We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
A Strategy to Win Affection
Imagine with me a young man at Bethlehem who falls in love with a certain young woman. But she doesn’t even seem to know he is alive. So he plans a strategy to try to win her attention and her affection and in the end, he hopes, her commitment in marriage.
He carries out his plan by getting into a small group with her, finding out her birthday and her tastes and the friends they have in common. He buys her a special gift which he knows she has been wanting, he reserves a special room at a nice restaurant, invites her friends to the dinner party, pays for the food, and then arranges for her roommate to bring her to the restaurant at the right time. Everything goes off like clockwork, and she loves the food and the friends and the gifts. When it is over she thanks everyone for the gifts, including the young man who planned it all, and she leaves.
And that’s it. She never even asked how this party got planned or who put it all together. The months of effort and creativity and affection were completely overshadowed by the gifts and food and fun.
Wanting the Promise but Ignoring the Plan
That’s the way we are if we love Romans 8:28 but pay no attention to Romans 8:29–30. Do you love to think about the promise that everything will work together for your good, but pay no real attention to the planning and effort and affection that has gone into the making of that promise from all eternity?
Do you love to receive your favorite spiritual dishes from the divine Chef, but when he joins you at the table and reminisces about his culinary art, you excuse yourself and go about your business?
Brothers and sisters, I hope that is not what we are like at Bethlehem, because if it is, then it is likely that the meal of Romans 8:28 is a mirage. The promise is made to “those who love God,” not just his gifts. And if we love God, then when he joins us at the table and reminisces about his redemptive strategy (in Romans 8:29–30), we not only stay, but we hang on every word. Those who love the Cook and not just the cake say,
I meditate on all that thou hast done;
I muse on what thy hands have wrought.
I stretch out my hands to thee;
My soul thirsts for thee like a parched land.
So I am praying earnestly in these four weeks that my own exposition of God’s eternal preparation of the banquet of salvation will be faithful to his Word and that your hearts would be glad in it.
What We Know
Verse 28 begins with the words, “We know.” We know that God is exerting his sovereign wisdom and power to paint a portrait of us that, though now very imperfect, yet will one day resemble the image of his own Son. We know this. Everything in our life gains meaning from this destiny. If this confidence were shaken, everything would be shaken. We know! We know that God is at work to bring us to glory. We know that we are more than conquerors.
And the foundation of our confidence, the careful planning and culinary art behind the banquet of glory, is verses 29–30.
God Foreknew Us
First, God foreknew us. Before the foundation of the world, he took note of us and set his favor upon us and chose us. “You only have I known of all the people on the face of the earth.” He did not wait to see what we might be like. He chose us to make us what he would like. Before we had done anything good or evil, he set his electing eye upon us and set us apart for his own.
Therefore, God’s commitment to work all things together for my eternal glory is not a weak and uncertain echo of my love for him. On the contrary, my love for him is an infallible outworking of his electing love for me. I know that he will complete this great salvation because he chose me unconditionally.
Those Whom He Foreknew He Predestined
Second, those whom he foreknew he predestined. Having chosen us for his own, he then appointed for us the most glorious of all destinies — to be conformed to the image of his Son so that the Son could be the preeminent One with his glory reflected in millions of mirrors of himself.
Therefore, we know that God will work all things for our good because he not only chose us for himself unconditionally but also appointed our destiny — predestined us — to the very good he promises in verse 28.
The Massive Obstacle of God’s Wrath Against Sin
So far so good. Our confidence in Romans 8:28 hits no snags until we get to verse 30. But between verses 29 and 30 a massive obstacle appears. Paul doesn’t mention it. He only mentions how God flattens it. But we better look at. It is called sin. Or more seriously, the wrath of God against sin. All of us have sinned and failed miserably to honor the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt (Jeremiah 17:9). We are blinded by the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4). We are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1, 5) — futile in mind, darkened in understanding, alienated from the life of God, and hardened in heart (Ephesians 4:17–18).
By nature we are children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) and the anger of God is resting upon us because of our depravity (John 3:36).
Now and Then
Last week I wrote in the STAR that God met me on Saturday afternoon and gave me a deep and peaceful hour. I said that the foundation of my salvation was so real that I felt, as I walked across the bridge, like I weighed two ounces standing in the gentle sun on a mountain of granite ten thousand miles thick. I meant — utterly secure on the mountain of Romans 8:29–30.
But it wasn’t always so for John Piper. There was a time when the mountain of granite was not under me but over me, ready to fall and crush me. It was the mountain of God’s wrath against my sin. God hated me in my sin.
God Hates Unrepentant Sinners
Yes, I think we need to go the full biblical length and say that God hates unrepentant sinners. If I were to soften it, as we so often do, and say that God hates sin, most of you would immediately translate that to mean: he hates sin but loves the sinner. But Psalm 5:5 says, “The boastful may not stand before thy eyes; thou hatest all evildoers.” And Psalm 11:5 says, “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates him that loves violence.”
Six things the Lord hates, seven which are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and a man who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16–19)
God hates unrepentant sinners — which means that his infinite wrath hangs over them like a mountain of granite and will in the end fall. “Surely God will shatter the head of his enemies, the hairy crown of him who goes on in his guilty deeds” (Psalm 68:21).
What Good Is Romans 8:28 for a Sinner?
Now what is to become of Romans 8:28? What good is God’s eternal election and predestination to glory if I am found to be a sinner? How can all things work together for my good if the infinite wrath of God hangs over me like a mountain of granite, and God hates me with a holy hatred when he contemplates me in my sin?
My only hope is that God may not only contemplate me as a depraved sinner but also may contemplate me in Jesus Christ — chosen, loved, and destined for glory. My only hope is that God will fulfill his predestined purpose for me by appeasing his own wrath and acquitting me of all my sin and conquering the depravity of my heart — a thought that is so wonderful it can scarcely be imagined. But the gospel message is that God has done this in the death of his Son.
The Solution: Justification
Verse 30: “Those whom he called he justified.”
Between the Denver of predestination and the Pacific Coast of glorification rises the impassible Rocky Mountains of God’s righteous wrath against me in my sin. And my locomotive sits frozen in the foot hills of Colorado. But justification is the means by which God flattens the obstacle of his wrath and prevents my sin from frustrating his eternal purpose to bring me to glory.
So we need to ask three questions about this wonderful work of God:
- What is justification?
- What is the basis of it?
- How can a sinner like me hope to enjoy its benefits?
1. What Is Justification?
As it is used here in Romans 8:30, it refers to the declaration of God to a repentant sinner that all his sins are forgiven, he is acquitted, the wrath of the judge is removed, and he stands righteous before God. God announces that something has been taken away and something has been added. Sins have been taken away. And a new righteousness has been given.
Romans 4:6–7 refers to both of these benefits. Paul is saying that David in Psalm 32 described the same justification we experience today:
So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin.”
In verse 6 something is given, namely, righteousness: “God reckons righteousness apart from works.” In other words in justification God counts his own righteousness as ours. Then in verse 7 something is taken away, namely, sin: “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin.” So justification is the announcement to this repentant sinner that my sins are not counted against me, but the righteousness of God is counted for me. I am forgiven, acquitted, justified, no longer under the mountain of God’s wrath, but now standing on the mountain of his righteousness.
2. What Is the Basis of This Justification?
How can God simply drop the charges against me? On what basis can he simply turn his wrath away from me? The answer is that he can’t do it simply! It cost him his Son.
2 Corinthians 5:21 is a verse that every believer should commit to memory for constant encouragement. It gives the basis for what is given and what is taken away in justification. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
To put it as simply as possible, God imputed to Jesus our sin and imputed to us his righteousness. Jesus is the basis of our justification. But we can be more specific.
Romans 5:9 says that it was particularly Jesus’s death that provided the basis of our justification: “Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
And Romans 5:19 says that it was Jesus’s obedience that provided the basis of our justification: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”
We can put them together with the language of Philippians 2:8 and say that the basis of our justification is the perfect obedience of Jesus even unto the death of the cross. In his obedience there is a righteousness that becomes ours in justification. And in his death our sin becomes his as he bears the whole weight of God’s wrath in our place.
The basis of our justification is Jesus Christ, obedient unto death in my place.
3. How Can a Sinner Like Me Hope to Enjoy the Benefits of Justification?
In one sense we can do nothing. Romans 5:6 says, “While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” And 5:10 says, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”
Paul says that the death of the Son did its justifying work for us while we were still helpless and ungodly and enemies of God. In a sense our acquittal is absolutely independent of anything in us at all. Our debt was canceled while we were still in jail.
Nevertheless, the Bible teaches repeatedly that we are justified “by faith” (Genesis 15:6; Romans 3:22; 4:5, 24; 5:1; 10:4, 10; Acts 13:38–39). Therefore, what this means, I think, is that by faith we receive the word of acquittal. Or: by faith we hear and accept and rejoice in the declaration of acceptance with God.
My debt was paid in the death of Christ while I was still helpless and ungodly. The wrath of God against me was appeased and averted not by my faith but by the death of Christ while I was still his unbelieving enemy. But only when I surrendered all attempts at self-justification and trusted in Christ alone did I hear and know and delight in the announcement: not guilty.
Returning to What We Know
Now we return to the first two words of verse 28: We know.
We know that all things will work out for our good, because we have been foreknown — chosen by God before the foundation of the world.
We know that all things will work together for our good because, having chosen us, he predestined us for glory.
We know that all things will work together for our good because, having chosen and predestined us, he also flattened the mountain of his wrath that blocked the railroad between my predestination and my glorification. He justified us by the death of his Son. Every sin, gone! And all his righteousness, ours in Christ!
The Gap Between Predestination and Justification
Ah, but the question arises: Is there not some uncertainty whether those whom he predestined will actually be justified since justification is enjoyed by faith and faith is an act of the human will? Do not some contingency and some uncertainty come in here? The answer, of course, is no! For God himself has undertaken to close the gap of uncertainty between predestination and justification by his own infallible and effectual call. “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified.”
Waking Up the Sleeping Guards
Suppose that you are the commander of an army and your trained ear hears the enemy creeping up on your troops in the middle of the night, and you hurry out to enquire at the sentry positions but find all your guards delinquent and asleep. You can choose whether to let them sleep and be overrun by the enemy which would serve them all right. Or you can awaken all of them which they don’t deserve. Or you can waken some of them and let the rest reap the consequences of their disobedience. If you decide to awaken any of them, how will you do it?
You will call them. In themselves they don’t have the power to just wake up when they are sound asleep. But you have the power to wake them up. And the power is in your call.
The Power of God over a Sleeping World
Well, that is the power God has over a sleeping world. The difference is that the world is sleeping the sleep of death in the power of sin. And God’s call has the power to raise the dead. You and I have the power to call sleepers and say, “Awake, O sleeper.” And they will wake up. But God has the power to say (as it says in Ephesians 5:14), “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead!” Therefore everyone he calls rises from the death of unbelief, trusts in Christ, and is justified. “Those whom he predestines he also calls, those whom he calls he also justifies.” Nothing can stop the fulfillment of Romans 8:28 in the lives of the elect, not even the wrath of God against us in our sin.
A Closing Plea
I urge every one in the hearing of my voice to surrender all efforts to justify yourself before God and to turn to come to Christ and accept the finished work of your justification. What could be more satisfying and more honoring to God than to say with the saints of all the ages,
We owe our election to the unconditional foreknowing of God. We owe our hope of glory to the predestination of God. We owe our acquittal and righteousness to the justification of God. We owe the awakening of our faith to the call of God. And therefore we know that God will work all things together for our good infallibly, unshakably, forever. It is as good as done. All glory to God and to the Lamb! Amen.