28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. ~Romans 8:28-30
Today, I want to cover the conditional part of God’s unconditional love in Romans 8:28.
But before I do, we need to understand the context, so let’s talk about verse 29 and 30: predestination vs. human will and human freedom.
Both sides argue that the other side has gone too far in one direction, and therefore, has a skewed theology. The Calvinists say God is sovereign. End of story. Everything in world history is pre-ordained and our salvation has been pre-destined before the foundations of this world were put into place. The Arminians say the Calvinists have gone too far in that direction and have little room for human will and human freedom. It’s our choice. We are not puppets to divine fate.
The key verse to focus on for this debate will be Romans 8:28, which reads,
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. ~Romans 8:28
How does God in all things work for our good? That’s the question we will be wrestling with.
Romans 8:28 is a verse that is often quoted in sermons. And even more popular are the verses that follow —
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. ~Romans 8:35, 38-39
We love these verses. God works for the good of those who love him. And who shall separate us from the love of Christ? The answer is nothing can come between God and us.
These are among the most encouraging and most uplifting verses in the entire Bible.
But we must be careful not to take great, lofty verses like these out of context. So when you are reading the Bible, I hope we can avoid the temptation of taking one or two of our favorite verses and building an entire theology and life philosophy around it. I see that a lot. It is called proof-texting. You have your preference, your talents, your gifts, your outlook on life, your worldview, you have your own perspective about God and spiritual life and you take verses out of context to support your position. That’s a slippery slope. Instead, we ought to study the surrounding context and Romans 8:28-30 is no different.
This is where we get into the debate between the Calvinists and the Arminians. I am no expert in this debate so please forgive me for making gross generalizations because I recognize there are many nuanced positions on both sides, but if you grant me a certain amount of leeway, I think we can learn something very important from the surrounding context.
I will use 4 examples from the Bible to illustrate this tension between God’s sovereignty and human free will: Jacob & Esau, Pharaoh, Job and Joseph.
If we take chapters 8 and 9 of Romans as a whole, there is ample support for the Calvinist position, and to a lesser degree, the Arminian position. On one side, we have the Calvinists who believe in pre-destination. And a majority of the verses in these two chapters bolster this stance. Romans 8:33 reads —
33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. ~Romans 8:33
God is sovereign. He chooses whom to save. He justifies them, we can’t justify ourselves.
Then, in the following chapter, Paul gives a concrete, historical example of how God chooses according to his sovereign will – the story of Jacob and Esau.