Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Promise We Love But Find Hard to Believe

by Bruce Mills

As I have been studying Romans 8 in preparation for a future message in my adult Sunday School class, I have arrived at verse 28 and have been struck by the sheer magnitude of the implications of this great verse. Romans 8:28 is perhaps the most highly regarded of all the promises in Scripture that believers enjoy because it is so comprehensive. As a reminder, the verse reads, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

It is the term “all things” that is so comforting, because we are at a time in history when we need to hear the promise in this verse with greater clarity and understanding. We live in a day-and-age in which being an evangelical Christian has become a cause for scorn and ridicule. After all, we are the ones who oppose such things as homosexual marriage and abortion, both matters about which our society labels us as intolerant bigots and calls what we teach to be “hate speech.” So it is hard for believers to undergo such ostracism and slander, and think, “Well, God intends this for my good.”

And then we are faced with a worldwide economic downturn which is unparalleled since the Great Depression, and Christians are not immune to the effects of the financial crisis in which we find ourselves. So it is often hard to understand how losing one’s home or job is God’s working things out for our good.

I recall sitting on the telephone with dear friends one Christmas Eve, crying together with them because their four-year old daughter had just been diagnosed with leukemia. I have done the same with another close friend and fellow pastor right after his granddaughter was diagnosed with a rare disorder which threatened her life. At those times, you wonder how it is possible that God works such situations out for the good of those who love Him.

So this great text needs our close and careful attention because of its richness. We need to fully understand its implications, because the truth of this passage is so rich and far reaching. It is breathtaking in its magnitude, encompassing absolutely everything that pertains to a believer’s life. There most certainly is not room in this blog to full exegete this verse, but I want to simply highlight some thoughts on it that I have developed as I pondered this passage.

Verse 28 is, in a sense, a transitional verse because it is tied together with the thoughts found in verses 26-27 about the Holy Spirit interceding for us in accordance with the will of God because we don’t know how to pray as we should. Obviously, if He is interceding for us in accordance with God’s will, then God will work out those matters in the way which is best for us.

On the other hand, verse 28 is tied to what follows in verses 29-30 about our eternal security. A significant part of God working all things for good for those who are His children is that He guarantees their future glorification. So we have to look at this verse from both aspects; how God works out the details of our life on a daily basis in a way which is for our good and also how He works out the eternal aspects of our spiritual life in that He guarantees our eternal security.

But as we begin examining this verse, we need to recognize that it has built-in qualifications or boundaries which limit its application. So what are those limitations?

First of all, it is a verse which applies to Christians only. In fact, because it is linked to the verses that follow it, it is saying that everything works for the good of those whom God has predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son; that is, those whom He has predestined, called, justified, and glorified.

So this verse doesn’t apply to everyone you meet in life. I hear people all the time who say, “Well, everything happens for a reason,” and the thought which runs through my head is this: “Yes, that is true. The difference is that for the believer, it’s for his good. For the unbeliever, it may not be for his good.”

What can you say about an airplane that comes apart in a thunderstorm over the Atlantic Ocean and 288 people are killed and thus enter into eternity? It is highly likely that no more than one or two of those people were genuine believers who had placed their trust in Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins and eternal salvation, which means all the rest are now in an eternal hell. And there are similar evils, illnesses, and disasters which take place all the time in our world that result in the deaths of countless people, and the result is that they end up entering into a Christ-less eternity in eternal torment. That certainly isn’t for their good. In fact, it is the worst of all possible bad things for them.

The second limitation in verse 28 comes from the thought as to what we mean by “good.” For some people, it means “wealthy,” and if that were true, most Christians would be eliminated. If it means “healthy,” again, we would be leaving out many Christians. The same is true if the word “good” means “successful” or “admired” or “happy,” since many believers endure failure, scorn, and discouragement. So obviously, God has a different meaning for “good” than we may have.

Now, let’s start by looking at the extent of God’s guarantee for His children which is emphasized by the words “all things.” It is a comprehensive promise. And the context puts no limits on it. There’s absolutely nothing that limits or qualifies the “all things.” That, then, means absolutely what it says: “all things…work together for good.” God takes anything and everything that occurs in a believer’s life and rather than bringing about the potential for the believer’s loss of salvation and eternal condemnation, God causes it to work together for the believer’s ultimate good. This is the greatest promise that we can have in this life. There are absolutely no limits on this statement in this context. It is limitless.

What are some of the things which work together for our good? Suffering is certainly included, as are our battles with temptation and sin. How can that be? Because those events cause the Christian to pray more, to worship God more, to draw closer to Christ, to develop humility and patient endurance, as well as bringing about repentance, praise, personal holiness, and other character qualities that glorify God. Those things are the things which God defines as "good," rather than such man-centered matters as health, wealth, and success. So God most certainly does cause all things to work together for our good.

But that is hard for us, in our fallen humanness, to believe. We want life to be problem-free and full of temporal abundance and blessing. Thinking eternally is very hard for us, particularly in our American culture where we have come to expect a life of abundance, pleasure, and ease. So when we encounter the difficulties that God brings into our lives, or we find ourselves the victims of someone else's sinful behavior, we often fail to see it as God's means of working in us to bring about good for us and glory for Him.

For example, I seriously doubt that many American Christians have seen the current recession and bad economy as a blessing from God by which He is working in their lives to force them to trust completely on Him for their daily bread and other necessities of life because there is no other person or institution in which they can turn for answers. Instead, most are still relying on the government, the stock market, the business world, and the President to bail them out of the situation, and they just keep going on through life with casual indifference toward God, never giving any consideration whatsoever to what He has been doing. He has been using this situation to bring about His good in the lives of His children, and yet many of them are oblivious to it.

Finally, in conclusion, I want to point out that the greatest good that God brings about in the believer's life is expressed in verses 29-30. The apostle Paul explains that the good God brings about is our eternal salvation from beginning to end. Every step of salvation, from God's foreknowledge, predestination, and call of His children, all the way through their justification and glorification is guaranteed. Why? Because God, who is infinitely perfect in all His ways, promises that He will bring about His good for "those who are called according to His purpose." None of His sheep are lost. If God acted in eternity past to elect an individual to eternal salvation, there will never be any result other than that person's ultimate glorification because God has stated that such will be the case. That truth is of such magnitude that human words cannot possibly express the full richness of it.

Paul summarizes the implications of this great doctrine in Rom. 8:35, 38-39. He writes: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

What a marvelous truth! To think that nothing I will ever face in this life, whether material or immaterial, physical or spiritual, will ever be able to break the relationship I have with God through His Son Jesus Christ! There is no greater good that God can promise to His children or work out for them. I pray that our Lord will indelibly engrave that reality upon your heart and bring you His peace as you encounter the various difficulties and circumstances of life. You are His eternal child! Praise His glorious name!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What an amazing topic, Bruce. Perhaps we should spend more time here than some of the other theological matters that draw our attention? It is so easy to beg the question "why" in the middle of tribulation, but how is it that God takes the very worst of circumstances, like an airline disaster, and turns it into a display of or opportunity to experience his glory?

This verse is thrown around so easily. Thanks for treating it with the respect it really commands!