Making Sure We Have God’s ‘Good’ In Mind
Romans 8:28 is a beautiful promise: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. The scope of this promise is sweeping, both in what it says about God’s sovereignty over the lives of His people and what it declares that we are to believe concerning each event in our life because we are called and kept by such a beneficent Sovereign.
The declaration embedded in this promise concerning the sovereignty of God is so comprehensive that it takes us out of time and into eternity. Paul transcends the temporal plane by hanging the weight of this promise on God’s “call” and His “purpose.” In the following verse, he connects the call of God (which indeed seems to happen in time by His Spirit as the gospel is proclaimed) with the predestining and foreknowing that God accomplished of those same people (the called) outside of time. Thus the Father chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). When Paul links this promise with God’s “purpose” he transcends time as well, since Ephesians describes this same purpose as “eternal” (Eph 3:11; 1:11). So the “all things” that are covered under the umbrella of Paul’s promise in Romans 8:28 is the same thing, namely everything, that God is working according to the counsel of his eternal will (Eph. 1:11).
This invincible fulfillment of the transcendent, eternal purpose of our sovereign God is the rock that Paul places under our individual lives in Romans 8:28. What we are being asked to believe, and indeed to celebrate, is that when Paul paints with these cosmic, eternal brush strokes, they are not so broad that the details of individual lives fall through the cracks. In fact just the opposite is the case. Both incredible scope and exquisite detail are in view here. This is no austere, mechanical sovereignty we are trusting, but a God who calls us personally according to His overarching purpose, creates and sustains our individual love for Him, and invincibly works “good” out of each and every situation we face. The immanence and intimacy of this promise, surrounded as it is by the Spirit of God groaning with us in hope (8:22-27) and the Father giving up His only Son so that nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ (8:31-39), is every bit as powerful and necessary for Christian hope as its sovereign transcendence.
This, then, is the promise of Romans 8:28 – nothing that touches our lives is so big as to be outside of His control, and nothing within our lives is so small as to be beneath His concern. The joyful confidence that we are meant to receive through this promise however, is not bulletproof. It can be shot down and turned from a ground of confidence in God to offense at God by tripping over the word “good” at the center of it. So often, we look to Scripture to describe His sovereign rule over our life, we look to Scripture to define His intimate familiarity with our circumstances, and then we look to our culture to delineate the “good” this big God must work for us if He is to prove true to the promise of His word! When we import an unbiblical definition of the ‘good’ He has promised us into the center of this promise, the whole edifice of our faith can come tumbling down around us, and some are never able to pick up the pieces.
Thankfully, Paul not only wrote this promise to the church in Rome but short years later he was able to walk it out in front of them as he wrote the letter to the Philippians from a Roman jail. The overflowing joy that pervades this short letter must be taken as authentic! Paul is not working to put a good face on some devastating circumstances – like physical suffering from outside the church and spiritual desertion from within. Rather, he is walking in the power of the promise recorded in Romans 8:28! Most importantly, he is going to give us some language to fill out the “good” that we can confidently expect the God of Romans 8 to faithfully work in our “all things” as He did in Paul’s.
Paul is bound with chains, and yet he wants the Philippians to know that the word of God is not bound! In fact, what has happened to Paul has surprisingly served the “progress of the gospel” (1:12; cf. II Tim. 2:9). He uses this same word in verse 25 to describe the “progress of their faith” that is being served as he labors (even in absentia) among them. This two-fold “progress” is, I think, the content we should insert into the promise of Romans 8:28. The “good” that God has promised to work for those whom He has called according to His purpose – a purpose that includes their transformation into the image of His Son (Rm 8:29) and the wisdom of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ being made known (Eph 3:10-11; 1:9-10) – is perhaps best described as the progress of their faith and the progress of His gospel.
Paul seems to reinforce this understanding in Philippians 1:20 where he announces that it is his “eager expectation and hope” that “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” It should be instructive for us that this declaration comes on the heels of his hoping that through the prayers of the saints in Philippi and the help of the Holy Spirit, he would be delivered from his chains. So it is clear that he wants to be free from prison, and clear that he longs to return to them (cf. 2:24). But the “good” of freedom from prison is not the good that he is confident God will work for him in this situation! He has dreams and longings, but he does not take the route we so often can and assume that the fulfillment of those dreams is ultimately what God must work for us if Romans 8:28 is going to be true in our lives! The “good” he hopes in God for is not deliverance from chains, but that Christ would be honored in his body, whether he is set free or is executed under Nero. And that honoring of Christ, the context seems to make clear, takes place both when our faith progresses and the gospel advances. In this confidence Paul finds genuine joy, even in the midst of an unrelenting incarceration.
The challenge for us, then, is to see the good God has in mind and adopt that as our definition and hope! We have been recruited, as it were, into the fulfillment of His good and perfect purpose for all things. Therefore, He has promised to work “all things” in our life in such a way that they fulfill His overarching purpose for everything. That is “good” according to God. He has predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son. That good happens as our faith progresses, a progress which can include being led to new levels of awareness of our depravity and dependence on Him, as much as it can include seeing miraculous answers to our prayers for deliverance. He has also ordained that the proclamation of His victory in Christ be sounded to every people. This good progresses in comfortable sanctuaries, but more often through suffering, persecution and deprivation. Oh how often do we turn this “good” on its head – with ease and comfort and widening influence taken as signs of God’s faithfulness in our lives and their lack as God’s falling down on His promises (like Rm 8:28)! May He open our eyes to see our good from His perspective – the progress of our faith, often through dark nights and desperate dependance, and the progress of His gospel – often through suffering saints and unrelenting hostility that may kill the messenger but is, both for the martyr and the message, only gain! As those chosen by God and graciously folded into His sovereign purposes, this is the “good” He promises to powerfully work in our “all things.”