God’s invisible power is at work underlying everything that happens to us, working for our advantage. This, insists the apostle Paul, is behind the events of every Christian’s life. Like the Romans we need reminding of it, not least because the opposite frequently seems true as we stumble along through this fallen world. But there’s a reason it’s a hard struggle, and we’ll come to that, but first let’s clarify who this great promise applies to.
The apostle carefully specifies: ‘those who love God… those who are called according to his purpose’. This second qualifying statement ‘called according to his purpose’ is key to understanding the famous truths presented here. Paul immediately elaborates in verses 29-31. Basically, as Christians we’re on a predetermined journey to heaven that started not when God called us, but before we were even born; before the creation of the world in fact (c.f. Ephesians 1:4-6ff). Back then God decided, in love, that we would be His – it’s what we’re made for – it’s who we are (c.f. Romans 9:19-24). Faith is simply our natural inherent response to the gospel message – His purpose for us (c.f. Acts 13:48).
This mysterious doctrine has profound implications for our assurance of salvation. As Christians part way along the journey we should feel secure, and Paul is keen to encourage us with that fact. But we should note the main hallmark of the true Christian he draws our attention to here: ‘those who love God’. This is how we know we are one of those Paul’s talking about. It’s a sure sign of the Holy Spirit in us – the first fruit of the Spirit mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. God’s great act of love towards us causes a reciprocal response that we can feel and know in ourselves (c.f. verses 15-16). As the apostle John put it ‘He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love… We love him, because he first loved us.’(1 John 4:8&19). So if we love our Heavenly Father, we can be confident the Holy Spirit is at work in us and that we are one of those ‘called according to his purpose’.
In what sense then does God work all things for our good? Verse 28 is surrounded by answers to this question. The Holy Spirit not only helps us to pray (verse 26), but prays for us (verse 27), Moreover, as already mentioned, we’re on a journey with a predetermined good end: glorification – i.e. perfection in heaven (verse 29-30), we cannot have any charge brought against us because God has chosen us (verse 31-33) and Jesus Christ, no less, is pleading the case for our forgiveness (verse 34).
This is certainly all very good, but why does life often seem so hard and messy then? Doesn’t Paul recognise this fact? Of course he does, and that’s his main point – to encourage us in the thick of it. From verse 35 onwards he lists all the troubles and difficulties that may befall us in this life – these are part of the ‘all things’ of verse 28. Here we see that the all things that God works for our good are not quite what we might have thought. The all things include a lot of unpleasant things. So where’s the good in that? The clue is in verse 29 ‘predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son’. This is the good God intends to do us (c.f. verses 17-18). And changing sinners into saints requires discipline. As the writer to the Hebrews put it ‘God deals with you as with children, for what son is there whom his father doesn’t discipline?… All chastening seems for the present to be not joyous but grievous; yet afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been exercised thereby.’(Hebrews 12:7-11). And ‘let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross’(Hebrews 12:1-2).
Paul is here encouraging us in our struggles by revealing God’s perspective on our lives. If we love God it’s a sign He first loved us and the Holy Spirit is at work in us – that we have been ‘called according to his purpose’. This means we were created for heaven and cannot be charged with our sin. But first, for our own good, our loving Father will discipline us through trials as He trains us to become like Jesus.