All Things for Good
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 promise in verse 28 that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose is so sweeping and so unbelievable and so weighty that Paul knows he must put a very deep foundation under it to hold it up and to help us believe it, when sometimes almost everything in our lives seems to say the opposite. In fact, all the rest of chapter eight can be seen as Paul’s effort to do just that. Everything is an effort to help us understand and believe that all things will work for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
A Message for Believers and Unbelievers
This is a message for believers. And like every message for believers, it is a message for unbelievers. For believers it aims to put unshakeable rock under your faith, and for unbelievers it aims to win you into that faith because of how much rock there is under it. For believers it aims where I ended last Sunday — to motivate you with truth to take risks in the cause of evangelism and missions and racial justice and all the perils of loving people. For unbelievers, it aims to enlist you in that same cause because you were made for it, and following Christ in the path of risky love is the only life that will satisfy depths of your soul and honor your Maker.
So I hope you will listen to this third message on Romans 8:28, and if you have missed the other two, you may go back and listen to them on tape or online.
Review of Parts One and Two
Two weeks ago I spoke on the words, “to those who love God.” “All things work together for good to those who love God . . .” If you don’t love God, you can’t bank on this promise. And we talked about what it means to love God.
“If you don’t love God, you can’t bank on this promise.”
Last week we focused on the promise itself — “all things work together for good” — all things, not just some things. Not just the easy things or the good things, but the hard things and the bad things. Malcolm Muggeridge, the Christian journalist who died in 1990 spoke for almost all serious, Biblical Christians, who have lived long enough to wake up from the dream-world of painlessness, when he said,
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful, with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained. In other words, if it ever were to be possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo . . . the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal or trivial to be endurable. This of course is what the cross [of Christ] signifies, and it is the cross more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ. (Homemade, July, 1990)
So I pray that as we look at the third part of this text you will see in it the cross of Christ and be drawn to him and to his fellowship of suffering in the cause of saving sinners.
Called According to His Purpose
The third part of the text is the phrase: “to those who are called according to his purpose.” “All things work together for good to those who love God and to those who are called according to his purpose.” So there are two things that must be true of us if this promise is to be ours. It does not come true for everybody. It comes true for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.
These are not two groups of people. This is one group of people with two things true of them: (1) they love God; (2) they are called according to his purpose. Why does Paul mention these two things instead of just one of them? Here is my suggestion:
If he had only said that all things work together for good for those who love God, it would have sounded like the promise rests on pretty flimsy ground. My love for God is a flimsy ground for this promise. It is an experience in my heart. And my heart is notoriously fickle and variable and weak. To make such a massive promise rest on such a fragile human experience alone would be to make a mountain rest on a marshmallow.
So Paul says, this promise does not just rest on your marshmallow heart, it rests on God’s calling and purpose. “All things work together for good . . . for those who are called according to his purpose.” Here we have God’s work, not my experience. God’s call, not my consciousness. This is solid. This is divine. This is powerful and deep and strong.
But what if Paul had only said, “All things work together for good for those who are called”? Then we would want to ask: How do I know if I am called? We would want some sign that God has in fact done this great and powerful and wonderful thing: he has called me.
So Paul gives both. He tells us the objective, solid, divine work of God that makes the promise unshakeable: he called us according to his purpose. And he tells us what happened in us when God called us so that we can know it has happened: we love God and all that he is for us in Jesus Christ. So we have two things that must be true of us if this promise is to be ours. Our love is subjective, and God’s call is objective. Our love is our act, and God’s call is his act. Our love is an effect, and God’s love is the cause.
In other words, the call of God according to his purpose is part of the massive, deep, unshakeable foundation Paul is laying in Romans 8 that keeps this promise from falling and makes it believable. You are not the key here. God is the key here. His work will keep this promise true for you, or it won’t be true for you. Because your love is too fragile and uncertain. But God’s call is not fragile and not uncertain. And it not only brought your love into being but will keep it in being so that the promise of Romans 8:28 will be true for you forever.
So let’s see what the Bible has to say about this calling that guarantees our enjoyment of this promise forever? I think we can sum up the most important things about this call under two questions: (1) What happens when a person is called? (2) What is the effect of this call long term?
1. What Happens When a Person Is Called?
God calls a person to Christ by bringing them into contact with the gospel of Jesus Christ and then making their dead hearts alive so that they hear the gospel as irresistibly true and beautiful.
God’s almighty call and my call on his behalf are not identical. When I preach, I call you all to hear the gospel as true and beautiful and embrace Christ as your treasure. But at that moment not all are “called” the way Paul is using the word in this verse. My call is general. God’s call, in and through mine, is specific. My call offers hope. God’s call, in and through mine, creates hope. My call offers life. God’s call, in and through mine, gives life. My call commands that you love God. God’s call, in and through mine, grants what it commands.
Where can we see this in the Bible? Several places (1 Corinthians 1:22–24; 2 Timothy 1:9; etc.). But let’s stay here. The next two verses are the most important. Verse 29 starts with the ground or reason we can be sure that all things work together for good for those who are called. It’s because “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.”
All of that is written to give us the reason for why all things work together for good for the called. What does he say? He says we can be sure all works for good for the called because the called have been predestined for this! Therefore, it is sure. Specifically, he says in verse 29 they are predestined to be like Jesus and to have him as a great older brother, and (at the end of verse 30) to be “glorified.” In other words, predestination stands behind your call and makes it sure. What God predestines happens. That’s what it means to be God.
“All the called are justified, and all the justified are glorified.”
This is why Paul added the words in verse 28, “according to his purpose” — “All things work together for good . . . for those who are called according to God’s purpose.” God’s call does not come without a purpose. And God’s purpose is expressed in the word, “predestined.” He predestined us to be like Jesus and to have Jesus as our strong and loving older brother. And then he carried his predestination through and made it happen to us by calling us. Verse 30a: “Those whom he predestined he called.”
And not only that, read on. In verse 30 he says, “and these whom he called, he also justified; and these whom he justified, he also glorified.” In other words, all the called are justified, and all the justified are glorified. This is because when God predestines something to happen, it happens. And God predestined our final Christ-likeness and our being with Christ, and that means our glory. And so he undertakes to bring to pass what he predestined by calling us and then justifying us and then glorifying us.
What do we learn from this? We learn that God’s calling here is his sovereign action to bring us from the spiritual deadness of unbelief and hostility to God to the spiritual life of faith in Christ and love to God. We know this because all the called are justified. But only believers are justified. And so God’s calling secures the faith that it commands. It is effectual. It guarantees the effect of faith and love. God’s call is his omnipotent, creative word, like the word Jesus spoke to Lazarus when he was dead: “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43). The call created the life and Lazarus came out.
We can confirm with a key text on God’s effectual call in 1 Corinthians 1:22–24, “Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, [in other words, everyone is hearing the preaching and being called in the general sense, but that is not what call means here or in Romans 8:28] but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Some from the Jews and some from the Gentiles are “called” when Paul preaches. And what happens when they are is that they see Christ crucified no longer as foolishness and no longer as a stumbling block but as divine power and wisdom. That’s what I meant earlier when I said that God’s call comes through the gospel and makes dead, hostile hearts alive so that they hear the gospel of Christ crucified and risen as irresistibly true and beautiful.
All things work together for good for you if this has happened to you. And nothing can stop everything from working for good for you because, just as God took the initiative to call you omnipotently to himself from the dead so that you love him, so he will take the initiative to keep you spiritually alive and finally glorified in the presence of Christ. Everything will work for you to get you there.
That leads to the last question.
2. What Is the Long-Term Effect of This Call?
The effect is absolute eternal security for all who are called. You see it in verse 30: “These whom he predestined, he also called; and these whom he called, he also justified; and these whom he justified, he also glorified.” All the called are justified, and all the justified will be glorified. There are no dropouts. This is why all things work together for good for those who are called according to God’s purpose. His purpose is to save us utterly by his own almighty grace of initiative and power.
But someone may say, with fear, but what if I give up? What if I stop believing? What if my love for God grows cold and dies? The answer is: it will not happen for those who are called. And the reason is not that it doesn’t matter if your faith fails and your love dies. The reason is that the God who calls, keeps. The God who, by his sovereign grace, called you (see Galatians 1:6, 15; 2 Timothy 1:9), will, by that same sovereign grace, keep you believing and keep you loving. Listen to the link between God’s calling and keeping.
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, to those who are called, loved by God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:1)
God will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:8)
In other words, God will confirm you to the end because he called you. That is what God’s faithfulness means. God called you according to his purpose to save you, and God always does what he purposes to do. That is his faithfulness.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24)
God is faithful. Therefore, if he called you, he will keep you.
“The God who called you by his sovereign grace, will keep you by that same grace.”
So now we have begun to see the magnitude and magnificence of the foundation underneath the promise of Romans 8:28. The foundation is not merely your love for God. It is the eternal purpose of God, the predestination of God, the effectual calling of God, the justification of God, and the sure glorification of God.
Everything will surely work together for your good, not because you have the moral power to keep loving God, but because the one who called you is faithful and will work in you to keep you loving God.
Therefore, I end where I did last week: Go take some risks in the cause of evangelism and missions and justice and love. Because no matter what the cost, it will all work together for your good. He who called you is faithful. He will do it.
See the following texts for additional insight on the call of God and the purpose of God.
Uses of the Word Call:
2 Timothy 1:9: “[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.”
Romans 9:11: “Though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to his choice would stand, not because of works but because of him who calls.”
Romans 9:23–26: “And he did so to make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom he also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. As he says also in Hosea, ‘I will call those who were not my people, “my people,” and her who was not beloved, “Beloved.” And it shall be in that place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” there they shall be called “sons of the living God.”’”
1 Corinthians 7:18, 21: “Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. . . . Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that.
1 Thessalonians 2:12: “so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
1 Timothy 6:12: “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
Uses of the Word Purpose
Romans 9:11: “for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to his choice would stand, not because of works but because of him who calls.”
Ephesians 1:11: “Also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to his purpose who works all things after the counsel of his will.”
Ephesians 3:11: “This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which he carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
2 Timothy 1:9: “[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.”