministry, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:16–17). In his second letter, Peter states that the Lord does not desire the condemnation of any person but wants “all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
In Romans 8:28, however, Paul is speaking of the narrower, restricted meaning of God’s purpose, namely, His divine plan to save those whom He has called and “predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son” (v. 29). The focus is on God’s sovereign plan of redemption, which He ordained before the foundation of the earth.
While Israel was still wandering in the desert of Sinai, Moses told them, “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deut. 7:7–8). The Jews were not chosen because of who they were but because of who God is. The same is true of God’s choosing believers. He chooses solely on the basis of His divine will and purpose.
Isaiah wrote, “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it” (Isa. 46:9b-11).
John wrote of Jesus, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13).
All Things Working Together for Good
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
It is always a humbling experience to study the Word of God, and I have been humbled as I have moved from our last study about knowing the will of God to the tremendous text that is to occupy us now: Romans 8:28. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
It seemed to me that the last study was rather difficult. At any rate, in writing it I had difficulty trying to distinguish between the various ways in which we use the term “God’s will” and in trying to suggest what we can know and cannot expect to know about it. But then I came to our text, and the problems I had been laboring with in the last study suddenly seemed quite simple. Earlier Paul said, “We do not know what we ought to pray for.” Now he writes, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” We do not know! We know! The first knowing concerns the details of what God is doing in our lives; we do not understand these things, we puzzle over them. The second knowing concerns the fact of God’s great plan itself. Paul tells us that we do know this; we know that God has a plan.
He teaches this quite simply. If God has “called [us] according to his purpose,” he must have both a purpose and a place for us in it. Moreover, we know that everything will obviously work together for our good in the achievement of that purpose. This is tremendous! Because of these truths this verse has been one of the most comforting statements in the entire Word of God for most Christians.
Faith and Circumstances
Yet this verse also poses an obvious problem. “In all things God works for the good of those who love him,” the text says. But how can this be? How is this possible when the world is filled with hatred and evil, and when good people, as well as evil people, suffer daily?
Two days before I wrote this study, the ministerial staff of Tenth Presbyterian Church had its regular weekly meeting, and the ministers shared some of the problems they were dealing with. Three days earlier one of our members had been murdered. She was a lovely Korean girl, only twenty-one years old, and she had been very active in Tenth’s ministries. Her name was Julee Yang. She sang in the choir, tutored disadvantaged children from one of the city’s housing projects, and participated in a young people’s group that is focused on the city. Julee worked in a jewelry store and was shot in the back when two young thugs came into the store to steal money. In a surprising turn of events, the murder was captured on a hidden video camera. According to some reports, it was the very first actual murder to have been captured on videotape. The funeral was the day of our staff meeting.
Other staff members shared counseling concerns. One was dealing with a person suffering from extreme personal setbacks, including a case of cancer. She had been thinking of suicide. Another was dealing with a young man who had been diagnosed as having AIDS.
The night before, I had conferred with another pastor who was planning a memorial service for a stillborn infant and wanted to talk about what comfort he could give the grieving parents. That same day, I was to visit another pastor who was under pressure in his church and was quite possibly going to be forced out of it, in spite of nearly two decades of faithful Bible teaching in that place. The combination of these seemingly tragic situations had depressed us all, and we spent a great deal of time praying about them. Later I went to the New Jersey shore, about an hour and a half away, to gain some breathing space and pray for the staff and these problems.
“We know that in all things God works together for the good of those who love him.” But do we really know that?
When times are good—when we have steady jobs, when our families are doing well, when no loved one is sick, and there have been no recent deaths—in times like these, well, it is easy to say, “We know that in all things God works together for the good of those who love him.”
But what about the other times?
What about times like those I was describing?
In such times we need to be sure we know what we are professing and are not merely mouthing pious nothings.
“All’s Right with the World”
This great text has some built-in qualifications, and we need to begin with them. I call them “boundaries.”
- For Christians only. The first boundary is defined by a question: To whom does this promise apply? Obviously it does not apply to everyone, for Paul’s statement says, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” That verse is talking about Christians. So, to read on to the closely linked verses that follow, it is saying that everything works for the good of those whom God has predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, those he predestined and called and justified and glorified. This is not a promise that all things work together for the good of all people.
Do you remember Robert Browning’s well-known couplet: “God’s in his heaven—/All’s right with the world”? The lines are a small capsule of nineteenth-century Victorian thinking, when the world was more or less at peace, and progress in all areas of human life and endeavor seemed unlimited and inevitable. Nobody thinks that way today, and rightly so. It is because all is not right with the world, and anybody who thinks so is either out of his or her mind or is just not seeing things clearly.
Several centuries before Browning, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz developed a line of thought known popularly as “the best of all possible worlds” philosophy. But this, too, was an illusion and still is. For most people this is not the best of all possible worlds at all. In fact, for many millions of people this world and the things they endure in it are terrible.
According to our text, it is only of Christians, not of all people, that these comforting words can be said.
- To be like Jesus Christ. The second boundary to our text comes from another question: What is meant by “good”? That is an important question to ask, because if “good” means “rich,” as some would like it to mean, the text is not true, since most Christians have not been given a great supply of this world’s goods. The same thing is true if “good” means “healthy.” Not all believers have good health. Similarly, “good” cannot mean “successful” or “admired” or even “happy” in the world’s sense, since God asks many Christians to endure failure or scorn or very distressing personal experiences or severe disappointments.
What does “good” mean, then, if it does not mean rich or healthy or successful or admired or happy? The answer is in the next verse: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.”
That is what the “good” is: “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son,” in other words, to be made like Jesus Christ. That is an obvious good. It is impossible to think of a higher good for human beings, to be like one’s Maker. Pastor Ray Stedman rightly calls this “what life is all about.” But at the same time, seeing this allows us to see other not so obviously good things within the greater purpose. We can see how sickness, suffering, persecution, grief, or other ills can be used by God for this good end.
- A good use of bad things. That leads to a third boundary for this text, and it comes from a third question: Are the things used in our lives by God for this good end necessarily good in themselves or only in their effect? The answer is the latter. In other words, this text does not teach that sickness, suffering, persecution, grief, or any other such thing is itself good. On the contrary, these things are evils. Hatred is not love. Death is not life. Grief is not joy. The world is filled with evil. But what the text teaches—and this is important—is that God uses these things (and others) to effect his own good ends for his people. God brings good out of the evil, and the good, as we saw, is our conformity to the character of Jesus Christ.
- Knowing rather than feeling. The fourth and final boundary for the meaning of this text comes in answer to still another question: What is our relationship to what God is doing in these circumstances? The answer Paul gives is that “we know.” He does not say that we “feel” all things to be good. Often we do not feel that God is doing good at all. We feel exactly the opposite. We feel that we are being ground down or destroyed. And it is not even that we “see” the good. Most of the time we do not perceive the good things God is doing or how he might be bringing good out of the evil. The text simply says, “we know” it.
Paul was no sentimentalist. He had been persecuted, beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked. He had been attacked and consistently slandered by the Gentiles as well as by his own countrymen. Paul did not go around saying how wonderful the world was or how pleasant his missionary endeavors had been. On the contrary, he reported that he had been “hard pressed on every side … perplexed … [and] struck down” (2 Cor. 4:8–9). But Paul came through the things that pressed down and perplexed him precisely because he knew that God was working out his own greater and good purposes through these events.
How did Paul know it? He knew it because God had told him this was what he was doing. And now Paul is telling us. He is saying that we, too, can know it and be comforted in the knowledge that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”
The Part Without Boundaries
We have spent the first half of this study looking at four qualifications for this text: (1) that it is for Christians only; (2) that the good is not our idea of the good but God’s idea and that it is to be made like Jesus Christ; (3) that the things God uses for this supremely good end are not necessarily good in themselves; and (4) that we can “know” this even though we may not feel or see it. However, having established these boundaries, we can turn joyfully to the one part of the text that has absolutely no boundaries whatever.
It is the term “all things.” This tells us that all things that have ever happened to us or can possibly happen to us are so ordered and controlled by God that the end result is inevitably and utterly our good. Even the worst things are used to make us like Jesus Christ.
What is more, when we begin to look at this closely, we see that they are used not only for our good but for the good of other people as well.
Here are three examples.
First, Joseph. Joseph’s story shows how God controls circumstances. Apart from God’s purpose, most of which was hidden from Joseph for a very long time, no one would suspect that God was doing anything good at all. Joseph was a young man favored of his father, with what we would call a bright future before him. His brothers hated him because of his righteousness and their own sin, and they conspired to do away with him. At first they threw Joseph into a dry cistern, planning to leave him there to die. But when some Midianite traders passed by, they seized the opportunity and sold him to them to be a slave. In their turn, the Midianites sold him to a military man in Egypt whose name was Potiphar.
What a horrible experience for a young man. Joseph was only seventeen years old, and he was now a slave in Egypt, where he could not even speak the language. But even this was not all. For a time he prospered as Potiphar’s slave. But when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him and he refused, Joseph was accused of trying to violate her and was thrown into prison where he spent the next two years as an abandoned and seemingly forgotten man.
All this, bad as it was, was only the path by which God was planning to raise him to the throne of Egypt to be second in power only to Pharaoh himself.
Pharaoh had a dream. No one could interpret it. Then Pharaoh’s chief butler, who had been in prison with Joseph two years before, remembered how Joseph had interpreted one of his dreams. He told Pharaoh, and Joseph was removed from the prison and brought to court, where he easily supplied the explanation. Pharaoh was so impressed that he promoted the former slave on the spot, and Joseph was able to direct the Egyptian grain harvests and store large quantities of grain. Thus he saved many lives during the ensuing famine.
The favor of his father, his dreams, his brothers’ hatred, the passing of the Midianite caravan, his being sold to Potiphar, the enthrallment of his master’s wife, two years in prison, the Pharaoh’s dream—all these diverse circumstances, some quite evil in themselves, were used by God for the great and ultimate good of Joseph and others.
His own testimony, uttered years later in a reassuring conversation with his eleven brothers, who had since been reunited to him, was this: “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:19–20).
Second, Job. From the world’s point of view the story of Job is one of the saddest in the Bible. Job was a mature and upright man, one who feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and his wealth consisted of seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys. He had many servants. Then, suddenly, in one day all this was taken from him. Raiders carried off the donkeys and oxen. Lightning killed the sheep. Chaldean bandits stole the camels and killed the servants. Finally, a building collapsed and his children were all killed in an instant.
Satan, who was behind this, stood back and expected Job to curse God for his ill fortune. But instead Job “fell to the ground in worship and said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart./The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised’ ” (Job 1:21).
The next stage of the story tells how Job was afflicted with ill health, being covered with boils from his head to his feet. Then his friends heaped even greater pain on him by their shallow counsel. Job did not understand this at all. Even at the end of the story, when God restored his wealth and gave him a new family, he seems not to have known what God was doing. God was developing Job’s character and confounding the supposed wisdom of Satan, who had said that God’s people serve him only because he makes them prosperous. Job did not see this or feel it. But everything was nevertheless working together for good in the life of this great patriarch.
Third, Peter. Peter sinned in his pride, telling Jesus that although the other disciples might deny him, Peter at least would not. Not Peter! Then, he, too, sinned in his weakness, doing precisely what he had told Jesus he would not do. Peter denied the Lord three times, the last time with oaths and cursings.
What was the outcome? Jesus turned even these very bad things to good. He interceded for Peter so that the apostle’s faith would not fail, and he asked the Father to order things so that, when Peter was restored, he would be stronger for his fall and able to strengthen his brethren. This is what Peter did, for later he wrote to other Christians:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
1 Peter 4:12–19
Years ago I had a watch that my father had given me when I graduated from high school. It was an unusual watch in that its back was transparent. You could look into it and see the mechanism working and the wheels turning. Some wheels went forward. Some went backward. Some turned quickly, others slowly. There was a large mainspring and a few small hairsprings. There were levers that were popping up and down.
The Christian life is like the parts of that watch. At times the events of our lives move forward quickly and we sense that we are making fast progress in being made like Jesus Christ. At other times events move slowly, and we seem to be going slowly ourselves or even slipping backward. Sometimes we seem to be going up and down with no forward motion at all. At such times we say that our emotions are on a roller coaster or that we just can’t seem to get on track. Our lives have petty annoyances that spoil our good humor. Sometimes we are overwhelmed with harsh blows, and we say that we just can’t go on. It may be true; perhaps we really can’t go on, at least until we are able to pause and catch our spiritual breath again.
But God has designed this timepiece of ours—this plan for our lives. That is the point. It has been formed “according to his purpose,” which is what our text is about, and it is because we know this, not because we feel it or see it, that we can eventually go on.
What can possibly come into our lives that can defeat God’s plan?
There are many things that can defeat human planning. Our plans are often overturned by our sins and failures, others’ opposition or jealousy, circumstances, or our own indifference. But not God’s plans. He is the sovereign God. His will is forever being done. Therefore, you and I can go on in confidence, even when we are most perplexed or cast down.
What can happen to me that can defeat God’s purpose?
Can some thorn in the flesh? Something to prick or pain me? Paul had his thorn in the flesh, but God’s grace was sufficient for him and it was in his weakness that God was glorified.
Sickness? Job had boils, but God glorified himself in Job’s sickness and even matured Job.
Death? How can death hurt me? “To be away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord,” says Paul (2 Cor. 5:8). Therefore, my physical death will only consummate the plan of God for me. And as far as those who remain behind are concerned, well, God will work his will for good for them also. No one is indispensable, so if I should die this afternoon, the next service of Tenth Presbyterian Church would still be held. The gospel would still be preached. Christians would still be strengthened and unbelievers won. This is because “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”
 MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 471–488). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The Reign of Grace (Vol. 2, pp. 902–910). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.