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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Temptation as Opportunity (1 Corinthians 10.1-14)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - July 28, 2013
Text: 1 Corinthians 10:1-14

:: Sermon Audio (LINK) - scroll down for written draft
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Sing Praise to God/We Praise Thy Name" (Shackley)
Song of Praise: "Unfailing Love" (Tomlin, Pierce, Cash)
Hymn of Praise: "How Firm a Foundation" (FOUNDATION)
Offering of Music: "I Need Thee Every Hour" (Indelible Grace)
Hymn of Sending: "I Need Thee Every Hour" (arr. Youngblood)
Postlude: "How Firm a Foundation" (Wyrtzen)

:: Some Visuals Used
 Prelude: Video* on 1 Corinthians 10:1-14

Artwork by Annie Houston

:: 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.

**I'm also going to try something new and insert some of the PowerPoint slides at appropriate points. I don't always use these, but did with this sermon. I'm just trying this out here.  :)
“God is faithful [and] will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13b)
I hear today’s memory verse used fairly often. It is quoted, mis-quoted, mis-applied, and never (that I’ve heard) tied to the context around it in 1 Corinthians 10. So, as we have done with our other memory verses this summer, we want to look at the context and try to understand what is and is not being taught here.

Today’s verse has to do with temptation. There is a specific promise given: God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able. But with that promise comes an important context. We must discover to whom the promise is made, whether we have any responsibilities, and what the extent of application is. We will spend a significant amount of time looking at the context, because it is unusually rich. Then we will return to the question of responsibility and application for us.

First a brief word about vocabulary. The word translated “temptation” is a little hard to pin down. Sometimes it means ‘trial,’ sometimes ‘testing,’ and sometimes just what you would imagine, something that lures you toward and into sin. It can also be a combination, in that significant trials or challenges often present the opportunity for sin: to curse God or otherwise turn away from God in unbelief or disobedience. Perhaps a definition that covers most usages is "an opportunity to trust and obey God or an opportunity to sin." As Paul moves through illustration, explanation, and application, I think you’ll see all of those variations and that definition in view. The main point is that God has provided what we need in those situations to avoid sin rather than be entangled and destroyed by it. Let’s dig in to the context.

God’s Deliverance and Provision to His Covenant Community
The Apostle Paul was writing this letter to the Christian church in Corinth, which was being rocked by sin and scandal. The Corinthian church was facing idolatry, immorality, demands, discontent, and more. And the whole letter is meant to address these things. But here in chapter 10, Paul is reminds them that God has delivered and is providing for them even as he did for His people long before them. As they are the community God has drawn together around the covenant promises in Christ, Paul looks back to the earlier covenant community in the Hebrew Scriptures to help them understand what is at stake.

God’s goodness and mercy toward His people were (and are) truly extraordinary. Paul begins with a summary of God’s faithfulness:

Salvation: Deliverance through Trial
While there is one eternal salvation through Jesus Christ, God has been delivering His people since their expulsion from the Garden (even there, God spared them the immediate death that was the consequence of their sin!). Perhaps the greatest of these salvation stories was rescuing His people from 400 years of slavery in Egypt and delivering them from that slavery and the pursuing Egyptian army as, through Moses, God parted the Red Sea and led them through on dry ground. Paul writes of this in vv. 1-2, reminding the Corinthian believers of this ancient faithfulness. Under the “cloud” of God’s Holy Spirit, they trusted and followed God and passed through the waters of judgment and death by the mercy of God. Paul draws a direct connection between the Corinthian’s baptism in Christ and this early “baptism into Moses.” The significance of both baptisms was that God delivered them from the trial of judgment through His appointed deliverer. This is something that all who trust God for salvation share and it is one aspect of what our own baptisms mean today!

Spiritual Provision and Sustenance
And God does not save us to leave us. Paul continues by describing God’s provision and sustenance of His people after coming through the Red Sea. He describes “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” – manna from heaven and water from a rock that physically fed them and at the same time portrayed for them what God would ultimately do through Christ.

The story of God providing the manna can be found in Exodus 16:4, but also note Deuteronomy 8:3, which says that God provided the manna to teach God’s people to trust in God’s Word. Jesus later quoted that passage during HIS temptation in the wilderness: “…man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” God provided water from a rock in Exodus 17:6 at a placed they named “Massah and Meribah.” Paul makes a direct connection between the spiritual provision of manna and water and God’s spiritual provision of Christ. He writes, “…they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” Jesus also made those same connections, describing himself in John 6 as “manna from Heaven” and in John 4 as “living water.” If Paul’s illustration about the Red Sea brings to mind our baptism in Christ, his illustration about Christ as spiritual food and drink brings to mind our other sacrament, the Lord’s Supper or Communion.

The point of all this is to say to the Corinthians and to us that if God was faithful to His people of old by delivering them from death and sustaining them in the wilderness trial, and if Christ is an even more complete salvation and sustenance for us today, how much more has God delivered us and will God sustain us in what we face! Every celebration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is a tangible reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness to His people and to us.

Trials that Led to Sin in God’s Covenant Community

And yet, with all that being true, in the midst of their temptation or trial, the ancient Israelites turned from God into sin. Paul notes that with most of His people at that time “God was not well-pleased” (v. 5) because they “craved [evil things]” (v. 6). The big picture is that God provided what His people needed and yet they sinned against God. What follows, beginning with verse 7, is an account of events where God’s people were tempted or faced trials and they failed to trust and obey God with tragic result.

Idolatry (v. 7)
In verse 7, Paul begins with IDOLATRY, quoting from Exodus 32:6, in the middle of the account of the golden calf. While Moses was on the mountain receiving the Law from God, the people turned from God and turned all their gold jewelry into a literal idol like what the Egyptians worshiped. Having just been delivered, they looked back towards those who had enslaved them and offered worship. They were looking for divine help and turned to old habits and a false promise and the result was false worship, which was not only useless but also an offense to the true God who had saved them. Paul offers this as a warning to the Corinthians, who were also participating in idolatrous feasts comparable to the feasts around the golden calf.

Immorality (v. 8)

In verse 8, Paul links the Israelites’ idolatry with a subsequent IMMORALITY which is recorded in Numbers 25. A willingness to worship false gods opened the Israelites up to immoral relationships with pagan peoples who worshiped false gods. In Numbers 25, some of the Israelites “joined themselves” to the Moabites, who worshiped Baal. This joining involved sacrifices, food, worship, and sexual relations in a context of following that false god. And the specific judgment of God on that sin resulted in the massive deaths noted by Paul. Paul offers this as a warning to the Corinthians, who were participating in similar immorality around sacrifice, food, worship, and sexual immorality.

Demands: Testing God (v. 9)

In verse 9, Paul references events in Numbers 21, in which doubts and struggle turn into DEMANDS of God. Serpents fell upon the Israelites after they had spoken against the Lord and complained bitterly about the food and water God was providing. This is a clear example of what Paul is trying to teach. Faced with the trial of the wilderness, the Israelites complain that they were better off in slavery in Egypt, they have no real food and water, and they are going to die. They turn from trial to sin in speaking against God rather than recognizing how God has delivered them and sustained them. Yet even then, in the midst of serpents and poison snake-bites, Moses intercedes and God provides a way out, a bronze serpent lifted high on a pole, that all who turned to God in faith and trust for deliverance would be saved. Jesus later references this very story in John 3 in his conversation with Nicodemus about how to be born again. Jesus would himself be the fulfillment of the curse lifted high on a tree that all who believe might be saved.

Rebellion: Grumbling (v. 10)

Finally, in verse 10, Paul references the grumbling of the Israelites. Now this could be any one of dozens of times; they grumbled a lot! But one likely reference is “Korah’s Rebellion” in Numbers 16. There are several instances of “grumbling” (that word is specifically used) in Numbers leading up to a big showdown in chapter 16 against Moses as their leader. Korah and his immediate family questioned why Moses and Aaron should lead rather than themselves, playing on the grumbling and unrest of the people for support. Paul had experienced something similar from some of those in the church at Corinth who were questioning him as an Apostle and had just spoken to this grumbling in the previous chapter (ch. 9) of 1 Corinthians. While grumbling itself is problematic (more than just a temptation), it can turn into the much greater sin of open REBELLION, which is what is in view here.

This is not an exhaustive list of sins, but examples of times that God’s people, facing trials and temptations, turned away from God into sin rather than toward God and His faithful deliverance and provision. Indeed, this is the thrust of Paul’s message: God has provided all that His people needed to endure, resist, or flee trials or temptations that so easily lead to sins of idolatry, immorality, demands, and rebellion.

Opportunity: Life in God’s Covenant Community Today
Neither those in the ancient covenant community of Israel nor those in the New Testament covenant community in Corinth were immune from temptation. Indeed, because these temptations are “common to man” (v. 12), they are to be expected. What is particular to the covenant community is that the faithful God has provided means to resist, endure, or escape. Note that though at first glance “way of escape” (v. 13) is deliverance out of, Paul defines escape as both “endurance through it” and also urges his friends to “flee from [it].” This resonates with experience and reality that sometimes God delivers us right out of something and sometimes walks with us through it, temptations included.

That may be an important distinction for you to hear this morning. You may be praying or hoping for deliverance from a particular trial or temptation and missing God’s sustenance, protection, and provision. Imagine an Israelite who had come through the Red Sea asking why couldn’t God part the desert and get them to the Promised Land THAT fast. Why not grumble through the years of manna and water in the desert?

We can fall prey to a cheap view of God’s grace that says, “I can do whatever I want; God will forgive me anyway.” This is similar to the attitude of the Israelites and the Corinthians who somehow thought that being ‘in’ Israel or the church was sufficient to excuse any behavior or sin. On the contrary, the signs of our membership in the covenant community – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – point powerfully to how God faithfully fulfills verse 13. What God has done at great cost is precisely how we are to flee, resist, or endure temptation. But to yield to temptation and embrace sin BECAUSE of it is to turn our back on God and His love.

What is the takeaway from today? I think it is the realization that what this memory verse holds out is far more than an empty promise that we will never be tempted. It repudiates that outright. It holds out more than a magic hope that we’ll never face more than we can handle. Think of the Red Sea with the Egyptians behind… that was WAY MORE than Moses could handle! What it holds out is the promise that God is faithful and has provided the strength, resources, and more for us to face the trials that tempt us to sin.

Hear the Good News: The way of escape may be out or may be through, but that way of escape is most completely understood to be JESUS, whom God has given to us in love and at great cost as Deliverer and Provider.

Flee sin and trust no other, but lean on Jesus Himself, crying out that He would show you and be that way of escape. Amen!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Contentment through Christ (Philippians 4.10-13)

Sermon by: John Drexel* - July 21, 2013
Text: Philippians 4:10-13; Hebrews 13:1-6

*John Drexel is a rising senior at Davidson college and is serving as pastoral intern at Good Shepherd during the summer of 2013. 

"Contentment through Christ"
Use inline player to listen; click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Sing of One Who Walks Beside Us" (Carter)
Song of Praise: "Trading My Sorrow" (Evans)
Hymn of Praise: "Day by Day" (BLOTT EN DAG)
The Word in Music: "I Can Do All Things" - girls' ensemble (Burrows/Youngblood)
Offering of Music: "Jesus is a Rock in a Weary Land" (Nelson)
Song of Sending: "Our Confidence is In the Lord" (Richards)
Postlude: "God of Grace and God of Glory" (Manz)

:: Some Visuals Used

Prelude: Video* on Philippians 4:13

Artwork by Maggie Slade

:: Sermon Manuscript
There is no manuscript available this week.
“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Prayer and Peace (Philippians 4:1-9)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - July 14, 2013
Text: Philippians 4:1-9

"Prayer and Peace"
Use inline player to listen; click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Song of Peace" (Langlais)
Hymn of Praise: "Rejoice, the Lord is King" (DARWALL)
Song of Praise: "Praise is Rising" (Brown/Baloche)
The Word in Music: "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" - bluegrass band (Charles Converse)
Offering of Music: "Be Still" - Christina and Bobby White (The Fray)
Song of Sending: "It is Well" (VILLE DU HAVRE)
Postlude: "Exeunt Omnes - We All Depart" (Lloyd)

:: Some Visuals Used
Prelude: Video* on Philippians 4:6-7

Artwork by Joanie Fedor

:: 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 the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)
The peace of God – is that for real?

We talk about peace as the alternative to war. We talk about peace as reconciling broken friendships. We talk about peace from the things that worry and agitate us. Peace is a good thing, but it is hard to find and harder to hold on to. If there is a God-sized version of peace, that would be something worth knowing for real. Our memory verse says there is such a peace and it’s “beyond all comprehension!” That may be so, but the scripture also declares it to be within human experience! 

So I want to look with you today at this scripture, to see what kinds of situations need peace and to see how we may come to experience this God-sized peace.

Anxiety Attack

Sometimes anxiety attacks. I use that particular choice of words not just to describe a literal “anxiety attack” but to pick up on language and imagery from today’s scripture, which both urges “be anxious for nothing” and also speaks of this God-sized peace “guarding” us. There are at least two significant reasons for Paul’s words and imagery.

For one, this precious group of believers – his Christian friends in Philippi – were experiencing discord. According to v. 2, Euodia and Syntyche were two women who shared in Paul’s struggle in the cause of the Gospel. They were included as Paul’s “fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.” (v. 3) And yet, these women were at odds with each other, enough so that Paul had heard about it. Nothing can be quite as debilitating to a Christian community as seeing leaders fighting with each other. Paul urges a third believer, Syzygus (a name or a description meaning “true companion”) to intervene and seek peace between the women. So that’s one bookend of our memory verse today.

On the far end is Paul’s own situation, his imprisonment in Rome. His very life is on the line because of his faith, and many were anxious for him. I can’t think of a more potentially peace-forsaken situation than being thrown in jail and put on death row for one’s faith, and yet Paul sandwiches this teaching between the local argument of Euodia and Syntyche and the description of his own situation to share the secret (v. 12) to experiencing God’s peace.

What of our anxieties? We struggle with irrational fears (or rational ones!).  We face overwhelming circumstances around money, employment, pressure, and expectations. We deal with the reality of broken relationships. We are crippled by uncertainty about tomorrow. We see a nation divided around politics, race, economics, and more.  Have you seen or read even a fraction of the grief, anger, and anxiety around the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case? Where is peace? Is there peace?

From the argument of two Christian women to his own death-row imprisonment, Paul is preparing us to understand that what he has to say about God’s peace is applicable in every situation we face. God’s peace can and will “stand guard” against all attacks, great or small.

Praise, Pray, Practice

I often talk about God’s partnership with us, how God does infinite and godly things, but includes us as active participants rather than passive recipients. So it is with peace. As we look through verses 4-8, we can see three things we are to do to prepare for and open ourselves up to God’s peace. It’s not to say God won’t grant peace without them or that doing these things magically produces peace or requires God to act; rather, these things help us see and experience a gift that God delights to give.

Rejoice (v. 4) – Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!

What does it mean to rejoice?  It means to celebrate God, to PRAISE God.  It is not a shallow or fake happiness, but is joy expressed.  Joy is the noun; rejoice is the verb.  It is rooted in faith – faith that God is good and holds all things in His hands.  Like joy, rejoicing is possible, even in great suffering, for it looks beyond human experience and capacity to the supernatural power of God.  Rejoicing is an act of faith and the human spirit that focuses our hearts and minds on God and prepares us to know God’s peace. And like the Great Commandment, which links love of God with love of neighbor, we can see in the next verse (v. 5) that a posture of joy and rejoicing toward God relates to a posture of gentleness towards others.  That humility could be a separate action or choice, but I’ll include it here as a by-product of worship and love of God, something that is cultivated as we celebrate God by putting Him first.

Pray (v. 6) – …in everything by prayer… let your requests be made known

Verse 6 begins with “be anxious for nothing.”  Prayer is set off as the alternative to anxiety and fear.  “Be anxious for nothing… BUT” PRAY instead.  Listen to what Paul writes about praying.  “…in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  Pray and ask – supplication is persistent asking… almost begging.  But do so thankfully!  Do so without demanding, but as a request, with thankfulness that God listens to our prayers.  Are you fearful?  Then pray.  Are you anxious?  Then let your needs and requests be known to God.  Of course God already knows them, but if for no other reason, prayer is important because it expresses our trust in God – that He can and will hear and answer our prayers.  Prayer opens the lines of communication and prepares us to receive God’s peace.

Dwell (v. 8) – whatever is true…honorable…right…pure…lovely…of good repute…excellent…worthy of praise… dwell on these things

Finally, and Paul actually writes “finally” – we are to set our hearts and minds on good things – what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good reputation, excellent, and worthy of praise.  When Paul writes, “dwell on these things,” he means make your home there – build a dwelling place. PRACTICE this mindset and heartset, and not just these, but the content of the Gospel itself (v. 9).  So much of what causes fear and anxiety and darkness in our minds and spirits comes from what we put into our minds and spirits.  We watch the news, full of all the latest accidents and murders, and wonder why we are so troubled as we go to sleep.  We watch movies and TV shows about the occult and the demonic and wonder why our spirits are restless.  Dwell on the godly and lovely. Reading scripture daily, praying frequently, worshiping regularly, celebrating God in good and bad – it’s not homework to be checked off by dutiful students, it’s more like food and air and sleep – necessary to our health.  These things prepare us to give God’s peace a home in our lives.

Again, the supernatural peace that is beyond our comprehension comes from God.  But we can prepare ourselves for this gift.  We can prepare ourselves to know, receive, and make a home for God’s peace.

What it Looks Like

You can well imagine the practicality of all this. Not only would God grant peace, but if Euodia and Syntyche focused on praising God and being gentle with one another, in praying gratefully, and in practicing daily living in God’s Word and Spirit; surely they would not only be reconciled, but know God-sized peace. And not only would they know peace, but then be able to return to fruitful ministry in service to God and for God’s glory.  That’s the thing about anxiety; it’s a ministry-killer, cutting us off from being God’s people in the world as God intended us to be.

Next week we will read a bit more about how Paul experienced God-sized peace in his own life-and-death predicament. And the ministry flowed richly out of that peace. Though he was in prison, his jailors and house-mates were coming to faith. Paul is able to share about God’s strength even in that time of greatest human weakness.

So, again, our key verse is this, from Philippians 4:7…
The peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
We’ve talked about what we have to do to obtain this gift of God, to prepare ourselves to know that peace, receive it, and give it a home.  God’s peace looks like Jesus! God gives us instructions on how to obtain the peace He freely offers in Christ.  We are to rejoice in the Lord, pray thankfully, and let our minds dwell on the good and godly.  God’s peace is not a temporary solution to anxiety and fear, but a lasting gift.  That is why Paul speaks of it “guarding” us like a sentry guarding his post.  God’s peace, given freely in Christ, will never leave us.  Rather, we disconnect and look elsewhere for the peace that is always on duty. 

As a point of application, I want to challenge you to do something. You can begin it now and continue it later. But write these three words down under each other in your bulletin, or even out in the margin if you have your own Bible:
Think of a situation, fear, problem, person – whatever or whoever it may be – and maybe initial that above and to the right of PRAISE. Think about what you can praise God for today, something in which you can choose to rejoice. And write that beside praise. Then to the right of PRAY, write down a specific prayer request related to what is causing you anxiety. Be sure to also include a thanks to God, whether for this or simply for God’s faithfulness. And then out beside PRACTICE, try to think of one thought or behavior you can practice this week. Maybe it’s patience or forgiveness or grace. And pray over these things and these scriptures each day. I’ll give you a moment to get started on this now…

Return to these scriptures again and again if you find yourself lacking this peace.  Remind yourself of this path to experiencing God’s peace: praise, pray, practice.  Remind yourself of what God’s peace looks like and how you’ve experienced it in the past. God’s peace may be beyond human understanding, but the Bible declares it to be within human experience!  May you know that peace in a very real and tangible way today, as you seek to live your life “in Christ.”  Amen.

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"
Use inline player to listen; click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: 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!