NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson XXXVI)
For Bible scholar Charles Hodge, those for whom afflictions work together for good are described first. Then those who love God are listed second. And finally, those who are the called according to His purpose are third. In these, we see the character of the persons intended for such blessings. This means they are serious about their faith. Then we notice the cause for which the person was chosen. It is one of the most important truths that guide the Apostle toward the great goal in this chapter. That is, they are the called according to God’s purpose. This word “called” in Greek is prothesis. It is never applied in the Epistles of the Final Covenant to anyone who simply receives an invitation through the Gospel to salvation. It always means those who have been effectively called, that is, those who responded to the call and openly accepted the blessings they were invited to receive. To the Corinthians, Paul put it this way: “To those called by God to salvation.1”2
To put this in perspective, no one should identify themselves as a student of a particular university just because they made an application, nor in light of the fact that they were accepted. Only those who responded to the acceptance letter, went to the school, registered, enrolled in classes, and sat in on the lectures, and completed the exams can be identified as students. The same is true of those who for whom all things work together for good. They are the ones who were called by the Holy Spirit, chosen by God, accepted by Jesus Christ to be their Savior, offered themselves as living sacrifices for sanctification, and guided by the Holy Spirit began the work they were chosen to do for God’s purpose.
In one of his sermons, preacher Octavius Winslow includes some thoughts on what Paul says here. As he sees it, the Holy Spirit always operates with a purpose. That’s why Paul’s words present an important and glorious aspect of the Spirit’s work, something we cannot simply reflect on without seeking a clearer, more elevated, and sanctifying view of the Spirit’s operations in the ongoing work of regeneration. Winslow wanted to remind his listeners that the great change which takes place in the soul at regeneration is always attributed to the invitation of the Holy Spirit, and in various parts of His Word, “a calling.” In fact, it will take only a few passages will prove it. Paul wrote the Galatians and told them about his being “called by grace.”3 Then here in Romans Paul speaks of his being “called by grace,”4 and then says that they were “called out of darkness.”5 Then Peter refers to the saints of God as “the called according to His purpose.”6 Jude also refers to those whom God loved and are kept by Jesus are the “called.”7 And in writing to Timothy Paul said that those who are preserved in Jesus Christ are the “called.”8 The writer of Hebrews says that we are all part of a “holy calling.”9 And Peter also tells us to make our “calling” and election sure.10 How can it be made any clearer that the person who is made spiritually alive, brought out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, and born-again are “the called.” The blessed Agent by whom they are called is the eternal Spirit of God. It is the Spirit that quickens,11 and calls. This should clearly make the point that what we have to deal now is the effectual nature of our “calling” if we want all things to work together for our good.12
Henry Alford gives some insightful comments here. He states that in Paul’s further description of a believer the Apostle designates them as those who are not merely loving God but being loved by God. The divine factor in their security is brought out as something God planned all along. They are sure that all things work together for their good. This is not only because they love Him who works all things out for their good, but also because He who works all these things out does so because He loved them and chose them as His own. Not only that, but He guides them through the successive steps in their spiritual walk with Him. As Alford see it, the calling here is the working in mankind of the everlasting purpose of God for their lives. This was not a late decision, it was decided before the foundation of the world was laid. Then came the time for Him to announce His secret to us, to deliver us from the curse and damnation that was laid on all creation because of Adam’s sin. That’s why He sent His Son so we could be chosen through Christ so that we may receive everlasting salvation.13
Alford continues by pointing out that the Scriptures bear a constant witness to the fact that all believers are chosen and called by God. This means their whole spiritual journey in its origin, progress, and completion, are planned by Him. Even though the same Scriptures testify that it is God’s will that all be saved because He does not want any of His creation to perish, yet, He will only allow those to be destroyed who have willingly rejected the Gospel. So we can see that it all begins as an act of GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY, and it only continues on by an act of MAN’S FREE WILL. This should be plain to everyone that believers are to receive, believe, and act on both of these. It is our duty and involves our wisdom. Any attempt to build a bridge over the gulf between the two is futile because of the imperfect condition of mankind. In other words, it’s God’s way or it’s no way.14
Charles Spurgeon expresses it differently. He alerts his listeners to note how the Apostle Paul speaks here; he does not say that all things may work together for good; no, but that they do work together for our present good. This does not simply mean that someday everything will eventually turn out right; it is alright now. No sooner does Paul mention the word “purpose” when he feels the need to start a long explanation of it. He was not afraid or ashamed to speak of the purposes of God. There are some preachers who say nothing about God’s purpose for His children. They seem to be too afraid to mention it. Instead, they mumble something about Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. How can it be Calvin’s doctrine when it was here in the Scriptures long before Calvin was born. They have no right calling it that.15
With the aspect of predestination being raised by many Bible scholars during the 16th-19th centuries, Frédéric Godet gives his explanation of how to accept what Paul says here regarding predestination. For him, predestination is built on the foreknowledge of God. Once a person becomes aware of this fact they then exercise their free will as to whether or not they accept or reject it. Godet goes on to say, that Paul’s view implies that a person exercises their free decision process to make up their minds. For Godet, Paul makes the distinction between the two divine acts of foreknowledge and predestination very clear. Both as to their nature, with the one being an act of the understanding God’s calling, and with the other being an act of the person’s will. The first aim is faith, the second aim is glory.16
John Stott lays out five principles he sees in this verse. First, that we may not always know what God is thinking or doing, let alone understand and welcome all of it. And Paul does not declare that God is at work to make us comfortable. However, we do know that whatever He’s doing is for our benefit. One reason we know this is because we can find many examples of it in Scripture. Secondly, this work is for our good because they are expressions of His goodness. Thirdly, God’s effort to make sure things work out for His good and our good, He looks at everything, not just some things. That includes both negative and positive, good and bad. Fourthly, God does all of this for those who love Him. Just wanting to be God’s friend in order to get special treatment will not work. We must be willing to do everything He asks and do it with all our heart. And fifthly, that we have accepted His call according to His purpose, not our purpose. So it is not surprising that Paul starts this verse by saying “we know.” In other words, all of these things are clear to us before we even say “Yes” to anything He asks of us.
For instance, Joseph was convinced that his brothers purposely sold him into Egypt to be a slave. He told them: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good … the saving of many lives.”17 In a similar case, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jews in Babylonian exile containing a message from God after the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem, “’I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”18 This same concurrence of human evil and divine plan is most conspicuously displayed on the cross of Jesus. Then Peter attributes both of these to the wickedness of men and to “God’s set purpose and foreknowledge”19.20
Verses 29-30: God knew them before He made the world. And He decided that they would be like His Son. Then Jesus would be the firstborn of many brothers and sisters. God planned for them to be like His Son. He chose them and made them right with Him. And after He made them right, He gave them His glory.
Now the real secret comes out. The revelation of Jesus as the Messiah and His death on the cross and rising from death were not happenstance or coincidence, as the skeptics might imply. It was all planned before the world began. You might say that it’s the same principle that applies to the controversy between evolution and creationism. Evolutionist say it all started as an explosion and things came together by pure chance. Creationist say it was all started by the Creator who then evolved everything He created into the forms He desired. It also represents the same issues that divide predestinationists from free-will evangelicals. They first say that man has little to do with it because God has it already mapped out and planned, while evangelicals say it’s all man’s choice to accept the whole purpose of being born-again to give believers the needed guidance to persevere to the end. Let’s look to see if we can’t join these two together as part of God’s plan for humanity.
In King David’s instructions to his son Solomon, David made this clear by saying: “The LORD watches over all the plans and paths of godly men.”21 And God made it clear to Jeremiah: “I knew you before you were formed within your mother’s womb; before you were born I sanctified you and appointed you as my spokesman to the nations.”22 We know that Jesus chose the twelve disciples who followed Him for three years and became the pioneers of the church that eventually spread around the world. But even the Lord Himself said that many would claim kinship with Him as their Lord. He told His disciples one day: “They may refer to me as ‘Lord,’ but still won’t get to heaven… At the Judgment many will tell me, ‘Lord, Lord, we told others about you and used your name to cast out demons and to do many other great miracles.’ But I will reply, ‘You have never been one of mine.’”23
1 1 Corinthians 1:24 – New Living Translation
2 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 434
3 Galatians 1:15
4 Romans 8:28
5 Ibid. 8:30
6 1 Peter 2:9
7 Jude 1:1
8 2 Timothy 1:9
9 Hebrews 3:1
10 2 Peter 2:10
11 John 6:63
12 The Works of Octavius Winslow: op. cit., loc. cit.
13 From Article 17 in the Church of England Articles of Faith
14 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 74
15 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Genesis 50:20
18 Jeremiah 29:11
19 Acts of the Apostles 2:23; cf. 4:27ff
20 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Psalm 1:6
22 Jeremiah 1:5
23 Matthew 7:21-23