|By: Dr. John G. Weldon; ©2012|
|You say, "How in the world could sin work together for good? How can God cause sinful things to come out for good?"|
"All" and "everything" are all-inclusive words. According to the NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon, the Greek word panta in Romans 8:28 (from pas) has meanings such as: “each, every, any, all, the whole, “everyone,” all things, and everything.” Dictionaries define everything as "all that relates to a subject".
True, the word "all" in the Bible, as in common usage, does not always mean literally everything (e.g., "we all went to the store"), but there is nothing, given the character of God and the context of this Scripture – particularly in light of the "Golden chain" of vv. 28-31 – to give us any indication that it's not a 100% deal. (For commentary notes, see.)
As Dr. John MacArthur remarks, "That [verse of Romans 8:28] is absolutely a comprehensive statement. There are no caveats, there are no exceptions. Good things work together for our good. Bad things work together for our good. Neutral things work together for our good…. suffering works together for our good. Struggling with temptation works together for our good. Even sin [is something that] God causes to work together for our good by overruling it for our present benefit and our ultimate glory." Indeed, as he comments, all this is really what we have always wanted to hear. Many of us have read this verse, but have we really heard it and taken to heart its implications? That's what this writing is about. If this is really the greatest promise we can have in this life, then it certainly deserves some discussion and our time.
But Romans 8:28 is not only what we have always wanted to hear, it's what we've always wanted to experience -- and we will forever, but we can do this permanently even now. As Dr. MacArthur points out this verse is "perhaps the most highly regarded of all promises that believers enjoy because it is so comprehensive....No statement made to a believer could contribute more hope, more happiness, more freedom and more joy in the heart than that statement because what it says is that no matter what pain, no matter what problems, no matter what failures, no matter what difficulties, no matter what disasters, no matter what sin, no matter what suffering, no matter what temptation, all things work together for good. The extent is emphasized in the word pantain the Greek, meaning all things. It is a comprehensive promise. And the context has no limits, the context puts no limits on it. There's nothing that qualifies the ‘all things,’ nothing. It means absolutely what it says, all things work together for good. God takes anything and everything that occurs in a believer's life and rather than it potentiating the believer's loss of salvation, rather than it potentiating the believer's condemnation, God makes it work together for the believer's ultimate good. This is the greatest promise that we can have in this life. There are absolutely no limits on this statement in this context. It is limitless."
Further, "Whatever the extent, whatever the amount, whatever the intensity, whatever the overwhelming character and nature of our trouble, it all is woven together by God for our good.... Take that verb ‘work together,’ it's the Greek verb sunergefrom which we get synergism which means ‘to work together.’ Everything is synergistic, everything blends together, everything operates cooperatively…. No matter what happens in your life it will turn out good....That is a gilt-edge promise that nothing can happen in the life of a believer that can end up in ultimate bad."
As long as something is in harmony with God's nature and attributes, nothing is impossible with God, as Scripture clearly teaches: “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14). Jeremiah also declared, “Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:7). Jesus said, “For nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). Or as the ISV translates this verse: “Nothing is impossible with respect to any of God's promises.” And Romans 8:28 is clearly a promise of God. Further, please observe that God does not want His children to have the slightest doubt in the matter because the verse begins His promise with "we know…"
How can God work literally everything in our lives from the moment we are "born again" (John 3:3-8) until our last breath (especially all the suffering, hardship, tragedy, adversity, disaster, evil – again, you name it) for ultimate good in our lives?
Think about it. Would it really be so difficult for an immortal and infinite Being who is infinite love, goodness and wisdom, an immutable God who controls all things in His absolute providence and sovereignty to so arrange things? Of course not: He's had all eternity, so to speak, to figure it out. As the above verses prove, nothing is too hard for God. Given His nature and attributes, if He says something is true, it's true by definition.
Would we have to see and understand how all things are working together for our good (and His ultimate glory) in order to know its really is happening all the time? Again, of course not. God's ways and thoughts are infinitely above ours (Isaiah 55:8). Once God reveals something and it is interpreted properly, the matter is settled forever. In a different context, “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (Matthew 19:26).
That's why people throughout history have often observed that what used to be (or still is) a severe problem, misery, tragedy or deep loss actually ended up becoming something good in their lives, even a gift from God – which is what it really was all along, whether or not they understood it as such. In some ways, the tremendous blessing of this verse depends on individual perception – whether we let the bitterness of circumstances consume us or see things completely differently, particularly through the cross. If God could bring such good (the eternal salvation of who knows how many millions of people) out of such evil (through the horribly torturous murder of His own dear Son), then He can bring good out of anything, and by anything, I mean literally anything. And remember, the worst possible experience any of us will ever undergo is infinitely less than the physical, emotional and spiritual torture suffered by the infinitely holy Son of God on the cross who took upon Himself the sins of the world (Hebrews 5:7).
Some argue that this magnificent promise of Romans 8:28 -- which to my mind, is among the top five promises in the entire Bible -- is conditional for believers because it is only true for those who: 1) "love God" and 2) "are the called according to his purpose." Some Christians may look at the verse, see an apparent conditional aspect, realize they don't love God the way they should and/or do not understand what "called according to his purpose" means and therefore concluding this promise may not apply to them. That would be an unfortunate mistake. This is one of those "we know" or "truly, truly" (John 6:47) promises where God deliberately emphasizes something for impact. If you are already 100% convinced you love God and are among the called according to His purpose, you can skip to the next appropriate section; if not, the following may be helpful.
The doctrine of divine calling is one of those precious doctrines that every Christian should study (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV), along with the doctrine of our union with Christ, regeneration, justification and all the dozen or so additional wonderful teachings collated under the glorious doctrine of salvation. As to calling, by definition every truly born again (regenerate) Christian is called according to God's purpose. In fact, such calling is virtually equivalent to being born again. According to Romans 8:28 Christians are the called of God who love God – that's the essence of being a Christian. If you are a Christian, you are called of God and love God.
Noted Bible expositor Dr. John MacArthur closes his lecture series on Romans 8:28 by pointing out that love for God is impossible for the unregenerate – it's only possible for us to love God if we have been called by God. In other words, it's His love for us that initiates our love for Him.
As Dr. MacArthur points out, the divine call in this sense means "to be brought to salvation." We are not called according to our purpose, but according to His eternal purpose (Ephesians 1:4-11). In the end, the only reason we love God is not because we decided to or made the choice (although our choice was and is involved), it was because God initiated the choice: "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world" according to the kind intention of His good pleasure and will (Ephesians 1:4-5).
Pastor and theologian Dr. John Piper points out that the last phrase in Romans 8:28, "called according to his purpose," is the final definitive condition of the regenerate. It is true of every Christian by definition.
Indeed, Christians are those who are called from a condition of absolute negatives to a condition of absolute positives – from spiritual death to spiritual life, from spiritual darkness to spiritual light, from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God. This transference happened instantaneously at the point of regeneration; at one point we were dead in sins and trespasses, at the next split-second all our sins were divinely forgiven and Christ's perfect righteousness was reckoned to our account as a wholly free and gracious gift.
Because our spiritual condition and destiny has been irrevocably altered for all time and eternity (John 10:28-30; Romans 8:28-39; 1 John 5:13), Christians love God, whether that love is strong at times or weak at times or in between; whether we are fully aware of it, less aware or so preoccupied otherwise that we are unaware. "The calling into love and faith is once for all, and so love for God is the mark of the truly called person – all the time. Of course, our love for God has moments of intensity and moments of weakness – just like every other love relationship we have. But in those who are called, love for God is what defines them. It’s the abiding condition of our hearts – whether strong or weak. So Paul is not saying all things work for good for Christians some of the time (when their love for God is strong), and all things don’t work for good for Christians some of the time (when their love for God is weak). He is saying that for Christians – the called, those whose hearts have been brought from enmity to love for God – all things work for good all the time."
So, if you are a Christian, you are already among the company of "the called according to his purpose." There is no way in Heaven or on earth that this clause does not apply to you.
As mentioned above, the point to understand here is that every regenerated (born again) Christian does love God, to whatever degree –the quality of that love may depend on how long they have been a Christian, how well they are instructed in Scripture or other factors, but if anyone is a genuine Christian, then by definition they love God and Christ.
For example, when I first became a Christian, I didn't know anything about the Bible or who Jesus was. However, because I was regenerated (spiritually reborn, John 3:3-8), I definitely wanted to learn about the Bible, God and Jesus. Even in the first few days of regeneration, I wanted to do additional things I never wanted to do before in my entire life – pray to God, attend church, and evangelize. And to evangelize you don't need anything more than John 3:16.
In addition, because my spiritual nature had changed from death to life, I experienced things I had never experienced before in my life, such as sensitivity to sin and the desire for the things of God. I was also willing to forgo things I would never have foregone before in my life. I lost interest in drugs and alcohol and was willing to give up sex outside of marriage. All these items were evidence of the divine miracle called the new birth.
Put another way, the Holy Spirit was working in my life to glorify Jesus even when I didn't know anything about God, Jesus, the Bible or loving God. He was working in my life to love God despite my ignorance. Even when I didn't realize it or understand it, it was still true – the Holy Spirit had poured out God's love in my heart so that I was loving God without even knowing it: "The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Romans 5:5).
Then, as I learned about what Jesus Christ had actually done for me at the cross of Calvary, I couldn't help but love Him. I was undone, dumbfounded, obliterated. The infinitely holy God had, in the Second Person of the holy Trinity, taken the form of humanity to die for my sins to give me a free gift of eternal life and glory forevermore! There's no other message like it throughout human history or around the globe today. There never will be.
If you are a Christian, you can't help but love God because you understand the infinite extent to which God has loved you – miserable you, an undeserving sinner who only deserved eternal wrath and spending an eternity in Hell – and yet you have somehow received the extreme lavishness of the infinite love and mercy and grace and kindness He has poured out upon you – the response not to love back is simply impossible, utterly impossible.
After spiritual rebirth, once we understand what God has done on our behalf; for us not to love Him back, we would have to be physically dead. As the apostle John puts it, "We love him because he loved us first." (1 John 4:19, emphasis added)
What God has done for us is so astonishing, so remarkable and so wonderful that loving God in return is simply natural for Christians, so natural that the apostle Paul can assert simply and definitively, "If anyone doesn't love the Lord, let him be anathema" – meaning cursed of God, devoted to destruction, damned forever (1 Corinthians 16:22). If the most powerful king in human history gave you, a mere peasant, the most extravagant gift possible and you spit on it, tore it to shreds and kicked it back in his face, the king would rightly be outraged and would enact punishment. Imagine how an infinite King would feel if the gift were His Son and so treated (Hebrews 10:27-31). But apart from what God has done for us, when we learn who God really is, we love Him simply for the fact of who He is – infinitely perfect in His nature and attributes. There isn't anything not to love – everything about God calls for love.
Thus, as John MacArthur points out, the simplest definition of a Christian is someone who loves the Lord; "true salvation produces lovers of God." As he further observes, everyone on earth falls in one of two categories: a lover of God or a hater of God. There isn't a middle ground such as being a little bit pregnant; it's one or the other.
No Christian loves God perfectly and no non-Christian hates God perfectly, but because of regeneration or lack of regeneration, it's either one situation or the other. You're saved or you're not saved. You're born again or you're not born again. You're regenerate or you're not regenerate. You love God or you don't love God. It's a true black or white state of affairs. True enough: "We don't love Him as we ought to love Him. A lot of the time we are like Peter, but sin causes us to respond the way it caused Peter to respond. And you remember, when Peter came face to face with his betrayal of Christ, his denial of Christ, he went out and wept bitterly, didn't he? It was his love that produced the tears. We love the Lord for what He's done for us. We love Him for who He is. We love Him and it is that love that marks us as true believers."
In conclusion, the phrases "to those who love God" and "the called according to his purpose" aren't things possibly true for Christians – they are things always true for Christians by definition and therefore the absolute promise that "all things work together for good" is always true and never not true. In addition, the promise of Romans 8:28 is true not just in this life, but true forever –it is a promise that is limitless, eternally limitless.
Only those who die very young and a few others will escape real testing, trial and adversity in life; such is the lot common to all people.
Unfortunately some Christians look only at their direct experience (the pain, loss, depression, physical, emotional or spiritual torment, feelings of worthlessness, discouragement, etc.) and not to the God who plans to bring good out of the experience simply because that is part of His nature. Granted, it's very easy to look at the circumstances, but it's not necessary to be dominated by them. It's possible to have victory over them.
For example, despite the enormous hardships of the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 11:23-29), he said that he had "learned the secret" of being content in any and all circumstances. Given the life he lived, that's a pretty amazing declaration. "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want" (Philippians 4:12).
Anyone who does a study on what the apostle Paul endured for his faith in Christ understands that this is a precious secret indeed. And I believe its key is found in Romans 8:28. The great apostle understood that no matter what the circumstance, he always won; he was always a victor in Christ. "No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us" (Romans 8:37). The "all these things" he had just referred to included: "trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword" and "facing death all day long, considered as sheep to be slaughtered" (vs. 35-36). In 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 we read that Paul had "been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”
Those are the hardships of missionary work and persecution for Christ's sake that few in America experience – and yet even with them all, Paul says "despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ." He understood that God "always leads us in victory because of Christ" (2 Corinthians 2:14, God's Word, emphasis added). Again, because Romans 8:28 is always true, no matter what the condition, experience or situation, Christians are the only people on earth who never lose – not even once.
The world, the flesh and the devil may be our most formidable enemies but despite them we are "overwhelmingly conquerors." Jesus has already overcome the world (John 16:33; cf. 1 John 5:4-5), our flesh has been nailed to the cross (Galatians 2:19; Romans 6:6 cf. Colossians 2:14) and greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4; John 12:31). The world the flesh and the devil remain temporary opponents in this life, and God uses even these for our good, but as comparative phantoms despite their ferocity. The ultimate victory is already won – decisively, thoroughly, permanently, forever.
The Bible sometimes utilizes an argument from the lesser to greater in order to emphasize something truly important. For example: "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your [infinitely holy and perfect] Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:11)
Here's another example: "For if while we were [Gods’] enemies [it can't get any worse than this] we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life" (Romans 5:10). In other words, if God did the most for us when we were his enemies – will he do less for us now that we are His own your children? Of course not; it violates all experience and logic. If he went to the horrid and infinite depths of the atoning death of His precious Son to save us in the first place, He will certainly keep us saved forever.
Or consider this verse: "Since we have now been justified [past tense, that is, already declared perfectly righteous] by his blood [atoning death] [then], how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through Him!" (Rom. 5:9) Again, if God did the most for us when we were undeserving sinners who deserved only eternal wrath, and yet He placed all His infinite wrath against sin upon Christ and in the "great exchange" gave us Christ's own righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21), how much more must it be true that we will certainly be saved from God's wrath when it comes upon the world? If Christ took all the divine wrath due us, upon Himself upon the cross, then not one bit of wrath remains for us to experience, not ever.
Or, reflect on a final example: "He who did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all--how ['much more' could certainly be added here] will he not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?" (Rom. 8:32).
The point seems obvious: because God does everything for us at the moment of salvation – even while we are in our most spiritually miserable and alienated condition – so He will most certainly take care of everything else from that point on, stretching throughout eternity.
Now let's apply this "lesser to greater" argument to Romans 8:28. For whatever reason, some Christians have difficulty in believing that everything is working together for their good.
But if it can be demonstrated that God often does this (to some extent) even for non-Christians, perhaps it will be easier for them to understand "how much more" He will do it for them, His own beloved children (note the term "beloved" in the following verses: Romans 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 John 3:1; 4:11; Jude 1:1). As we will see, the Bible has many statements that God is good and kind even to those who oppose Him.
Let me offer some examples of God's mercy, grace and kindness in the midst of evil (turning suffering, tragedy and evil for good); citing mostly the lives of non-Christians. Of course, I can't know anyone's heart; their presumed spiritual status is an assumption based on their not being publicly known as Bible-believing Christians. Please note these are only a few illustrations of many more I have personally seen in televised interviews, in my reading, and in talking with people. I personally believe that, when everything is revealed, there will be seen to be multiplied billions of such examples. After all, how many experiences does just one Christian have in life, and if even 10% of all non-Christians experienced just one instance of God turning evil to good, we would still have billions of examples.
Let's reemphasize the point of all these examples – if God can do all this kindness, mercy and goodness for non-Christians, will he do less for those who are His own dear children? Of course not. If He did the most for us (dying for our sins) when were His enemies, will He do less for us now that we are His beloved? Of course not. Is He worthy of being trusted regardless of our circumstances, no matter how difficult? Of course; after all, He's God; He has a good purpose for everything, even when it's unbelievably hard, and nothing was harder than the cross of Calvary. And if we don't see the good produced in this life, we will certainly see it in the next.
Let me take an extreme example. I'm convinced that more good than we can possibly now imagine, yes eternal good, will eventuate from what many consider the hardest of Christian doctrines – the fact that many people will spend an eternity in Hell. For example, if the cross is absolute proof of God's infinite love, Hell is absolute proof of God's infinite holiness. It will constitute an eternal demonstration of the infinite righteousness and holiness of God to both the redeemed and angels, all inhabitants of Heaven and Hell, – perfect equitable justice on display forever. It will make the saints forever grateful that they are now in Heaven and not that other awful place because "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31; Romans 9: 22-23). But further exposition is the subject of another article.
Although tragedy is much more than a means to gain wisdom and perspective, Senator Robert Kennedy once observed that what it definitely isn't is a mere manual by which to gauge how much we are to give to people who are suffering: "Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to give." That word "wisdom" is pregnant with meaning and the examples below are illustrative (all emphases added).
Rush Limbaugh once spoke in the following terms about his difficult addiction to narcotic pain medications: "I got addicted to prescription medicine, pain pills. It turns out to be one of the things in my life that I am most thankful for. Because in overcoming it and learning partly why it happened, it made me a better person."
Everyone knows the famous actor Michael J. Fox of the "Back to the Future" series and other films. Here's what he said of his difficult disease: "Parkinson's has given me something I'm truly grateful for -- a chance to make a difference in the lives of millions of patients."
Glenn Beck observed about his daughter with cerebral palsy, who had 13 strokes at birth: "My daughter has taught me more [good things] than any other person than I have ever been around. She teaches me something every day. Without that imperfection you cannot find the truth..."
Glenn Beck suffers, sometimes terribly, from ADD or attention deficit disorder; nevertheless he's convinced of the melody that "it's a gift": "You know what my ADD allows me to do? Radio show, television, three books a year", etc. Precisely because of ADD he can multitask and function more effectively in certain ways than he could ever do without it.
The fact that Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt the first year of his presidency was what made him dedicate his presidency to God and to rededicate his life to Jesus Christ. He understood that near-fatal assassination attempt was ultimately a blessing in disguise and a wake-up call. Who knows what would have happened in America had he never been shot?
Dr. John MacArthur might never have entered Christian ministry were it not for a terrible car crash. I remember Dr. MacArthur (the fifth cousin of General Douglas MacArthur) explaining in a Sunday sermon one day how he originally had wanted to go into professional football. The story goes something like this: even though his father was a preacher, he had different designs on his life. God, however had other ideas. What did it take to put John McArthur into the ministry? Going through the windshield at 50-60 mph and skidding along the freeway on his front or back for something like 100 yards. God loved him enough – and He loved those Dr. MacArthur would impact enough – to put him through that. If God had never shown him such a "severe mercy" there would be literally millions of people around the world far more spiritually impoverished today – and perhaps tens of thousands unsaved (http://johnmacarthur.org/).
We see something similar in the lives of such biblical characters as the patriarch Abraham, Joseph son of the patriarch Jacob, Moses, the prophet Daniel, Queen Esther and Mordecai, and the apostle Paul. In each case God either used or overruled evil for tremendous good, blessings that continue to this day for millions of people.
Indeed, how many thousands or even millions of people have come to Christ as a result of some suffering or tragedy in their lives? And what wouldn't anyone be willing to endure in this life in order to inherit eternal life in Heaven? As Jesus observed in one of his most far-reaching teachings, "And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?" (Matthew 16:26).
Colonel George “Bud” Day, a Medal of Honor winner and the most decorated officer since General Douglas MacArthur (70 military decorations and awards -- 50 for combat) made the following observation about former presidential candidate John McCain's five and a half years of North Vietnamese prison camp misery and torture. He pointed out that even in such extremes "it turned some iron into steel. He came out of that tougher than he had ever been before."
In addition to enduring the monstrous weight of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln is considered one of our finest presidents. Apparently he was going to make a public confession of his faith in Jesus Christ the Easter Sunday following his assassination on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.
Besides the terrible weight of the Civil War, he had many other maladies to deal with: depression, mercury poisoning (from the "blue mass" pills he took for his depression), insomnia, his mother's death from milk poisoning, the death of his baby brother in infancy; his sister's death in childbirth and the death of his sweetheart Ann Rutledge, not to mention the death of two sons and and serious problems with his wife, who was so distraught over the death of her child she turned to the dangerous occult practice of mediumism. To cite an illustration, 20 years prior to the Civil War, on January 23, 1841 Lincoln wrote to his law partner: "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me."
Yet President Lincoln became the nation's hero, saving it from a terrible fate. He was molded through his great suffering and adversity specifically, I believe, to help the United States survive the most brutal war in its history, a war that could have torn it to shreds. Without Lincoln's severe testing and tragedy, without his wisdom and leadership learned on the anvil of suffering and misery, America today could easily be a divided nation like the Sudan or Korea or others. Had President Lincoln never been molded by severe adversity, the South could have won the war or there might have been a stalemate and America's future could have been vastly different.
John Calvin's three children each died in infancy. "Calvin's physical afflictions read like a medical journal. He suffered from painful stomach cramps, intestinal influenza, and recurring migraines headaches. He was subject to a persistent onslaught of fevers that often laid him up for weeks at a time. He experienced problems with his trachea, in addition to pleurisy, gout, and colic. He suffered from hemorrhoids that were often aggravated by an internal abscess that would not heal. He had severe arthritis and acute pain in his knees, calves and feet. Other maladies included nephritis (acute, chronic inflammation of the kidneys caused by infection), gallstones, and kidney stones. He once passed a kidney stone so large that it tore the urinary canal and lead to excessive bleeding…. Due to his rigorous preaching schedule (he preached twice on Sunday and every day of the week, every other week) he would often strain his voice so severely that he experienced violent fits of coughing. On one occasion he broke a blood vessel in his lungs and hemorrhaged. When he reached the age of 51 it was discovered that he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, which ultimately proved fatal. Much of his study and writing was done while bedridden. In the final few years of his life he had to be carried to work."
That's just a sampling. Yet John Calvin became one of the most influential Christians in history, playing a major role in the Protestant Reformation, penning his classic and extremely important Institutes of the Christian Religion and many other books, and achieving far more in his short life because of his adversity than if he had lived an easier life.
Tom Clancy and John Grisham had been rejected by every publishing house in New York City; Vince Flynn had over 60 rejection letters from publishers before he self-published his first novel, Term Limits. Flynn is now one of the best-selling authors in the nation. He suffered horribly with dyslexia in school; nevertheless looking back he believes "it's a gift" because of the positive impact it had in his life.
Both of America's most popular folk heroes, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone believed in Jesus Christ. Crockett was the epitome of the American character and killed an unbelievable 105 bears in a single season. Revolutionary officer Daniel Boone declared: "The religion I have is to love and fear God, believe in Jesus Christ, do all the good to my neighbor, and myself that I can, do as little harm as I can help, and trust on God’s mercy for the rest.”
Crockett's life was filled with hardship, but he maintained a Christian spirit: "Children can be happy under the worst of circumstances and indeed his were bad. He lived in grinding poverty. His father was abusive and increasingly alcoholic. And finally at the age of 12 the old man sold Davy, as was the custom of the day, into indentured servitude." When his wife died soon after giving birth to one of his daughters, "In this time I met with the hardest trial, the hardest trial whichever falls to the lot of man. I was left with three children, the two oldest were sons the youngest a daughter, a mere infant. It appeared to me at that moment that my situation was the worst in the world…. All his life Crockett was wracked with malaria." Nevertheless: "Whenever I had anything and saw a fellow being suffering I was more anxious to relieve him than benefit myself. And this is one of the true secrets of my being a poor man to this day. But it is my way and it has never left my heart empty of consolations which money couldn't buy, the consolations of having sometimes fed the hungry and covered the naked."
In a similar fashion, Daniel Boone lamented, "Two darling sons and a brother have I lost by savage hands. Many dark and sleepless nights have I been a companion of owls, an instrument ordained to settle the wilderness.... My footsteps have often been marked with blood."
Most Americans are familiar with the hit TV show "America's Most Wanted" and most understand that it would never have begun without the death of the founder's son, Adam. Law enforcement hero John Walsh (only the third man in US history to be made an honorary US Marshall) specifically began that show as a tribute to his son Adam. Through the help of the viewing audience, his show has brought down over 1,100 dangerous fugitives and brought more than 50 missing children home to their parents since its inception. But much more has been accomplished: "The Walsh’s experience showed them that the nation was in desperate need of leadership in the fight to protect children. Out of their pain, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) was created in 1984, after President Ronald Reagan signed the "Missing Children's Assistance Act." The NCMEC is the premier child protection non-profit, providing invaluable resources to parents, children and law enforcement in the United States and internationally. The charity consistently receives an A rating for its spending of more than 90 cents of every dollar raised on programming…. On July 27, 2006 -- 25 years to the day since Adam's abduction -- at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, President George W. Bush signed a new, tough-as-nails law to track and apprehend convicted sex offenders who disappear after their release from prison: The ‘Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.’ July 27 is now a bittersweet day for the Walshes; it's a date that marks the worst day of their lives in 1981, but also a day that brings hope to families who seek justice and answers because of the law named for their son."
Finally, in Joni Eareckson Tada's A Place of Healing she says what the average person would never think of saying -- that the word "celebrate" is actually the most appropriate word to describe her 45-year affliction as a quadriplegic, and I can't but agree with her: "Honestly, I can't think of a better word, given all the good things that have happened as a result of my wheelchair." She titles chapter 10 of the same book, "Thank You, God, for This Wheelchair." And, "A day in this wheelchair serving him, a day representing him though in the grip of this unrelenting pain, is better than a thousand self-filled days lived pain free and on my feet."
Why? The reason is simple. God has been so incredibly good and gracious to Joni that she can't help but rejoice, despite her intense deprivation and suffering. This good has come to her (and others) not in spite of their situation, but because of it. Joni observed, "My friends, this is one of a million reasons why I am grateful God didn't heal me of my paralysis. What if I had been healed at the Kathryn Kuhlman crusade back in the early 1970s? What if God had answered my prayers as a 17-year-old, released me from my paralysis, and returned me to a normal life of a woman on her feet?"
Here's what would never have happened: Consider examples of Joni's accomplishments after quadriplegia, through the grace of God. She has:
Without breaking her neck and becoming a quadriplegic, it's almost certain none of these things would have occurred.
These examples can be multiplied almost endlessly. Any and every person can have the glorious promise of Romans 8:28 become true in their lives – not just a few things working for good but literally everything working for good – by receiving Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. What could be better or more wonderful?
I'm reminded of two examples, the first involving a woman who had beauty, brains and fame who knew that whatever happened, she could "always" fall back on her beauty and brains.
Unfortunately, nothing is guaranteed in this life, not for the next second. Her beauty and husband were taken away in a horrible car accident, particularly her beauty, along with severe trauma to her brain. Over the long haul, it was anything but easy but it actually worked out for good with her surviving the severe disfigurement and becoming a physical therapist helping many others. Looking back she said, "I feel really blessed and I wouldn't wish this ordeal and journey on my worst enemy, but I can say that I am really grateful for who I am today… The lessons I have learned."
In another situation a man who took his family on a two-year sailing trip lost his leg when the boat hit a reef and the mast collapsed on his leg, severing it. All five family members should have perished, but all five survived. The husband especially should have died, surviving days without a leg and no medical assistance, losing over 70% of his blood. When he finally got to the hospital, the first words out of his mouth after the six-hour surgery that saved his life (God actually saved his life) were, "God works in mysterious ways; his wonders to behold." That came out of nowhere. Prior to the accident his family was being splintered apart, but after the accident they had a tighter bond than ever, even writing a book about the experience. The father was particularly grateful that he had the privilege of experiencing the courage of his own children – "It's a priceless gift – it's worth losing a leg; I'd lose two legs to gain that and I'll carry that [knowledge] to my dying day."
The openly displayed love of God for unbelievers and even His enemies can only be attributed to the essence of God's nature: "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16). Only His infinite mercy, compassion, goodness, and love can explain such mercy and kindness. The ultimate example of course, is the cross of Calvary – the fact that God Himself (in the Person of His Son), underwent far worse suffering in any category one might wish to name than we ever will – all of this suffering done entirely for non-believers and His enemies (John 3:16; Romans 5:10). After all, He has already freely given every unbeliever wondrous gifts – life itself (Daniel 5:23); moment by moment existence (Colossians 1:17); every good gift (Ecclesiastes 3:13; James 1:17); He loves his enemies (Matthew 5:44); He tells His own children to pray for, love and care for unbelievers, even those who persecute them (Galatians 6:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; Romans 12:14, 20); and He freely offers His own infinite love with outstretched arms for all who will accept it (John 1:12).
Again, this isn't to say that Romans 8:28 is a promise for non-Christians or is always true in the life of the non-Christian – it clearly isn't. The promise of 100% application is only for those who believe in God's Son and are regenerate or spiritually "born-again." But it is to say that God, in His love, mercy and common grace, may at times bring good out of evil and tragedy even in the life of non-believers – because again, that's just part of who He is – it's wrapped up in His perfect nature and character.
I can only imagine that the angels live in a state of continual astonishment. Not only does God eternally redeem wholly unworthy sinners and enemies who deserved only eternal wrath, He actually shows great kindness toward the continually unrepentant, at least in this life. Their continued existence is proof enough. In the next life, it will be another story, temporal love having been turned permanently to eternal wrath, much like ultimate betrayal in a marriage can turn the switch of love off virtually instantaneously. Biblically, of course, the paradox exists that while God loves the unbeliever in this life, the unbeliever is simultaneously under His wrath (John 3:16-19, 36).
Regardless, whatever the reader may be going through (or a family member or friend), the above illustrations will hopefully help in gaining a more biblical perspective. Not only will God get us through whatever we are experiencing (as he told the apostle Paul with his apparently terrible "thorn in the flesh," His grace is always sufficient), He will work it together for our good and His glory – and in eternity, we will be eternally grateful that he did not spare us.
After all, where would each of us be had He spared Jesus?
There is no one for whom Romans 8:28 is more true than for Jesus. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2).
And, on a lesser scale, that is partly true for us as well. In the midst of all our adversities, God is pointing us toward the joy that we will inherit forever:
As certain as the Bible is that everything works together for the good of those who love God and are the called according to His purpose, the Bible is equally clear that whatever kindnesses God shows unbelievers, even though God loves them, the unbeliever is also under divine wrath headed toward eternal judgment (John 3: 16-18, 36). Lest we forget, this is the same condition of every believer prior to spiritual rebirth (Colossians 1:21; Romans 5:10; Ephesians 2:3, 12). To be sure, "The Lord keeps all who love Him, but all the wicked He will destroy" (Psalm 145:20). What John McArthur says is true: for the Christian, "There is no limit at all on the ‘all things,’ but there is a limit with regard to whom the ‘all things’ applies. If I may be so bold as to give you a little bit of a preview, everything in the life of a believer works for their good, conversely, nothing in the life of an unbeliever works ultimately for their good...nothing. Their good or their bad is before God wickedness and it only produces eternal judgment."
True enough: ultimately (not temporally) even the outwardly best works of righteousness are filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) before God because even their most perfect righteousness remains tainted by self and sin and therefore will be judged accordingly. "There is no one righteous, not even one… There is no one who does good, not even one" (Romans 3:10, 12). The apostle Paul declared he "was blameless" as to the righteousness found in the law – the NIV translates the idea: "as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” This is why he concluded: "But whatever was to my profit [i.e. supposed profit, legalistic righteousness as a Pharisee] I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" (Philippians 3:7-9, emphasis added).
Again, this doesn't mean that God isn't kind even to His enemies or that at least sometimes, He doesn't work evil for good in their lives. I once wrote a book containing a chapter that had not much more than statements by unbelievers about how good and kind and wonderful God had been to them. Regardless, to be sure, many of those people who are currently His enemies are going to become His children in the future, and looking back, they often see evidences of God's grace, mercy, love and kindness to them as non-Christians. It was certainly true in my life.
Regardless, at any moment in this life, while time remains, any non-believer anywhere on earth can gain the promise of the 100% application of Romans 8:28 simply by trusting in Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior for forgiveness of sins.
Further, when God doesn't work such things as tragedy for good in the life of unbelievers, all such things are inevitably and naturally still something good to them, at least potentially – pointers and warnings to repent and turn to Christ before it really is too late. There has never been at death or a funeral since Adam and Eve that has not been a warning of coming divine judgment because of the inbred fear of death all men are subject to (Hebrews 2:15; 9:27) through the knowledge of their sins which produces the fear of divine judgment after death (Acts 17:30-31; Romans 1:32; 2:1-6, 14-15). Just as there isn't a person who has ever existed who doesn't know God exists, certain things about Him, and that they are responsible to Him; there isn't a person who has ever existed who doesn't know divine judgment comes after death – because God has made both items clear to them (John 16:8; Romans 1:19). There has never been a tear cried, a suffering endured, a misery experienced, a calamity encountered that has not pointed to the Fall, the sense of something askew, and the hope of deliverance from its consequences which are found only in the one true God.
But because we are so hard of heart, God must indeed sometimes shout in order to get our attention. As a physician who was chief of pathology and, so to speak, had the world in his hands once observed, "For the first time in my life I had come against a major obstacle that I could not handle with self effort! God was well on His way to bringing me to the end of myself (Mk 8:35, 36, 37)."
Interestingly enough, God used Dr. Hurt’s training in pathology to encourage him to produce an in-depth website to help other Christians study the Bible, "Precept Austin". For a one-man operation it's impressive. Thus, after salvation, "As a specialist in pathology I [had] received unique training regarding the importance of making careful, detailed (microscopic) observations in order to render a correct diagnosis in diseases which many times were life threatening. Obviously, accuracy was a parameter that could not be compromised without potentially serious consequences. As I began to read, memorize and meditate on God's Word, I came to realize how my medical training … especially regarding minute attention to detail could be applied to rightly dividing the Word of truth (2 Ti. 2:15). Specifically, my training in medicine and pathology gave me a clear understanding of the vital relationship between accurate [medical] observation (… observation in study of the Bible), in order to achieve an accurate diagnosis (… interpretation of the Bible) which could then be used to guide the most effective treatment … (…appropriate application of God's Word)."
What many unbelievers (and even some believers) don’t yet realize is that God understands our sufferings far better than we do (as Hebrews tells us) and so, because of the cross we can see why Romans 8:28 is in Scripture. "For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved [eternally] through his life!" (Romans 5:10).
That God understands our sufferings even more than we do should be obvious, and it's the subject of more than one book. For example, it's the thrust of 45-year quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada's fine book, When God Weeps – Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty.
But it's more than the fact that God truly understands our sufferings; that they matter to him. He has a divine and good purpose for them, a purpose we will one day agree with wholeheartedly. God is the only one in the universe who can take the most evil of evils, the greatest suffering, the worst adversity and turn it into something good. Of course, sometimes the results of Romans 8:28 aren't seen, but in order to encourage us with the truth of Romans 8:28, we clearly see it in operation for example, in the lives of the patriarch Abraham, in the life of Joseph, the son of the patriarch Jacob, Job, King David, Queen Esther and Mordecai, the prophet Daniel, the apostle Paul and others in the biblical narrative. All we have to do is study their lives to see it as plain as day. This is one reason we could study the Old Testament – in very practical ways, it helps us immeasurably in this life. "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures [Old Testament] we might have hope" (Romans 15:4).
In the end Romans 8:28 is proof that it is simply God’s heart to take suffering and evil and use it for good, even if we don’t always see it – which, being finite, sinful and limited creatures, we shouldn't always expect. Nevertheless, we know that God understands and empathizes: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Hebrews 4:15-16).
Because of Romans 8:28 and the nature and attributes of God, the Christian never loses. Christians are the only people on earth of whom that is true. But to reemphasize a final time, for any non-Christian reading this, if anyone is undergoing difficultly, adversity, pain or whatever – if they will simply turn to God and His Son in repentance and faith, they will have that same 100% guarantee, that divine promise, and nothing in life will ever be wasted. And if that promise is true for us, it means we never suffer without purpose and are never defeated space– no matter what happens. Name your poison. All the good is good, but even the bad and evil are used for the good. And, as we saw earlier, even the good is used for further good.
Again, what could ever be more evil than the despicable horror of the cross –space the brutal and torturous murder of God incarnate by the worst method of execution ever devised space– all the world's other evils can't even scratch it by comparison. And yet God not only ordained it, He used it for more good than we can possibly imagine: "this man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross" (Acts 2:23). "Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (Acts 4:27-28). As John Calvin spoke of it, Jesus was "receiving our poverty upon himself; [and] he has transferred his wealth to us…"
If we think about it, this is simply amazing. Here is the ultimate theodicy, or the vindication of God's goodness and righteous providential rule despite the existence of evil. Again, if even such evil as the death of Christ can be transformed into the eternal good of so many creatures (angels included, who are now learning wonderful things about God through this Battlefield Earth, Ephesians 3:10; 1 Corinthians 2:7), then God always wins, the devil always loses, and as for evil, evil exists for not even a nanosecond compared to eternity.
Indeed, the promises in Scripture are so rich and wonderful that if we really believe even part of them, we should be able to survive virtually anything. That's how the ancient biblical prophets survived, that's how the apostles survived and that's how persecuted Christians have survived for two thousand years. Because “faith hope and love remain” there is always the encouragement of hope.
Yet of faith, hope and love, the greatest if these is love. If hope is encouraging, love all the more so. God's loving and good purposes will always stand, regardless of the circumstances:
That's why Scripture constantly tells us that, even now, today, whatever our lot, we can rejoice and be glad and give God praise – even in the midst of our sufferings, adversities, temptations, trials and tragedies. Look at the specific words God uses – He must know something many of us don't:
And remember that along with all our sufferings we already have eternal salvation and gracious reward beyond measure:
It cannot help but be repeated: "Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later" (Romans 8:18 NLT).
In conclusion, whatever it is that we might be going through, take heart, God is at work performing good things having eternal weight, and Romans 8:28 will always remains true. It can't be otherwise.
And if you have never yet discovered the wonderful, amazing privilege of knowing Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior and the undying joy that biblical promises such as Romans 8:28 can bring into your life, please go to the homepage of JAshow.org to find out how to become a Christian and how to grow in the Christian life: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
But, a final word to believers.
I can promise you this – if you're a believer in the biblical Jesus Christ you have no idea of the glory headed your way. In eternity Romans 8:28 won't be necessary in a negative sense because there will never again be sin, or suffering, or pain, or adversity, or discouragement, or depression, or anything bad ever. Only lots of good stuff – infinite in variety, eternal in diversity and duration. But more than good stuff – God Himself – who by definition of the infinite gap between the finite and infinite will make all the good stuff throughout eternity pale in comparison. The negative of Romans 8:28 won't be necessary, but the positive will be there forever.
In God's infinite love and goodness we will experience things beyond our wildest dreams. Just a moment in His presence will be worth an eternity of worldly pleasures. But it gets better. The good we experience in its all-consuming sense (God Himself plus the new heavens and the new Earth) will not only of necessity never end and continue forever… This good will forever increase as well. How? Because there will always be new and wondrous things for finite creatures to learn about an infinitely perfect God, so our knowledge of him will always increase throughout forever. And because our knowledge of God will always increase, by definition our joy will always increase forever and never. And because our knowledge and will always be increasing, our love and praise for God will always increase – forever and ever, world without end. All the words in all the books in all the libraries in all the world won't begin to describe it.
Joni Eareckson Tada, When God Weeps: Why our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty and A Place of Healing: Wrestling with The Mysteries of Suffering, Pain and God's Sovereignty
Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts and Disappointment with God
Randy Alcorn, If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil
D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil
Brian Jones, Second Guessing God: Hanging on When You Can't See His Plan
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed