And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose [Rom. 8:28].
I have translated it this way: But we know (with divine knowledge) that for those who love God, all things are working together for good, even to them who are called-ones according to His purpose.
The late Dr. Reuben A. Torrey (I had the privilege of being pastor for twenty-one years of the church that he founded) was a great man of God, greatly abused and misunderstood. He knew the meaning of this verse, and he called it a soft pillow for a tired heart. Many of us have pillowed our heads on Romans 8:28. We know the whole creation is groaning, but we also know something else: all things are working together for good—even the groanings.
“We know” is used five times in Romans, and “know” is used thirteen times. It refers to that which is the common knowledge of the Christian, that is, that which the Holy Spirit makes real. “Knowledge puffeth up, but love edifieth” (see 1 Cor. 8:1), and this is the knowledge that only the Spirit of God can make real to our hearts. Charles Spurgeon used to say, “I do not need anyone to tell me how honey tastes; I know.” And I can say, my friend, that I know God loves me. I don’t need to argue that point; I know it.
“For those who love God” is the fraternity pin of the believer. “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision [that is, there is no badge]; but faith which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6). Love is the mark. The apostle John put it like this: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation [the mercy seat] for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:10–16). My friend, you are going to have trouble believing that God loves you, and you will have difficulty loving God, if you are hating other Christians. “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). And the apostle Peter said: “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8). The thing that will bring joy and brightness into your life is the sincere love of God.
“All things”—good and bad; bright and dark; sweet and bitter; easy and hard; happy and sad; prosperity and poverty; health and sickness; calm and storm; comfort and suffering; life and death.
“Are working together for good” is causative and means that God is working all things—there are no accidents. You remember that Joseph could look back over his life, a life that had been filled with vicissitudes, disappointments, and sufferings, yet he could say to his brethren—who were responsible for his misfortune—“… ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good …” (Gen. 50:20). And I am confident that we as children of God will be able to look back over our lives someday and say, “All of this worked out for good.” Job could say, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him … ” (Job 13:15). That is the kind of faith in God we need, friend. We know that He is going to make things work out for good because He’s the One who is motivating it. He’s the One who is energizing it.
However, we often cry out, as Jeremiah did, “Why did you let me see trouble?” (see Jer. 11:14). It was during the San Francisco earthquake many years ago that a saint of God walked out into the scene of destruction and debris and actually smiled. A friend asked her, “How can you smile at a time like this?” Her reply was, “I rejoice that I have a God who can shake the world!” How wonderful to be able to face life—and death—unafraid. I think of Paul who could face the future without flinching. He said to his friends, “… What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). Many of us would like to come to that place of total commitment to Him.
Now notice that all things are working together for good for them “who are the called” ones, and it is “according to his purpose.” This is something that is hard for a great many people to swallow. “The called” are those who not only have received an invitation, they have accepted it. And they were born from above. They know experimentally the love of God. Paul describes three groups of people, and I think they are the three groups that are in the world today: “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23–24). (1) The Jews trusted in religion, rite and ritual. To them the cross was a stumblingblock. (2) The Greeks (the Gentiles) trusted in philosophy and human wisdom. To them the cross was foolishness. (3) “The called” were a group out of both Jews and Greeks who were chosen not because of their religion or wisdom. God called them. To them the cross was the dynamite of God unto salvation. “The called” heard God’s call. That is important.
Let me go back to my illustration of the turtles. Suppose you go down to a swamp, and there are ten turtles. You say to the turtles, “I’d like to teach you to fly.” Nine of them say, “We’re not interested. We like it down here; we feel comfortable in this environment.” One turtle says, “Yes, I’d like to fly.” That is the one which is called, and that is the one which is taught to fly. Now that doesn’t have anything in the world to do with the other turtles. They are turtles because they are turtles. My friend, the lost are lost because they want it that way. There is not a person on topside of this world that is being forced to be lost. They are lost because they have chosen to be lost.
A boy down in my southland years ago wanted to join a church. So the deacons were examining him. They asked, “How did you get saved?” His answer was, “God did His part, and I did my part.” They thought there was something wrong with his doctrine, so they questioned further. “What was God’s part and what was your part?” His explanation was a good one. He said, “God’s part was the saving, and my part was the sinning. I done run from Him as fast as my sinful heart and rebellious legs could take me. He done took out after me till he run me down.” My friend, that is the way I got saved also.
This does not destroy or disturb the fact that “whosoever will may come” and “whosoever believeth.” Henry Ward Beecher quaintly put it, “The elect are the whosoever wills and the non-elect are the whosoever won’ts.” And it is all according to His purpose. And, my friend, if you have not yet got your mind reconciled to God’s purpose and to God’s will, it is time you are doing that, because this is His universe. He made it. I don’t know why He made a round earth instead of a square one—He didn’t ask me how I wanted it—He made it round because He wanted it round. My friend, His purpose is going to be carried out, and He has the wisdom and the power to carry it out. Whatever God does is right. Don’t you criticize God and say He has no right to save whoever wants to be saved. He has the right to do it. He is just and He is loving, and anything my God does is right.
There was a great theologian in the past by the name of Simeon. In his sermons on Romans 8 he said there were three reasons why he preached on the doctrine of election: It laid the axe at the root of pride, presumption, and despair. I like that. My friend, there is no place for human pride in the doctrine of election. It is God’s work, His wisdom, and His purpose that is being carried out. The will of God comes down out of eternity past like a great steamroller. Don’t think you can stop it. In fact, you had better get on and ride.
McGee, J. Vernon: Thru the Bible Commentary. electronic ed. Nashville : Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1981, S. 4:704-705