Romans 8:28 and the Providence of God — Brian Giselbach

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28; NKJV).  This statement has been called “a soft pillow for a weary heart.”  Understood in its context this verse covers a great deal of spiritual territory in terms of hope and comfort.  Someone has rightly said, “If what this verse says is true, then every cloud does have a silver lining, and every event in life is capable of producing final and lasting good.”  This is true because of the power of Divine providence behind it.

Consider the patriarch Jacob in his later years.  Joseph was gone (supposedly killed), his sons had dishonored themselves, Dinah had been defiled, Rachel was dead, and famine threatened the family.  It seemed that his son Benjamin would be taken from him as well.  With the weight of the world on his shoulders, he cried out, “You have bereaved me: Joseph is no more, Simeon is no more, and you want to take Benjamin. All these things are against me” (Gen.42:36).  Jacob felt that all of the circumstances of his life were running in opposition to him.  Little did he realize that these things were actually working for his good.

There are two major competing views about life.  One says that we are nothing but the playthings of fate and chance; the product of a universe that did not plan for our existence.  The other says that our lives are in the hands of an all-wise, all-loving God who is deeply interested in our lives and has a plan for us that fits into His ultimate purpose.  Romans 8:28 assures us that the latter view is correct.

Observe two special words that the apostle Paul uses in this text: “we know…”  These two words, pertaining to Paul and his Christian readers, speak of confidence; the confidence of faith.  If faith is trust, and it is, then faith is about having confidence in its object.  The idea of confidence in the Lord is not at all new to the apostle (Phil.1:19; 2 Tim.1:12).  In 2 Corinthians 5:1, Paul wrote, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  So Paul appeals to this same confidence as he writes to the Roman believers (“we know…”). 

How do we know?  The knowledge Paul refers to is not that which comes through logical syllogisms or scientific demonstration, but of trusting what God has said by revelation.  It is by revelation of the Spirit that Paul continues his tone of assurance:

“For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:29-32)

“We know” because we have been persuaded that the Lord has a plan for us, and this plan pertains to being “conformed to the image of His Son.”  Probably most people believe that Paul is speaking of the here and now; that our lives will resemble Christ as He lived on this earth; holy, just, and good.  But this is likely not the intended meaning.  Paul is referring to God’s ultimate plan for us to share in the heavenly and glorious image of His Son (Phil.3:20-21).  This plan is so certain, and thus worthy of our trust, that its fulfillment is spoken of in the past tense.  The meaning is, we can be certain about the fact that the events of our lives fit into God’s plan because we are assured of God’s promises to His people; promises that will result in our glorification with Christ.  The effect of knowing this encourages our faith in the here and now, and results in peace and a harmonious life (as we will see).  But the greater effect is that God is actually moving us forward and upward to the fulfillment of His purpose.

“And we know that all things work together for good…”  The word “all” is striking to us because it encompasses everything.  Paul did not say, “a few things,” or “some things,” or “most things.”  He said, “all things.”  It is here that faith meets a severe test.  Do we really believe this to be true?  Are we prepared to face the hard circumstances and challenges of life with this trust?

“All things work together for good…”  The promise is not that everything by itself works for good, but that all things “work together” for good.  It is God who is at work in us (Phil.1:6); who backs up this assurance by His power.  One event—before another, after another, with another—combined with other events—works for our good.  I don’t remember where I read this illustration, but I think it fits:  Events in a military campaign should not be judged by themselves (in isolation), but should be judged in their relationship to the general strategy and final outcome of the whole campaign.  You should not judge a military campaign on the basis of “this ship was sunk,” or “this city was captured,” or “these lives were lost.”  Every event or occurrence must be judged by its relationship to the end result. 

We should not judge God or His purpose for our lives on the basis of one event, or one day, or one year in our experience; and sometimes not even by a series of events.  Consider the faith of Job.  Due to the tragic events that came upon his life, Job’s wife sought to persuade him to judge God (“Curse God and die!” she said; Job 2:9).  Even though Job questioned God and cried out to Him in anguish, he respected the fact that the Lord had a plan for all that had occurred; even though he did not know what the plan was.  Even so God, in His providence, has a strategy and purpose for your life.  Every experience in your life He orchestrates, or allows to occur, is related to the grand design of your ultimate conformity to the image of Christ in glory.

But note the important qualification in the statement: “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”  We have already spoken of God’s wise and beautiful plan, albeit not exhaustively.  We are called into His grace by the gospel (Rom. 16:25; Gal. 1:6; 2 Thess. 2:13-14).  Into His grace and His everlasting kingdom we are led by the purposeful providence of God.  Who are these people for whom all the events and experiences of their lives produce final, lasting good?  They who respond to God’s call to love Him.

How does a person love God?  We love Him by responding to His will in loving, faithful obedience.  This reminds us of the first and great commandment (Matt. 22:37-38).  “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3; compare to John 14:15 and 15:9-17).

Consider the fact that all kinds of events happen to all kinds of people.  Everyone experiences sorrow, sickness, pain, loss, failure, disappointment, as well as joy, happiness, satisfaction, and other good things.  Jesus said that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45).  Even though this is true, the results are not the same for all.  Consider the story Jesus told about the storm that came upon the houses of two men; one foolish and the other wise (Matt.7:24-27).  The same rain descended, the same floods came, and the same winds blew.  But the result of these forces was not the same.  One house fell, and the other house stood firm.  The difference depended on the manner in which each man chose to build his house.  This is the meaning of Paul’s qualification.  Those who love God respond to Him in faith that shows itself in obedience.  For them the experiences and events of life work towards the ultimate goal:  the purpose of God to bring His people to glory.  Truly, the key to bringing coherence and harmony to one’s life is to love God and trust His plan.

That veteran warrior for Christ, the apostle Paul himself, is a great illustration of someone who loved the Lord and trusted His plan.  Paul was no fair-weather follower of Christ (2 Cor.11:24-33).  Could any of us doubt the apostle’s love for the Lord?  And yet in many of the things he endured there is much that we would hesitate to say was “good.”  He prayed to the Lord regarding the discomfort he found himself in (2 Cor.12:7-10), but the outcome of God’s revelation and providence brought him into greater confidence in the Lord.  He did not cry “Unfair!” to the Lord.  He did not deny Christ or quit the life of faith.  On the contrary, Paul realized that all things were working together for good, for himself and for others (Phil.1:12-18).  Near the end of his life’s journey, he wrote, “Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim.4:8).  Faith in God and love for Christ were things Paul never compromised.

What about you and me?  Faith can be frail and weak sometimes as we encounter the trials and circumstances of life.  “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

Do we truly believe this?  It is not difficult to say that all things, minus the bad things, work together for good.  But it’s the tough things that call for faith and love toward God.  Faith says, “God is still working.  I’ve got to give God time to put things together in order to complete His purpose.”  What great promises and assurances God gives to those who love Him (Rom. 8:29-39).  What a great thing it is to know that God loves you, and what a great task it is to love God.

Brian preaches for the Point Pleasant congregation in Hebron, KY.

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