The Desolation That Secures Our Joy
“And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purposes.”
– Romans 8:28
All Things For Good?
Paul says we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good. Do we know that? Do we know in the roots of our faith that all things, no matter how painful or difficult or sorrowful or ignoble, that all things will work together for our good? In considering this question I first want to briefly consider what Paul means by “good,” and secondly I want to consider how the death and resurrection of Jesus secures the fulfillment of these words in the lives of His people.
However, even before examining what the “good” in view here is, I ought to mention that this text is true only for those who are trusting Jesus Christ as their Lord, Savior, Treasure and God. If we have been awakened to receive God in Christ as the satisfaction of our soul, then we are among those who “love God” (because He has first decisively loved us, 1 John 4:19), and so can claim the promise of Romans 8:28 as an invincible truth for our lives. However, if we are opposed to God, if we have not bowed the knee of our will to the beauty of Jesus, if we have not thrown ourselves on the mercy of God streaming to us through the crucified and risen Son, then these words are not true for us. Indeed, as I hope to show, if we are living in opposition to Jesus, then all things work together for our bad, not our good. If you are presently one who is against God, I pray that even by the end of this article you would be trusting Christ and so claim Romans 8:28 as your own.
What is our “Good”?
What is the “good” that Paul says all things work together toward? Certainly the “good” here cannot be ease or comfort or a happy home life or children who remain faithful to Christ or friends who will never betray you, etc. etc….Christians suffer, Christians have broken homes, Christians have wayward children or unfaithful friends, all of these things do happen to those who love God. Paul must have some other definition of “good” in mind, and he explains what this is in the following verses.
As we read through verse 30, we see that the final goal and ultimate good of the believer–in this context–is to be conformed to the image of God the Son. And what does it mean to be conformed to Christ? It means that every aspect of our hearts and minds, our wants and our thoughts, our desires and our imaginations will be made like Jesus’. We will finally be made holy as He is holy. And at the heart of holiness is white-hot, glad-hearted enjoyment of God. This is true for humans and for God Himself.
Yes, the heart of God’s own holiness is His infinite and unfettered knowledge of and joy in Himself. Thus, to be holy as God is holy means being wholly ravished by the glory of who God is and, as a result, opposing anything and everything that opposes Him. So when we are made into the image of the Son, this means that we will know God as the Son knows Him and rejoice in God as the Son rejoices in Him, we will love God with God’s own love for God and be loved by God with His own love for Himself (John 17:20-26). He will feed us on the fullness of His own house, and give us drink from the river of His own delight (Psalm 36:8). Put simply, to be conformed to the image of the Son is to become a being fitted for infinite joy in God.
This, then, is the good toward which Paul tells us all things are working for the Christian: that they should be molded–heart and mind–into the image of God the Son, and so glorify God by knowing and enjoying Him just as He knows and enjoys Himself in His Son. To be united to the Son by faith and conformed to His image by the sanctifying grace of God so that we might unendingly enjoy God with God’s own joy in Himself, this is the supreme human good and the goal unto which all things are working for the Christian.
Romans 8:28 Summarized as “God For Us”
Having seen something of what Paul means by the believer’s “good,” I now want to consider how the cross of Christ secures this promise for His people. The first thing to notice is that in verse 31, Paul summarizes the promise of 8:28 (as well as His teaching in the book thus far) with the assertion that “God is for us.” Why do we have the sure hope that all things will end up serving our final and unending joy in God? Because God is for us. How can we be sure that this cancer, this death, this broken relationship, this disappointment will not end in final sorrow but in gladness and in glory? Because God is for us, and–as Paul says–if God is for us who or what in all the universe can be truly and finally against us? Our hope that even our most profound hardships will be made servants of our lasting joy is summarized by and grounded in the truth that God is for us. Thus, another way of stating the question, “how does the cross of Christ achieve the promise of Romans 8:28?” is to say, “how does the cross of Christ cause God to be for us?”
What Does It Mean For God To Be Against Us?
Someone might ask, “Why does God need to be caused to be for us? Isn’t He for us already just because He is good?” However, scripture teaches that precisely because God is good (aka, supremely committed to the exaltation of His glory and supremely opposed to all that opposes His glory) He is wrathful toward us. By our nature, we are enemies of God (Romans 8:7, Ephesians 2:1-3) and are under the sentence of what scripture calls His wrath (Romans 1:18). And what does it mean to be under wrath? Simply put, it means to being in a state where God is against us–and if God is against us, nothing in all the universe can truly be for us.
Imagine, for a moment, such a reality. With God against us all of life is one long spiral into madness, grief and suffering. Oh, there will be happy days, bright days, even bright months or years–in fact, someone might have an incredibly pleasant life with God against them. But in the end, after these brief moments on earth are past, they will see that the entirety of their life (even the best days) was a descending stairway to misery. And the arch-misery of their final destiny will reach back and swallow all the fleeting joys of a life spent in enmity to God down into its own complete hopelessness. Within the realm of “God against us,” all songs end in sorrow and all stories culminate in tragedy. That is what it means to be under God’s wrath.
How God is For Us
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us–even when His wrath was against–sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. On the cross, Jesus bore the wrath of God in our place, or–said another way–He endured the full extent of everything that it means to have God against us.
Let me speak directly to the Christian for a moment: The reason that God is for you and not against in your cancer is because Jesus endured on the cross the final hopelessness of having your cancer with God as His enemy. The reason that God is for you and not against in the loss of your loved one is because Jesus suffered in Himself the soul-rending consequences of what it would mean to lose them in a world where God was your enemy. The reason this disappointment, this anxiety, this fear, this uncertainty, this challenge, this burden, this sorrow, this pain, this hardship–the reason these things will not result in final hopelessness but will be made to serve your joy in God is only because God is for you and not against in all of them. And He is for you and not against you in them only because Jesus bore the full horror of what it would mean for God to be against you in these situations in His own body, mind, and soul when He poured Himself out in your place–in my place–on the cross.
Whenever a Christian hopes in the assurance that God is for them in their hardships and that even their sufferings will turn to their good and God’s glory; whenever they look, by faith, to the throne and are comforted by the “God of all comfort and Father of mercies;” whenever they sing through the storms of their sorrow that it is well with their soul–whenever this happens, they are receiving mercy that Jesus purchased for that specific moment of suffering, a mercy that he purchased by enduring their suffering in Himself while being denied the very mercy that they are now receiving.
Our Lord’s cry of desolation–“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani”–echoes behind every wave of comfort that Romans 8:28 ministers to the soul of the saints because, in the godforsakenness of His death the Lord exhausts all that it means for God to be against the elect. The poison of damnation has been drawn from the fangs of our suffering into the veins of our Lord and God. And He has overcome. The resurrection of Jesus declares that the debt has been paid, hell has been extinguished, and God is now eternally and invincibly for those who are trusting in the slain and risen Son. The death and resurrection of Jesus secures the promise of Romans 8:28 for the saints.
A Final Prayer
So, Christian, may God give us the grace to trust these blood bought words when we need them most. When the doctor tells us, “it’s cancer,” when the phone call comes and our lives are irreversibly changed, when that thing we had always most feared appears as a reality in our lives, then let us remember Romans 8:28. Let us remember that because our Lord and Savior has endured this very suffering in Himself in our place, it is not an instance of God’s wrath, but a merciful–albeit severe–gift to draw us more deeply and sweetly into communion with Himself….both now and for eternity.