Life in the Spirit: The Spirit, Prayer, and the Providence of God

Sermon by David Strain on July 19

Romans 8:26-28

Well do keep your Bibles in hand and turn this time to the New Testament scriptures and to the letter of Paul to the Romans, chapter 8, as we continue our study of this wonderful chapter together. In verses 1 through 17, Paul has surveyed for us virtually the entire landscape of Christian salvation from our right standing before God, justification, to right living under God, sanctification, to being rightly related to God in our adoption. And in particular he has highlighted, he has put front and center the role of the Holy Spirit in every facet of our redemption. And then beginning in verse 18 and running through the end of the chapter, he takes that great survey of Christians’ salvation and places it into the context of what he calls in verse 18, “the present sufferings.” He says, “The present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” That’s life for Christians, he’s saying, until the final glory dawns. Whatever else is true of Christian salvation, all the wonder and the blessedness of it notwithstanding, it has to work, it has to make sense in the context of the present sufferings. And Paul faces that head on.

And so in verses 24 and 25, he called us to “wait with patience for the hope of glory that is to come.” And then as we saw last time when we were in Romans 8 together, in verses 26 and 27, he reminded us of the Holy Spirit’s help in all these weaknesses we endure during this time of present suffering, especially the weakness we feel when it comes to the great matter of prayer. Every Christian we said must pray, yet every Christian struggles to pray – “We do not know what to pray for as we ought.” But the Spirit helps us, interceding with groans without words, taking our feeble sighs and tears and longings for God and making them eloquent and persuasive and compelling before His throne in heaven. And so prayer, enabled and sustained by the Holy Spirit, is part of how we will endure and cling to hope and begin to flourish, even amidst the present sufferings.

And now we turn our attention today to verse 28 where Paul turns to another equally precious truth to help us as we endure the present sufferings. Verse 28 is doubtless familiar to most, if not all of us. It is among the most beloved texts in the Bible; certainly it’s the most famous verse in the book of Romans. Many of us know it, or a version of it, by heart. We repeat it to one another often. Of course the very familiarity of Romans 8:28 can sometimes mean that actually we’ve stopped really thinking about what Paul is teaching us here. We’ve reduced Romans 8:28 to a greeting card slogan, a cliché trotted out for when times get tough and we don’t know what else to say. All too often we think we know what Romans 8:28 has to teach us, and so we’ve stopped paying attention to it, which is a great tragedy because I rather suspect that many of us are missing the full majesty and sweetness of the promise that it contains.

It begins, you’ll notice, verse 28, with Paul declaring “and we know.” With that first person plural he is associating himself with his first readers in Rome with us here in Jackson, Mississippi, with every Christian everywhere. “We know.” We may know; we have access to this truth and this certainty and this assurance. Some things are hard to know, aren’t they? Some things escape our grasp. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought,” Paul confessed in the verses prior to this. Some things we do not know, but this, Paul says – Romans 8:28 – this we know. This we can be sure of. He doesn’t want us simply to assume Romans 8:28, that we understand the great truths summarized theory. He doesn’t want us to take for granted the comfort offered. He wants us to know it, to really know it, to grasp it, to rest on it, to rejoice in it, because of the present sufferings that we all endure while we wait with patience for the hope of glory.

So when you read here, “and we know,” you should be asking yourself, “Well, do I? Do I really? Have I stopped to reckon with Romans 8:28 and to let it sink in and do its work? Do I really know it as a haven in the storm, as a pillow for my weary head, as a fortress into which I may run to take refuge amidst all the assaults of the enemy? Can I join Paul in affirming that I really know this for myself?” Our task this morning is to try to see Romans 8:28 afresh so that it stops being a peppy little bromide we can recite on a “Get Well Soon” card and starts being the anchor that holds us fast no matter the stormy waves that break over us each day. Our task is to make sure we really can say with the apostle Paul, “We know, we know this,” not just at the level of abstract conviction but in the roots of our souls we know. That’s our task.

To help us get there we’re going to think about verse 28 asking two simple questions. First, we’ll ask, “What we know.” What is it that Paul says we may know? And then we’ll ask, “Who may know it?” So “What we know” and “Who may know it.” Before we get to that, we’re going to pray once again and then we’ll read the text together. Let’s pray.

O Lord, Your holy Word is now before us as are we ourselves. Would You match Your truth to our need in such a way that we see Your glory, we see our need in weakness, and are enabled by the truth of the Word of God to cling to the Lord Jesus Christ and in Him to find rest. For we ask this in His name, amen.

Romans 8, and we’ll read from verse 26. This is the Word of God:

“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. 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. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.

What Do We Know?

Our first question then is, “What do we know?” Verse 28 begins, “And we know.” So what do we know, Paul? We know, he says, “that all things work together for good.” Let’s just take that statement one phrase at a time. First of all, we know that “all things work together.” All things. Every single thing. Twenty years ago last week a young man by the name of Forbes Alderton went to be with Jesus. Forbes was not yet thirty years old when he died. Like me, he had been preparing for the Gospel ministry. Unlike me, he received a diagnosis of cancer, lung cancer. And after a short period of remission, the cancer returned. And he and his wife, Allison, had to face – after only a few years of married life – the grim shadow of the valley of death. Forbes was possibly the godliest man that I have ever known, and I was constantly surprised by his generous friendship toward me. One of my prized possessions is a picture that still sits in my study here at the church of Forbes and I.

One Sunday afternoon I’d been preaching in a local Church of Scotland congregation and had come from there to visit him shortly before he died. We were about the same age in the photograph, although I always regarded him as by far my senior in godliness and Christian maturity. And in the picture his skin is clammy and pale; his face swollen from steroids. His hair is thin and patchy from chemotherapy. But he is smiling broadly and there’s a characteristic twinkle shining in his eye. And I well remember the conversation. “I know,” he said, “that God is able to heal me. I know that God is able to heal me. But I also know that most often, with this type of cancer at this stage, God is not usually pleased to heal. And so Allison and I are simply studying how we may best glorify God in this, whatever may come.”

I was speechless. Where can a young man not long married with every prospect of usefulness in the service of the Lord before him find the quiet clarity and the joy to say through the pain, “More than my healing, I want to glorify God in this”? I believed in the sovereignty of God. I was a Calvinist. I believed that God in His providence orders all things, including sickness, including cancer, but I believed it as a matter of conviction, of doctrinal commitment, of Biblical fidelity. But now sitting in their living room as tears ran down Allison’s face, Forbes spoke about pursuing the glory of God is more important to him than getting better. And if floored me. Here was a young man still in his twenties, full of calm, full of joy, confidence in God, facing down terminal cancer without flinching, telling me that exalting God with his last few days was more important to him than getting healed.

And so here was my question then; it’s my question now as we come to this passage. “Where do you get that from? How do you do that? How do you descend into the valley of the shadow of death and in fact fear no evil?” I think Forbes would say that you do it, at least in part, you do it by really grasping the truth of Romans 8:28, of it moving the twelve inches from your head down into your heart, down into the very center of yourself. You do it by coming to know, really know, that all things, all things, all things work together for good. Cancer cells work together for good. A dear friend of mine found out recently that his unborn child almost certainly has Down Syndrome. Paul, does Down Syndrome work together for good? Yes, even this works together. Everything works together, he says, for good – from crisis to cataclysms to successes and celebrations – all of them work together for good. Your failed examination in school, your bad decision at work, your chance meeting with an old friend, the rise and fall of politicians and the successes and defeats of your Little League baseball team. All of it, all things work together for good.

Paul is asserting, isn’t he, the absolute sovereignty, the Lordship of God over every single thing. Sovereign over gray hairs and bald heads. That’s what Jesus said, remember? “Not a hair can fall from your head without the will of your Father in heaven.” Sovereign over every beat in your heart that continues in your chest right now and sovereign over the moment when it beats its last. He reigns over the birds and the grass and the wind and the sunshine. He reigns over nations and empires. He is Lord of the ballot box and the Electoral College, over COVID-19 and over every infection, every sneeze and every cough. He is sovereign over stars and slugs, atoms and asteroids. There is nothing outside of the purview of His governance. He is Lord, and His lordship is exhaustive and comprehensive and pervasive and absolute. All things. There’s nothing not governed by the decree and purpose and irresistible will and power of Almighty God.

And notice, Paul says, “all things work together.” Not only is the scope comprehensive, but all things also cohere, you see. If you have a New International Version, if that’s the translation you’re using, you’ll see the NIV translates it, “God works in all things for the good of those who love him.” And that’s actually not really what the text says, but it is certainly what the text means. Paul is not a fatalist, you see. He is not teaching us that God has wound up the universe like a sprung clock and now it just works away mechanically all on its own while He sits back, as it were, indifferent to its progress. All things work together, to be sure, but not in some impersonal, automatic manner. That would strip the world of meaning and purpose and value. It would be an empty mechanism obeying laws, abstract and cold. We would be reduced to cogs in a clockwork machine. That’s fatalism. We would have to say with Macbeth, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” That’s life apart from the personal, sovereign governance of God who orders all things in His perfect will. The Biblical doctrine of providence is not fatalism. It’s personal, you see. God Himself is at work.

It’s not really politically correct anymore, and so they’ve done away with it, but when I was a child in the United Kingdom, laborers working on the potholes in the street, you know, would put up signs further down the road to warn the traffic and the signs would say, “Men at Work.” Paul is posting a sign here in Romans 8:28 over every seemingly random happenstance, over every trial, over every tear, over every laugh and every song, the banner flies, “God at Work.” We can’t see it always, can we? We’re not always able to trace the coherence in the apparent chaos. But Paul is saying, nevertheless, “we know.” Because we know Him, we know that He is indeed at work in all things. All of it falls into place, all of it intersects and coheres in such a way that each cause leads to its appointed effect in a vast interconnected chain so that if we could gain the distance and somehow the capacity to comprehend it, we would be able to trace out a plan, a trajectory, each piece moving according to the eternal decree of God in obedience to His glorious design. “All things work together.” The providence of God is comprehensive, and it causes all things to cohere.

And that means, don’t you see, that your disease is not arbitrary and random and meaningless. It means your burdens are not pointless, empty afflictions. They never are. It means there is a purpose and a destiny. The storyline of human history will reach its denouement. The narrative arc of your story will reach its intended resolution.

Now what is to distinguish a God like this from a tyrant and a despot who rules over all things? Well look at the text again. What does Paul say about the character of His sovereign providence? “All things work together for good.” For good. You remember the story of Joseph, don’t you? It’s a marvelous example of precisely this principle. His jealous brothers sell him into slavery, he is imprisoned in Egypt, his life is marked by tragedy upon tragedy, although in time he rises to become Pharaoh’s righthand man. And when his brothers arrive in Egypt they throw themselves on his mercy because they’ve been living in a season of famine and there’s grain in Egypt. And Joseph now is in a unique position to help them. And you remember what he told them. They’re terrified that, here’s Joseph and he is going to treat them harshly because he treated them harshly. And you remember what he said to his brothers? Genesis 50 verse 20, “You meant evil against me. God meant it for good.” God meant it for good. You can write those words over every wound and over every sorrow and every loss, every victory and every joy. God means it for good.

Now understand, Paul is not saying that all things are good. He isn’t saying that suffering is good in itself or sin is good or death is good. Human cruelty is not good. Disease is not good. But what is good? Well, Romans 8:28 is sometimes misused by us. Let’s be clear. We sometimes trot out Romans 8:28, especially in crisis, as if it were a guarantee, a sort of blank check from God that everything is going to turn out just fine, just the way I hoped that it really will eventually. We have construed the good for which all things work together subjectively according to our own limited desires and dreams. Haven’t we? That’s not what the Scriptures mean here when they say “God works in all things for the good.” The good in view is, verse 18, “the glory to be revealed in us.” The good in view is verse 21, “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The good in view, verse 23, is “the adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” There is verse 29, “being conformed to the image of His Son.” The good in view is your moral renovation and your eventual glorification. It is the eradication of sin from your life and it is final likeness to Christ one day. It is deliverance from death and hell and life and all its fullness in the age to come. It is not an easier life tomorrow or next Tuesday or ten years from now. But it is glory, unfading, brilliant and beautiful, as it mirrors, as it shines from your own remade natures with likeness to Jesus Christ.

That is God’s agenda in everything that He is doing in my life and in yours. That is the good toward which He is constantly working, polishing, eroding the angular sins that still aggravate our hearts till we shine with growing likeness to His Son. How did Forbes Alderton look death in the face and say, “I want God’s glory more than I want to be well”? He grasped that all things, even his cancer, even his own death, work together for his everlasting good. And his sights were set on that end. That’s where he was going. That’s what he was after most of all. He trusted even that the cancer that was slowly killing him would work for him an everlasting glory, an exceeding weight of glory in the life to come. Paul really is telling us that it is possible to look at the sufferings of this present time, to look them squarely in the face, and be filled with hope rather than despair, so that instead of concluding with Macbeth that life is nothing more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” when we grasp Romans 8:28 we can sing with Samuel Rodigast, “What’er my God ordains is right. Here shall my stand be taken. Thou sorrow, need, or death be mine, yet I am not forsaken. My Father’s care is round me there; He holds me that I shall not fall, and so to Him I leave it all.” We know all things work together for good. That is God’s project in our lives – ultimate good, everlasting good, the good of being like Jesus at last.

Who May Know It?

But if that’s “What we know” the next question is, “Who may know it?” Who may have this assurance that all things work together for good? Who may face present sufferings with this kind of confidence? Look at the text again. What does it say? “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good.” So this is not a universal promise, is it? There’s no assurance offered to all people without exception here that all things work together for their good. This is a promise for one class or type of human being only. It is for those who love God. They’ve come into intimate, personal fellowship with Him. They’ve been adopted into His family as verses 14 and 15 put it. They have more than religious commitment in their lives. They’re more than vaguely spiritual people. They’re not in love with an idea or a concept or an experience. They love the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They love Him. Deuteronomy 6:5 says we are to love the Lord our God “with all our mind and heart and soul and strength.” Jesus says this is “the first and greatest commandment.” The apostle Paul said love like this “fulfills the law of God.”

So those for whom all things work together for everlasting good are those who have been brought to love God for themselves from the heart. They love Him. They live for Him. They want to please Him. They say with the psalmist in Psalm 116, “I love the Lord because my voice and prayer He did hear. I, while I live, will call on Him who bowed to me His ear.” I love Him. He listens to me. The God of the universe hears me when I cry. I love Him. Can you say that this morning? Do you love Him? Why are you here? From some arid sense of abstract duty? Are you here because this is what you do on Sunday morning or are you here because your heart melts in love for Him? You love Him! That’s the mark, you know, the great mark of a Christian, and that alone places a person in the crosshairs of benevolent providence. Only love to the God who has revealed Himself to sinners in Jesus Christ will align you with the purpose of God to bring all things into subservience to your eternal good. All things, all things shall serve God’s eternal purpose and design. Nothing is aimless.

But if all things are not working for your everlasting good, they are still working, but not for your everlasting good but for your everlasting woe if you do not love God. The only thing that distinguishes those for whom the same sorrows and the same sufferings work good rather than woe, is that love for God beats in their hearts and it makes them say, “Your lovingkindness, Lord, is better than life. A day in Your courts, Lord, is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in tents of wickedness. I love Him. I love Him. He has my heart. He is all my desire. Whom have I in heaven but you, and on earth, there is nothing that I desire beside You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. I love Him. I want Him. I long for Him, to know Him, to be close to Him.” Do you love God? Only for those who love God do all things work together for good.

And then look at the text again. We’re almost done. Paul further clarifies who it is that loves God, how it is we come to love God in the first place. Those who love God, he tells us, are those “who have been called according to His purpose.” God called them. He doesn’t mean that they heard an audible voice. It doesn’t even mean that God called them in the broad, general invitations of the Gospel that is preached every Lord’s Day. It certainly is true that He is calling to us in the Gospel, in the good news about Jesus God has called again and again and again. He’s spoken of His love for us in the gift of His Son. He’s told us how He has done everything, everything necessary to deal with our sin and wash away every stain from our guilty consciences through the obedience and blood of Christ crucified. He’s told us there’s nothing to do, not a single thing to do, to receive the mercy and grace of God through Jesus but rest yourself, trust yourself wholly to Him. If you would but believe in the Lord Jesus Christ you will be saved. Whosoever believes in Him shall not perish! That’s the message. It’s an invitation. Come trust in Jesus.

But so many cannot hear that invitation. They hear it with their ears but it produces no effect in their hearts. They are deaf, spiritually deaf; their hearts unresponsive, cold like stone, dead in their trespasses and sins. And then one day, a day just like every other day, maybe mom drags you to church and you sit there sleepy and distracted as usual as the preacher gets going. And at first it’s just white noise as you fight to keep your eyes open. And then slowly you begin to hear a phrase or two. On this day, it’s as though, as you hear him, the preacher is talking really just to you as if there was nobody else in the room, just you. He seems to describe your shame and your guilt like he’d been reading your diary. And then when he starts to talk about Jesus and tells you again of His love for you – you’ve heard it a thousand times before now – of His obedience, His death for you, it’s like it’s the very first time you’re hearing it. And in that instant you realize that Christ is not just your only hope but that right here in this moment He is personally calling to you, inviting you, drawing you to Himself. He wants to make you clean, and in that moment as the realization dawns, your heart leaps and your eyes fill and you begin to pour out your longing for Him. “O Jesus, save me! I didn’t see how lost I was before, but now I see it! Rescue me! I’ve made such a mess. I’m such a sinner. Please, will You forgive me? I’m Yours. Thank You for loving me, giving Yourself for me.”

And that day, the call of the Gospel was exactly the same in the lips of the preacher as it had been every Sunday prior. What was the great difference? It is the ministry of the Holy Spirit taking that outward call and making it effectual, making it mighty. Just like at the dawn of creation when God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, when He said, “Let there be life in that dead sinner’s heart,” you came to life and ran to Jesus. That’s what it means to be “called according to God’s purpose.” We love Him, yes, that’s the mark of a Christian. But why do you love Him? How have you come to love Him? You love Him because He first loved you and drew you into His saving embrace by His sovereign grace. Has God called you? Have you been converted? Has God called you? You have no right to Romans 8:28 without it. But if God has called you, nothing can thwart His design for your eternal good. Nothing. Nothing can derail His purpose. Nothing can break the grip of His grace or douse the flames of His ardor and love for you. Everything now, every single thing now, must work for your everlasting good.

I wonder if you’ve learned to sing yet, “What’er my God ordains is right, His holy will abideth. I will be still what’er He doth and follow where He guideth. He is my God, though dark my road, He holds me that I shall not fall, where for to Him I leave it all.” What rest there is in this great text, this glorious promise. You can leave it all to Him who works all things together for our good. Praise the Lord. Let us pray.

Abba Father, we thank You not just that You work all things for the good of Your people, but that we are Your people because of Your love, Your call, Your grace, so that You make us Yours and then You make all things work for our benefit. As we glimpse at least something of the wonder of that this morning, we want to offer You our praise and our adoration and tell You again how we love You and how grateful, how amazed we are that You should love us at all. We pray for those within the sound of my voice, whether in this room or at home, those of our loved ones who are much on our heart, our neighbors and friends who do not love You, for whom yet still all things work together but not for their good. O God, grant that the good news of the Gospel might not fall any longer on their deaf ears. Unstop their ears. Give them, by Your mighty, effectual call, new life that they may rest in the same hope and promise upon which we rest ourselves – that all things, all things, everything must work for our eternal good. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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