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 whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom he predestined, these he also called; and whom he called, these he also justified; and whom he justified, these he also glorified. (Romans 8:28–30, KJV)
The Believer’s Firm Hope
Romans 8 is one of the goriest chapters in the New Testament. Notice verses 35–36:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (KJV)
But over this gory painting of the Christian life, Paul splatters the word “Hope” with a big red paintbrush. For example, in verse 37 he shouts, “No! In all these things we are more than conquerors.” Not just conquerors, but more than conquerors! Tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and peril and sword are not just defeated; they are more than defeated: they are turned into servants for our good.
That is the meaning of the all-time favorite verse 28: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” The versions differ a little bit here. The NASB says, “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.” And the KJV says, “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.”
“The rugged hope of the believer is that every one of our agonies becomes an instrument of God’s mercy to do us good.”
From my study, I am inclined to view the KJV as the most faithful to the original wording of Paul. But the difference is not so great that you have to take my word for it I think. All the versions mean basically that God is so supremely in charge of the world that all the things that happen to Christians are ordered in such a way that they serve our good. Tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and peril and sword all work together for the good of those who love God.
So the rugged hope of the believer is not that we will escape distress or peril or hunger or slaughter, but that Almighty God will make every one of our agonies an instrument of his mercy to do us good. “You meant it for evil,” Joseph said to his brothers who had sold him into slavery, “but God meant it for good.” And so it is with every calamity of those who love God. God meant it for good!
Big Building, Big Foundation
Six blocks west of here on 7th Street, a foundation is being dug for a new building. A mammoth mechanized scoop sits in the middle of the lot and scoops out the dirt and drops it into dump trucks to haul away. Around the edges the hole is already about five or six stories deep, I would estimate. What may we infer from this? I would infer that something very big is going to sit on that lot since a very deep foundation is being dug. The bigger the building, the bigger the foundation needs to be.
When it comes to the architecture of promises, there are not any bigger buildings than Romans 8:28. This structure is absolutely staggering in its size. It is massive. The infinitely wise, infinitely powerful God pledges to make everything beneficial to his people! Not just nice things, but horrible things, like tribulation and distress and peril and slaughter. What brick would you lay on the top of this skyscraper promise to make it taller? “All things” means all things.
If you live inside this massive promise, your life is as solid as the rock of Gibraltar. Nothing can blow you over inside the walls of Romans 8:28. Outside Romans 8:28, all is confusion and anxiety and fear and uncertainty and straw houses of deadening drugs and tin roofs of retirement plans and cardboard fortifications of anti-ballistic missiles and a thousand other substitutes for Romans 8:28. Once you walk through the door of love into the massive, unshakable structure of Romans 8:28, everything changes. There comes into your life stability and depth and freedom. You simply can’t be blown over anymore. The confidence that a sovereign God governs for your good all the pain and all the pleasure that you will ever experience is an absolutely incomparable refuge and security and hope and power in your life. No promise in all the world surpasses the height and breadth and weight of Romans 8:28.
Therefore, the foundation of this massive structure must be extraordinarily deep and strong. Indeed it is. And that is what this four-week series is about. Verse 29 begins with “for.” That means that the basis, the ground, the foundation of this massive structure in Romans 8:28 is found in what follows. And we should not be surprised that it takes an awesome foundation to support an awesome promise.
My goal in these four weeks is to take you on a guided tour of the foundation of the promise of Romans 8:28. My prayer is that your confidence in this promise will grow and that the renewed stability and depth and freedom and hope and joy of your life will be living proof to the world that our God reigns. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. We long for our faith to be strong. Therefore let us give earnest heed to the Word of God.
The Structure of Romans 8:28
As I understand verse 28, it contains a promise (all things work together for good) and two descriptions of the beneficiaries of the promise (those who love God and those who are called according to his purpose). In describing the beneficiaries of the promise, Paul gives us a little summary preview of the deep foundation of the promise which he will delve into in verses 29 and 30.
Specifically, when he says that the beneficiaries are those who are “called according to God’s purpose,” he points ahead to verses 29 and 30. Verse 29 is an unfolding of “God’s purpose” (“Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren”). And verse 30 unfolds the implications of the “calling” in verse 28 (“And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified”).
So my plan is to devote this morning’s message to Romans 8:28 and its summary foundation, and this evening’s lesson to verse 29, and the remaining three weeks morning and evening to verse 30.
The Beneficiaries of the Promise
The question that we begin with in verse 28 is: who are the beneficiaries of this massive promise? Who may be certain that all the pain in their life is really the wise and good therapy of a sovereign God to bring about their good?
“When it comes to the architecture of promises, there are no bigger buildings than Romans 8:28.”
Paul gives two answers. Or he describes the one answer from two sides. He defines the beneficiaries of this promise first by what they do toward God, and second by what God did toward them. All things work together for good, in the first place, “to them that love God.” The beneficiaries of this promise are people who love God. This is the first and great commandment, that you love the Lord your God. No eye has seen nor ear heard nor anyone imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.
Then, in the second place, Paul describes the beneficiaries of this promise as “those who are called according to his purpose.” What does it mean to say that in addition to loving God, the beneficiaries of this promise are also “called according to God’s purpose”? To answer this question let’s look at two passages in which Paul refers to God’s call and two which refer to his purpose.
What Does It Mean to Be “Called”?
The closest clue about the meaning of “called” in verse 28 is verse 30 where Paul says, “And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified.” What we learn from this verse is that God justifies everyone that he calls. He acquits them. He pardons them. They are treated as righteous. They are his children. “Those whom he called he justified.”
Those Who Are Called Are Justified
This means that the call referred to here is not the general call that goes out to all men in the preaching of the gospel. If it were, then all who heard the gospel would be justified. For verse 30 says, “Those whom he called he justified.” If everyone who hears Billy Graham calling them to Christ on the television is “called” in the sense of Romans 8:30, then they are all justified too. For “those whom he called he also justified.” But Paul plainly teaches that not all who are called in this general sense are justified. “We are justified by faith!” (Romans 5:1). Not all who are called in this general sense have faith, and therefore not all are justified. Yet Paul says in 8:30 that “those who are called are justified!”
What Christ Is to Those Who Are Called
He clarifies this for us in 1 Corinthians 1:23–24:
But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Notice carefully that Paul preaches Christ to Jews and Gentiles indiscriminately. In that sense, all are called. But that is not the sense in which Paul uses the word. He says that out from among those who hear the general call there are those who are “called.” And the difference is that those who are called in this narrower sense stop regarding Christ as a stumbling block and as folly. Instead, they regard him as the power of God and the wisdom of God. Verse 24: “But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [becomes] the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
The Effectual Call of God
So Paul teaches that when the gospel is preached, God calls some so powerfully that their hearts and minds are changed about Jesus Christ and they embrace him in faith and love. That’s why Paul can say in Romans 8:30 that “those who are called are justified,” even though justification only comes by faith — the call of God produces faith; it opens the eyes of the blind to see that Jesus is the wisdom and the power of God.
The call of God that Paul has in mind is not like the call of a pet: “Here Blackie. Here Blackie. Come on girl.” Blackie may or may not come. The call of God is like the call of Jesus to the corpse of Lazarus: “Lazarus, come forth!” The call contains the power to produce what it commands. It is an effectual call. That is why Paul can say in Romans 8:30 that all “those who are called are justified.” The certainty of their justification lies in the fact that the faith by which men are justified is produced by the effectual call of God.
Therefore when Romans 8:28 says:
All things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.
This means that the beneficiaries of this massive promise are those who once did not love God but now do love God because God himself has called them effectually from darkness to light, from unbelief to faith, from death to life, and has planted within them a love to himself.
The effectual call of God is the new covenant fulfillment of the promise in Deuteronomy 30:6:
And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
Why Certainty for the Called?
The reason that the beneficiaries of Romans 8:28 can have such certainty that God will indeed fulfill this promise for them is that God himself has effectually called them into his covenant and caused them to qualify for it.
“God calls some so powerfully that their hearts and minds are changed about Jesus Christ and they embrace him in faith and love.”
It is one thing if God sends out a mass mailing addressed “to whom it may concern” inviting all to the banquet where all things work together for good. But it is quite another if God himself drives up to your front door, walks in, picks you up, puts you in the car, drives you to the banquet of Romans 8:28, gives you the banquet garment of love, and then seats you at the right hand of his Son. Would not his own personal initiative in the second case give you a deeper confidence that God does indeed intend to pursue you with mercy all your days and work everything together for your good?
We deny ourselves such deep and wonderful assurances when we do not embrace the doctrine of God’s sovereign, effectual call. There is such strength that comes into the walk of a Christian when he knows how it is that he came to be a beneficiary of this incomparable promise.
And as though it were not enough to reassure us that we became beneficiaries of this promise by God’s effectual call, Paul adds the words, “according to his purpose.” All things work together for good to those who love God, to those that are called according to his purpose.
Why “According to His Purpose”?
What is Paul’s reason for adding this phrase: “according to his purpose”? I think it was to make perfectly clear and forceful that the call of God originates in God’s purpose, not ours. The call of God is not a response to anything we purposed to do. God has his own high and holy purposes that govern whom he calls, and his call accords with these purposes, not with ours.
He did not drive up to my door and pick me up and bring me to the banquet of Romans 8:28 because it accorded with my purpose of salvation, but because it accorded with his. Had he waited for me to have a purpose of salvation, I would still be watching television at home.
True Israel and True Children of Abraham
We can see the force of this little phrase (“according to his purpose”) if we look at the one other place in Romans where the word occurs, namely, Romans 9:11. In context, Paul is trying to show that not all Israelites are true Israelites (verse 6); not all are the children of Abraham just because they are descended from him (verse 7); and the difference whether one is a true Israelite or a true child of Abraham depends on God’s purpose and call, not man’s. Notice verses 10–12:
And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, she was told, “The elder will serve the younger.”
The point of this passage is to illustrate by the example of Jacob and Esau (Rebecca’s twin sons) the nature of God’s call. Jacob and Esau were in the same womb. They had the same father. They had done nothing good or evil. And God set his favor on Jacob, not Esau. Why? Why not wait until they grow up and have a chance to show which of them will have the distinctives that make it just for God to call the one and not the other? Why did God reveal his choice even before they were born?
Verse 11 gives the answer, and it uses the very words of Romans 8:28. It was “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call” (or literally: “because of the one who calls”).
God’s Purpose of Election
The unconditional call of God apart from all human distinctives is the means by which God maintains his purpose of election. If he did not call men without regard to their distinctives, but instead called them on the basis of their distinctives, then God’s purpose of election would fall to the ground. God would become like a political candidate up for vote going from precinct to precinct to see if he might be elected Lord. God would propose, but man would dispose. The size and makeup of God’s constituency would be owing finally to the vote of man. The success of Christian missions and the possibility of converts from every tongue and tribe and people and nation would depend finally on the vote of man.
But the apostle Paul knows nothing of such a God. Instead, he says that God set his favor on Jacob and not Esau before they were born so that his purpose of election might stand, not on the basis of their deeds but only on the basis of his call — the call that accords with his purpose of election.
What then is the foundation of Romans 8:28? Where do those who love God find certainty that tribulation and distress and famine and nakedness and peril and sword and slaughter will, in fact, work together for their good?
The answer is that those who love God are also those who have been called by God, and that this call is based not on something as wavering and uncertain as my commitment to God but only on his eternal purpose of election by which he set his favor on me without any respect to my action at all.
Our confidence that all the hard and happy things in our life will, in fact, become the servants of our good is based not merely the fact that there is a promise in the Bible, but also on the fact that from all eternity God in his great mercy has chosen us to enjoy his banquet and has given us evidence of our election by calling into being (out of stone!) a heart that loves God — has he not!
All things work together for good for those who love God — those who are called according to his purpose.