ALL THINGS WORKING TOGETHER
Rom. 8:28:—"And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose."
There is a sense in which this verse marks the climax of this glorious eighth chapter of Romans. The whole chapter may properly be looked upon as the reaction from the depths of the seventh chapter. The key-note of that chapter is sounded in the despairing cry, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me out of the body of this death." The key-note of this is sounded in the blessed shout, "If God is for us, who is against us?" In the seventh chapter Paul uncovers the horror of indwelling sin; in the eighth he reveals the glory of the indwelling Spirit. The Christian life on earth is a conflict with sin. And therein is the dreadfulness of our situation on earth displayed. But we are not left to fight the battle alone. The Christian life is a conflict of God— not of us—with sin. And therein is the joy and glory of our situation on earth manifested. As sinners we are in terrible plight. As the servants of God, fighting His battle, we are in glorious case.
The whole eighth chapter of the Romans is a development of the blessedness which arises from the discovery of the Holy Spirit within us, as the real power making for righteousness which is in conflict with indwelling sin. It opens with the proclamation that the liberation of the sinner is effected by the presence in him of the "law of the spirit of life." It proceeds by dwelling on the blessings that are ours by virtue of this great fact of the indwelling Spirit. First, a new and unconquerable principle of life and holiness is implanted in us (1-11); next, a new relationship to God, as His sons and heirs, is revealed to us (12-17); still further, a new and unquenchable hope is made ours (18-25), which has respect amid whatever sufferings attend us here to the supreme greatness of the reward. Lastly, a new support in our present weakness is granted us (26-30).
The section from verse 26 to verse 30 is thus revealed to us as one of the grounds of the Christian's encouragement amidst the evils of life. It was not enough for Paul to paint the coming glory. Even in the present weakness we are not left without efficient aid. It is true that in this weakness—it is part of the very weakness—we cannot be sure what we need and cannot even pray articulately; we can only, like nature itself (vs. 22), groan and travail in pain, for we scarcely know what. But there is one who knows. In these very inarticulate groans the Spirit's hand is active; and the searcher of hearts according to whose appointment it is that the Spirit intercedes for saints, understands and knows. There is no danger, then, that we shall fail of the needed help. Maybe we do not know what we need— God does. He can and will read off our groans of pain and longing in terms of intelligence and of love. "For we know that with those that love God, God co-worketh in respect to all things unto good." There is nothing that can befall us which is undirected by Him; and nothing will befall those that love Him, therefore, which is not directed by Him to their good.
The fundamental thought is the universal government of God. All that comes to you is under His controlling hand. The secondary thought is the favour of God to those that love Him. If He governs all, then nothing but good can befall those to whom He would do good. The consolation lies in the shelter which we may thus find beneath His almighty arms. We are weak, we are blind; He is strong and He is wise. Though we are too weak to help ourselves and too blind to ask for what we need, and can only groan in unformed longings, He is the author in us of these very longings—He knows what they really mean— and He will so govern all things that we shall reap only good from all that befalls us. All, though for the present it seems grievous; all, though it be our sin itself, as Augustine properly saw and as the context demands (for is not the misery of the
seventh chapter the misery of indwelling sin, and is not the joy of the closing verses of the eighth chapter the joy of salvation from sin?)—all, there is no exception allowed: in all things God cooperates so with us that it can conduce only to our good. Our eternal good, obviously; because it is throughout the good of the soul, the good of the eternal salvation in Christ, that is in evidence.
We say this is the climax of the eighth chapter of Romans. After this nothing remains but the paean of victory that fills the concluding verses. If there is not only a power within us making for righteousness to which the final victory is assured; not only an inheritance far surpassing the present evil, awaiting us; but also everything that befalls us is so governed that it, everything, is for our good and befalls us only because it is for our good; why we certainly are in excellent case.
It is possible to say, indeed, that there is nothing revealed here which deserves to be thought of as the culmination of a specifically Christian encouragement. What, indeed, is here announced that devout souls have not always possessed? In what does this fervent declaration, for example, go beyond the philosophy of Joseph in the world's early prime—in the simple days of patriarchal faith—when, looking back on the fortunes of his own chequered life, on the plots of his brethren against his person when sold by them into Egypt, and the marvellous befallings which came to him there, he said to them at the last, "As for you, ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass as it is this day?" Did not Joseph already hold the secret of Paul's consolation—that God is Lord of all, that nothing comes to us except by His ordering, that therefore to those who serve Him, all that occurs to them, black as it may seem to their short vision, is meant for good and will bring to pass the peaceable fruits of joy and righteousness? Nay, did not that halfheathen Jew, the son of Sirach, who wrote the book of Ecclesiasticus, have adequate understanding of the whole matter, when he wrote, in a context which magnifies the all-reaching power of God, "For the good are good things created from the beginning ... all these things are for good to the godly," adding on the other hand, that evil things are equally created for sinners and what is good for the godly is turned into evil for sinners? Indeed, is there anything here to which the heathen themselves could not attain? Can we forget, for example, that beautiful discussion in the tenth book of the Republic in which Socrates reasons with Glaucon on the rewards of virtue? Must we not suppose, he urges, that the gods accurately estimate the characters of men, and know thoroughly both the just and the unjust? And must we not suppose that they look with friendly eye upon the just and with enmity upon the unrighteous? And must we not suppose, still further, that they will be good to those whom they recognize as their friends, and grant them every good— excepting, of course, only such evil as is the consequence of their former sins? "Then, this," Socrates continues, "must be our notion of the just man, that even when he is in poverty or sickness, or any other seeming misfortune, all things will in the end work together for good to him in life and death: for the gods have a care for anyone whose desire is to become just and to be like God, as far as man can attain His likeness by the pursuit of virtue." What is there in Paul's asseveration that goes beyond this calmly expressed conviction—the very language of which is so closely assimilated to Paul's—except a little characteristic fervency of tone?
Well, it is to be admitted at once that there is much in Paul's great statement which is not peculiar to it. The assurance of God's providential conduct of the whole complex of the universe that He has made; the conviction that in His control of the details of life He will not forget those who are specially well-pleasing to Him; the firm faith therefore that the path of happiness is to see to it that we are well-pleasing to God; that, as all that occurs is of God's ordering, so all that occurs to the friends of God will work out good to them— this is, of course, of the very essence of natural religion, and he who really believes in a personal God clothed with ethical attributes, must needs believe it. All the more shame, then, when men who profess to believe in such a God—to be Theists—relax the height of this great and most fundamental faith, as many of the heathen have done; as some even of our modern Christian teachers have done, asking doubtfully or denyingly, for example, whether God sends trouble, as if trouble could come to one of God's beloved ones without His behest,—and totally failing to retain, we will not say Paul's height, but even the height of the higher heathenism, which could see that it is a higher as well as a truer view that trouble is an instrument of God's good to God's friends. Nevertheless, there is more in Paul's statement than was reached by the heathen sage; something more even perhaps than underlies the more enlightened and more penetrating view of Joseph.
We cannot stop to develop the differences in detail. But we may note briefly at least one of the most fundamental of them, one so fundamental that it transforms everything.
This is the difference in the ground of the assurance which is cherished. The ground on which the heathen sage founded his conviction was the essential righteousness of the expectation. God owes to those who love Him different treatment from that accorded to those who hate Him. Possibly we may think that the modern heathen rise a step higher when they substitute the idea of
goodness for that of bare righteousness, and say that God will do good to those who love Him because He is essentially love and will do good to all men. The ground of Paul's assurance is something far higher. It is not merely an inference from a conception of God not obviously validated by a broad survey of His works. It is not even an inference from the ineradicable and thoroughly authenticated conviction that He is righteous. It is an express declaration of God's own. It is a "revelation from heaven" spoken by the lips of prophets and of the Son Himself.
To the heathen God is to bless His friends because they are His friends; to Paul they are His friends because God blesses them. The whole basis of the heathen's conviction is a judgment in righteousness; it is purely abstract; if a man is righteous then God must treat him as such. Granted. But, is a man righteous? I—am I righteous? If a man is righteous, God will, undoubtedly, treat him as such; God owes him good and not evil. But I—I myself—how will God treat me? Will that depend on whether I am now righteous? And on what my past sins deserve? Well, who is now righteous? And what do my past sins deserve? For the righteous man—who has no present and no past sins to come into consideration—this may be satisfactory enough. But where is that righteous man? This is what we mean by saying that the heathen's proposition is purely abstract. It is true enough; but it is of no personal interest to sinners.
Paul was thinking not of righteous men but of sinners. It is concerning sinners that he is talking, concerning those who had had and were having the experience of the seventh chapter of Romans. Essentially different, his good tidings to sinners from the cold deduction of reason which Plato offers to the just! And this is the exact difference: righteous men amid the evils of earth seek a theodicy—they want a justification of God; sinners do not need a theodicy—all too clear to them is the reason of their sufferings—they want a consolation, a justification from God. Paul's words are in essence, then, not a theodicy but a consolation. Such a consolation can rest on nothing but a revelation; and Paul founds it on a revelation which he represents as of immanent knowledge in the Church: "We know," says he, "that all things work together for good to them that love God." We bless God that we know it! For we are sinners, and what hope have we save in a God who is gracious rather than merely just?