When the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (v. 8:28), does he literally mean all things, or is the “all” limited in some way? To clarify his meaning, the apostles writes a few verses later, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or sword? … No, in all these we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (vv. 8:35, 37). In this, the apostle intimates that all things, no matter how terrible they seem to us in this age, work together for the good of God’s saints.
What is interesting about the apostle’s clarification is that he does not say, “What shall separate us from the love of Christ,” but he says, “Who shall separate us,” indicating that the tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, and sword are not things that Christians will endure, but persons. And the language that the apostle uses is not arbitrary, but he is referencing what he had written elsewhere. Earlier in the epistle, the apostle writes, “For those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury; there will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek” (vv. 2:8,9). Taking this tribulation and distress defined by Paul earlier in the letter and applying it to those whom Christians must endure, is then the apostle saying that these who incur tribulation and distress from God, namely the unrighteous, are not only unable to separate us from the love of Christ but are also in some way working to the good of the saints? In other words, is Paul saying that the damned in their damnation are working to the good of those who love God?
Though this indeed is a difficult thought, I believe that this is precisely what the apostle is saying. For in his discourse that follows this in Romans 9 on the freedom of God’s mercy and wrath, he writes:
So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you , O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy which has prepared beforehand for glory? (vv. 9:18-23).
What we see is this section of the apostle’s discourse are two groups of people, with one group serving as a demonstration to another group. The first group are those who are prepared for wrath and destruction, and the second group are those who are prepared for mercy and glory. The first group exists for the sake of the second group, namely to demonstrate the wrath and power of God for the purpose of elucidating the glory and mercy of God to the second group. In other words, those who are damned to destruction exist to make known the wrath and power of God so as, by contrast, to magnify the mercy and glory of God to those who were chosen to receive mercy.
Therefore, when the apostle writes, “All things work together for the good of those who love God,” he emphatically means all things, for even the most terrible thing that we as humans can imagine, namely the eternal torment of a soul apart from God, works to the good of the saints of God in that it demonstrates to them his glory and mercy in glory.
This indeed is a hard teaching, and it inevitably evokes one of two responses. The first is a man-centered response that declares, “The God I serve would not act in this way.” It is a rebellious response that leans upon human understanding and rails against the clear declarations of God. It is a response based upon the philosophies of men rather than upon the wisdom of God, and many who profess that the Scriptures are the very Word of God deny this teaching. These stand haughtily against the notion that “[Salvation] depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy” (v. 9:16), and defy the question, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (v. 9:20). They instead see themselves fit to put God in the dock and to question the justice of their very Molder.
The second response is a God-centered response that declares, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You [alone] have the words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68). It is a response that is rooted in godly humility and that recognizes that man is a creature and God is the Creator. It is a response that understands the damnable state of all men, and deeply loves that God has given mercy where none was merited. It is these who know the depths of the grace of God, and it is these who therefore adore Christ and his work the most. For mercy that is free is a glorious mercy, and its receipt is a call to the Gates of Praise (cf. Is. 60.18).
Taken in its context, we who are Gentiles who have believed upon Christ have all the more reason to glorify God for his mercy. For God in his sovereignty and freedom could have chosen to give mercy to Israel alone, yet:
Those who were not my people I will call “my people,”
….and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved.”
And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,”
….there they will be called “sons of the living God” (vv. 9:25,26).
And as such, this doctrine exists, not for Gospel apathy or for boasting in doctrinal understanding (for which many have used this doctrine), but for worship of the God of grace. For God in his infinite wisdom has chosen to make known the greatness of his mercy to his children by pouring out his wrath on others.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
….or who has been his counselor?”
Or who has given a gift to him
….that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (Rm. 11:33-36).