Today, in a very real way, we reach the pinnacle of the book of Romans. Paul reveals the end game–essentially what everything is working toward. He’s taken us through a long journey to get here–a journey that was sometimes difficult to understand; a journey that was sometimes tedious in its working out; a journey that oftentimes was and is very confusing for those of us living in this day and age. But it is a journey that had to be taken in this manner, not because it was required by our philosophical thought, but because it was the journey revealed by God that went through Jesus.
Paul has laid out the workings of God starting with humankind’s rebellion from God. Paul showed how everyone has failed to live up to God’s purpose and command and how no matter how hard we try to accomplish that purpose and command, we will always fall short. Therefore, we stand condemned by God and under His wrath. Yet, in a stunning turn of events, God Himself takes on human flesh and pays the debt of our sin and makes us right with God. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. They are now justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith.” God makes us right with Him through no action of our own–it is completely and totally by God’s grace. Nothing else. And this becomes effective when we trust in Christ’s actions and not our own. There is nothing we have to do: no law to follow; no act of charity to perform; no prayer to pray. There is just a heart that has been captured by God’s marvelous grace.
And when that heart is captured by God’s marvelous grace, it falls in love with God. It falls in love with Jesus and our allegiance is changed. Where once we sought the things of this world, we now seek God. We live for God. We desire God and His will and rule. We find ourselves in Christ and we find Christ in us. Furthermore, the Spirit of Christ; the Holy Spirit, establishes a base of operations in our hearts where He works to put to death the desires of our flesh to help us focus on God. And, we found out last week, this same Holy Spirit intercedes for us by taking our selfish, misguided prayers as well as those prayers that have no words and transforming those prayers into holy and acceptable words.
All of this, Paul has set forward to show us what God is up to in our lives–in the lives of those who love Him. God is conforming us into the image and likeness of Jesus. I want you to just consider that for a moment. Think about just how spectacular a claim that is. God is conforming you; molding you; refining you; so that you become like Jesus. This is God’s end game. He wants you to be like Jesus beginning now and then brought to perfection in the life to come. When our hearts are captured by the Gospel; when we trust in Jesus and love Him; God molds us to be like Him. Wow.
Let’s pray. What an amazing thought is laid out before us today, that you, our heavenly Father would take us–fallen, broken, sinful beings and transform us into the image and likeness of your Son Jesus. We are not worthy of such an honor, but help us trust these words. Help us trust that you are working to do exactly this so that we might carry out His mission to bring your love to the world. And we ask this in His name. Amen.
We must be very, very careful as we approach our biblical text today from the eighth chapter of the book of Romans. Verse 28 is a much beloved text oft quoted by many, many Christians today. In fact, I still remember it as one of the Bible verses I was required to memorize when I was in confirmation 30 years ago. “All things work together toward good for those who love God; those whom He has called according to His purpose.” If we do not read this verse carefully, we can interpret it to say, “If I love God, then everything will work out for my good.”
Now, in a sense, this is true. I mean, we proclaim as Christians that ultimately, God will have the last word in all events, and that word will be good. We proclaim that all the evil that was ever committed will be unmade. We proclaim that the blind will see, the lame will walk, the dead will be raised, and so on and so forth when God comes to make everything new. When we take the long view, we can easily say, “Everything will work out for my good.” But if we do not keep this view in mind, there are at least three problems that arise.
The first problem often comes with my definition of good. Oftentimes, my definition of good does not have the long view in mind. Oftentimes my definition of good only concerns my wants and desires. If I love God, then everything I want and desire that I consider good will come to me. I can remember when I believed this strongly as a teenager. I was dating a girl from Houston and thought that we would be together forever. I was head over heels for her, and I spent many an hour in prayer thanking God for her and telling God how happy I was to have her. I was not happy when she called me and broke off our relationship using the words, “God told me we can’t be together.” I rebelled against that thought, and I reasoned to myself, “God loves me and wants me to be happy. Certainly He wouldn’t take her away from me. Haven’t I spent all of this time praying to God and thanking God. Surely God will give me what I want.” In a word, no. God is not in the business of giving us our heart’s every desire. He is in the business of transforming our hearts to desire Him above all things, and this is the view we must keep in mind when we read Romans 8:28.
The second problem that occurs is the fact that not all things are good, and bad things are inescapable in this life. Everyone at some point and time must deal with suffering. Everyone at some point and time must deal with pain and sorrow. Everyone at some point and time must be confronted with the reality of evil and death in the world. You cannot sugar coat such things and call them good. I mean, I’ve said a lot of arrogant things in my lifetime. I’ve even said some arrogant things from this pulpit which I very much regret to this day. And it would be the height of arrogance to proclaim to a widow who has just lost her husband of 60 years to the ravages of cancer that, “This is a good thing. You should be happy. Your husband is now free from pain and suffering.” It would be the height of arrogance to proclaim to parents whose child has just suffered traumatic injury, “This is a good thing. It’s God’s will. There is a purpose behind it, so rejoice in it.” It would be the height of arrogance to proclaim to a woman whose husband has cheated on her (or vice versa), “This is good, God will bring something good out of it.” No. Such things are not good. Sin is never good. There are things in this world that are not good, and we will all be confronted with those things. We cannot sugar coat them. We cannot simply excuse them. We must wrestle with them honestly.
The final problem that occurs with interpreting this text inappropriately is that the good that we receive becomes contingent on how much we love God. This is how a lot of those television preachers get away with saying the things they say. Your life hasn’t turned around? You don’t have enough faith and love of God. Your finances haven’t turned around? You haven’t taken the first step in tithing and you have a lack of faith and love in God. Your relationships aren’t where they should be? You don’t love God enough, so He isn’t blessing you. You must have more faith. You must have more love. Show God your faithfulness, and then things will rain down upon you. Effectively, this train of thought says that everything depends upon you. Which can be exciting for folks when things are going well, but absolutely devastating for folks when things are not going well.
No, Paul chooses his words carefully to convey this thought: if your heart has been captured by the grace of God; if you are desiring God deep within the depths of your being; if you are in Christ and Christ is in you; if the Spirit of Christ dwells within you because you trust in what Jesus has done on the cross instead of in your own actions, then God will take every circumstance in your life, everything that happens to you, every good thing, and every bad thing; every moment of triumph and every moment of tragedy, and He will use them for your benefit. He will use them for your good.
Now, I’m not going to give you too much time to let that sink in because I’ve got to show you what Paul says that good is. Because that good cannot be defined according to our Western, materialist thought. That good cannot be defined as health, wealth, and perfect relationships. No. Paul doesn’t allow us to do that. Paul defines what that good is in verse 29. You cannot just read verse 28, you’ve got to put it together with what follows: 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. Paul is showing us the end game. Paul is showing us what good God intends. Those who God foreknew–those whom God looked at and saw that their hearts would be changed by the Gospel–he predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus. That’s the good God is working toward. That’s the good God is using the good and the bad for. That’s the good that God uses suffering and tragedy to bring about. God is conforming you to the image and likeness of Jesus. This is the ultimate of Good–to become like Christ, and it is not something that you are capable of doing on your own. It is something God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are all combining their efforts to do. Hence the golden chain of verbs in verse 30, “30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Paul basically summarizes everything he has told us from Romans one until now. This is our status as Christians. God has predestined us. God has called us. God has justified us. And God has glorified us. He has done all these things so that we can be transformed from the inside out to be like Jesus.
I want us to spend just a little bit of time now thinking about the implications of this. First, I want to ask those who may be wondering about Christianity whether or not this has any impact on you. I mean, I know some folks are skeptical about the church. I know that some folks are skeptical about Christians in general. We don’t often live up to the ideals of our founder. But God isn’t finished with us yet. God is in the transformation process. And wouldn’t you like Him to transform you too? Yes, Christians are imperfect people. We sometimes are callous, uncaring, and ungrateful. We sometimes are hypocrites. Our hearts are undergoing transformation, so don’t look at us. Look at Jesus. And wouldn’t you like to be like Him? Wouldn’t you like to have a sense of purpose and drive that goes well beyond simply existing and earning as much as you can so that you can try to do what you want to do before unceremoniously exiting this world? Wouldn’t you like to know that all the work that you’ve done has meaning and purpose in the big scheme of things? Wouldn’t you like to go through life without worrying about having to justify yourself? Wouldn’t you like to go through life with the capability of looking at those who hurt you without becoming angry and overwhelmed
and instead have the capability to love and forgive? When you put your trust in what Jesus has done by pouring out His love for the world; by taking the wrath of God that you deserved; by dying for your sin and rising to new life; God will start working to make you as loving, as determined, as caring, as compassionate, as full of the desire for justice and peace as Jesus was. Would you like to become like Jesus? Put your trust in Him.
And to those of us who have already started this journey with Jesus, those of us who have placed our trust in Him and who consider ourselves Christian, let me ask you: do you sense that you are becoming more Christ-like? Do you find yourself seeking Jesus? Do you find yourself wanting to do the things that He did? Do you find yourself wanting to worship like Jesus worshiped? Do you find yourself wanting to explain God’s Word and bring people to the love of God like Jesus did? Do you find yourself wanting to serve in the church and in the world? Are your hearts continuing to be transformed so that you see the fruits of the Spirit active in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control? Do you find yourself becoming less judgmental and able to relate and care for those who do not share your beliefs and points of view doing this without compromising your own beliefs? Do you sense joy welling deep from within your heart as you think about Jesus? Do you long to sing God’s praise? Do you pray deeply and earnestly ask God to make you more like Jesus?
The Gospel brings transformation to our hearts and lives. God has poured out His life for you. He’s died that you may live. And if this news has touched your heart; if your heart is falling in love with God, He will use everything that happens to you to change you and transform you so that you will be like Jesus. Do you want to be like Jesus?
Let’s pray. Father, may we answer yes to that question! May we deeply desire Jesus. May we deeply fall in love with you so that you will work and move in our lives. May we see your hand at work in all things–good, bad, indifferent, in our work and in our pay, in our private and in our public lives–so that we can be comforted and excited that you are working everything to the good of becoming like your Son. And it is in His name we pray. Amen!