Sanctification and all things working together for good

“What good is it going to do, anyway?” is a common lament among many people:

  • an elementary student who is frustrated by his attempts to hit a baseball and wants to stop going to practice
  • a high school student who is resigned to not getting a needed score on her SAT to enable her to get into her desired university
  • a young married couple that has been unable to have a baby and was referred to a specialist
  • a business owner who has taken on significant debt in a vain attempt to keep his company operating
  • a couple that has suffered through repeated communication problems in their marriage, have seen multiple counselors, and now have been encouraged to see a biblical counselor

It’s tempting when facing an overwhelming problem to say, “I quit.  It’s not worth it.  What good will it do anyway?” It just appears to us that there are some circumstances in our lives that are irredeemable.  But God says that if we are believers in Christ, He is working good in every circumstance of our lives.  Even in our “bad” and troubling times, those situations are working to our benefit by God’s design.  That’s the message of Romans 8:28-29 —

“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. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.”

God desires our transformation from the world and conformity to Christ in all things.  While the particular benefits of our situations are various, the broad and general benefit that God is working through every circumstance of our lives is our sanctification.

As we contemplate the implications of this passage, it is helpful to remember the context in which Paul is writing these words.

There are five major sections to Romans (apart from the introduction and conclusion):

  • Sin — the gospel and the unbeliever (1:18 – 3:20)
  • Salvation — the gospel and justification (3:21 – 4:25)
  • Sanctification — the gospel and growth in justification (5:1 – 8:39)
  • Sovereignty — the gospel, Israel, and the church (9:1 – 11:36)
  • Service — the gospel and ministry (12:1 – 15:33)

Chapter eight is the culminating chapter on sanctification.  In a sense it is the hinge point on which the entire book turns.  And this chapter has been called by many, “the greatest chapter in the Bible” because it contains repeated expressions of hope for the believer and repeated declarations of the greatness of God, culminating in a great benediction of praise to God.  In the middle of this chapter on sanctification, Paul deposits an encouragement for the kind of circumstances in which God sanctifies a believer and how those circumstances are good.

There are several key verses in Romans 8 for the reader to also remember as he reads verses 28-29.  Paul begins the chapter by reminding the readers that there is no “condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1; contrast 3:9-23; 6:23).  While they had been under condemnation, because of Christ’s imputed righteousness (Rom. 3:21 – 4:25), there is no more condemnation for believers, even those who still struggle with the flesh (7:14-25).

Further, Paul reminds the readers that in the flesh, it is impossible to please God (8:8), but the confidence that the believer has is that he is no longer in the flesh if he has been justified (v. 9).  Thus, having the Spirit of God, it is possible for the believer to please God in any and every circumstance (as he will emphasize in v. 28).  It is possible to live a sanctified life to God.

As believers, Christ is in us (v. 10), the Spirit is in us, we are alive (v. 11), and it is possible to live according to the Spirit and not the flesh (we can put to death the deeds of the body by the power of the Spirit, vv. 12-13).  Again, Paul is emphasizing the possibility of change and transformation because of the indwelling Spirit who brings the power of the risen Christ.

Believers in Christ are adopted sons of God and heirs of God (vv. 14-17), pointing to our freedom from slavery to sin (v. 15).  The believer can be sanctified and does not have to sin because of the power of the Spirit and his position as a son of God.

We have a hope of a glorious life ahead (v. 18), but both we and creation endure sufferings now, awaiting full redemption that far surpasses and present troubles (vv. 18-25).  There is trouble in the world that still emanates from Adam’s fall.  But there is confidence in a better life in Glory for those who have been justified and sanctified (v. 30).

In our sufferings and weakness, the Spirit is our helper (vv. 26-27; fulfilling Jesus’ promise of Jn. 14:16-17).  He not only equips and empowers us (vv. 14-25), but He also prays for us as our intercessor.  He is what we need in our troubling days and is the power for our sanctifying transformation.

Paul would have the reader know all the realities of God’s provision for him in mind as he reads verses 28-29.  Those verses do not stand alone, but they are positioned on the broad shoulders of theological truth concerning the work of Christ, the gift of the Spirit, the adoption of believers as sons, and the hope of eternity.  It is particularly because of these realities that Paul is able to affirm what he says in verses 28-29 — every circumstance of our lives is designed by God and used by God to produce our sanctification and transformation into Christlikeness.

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