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Children of an Awesome God

You Know He's Working for Your Good

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | November 2, 2008

Selected highlights from this sermon

Where do you go when life falls apart? Romans 8:28 is a promise given to those who love God—to Christians—to remind us that He’s conforming us to the likeness of His Son. He will use the good times, His people, and His word to mold us, but He’ll also use the trials and tragedies of life to shape us.

So if you’re having a bad day, look at it from God’s perspective – it may be just what you need to make you more like His Son.

I begin today with a question. Where do we go when the days are dark and the nights are long? Where do you go when you suffer unexpected loss—the death of a child, a mate who leaves you, a retirement fund that shrinks into nothing? Where do you go when you’ve messed up? How do you hang on to your faith when it seems that everything that is working for you is working against you, when the friends who should be helping you are actually becoming your enemies? Where do you go when life falls apart? That’s the question, and today I do have an answer, and the answer is found in a very familiar passage of Scripture. It’s a great promise that all of us have memorized. We all know it very well. It’s Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.” You may turn to it there in the Scriptures, and I’m going to give you some introductory comments before we take the text apart and be changed forever because we’ve heard God’s word applied by the Holy Spirit.

First of all, let’s keep in mind that this awesome promise is a promise, and it is not an explanation. It’s not as if it enables us to read the fine print of God’s diary so we can see exactly why God is doing it, so that we can look back and say, “Well now I know why that infant died,” or “Now I know why I lost a son in a car accident.” It’s not that kind of a verse. It gives us the promise that God is working toward our good. It does not give us the details as to how it all fits in. The promise is that it does, but you and I don’t see it.

Secondly, I need to say that it is not a quick cure for sorrow. This past week my wife and I attended the funeral of a friend of ours whom we’ve known for 35 years. He died at the age of 64. Now catch this: Two and a half months ago he had a physical exam and passed with flying colors. About two weeks after that he realized he had a very rare form of cancer and his funeral was this week. Did we go to his grieving widow and his children and say, “Now dry your tears because after all, all things work together for good to them who love God, so get on with it?” No, we didn’t do that because that would have hurt and it would have been wrong. It is true that all things work together for good, but this is not a substitute for sorrow. This is not some kind of an answer so that we can apply it to life and we no longer have any pain. That’s not the kind of verse this verse is. It is a promise, and not an explanation, and it’s not a quick cure for sorrow.

It is a promise indeed, but it is also given to some people but not everybody. There are many of you listening to this message today to whom this promise does not apply. It applies only to those within a certain circle, and the people to whom it is applied are specified in the text itself. “And we know that all things work together for good to them who love God.” I’m actually quoting the King James. It’s stated a little differently. The word order is different in the English Standard Version. “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

First of all, you have to be a God lover. Now you and I don’t love God naturally. In fact, the people to whom this verse was given—namely all of us at one time—we neither hated God, we neither feared Him nor were indifferent to Him. It is God who creates a love for Himself within the human heart when we are converted. This is a supernatural love.

So I have to ask you today: are you a God lover? Do you fundamentally love God? At prayer meeting the other night I asked everyone to talk out loud simultaneously and simply tell God why we individually love Him because we all love God if we are born of God.

Second, notice it says that they are the called according to His purpose. This is not the general call. This is not the call that Billy Graham might give as he preaches to a large crowd, and says, “In a moment I’m going to ask you to come, hundreds of you. You simply get up out of your seats and I want you to come.” It’s not that kind of a general call, because there are many millions who hear that call. This is a different call. This is an internal call. This is the call of the Holy Spirit to the elect. It’s a very good word, by the way, that is used in Scripture. In the next message in this series, overwhelmingly we’re going to be talking about predestination and election, and we’re going to allow the Bible to simply say what it says about these matters. But at the end of this message, if you are outside of the circle that I’m talking about, I will tell you how you can find out if you are the called and give you an opportunity to respond to Christ so that you can be among the called as God calls you.

So this is not just a general promise to everyone. This is for those who love God who are called. It’s another definition of being a Christian. If you don’t love God and you’ve never been called, you’ve never been born again.

Now with that introduction what I’d like to do is to give you four aspects of this overwhelming promise, this unbelievable promise that is found in Romans 8:28 which virtually everyone knows by memory. I was witnessing to a healthcare worker in a hospital about a week ago and I was trying to lead him to assurance of faith, because he didn’t have assurance of faith, and so we prayed together and I said I’m going to be preaching on Romans 8:28, and he knew the verse and was able to quote it. It’s a well-known verse, and let’s now look at the four aspects of God’s providence and God’s care for His people.

Number one, please notice the certainty of God’s promise. “And we know.” Now if you glance back in verse 26 it says we don’t know. Paul says, “We don’t know how we should pray as we ought.” We just don’t know how we should pray, but he says we do know something. “We know – we know that all things work together for good.” In Greek there are two words for “know.” One is ginōskō, which means to know by experience, and we experience love. We say, “I know this person by experience.” This is not the word that is used here. This is oida, because oida is the kind of knowledge that comes through revelations or propositions. If you are doing, for example, mathematics, you can’t say that I’ve experienced that two plus two is equal to four. It is a proposition that is grasped by the mind, and that’s what Paul has in mind here. He’s saying that we know that all things work together for good. We know because God has revealed it. We’ve not experienced it. There are all kinds of things that we’ve experienced that have not been, so far as we can see, for our good, but Paul says, “All things work together for good and we know it.” We know it through the word of God, through the promises of God, through the prompting of the ministry of the Holy Spirit of God. We have that down deep settled assurance. We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.

Last night Rebecca and I were out having dinner with Dr. and Mrs. Easley, and before we left, Michael, who probably is ten years or so younger that I am (I won’t get exact here), said to us, “I have a question for you. As you grow older (and I thought, “Well, thank you, Michael, for your keen observation. I appreciate the way in which you introduced the question.”), is your faith in God strengthened or is it challenged? Do you doubt your faith because of all of the sorrow and the suffering and the sickness and the unanswered questions that we have in life?” Rebecca answered that indeed her faith was stronger, and I agreed with that, but then I added this: “My faith is stronger but the mysteries are greater.”

I don’t understand why God takes a child at the age of five. I don’t understand why a mother dies of cancer at the age of 37 leaving three children, and my parents continue to live even though they are anxious to go to heaven at their old age. I don’t get it. Long ago I tried to figure these things out but I’ve stopped trying to figure them out because, to quote a phrase, “they’re above my pay grade.” I just can’t get my mind around why God does what He does, but my faith is strong. I believe absolutely that God works all things for good for those who love Him. So we know. That has to do with the certainty of God’s purposes.

Secondly, notice this aspect. It has to do with the comprehensiveness of God’s purposes. We know that all things – each of these aspects has a phrase. We know “all things.” Underline all things – ALL things. It means everything works together for good. Life is haphazard. It doesn’t fit. There are no neat categories, but God takes these categories and He makes them neat. He finds a place for them and He works these things for our good, and His good too, as we shall see in just a moment.

Now, the question is, what does He work for good? Well, obviously He uses righteous things for good—His people, the Word of God. All these things are used for our good, but He also uses the negative things, and that’s clearly what the Apostle Paul has in mind. He uses reversals. He uses losses. He uses health issues. He uses people who turn against us. He uses the losses not only of a child, of a spouse, of a relative, or of a parent (as Rebecca is experiencing today). He not only uses those kinds of things but also losses on the stock market. You know, I think of 10,000 people dying because of the turbulence of the stock market. In the life of a Christian God uses these things for good. Our enemies are used for our good. As a matter of fact, we need our enemies and our enemies need us, and they are there for our good. Keep that in mind because all things work together for good to them that love God.

Anything that we would call affliction, it says in Psalm 119:67, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but I have kept thy word.” God uses affliction. He uses all things. Oh you say, “But Pastor Lutzer you haven’t gotten to the big thing yet.” I know exactly what you’re thinking if you are tracking with me today. You’re saying, “I understand all that, and that it somehow works for good, but what about our sin?” You know, in my small group in prayer meeting the other night (and what a marvelous time we had as the Holy Spirit came upon us and enabled us to pray in the Spirit and cry up to God on behalf of ourselves and our church and our country) there were three men. Two of them had ruined their own marriages because of their own sin, and now they were repenting. They were calling up to God because they’d like to re-establish their relationship with their wives. Does that work together for good?

“What do you mean, all things work together for good? Pastor Lutzer, I have blown it. If you knew my sin, if you knew what I’ve committed, how could that possibly work for good?” But you know, the very fact that they were repenting, the very fact that they were there calling on God is an indication that God is in the business of taking even sin and working it for good. Now we must tread very carefully here. Sin is never justified. Sin is never a good thing. You should never sin so that God will have something to use to display his grace or to work something for good. That is wrong thinking as the Apostle Paul clarifies in the book of Romans and it will lead you down a false path, and that path may have many pitfalls from which you may never recover. But, having said that, God is able even to take our sin, to over-rule it, to weave it, to use it in ways that we cannot even fathom, to help us to see ourselves and our great need to expand His grace, because the Bible says that all things work together for good to them who love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.

Let me give you a list of things: evil, sin, false accusations, injustice, broken relationships, cruelty, betrayal, hatred, jealousy, abandonment. You say, “Pastor Lutzer, can all of those things work together for good?” The answer is yes because everything that I just read to you all was a part of what Jesus experienced in His last hours on the cross as He went to Calvary. God worked that for good. As a matter of fact, that is the quintessential example of how God takes something that is thoroughly and entirely evil (the Bible says that wicked men crucified Christ and God takes those wicked men and what they do and holds them fully accountable) and yet out of the crucible of human failure and sin and betrayal and what have you, there at Calvary He displays His grace. If we can take that as a microcosm, it will help us understand that all things work together for good. What is it that you are experiencing today? What disappointment, what hopelessness, what dream has been shattered? What child has disappointed you? What hopelessness has come to you as a result of some news that you received this past week? All things work together for good to them that love God. What the Apostle Paul is saying is that God’s sovereignty is such over the affairs of men, His ability to intervene, His ability to cancel sin, His ability to be able to use the very pains of life, is so great that we can say with confidence, “We know that all things work together for good to them who love God.”

Notice how far we’ve come. We’ve talked about the certainty of God’s purposes, and we’ve talked about the comprehensiveness of God’s purposes. All things work together for good, and now we speak about the means of God’s purposes. How are they brought about? Now you underline the phrase, “work together” – synergeō in Greek, from which we get the word synergism. Here you have events; you have confluence. I always hoped I’d have a chance to use that word. I love it. Here you have the coming together of the purposes of God, the interweaving of His purposes, because He sees around corners and He knows the outcome in ways that you and I cannot possibly fathom, and He works them together for good.

When I was a boy out on the farm, as farm boys we loved to take things apart. My oldest brother was able to take a tractor apart and put it together again and the motor would run. If I had done that we’d have been able to buy the farm next door with all the parts that would have been left over. But I remember taking a clock apart. It was one of these clocks that didn’t run, which means it was right twice a day, something like some people I know, but I took it apart and one of the things that I noticed in the back before I did as I tried to get it to run when I wound it up was that there were some little wheels. It was full of little wheels and I loved these little wheels, but some of them were going counterclockwise. Some of them were going the same direction as the clock. Some of them were going faster. Some of them were going slower, and some of them were going, yes, counter the hands of the clock. Now if all that you had were the back of the clock to look at, you’d say to yourself, “What possible sense does this make? This is just silly. Here you have a wheel that is in opposite purposes to the purpose of the clock, but actually not.”

My friend, today you may be having a very, very bad day, but mark my word: From God’s standpoint it may be a very, very good day. When everything is against you, when one thing falls on your life right after another and you are coming up for air, and you are saying, “How can I take all this stress? How can I take all this disappointment? How could this have happened which I could have never predicted?” At that moment God may be saying, “You know it’s all working against you, but I am working for you, and I am working for you to bring about good.” God can do that. He synergizes the confluence of events. I thought I’d use the word again.

Now, I don’t know (maybe if you’re a chemist you come and explain it to me later) how God takes sodium and chloride (both of them poisonous and if you take enough of either it’ll kill you) and brings them together to create salt without which we could not possibly live. And salt became such a precious commodity in the old world that even today we have the expression, “Is he worth his salt?” because salt was used in bartering. And you have an entire city in Austria by the name of Salzburg – salt burg. Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott – a mighty fortress is our God. Salt fortress, literally, because it is there that the boats would have to stop and pay a toll for using the river and what was really on those ships was salt. I don’t know how God does that, and I don’t know how God takes sin over here and sin over there and disappointment over there and a struggling family over here and then brings it all together and in the end makes something good out of it. I don’t know how God does it, but this much I’m convinced of: He does because all things work together for good to them who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose. Do you love him? Are you called? If you do, you’re in the circle and you benefit from this special work of God.

We’ve considered the certainty of God’s purposes, its comprehensiveness, its means (He works it together for good) and now a word about the result, and what is the good to which He works it?

I’ve told you before about the sculptor who was asked, “How do you make an elephant?” and he said, “It’s actually very easy. You take a block of marble and then you just chip away everything that isn’t elephant.” And what God wants to do is to chip away everything in us that isn’t Jesus. We do have a hint at the good to which God is working in the very next verse. You’ll notice it says, “God works all things for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose,” and verse 29 says, “For those whom he foreknew he predestined.” Oh, I am so excited about the next sermon in this series, I don’t know how I am going to be able to wait. I can hardly wait to hear what I’m going to say, by the way. [laughter] All right, and that was for emphasis. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son.” That’s what God is after, and because that’s what God is after, He won’t stop at anything, including crucifixion. That’s what happened to His first Son, and God says, “I’m intending to work it for your good. This past week was for your good.” But also we have to stress that it is also for God’s good. There’s a convergence here. We could even say confluence. There’s a convergence here of God’s good and your good and they become one and the same because God says, “What is good for you is good for Me, because I’m going to be glorified in you.” “And the trial of our faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes though it be tried with fire might be found unto glory and honor and praise at the appearing of Jesus Christ,” the Bible says, “as God works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” There is a purpose in your tight budget and in your financial stress and your health stresses, and on and on and on, and God says, “I’m working it for your good and for My good too,” because for the Christian they become one and the same.

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, how do you believe these promises? I mean, this seems too fantastic, and I just can’t seem to get my mind around it.” One of the best things you and I can do, and I’ve had to learn this by personal experience, is instead of constantly praying about what is on our mind is to thank God that He has brought it into our lives. If you begin a life of praise, you are going to think things differently. It’s going to take you above the rat race. It’s going to help you to see the bigger picture, and that is to be a thankful Christian who genuinely says, “God, I thank You for this trial, this difficulty, and this challenge, because I know that You are working all things together for my good and Your glory – Your good too.”

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what is the bottom line? Where does this all land?” Let me give you two bottom lines today.

If you haven’t been taking notes this would be a time for you to begin. Here’s the first. For believers there are no permanent tragedies. God weaves, over-rides, converges, displays His power and His grace in such a way that if you are here today within the circle that I’ve been talking about, there are no permanent tragedies, and He is able to bring good out of the worst situation.

Some time ago I read about a pastor whose son committed suicide. Can you even imagine anything that is as bad as that? I find it hard to get my mind around anything that would be worse than a child who commits suicide. The pastor was absent from the pulpit for a number of weeks, but then he came back to his congregation and read Romans 8:28, and then let me tell you what he said to the congregation. He said, “I cannot make my son’s death fit into any passage or make sense out of it in any way. It is impossible for me to see how any good can come of it, yet I realize I see only a part,” and then he referred to what he called the miracle of the shipyard, and this is what he said. “When you look at a modern ship it is almost all steel. If you take any individual part, and you take it and put it in the ocean it will drown,” and we know that to be true, because steel doesn’t float. So you take the individual pieces and they all sink, but because of how the pieces are put together, he says, when the last rivet is put into the ship, the ship floats against all odds, and now I continue his own words: “Taken by myself, my son’s suicide is senseless. Throw it into the sea of Romans 8:28 and it sinks. I can see no good in it, but when the master shipbuilder has finally finished, even this tragedy will be built together to serve God’s unsinkable purpose.” Wow. That takes your breath away. What faith!

Senselessness – absolutely senseless! There’s no good that can come of this. There’s no good outcome that you can have but even though it doesn’t float, because we serve the master shipbuilder, when the last rivet has been put into His purposes, it’ll float. “All things work together for good to them that love God,” because to the Christian there is no permanent tragedy. There are absolutely plenty of tragedies, but they’re never permanent. Eternity is coming.

There’s another lesson that you need to learn, and that is this. To the non-Christian there are no permanent triumphs, and now I am speaking to those of you who are outside of the circle that we’ve been talking about. This promise does not apply to you because you don’t love God and you are not called according to His purpose so far as you know, and for you there are no permanent triumphs, because anything that you achieve in this life will not last, and eternity is coming and it is a very long time. And you may exist for God’s good, but you will never find that you will exist for your own good ultimately. The best example I know of is the story in the New Testament about Judas. You know, sometimes I think we get a wrong view of Judas. He was not the kind of person who would come into church late, sit in the back row, and then leave when the final hymn was being sung so that he didn’t have to talk to anybody. That wasn’t Judas. He was the kind of man who was a part of the disciples and the disciples themselves never knew that he was an unbeliever. In fact, in the upper room when Jesus said, “One of you shall betray me,” to the everlasting credit of the disciples they all said, “Is it I? Could it be me?” because they never suspected Judas.

He’s the kind who would volunteer to teach a TMC community, and think that he should be on the deacon board. That’s the kind of guy that Judas was. But you know, of course, his tragedy. He ended up betraying Christ. But here’s what Jesus said of Judas. This is really, really mind-boggling. Jesus said, “It would have been good for that man if he had never been born.” See Judas, no matter how much he achieved as a disciple of Jesus, no matter how much money he was able to steal (and you remember he did do that), despite all of that Judas had no permanent triumphs, and he existed ultimately for God’s good but he never existed for his own good. It would have been better for him; it would have been good for him if he had not been born.

You say, “Pastor Lutzer, so what is this all about if I’m quote ‘outside the circle’?” Here’s what I want to tell you today: If you find within your heart that while I am speaking the Holy Spirit has been speaking to you, and you say to yourself, “I want to respond to Christ. I want to believe on Him. I want to be a God lover. I want to be called according to His purpose,” that’s a good sign that the work of the Spirit is taking place in your life, and I urge you today to believe in Jesus, and to respond to that call, and I know that there are some of you who are listening to me today and you know exactly who you are because the Holy Spirit has given you a sense of sin. He has given you a sense of your own need and you know that Jesus is the Savior, and right now, even as I speak, the call of God is happening in your heart. If you trust Christ, and not upon the basis of your good works, but to trust what He did for you on the cross and in the resurrection, believing that for yourself that Jesus died in your place to redeem you, and you respond to that you’ll be able to leave here today saying, “Now I know for myself it’s true, that all things work together for good to them who love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.”

Let’s bow together in prayer.

Father, how can we even begin to think about the implications of someone like Judas? I pray today, Father, that there are those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, and we don’t know who they are because they may be involved in a church. Cause them to believe at this moment. Implant love in their hearts. Show them their need for a Savior, and may they savingly believe on Jesus. Do that in their lives. And for those of us who have trusted Christ, oh, we pray that we may leave here with a new sense of optimism and faith, saying that there is something that we don’t know, but there is also something we know.

And now before I close this prayer, what do you need to say to God as a believer or an unbeliever even where you are seated or watching on the Internet, or listening by CD or radio? Right now you can say, “Jesus, I receive you as my Savior. I trust you.” Tell him that.

Help us, Father, today, we pray, for we are needy, and grant u Your grace and enliven our faith we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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