We now encounter a section of Romans that each verse has been misunderstood and misapplied. As we read this section of scripture we must remind ourselves that Paul is writing to give assurance to these Christians in Rome that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1).
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26–27; ESV)
There are a couple of ways to look at this text, which I would like to share with you. Let us start with the traditional way, that is, that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us. First, much has been made from the statement that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. But, notice that Paul does not say that the Holy Spirit helps us by giving us mental encouragement, telling us what to do, or making us feel better. Paul is saying that though we do not know what to pray and do not know what to verbalize to God in our suffering, the Spirit helps us in our weakness by knowing our spirits. God does not need us to verbalize our needs because God knows our hearts and intercedes for us.
But let us look at the text another way, because the text could also be translated like this:
"In the same way the spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the spirit itself intercedes with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."
Capitalization is provided by the translators which may cause us to read something into the text that is not intended. So it is useful to read the text without it. When we take out the capitalization, we may see that Paul is not talking about the Holy Spirit doing a particular work, but simply pointing out that God hears our groaning and intercedes for all the saints, even though we may not be able to verbalize our needs. We do not know what to say in prayer while in our weakness and sufferings. But God searches the heart and knows our groaning. Notice back in Romans 8:23 we are the ones who are groaning inwardly. So there is a strong contextual reason to see passage is talking about our spirit groaning and God hears those sighs and groans when we do not know what to pray for.
In either case, I think we come to the same result. Either Paul is saying God hears our groaning and intercedes for us even though we do not know how to pray. Thus, verse 28 is fitting: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (ESV). God hears our groaning and provides what we need. However, even if one wants to stay with the traditional understanding that the Holy Spirit is interceding, I believe we must interpret the text similarly. Paul, therefore, is saying that we do not know how to pray but the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness by knowing what we need and interceding for the saints. The assurance is that we do not have to speak our needs for God to know what we need and to act.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28; ESV)
It is important to carefully read what Paul does not say. Paul does not say that all things are good. Paul does not say all things are pleasant. Paul does not say that everything has a reason or a purpose. This is one of the worst false teachings that I have heard. Everything does not have a reason or a purpose. Paul does not even say that God makes all things good. What does Paul mean? What is Paul saying? Before we look at what Paul is teaching, let us look at the other constraints on this verse.
First, Paul is talking about those who love God. Those who are called according to God’s purpose is who Paul is talking about. All things do not work together for good for everyone. This is not a universal promise. This is not a passage of hope to those who are lost. We cannot tell our friends in the world that all things will work together for good in their lives. This promise is not to them. We should know that because the end of those who do not love God is not going to be work and is not going to work out well.
Second, Paul says that we know all things work together for good for those that love God. Paul does not say that we will feel this way. We are often going to feel the exact opposite. We are going to feel like things are being destroyed in our lives as we go through suffering and difficulties. The promise is not that you are going to have feelings of happiness as you endure tribulations. This teaching is something that we will know to comfort us while we feel the weight of suffering.
Third, Paul does not say that God will make each individual event in our lives work out for good. There are going to be many bad things that happen to us in life. There is going to be much suffering. There are going to be hard times. Paul is not saying that this single bad, traumatic event in your life is going to be used for good.
With those out of the way, what did Paul teach? Paul says that, "All things work together for good for those that love God." Paul is picturing all the pieces of our life coming together for good. Not that each individual event will become good. But that all that happens to us, the good things and the bad things, are all pieces in a puzzle that are working together for good. Too often we neglect the two important words, "Work together." Things in our lives are going to work together for good. Perhaps another useful picture is that of the gears of a clock. All the events in life are gears that will eventually come together and work for good.
Finally, we should consider that the good that is coming is not something that we will experience in this physical world. Peter describes what the sufferings of this life are doing to us.
You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to be distressed by various trials so that the genuineness of your faith—more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6–7; HCSB)
The point is that our faith will result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus when he returns. The point is not that at age 80 I will look back and see that everything has worked out for good. This fits the context of Romans 8 where Paul has been talking about groaning for the glory that is to be revealed in us when he comes (8:17-25). That is why it is only those who are in Jesus who will have all things work together for good. Those who are in Christ and have been walking according to the Spirit are the ones who have the promise of glory.
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. (Romans 8:29–30; ESV)
Notice the first word of verse 29 is "for." Paul is continuing his discussion of the assurance we have despite our suffering. These verses are an explanation of how all things work together for good for those that love God. In spite of our suffering, our glorification as sons of God is still going to come. It does not look like we are children of God at many times in our lives because of the difficulties we face. But we can patiently endure because our salvation is in Christ and we are hoping for something greater — the revealing of glory.
Understanding what Paul is saying can be difficult here because there is so much theological baggage attached to these words, like "foreknew" and "predestined." Here are a couple translations that do not use these theological words and may help us have greater clarity to what Paul is teaching.
This is true because he already knew his people and had already appointed them to have the same form as the image of his Son. (Romans 8:29; God’s Word)
For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son… (Romans 8:29; NLT)
God knew in advance that he would have a people that were his people, his children. Foreknowledge does not necessitate that he knew who each and every person would be. But in the beginning God knew he would have a people and at that time God appointed that his people would be conformed to the image of his Son. Those who were conformed to the image of his Son would be his people, his children. With these being the conditions, God gave the gospel call. What is the message of the gospel call? The message of the gospel is to be conformed to the image of his Son. Everyone is invited to be God’s people. God established the plan of salvation before the foundations of the world. Be conformed to the image of his Son to be his people. To use the terminology of Romans 8, walk according to the Spirit and set your mind on the Spirit to be God’s children. There is no other call we read about in the scriptures than the gospel call to come to Jesus and be conformed to his likeness. Those who received God’s call were justified by God. God pronounces those people not guilty and acquitted. The wrath that is deserved to us because of our sins has been replaced by grace and mercy through the blood of Jesus. Those who are justified are also glorified. This glorification is an absolute certainty for those who are in Christ.
God’s purposes are unstoppable. God knew in advance that he would have a people for himself, people that would listen to him and obey him. God predetermined who would be part of this family by laying out the conditions — be conformed to the image of his Son. God made the gospel call of salvation. Those who respond are justified and are glorified. Christ is the firstborn of the family as an heir of God. We are joining with him in the family with Christ as our brother when we conform to his image.
Image Bearers of Christ
Are we bearing the image of Christ to the world? Have we answered God’s calling of dying to self and sin and being conformed to the image of his Son? Let me encourage you by bringing what we learned about justification in Romans 5 forward into this text.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6–11; ESV)
While we were sinners, Christ died so that we can be saved from the wrath of God and so that we can be reconciled to God. We have been justified by the blood of Jesus, no longer under condemnation of sin. Now we have a relationship with God, not as slaves, but as children. As children we can cry out to God in our times of suffering and weakness. We can cry out to God as our dear Father who loves us. As his children we long to be glorified as sons of God when Christ returns. Patiently endure suffering for the cause of Christ knowing we are sons of God and we will be glorified by him at the proper time. All of these promises are firm and steadfast to those who are conforming their lives to the image of the Son. If sin is the rule and practice of our lives, our hope is lost and we will receive the promised wrath of God. When conforming to the image of his Son is the rule and practice of our lives then all of these blessings that Paul has preached from Romans 5 to Romans 8 stand for us in hope.
Think about your work. Are you bearing the image of Christ to the people you work with and communicate with? Think about home. Are you bearing the image of Christ as a father or a mother? Are you bearing the image of Christ as a husband or a wife? Are you bearing the image of Christ as a son or daughter? Are you bearing the image of Christ to your neighbors? Think about this congregation of Christians? Are you bearing the image of Christ to your brethren? Are you showing them that Christ is the number one thing in your life? Are you being transformed by the word of God, changing our hearts to be more fitting for Christ? We must not be stubborn or callous with our hearts so that we do not conform to the image of his Son. If we do not conform to his image, then our baptism and our attendance is for nothing.
Be image bearers of Christ. Be conformed to his image in all we do. For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined. And those whom he predestined he also called. And those whom he called he also justified. And those whom he justified he also glorified.