The Apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 8:28 is one of the most cherished verses in all of Scripture. “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” The context demands that we understand the words to be referring to the suffering of believers in the period of groaning and turmoil as we await the full realization of our adoption, the resurrection of our bodies (Rom. 8:18-27). But, it is important for us to come to terms with the fact that it is not simply the sufferings (i.e. persecutions, trials, tribulation, etc.) that are in view in the words “all things”–it is also the believer’s sin that works together for his or her good. This, of course, is not to say that there is good in sin, or that the believer is encouraged to go on sinning that grace may abound. Far from it, God commands believers to put sin to death in their lives. However, God’s wisdom in the work of redemption includes even working the sin and backsliding of believers together for their good. Consider several examples in Scripture:
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his comments on this passage, explained that the prodigal son wouldn’t have known the Father’s love and grace to returning backsliders if he had never left home for the far country. He wrote:
[For the believer the ‘all things’ in Romans 8:28′ “includes even our falling into sin, even our backsliding…God can turn it to the advantage of the Christian…when we truly repent He stands ready to forgive us…The prodigal son knew much more about his Father after he came back than he ever knew before he left home. He thought he knew before he left home but he didn’t. It was when he was received back, when he saw his father running to meet him–when he was yet a long way off–and embracing him. He never knew anything about this before. So you see, though he was quite wrong in leaving home and going to that foreign land–and all he did there in his riotous living–it was all wrong; but he was a very much better man at the end than at the beginning. He knew more about sonship; he knew more about his Father, he knew more about his Father’s love.
Now that’s the kind of way in which this works out; and, in other words, it brings the Christian to see his constant need of grace, his constant need of watchfulness and of care. And all that, of course, is very good for us. It is part of our development, our growth in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord. So we are able to assert that even when he falls into sin or becomes a backslider, when he is restored, this has been for the Christian’s good. Now there you get a glimpse into this many sided grace of God. What a wonderful thing it is–that even our defeats can be turned for our good. God takes hold of this thing and He uses it in that way to bring us nearer to Himself and to give us a knowledge of Himself that we otherwise would have never have had. This term ‘all things’ really must be taken in all its fulness not even excepting sin or falling into a backslidden condition.1
But, someone might say, “Isn’t the parable of the prodigal son speaking of God using the sin of unbelievers to bring them to Christ? What about the sin of believers?” While it might be too narrowing to limit the teaching of the parable of the prodigal son to the realm of regeneration, nevertheless, we have ample examples of how God works sin together for good in the lives of believers. For instance, consider what the Scripture says about Samson. Samson told his parents to go and get him a wife from the daughters of the Philistines. This was explicitly forbidden by God in Scripture. That an Israelite should marry the daughter of the most notable enemy of the church of God is supreme rebellion. And yet, we read in Judges 14:4, “His father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord—that He was seeking an occasion to move against the Philistines. For at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.” God had purposed to use Samson’s sin to bring down the Philistine lords. In this way, we can see how even the sin of a believer (Heb. 11:32) was working together for his good and the good of God’s people. Perhaps the clearest example of this principles in the Old Testament is found in the Scripture’s account of how God brought large good out of David’s two great sinful falls. First, David premeditated the murder of one of Uriah–one of his mighty men–after committing adultery with his wife. Nevertheless, the two genealogies of Jesus (i.e. the royal line by which He was adopted through Joseph, found in Matthew 1, and his biological line through Mary recorded in Luke 3) run through two of the offspring of David and Bathsheba. Both Nathan (Luke 3:31) and Solomon (Matthew 1:6) were sons of David through Bathsheba (1 Chronicles 3:5). In this way, we can say that the Redeemer and the redemption of the world came through the instrumentality of the adulterous relationship of David and Bathsheba. God took David’s sin and turned it for his and our good. Secondly, God severely chastened David for numbering the people of Israel (2 Samuel 24:1-17). After God brought the plague to an end, David purchased the land around the threshing floor of Ornan (Araunah) the Jebusite in order to sacrifice to the Lord (2 Samuel 24:18-25 and 1 Chronicles 21:18-30). In redemptive-history, this became the very spot on which the Temple would be built (2 Chronicles 3:1). In this way, we see that God took David’s sin and consequences, and in His redemptive grace, turned it to work for good for those who love him. Sinclair Ferguson gives us the most astonishing and convincing way in which God turns the sin of His people to their good. He explains:
There is nothing that takes our God by surprise; there is nothing that takes place outside of His superintendence and watch-care; and there is nothing that can ever happen that can distort or destroy His eternal purposes for His people–nothing whatsoever! As the Apostle says in Ephesians 1, ‘This God is a God who works all things together according to the counsel of His own will.” Now the test case of that, of course, is the worst possible things that happen; and the proof for Paul that God works everything together for the good of those who love Him is found supremely where the proof of everything ultimately is found for the Apostle Paul in the test case of the Lord Jesus Christ. He brings everything back to the Lord Jesus Christ. And it was his companion, Luke (you remember, his traveling companion and personal physician) who had written in the Acts of the Apostles of the great sermon of Simon Peter on the day of Pentecost–I mean, of all the apostles to say this on the Day of Pentecost –a matter of weeks after the Lord Jesus had been crucified–Simon Peter was the most unlikely, because Simon Peter was the Apostle who had most opposed Jesus going to the cross. And therefore, it was a wonder of God’s gracious working in his life that he stands up on the day of Pentecost and stares down those who had crucified the Lord Jesus and says, ” He was crucified by the hand of wicked and cruel men according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.” And you see what this means. If the worse thing, the most evil thing that has ever happened in this world–for these early Christians who surrounded Jesus–the greatest tragedy of all, was still under the sovereign superintendence of God–100% the action of wicked men, and yet no less 100% the Divine strategy coming to pass, even amazingly through he activities of wicked men working together for the saving good of those who come to love God in Jesus Christ.2
Robert Haldane, in his comments on Romans 8:28, noted:
Even the sins of believers work for their good, not from the nature of sin, but by the goodness and power of Him who brings light out of darkness. Everywhere in Scripture we read of the great evil of sin. Everywhere we receive the most solemn warning against its commission ; and everywhere we hear also of the chastisements it brings, even upon those who are rescued from its finally condemning power. It is not sin, then, in itself that works the good, but God who overrules its effects to His children, shows them, by means of it, what is in their hearts, as well as their entire dependence on Himself, and the necessity of walking with Him more closely. Their falls lead them to humiliation, to the acknowledgment of their weakness and depravity, to prayer for the guidance and overpowering influence of the Holy Spirit, to vigilance and caution against all carnal security, and to reliance on that righteousness provided for their appearance before God. It is evident that the sin of Adam, which is the source of all their sins, has wrought for their good in raising them to a higher degree of glory. Believers fall into sin, and on account of this God hides His face from them, and they are troubled ; and, like Hezekiah, they go softly. God left Hezekiah to himself, but it was to do him good at his latter end.3
In his treasury of meditations on Romans 8:28, Thomas Watson made the following observations on how God makes the indwelling sin of believers to work together for their good. He wrote:
That sin is in the godly is sad, but that it is a burden is good. St. Paul’s afflictions (pardon the expression) were but a play to him, in comparison of his sin. He rejoiced in tribulation (2 Cor. vii. 4). But how did this bird of paradise weep and bemoan himself under his sins! “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24). A believer carries his sins as a prisoner his shackles; oh, how does he long for the day of release! This sense of sin is good.4
Again he noted:
Corruption makes the saints prize Christ more. He that feels his sin, as a sick man feels his sickness, how welcome is Christ the physician to him! He that feels himself stung with sin, how precious is the brazen serpent to him! When Paul had cried out of a body of death, how thankful was he for Christ! “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:25). Christ’s blood saves from sin, and is the sacred ointment which kids this quicksilver.5
Finally, he set out six good things that God brings out of indwelling sin in the believer:
1) It puts the soul upon self searching. A child of God being conscious of sin, takes the candle and lantern of the Word, and searches into his heart. He desires to know the worst of himself; as a man who is diseased in body, desires to know the worst of his disease. Though our joy lies in the knowledge of our graces, yet there is some benefit in the knowledge of our corruptions. Therefore Job prays, “Make me to know my transgressions” (Job xiii. 23). It is good to know our sins, that we may not flatter ourselves, or take our condition to be better than it is. It is good to find out our sins, lest they find us out.
2) The inherence of sin puts a child of God upon self-abasing. Sin is left in a godly man, as a cancer in the breast, or a hunch upon the back, to keep him from being proud. Gravel and dirt are good to ballast a ship, and keep it from overturning; the sense of sin helps to ballast the soul, that it be not overturned with vain glory. We read of the “spots of God’s children” (Deut. xxxii. 5). When a godly man beholds his face in the glass of Scripture, and sees the spots of infidelity and hypocrisy, this makes the plumes of pride fall; they are humbling spots. It is a good use that may be made even of our sins, when they occasion low thoughts of ourselves. Better is that sin which humbles me, than that duty which makes me proud. Holy Bradford uttered these words of himself, “I am a painted hypocrite”; and Hooper said, “Lord, I am hell, and Thou art heaven.”
3) Sin puts a child of God on self-judging; he passes a sentence upon himself. ” I am more brutish than any man” (Prov. 30:2). It is dangerous to judge others, but it is good to judge ourselves. “If we would judge ourselves, we should riot be judged” (1 Cor. 11:31).When a man has judged himself, Satan is put out of office. When he lays anything to a saint’s charge, he is able to retort and say, “It is true, Satan, I am guilty of these sins; but I have judged myself already for them; and having condemned myself in the lower court of conscience, God will acquit me in the upper court of heaven.”
4) Sin puts a child of God upon self-conflicting. Spiritual self conflicts with carnal self. “The spirit lusts against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). Our life is a wayfaring life, and a war-faring life. There is a duel fought every day between the two seeds. A believer will not let sin have peaceable possession. If he cannot keep sin out, he will keep sin under; though he cannot quite overcome, yet he is overcoming. “To him that is overcoming” (Rev. 2:7).
5) Sin puts a child of God upon self-observing. He knows sin is a bosom traitor, therefore he carefully observes himself. A subtle heart needs a watchful eye. The heart is like a castle that is in danger every hour to be assaulted; this makes a child of God to be always a sentinel, and keep a guard about his heart. A believer has a strict eye over himself, lest he fall in to any scandalous enormity, and so open a sluice to let all his comfort run out.
6) Sin puts the soul upon self-reforming. A child of God does not only find out sin, but drives out sin. One foot he sets upon the neck of his sins, and the other foot he “turns to God’s testimonies” (Ps. 119:59). Thus the sins of the godly work for good. God makes the saints’ maladies their medicines.6
While we never want to comfort unrepentant sinners with these truths, they are of great use to the believer. While there are many other examples in Scripture and history, these suffice for us to see that God makes “all things”–yes, even our sin–work together for the good of those who love Him, whom He has called according to His sovereign purpose.
1. An excerpt from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ sermon, “God in Control“
2. An excerpt from Sinclair Ferguson’s sermon, “All Things for Good“
3. Robert Haldane Romans p. 393
4. Thomas Watson A Divine Cordial (from the section titled, “The Worst Things Work for Good to the Godly”)