Note how Paul labored through eight chapters to bring us here. He talked about how sin condemns us to death. He described the righteousness that comes from God in Christ. He preached that righteousness and bathed us in Baptism’s waters, killing us to sin and raising us to life in Christ. He assured us of what having that righteousness means: peace with God, dead to sin, a slave to God, no longer wretched and condemned – in Christ.
Now, as Paul turns to our life in Christ, a life that struggles with the flesh, a life filled with suffering, a life groaning beside the shackled creation, a life that feels hopeless, now, now, Paul talks God’s works, God’s knowing, God’s choosing, God’s plan. Now Paul pulls back the curtain so we can see how the Potter forms the clay.
What daring things Paul says too. God works together all things for good. All things. Everything. It’s all working together. There’s a plan. It’s God’s plan. And it’s a good plan. Not just in part, but, again, to labor the point, the whole plan. All God’s. All of it.
Take each one as it comes. “We know that in all things God works for the good.” We think everything’s conspiring against us. “Why me?” In typical fashion we joke darkly, naming it Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Scientific American once tested Murphy’s Law. Attaching a piece of buttered toast to a cat, they tested whether dropping it off a table results in the buttered side hitting the ground (Murphy’s Law) or the cat landing on its feet (an Old Wives’ Tale). “Ha, ha,” we say.
But it’s not all that funny. Nor, as they say, are we paranoid if everything is out to get us. My toast does hit the floor buttered side down. The most important days get clogged up the most with troubles. My car breaks down when I need it not to. The creditor calls me to account when I need a break. Sickness hits. The economy tanks. A friend (or enemy) calls. All just to ruin my day.
To be fair, some days I do catch breaks. Which seems to prove the point all the more. Better would be for Paul to say, “We know that occasionally, sometimes, much of the time, God works for good.” But other times we’re not even sure that he’s working. Or, if he is, he’s kind of being a jerk, or, better would be to grant him the word, “mysterious.” He would say, “Trust me.” We say, channeling our inner Ronald Reagans, “Trust, but verify.” He would say, “I’m the potter, you don’t get to talk back.” We would say, channeling our inner George Carlin, “Then why did you give me vocal cords.”
“All things, really?” We would revise Paul in this way too, not just to talk about God’s behavior temporally: occasionally good, sometimes good, much of the time, etc. We would revise Paul to the extent he credits God with working good, to the extent of things that work for good. We would be far more exclusive than Paul is inclusive. Paul includes all God does and everything that happens.
There’s an interesting translation difficulty here in verse 28. Some translations make God the subject of this verse: “In all things God works for the good.” Others make “all things” the subject: “all things work together for good.” Either way, where we want to exclude things: “That wasn’t good. That can’t be good”, Paul doubles down and goes all in: always and everything. Paul does limit it: “For the good of those who love him” and “those who are called.” Limits surround the unlimited.
Even granting that, that God works good for believers, for Christians, for the Church, we say, “All things work together? In everything God works?” ISIS driving Christians out of their homes in Iraq cooperates with the inability or unwillingness of nations to go in and stop them? God’s working there? For good?
If that’s all Paul said, we’d wrestle. But then Paul goes all in again. He mentions “The Plan.” “Who have been called according to his purpose.” Purpose equals plan. God’s got one. A plan that is.
Wouldn’t it be nice if he’d share more of it with us? We grumble about not knowing the plan, not knowing God’s purpose. We claim that if we just knew God’s plan, then we’d be fine with things. I might call shenanigans on that, because, as Paul has said, we’re seeing God’s plan in action, and we grumble. If God works all things out for the good of those who love him, if all things work together for good, then just using our eyeballs connected to that knowledge would lead us to the conclusion: “This is all shaped according to God’s plan.”
But we don’t draw that conclusion. We accuse God of abuse or ignorance or falling asleep on the job. We accuse God of torture and punishment. We accuse God of leaving us out of the loop, not consulting us. That last might hurt us the most. We have plans and ideas. And if God is love, he should take those into account.
We have simplified matters far too much. We have, so often, put faith not in God and his Christ, but in our faith. “I believe in God, thus and so should happen.” There shouldn’t be rocky or shallow soil. There shouldn’t be weeds and thorns competing for the nutrients I need, growing up around me, closing in, stealing my sun, stealing my air, cutting me off. There shouldn’t be catastrophic rains washing away my foundations. “I have faith! I believe!”
It’s not enough just to believe. Lots of people believe. Everyone believes something. The object of faith matters. What do we believe? Well, the clay rebukes the potter and we decapitalize the “p” and take away his almighty-ness, his Godness. We try to limit the eternal to time, to make God play by our rules. We try to make God understandable, in which case, as Luther once said, we eliminate any need for God, for if we understand God, we are god.
Which is why Paul didn’t make Romans 8 Romans 1. If he started with God’s working, God’s knowing, God’s choosing, and God’s plan, then we’d either laugh him out of the room, or fall into a state of dull contentment. “That sadist, how could he do this to us!” or “Well, he’s got all things worked out, I’ll just go back to sleep.” Instead, Paul gets us to the state where we groan, “Wretched man that I am!” He even lets us cry out a little bit, “God, where are you? What are you doing?”
Then Paul takes the rug out from under us. “If only I knew the plan!” Well, you do. The Holy Spirit shares it with you, God’s plan. The plan that stretches back into eternity, comes into time, and then returns to eternity.
Look at the relentless logic of it all. God knows, and not just knows, but chooses those who are his. He calls. He justifies. He glorifies. If he does all that, of course he has a plan, and of course he’ll make sure everything goes according to plan. And that only makes any sense at all, that only escapes the charge of fatalistic determinism, when we add verse 29: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
At the center of the plan are Christ and the Christian Church. For this purpose, God works all things, all things cooperate together. More, God gets his hands into the job. He inserts himself into things. He isn’t out there just watching. He manipulates history. He interferes. At the center of it all is the manipulation that brought us life: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” “and you shall give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law.” God entered the arena. God put himself into the balance scales opposite us.
Already in the Old Testament he had this worked out. Deeper than that, Paul says in other places. This was God’s purpose before time began: “this grace was given us in Christ before the beginning of time.” But in time he worked it out, promising a son of Eve to crush Satan, promising to do something greater than split the Red Sea, as he says in Isaiah 43, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!”
No wonder Moses said in Deuteronomy 11 that we need to talk about this all the time. Our eyes and senses see one thing and cause us to think one thing: the world is against us, maybe God too. But the Word of God walks us gently to this point of understanding the deep mystery of God in election, his knowing, his choosing, his calling, his justifying, his glorifying, all aimed at conforming us to the image of Christ, making him the first among many brothers.
Here’s why Moses said talk about this every moment you can with your children. Talk about it when you get up and when you lay down. Write it in your hearts; write it even on your wrists and foreheads. Your children need to know God’s promise, a promise that isn’t always “supported” by all the evidence we gather. Thus we need ongoing, lifelong, parent-led, church-assisted continuing education in the Word. This is why we have a school; why we have Sunday School and Bible class and church on Sunday mornings. This is why you need to use our school, our Sunday School and Bible class, our Divine Services. This is why we need the Word of God as much as we can get as often as we can get it. Only in the Word do we hear that God knew, and not just knew, but chose, and then choosing he called, justified and glorified. He has a plan and it’s Christ, Christ for you. In other words, God is on our side!
The Word in all its forms: heard, read, poured in Baptism, eaten in the Sacrament, calls us to this, and more, gives us this! The Word bespeaks us righteous. The Word conforms us to that Son, to him who took on the “likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering” so that we can announce the glorious Word of justification: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins against them.” How? “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Put to death because of our sins, raised to life because of our justification, that’s Jesus, and that’s God’s plan. All things flow from that and towards that. And it’s good. In Christ, only in Christ. God’s purpose. God’s plan. God’s glory. For you. Amen.