This the fourth of four sermons from the Lenten Mission. The text is Romans 8:28-39.
We live in a culture of instant gratification. We have “instant” foods and microwaves to heat things faster than could be imagined just a few decades ago. A sign at the counter in MacDonald’s tells us their goal is 90 seconds. Convenience has become a standard expectation. Having to park too far away from a store (or even our church) can stir feelings of indignation. We expect open lines at the grocery store and get irritated when they back up and no opens another register. We are accustomed to being comfortable. We have heating and air conditioning to keep our rooms within quite narrow tolerances, and we can get quite agitated if the temperature is not to our liking.
It’s amazing to me that there are so many Christians who do not perceive these are spiritual issues. They contribute to other practical expressions that we recognize as wrong — like young people not waiting to have sex until they are married — but somehow not much is said about the connection a culture of instant gratification that nurtures children (negatively) from an early age. We are seldom challenged that many of our expressions of indignation are rooted in the sin of selfishness. We are vulnerable to an attitude that thinks: if an all-powerful God loves us, then he should make our lives comfortable.
This chapter of Paul’s letter has one of the best-known verses in the Bible: all things work together for good.... (8:28). On the surface it appears that God is at work to make our lives comfortable and convenient.... but that is not consistent with the rest of the Bible, the life of Jesus, the teaching of the Church, or the example of the saints. What is God doing?
Last time we saw that right now God is working even (or especially) through suffering so we can both know him intimately and be transformed to be like Jesus. That is what Christian Faith is all about — taking people who are sinners (who are enemies of God apart from the death of Jesus for our sins) and turning those same people into saints. God calls every one of us to be a saint! He has provided everything we need to experience that transformation. He is at work right now in every person who owns the name of the Jesus Christ to make that a reality.
There is a very human “side” to faith. We are invited to have faith. We are encouraged to exercise faith. We are exhorted to remain faithful. Most of know we do a poor job of being faithful to anything that looks like sainthood. We know that we are quite insufficient to such a lofty goal, so we decide that the fullness of Christian Faith is for “special” people, not “regular” people. And when the conditioning of our culture hits us — that everything should be easy, convenient and comfortable — it seems that being a stellar Christian is just too much.
But think about what Saint Paul is saying here. We are all called to be like Jesus. That is why God created us. That is why Jesus died for us. That is why the Holy Spirit comes to live in Christians.
We are told that faith is a gift from God (Eph 2:8). Christian Faith (and living like Christians, since what we do flows out of what we believe) is not all up to us. We need to understand that salvation is so unilaterally from God that if he has not chosen and acted to save us, there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, but the fact that God has chosen to do this is meant to give us great confidence and security. This is the major emphasis as Paul concludes this section of the letter.
I admit it is very difficult for us to understand the interface between God’s commitment to save and our own responsibility in salvation. We are told here, clearly, that God has purposed things from the beginning that affect even the details of salvation, all the way to who will be saved. At the very least we can know that those who God knows, from the beginning, as being the recipients of his salvation will be saved. We also need to know that the fullness of salvation means sainthood. God starts it and God finishes it:
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (v29,30).
Glorification means “being like Jesus,” and being like Jesus is a great way to understand who a saint is — a saint is someone who has been so transformed by God’s saving work that a person who was once a sinner is now “like Jesus.” This is why, when the life of his Spirit works in us, we can have a confidence beyond ourselves. Salvation is God’s work,
The real emphasis in the New Testament is not on how “human” we are, but on how Christ-like we can be. C. S. Lewis said, “‘Putting on Christ’ ... is not one among many jobs a Christian has to do; and it is not a sort of special exercise for the top class. It is the whole of Christianity.” As I have said, a common theme among the early Church Fathers was that Christ became like us so we could become like him. Christ is the pattern of a whole new humanity for the promised age-to-come. St. Augustine tells us:
God became a man for this purpose: since you, a human being, could not reach God, but you can reach other humans, you might now reach God through a man. And so the man Christ Jesus became the mediator of God and human beings. God became a man so that following a man—something you are able to do—you might reach God, which was formerly impossible to you.
This is the context in which we are to understand the very popular verse of Romans 8:28 — And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. This is not an all-purpose promise for everyone that “things will work out for the best.”
First of all, the promise is for “those who love God” (as defined by Jesus, who said Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father... Jn 14:21). Paul’s language for this earlier in the chapter is the person who is controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit and if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ (v9). Secondly, there is a specific goal toward which “things work for good.” It is not our temporal convenience and happiness. The goal is according to his [God’s] purpose, and that is explicitly defined: to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.
This is exactly why the purpose of the Church is to make saints — to reproduce the likeness of Jesus. From the first stage of repentance and faith to a mature Christian’s dying breath, our purpose is to be God’s purpose for us: to be like Jesus. Let’s hear again from C. S. Lewis:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of— throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but He is building up a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).
We so easily lose sight of this. Distractions pull us away. Sometimes we choose wrong things. Sometimes we just get suffocated with good things that choke the life of God’s Spirit. Sometimes there are assaults of various kinds we would never ourselves choose. Satan wants to convince us that God is not with us or that God does not care. There is no denial here of difficulties for the Christian. It is in just such things that God works for the good of those who love him. Someone has said, “God permits what he hates in order to accomplish what he loves.” Paul invites the question.... and answers it: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? (v35).
These are some of the things that unsettle us and, when we focus too much on their immediacy instead of the big picture — the “seen” rather than the “unseen” — we find ourselves perplexed with questions we cannot answer. Go back to the humble confession in v26: we do not know what we ought to pray... When we focus too much on our circumstances, we find ourselves in situations where “we do not know” and then we get discouraged.
Do you know what to do when you “do not know?” We are supposed to go deeper. We are to dive into the sure things God has said and done. At first this takes us to more foundational questions, but then we get answers, and they are here in these verses:
— If God is for us, who can be against us? (v31)
— He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (v32)
— Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies (v33).
— Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us (v34).
The answers are implied with a force that is apparent to anyone who believes that God has acted for our salvation. Jesus is praying for us right now. These are some things we can know....
God is going to accomplish his purpose! What is that purpose? It is to have a people, through his Son, who are like him because they are like his Son. No matter what happens in the meantime — trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword — we can believe that if God is working his Spirit into us in all these things, then we can know him even as we are foreknown. And one day we will be like him.... from sinners to saints.
How? Why? For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (v39).
Imagine a colony of grubs living on the bottom of a swamp. Every once in a while, one of these grubs is inclined to climb a leaf stem to the surface. Then he disappears above the surface and never returns. All the grubs wonder why this is so and what it must be like up there, so they counsel among themselves and agree that the next one who goes up will come back and tell the others. Not long after that, one of the grubs feels the urge and climbs that leaf stem and goes out above the surface onto a lily pad. And there in the warmth of the sun, he falls asleep. While he sleeps, the carapace of the tiny creature breaks open, and out of the inside of the grub comes a magnificent dragonfly with beautiful, wide, rainbow-hued, iridescent wings. And he spreads those wings and flies, soaring out over those waters. But then he remembers the commitment he has made to those behind, yet now he knows he cannot return. They would not recognize him in the first place, and beyond that, he could not live again in such a place. But one thought is his that takes away all the distress: they, too, shall climb the stem, and they, too, shall know the glory (Bruce Thielemann, Christus Imperator).
Hear it again: God has acted for our salvation. God is going to accomplish his purpose! For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Through his Holy Spirit, God is working the life of Jesus Christ into all of who embrace him as Savior and Lord. Even now we can be a tangible presence of Jesus to other people around us. It’s because God is at work.... accomplishing his purpose.... turning sinners into saints.