Life in the Spirit: The Spirit’s Program

Sermon by David Strain on July 26

Romans 8:28-30

Well please keep your Bibles in hand and turn this time to the New Testament scriptures and to the eighth chapter of the letter of Paul to the Romans as we continue to consider its message together. In a moment we’re going to read verses 29 and 30, though we’re really only going to focus on verse 29 today. Before we do that, let me try to connect the lines of Paul’s reasoning so far. We have been saying, haven’t we, that Romans 8 is the great Holy Spirit chapter. But then last time when we looked at verse 28, we saw Paul take us back behind the Spirit’s work in our hearts. He has drawn back the curtain, as it were, and showed us what is going on unseen in the background, in the sovereign providence of Almighty God. He has placed the Spirit’s ministry in us into the cosmic scope and context of the universal sovereignty and providence of God by which He governs all things.

And we do need to understand that that thought, for the apostle Paul, is not a cold, philosophical proposition – the absolute sovereignty of God over all things – functioning at the level only of logic and rational necessity. No, for Paul, the sovereignty of God reigns with hope and with assurance. So verse 28 begins, remember, “And we know.” This isn’t just an argument you see; it’s not just conjecture. It’s not a hypothesis or even a vague hope. No, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.”

But how is Paul so confident that “all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose”? Upon what does this assurance, this certainty rest? That is the point of verse 29, our text this morning. Verse 29 – look at it please. It begins, notice, “For” – or probably better “Because.” So Paul is explaining his assurance, the assurance we all can enjoy, that all things work together like this. This is the foundation of his confidence. “We know that all things work together for good because,” verse 29, “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Everything must work for my good, for your good, believer in Jesus, because God has purposed in eternity to make you like Christ and nothing can thwart that plan. That’s Paul’s argument.

And before we unpack it together, let me stop for a moment and make sure we clearly understand that Paul is bringing his discussion of predestination forward here in service of our comfort. This is so important to get. Predestination is not a weapon with which to beat our Arminian friends. It is not a sort of theological fashion accessory to make ourselves look intelligent or sophisticated. It’s certainly not here to undermine assurance or scare anyone. There are few statements anywhere in the corpus of theological literature of the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation more robust than the chapter in the Westminster Confession of Faith on the decrees of God. And at the end of that chapter on the divine decrees, there is a pastoral admonition that I think is worth us hearing again as we come to this subject in our text. Let me read it for you very briefly. “The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination,” the Confession says, “is to” – listen to this – “it so be handled with special prudence and care so that men attending the will of God revealed in His Word and yielding obedience there unto may from the certainty of their effectual vocation be assured of their eternal salvation.” So how are you to handle the doctrine of predestination? What’s it for? It’s for assurance, not to scare you; it’s not a weapon to beat others with. It’s for your comfort.

So the Confession goes on. “So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence and admiration of God and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.” that’s what it’s for. That’s how we’re to use it. That’s exactly right. We’re not trying to scare or unsettle anyone. We’re not trying to win arguments here. We want out of verse 29 the same thing Paul found in it – abundant consolation. We want to be able to look at the storms of “the present sufferings,” that’s how Paul describes life here and now back in verse 18, remember, “the present sufferings,” and say however ferocious those storms may be, however hard to bear they may become, we, nevertheless know, we know that all things work together for our good. When all things are not themselves good, when they are fierce and ugly and sore and sad and exhausting and bitter and there’s no end in sight, how can you know like Paul knew, “Even these things will work for my, your, eternal good”? You can know it by confidence in the God who has a perfect plan for each of His children that can never be thwarted.

And so let’s turn our attention to the Word of God and to the contours of this divine plan as Paul begins to outline it for us in the twenty-ninth verse. We’re going to see three things, so as I read it be on the lookout for these three things. First, we’ll see the plan of God is directed by love. It is directed by love. Secondly, the plan of God transforms us. And thirdly, the plan of God exalts Jesus Christ. It is directed by love, it transforms us, and it exalts Jesus Christ.

Now before we read the text, let’s bow our heads once again as we pray.

Our Father, we bow before You. We believe, but help our unbelieving. We love You, yet our love often grows cold. Rekindle in our hearts love for You as we see again the magnitude and wonder of Your love for us in Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Do that now we pray by Your holy Word and in the power and blessing of Your Holy Spirit. For Jesus’ sake, amen.

Romans chapter 8 at verse 28. This is the Word 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. 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. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Amen. We praise God for His holy Word.

The Plan of God is Directed by Love

I don’t really play chess, but I’m told that the Norwegian chess grandmaster, a man called Magnus Carlsen, can “see,” as he puts it, “fifteen to twenty moves ahead in any game.” That means – think about this now – it means he can think about multiple pieces on the board and extrapolate in multiple directions and anticipate multiple potential responses from his opponent for each potential move, twenty moves deep. That’s extraordinary!

Now sometimes, I think, we think of God a bit like that, as though He were a sort of cosmic chess grandmaster who can see all the moves on the board ahead of time. And when we come to passages like Romans 8:29 and we see that word “foreknew” we think we have found confirmation of our conviction. God foreknows. There it is right there in black and white. He is able to see into the future and He knows what will happen or what might possibly happen under all possible conditions. And look, it’s certainly true that, yes, indeed God knows all the future in advance and all possible outcomes from any supposed condition. That’s true. But that’s not actually the teaching of Romans 8:29 at all. Romans 8:29 is teaching us, first of all, that the plan of God is directed by love, not by anticipated behavior in us, but by love in God.

So when God knows His people in Scripture it means much more than that He simply knows facts about them. And when God foreknows His people it means much more than that He simply knows those facts in advance. Psalm 1 verse 6 says, “The Lord knows the way of the righteous but the way of the wicked will perish.” Ray Ortlund points out that the New International Version translates that verse, Psalm 1 verse 6, “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous.” Now why does the NIV interpret “knows” as “watches over.” “Because,” says Ortlund, “in the sense of mere awareness God knows both the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked.” So God’s knowledge of the righteous must be more than mere awareness. It is love. It is His watching over them, that’s how He knows them. He knows them in the sense of attending to them, keeping His eye on them. He’s vigilant for them because He loves them.

Or listen to John Stott. He puts it this way. “When God knows people, He watches over them – Psalm 1 verse 6. When He knew the children of Israel in the desert, what is meant is that He cared for them – Hosea 13:5. Indeed Israel was the only people out of all the families of the earth whom Yahweh had known, that is, loved, chosen, and formed a covenant with – Amos 3:2.”

So when we read here that God foreknew us, it means much more than that God is a sort of grandmaster at the chess game of human history and has thoroughly anticipated us and every move that we might make. That’s not the message. That’s true enough, but that’s not what’s being taught here. Paul means here that God has fore-loved us. He has set His affection on us from before the foundation of the world.

And just to confirm the point, do notice carefully the object of God’s foreknowledge in verse 29. What does God foreknow? My future decisions? Does He foresee my future choice to believe in Jesus perhaps? No. What does the text say? Not that God merely knew in advance the future acts or choices into which I would enter freely in due course – that’s not what the text says. The text says God knew me in advance, me personally. He knew you in advance – not just what you would do or choose or think or say, but you yourself, He knew you. He knew you with the intimate fullness of that word in Biblical usage. “Those whom He foreknew.” It’s not foreseen behavior, but fore-loved persons that occupy the mind of God in verse 29.

And that’s a foundation for everything else Paul is going to teach us on this point. What directs and constrains all the ways of God with us? What governs every detail of His sovereign plan and His every act in prosecuting that plan? He’s not moving pieces around a chessboard. It’s not all mere calculation on His part. No, He is always Abba Father whose agenda is love – love from eternity, love first, and love always. “I found a Friend, O such a Friend, He loved me e’er I knew Him. He drew me with the cords of love and thus He bound me to Him.” He loved me e’er I knew Him, long before. That’s Paul’s point. Before there was any love in my heart or in your heart for Him, while we were yet dead in our trespasses and sins, still suppressing the truth in unrighteousness and exchanging the truth of God for a lie in our hearts, even then He loved us and was at work according to the designs of that love to bring us to Himself. He did not love us because we were lovely. God’s electing love was not called into being by some quality that He saw or anticipated in us. It’s not that God looked down the long corridor of time and saw how beautiful, how righteous, how good you would be and then just could not help Himself. It’s not that you drew from His heart love.

No, the truth is, when He looks at us what does He see? He sees His own image, marred and distorted by sin. He sees the idols that we’re always building for ourselves and serving with our lives. He sees our pride and our vanity and our lust and our greed and our anger. He sees it all. And seeing all of this, He loves us, not because of us but because of Him. He loves us for His own sake. He loves us because He loves us. How can you know, how can you know that all things will work together for your eternal and everlasting good? You can know it because the God of the universe has fixed omnipotent love upon you as a believer in Jesus Christ from before there were stars. And there is no force, no suffering, no sin that can divert that love from accomplishing its great design.

I think we need to meditate on this truth more than we do rather than run from it or hide from it. We need to linger over it. In His great love, God chose you from eternity, dear Christian. That is why you are a Christian at all. Isn’t it? The explanation is not that you chose God. You did, of course, but why did you? Listen to John Stott again. This is great, I thought. “Clearly then a decision is involved in the process of becoming a Christian, but it is God’s decision before it can be ours. This is not to deny that we decided for Christ, and freely, but to admit that we did so only because He had first decided for us.” God has decided for you. His heart is set on you. So we owe everything, do you see, to the electing love of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. The whole of our salvation, the whole of our Christian lives, they are a consequence and a fruit of the prior love of God set upon you before the ages dawned. “I sought the Lord and afterward I knew, He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me. It was not I that found O Savior true. No, I was found of Thee. I find, I walk, I love, but O the whole of love is but my answer, Lord, to Thee, for Thou wert long beforehand with my soul always, always Thou lovest me. Always, You have loved me.” The plan of God, do you see it, is directed by love.

The Plan of God Transforms Us

Secondly, notice, the plan of God intends our transformation. The plan of God transforms us. “For those whom he foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” I had a gathering of pastors in Chattanooga recently and I don’t think I had ever driven to the particular place we were meeting. And I did what most of us now almost automatically do whenever we have to go somewhere and we’re not completely sure of the directions. I plugged my final destination, the address, into Google Maps. And it immediately, just like that, it plotted my route – every turn, every junction. It’s hard to remember how we ever managed to find our way anywhere before GPS and all of this technology. Isn’t it?

But here’s the point. Whenever you plan your route, how do you do it? You start with the final destination in mind. Don’t you? You type in the address you wish to arrive at into your GPS and then you plan the route accordingly. As we’ve just seen, the word “foreknow” speaks to us about God’s disposition toward us from eternity in His electing purposes. But now the second word, the word “predestined,” speaks not about God’s disposition toward us but about His destination intended for us in His electing purposes. He has in mind, do you see, where He wants to go with us and then He plots the route with every twist and turn in the road, every hill and every valley along the way there, included in the plan. Love directs the plan of God but the final destination in view from eternity determines the route.

And what is the final destination that God has in view for each one of His eternally fore-loved people? He predestines us “to be conformed” to the image of His Son. We were made, remember, to be the image of God and sin has marred and ruined that image in us, and yet having set His love on us God has purposed to renew His image, to undo the tangled mess that we have made of it and restore it and beautify it in us. And so, He has sent His only begotten Son who took into union with Himself human nature, and in our humanity, as the perfect image of God, He obeyed and bled and died and rose and has unraveled the curse that has marred God’s likeness in us that we might be renewed after His image day by day. And now here in verse 29 when Paul talks about being conformed to the image of His Son, Paul is thinking about the God-Man, the Lord Jesus Christ, having finished His work and secured redemption for every one of us who believe, sitting at the right hand of the Father, blazing in holy majesty – the King of kings and the Lord of lords. And He is telling us here that before the universe was born, God had the exalted Christ, His exalted Son in mind as the great template according to which He is going to remake your life and mine. He is the final destination and we will be made like Him one day.

Now I find enormous personal encouragement and comfort, “consolation” as the Confession puts it, in that great truth because it tells me not only the final destination but also the entire route along the way that my journey to glory must pass has been decreed and ordered by the hand of a loving Father. There is no improvisation; there’s no detour. Look, from my vantage point – I’m sure you can relate to this – from my vantage point on the road I often feel like I’m taking two steps forward and three steps back in my Christian life. Don’t you? I often feel like I’ve taken a wrong turn and I’ve found myself in a cul de sac someplace. And I find myself regularly lamenting my failures to stay on the path of obedience. “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” That’s my wicked heart. But this verse is reminding me that when at last I stand before my Savior, and I certainly will, shining with the reflection of His glory, then at last I will see that each detour and each bump in the road and each dead end and wrong turn, all of them will have played their part. All of them had a vital role in the route mapped for me in eternity by my Father who loves me.

And so yes, yes you may well stumble along the way sometimes. Yes, you may turn down a blind alley or hit a dead end from time to time, and we must all press on and do all we can to make progress toward holiness and Christlikeness, whatever our path looks like. But do not fear that those twists and turns and setbacks and delays can in any way threaten your safe arrival at God’s intended destination. In fact, when you get there you will discover that it has all worked together – that’s what Romans 8:28 teaches us. Every one of those has worked together to bring you precisely there. So we can know. Do you see it? “We can know all things work together for the good of those who love God.” My sanctification, my glorification, have been decreed from eternity, and though I often fail to make the progress I wish I could in the pursuit of holiness, Romans 8:29 assures me the work will be finished one day. Praise God that it will be finished one day. One day soon you will be like Jesus. You will. The electing plan of God is directed by love, but it aims at your transformation, conforming you, remolding you till you look like Jesus, His only Son.

The Plan of God Exalts Jesus Christ

And then finally, the electing plan of God exalts Christ. Look at the text again. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” So there’s a goal in the mind of God bigger even than our salvation, our glorification. So yes, He has loved us from everlasting to everlasting. Yes, His aim is to conform us to the image of His Son. All of that is wonderfully true. But we are not the final terminus of God’s grand design. The glory of Jesus Christ is. And so the point is not just that I will one day be like Jesus, you will one day be like Jesus – share His glory, reflect His beauty; that’s true. But more than that, our glory, our Christlikeness, our reflecting and mirroring His majesty will serve to bring Him more honor, more glory, more praise.

They say, don’t they, that imitation is the highest form of praise. So you see a little boy and he copies his daddy. And you can see how much that little boy loves his father. But don’t you also have a testimony there to how good a father this man has been to that little boy that he’s so devoted to him? And then that little boy grows up and throughout his life he’s following in his father’s steps and often repeating the lessons his father taught him. What does that say to you? It speaks loudly not just about the character of that man but about his father, his father’s worthiness that his son is so like him.

Our text says the final aim of predestination is not just that we will be like Jesus, but that our being like Jesus will magnify Him and make much of Him. Look at verse 29 again. When Paul says we are “predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers,” that word “firstborn” does not mean chronological priority as we tend to think of it, firstborn in an order of time and sequence, born before everyone else. That’s not really how the word is used here. “Firstborn” in the Scriptures, more often than not, actually means “highest born.” It’s a word that speaks about preeminence, about supremacy, about the place of highest dignity. So you see what the text is saying? God’s agenda in our salvation, in gathering us into His family, making us His children and Christ’s brothers and fellow heirs, His agenda is that Christ may have the preeminence, the supremacy, that He might be highest born and given a dignity above all others and shown to be majestic and glorious.

Let me put it another way and then I’m done. God is working in our lives right now, brothers and sisters, so that Jesus would become more and more precious to us, more and more lovely to us, more and more worthy in our eyes. He’s working so that His Son might fill our hearts with delight just to be near Him and longing to be like Him. And then one day He’ll give us the desire of our hearts and we will be near Him forever and immovably, perfectly, gloriously like Him at last. And then we will be unceasingly happy and satisfied, finding that our joy is in the exaltation of Christ and not in our own glory at all. The thing that will make heaven, heaven, you see, is not that we’ve finally arrived there, but that when we arrive there we shall see Him as He is and seeing Him, we will forget ourselves and be overcome with love.

So we know – we can know, can’t we – that all things must work together for our final good, our everlasting good. You can know it when things are not good, good is coming, not because you can necessarily see the good that’s coming or work it out from where you’re sitting, but because you know the God who has purposed your salvation in love and has designed every trial, every success, to make you like His Son. And by such means He will eventually one day soon make you happy forever as you see Jesus face to face. So the plan of God directed by love – how you have been loved. The plan of God transforms us – He’s never going to stop work in you. He’s never going to quit. You’re never going to so disappoint Him that He says, “Enough. I’m done with you.” The plan He purposed He will complete. And the plan of God ultimately is not to make much of me or you, but by making us like Christ to make much of Him that He might be the firstborn, the highest born among many brothers and sisters. May the great day come then, soon, when the work is finished and we see Jesus face to face at last.

Let’s pray together.

O Lord, we’re longing for that day because we feel still how short we fall of Your call in our lives. Have mercy on us. Thank You for the comfort and assurance of this text. Use it in our hearts not to breed apathy or presumption nor to unsettle or cause fear, but to breed such godly Gospel consolation within us that we are enabled to pick ourselves up from the dirt where we’ve fallen and press on with our eyes fixed on the final destination toward which every path along which You move us is certainly bringing us. For we ask this not that we might be made much of, but that in all things Jesus Christ may have the preeminence. And so we pray in His name, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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