We now come in our study to what is probably the most well-known and readily-quoted verse in Romans chapter 8: “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (28). This is near the top of the list, if not at the top, of passages to reach for in times of suffering and trials. But for the deepest comfort it must not sit in isolation from the following verses, because together they give us not only the purpose toward which “all things” are working, but an ironclad assurance of salvation for all who are “called according to his purpose.”
For this post I could follow our lesson and outline what these three verses mean, defining the theological terms used, and then suggest some life-giving application. We did that in class, and it was a fruitful discussion. But it has been two whole weeks since our class, so I want to go straight to why this passage is such a comfort to believers in times of suffering and trials. Why do we need to tether ourselves firmly to these truths with their ironclad assurance? Not only when we are suffering, but especially before we need them, when the trial hasn’t yet come upon us.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For 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 brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. — Romans 8:28-30
When I stand in class to teach, I am looking at a roomful of precious sisters in Christ who need to know that their suffering matters to God. I don’t know each and every one of you as well as I wish, but many of you I do. I have listened to your stories, cried with you, prayed with and for you, and cried again on my own once we have parted. To see you each week, sitting there as we go through God’s word, knowing the burdens you bear—and that there are still so many about which I don’t know—humbles me to my core. I pray desperately that God will give me the right words, that I won’t say (or write) anything insensitive or hurtful. I don’t want to just teach the bible with theological integrity, but with compassion.
This is especially true with this week’s passage. Dear ones, if you are in Christ, Romans 8:28-30 applies to you. If you are in Christ, then you are one of those who love God and are called according to his purpose. And the reason you love God is because you were foreknown before the foundation of the world. This doesn’t mean that God looked down the corridor of time and recognized you. It means that before he created the world, God knew you. He didn’t simply ‘know who you are,’ his was a loving knowledge of you—he set his love upon you. You, dear one, were loved by God before a single molecule of the universe was spoken into being.
Therefore all things—good things, bad things, irritating things, and absolutely devastating things—ALL THINGS are instruments in your Father’s loving and wise hands and working for your good. This isn’t to say that all things are good, but that God, by his divine providence, turns even evil things to be used for his good and gracious ends. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism answer to question 11 tells us: “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” God’s providence governs everything.
This is comforting because imagining that God does not govern everything is to imagine a universe where God is not sovereign. If God is not sovereign over every atom of his creation, then “there can be no assurance of his providential care, no assurance of his love, no hope of security.” The vast testimony of scripture assures us that God is in sovereign control, and that suffering is part of the human condition because we live in a fallen and sinful world. When sin entered the world, it ushered in suffering and pain. But not a hair falls from our heads apart from our Father’s express will. In his loving eyes we are worth not only more than the sparrows (Luke 12:6-7), but the very life of his only begotten Son (John 3:16).
And we know all too well from our own experience and from the scriptures that we are not immune to suffering just because we are in Christ. Our brothers and sisters around the world face deadly peril because they are Christians. But believers here and abroad also suffer a thousand evils not related to our confession of Christ, from illness and pain in our bodies, to broken relationships, loss of employment and poverty, the sudden or drawn-out death a loved one or our own terminal condition, and unimaginable sufferings inflicted at the hands of wickedness. . . only, too many of us can imagine, because they have happened to us.
We have already learned in a past lesson that our sufferings are temporary (8:18), and now we learn that they are for a purpose. We now learn that God directs our suffering for a divine and good purpose. The good that God is working (28) is found in the very next verse, “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (29). Being conformed to the image of Christ, the process of growing in holiness known as sanctification, is the highest and best good that God can and does work in the life of every one of his children. Because he loved us, he determined to conform us to the image of his Son—and he who determines the end goal also determines the means toward that goal. Sanctification is the means, and sanctification often includes suffering.
To walk this path of sanctification is to follow our suffering Savior. Throughout his life Jesus walked his own road of suffering. He was misunderstood by nearly everyone he met, even his own family; he was rejected by the very people he came to save; one of his close companions conspired with his enemies to have him arrested; he was abandoned by his closest friends upon his arrest; his trial before the chief priests and elders was a circus of injustice; he was mocked by the Romans and the Jews; and in the single most wicked act in the history of mankind he was crucified by evil men. But scripture affirms that the God who is working all things in our lives for his good purposes, used the cross—planned the cross, and the evil men, and the string of injustices leading to it—for the highest good ever known: the redemption of his elect people from their bondage to sin (Acts 2:23). Jesus knows, dear one. He knows our hurt and our fear, and he is with us through it all, never leaving or forsaking us.
Verses 29–30 assure us of this when Paul writes that those who were predestined (the same who were foreknown) were also called, justified, and glorified. This is ‘the Golden Chain,’ each link—foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification—was forged in the eternal decree of God and is therefore unbreakable. We have already looked at God’s foreknowledge and predestining of his elect people, and now we consider the rest, beginning with the effectual call from spiritual death to spiritual life. This is the irresistible divine summons which must be, and always is, obeyed. Just as surely as Jesus called the dead Lazarus back to physical life, so also the spiritually dead are quickened and respond to the call.
And this call, grounded in God’s eternal purposes for his people, insures the perseverance of God’s beloved children, because it is followed by justification and glorification. As we have already learned, when God justifies a sinner by the gift of faith, this one-time act is irreversible. Once made right with God, those who are justified are always right with God, because our sins were nailed to the cross and Christ’s work of atonement on our behalf will never be undone, so there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1-4)!
Paul then writes that all those who are justified are also glorified. By including our glorification in the same past tense as the rest of the links in the chain, Paul’s pointing to the spiritual reality that believers already share in Christ’s glory because of our union with him by faith (8:17; Eph. 2:6; Col. 1:27; Col 3:1). Though it is still in our future, we have learned already that it is so certain that it is an object of our hope (5:2). According to Paul, our glorification is as certain and sure as if it were already done.
And doesn’t this point us right back to the temporary nature of our sufferings, which cannot be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us (8:18)? If you are not suffering now, dear one, anchor your heart in these promises of your loving Father, so that when trials come, you will be tethered to the truth and not tossed and beaten by the storm. If you are in the midst of suffering, surround yourself with people who will remind you of the truth of your Father’s compassionate love for you and wrap yourself in his word, allowing it to be a balm to your soul. And if you know someone who is suffering, don’t quote Romans 8:28 “at them,” but weep with them, speak carefully and lovingly to them, pray scriptural truth with them, be present with them, and be the hands and feet of Jesus to them.
In whichever of these circumstances you find yourself, remember:
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to
everlasting on those who fear him
 Derek Thomas, How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2011), 96.