We are currently hearing messages on key passages from Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome. Last week we saw how creation itself will be redeemed when the children of God are finally redeemed. We saw that God is not concerned only about humans, but about every part of his good and beautiful creation, which God himself has now subjected so that humans may learn obedience.
Today, we have a short passage, but one so rich, a whole series of messages could be given on them. I cannot do full justice to the richness of the text. But what I wish to do is reveal a conspiracy. It is contained in this passage. And it is one orchestrated by God. So let’s get to it.
Having spoken about creation groaning for its redemption and having told us how the Spirit helps us when we ourselves groan, Paul continues with the startling words, “We know.” We know. Not we believe. Not we think it might be so. Not it is highly likely that. Not the forecast is.
No! Rather, we know!
The Spirit living in the Christian gives such supreme confidence in the reality that Paul is about to describe that only the words, “We know” could capture it.
But what is it that we know? “All things work together for good toward those who love God.” What in the world does this mean? What does “all things” refer to? The majority view is that this refers to the circumstances of a Christian’s life, that everything that happens, whether good or bad, works in favor of the Christian. Another view, reflected in the NIV, is that God works in everything that happens in a Christian’s life so as to produce good through it.
But if we consider the flow of the passage, and the fact that Paul has only just devoted quite bit of space to the groaning of creation, we will be led to understanding that “all things” refers to creation itself.
The Spirit helps us when we don’t know how to pray or what to pray for with regard to the redemption of creation. But because creation realizes that a Christian is someone who will be bodily redeemed, someone who loves God, someone for whom Jesus died, someone indwelt by the Spirit, creation itself is favorably inclined toward the Christian. Every part of creation works in tandem with every other part for the benefit of those who love God. We will shortly see what that benefit is.
Mind you, I am not saying that this does not happen in the context of the circumstances of our lives. To say that would be absurd, for we are benefited only through the circumstances of our lives.
What I am saying is that it is not the case that creation is somehow working against us and that God is somehow turning the bad things that creation hurls at us into things that benefit us.
Rather, the bad things are hurled at us by the forces of evil and the humans who willfully or helplessly assist those forces. And God lifts the curse on creation for the sake of those who love him. Creation is now able to join God in benefiting those who love him and, in doing so, oppose the forces of evil. What the benefit is we will see shortly.
Now Paul moves on to one of the most controversial pair of verses. Paul mentions this string of ideas – foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification.
The last three, namely calling, justification and glorification, can easily be seen as a temporal sequence. One first receives the call to believe the gospel and trust Jesus, whether over time in the context of a Christian home or over time in the witness of a Christian friend or even as a onetime invitation in say a crusade such a conducted by Billy Graham or by receiving a tract, etc.
Then, if one believes the gospel and trusts Jesus, one is justified and becomes a part of the people of God. And finally, as Paul wrote in the passage we discussed last week, we wait in hope for our glorification.
Because these three ideas easily fit into a temporal sequence, many Christians have tried to see the first two also as fitting the same sequence. So, it is claimed that a person would not even receive the invitation to believe the gospel and trust Jesus were it not for the fact that that person were predestined by God.
And that person would have been predestined by God because God had foreknowledge that that person would come to faith in Jesus.
But that is nonsensical. It is illogical. It is circular reasoning. It makes no sense to say that God saw into the future, obtained the knowledge that I would come to faith in Jesus, and so predestined, called, justified and glorified me.
It is like saying, “I saw that you would return the book I lent you and so I predestined you to receive the invitation to borrow the book, subsequent to which you accepted the invitation, borrowed the book, read it and then returned it.”
The issuing of the invitation cannot be made contingent on its being accepted, which is how this view sees it.
Many Christians would readily see the logical failure of this argument. And they would propose that when Paul speaks of God’s foreknowledge, he is speaking of God’s foreknowledge not of the person’s accepting the invitation to believe the gospel, but of the foreknowledge that God himself would predestine certain people to be called, to believe, and to be eventually glorified.
But this too is ridiculous! It is like saying, “I saw that I would have bacon for breakfast. And so I predestined myself to go to the nice little breakfast joint, called our my order, received the order and ate it with glorious gusto!
Both these views are hugely popular. A staunch Calvinist would endorse the second view, making everything the decision of God. A semi-Pelagian would endorse the first view, making God’s initial act contingent on human response. And both views are illogical.
But both these views fail because they have been taken out of the context within which they appear. They are easily seen as illogical or inconsistent because they are trying to do with the text something that Paul did not intend. If you try hammering nails with a screwdriver or cutting paper with a power drill, don’t complain that it appears to be laughable.
The key here is the clause that is the most important and which is conveniently ignored by both views. Paul writes, “Those whom he foreknew, he also predestined – and here it is – to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”
Paul is not talking about predestination to salvation. He is linking our present sufferings with which he began the passage we looked at last week to the glory which we anticipate.
Earlier in the letter Paul wrote, “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Here Paul makes it more specific. The character that will be developed in a Christian by virtue of the sufferings he or she endures will be the character of Jesus. Paul is saying that every Christian is predestined to become like Jesus. And just as Jesus himself had to endure suffering, so also a Christian will endure suffering.
We make a category error when we view these verses as being directly spoken to individuals. Then we get into the logical inconsistencies of the semi-Pelagian and Calvinist views, either on the one had that God predestines to salvation those whom he foreknows will be saved or that God predestines to salvation those whom he foreknows he will save.
Rather, what Paul is saying here is that we Christians are not spared from sufferings. We endure every kind of suffering. We do so not because God predestined us to suffer or because God predestined our salvation. Rather we suffer because God has predestined, that is, decided beforehand, that everyone who is saved should become like Jesus. And the book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus learnt obedience through his sufferings.
Those whom God foreknows will come to faith in Jesus, he has predestined to remain not mere believers, but to become Christlike.
And now we can see what v. 28 means and what I meant when I spoke of the idea that creation is working for our benefit.
Creation is groaning. We saw that last week. And it groans because it awaits its own redemption, which is contingent on our redemption. And so creation colludes with God. All things, every part of creation, works together as a unit, a team, to benefit those who love God.
But how does it do this? It does this by providing for us the environment within which our present sufferings will enable us to be conformed to the image of God’s Son because that is the goal set by God for those who love him, who have been called according to his purposes.
So what we see till now in chapter 8 is not an ivory tower description of the process of salvation. Rather we are given a glimpse into the creativeness of God. Outside the Christian life suffering is meaningless. But in the Christian life, suffering is the means by which we become more like the one we love. This is the Divine Conspiracy.