Good morning everyone!
Father God, we thank you for this fantastic chapter of your word that we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks. We pray that you would open our eyes to its treasures, and we pray that you would bring them home to our hearts, in a way that shapes us to be more like Jesus. In his name we pray, Amen
Well you won’t believe how great it is to be filming this in person and not only talking to a tripod. I never thought it would be a special treat having real people in front of me when preaching! It’s great to be speaking to all of you here in church, and to those of you watching live (or later on) on YouTube.
But even this week, it has not felt totally certain that we wouldn’t have to cancel this live stream and pre-record! Things are so changeable at the moment, aren’t they? It’s so hard to be sure of anything at the moment isn’t it? We don’t know what one week is going to be like to the next. The last few weeks have been a bit of a rollercoaster, haven’t they?!
I don’t know how you’ve felt, or how all the changes have affected you personally, but one of the difficulties is just how much uncertainty there is. It feels like there’s just so much we don’t know, and it’s hard to have confidence in anything. Which makes what we are looking at today even more wonderful!
The brilliant thing about today’s passage is that Paul shows us some amazing, mind-blowing things that we can know for sure. Things that we can have complete confidence in – even in these times of uncertainty. Even in a crisis. Even in suffering or trials.
In fact, suffering and trials are the context for this passage. Paul’s just talked about them in the previous verses, and then we get to verse 28, and Paul says,
And we know, [i.e. THIS is what we DO KNOW] that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Wow! In everything, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Can that really be true? In everything?
I’m sure many of us have heard this verse before. It grabs our attention doesn’t it? Like a Ferrari driving down the road, or some tasty looking fruit hanging off a tree - but it’s the next verse that gives us the deep roots, or the engine, behind Paul’s statement. You see, like any part of the Bible, it’s so important to read it in context to understand it fully.
Because in order to understand verse 28, and in order to have real confidence in it, we need to know two things, don’t we?
- What is the good Paul is talking about, when he says that God works all things for good?
- And what is God’s purpose? Given it’s for those who are called according to his purpose.
And it’s the unbreakable chain of verses 29 and 30 that answers those questions - so that’s where we’re going to start today.
And they tell us that:
1. We (can) KNOW God’s unshakeable purpose and plan (with absolute certainty)
I don’t know how you think of God’s purpose and plan? Maybe it’s not something you’ve thought about before and you’re totally unsure. In which case you’re very welcome to be with us and I hope this sermon helps.
Or maybe when you think of God’s plan you think of salvation? Maybe that Jesus dying on a cross gives us a free ticket to heaven – which is certainly part of it.
But here in these verses, we see that, if we’re trusting Jesus, then the whole story of history leads to our salvation and to us becoming God’s people.
Take a look at verses 29 and 30. Paul writes:
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Here is God’s purpose for us as his people - a glorious, unbreakable chain. But let’s be honest, there’s a lot of long words in there (!) so let’s go through it one step at a time.
Here is what God has done for Christians:
Firstly, he foreknew us. I guess it would be easy to read that as meaning that God knew in advance who would later put their trust in Jesus. But that’s not what Paul is saying here – because it would mean that our salvation was in our own hands - and Paul has consistently shown us throughout Romans that we can contribute nothing to our salvation. It’s all God’s work.
You see, the word ‘foreknew’ in the original language is a much stronger word than that – it means to know someone, in the sense of having a deep, intimate relationship. So, it’s more like saying that God fore-loved us.
When my wife Sophie was pregnant with our kids, let’s say our daughter Phoebe for the sake of the illustration, there was a sense in which we already loved the baby in her tummy, even though we hadn’t met her yet. We set our love on that baby.
And God, even before we were conceived, even before the beginning of time, set his love on us. That is an incredible thing!
The next link in the chain is that he predestined us, and this means what it says, in the sense that God pre-set a destination for us.
Back when I was younger, my sisters and I, in our love for my mum and dad, organised a surprise trip to Venice for a big wedding anniversary of theirs. I have to say, it was a one-off – we hadn’t done anything like that much before and we’ve never done that much since! Most of the time I struggle to remember a card at all! But as you can imagine, sending them off on a trip to Venice went down very well!
And God, in his love for us, has set an amazing destination for us. And that destination is to be with him in glory, conformed to the likeness of his Son. To become like Jesus! That process begins now, through the work of the Holy Spirit, and will be brought to completion when Christ returns and we see him face to face. That’s God’s good plan for us. That’s our amazing destination, which he predestined for us right back before the beginning of time.
Now I know that throws up a lot of questions, in terms of who God does and doesn’t predestine. There’s not time to say a huge amount, but here are some things that the Bible is clear on:
1) The Bible is clear that all of us were in willful rebellion against God. So, God certainly doesn’t force neutral people into unbelief. Instead God chooses to graciously intervene and open blind eyes.
Think of Paul himself, he was persecuting the church, he was set against God, but God graciously intervened on the Damascus road and opened his eyes to see Jesus. And that is a picture of what has happened for all of us who are trusting Jesus.
That’s why we thank God for our conversion, and for those who come to faith. And that’s why we pray for others to come to faith.
The second thing to mention when thinking about this topic, is that:
2) The implications of the alternative (unbiblical) view are more difficult. Here’s what I mean, imagine that it’s ultimately down to our choice and willpower as to whether we believe and grow as disciples. How confident are you that you’ll keep going? And even worse, imagine it’s ultimately our job to persuade people to follow Jesus – it’s all down to us. How much pressure is that if people’s eternal destinies are completely in our hands. That is an awful thought.
But instead, rather than it being a huge burden, we can be confident that God is bringing people to himself, and we have the privilege of being part of his plan as we tell others the good news.
So, the implications of the alternative view are more difficult.
And lastly, and most importantly,
3) Whenever this topic of predestination comes up in the Bible, it’s always given as an encouragement to us, not as something get us in a twist.
It’s hugely encouraging that God has set his love on us and predestined us, he’s chosen us, so we can know security, comfort and hope right now.
I know that might still leave lots of questions, so I’ll send out some further reading this week for anyone who would like to think more about this.
But we need to move on to the next link in Paul’s unbreakable chain.
God foreknew. He predestined.
And the third link in the chain is to be…
Paul writes, “And those he predestined, he also called”. This is not a general call to everyone, but a specific call when God awakens faith in us and we accept the gospel.
There’s a great example of this in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Paul writes,
“we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction”.
Paul knew they had been chosen, because they responded to the gospel and believed…with deep conviction! God had predestined them to be his people, but at that moment, they were called, and so they trusted Jesus.
And next in the chain, we see what happens to those who trust Jesus. Paul writes, verse 30,
“…those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
If we’re chosen, we are justified. Remember back to Ken’s sermon from the start of this chapter. As we stand before judgement, we deserve only condemnation, but Jesus took it for us, so that Paul can declare in verse 1 of this chapter, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.
And to be justified means, not only to be not condemned, but to be declared righteous and blameless before God – like Jesus!
Here we see that the cross, our justification, was not just some isolated act, but was part of God’s whole purpose and plan, from before time began, through history, and ending in eternity.
Because the final part of the chain, the end destination, is to be glorified.
Now for some reason, that makes me think of having a big shining light behind me – like some sort of pop star coming on to stage – which at least would be better than having a big glaring light in front of us, which is what we usually have when we’re filming!
But to be glorified means something far more amazing. In the Bible, it means we’ll be given new perfect bodies, we’ll be perfect and sinless. And we’ll be like Jesus, so that we reflect God’s glory!
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that hasn’t happened yet!! So, there’s something odd here! Because Paul uses the past tense…for something that’s coming in the future.
You see, what he’s saying is that this is so certain that it might as well have already happened! The links in this chain cannot be broken, and that is where we are headed.
When my sisters and I sent my mum and dad to Venice, it was really good fun, because we put them on a plane to London, and they still didn’t know where they were going. They just had to pack a bag and hope for the best! But we gave them an envelope to open on the plane down to London, and in it was an anniversary card from us, plus tickets from London to Venice, plus all the details for their accommodation there and transport, and some spending money provided by relatives.
And Mum said it was a really special moment, because they could suddenly look back and see how we had planned everything for them, and that we loved them, and they knew they were headed to an amazing destination.
Now that’s just a little plan for a short break, but do you see that we are in an incredible position as Christians – because here we see God’s whole plan for us,
he fore-loved us before creation,
he predestined us to be justified and made like Jesus,
and we can look to the future when we will be made perfect and glorified.
And as we look at that whole incredible plan, we can know deeply that he loves us, he wants the best for us and nothing can break that chain of events.
And that is why,
2. We KNOW that for those who love God all things work together for good
We can go back to that verse, verse 28. And we can finally answer the question ‘what is the good that God is working towards? What is his purpose?’
We’ve seen that it is conforming us to the image of his son (making us like Jesus), and bringing us to glory.
These are the things that Paul is saying we can know with certainty.
So often, what makes suffering or trials worse is that there is so much uncertainty. There are unanswered questions aren’t there? We ask “why?” We ask “what next?” We ask “when?” We don’t know how much to hope. We wish there was more certainty.
But here Paul says, this is what we DO KNOW.
1. Firstly, God is at work for good even in our suffering.
He is ceaselessly and purposefully working good for his people.
But we need to be careful, because if we define ‘good’ wrongly as getting that beautiful house we want, or career success or family harmony, then when we don’t get those, we’ll think, “maybe God isn’t working for my good?”.
But if we define it rightly, like Paul does here, as becoming more like Jesus, then we can be confident that God is working for good – even in difficulty or pain.
He can use those things as a furnace to make us more like Jesus. They might be painful, but they can create purity and beauty in us. And often the way God does that is by revealing the things that have become too important to us. Often, it’s only when suffering comes that we see the false Gods in our lives, like money, or career, or family, or feeling like we need to be the one fixing everything and in control, and we realise we need to turn to the true God, who will never abandon us and longs to pour his grace out on us.
The hymn writer John Rippon summed it up when he said:
When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,
my grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply;
the flame shall not hurt you; I only design
your dross to consume and your gold to refine.
Last week we heard an amazing interview with Joni Eareckson Tada, who sadly became paralyzed from the shoulders down in an accident at age 17. She clearly knows the truth of that. She wrote in one of her books,
“...we will stand amazed to see the topside of the tapestry and how God beautifully embroidered each circumstance into a pattern for our good and His glory.”
So, Paul wants us to know that God is at work for good even in our suffering. Even in the furnace. But he also wants us to know that:
2. Our suffering might break us physically and mentally and emotionally, but it will not break the golden chain of our salvation
In all the things of life, we can have assurance of God’s love for us, assurance of salvation, and assurance of that great hope of glorification, because of God’s sovereignty and his plan for our salvation.
Some people have likened these verses to a pillow for our weary heads. If we are in the midst of suffering, these are verses we can cling to and take comfort in, even when that pillow is wet with tears. Paul is saying - even when there is so much, we don’t know, even when we are confused, even when we’re hurting - we can know these things with confidence, and rest our weary heads on them.
Let me finish with the final verse of that hymn from John Rippon,
"The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
that soul, though all hell should endeavour to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never forsake."
Father God, as we look at your amazing plan for us, from before time began, through to eternity, we thank you that you are working all things together for good.
In this time of uncertainty, we pray that you would help us to KNOW these things with certainty.
We pray they would give us a foundation of confidence and hope for facing each day, whatever it holds – help us to KNOW that you have chosen us, you are at work in us – making us more like Jesus - and you will bring us to glory.
Heavenly father, we praise you and give you thanks. Amen