[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given to the Portland UCG congregation on Sabbath, January 30, 2021.]
Do we believe that the promises of the Bible apply to us? To be sure, there are promises in the Bible that apply to specific people, but there are some promises that apply to all believers. Do we believe in these promises? I would like to spend my time talking about a promise that has inspired books of hundreds of pages in length. Obviously, not all aspects of this promise can be explored in depth, but all the same we can discuss this promise and what it means for believers at least briefly. Of particular interest to us with regards to this promise is that it is an extremely popular promise for people to cite to others in attempts to encourage them but does not feel as encouraging to those who are hearing the promise.
The promise in question is Romans 8:28. Romans 8:28 is part of a larger passage that seeks to encourage brethren about the concern of God for the well-being of creation, and it is a promise whose structure both allows it to be given as encouragement but received with considerably more doubt and concern. Romans 8:28 reads: “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.” In looking at this promise, the structure of the promise allows for its ambivalent role in encouraging us. On the one hand, the promise is that all thing work together for good. All things here mean all things. Without wishing to delve too deeply into unpleasant details, I am aware that I am speaking to an audience that has some understanding of the evils and suffering that can be suffered by God’s people. This verse does not say that all things are good, but instead that all things work together for the good, that God can turn the unpleasant and harrowing and traumatic experiences of our lives in a fallen and wicked world full of evildoers into good, good not by our standards, but by the vastly higher standards of our Father above. The first half of the verse, with its unqualified endorsement of the promise that God will use our suffering and torment for His glory, is obviously seen as a high degree of encouragement by those who cite this verse.
Yet the second half of the verse demonstrates why this verse does not always feel very encouraging to those who are in suffering. The second half of the verse hedges this absolute promise that all things work together for the good with two qualifications on who all things work together for, namely those who love God and those who are called according to His purpose. It is all too easy for us to doubt that we are called according to God’s purposes and that we love God when we do not feel loved by God during times of great suffering and difficulty. Despite the fact that those who are called by God and praised for their faithfulness and devotion to Him have often been called to suffer graciously, it is natural that we often feel our calling to be in question when we suffer. Even the heathens among us, who have no reason to expect a pleasant life in a universe governed by divine providence feel that it is unjust for the comparatively good to suffer even in a world where suffering and death is the universal fate of humanity, and indeed of all creation.
As is often the case, to better understand this verse and its promise, it is of vital importance that we look at the context of this verse. Let us first look at the local context of this verse and this promise in Romans 8 itself. While this context extends over much of the chapter, and indeed, much of the book of Romans itself, we can understand the promise and the hope of Romans 8:28 more easily and be comforted by it more readily when we look at the verse in a broader context than simply the verse itself. Let us read from Romans 8 in verses 18 through 27 to understand better the context in which the promise we are discussing today is set. Romans 8:18-27 reads: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”
Here we see that the promise that all things work together for the good is based on a recognition that at present the universe and all things in it, including ourselves, is subject to corruption and futility at the present time because of sin. The promise that all things work together for good expresses the universal yearning of creation for an eternity without suffering that is promised to take place in the resurrection of believers into eternal life and then the arrival of the new heavens and new earth where there will be no more death or sorrow or pain. To the extent that we believe in the promise of the new heavens and new earth, we believe that all things will eventually work for the good, however bad they may be in our past or present or in the near future. And this promise is not only of benefit to we ourselves but all who have been called or will be called. And since we have not seen this promise come true yet, we still hope for it and have faith in its ultimate fulfillment, because, as Paul helpfully points out, if we had seen it, we would not be hoping for it, but rather experiencing the promise.
We may better understand the promises of Romans 8 by comparing it with what is written in Hebrews 11, which similarly examines the question of faith and the meaning of divine providence of God in a world full of trials and difficulties. Just as we saw when looking at Romans 8, Hebrews 11 begins with a discussion of faith as believe in that which is not (yet) seen. Hebrews 11:1-3 reads: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” Continuing on to verse six, we have a similar promise to Romans 8:28 which is similarly qualified to believers. Hebrews 11:6 reads: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Here again, as is the case with Romans 8:28, the promise of eternal life and salvation through faith only comes to those who believe not only that God exists but that God rewards those who diligently seek to obey Him. Hopefully we would all count ourselves among that number.
In addition to this, just as Romans 8:28 tells us that all things, including very horrible things, will work together for good, Hebrews 11 ends with a discussion of precisely the sorts of horrible things that happen to believers in a wicked world, and comments that the ultimate deliverance from death and suffering remains so that we will enjoy it and not only those who in the past lived and died in faith. Hebrews 11:35-40 reads: “Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.”
And so we return to where we began. When Paul wrote to us that all things work together for good, he was not in any way downplaying or minimizing the difficulties and trouble that we face in this life. Human beings have inflicted all kinds of loathsome and terrible things on others, and some of us know from painful personal experience the sorts of evils that people can face in this world. The promise of ultimate blessings is based on the righteousness of God and of His commitment to create a new heavens and new earth where sin and corruption and death have no place. This world is obviously not present for us yet, but we hope for it and yearn for it and long for it. May we all diligently seek God and believe in the kingdom He has prepared for those who have faith in Him and in His goodness that all things will ultimately work for the good.