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Sunday, July 7, 2013

God's Purposes (Romans 8.26-32)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - July 7, 2013
Text: Romans 8:26-32

"God's Purposes"
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:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "The Journey (w/He Leadeth Me)" (Sorenson)
Song of Praise: "Forever" (Tomlin)
Hymn of Praise: "The Solid Rock" (MELITA)
The Word in Music: "All Things Work Together" (Twila Paris)
Offering of Music: "Healing: There is a Balm in Gilead" (Choplin)
Song of Sending: "Blessed Be Your Name" (Redman)
Postlude: "Allegro" (Handel)

:: Some Visuals Used
Prelude: Video* on Romans 8:28

Artwork by the K-5th grade Sunday school class

:: Sermon Manuscript
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon, not used in the service. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
That’s one of the more well-known verses of scripture and one often quoted to give hope to those are who in the midst of a tough time.

Your home was broken into? – Trust God… He will work it out for good.  Maybe the thief stole something that will change his life for good.

You were in an automobile accident and broke several bones? – Trust God… He will work it out for good. Maybe that crash saved you from something worse!

You lost your job? – Trust God… He will work it out for good and hopefully something better will come along.

And most heart-wrenching… Someone you loved has died? – Trust God to work it out for good… for someone, somewhere.  Maybe that funeral service will change a life.

No. No. No!

I mean, God MAY do some of those things, but there are several dangerous implications in using this verse to claim them.  And that last one… I can’t think of a time that would ever be appropriate to say to someone grieving the death of a loved one.  Better to know that God weeps with them… or simply for you to weep with them.

So what’s going on with this verse? What does it mean and how can we apply it in our lives, for surely it is saying SOMETHING strong and hopeful!  That’s what we want to look at today.
Several Dangerous Implications

I mentioned several dangerous implications of using this verse in this way. Let me mention those briefly and then we will turn to scripture itself to better understand what Paul is writing here in Romans. There are at least three dangerous implications: that life is dictated by fate; that the end justifies the means; or that God causes harm or evil. I’ll briefly explain each one.

To say that God will work out every event for good implies that every circumstance of life is scripted. This may be a particularly tempting interpretation when you read on in Romans 8 about God’s foreknowledge, predestination, and work in a believer’s life in vv. 29-30. But the idea of life being a pre-written script is not biblical; it is a Greek idea, captured in Greek mythology by the Fates, three sisters spinning the web of reality that mortals could neither escape nor change. While there is a biblical concept of God’s sovereignty there is also a biblical concept of human freedom and responsibility. Just consider all the passages where God’s people are implored to “choose whom to serve” or Jesus invites people to “come, follow me.” Our futures are not dictated by God; we remain free agents.

A closely related error is to think that a good or godly outcome somehow justifies the suffering, evil, or bad from which the good emerges. While someone may tell you that they are glad they were injured in the war because the nurse that cared for them later became their wife, it makes for a romantic story, but is not always the case. God’s causing of good out of evil doesn’t justify the evil or the suffering; it transforms it and redeems it. If we get caught in that end-justifies-the-means thinking, and especially if we believe God ALWAYS brings about good things, we can excuse and tolerate a lot of suffering and evil rather than confronting it for what it is. The end justifying the means is also not a biblical concept, though it can be confused as such. 

Perhaps the most dangerous implication to draw from Romans 8:28 is the idea that God causes evil or suffering in order to bring about good. To that, Paul would say, “May it never be!” Yet, this is what the first two implications can lead to. Surely the crucifixion and resurrection are glorious, but did God cause original sin (or any evil) just to show off Jesus? No; God desired original obedience and humanity chose to rebel. What God has done is not fate or justifying evil’s existence, but redeeming and restoring His creation in an act of incomprehensible goodness and mercy.

Let’s turn now to what scripture says…
The Witness of Scripture

Before we look at Romans 8 specifically, three scripture verses came to mind that give added context to the good that God brings about.

“You mean evil, but God meant it for good…” (Genesis 50:20) – The first is in Genesis 50:20. Joseph is speaking to his brothers, who betrayed him, tried to kill him, and handed him over to slavery. Clearly, THEY intended evil. But if you know Joseph’s story, God brought about much good, even advancing God’s own redemptive history through Joseph.  And Joseph summarized by saying, “As for you [my brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” God allows human free will, but is not limited or thwarted by human sin or evil. God also brought about something that Joseph could not have imagined. What we see here is indeed God working things together for good, not causing the evil or justifying it, but working through a human life and all that came with it to accomplished a divine purpose in the life of God’s people.

“He causes His sun to rise on the evil and good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) – A second passage that comes to mind is Matthew 5:45. Jesus has just taught that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, so that we may be “sons of your Heavenly Father.” He goes on to say that the Father sends sun and rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike. That is to say that the good promised in Romans 8:28 to “those who love the Lord” must be a specific good, since God graciously sends sun and rain even to the unrighteous, and Jesus commends love and prayer for those same unrighteous. We need to dig a little deeper to understand the good that God is working out.

“Your will be done.” (Matthew 6:10) – Finally (and surely there are more), I am mindful of the Lord’s Prayer shortly after that last teaching. It is in Matthew 6:9-13, and I think of the particular phrase, “Your will be done” in verse 10. We cannot read Romans 8:28 and think that the good God is working out in the lives of those that love Him is anything WE call good, like a better paycheck, a bigger house, or even an answered prayer. In the very pattern for how to pray Jesus teaches that we should seek and pray for God’s will to be done. If so, then surely the good that God is working out for those who love Him is GOD’S good, however that may be defined.

With those considerations – that God has His own good purpose – let’s look more in depth at Romans 8:26-32.
The Context in Romans 8

Let’s start with verse 28, in three parts.

“God causes all things to work together.” – First, we’ve already touched on this. God’s “causation” is not fate. It does not say “God causes all things to happen in order that they result in something” but that God causes the working together of all things.  I like to think of this in terms of a symphony orchestra… or a football team if that is a better illustration for you! There is a score or a playbook – there is a master plan of how things should be. But neither the conductor nor the coach plays the parts or causes the individual participants to act in a certain way, though if we extended our analogy we'd have the conductor-coach stepping in to save the game. Rather, the conductor or coach puts the plan out there with the goal in mind and invites the good participation of the players. Should a bassoon player or a wide receiver make a mistake (even intentionally), the conductor or coach carries own, working the whole toward the good and envisioned goal. Why do I not think God actually causes us to play our own role and to do so perfectly? I know that because I am not perfect and because God has declared us free agents, only inviting our obedience rather than causing it.

“To those who love God.” – Second, look at the end of the phrase. These are those whom this verse has in view. It is not a promise to everyone, but to those who love the Lord. But also look at the whole series of descriptors that follow to help us understand what is meant by “those who love God.” I will list them. Those who love God are:

•    Those who are called according to His purpose
•    Those He foreknew
•    Those He also predestined
•    Those He also called
•    Those He also justified
•    Those He also glorified

That’s a pretty mind-boggling sequence, isn’t it? It starts with our love of God – our thing, the thing we choose. But then it goes on to list all the ways that God invites, pursues, chooses, and changes us. There is so much that we could explore there. Each description of us – called, foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified – each one is worth digging into. But I will simply make two observations for now. The first is that BOTH are true at the same time: God chooses us and we choose God. To only cling to one misses the full weight of the biblical teaching. If it helps, think of parents and children. Parents choose (usually) to have the child, sometimes even planning it way in advance. That doesn’t force the child to love back, but most children do love in return. Knowledge of that love doesn’t require the parent to parent; both are true… the choosing and the loving. Again, it is just an analogy, but perhaps it helps. My second observation is that to some extent this process, from thinking about way in advance, to calling, to glorifying… THAT is part of defining and understanding the “good” in verse 28. It’s not just any good thing, but a specific good thing, partly understand and seen by what God does in the lives of those who love Him.  So re-think through verse 28 with that in mind: “God causes all things to work together toward the glorious transformation of those who love God.” That’s not everything meant by “the good”; but it is a significant part.

“For good” – So third, what does “for good” mean in verse 28? Or what else does it mean? To what has already been said, I would just add the additional explanation in verse 29. After saying that God’s good purpose is worked out in those who love God, who are called, foreknown, predestined, etc…, Paul adds that the purpose of this good work is that these same people “become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” If you needed a simpler explanation of that involved process from foreknowledge to glorification, there it is: God’s good work is to work to make us more like Jesus! God does so through each of those steps, including our own response of love back to him. But there it is in a phrase. Let me re-read our memory verse with that in view:

God is working in the lives of those who love Him, that they become more and more like Jesus Christ, to God’s glory.

That was God’s intent before and in the creation of the world; that was God’s purpose in pursuing disobedient humanity; that is God’s purpose in calling us, saving us, and growing us in holiness; and that is God’s final purpose for us in glory: that we become more and more like Jesus Christ. We were created in the image of the Triune God and God is calling us and transforming us back into that which He made us to be. And God accomplishes this purpose in and through our own imperfect and halting response of love and faith.

“The Spirit helps our weakness”
– And one last and fourth thing from verse 26: “the Spirit helps our weakness.” Realizing that we are not only imperfect, but still sinful and disobedient, God has not set a perfect picture before us and said, “Go for it.” Rather, God has sent His Son to BE one of us and go before us. And God has left His Holy Spirit to help us by uniting us to Christ and even praying for us when we can’t see where we need to go. When we can’t fathom what “your will be done” looks like or even rebel against “your will be done,” we are assured that the Holy Spirit, which lives in all believers, prays on our behalf. And if the Holy Spirit prays for you, you can be sure that the Spirit is praying deeply and perfectly for God’s will to be done in your life! That’s good news when we don’t know what to make out of our circumstances or suffering.

“Will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” – Verses 31-32 conclude by basically declaring the great lengths to which God will go to do this glorious and redemptive good work. If God did not spare His own Son, how will He not also go to great lengths in our lives? (v. 32) Indeed, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (v. 31)

God’s Purposes

So, let’s see if we can pull all that together as we return once more to our memory verse. God does indeed work in this world, in time and space. God does not override human choice, but does have a purpose and a plan. And God’s power is so great that God can use good and redeem evil for His purpose and His glory. To those who respond to God’s invitation in loving faith, God is pleased to work toward that good. In fact, for those who love God, the movement toward that glory IS a good thing to be celebrated and for which to be thankful.

Does this promise that God will work out a good parking space for Christian believers who pull into a crowded parking lot?  No, indeed the rain and the lack of parking spaces falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. Does this promise that believers who fall sick will automatically get better? Or get better if they have enough faith? Or, failing that, that some counter-balancing good will come of sickness, loss, or death? No, believers get sick, suffer, and die, though they do have a hope that is distinct.

What this verse does promise is that God’s glory is our past, present, and future. It reminds us that God created the world in beauty and perfection, in reflection of the glory of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit. It reminds us that God’s purpose – our future – brings glory to God. Certainly all the redeemed will honor and glorify God through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. Even the horrible consequences of sin and evil will bring glory to God in God’s perfect justice and judgment. 

And in the meantime – in this present in which we live – this verse reminds us that God is present in and around us. It reminds us that, for those with eyes to see and hearts to love this Lord of ours, we can see God moving us and creation towards that future fulfillment of all things. We can see the growth God brings about, from inviting and calling us to growing us up in faith. And we can long for that perfection that comes with glorification. This verse reminds us that we do not live a life governed by fate or karma or chance, but we are active and aware players in a drama that is unfolding in history, with God Himself even taking part.

For those who love God, God’s purpose IS good. God working in and around us is good. And for people looking for Good News, this is a verse worth remembering. Amen!

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