Do our past sins work together for our future good? It’s the question from two listeners. Tim is one of them. “Dear Pastor John, hello! Paul writes in Romans 8:28, ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.’ I know that ‘all things’ includes the so-called bad things as well, like suffering and death. However, I am confused as to whether ‘all things’ also includes my specific sins?”
A similar question came in from Cliff. “Pastor John, can you explain something? Does the ‘all’ in the ‘all things’ of Romans 8:28 include my sin? I hate my sin. I long for the day I won’t sin! But is my sin, too, working for an eternal good in me?”
Pastor John, how would you answer Tim and Cliff?
Well, before I answer directly, which I hope to do, let me lay down a biblical warning because Paul is very much aware of a danger in answering this question with a yes — namely, that our sins can work together for our eternal good. He sees a danger, and he warns against it at least twice. That’s where I feel like I should start.
Here’s the first one. Romans 3:5–8:
But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come? — as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
“In his amazing grace, God makes some sins gloriously devastating to our ego.”
In other words, Paul is very aware of the danger that in answering this question, I might lead people to “do evil that good may come.” He says, and I say, that anybody who infers that from anything I’m going to say now — from me or from Paul — they’re making a slanderous charge. I am never going to say, “Let’s all do evil that good may come since he turns all of our evil for his glory and for our good.” That’s the first warning.
Here’s the second one, from Romans 5:20–6:2:
Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
In other words, if we use our presumed human logic to say that more sinning means the display of more glorious grace, so let’s all be about more sinning, then we are dead wrong. And the first reason he gives why we’re dead wrong is that dead people don’t do that: Dead people don’t think that way. Dead people don’t act that way. He says, “How can we who died to sin still live in sin?” Dead people don’t sin like that, and we have died with Christ.
Double warning — let’s heed Paul’s warnings as we try to answer the question, Does Romans 8:28 mean that even our sins work for our good?
Happiness at Full Capacity
Now, the next thing to notice, I think, is the precise wording of Romans 8:28. Let’s make sure we get it.
We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
It is a crucial question to ask: Well, what’s the effect of sinning in the heart of those who love God — in the heart of those who are called by God? Surely part of the answer is brokenhearted repentance, and self-humbling, and a resolve to hate sin more seriously and fight sin more valiantly. Those responses are good; they’re good. So yes, sins work for good for those who love God and are called, at least in that sense.
“The promise of working for our good is not the same as the promise of working for our maximal happiness.”
But this is different from saying that sinning works for our greatest happiness in eternity. The promise of working for our good is not the same as the promise of working for our maximal happiness. Now, I know that this introduces a distinction that many people have not, perhaps, thought about — namely, that in heaven, there will be varying rewards, which correspond, I think, to varying capacities for happiness; meaning, everyone in heaven will be fully happy (that’s the meaning of heaven), but that some will have capacities of fullness greater than others.
Christ tells us that he who gives a cup of cold water to a disciple in the name of a disciple, shall in no wise lose his reward. But this could not be true, if a person should have no greater reward for doing many good works than if he did but few. It will be no dampening to the happiness of those who have lower degrees of happiness and glory, that there are others advanced in glory above them: for all shall be perfectly happy, every one shall be perfectly satisfied. Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness is full, though there are some vessels far larger than others, and there shall be no such thing as envy in heaven, but perfect love shall reign throughout the whole society.
There’s a picture of how there can be perfect happiness in everyone in heaven, and yet there can also be degrees of rewards, greater or lesser capacities for happiness. The point of saying that right here is to open the possibility that when Romans 8:28 says that everything works for our good, it does not guarantee that all of us who love God will have the same capacity for happiness in eternity. In other words, good in Romans 8:28 does not mean as good or as happy as is conceivable, since our capacity for happiness may have been greater if we had lived differently. But the good of Romans 8:28 does mean enjoying God as fully as your capacity allows.
For Eternal Joy
When Paul says, for example, in 1 Corinthians 3:15, “If anyone’s work is burned up [at the final judgment], he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire,” the implication is that sinful behavior may diminish our capacity for some eternal happiness.
Now, why do I say sinful behavior may diminish our capacity for eternal happiness? I say may because it is possible that after some season of sinning, say, teaching false doctrine, we might recognize, in this life, our failure, and repent, and be broken, and be humbled, and turn, and be all the more fruitful because of having failed and gotten so much clarity about our mistake that the rest of our life is more fruitful.
“Everyone in heaven will be fully happy, but some will have capacities of fullness greater than others.”
In other words, it is an oversimplification to say that every failure to do the very good deed that would have been rewarded with future joy necessarily means that our future capacity for future joy is diminished by that failure. That does not follow because God may take that very failure, that sin which forfeited the eternal reward of the good deed that it failed to do, and cause the very sin to break us, and humble us, and turn us into a path of even greater devotion, and obedience, and fruitfulness, and eternal joy.
I’m not saying every sin has this remarkable effect. I’m not; I don’t think that’s true. That would be an overstatement. Some sins of God’s people simply work for our good and God’s glory because they bring about forgiveness and justification and thankfulness.
So, I conclude: Every sin in those who truly love God works for God’s glory, which is our joy. In his amazing grace, God makes some sins gloriously devastating to our ego, and thus exceptionally fruitful for our eternal joy.