For What "Good" Is God Working All Things Together?

by Jeremiah Johnson at GTY.org

Here’s one example—a devotional reading from Joel Osteen. Romans 8:28 appears to be one of the prosperity preacher’s favorite verses—this is just one of the many entries he’s written on it, titled “When Life Isn’t Fair.”

Everyone goes through things that don’t seem to make sense. It’s easy to get discouraged and wonder, “Why did this happen to me?” “Why did this person treat me wrong?” “Why did I get laid off?” But we have to understand, even though life is not always fair, God is fair. And, He promises to work all things together for good for those who love Him.

I believe the key word is this verse is “together.” In other words, you can’t just isolate one part of your life and say, “Well, this is not good.” “It’s not good that I got laid off.” “It’s not good that my relationship didn’t work out.” Yes, that’s true, but that’s just one part of your life. God can see the big picture. That disappointment is not the end. Remember, when one door closes, God has another door for you to walk through—a better door. Those difficulties and challenges are merely stepping stones toward your brighter future. Be encouraged today because God has a plan for you to rise higher. He has a plan for you to come out stronger. He has a plan to work all things together for your good so that you can move forward in the victory He has prepared for you! [1]

With some variation, that represents many believers’ general understanding of what Paul meant in Romans 8:28—“Don’t let life get you down. God’s going to make everything better!”

Of course that oversimplification goes beyond the original intent of Paul’s words. There’s no biblical basis for Osteen’s promise that God always has a better door for us to walk through. In fact, His Word promises that life won’t always be happy, rich, and full—sometimes we’re meant to suffer (1 Peter 4:12).

It’s in the midst of that suffering that Romans 8:28 is most often deployed. We want to trust that God is working, even through our trials, to bring about His will. And there’s plenty of biblical evidence to back up that hope. The story of Joseph in the Old Testament is one of the clearest examples.

Joseph was severely beaten and sold into slavery by his brothers. He endured the illicit advances of his boss’ wife, and was thrown into prison after she made false accusations against him. He lingered in prison for years before he was released and brought in to council Pharaoh himself. He was given a position of leadership, in which the Lord used him to spare Egypt and countless surrounding communities—including his own family—from famine. At the end of his story, as he reconciles with the brothers who kick-started all his suffering, he acknowledges God’s sovereign hand working through it all: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but  God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20).

Stories like Joseph’s give us confidence that God is always working behind the scenes to bring about His will. But He might not have such monumental purposes for our suffering. Sometimes it’s simply for our own spiritual growth that the Lord allows us to suffer through trials (James 1:2). The Spirit’s refining, sanctifying work is often painful, but the spiritual fruit it bears is well worth the struggle.

In his commentary on Romans, John MacArthur explains that God is working out

our good during this present life as well as ultimately in the life to come. No matter what happens in our lives as His children, the providence of God uses it for our temporal as well as our eternal benefit, sometimes by saving us from tragedies and sometimes by sending us through them in order to draw us closer to Him. [2]

A Certain Eternity

In the immediate context of Romans 8, Paul is not dwelling on our current suffering, but looking forward to eternity. In verse 18, he mentions the “sufferings of this present time,” but only to say that they cannot compare to “the glory that is to be revealed to us.” From there he explains how creation groans to be free from the curse of sin (Romans 8:19-22), and how believers likewise long to see the fulfillment of their faith (vv. 23-25). Then he describes how the Spirit intercedes on our behalf according to God’s eternal purposes (vv. 26-27).

The theme continues in the verses immediately following:

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30)

In the context of the believer’s eternal glorification, we need to understand the “purpose” for which God is working all things together as not merely our temporal good, but our eternal good. In that sense, Romans 8:28 isn’t merely a promise that God is watching out for us in this life; it’s a guarantee that He is working out all aspects of our lives toward His ultimate goal of our future glorification. It’s a promise that our eternity with Him is secure.

In a sermon on this passage called “Groanings Too Deep for Words,” John MacArthur explains that powerful promise this way:

The point is this: Because of the plan of God and the provision of Christ and the protection of the Holy Spirit through His intercessory ministry, God is causing all things to work together for our final, eternal, ultimate good. Not everything in this life works out for good—far from it. Oh, you might draw a good lesson from it. You might draw a good outcome from it. You might be drawn to the Lord. It might increase your prayer life. It might strengthen you. It might give you patience. It might perfect you, mature you. It might make you able to counsel other people and strengthen them because . . . you’ve been comforted by God in the same struggles.

All of those are wonderful realities, but that’s not the good that’s being spoken of here. The good that dominates this passage is that ultimate, final good that is the glorification of true believers. We are secured to that final good, that which is the best.

In His providence, God is sovereignly orchestrating all events according to His will, for His glory and our good. But we’re not guaranteed that all our struggles will be turned into blessing. Sometimes He will rescue us from tragedies; other times it’s our suffering that brings about His desired result. Our perspective on His sovereign goodness cannot be bound to our own circumstances—if Joseph had remained in the Egyptian jail for the rest of His life, would God be any less good, or His will less than perfect?

What we are guaranteed in Romans 8:28 is that regardless of what we have to endure in this life, our eternity with Him is unassailable. Nothing can stand in the way of His plans for our future glorification.

And in the midst of life’s struggles, what better promise could we cling to?

On Still Small Voices and Allegories

– By R. Scott Clark on The Heidelblog

One of the first things I learned when I became an evangelical Christian in 1976, the year America elected a self-proclaimed “Born Again” Christian (Jimmy Carter), was that every Christian should expect to hear a “still small voice” from God. I learned this phrase from the King James Version (1611) of 1 Kings 19:12 long before I ever learned the location of the phrase in Scripture and long before I learned anything about the context of the phrase. I entered American evangelical theology, piety, and practice entirely naive about the history of the revivalism and Pietism. Rather, I was given to think that every Christian receives direct revelations from the Holy Spirit, specific guidance as to what to do in a given situation. Sometimes it was said or implied that whether one heard God’s “still, small voice” was determined by the degree of one’s faith. More typically, however, it was said or implied that hearing God’s still, small voice is a spiritual discipline not unlike proficiency in high-technology. The noise of life, perhaps our successes, it is said, can drown out God’s voice but if we quiet ourselves, if we attend to God, we can “tune out” the background noise and “tune in” to the Spirit’s still, small voice.

This question recently arose at a conference at which I spoke—I do not recall which one and it does not particularly matter. I try to collect the question and answer cards so that I can address those that we do not get to during the conference and this one was at the top of the pile on my desk.

That this use of 1 Kings 19 is so widely accepted is a testament to the pervasiveness of allegorical interpretation of Scripture among evangelicals and even among those who profess the Reformed faith. Beginning in the 3rd century (at least) there began to develop a way of reading Scripture that sought to ask and answer from a passage what it says about faith (doctrine), hope (eschatology), and love (ethics). These are good questions but the way by which the answers were often derived in the (late) Patristic and medieval periods were found wanting by the Reformers. They criticized this approach to Scripture because it sometimes assumed that a text must have embedded within it multiple senses. Second, they criticized it because it tended to ignore the literal or historical sense of the text in favor of one of the figurative (doctrinal, eschatological, or moral) senses. It was not that they did not know that there was a historical sense (the did) but that too often it was less interesting to them than the putative figurative senses. They were less interested in what the text intended to say in its original context or even in its broader redemptive-historical context.

The attraction of the figurative senses is as strong today as it was then. The real question behind the search for the figurative senses is one: what does the text mean to me or for me? It is one thing to ask, “What does this passage, taken in its original context, accounting for the intent of the human author—so far as possible—and the divine author–so far as the text allows us to determine it—teach us about what we ought to believe, for what we ought to hope, and how we ought to live?” and quite another to ignore the original context or worse, mention that context and then apply it as though the original context and intent is irrelevant. In some ways, the latter approach is even more dangerous because it is practical identical to the first but covers itself with a fig leaf of respectability. In truth, neither approach cares to allow original intent or the original context to govern how the text is understood and applied. To move from 1 Kings 19 to post-canonical “still, small voices” is an allegorical reading i.e., a figurative interpretation seeking a doctrine, of which Origen or Ambrose of Milan would be proud.1

I doubt that John Chrysostom used this text this way because he was so committed to the original intent and context of the text of Scripture. The first point to be made here is that neither you nor I are Elijah. This passage is not about you or me. It speaks to us about how God delivered Elijah but it is not about us. The proper approach to Scripture is not to haul it out of its context but rather, as Mike Horton has taught us, for us to seek to find ourselves in God’s story of redemption. 1 Kings 19 tells the story of the consequences of Elijah’s slaughter of the prophets of Baal, of the wrath of an ungodly ruler (Jezebel), and Elijah’s unbelieving response. Jezebel had sworn a covenant, an oath “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2; ESV). This was a blood oath. This is the same sort of oath Yahweh himself had implied when he walked between the pieces (Gen 15). Elijah was terrified (v. 3). He knew what such an oath meant. He was depressed (vv. 4–8). It is in this context that Scripture says that the Word of Yahweh came to him (v. 9). The God of the covenant, who himself had sworn a covenant to redeem his people, queried him and Elijah laid out his complaint to the Lord, that he, Yahweh, was falling down on the job by allowing his prophets to be killed and persecuted (vv. 9–10). Yahweh responded by instructing him to stand on a mount “before Yahweh.” A great wind passed by, an earthquake shook the earth, and fire raged but Yahweh was said not to be “in” them. Counter intuitively, he was, however, in “the still, small voice.”

The point of the passage is that Yahweh defied Elijah’s expectations. He was no less sovereign than he had been when he slayed the prophets of Baal or when he had defeated Pharaoh. His point was that, despite Elijah’s unbelief and fear, he was fulfilling his promise. He was with Elijah. He was not done saving his people. He had not abandoned them. Elijah was wrong. He was not alone. There were yet 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal (v.18).

The intent of the passage is not to teach a doctrine or practice of secret revelation or private guidance. The point of the passage is Yahweh’s faithfulness to his promises. Nothing in this passage suggests that we should be listening for a “still, small voice” from Yahweh. The point is the salvation comes in unexpected ways. It would be a far better application of this passage to say that Jesus is God’s still small voice. The Jews were looking for a Messiah with earthly, political, and military power. They would not accept a crucified and risen Messiah. Like the “still, small voice” God the Son incarnate was unexpected and unsatisfactory. People often ignore the fact that Elijah continued to complain after the “still, small, voice.” He wanted more.

At the conference the objection was made that God is still able to speak in still, small voices. Certainly but the objection misses the point. He is also able to use his prophets to slaughter false prophets, of chasing his prophets into the wilderness, and of using his prophets to install kings. He is also capable of speaking into nothing and making worlds. God is what he is. What God is able to do is beside the point. What matters here is what God has promised to do and what he has commanded us to do.

He has nowhere promised to reveal himself privately, directly, specifically apart from his Holy Scriptures. God’s Word written is sufficient for the Christian faith and the Christian life. Sola scriptura. Everything we need to know, to believe, is revealed in his Word. Everything we need to know to live the Christian life, all the guidance we need is in his Word.

The abuse of 1 Kings 19:12 presumes that Scripture is not sufficient. The truth is the God is not going to tell you directly, privately, through a “still, small voice” whether to attend this college or that, whether to take this job or that, or to marry this person or not. He has commanded us to work. He has told us to fulfill our vocation in this world, to love God with all our faculties and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Education is a good thing. Which school to attend is a prudential judgment. Which person to marry comes down to the way one answers some important questions: is your intended a believer? Are you prepared to live with and love this person for the rest of your life?”

Asking God for special, extra-biblical revelation is not only unwise, it marginalizes God’s Word and seeks to know what is secret, what is hidden (Deut 29:29) at the expense of what has already been revealed. Perhaps we seek extra-biblical revelation because we are dissatisfied with what God has already said?

Whatever the reason, believer know that you are free to live your life without the bondage of the “still, small voice.” Unless you are Elijah the Prophet (and you are not) there is no such thing. The good news is that God has revealed his Word and his moral will and we are free in Christ to follow that Word and to obey his will, in union with Christ, in communion with his church.

MORE RESOURCES

1. “The Secret of Knowing God’s Will.”

2. Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (1)

3. Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (2)

4. Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (3)

5. Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (4)

NOTES

1. I do not see the Fathers appealing to this text often. Tertullian appealed to it contra Marcion to defend the reality of divine manifestations in the OT. Matthew Henry uses the phrase to distinguish between the thundering of the law and the sweetness of the gospel. “Whenever it thunders let us think of this psalm; and, whenever we sing this psalm, let us think of the dreadful thunder-claps we have sometimes heard, and thus bring God’s words and his works together, that by both we may be directed and quickened to give unto him the glory due unto his name; and let us bless him that there is another voice of his besides this dreadful one, by which God now speaks to us, even the still small voice of his gospel, the terror of which shall not make us afraid.” Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 782.

Source

Biblical Doctrine and Extrabiblical Terminology

by Mike Riccardi

John-Owen-PortraitDuring the Arian controversy of the fourth century, the Arians employed many arguments against the doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. Perhaps one of the most popular arguments was that men like Athanasius were using unbiblical terminology to describe the nature of God and the person of Christ. The famous word homoousios — i.e., “same substance,” indicating that the Son was of the same substance of the Father, not merely of similar substance — was nowhere to be found in Scripture, while the Arians insisted upon the “plain sense” of texts like John 14:28, where Jesus confesses, “The Father is greater than I.” In the sixteenth century, the anti-Trinitarian Socinians leveled this same argument against historic orthodoxy. “Trinity” was a word that was absent from the Bible. The Reformed Orthodox were simply imbibing man-made tradition, whereas they (the Socinians) were aiming to be true to Scripture by using strictly biblical language.

John Owen saw it as a personal calling to answer the numerous heresies of Socinianism, and the church has been the richer for his efforts. Early on in his “A Brief Declaration and Vindication of The Doctrine of the Trinity,” Owen answers this common objection, and explains why employing extrabiblical terms like “substance,” “subsistence,” and “Trinity” is not only permissible but necessary for faithful biblical interpretation and theological discussion. He writes:

“And herein [i.e., in discussing the Trinity], as in the application of all other divine truths and mysteries whatever, yea, of all moral commanded duties, use is to be made of such words and expressions as, it may be, are not literally and formally contained in Scripture; but only are, unto our conceptions and apprehensions, expository of what is so contained.

“And to deny the liberty, yea, the necessity hereof, is to deny all interpretation of the Scripture, — all endeavors to express the sense of the words of it unto the understandings of one another; which is, in a word, to render the Scripture itself altogether useless.

“For if it be unlawful for me to speak or write what I conceive to be the sense of the words of the Scripture, and the nature of the thing signified and expressed by them, it is unlawful for me, also, to think or conceive in my mind what is the sense of the words or nature of the things; which to say, is to make brutes of ourselves, and to frustrate the whole design of God in giving unto us the great privilege of his word.

“Wherefore, in the declaration of the doctrine of the Trinity, we may lawfully, nay, we must necessarily, make use of other words, phrases, and expressions than what are literally and syllabically contained in the Scripture, but teach no other things.

“Moreover, whatever is so revealed in the Scripture is no less true and divine as to whatever necessarily followeth thereon, than it is as unto that which is principally revealed and directly expressed. For how far soever the lines be drawn and extended, from truth nothing can follow and ensue but what is true also; and that in the same kind of truth with that which it is derived and deduced from. For if the principal assertion be a truth of divine revelation, so is also whatever is included therein, and which may be rightly from thence collected.

“Hence it follows, that when the Scripture reveals the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be one God, seeing it necessarily and unavoidably follows thereon that they are one in essence (wherein alone it is possible they can be one), and three in their distinct subsistences (wherein alone it is possible they can be three), — this is no less of divine revelation than the first principle from whence these things follow.”

Several comments are worth making.

Necessary for the Refutation of Error

First, Owen notes that, not just in Trinitarian discussions, but in “all other divine truths and mysteries whatever,” it’s necessary to use terminology that doesn’t appear in Scripture in order to explain precisely what Scripture does and does not mean by the terminology it does use. As soon as a teacher of error invests biblical terminology with a meaning that Scripture does not intend, they have made it necessary for the defenders of truth to use language that is not used in Scripture to distinguish the genuine biblical sense of the terms in question.

The Arians insisted that Scripture’s description of the Son as “begotten” and “firstborn” meant that the Son had a beginning, since, with respect to human relations, the “plain sense” of these terms imply origination. In order to explain why that was not the case, Athanasius, Augustine, and others employed extrabiblical terminology to explain the genuine meaning of the biblical terms. Begottenness, for the eternal relations between Father and Son, didn’t imply origination, but the Father’s eternal communication of the divine essence to the personal subsistence of the Son. Scripture doesn’t speak of “essence” and “subsistences” in any explicit fashion, but these terms are employed to best capture what Scripture does say and distinguish it from false teaching.

This is Simply the Task of Interpretation

Second, note how this practice is absolutely essential to any biblical interpretation whatsoever. “To deny the liberty, yea, the necessity hereof, is to deny all interpretation of the Scripture.” If employing extrabiblical terminology to describe biblical truth is somehow always polluting the purity of exegesis with the the “human reasoning” of “theology,” then we’d have to jettison not only our theology books, but also our Bible commentaries, historical sources, and lexicons, and prohibit our pastors from saying anything from behind the pulpit beyond the reading of Scripture. Any commentary on biblical truth involves using words not used in the text.

Anchored to the Text

Third, observe how Owen is explicitly concerned that one anchor extrabiblical terminology in the text of Scripture itself. Though these terms might not be found explicitly in the text, they are nevertheless “expository of what is so contained.” We are aiming to express “the sense of the words” of Scripture. We use words other than what are in Scripture, but which “teach no other things” than what are in Scripture. Owen is not some systematician running roughshod over the biblical text; if nothing else, his two-million-word exegetical commentary on the Book of Hebrews ought to qualify him as an exegete. No, it’s his love for Scripture and his genuine concern that the author’s intent be preserved pristine that drives him to this practice. Theological deduction must always be moored to the text.

The Legitimacy of Deduction

Fourth, he makes the excellent observation that the logical implications of a divinely revealed truth are no less divinely revealed nor less true than the principle from which it’s deduced. Some interpreters who tend to be wary of the legitimacy of systematic theology get uneasy if there are too many levels of argument or inference from a particular truth of Scripture. If there are more than three if-then statements in a theological argument, it must not be biblical. But that’s just simply not true. If A is proven to be a scriptural truth, and if the rest of scriptural testimony along with the laws of logic demand that A implies B, and B implies C, and so on through to Z, Z is no less biblical than A. Or, as the Westminster Confession puts it, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (1.6). That which is deduced “by good and necessary consequence” is no less biblical than that which is “expressly set down in Scripture.”

*     *     *     *     *

And so, the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity — which is summarized by the confession that God is one, and that this one God eternally subsists in three co-equal and consubstantial persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which persons, though distinct from one another, each fully possess the undivided divine essence — is not an unbiblical concoction devised by human reasoning and philosophical speculation. It is biblical, even though the words “Trinity” and “essence” and “subsistence” don’t appear in Scripture. By teaching that God is one, and that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, Scripture shuts us up to Trinitarianism. That we have to borrow metaphysical language to explain the scriptural realities makes those realities no less scriptural.

As you interpret Scripture and aim to faithfully hold the parts together into a coherent whole, don’t get caught up in the crass biblicism of the likes of the Arians and Socinians, because, ironically, that would be unbiblical.