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. For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom he predestined, he also called; and these whom he called, he also justified; and these whom he justified, he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him over for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things? (Romans 8:28–32)
The banner hanging on the side of the building is from Romans 8:31: “If God is for us who can be against us?” What is the answer to that question? Be careful. Notice verse 36: “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” I presume that those who kill us are against us. I assume that those who slaughter us are against us.
Was Anyone Against Martin Burnham?
Martin Burnham’s funeral was on Friday in Kansas. He had been a missionary hostage in control of the Abu Sayyaf Group for a year, and was killed in crossfire on June 7th. The last words to the Rose Hill Bible Church where he spoke on May 23, 2001 — just days before his return to the Philippines and his capture — were printed on the funeral program: “I wasn’t called to be a missionary; I wasn’t called to the Philippines; I was just called to follow Christ; and that is what I’m doing.”
Yes, Martin Burnham, and you knew that Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25). Martin Burnham lost his life following Christ. And he found it. No surprises here. Paul said it would happen. Peter said it would happen. Jesus said it would happen.
“We will be glorified with Christ if we suffer with him.”
They will lay their hands on you and persecute you . . . I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict . . . and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. (Luke 21:12–18)
You will be hated. You will be killed. And not a hair of your head will perish! So, if God was for Martin Burnham, was anyone against him? Yes, but not with final success. They killed him. But not a hair of his head will perish.
“All Things” Includes the “Bad Things”
So when Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, those who are called according to his purpose,” we have a taste of the kinds of things that are included in the “all things.” It is not all good things. It is all things — including all the bad things. In fact, the whole context before and after Romans 8:28 is painful. That’s why Romans 8:28 is here. We need encouragement and hope, because before and after this verse, the prospect of the Christian life on this earth is bleak.
Romans 8:17 says we will be glorified with Christ if we suffer with him. Verse 18 says that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us. Verse 20 says that the creation — including us — is subjected to futility. Verse 21 says that creation is in bondage to decay. Verse 23 says that even Spirit-filled Christians groan with the fallen creation awaiting our adoption, the redemption of our weak, sick, and dying bodies. Verse 24 says we have been saved “in hope” and you can’t see hope, otherwise it wouldn’t be hope, so most of our salvation is invisible and still in the future. No wonder we groan. And then, verse 35 says there are tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword.
And in the middle of all this, to give us strength and hope and courage, verse 28 says, “Yes, all this is true!” And “We know that all things — all this suffering and futility and bondage to decay and groaning and tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and peril and sword — all these things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”
So the answer to the question on the side of the building from Romans 8:31 is, Yes, there will be many enemies. Yes, there will be many adversaries and obstacles and miseries and distresses and opposition and seemingly pointless delays and breakdowns and all manner of futility. But, No, in all these things we are more than conquerors because of the sovereign love of God in Christ. Nothing will finally succeed against us.
- If you hear the call of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ;
- if you come to God, loving him through Jesus Christ;
- if you trust God for the forgiveness of your sins because of the death of Christ;
- if you receive from him the free gift of righteousness by faith alone;
then all things — from the sweetest to the most severe and bitter and painful — will work together for your good. God will be for you with all of his omnipotent wisdom and power. And if God is for you, no one can successfully be against you.
Over and over in the Bible and in history, the truth of Romans 8:28 is witnessed by the people of God. Let’s look at some examples and pray as we do that God will put solid ground under our feet when the waves of trouble break over us and when we follow Jesus outside the gate of security and comfort.
One of the most familiar examples is the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. His brothers hate him because he has had a dream that some day he will reign over them. So they throw him into a pit, and then sell him into slavery in Egypt, and then lie to his father about his coat so the old man will believe that his boy was killed by a wild animal.
Then, Joseph seems to prosper in Potiphar’s house until Potiphar’s wife lies about him and accuses him of attempted rape. So he is put in prison. And there, things seem to go well after a while because the jailer trusts him. But then his hopes that Pharaoh’s butler will get him out are dashed as the butler forgets about Joseph for two more years.
Finally, after about seventeen years of nothing apparently working together for any lasting good for Joseph or his poor old father, he interprets a dream for Pharaoh and Pharaoh rewards him by making him a kind of vice president in charge of all the food in the land as a seven-year famine comes.
The famine is threatening his family in Canaan and so the brothers who hated him and tried to get rid of him come to Egypt. Who is the one ready to help them, but their brother Joseph, whom they don’t recognize? The point of the story is given in three texts.
“God plans, purposes, and works all things together for our good.”
One is Genesis 45:7: “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” Notice the word “sent.” You see it again in Psalm 105:16–17: “When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.” This word “sent” is important for interpreting the main text of the story, namely, Genesis 50:20. Joseph says to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
This is an Old Testament version of Romans 8:28. All things work together for good for God’s people, all things — including all the evil done to Joseph and to Jacob, his father. But notice carefully the way all three of these texts talk about the “all things.” These are things that God “meant” to work together for good. God did not just watch evil events unfold with no design and no purpose, and then bring good out of them. No, just as Joseph’s brothers meant it (purposed it, designed it) for evil, so also God meant it (purposed it, designed it) for good.
That is why I said the word “sent” in Genesis 45:7 and Psalm 105:17 was important. The brother’s selling Joseph into slavery was God’s “sending” for salvation. God does not just bring good out of all things. He ordains what happens to us for our good and then infallibly brings good from it according to his purpose. God “sent” Joseph to save his brothers, even though this sending involved the sin of his brothers.
The Cross of Christ
This is a picture of what God did for us in sending Jesus to the cross to save us. In Acts 4:27–28, the disciples say:
In this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
In other words, even though Jesus’s going to the cross involved the sins of Herod, Pilate, Gentiles, and Jews, it was God’s sending. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.
God didn’t just bring good out of the evil and pain of the cross and out of the slavery of Joseph; he planned it for our good. God plans, purposes, and works all things together for our good. Some may ask, “What does it add to our hope to believe this, rather than to believe that God has no purpose for the particular evils that come into our lives but only uses them once they happen?”
One answer would be: If we say that God could not “use” all the events prior to the evil to bring about his purpose that evil not happen, what hope do we have that God can “use” the evil itself for his purpose to do me good? If God’s purpose was frustrated before the evil that struck me, why should I believe that his purpose to turn this evil for good will not be frustrated?
So what we gain in saying that God sent Joseph and sent Christ and planned the events leading to the salvation of Israel and the church is (1) that we affirm exactly what the Bible says, and (2) we put the solid foundation of God’s sovereignty under the promise that he will work all things for our good. He was sovereign in the past; he will be sovereign for us in the future.
Another example from the Old Testament is Job. You recall how many terrible things happened to Job. He lost his wealth, his children, and his health. In every case, he acknowledged the sovereign hand of God, even though Satan was the servant of calamity in his life. And in the last chapter, the writer of the book says his family and friends gathered “and they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). So the view of Job and the writer is that God did not just bring good out of Job’s misery, but that he purposed Job’s misery.
Why? We can give an authoritative answer in James 5:11, “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” So James confirms that God is purposing, not just responding. And his purpose, as Romans 8:28 says, is Job’s good. In all Job’s pain and loss, God was aiming at compassion and mercy. He planned, purposed, and worked all things for Job’s good.
Another example is the experience of Esther. It was not an easy thing for a young, beautiful, Jewish girl to be forced into the harem of an unclean, pagan, Gentile king. It was, in one sense, a tragedy. Why did it happen? Why would God allow it? Mordecai gives the answer when the Jews are about to be slaughtered by Haman’s wicked designs. God has done for his people, through Esther, exactly what he did for his people through Joseph. Here’s the way Mordecai puts it in a message to Esther: “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14)?
God knows. And now we know because we have seen the end of the story. She came to the kingdom, through all her humiliation and defilement, to save God’s people. God works all things together for good for his people.
And let me give an example that the children will understand. This is a favorite story in the Old Testament. When Jonah finally admitted that he was doing wrong on the boat going away from Nineveh, they threw him overboard into the sea. And then something horrible happened. He was swallowed whole by a huge fish. Now that is a terrible thing. But did God have good purpose in that terrible thing? Yes, he did. The horrible experience of being swallowed by a fish was in fact God’s appointed means of salvation for the unbelieving Ninevites.
And what about Paul’s thorn in the flesh? It tormented him, and he pleaded for God to take it away. But the answer came from Jesus, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). In other words, “Paul, I have a design in this ‘messenger of Satan,’ and it is for your good and my glory.” All things, even thorns in the flesh, work together for good. And what about Paul’s imprisonments? Here’s the way Paul describes the effect of his Roman imprisonment:
“Trusting Christ is the only way to have God be for you. He is for all who trust in Jesus.”
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” (Philippians 1:12–14)
All things, including imprisonments, work for our good and God’s glory.
What Effect Should This Have on You?
I close by asking: What effect should this have on you? If you are not a believer in Jesus, I pray that the effect will be to make you long to trust him. Having God on your side and not against you is infinitely important. Remember the sign on the building: If God is for you, who can be against you. Trusting Christ is the only way to have God be for you. He is for all who trust in Jesus. He works everything for your good, if you trust his Son.
If you are a believer, then you will not respond to this message and to the truth of Romans 8:28 with passivity toward the devil and resignation toward evil and a casual attitude toward American consumerism and materialism. What you will hear in Romans 8:28 is a battle cry. If all things work together for my good, then I cannot be ultimately defeated in the cause of Christ.
This is a call to take risks to spread a passion for God’s supremacy in all things for the joy of all peoples. This is a call to go to a hard place or do a hard thing in the cause of love. This is call to spend yourself for Christ and his kingdom. This is a call to do something radical and crazy in the eyes of the world. Take Operation World and read the needs of the world. Then, let your heart dream how you might invest your life to move toward need and not comfort.
Romans 8:28 is a trumpet call to follow Jesus in the risks of love no matter what it costs, because whatever it costs will work for your good.