All Things Work Together for Good
Scripture: Romans 8:26–30
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
In the movie The Karate Kid, Daniel unknowingly learns good karate technique as his instructor, Mr. Miyagi, has him painstakingly wash and wax a dozen classic American cars. It should not surprise us Christians if we find out later that God has been doing something similar in our lives all along, if the circumstances and details of our lives which seem irrelevant and unnecessary are actually part of the divine plan working together for our good.
Verse 26 begins with the word likewise, or similarly. The subject is the Holy Spirit and the help the Spirit gives to believers. But what is the comparison being made? The comparison I think goes back to what it was the Spirit was last seen doing. Back in verse 16, “the Spirit himself,” Paul said, is active within us assuring us that we are God’s children in spite of the suffering we are called to endure. So now Paul can say, that in addition to his assuring presence, we also have the Holy Spirit’s assisting power. The Holy Spirit is both our comforter as well as our Helper. He is present to assure us of who we are and also to assist us with what we are doing. Paul shows us in these verses how the Holy Spirit assists us to see God’s eternal purpose achieved through our lives.
In other words, the Holy Spirit, the abiding presence of God with his people now that the Kingdom of God has come, now that sins have been forgiven, now that Israel’s exile has ended, is a great gift to comfort us when the doubts arise because of suffering. But he is also a great gift to empower us as we are called to act in this day when the kingdom has already come but has not yet fully come. It is this responsibility that we all have as God’s redeemed people that is now in view in these five verses. You and I have a vocation, a sacred calling, to be to “the praise of his glory,” to make known the excellencies of the one true God. Now how are we to do that? Or better, in what way does the Spirit help us do this? Paul shows us here that the Holy Spirit helps our prayers be effective. He helps us find encouragement in divine providence. And he helps us be energized by God’s purpose. Effective prayers, encouraging providence, energizing purpose—this is how the Holy Spirit helps us.
The Holy Spirit Helps Us Pray Effective Prayers
The first way the Holy Spirit helps us to live as citizens in God’s kingdom is through prayer. The Spirit helps us in prayer. This is what is in view in verses 26-27 which begin, “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”
Too Weak to Pray
What is this weakness? This is a general term meaning the lack of strength. It could be physical weakness, like an illness, or a mental weakness, like a lack of confidence. But Paul seems to have some sort of spiritual weakness in view here. The weakness he is dealing with is described in the next phrase, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought.” How spiritually weak are we Christians? Paul says, “We don’t even know the answer to the question, ‘Now what exactly ought we to be praying about?’”
I’m guessing you resonate with that. Even if we know the time in which we live as Christians, now on the other side of the revealing of the Messiah to the world, even if we know we now have access to God himself, able to approach him as Abba, Father, we still find ourselves failing to pray. And part of the reason is because we don’t know what we should say to him. We don’t know how to pray, if we’re honest. What exactly should we ask him to do? Forget the question, “What should I do today?” We don’t even know what to ask God about what we should do today.
Every Christian knows how difficult prayer is. No doubt much (or most) of the difficulty is due to our own spiritual immaturity, even to our own doubts and unbelief. But even the most seasoned prayer warriors should be humbled by what we find in verse 26. May we find more and more courage to admit our spiritual weakness and cry out to God like Israel’s king Jehoshaphat, “We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chron 20:12).
Of course, there are ways to pray. We do well to learn from the wisdom of our spiritual ancestors. And our Lord himself gave us a model prayer to follow. We all can and should seek to improve our praying. Parents should both be modeling how to pray to their children. But, parents, also let your children pray out loud and give them instruction on how to do it. The pastoral prayer on Sunday mornings has similar aims and purposes.
But let us not think ourselves so strong in prayer that we deceive ourselves or miss out on the good help the Spirit gives to us. “The Spirit himself intercedes for us,” verse 26 says. This is not to discourage us from praying, as if the Spirit prays in our place. An intercessor comes alongside the petitioner and prayer with him or her. Our spiritual weakness is not a reason to remain in ignorance but rather the recognition that as yet
No eye has seen, nor ear heard,
Nor the heart of man imagined,
What God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9).
In other words, all of us pray prayers that are way too shallow. We simply can’t even imagine the world the way God intends for it to be. We are, to use C.S. Lewis’s famous analogy, like little children content with mud pies, not knowing we could be enjoying a vacation at sea.
Struggling in Prayer
If we could see what God sees, oh how differently we would pray! So strive we should to see as God sees. But the Spirit will help us with our weakness, our inability to see and pray with the perspective of God. That is what Paul means when he says the Spirit intercedes for us “with groaning too deep for words.” These groanings clearly are meant to echo the groaning of all creation in verse 22, and our own inward groans mentioned in verse 23. The Spirit himself, God’s own Holy Spirit, is not far away from us in our groaning. He is right here, crying out to God with us and for us. We only have to take a quick scan of the Psalter to see some examples of Spirit-inspired groans. And we only have to remind ourselves of Israel’s groans in Egypt, and God’s true-to-his-covenant response to take heart: “God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exod 2:25).
Don’t you see, believers, what is happening when we pray? Something mysterious is happening as God’s own Holy Spirit intercedes for us. He sees our trouble and knows how bad it really is. This gives him an ability you and I could never have, to communicate clearly to God what it is we truly need day by day. The mystery is expounded in verse 27, where a distinctively Jewish way of speaking of God—“the one who searches hearts” (see 1 Sam 16:7; 1 Chron 28:9; Jer 17:10)—is said to recognize the “mindset of the Spirit,” the phrase we saw back in verse 6. The Old Testament speaks of God’s Spirit as the searching presence of God, already an Old Testament mystery of some sort of interaction between God and his own Spirit.
As the mystery of God himself goes, so also goes the mystery of prayer. There is much we do not understand about this ancient practice, much even in its use we do not know what is happening. But that’s because God himself is active in it in a way where he is both the intercessor as well as the one to whom we pray. And with God’s own Spirit praying with us, “according to the will of God” as verse 27 says, we can be confident that our prayers matter, and that they are heard.
The Holy Spirit Helps Us Find Encouragement in Providence
It is with this mystery and its strong encouragement in mind that we come to the familiar words of verse 28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This is the second way the Holy Spirit helps us live as citizens in God’s kingdom. He helps us find encouragement in the providence of God.
This verse makes quite the claim. It is all encompassing: “all things.” It is positive: all things work together “for good” rather than for evil. And it is a clear claim for the power of God’s absolute providence. The circumstances of our lives are not random, not the meaningless happenings of chance, but rather are pieces of a puzzle that are made to fit together for the purposes of God’s good will. The question is, how is it that we know this?
The Logic of God’s Providence
One answer is because of the Jewish worldview that Paul maintains, a worldview that logically leads to the conclusion of Romans 8:28. That God is sovereign just like this, not just ordaining all things that come to pass but preserving and governing every creature and every action to the perfect achievement of his will is the assumed perspective of the entire Old Testament. For example, we read in Job 37:
By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning.
They turn around and around by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world.
Whether for correction or for his land
or for love, he causes it to happen (Job 37:10-13).
Psalm 135:6 says:
Whatever the LORD pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps.
From this divine power, matched with the divine character of God, Paul also considers the promises of God made in the Bible. And since God’s promises are for our good, he can say that everything will serve that good purpose of God for his children. So, the way we know this, and therefore find strength to help us in our weaknesses, is by meditating on the power, promise, and character of God.
Waiting for Providence
But we do not know this because we can see how everything comes together for our good. This is a knowledge that we must hold in faith, trusting in the God we have come to know through Messiah Jesus. Romans 8:28 does not say all our circumstances are good in themselves. There is real evil in the world, and we Christians “groan inwardly” under the weight of tribulation and suffering we all experience in this life (v. 23). We are waiting for a hope that is not yet seen (v. 24), and so we must “wait for it with patience” (v. 24). As one pastor has observed, waiting on God is not “like resting in a hammock with a glass of iced tea; it’s like holding a plank position until our coach tells us we’re done. No one says the certainty of verse 28 makes life easy, and we need to exercise wisdom in how we use this verse to encourage on another. It will not help to cite it in the moments of great pain or loss. That is the time for sympathy, for “groaning with” one another. But I’m sure glad this verse is in the Bible! It is here to remind all of us that God has promised to not only help us in our weakness but to see that “his help is triumphantly and utterly effective.”
Who Benefits from Providence?
But see what else this verse teaches us. God’s providence ensures that everything we experience has a good and redemptive purpose, yet this is true only for “those who love God” and “for those who are called according to his purpose.” Again, the astounding claim of Romans 8:28 Is not an empty method of self-help, urging us to “just trust that everything will turn out fine.” No, the astounding claim can only prove true for a certain type of person. Who are they who can find encouragement in this verse?
Both descriptors refer to the same people. Those who love God are those who are called according to his purpose. Both describe genuine believers in Jesus. A Christian is someone who loves God. We realize, of course, that it is not by loving God that we thereby become Christians. The believer’s love for God is won by God himself, by Jesus “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20) while I was still his enemy. We love him, the Apostle John points out, because he first loved us (1 Jn 4:19). Any true lover of God is such only because he or she has come to see how deep the Father’s love for him or her truly is in the revelation of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. There can be no genuine love for God without being converted by the reality of what God has first done for us in Jesus. Any claim to love God other than the claim that rests on the realization of how it is that God has first loved us and demonstrated that love is a false assurance of a friendly relationship with God.
The Holy Spirit Helps Us Be Energized by God’s Purpose
I say “false assurance” because it’s as if Paul wants to clarify his description of believers as those who love God. Those who love God, Paul clarifies, are “those who are called according to his purpose.” Again, these two descriptors of true Christians cannot be severed from each other. If you truly love God, then you are also called to God’s own purpose. If you truly love God, then you are energized by that purpose. Lovers of God love what God loves and what God wants to do. But we need the help of the Holy Spirit to not only know God’s purpose but to also be energized by it.
The Plan of God Revealed
The word purpose here refers to the sovereign will of God, what it is that God has determined to do. This purpose of God is not some small insignificant detail, but rather the whole overarching purpose of God that the Scripture makes plain to us. It can, for sure, be described in various ways, but none are as clear as what we are told in Ephesians. God has now made “known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time”—and here it is—“to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10). The purpose of God is to bring everything together in Jesus Christ.
We’ve seen this purpose of God right here in Romans 8. God sent his Son not simply to die for our sins but, verse 3 says, to condemn Sin—capital S—to bring an end to the dark, evil power that held us all in slavery. But why did he do that? Verse 4 says, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law (or, the righteous verdict of the law) might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” What Paul has in mind is a new Exodus. Jesus is our new Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7) who has finally broken the grip of Pharaoh over us—that is, the grip of sin and death—so that we could now be free to truly be God’s people.
We cannot see God’s purpose by looking only at redemption; we have to see why it is that God redeemed us. Three months after the exodus from Egypt, God told the newly-redeemed people:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod 19:4-6).
Talk about an energizing purpose! No wonder when the people heard these words from God they said, “Deal!”
All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exod 19:8).
But you know the story. You know that Israel failed. They did not live up to this energizing purpose of God. And we see that this is not just Israel’s problem; it is also God’s problem. God promised Abraham that he would create this great family through whom redemption would come to the world.
This is what the gospel is all about! God has kept his promise. In the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus a new exodus has taken place. “Weep no more!” the Apostle John was told, “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah . . . has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Rev 5:5). And when John saw Jesus take the scroll, he heard the resounding song of heaven. Pay attention to these words:
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth (Rev 5:9-10).
This is why Christ died for you and me, brothers and sisters. To make us all a part of his royal family. Who could not be energized by that?
The Making of the Royal Family
Am I making this up? Look again back at verses 16-17. The Holy Spirit testifies that we are the children of God and, you know what that means? It means we are heirs of God himself! We are “fellow heirs with Christ”! What is true of him is now also true of us who are united to him by faith. So if God made the crucifixion of his only Son work together for good like this, is it hard to imagine he just might be doing the same in your circumstances, difficult as they most certainly are?
Verse 29 tells us that God’s pre-determined plan was to conform his people to the image of his Son so that he could thereby build a royal family, so that Jesus himself would “be the firstborn among many brothers” (and sisters, of course). So this is what God is up to. He is conforming us all into the likeness of his own Son whom he loves with an infinite love. It is God’s work; he will see to it.
Conformity to Christ
But see also that this is God’s pattern, his mold. He is conforming us all to Christ, not to somebody else. The goal is not to make us exactly like each other, but to make us all like Christ. What does that mean?
We get all sorts of weird ideas sometimes when we talk about being “like Christ.” Do not think that conformity to Christ means you need a new personality or new job. (I guess I have to become a carpenter. Sigh.) Much less does this mean you need a new ethnicity or gender (Jesus was a first century Jewish male, of course). What God has done to make us “like Christ” is described in verse 30. He calls us, justifies us, and glorifies us. All are spoken in the past tense signifying the certainty that God will bring to completion what he has started. What is true of Jesus is what is also true for us who have redemption in Jesus. The call is the gospel announcement that leads his people to say, “Jesus is Lord”; justification is the vindicating verdict of God for all who trust in this crucified and risen Lord; and glorification means nothing less than our being seated with Christ in his royal position at the right hand of the Father.
To be conformed to Christ means to become the human beings God intended for us to be all along. It is, to be sure, a work in progress, but the work has already begun, and it is eternally secured in Christ. So we who trust in Christ are invited to come together in worship and witness, declaring to the world in our devotion to Christ and in the execution of our various vocations that Jesus is Lord and that his kingdom—and only his kingdom—is an everlasting kingdom of love and joy and peace.
God is making everything in our lives come together for this great purpose. And while we, like the Karate Kid, might not see how it is happening, we’ve seen the end of the story and know enough to trust that it most certainly is. That is energizing! We can trust him.
The Karate Kid not only learned good technique as he washed and waxed the cars, for his 16th birthday he also was given one of the cars he had so diligently beautified. How much more do we stand to inherit as heirs of God. Just look at verse 32. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” We’ll consider that verse and the conclusion of chapter 8 next week.
 The neuter singular article is used here to indicate the question Paul says we do not know the answer to. See Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 237–38.
 It is not entirely clear if the Greek text includes a deliberate reference to God as the one who causes all things to work together for good or simply says, as the ESV, “all things work together for good.” But either way, it is clearly implied that it is God’s agency which is behind the statement. See Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 449.
 Ray Ortlund, “What to Remember When It’s Going Poorly,” 9Marks Journal, June 2020, 130-31.
 N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in Acts, Introduction to Epistolary Literature, Romans, 1 Corinthians, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 603.