The Reason for My Hope: A Meditation on Romans 8:29

  • February 23, 2014

lightning2“Mama always said there’d be days like this.”

That homespun proverb is something we mutter on Monday mornings as we struggle to get out of bed and face the week, or on innocent afternoons when we all of a sudden spill coffee down our shirt and chip a tooth. We’ve all been there. We understand moments, Mondays, and months when nothing seems to go quite right.

But if you’re like me, and to be honest I really think you are, then the longer we live the more we realize that most days don’t seem to go right. There are passing glimpses of peace, structure, and organization, but more often than not life just happens.

This is really true of my life as a believer. I’ve been a Christian for a long time now, and while definitely a different person than I once was, the older I get the more I realize how sinful I really am and how much of a struggle following Jesus can be. Every day seems to teach me a new lesson about my own sin, stupidity, and frailty. Some days battling my rebellious heart and seeking to trust Jesus all the while can be almost unbearable. That’s just the truth of the matter.

And in the midst of these struggles with sin, these continued failures, my own battles with pride and foolishness, not to mention the ever present reality of life in a limited and weak body, days can seem long, unending, and downright depressing. Like Paul I’m left crying out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Romans 7:23).

That’s the reality of the Christian life. It was the reality for the apostle Paul, me, and for you. And yet, we’re also confronted with a jolting truth that strikes like a lightning bolt into the darkness of our daily lives. Paul shouts that for the believer “there is now no condemnation” (Romans 8:1) and for the believer “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28).

But it sure doesn’t seem like it some days does it? When I’m confronted with my sin and my own selfishness, I certainly don’t feel like a man who is living in a declaration of innocence with no condemnation in his future. When I struggle with sicknesses, face tragedies, and deal with car troubles and tax season, it doesn’t feel like everything is being worked together for my good.

Still, there are those words flashing in front of my face from the pages of Romans 8. They won’t go away. They won’t surrender the battlefield. They won’t back down. They’re screaming for my attention. They’re beckoning for my trust. They’re calling me to rest in their certainty, a certainty that is deeper than my feelings and more real than anything else.

They call me to hope.

Yet the question still lingers as to what the bedrock grounding for that hope really is. What about God and the gospel gives me the confidence to wake up every morning (and go to bed every night) resting in the gospel’s “no condemnation” and God’s ever-working for my good on a cosmic scale?

Romans 8:29 tells me the ground of all my good. It exuberantly exclaims the reason for my hope. Just as I invited you to meditate on and marinate in Romans 8:28 last week, this week I want to invite you to plunge into the depths of God’s workings with his people. It is for our eternal good and his eternal glory.

It is truly written that “the secret things belong to the LORD” (Deuteronomy 29:29), and when we step into this verse we are treading into a great mystery, a mystery we cannot fully comprehend, and a mystery we may never fully understand. The secret things belong to God, but it is equally true that the verse also says that “the revealed things belong to us and our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29). There are mysteries that lie in the depths of God’s person and purposes. Not all our questions are answered in this verse, but it is a gift for us to see and savor those truths that God has revealed here, and that’s the reality I want to call you to. Read, believe, and love the bedrock foundation for our hope that is spelled out for us in Romans 8:29…

For those whom…

This is a beautiful beginning. Immediately we know that Paul is getting personal. He’s talking about real people. He’s talking about believers! He’s talking about us! He’s talking about those that love God and are called according to his purpose. He’s not being abstract. He’s not referring to a set of hypothetical men and women or a corporate grouping. He has real people in mind, real people like you and me.

He’s not denying the reality of John 3:16, that God truly loves the world, all people. Neither is he answering questions related to God’s dealings with all persons throughout history, believer or unbeliever. But he is speaking about real people who are believers.

…he foreknew…

“Foreknew” is a strange and wonderful word. But what does it mean?! Our first thoughts might go to a simple definition of “to know beforehand,” and that’s certainly an aspect of the word, but there is so much more! To “know” in the Bible, particularly in Old Testament Hebrew refers to a deep and intimate relational knowledge focused on a particular object. This same word is used in texts like Jeremiah 1:5 to refer to being “set apart” or “chosen.” In fact, that is so much a part of what this word means that oftentimes translators opt for the word “chose” or “chosen” to best represent it.

This foreknowledge is like unto the marital knowledge between a husband and a wife. Certainly there is mental knowledge, basic recognition, but there is definitely more than that! There is intimate love, there is commitment, and there is choice. When a husband and wife “know” one another biblically, they know one another at the most deepest level and they’ve made a vowed commitment to the other person that sets their beloved apart from any other person on earth.

Herein lies a great wonder. In some mysterious way those who believe the gospel, who turn to Christ in faith, who respond to the command and invitation to follow Jesus, are none other than those who before the world’s foundation were the objects of God’s fierce love, his chosen people, the elect of God.

…he also predestined…

Sometimes we think that a word like “predestine” or “predestination” is scary. I used to think so! We’ve heard it thrown around and oftentimes not in a very good way! Immediately words like this might conjure up boogey men that make us frightened to move forward. But I don’t want you to do that. Don’t be afraid of what is so clearly written in the Bible, and certainly don’t be afraid of a word like “predestine” that is spoken for your temporal encouragement and your eternal good. This word is a soul strengthening messenger, and it’s a word that flows so sweetly from Paul’s pen. He uses it twice in Romans 8:29-30, and two other times in Ephesians 1:1-11. Paul isn’t afraid to rejoice over this reality. Instead, he understands it to be a liberating victor that sets the Christian free to glory in the God of his salvation!

So why is this word such good news? Predestine refers to God’s determining decree before the foundation of the world in regards to his people, those whom he foreknew, those he called according to his purpose. The word is a bulwark for the heart because it sings over us the truth that our end is not in doubt, not even for a moment. We are his, and he does not lose those that are his. The author has determined at the outset that the end of this story will end in the beginning of glory for his people before he ever takes his first pen strokes to put words on the page.

God is not a bewildered monarch fretting in the heavens, wondering if all of this mess will really turn out okay. Nor is he a bumbling overseer who hopes that his children will make it through somehow. He knows they will, for they are his foreknown, they are his beloved. They are his and he is theirs, and the future for his children is shining with heavenly hope. This word shouts the promise of Philippians 1:6, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Some days it doesn’t seem like I’ll ever reach the finish line with victory. Some days seem like just too much. Yet, I hear what God has spoken. We’re told in Genesis 1 that all God spoke came to pass with those booming words, “it was so.” For the believer, whatever may come, God has spoken that those who are his will be with him forever, and it will again be so.

…to be conformed to the image of his Son…

Wow! This verse just keeps getting better and better! This verse (like all of Romans 8) just keeps building up to an amazing climax! It’s like a masterpiece for the orchestra that is building into crescendo of sound! Just when you thought Paul couldn’t say anything better, he hits us with another jaw-dropping truth! Not only are believers the chosen, loved, foreknown of God, and not only is their ultimate destiny a pre-ordained destination, but what that destination looks like is the most beautiful thing in heaven and on earth. There’s really nothing better!

God’s commitment to his people is nothing less than shaping, building, chipping, and hammering away at us like a master sculptor so that we end up looking just like Jesus. Imagine that! I promise you, Jesus is better than anything you’ve ever experienced and more beautiful than anything you’ve ever seen. Our tiny, boring little brains can’t begin to imagine the myriads upon myriads of beauty in the face of Jesus Christ! And God is going to make us look like him. He’s painting a masterpiece in the life of all his children by producing a self-portrait imprint into their very lives. He is molding, prodding, shaping, and brushing us so that we are conformed to the image of the Christ.

His own image, his reflection, like billions of little mirrors, is the ultimate goal of God for his people. He doesn’t merely predestine us to an eternity in paradise with loved ones. He doesn’t simply ordain that we live forever without pain. He doesn’t just blandly decree that we live forever looking like angelic heavenly beings or shimmering stars. No! His predestining purpose for his people isn’t anything nearly so boring as that! He wants nothing less than an untold multitude of redeemed men and women who cover his new creation with tiny little pictures of infinite beauty!

…so that he might be the firstborn…

We might think the term “firstborn” is a strange word to use in reference to Jesus. Indeed, numerous heretics throughout church history have tried to twist this word that Paul uses to mean that Jesus is less than God, just another created being.

But that’s not what this word signifies. Oftentimes when the biblical text uses this word it’s doing so to speak of status or worth. In the first century world of the New Testament, and for centuries before, the firstborn in a family occupied the primary place of prominence and preeminence. So the term “firstborn” came to refer to an exalted position, an elevated status of worth, glory, riches, and power. So when Paul says that God’s purpose is for the Son to be the “firstborn,” he’s shouting that the whole point of time itself is that all things will be brought into submission to Jesus Christ, that he will be all, in all, and over all.

This is the same point that Paul makes in Philippians 2. The whole goal of history is heading toward Jesus having the “name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” That’s the truth Paul proclaims in this verse! Our greatest good and Christ’s greatest glory is the same thing! To be made to look like Jesus is ultimately for the praise and glory of the one we resemble! All of eternity will resound with the praises to the Lamb who alone is worthy!

…among many brothers!

Unfortunately sometimes people mistakenly believe that words like “foreknow” or “predestine” lead to Christians fatalistically ceasing to care about evangelism and missions and the salvation of the lost. Sometimes we think that people who use these words end up being the uncaring “frozen chosen” whose favorite slogan are the words of Henry V from Shakespeare, “we few, we happy few.”

But nothing could be further from the truth! The grand vision of God’s purposes for the salvation of his people is the great hope that grace will prevail and the gospel is a global power. This promise is the passionate fire that there will indeed be an untold number, too numerous to count, from every tribe, tongue, language, and people who will gather around the throne of God to proclaim praise to the risen Lamb! Christ’s preeminence will be the satisfied assurance that there will be many, too many to count in fact, who are the redeemed. Instead of being a verse that mercilessly consigns masses to Hell, Romans 8:29 is instead the invincible guarantee that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe, and billions of men and women and boys and girls will be transformed by its power.

That gives you and I power and confidence when we share the gospel, when we preach the Word, when we invite sinners to repent and believe the good news. We know for a fact that their hope does not rest in our own power, intelligence, or skills of persuasion. It builds us up with the fire in our bones that when we share the gospel there will be people who will hear and believe. The gospel will be proclaimed to all nations, proclaimed and believed in all nations, and then (and only then) will the end come.

The grand view of God’s sovereignty unfolded in Romans 8:29 is the fuel for a risk-taking, death-defying commitment to reach the nations with the gospel. Some might think that doctrines like predestination are a contradiction or a hindrance to any passion to see all people hear and believe the good news. I mean, if God predestines people to salvation, then what is the motivation for sharing the gospel? Why worry about it?

Well, an adequate answer would simply to say “because God says so,” but maybe you’re still left with some doubts. Maybe an illustration will help. Let’s imagine a married couple, two parents who are preparing dinner for themselves and their children. They have “predestined” their kids to eat dinner after a long day at school. It’s a guarantee. Their kids are definitely going to eat dinner in the evening. So, why should they worry with calling them to the table? Why should they worry with telling them to turn off their Xboxes?

The truth is the reason the parents have to invite their children to the table, and the reason why their kids have to respond by actually coming, is because the predestining act of eating dinner includes the means by which it will be enjoyed. The parents’ decree that the children eat includes a decree to do all things that go into eating the meal, including it being cooked, the table being set, the kids being called, and the plates being piled high with spaghetti and salad.

In the same way, God’s foreknowing and predestining to salvation includes all the instruments and means by which the ends will be accomplished, and that accomplishment will result in Christ being the firstborn, the preeminent one, the object of adoration among billions and billions of children of God walking around the new creation looking like Jesus.

Wow…no wonder when Paul reaches Romans 11:33-36 he can’t contain himself. He just has to break out in singing and praise to proclaim:

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.

Truly this is so. Amen and amen.
-Pastor Cade

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