F. Allan Story, Jr.
Many pastors have heard, even frequently, “Pastor, we don’t need all this theology. Just tell us what to do.” I have a standard answer: “Sure. Rejoice always. In everything give thanks.”
These are biblical commands, but the point is that you can’t really do these things without theology. These commands, like many others, cannot simply stand by themselves. A pasted-on smile is fake, not really rejoicing at all, and not obedience. And these commands don’t mean that we should rejoice about happy things and give thanks for happy things in spite of bad things that may be happening too. That’s a pretend game that tries to ignore real pain. Rather, Christians are taught realistic rejoicing and giving thanks while fully acknowledged pain and sorrow. Only a sound doctrinal understanding enables someone to obey commands like this. Theology is eminently important and practical.
Romans 8:28 is an excellent example of how theology supplies the needed doctrinal foundation for practical living—in this case, rejoicing and giving thanks even in difficult circumstances. It says: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
This is a favorite verse for many. It has long been for me, as well as for many Christians, a great source of comfort. I have preached on it, taught it, and applied it to my own difficult situations. It has especially been a comfort for me since my beloved wife, Linda Kay, died unexpectedly in her sleep in the early morning of December 29, 2012.
Taken in context, three doctrines, not expressly stated in the verse, are nevertheless clearly present and offer practical comfort that is unobtainable without biblical doctrine.
This is one place where the Arminian believes that “all” does not mean “all.” But it is not by chance that all things work together for good. If all things work together for good (for Christians), then it is because God is at work behind all things, which is what is specifically stated in Ephesians 1:11, where God is referred to as “Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will.” We must understand that chance does not reign. Equally, we must see that men don’t reign. God reigns over all things. There are no accidents, nor are we victims of either chance or enemies.
We see that Romans 8:28 teaches what Calvinists recognize and others deny about God’s sovereign control over all things, from the largest to the smallest events. He sovereignly appoints events that we like and those that we dislike. Submission, dependence, and prayer are practical responses to God’s sovereignty. However repugnant it may be to some, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is biblical and practical. It is practical Calvinism, which all true Calvinism is.
If all things work together for the good of believers, it means that God purposes good for us in all things, which ultimately means that God works these things out of love for us. To see this from this verse, we need a right understanding of what it means for all things to work together for our good. We certainly cannot think that Romans 8:28 means that everything happens just as we would like. That clearly isn’t true. Clearly, things occur that we would rather avoid. Things happen that we regard as tragic, things that are painful. But the affirmation in this text is that all of these things, as well as the more happy occurrences, work together for our good as God’s people. So “good” refers to that which God intends for our benefit, primarily our eternal benefit, even though it may entail earthly sorrow and pain. Here is the doctrine of God’s good providence. This is the doctrine of sovereign grace as applied to providence, rather than as applied to salvation.
Practically, this means that when difficult things happen to us, we must consider them, in faith, to be for our good. And we see this because this is what the Scriptures teach us about those things. It means a change in practical perspective, rooted in doctrinal teaching and understanding. “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). A worldly perspective may see things as being bad, when faith, believing what God says in his word, sees it as good, even though the goodness of it is neither visible nor understood. Sometimes we don’t understand why certain things happen or how they will work out for our good, but we believe that they happened because it was God’s will and because they are ultimately for our good and reflect God’s love.
It is an impoverished Christianity that does not take comfort from knowing that God is in control and that his sovereign will is always loving and entirely good for us. Yet a common question is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The two common answers are either that God is not in control, or, if he is, that he doesn’t care. The scriptural response is that the only ones whom God counts as good are Christians (by the imputed righteousness of Christ), and that the bad things that happen to them are actually good things for them.
Yet it would be an impoverished Calvinism that saw these things and no more. As comforting as these truths are, this verse does not teach merely a calculus of benefit. We are not simply to weigh heavenly and eternal benefit against earthly loss and conclude that, on balance, the event was good. We should not look for comfort primarily in a self-centered way. There is more here for our comfort. When she who did me good and not evil all the days of her life came to the end of that earthly life after we shared nearly forty-two years of marriage, was the essence of my loss the good things she would no longer do for me? Of course not! It was the separation, the loss of the relationship. In the same way, my comfort in that loss does not consist simply in the more distant and remote promise of heavenly and eternal benefit, as wonderful as those things are. Romans 8:28, understood in its context, offers additional comfort as well.
The good that Christians receive in God’s every sovereign act, and the comfort we receive from Romans 8:28, is covenantal (relational) fruit from God’s not sparing his own Son but delivering him up for us all (v. 32). While the verse certainly teaches the loving causality already seen, it also points in the direction of our relationship to God. Romans 8:28 teaches us that the recipients of good in all things are “those who love God.” These are “those who are the called according to His purpose,” a purpose that Christ “might be the firstborn among many brethren” (v. 29), a purpose rooted in eternity and in God’s predestining act (vv. 29–30).
These are doctrinal truths, but they are preeminently relational truths as well. They call to our attention our relationship to the triune God. The Christian’s comfort is our relationship with Christ, not in heaven only, but right now on earth. As “those who love God,” we love him. As “those who are the called according to His purpose,” we are loved by him, which is an unabashedly Calvinistic truth. Christ loves us and gave himself for us. “Neither death nor life … nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 38–39). Only this greater relationship can offer or sustain comfort in the loss of a loved one. In other words, in addition to seeing in Romans 8:28 a decretal Calvinism, we see there a relational Calvinism, which Calvinists commonly call covenant theology.
Sometimes we hear that Romans 8:28 should not be quoted to those who are in the early stages of great sorrow. And certainly the glib reciting of the verse by someone personally unacquainted with its application can be offensive, but the words themselves offer the comfort of the Comforter and of the God of all comfort. They have been for me a source of encouragement from the first hour of my loss. I do not still have my wife, but I have my Savior and my God—not just speculatively and remotely, but personally and close to me.
The words “And we know” at the beginning of Romans 8:28 express faith in the doctrines taught in the verse. They turn the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, of his sovereign love, and of his covenantal presence into practical comfort in trying events. They point us to Christ himself. Consequently, we perceive things differently. We respond to things differently. We pray differently. On such a foundation, we can indeed rejoice always and give thanks in everything.
The author is the pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Austin (Pflugerville), Tex. This article is the substance of a devotional presented at the 80th General Assembly last year. He quotes the NKJV. New Horizons, July 2014.