In our earlier study of verses 12-13 we said that the answer to the question of who is responsible for our sanctification, God or us, is ‘yes.’ We both have responsibility. We are responsible for choosing to live according to the Spirit, but we never live alone if we’re in the Spirit and we can’t live righteously apart from the Spirit. No one becomes more like Christ in his own strength. That truth undergirds the description Paul gives us in this passage of all that God does to enable our sanctification. God supplies what we can’t in prayer and circumstances in such a way as to ensure that we grow more and more into conformity with His Son. He loves us and wants what’s best for us – to become more like Him – and so won’t leave us to pursue Him on our own. God never leaves us alone – not in our salvation and not in our ongoing growth toward Him. We’re ultimately responsible for walking in the Spirit but the truths of what God does on our behalf are so amazing that we should undertake that responsibility gladly and eagerly.
The first thing we have to understand about our sanctification is that though we’re commanded to pray continually and though prayer is one of the most incredible privileges we have as believers, we don’t really know how to do it and we don’t do it correctly. Consequently, God takes care of it for us. That’s right, God prays to God FOR us.
Prayer is hard; perhaps the hardest part of the Christian walk (“Everything we do in the Christian life is easier than prayer.” – D Martyn Lloyd-Jones). We all know how to talk to friends and we understand what it means to communicate so we get to know someone, but prayer isn’t either of those things in the same sense. Prayer is not communication like we typically understand communication. There’s nothing else in life that’s like it and it’s the area the Enemy targets perhaps more than any other. It’s also very hard to understand in that we pray to One who already knows our needs, who is sovereign, timeless, and omniscient and thus can’t by definition change His actions based on our requests. And yet we’re commanded to pray and given examples in the Bible of how it changes things and we’re told God wants us to come to Him with everything.
With all those obstacles to overcome, we apparently don’t do it very well. The ESV translates verse 26 to say that we do not know what to pray for as we ought. The NASB says we do not know how to pray as we should. Put both together and we don’t know how to pray or what to pray. We pray from our finite and sin-limited perspectives. So God steps in. His Spirit prays for us. We don’t always know God’s will but His Spirit does and prays accordingly. He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And He does it with groanings too deep for words (it’s not clear if the groanings are the Spirit’s or the believer’s, but either way the sense is that it’s communication with God at the deepest – and perhaps non-verbal – level). The Spirit does what we can’t in prayer.
Like we did with verse 18, we should stop for a moment and let this sink in. We’re weak in our prayers. We don’t know what to pray or how to pray. So God’s Spirit intercedes with an urgency and depth and knowledge that are beyond us and he does it FOR us. One infinite member of the godhead prays to another infinite member of the godhead with whom He’s eternally intimate and He does this for US. That sounds okay, doesn’t it?
But that’s not all. Since the Spirit prays according to God’s will, the prayers are sure to be answered. Jesus said that whatever we ask in His name He will do (Jn 14:13), and John says that prayers according to God’s will will be answered (I Jn 5:14-15). So we know that God – who searches our hearts and is one with the Spirit (He perfectly and completely understands us and is perfectly intimate with the One who prays for us) – hears and answers the prayers of the Spirit who intercedes on our behalf according to God’s will. The Spirit doesn’t just pray for us – He prays prayers that are answered. And that also sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
The modifier according to God’s will is key. It means the Spirit has an agenda. He doesn’t just take our requests and repackage them to make them more palatable to God. He intercedes on our behalf according to God’s will. And what is God’s will? That we bear fruit and glorify Him (Jn 15:8) – that we become more like Him (vs 29 below). So that means the Spirit’s intercession has as its goal our sanctification. He doesn’t intercede for our happiness or comfort or prosperity (at least not as ends unto themselves). He intercedes for our growth into disciples. And notice that He LONGS for this to happen. If He communicates in such a way that words can’t express it, it means He desperately wants us to grow.
This is where we should stop and simply praise a Creator who knows and loves us so well. He takes what all of us would say is an area of weakness and difficulty and says, “I got you. I know you don’t know what you’re doing so I got it. Keep praying and know that I’ll handle the important stuff and make sure your biggest needs come before Me.”
The Spirit’s actions and longing should motivate us. If the Spirit Himself intercedes for us we should want to pray as often as possible (yes, we don’t know what we’re doing but no, it doesn’t matter because God takes care of us). And if God through His Spirit longs for us to become more like Him then we should long for that as well and pray – as the Spirit does – to that end.
It’s that end that informs the next section of the text.
And that section starts with one of the most incredible, amazing, loving, misunderstood, misquoted, and misapplied verses in scripture. There is so much encouraging truth here but also so much opportunity for misunderstanding. Christians throughout the ages have used verse 28 as a panacea for any misfortune and prescribed it for any ill. Going through a tough time? God causes all things to work together for good so just hang in there and things will look up soon. If God’s closed a door, that just means He’s about to open a window because all things work together for good. You’ll ultimately be better off and happier than you otherwise would have been. Sick? Unemployed? Death in the family? Left alone? Take a Romans 8:28 and call me in the morning. In the end you’re going to be glad this happened because God will make your life better as a result.
What does that line of reasoning overlook? The definition of the word ‘good.’ We assume Paul defines it in the same way we define it – good health, general welfare, happiness and good fortune. Everything works out for the best. But is that what Paul means? How does he intend for us to understand good? The answer lies in the context of what we just read in verses 26-27 as well as what Paul goes on to say in verse 29. What did we say the Spirit prays for? Our sanctification. And what does Paul say that God predestines us for in verse 29? To become more conformed to the image of God’s Son. So what can we reasonably assume good means in light of the context of this passage? It refers to our growth into conformity with Jesus; it refers to our sanctification. It does not refer to happiness or comfort or prosperity or health. God causes all things to work together for our sanctification. He causes all things – including tough times and suffering and disappointment and tragedy – to enable our growth into His likeness.
When we understand the context and what this verse really means, it actually becomes more encouraging than the misapplied version that says everything will eventually be better as a result of hard times. Instead of just saying that health and happiness are around the corner this verse actually promises that difficulties have eternal value. There’s meaning in suffering. God forms us and makes us more useful for His kingdom through hardship. We become more like Him when we suffer with Him and experience Him in that suffering. Our eternity will be better because of hard times that cause us to be more like Him. Remember what Paul said in verse 18? Our present suffering isn’t worthy to be compared to our future glory. That dovetails perfectly with this verse because our current suffering causes us to be more like Him which enables us to inherit greater eternal rewards. We will suffer; but that suffering affects our eternity. And that’s much more amazing and encouraging than simply affecting our near-term happiness.
It pays to step back and think about why this verse is here. If the believer’s life was easy, would Paul need to include this verse? If everything was rosy after we’re redeemed, would Paul need to reassure us that everything we go through has meaning? No, he wouldn’t. Paul includes this verse because life is hard. He wants us to know that even though we go through tough times, those tough times have meaning for all eternity. God never promises us a life of ease. To the contrary, He makes it abundantly clear that He calls us to something entirely different. But He includes an amazing verse like this so we know those times have meaning and that their purpose – among other things possibly – is always to make us more like Him.
And once again, that’s encouraging because it fits with what we know of the real world (in the same way verse 18 is encouraging because it meets us where we live). Things don’t in fact always work out. If we had to defend a verse that said bad things always do it would render the Bible meaningless in the face of ultimate tragedy. We can’t tell someone dealing with the death of a child or chronic illness that everything’s going to be alright. So what’s wonderful about this verse is that we don’t have to. We may not know how things are going to work out in this world (or that they will work out) but we know suffering has meaning and its purpose is ultimately better than any good that could ‘work out’ as we define it.
One warning as we contemplate this verse – make sure to read the end. This promise is for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. That’s a description of believers. This verse is for those who know God. And that makes sense if we believe good refers to sanctification (notice that according to His purpose likely refers to sanctification also – we’re called to become more like Christ – this is another reason to define good as we do). Things don’t work together for the sanctification of someone who isn’t redeemed.
One last thing to consider from this passage – what does it say about God’s perspective on our happiness and comfort as compared to our sanctification? Or said another way, what does it say about God’s definition of good versus our own? It says this – God is so lovingly concerned with what He knows to be our ultimate good that He’s more than willing to sacrifice what we call good to achieve it. And since that’s the case, we can be sure that what He promises is much better than happiness or health or prosperity or comfort. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t seem outside the context of this verse to say that just as current suffering isn’t worthy to be compared to our future glory (vs 18), so our current happiness isn’t worthy to be compared to the benefits of becoming more like Christ. Conformity to Christ is of much greater value than happiness and health and ease.
Now that takes a little faith to accept, doesn’t it? God’s willing to sacrifice our welfare in this life for the sake of our sanctification. Are we on board with that? You see, this is what Jesus meant when He said that to be His disciple we have to deny ourselves and take up a cross (Matt 16:24). We have to accept that this world isn’t about us and this life isn’t about our comfort but the benefits of sanctification far outweigh our self-centered desires. To live that out day-to-day, however, takes a lot of faith and a continual renewing of the mind and those only happen with tons of prayer. And who might be able to handle the tons of prayer? There you go – God’s Spirit prays for just this kind of renewed mind that embraces the loss of what the world says is near and dear in the pursuit of becoming more like Christ and gaining ultimate joy.
So what does all this mean? It means we CAN take Romans 8:28 and apply it to any ill or misfortune. But like any prescription, it’s only effective when taken the right way. And the right way is to come to this verse when we’re tempted to have no hope and let it remind us that though things might not in fact be better tomorrow and the sun might not come out and God may not open a window and our current suffering may not go away in this life, that everything we go through has meaning and God intends for us something far greater than good as this world defines it. He longs for us to become more like Him and is willing to do just about anything to accomplish it when we trust Him. The good He desires for us far surpasses the good fortune and general welfare of this world. And there is outrageous hope in that truth.
The end of verse 30 tells us where this ends. Those God called He glorified. It’s interesting how Paul writes this because he uses past tense as if it’s already happened. In Paul’s mind, it’s so sure and so based on God’s absolute promise that it has. We absolutely will be glorified when our lives are over. And that brings us back to verse 18. Our future glory is assured so we can endure now. Our future glory is assured so can eagerly wait for it with perseverance. All things work together for good and that good will be fully realized when we’re with our Redeemer on a new earth unstained by sin and full of His glory.
If we put these two ideas together – the Spirit counteracts our weakness in prayer by appealing for our sanctification and God works all things together for our sanctification, we see that God gives us everything we need to become more like Him and more useful for His kingdom. Our sanctification is both our responsibility and God’s, but God provides amazing help such that we have no excuse for any lack of growth. God through His Spirit intercedes for us, God through circumstances forms us, and in every way God loves us and wants what’s eternally best for us. There is no greater news than that other than the Gospel itself. Our Redeemer loves us and gives us everything we need for eternal joy and glory.