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Redeemed for a reason

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Romans 8:28-30

According to this week’s news reports, you had better not die in southwest France. The village in question has run out of space in the local cemetery. So the mayor has told his residents, “All persons not having a plot in the cemetery and wishing to be buried are forbidden from dying in the parish.” He adds, “Offenders will be severely punished.” You’ve been warned.

There are some things you can’t do much about. Whether you’re happy, sad, or indifferent about this week’s election results in Texas and elsewhere, there’s not a lot about the presidential primaries you can change today. Economists are debating whether we’re in a recession, heading into one, or avoiding one, but most of us don’t get a vote on the question.

It is frustrating to live with circumstances beyond your control. A boss you can’t fire; a health condition you can’t heal; a struggle in your family you can’t solve, a temptation you can’t defeat. As time goes on you begin to wonder if things will ever get better, if there’s a reason for any of this and a purpose on the other side.

Today’s text tells us that we are more than conquerors in the hardest places of life. We will learn again this week that God redeems all he allows. We will learn why, for what purpose, to what end. And we will choose whether or not to cooperate. I hope you’ll choose wisely. What struggle do you need God to redeem this morning?

What is God’s purpose for you?

Let’s walk through our passage, one of the most popular and misunderstood statements in all the New Testament.

Paul begins: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (v. 28a). “We know” is a traditional Jewish formula for introducing conventional wisdom. What follows is a certainty for all believers, no matter our circumstances or difficulties. This passage applies to every one of us today.

Once before, Paul used this phrase: “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (v. 22). There are two certainties in Romans 8: suffering and redemption. We all suffer, and God will redeem that suffering for his purposes.

“In all things God works for the good of those who love him,” we’re promised. “In all things,” the apostle promises. No exceptions are listed. Paul does not claim that all things are good, but that God works for good in all things.

Jesus wept at Lazarus’ grave because his death was not good, but God used it for good when he raised him back to life. Our Savior cried out in pain and abandonment from the cross because his separation from his Father was not good, but God used it for the good of our salvation.

In “all things God works.” It is not our responsibility to redeem our situation, but God’s. The Greek for “works” is sunergei, meaning “to work together” or “make something in combination.” The events themselves are not good, but when God works them together they produce a good we could never have imagined.

Pike Wisner and I discussed this week an analogy for Paul’s claim. Imagine baking a cake. You wouldn’t want to eat flour, or shortening, or raw eggs. In fact, you couldn’t imagine that they would ever be edible. Only someone who knows about baking would see the way they could “work together” for something good. When a pastry chef takes these disparate and unappetizing ingredients and mixes them in the right way, in the right proportions, for the right time, then bakes them in the right temperature, a cake emerges from the oven. That’s what God is doing with the flour and raw eggs of your life.

In all things God is working “for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

He works “for the good” because he must. Our God is “holy, holy, holy” (Revelation 4:8; Isaiah 6:3). This is how we know that he redeems all he allows–his character requires it. He never makes a mistake. He must always do the right thing. He must always work for our glory and his good.

He does this for “those who love him.” It is not that he likes Christians better than non-Christians, but that he can give only what we will receive. If we will not accept his forgiving grace by trusting Christ as our Lord, he cannot forgive us and save us. If we will not accept his Spirit into our lives by becoming Christians, his Spirit cannot redeem and transform us.

I can do things for my children that I cannot do for yours. I can discipline my sons in ways I cannot discipline yours. I can teach and mentor and help mold their character in ways I cannot with yours, or you with mine. So it is with the Father and his children.

When we “love him” as his children, we are “called according to his purpose.” “Purpose” translates the Greek word for “design” or “plan.” What is this plan, toward which God is redeeming all that he allows?

Verse 29: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

“Those God foreknew” points to the fact that God is not bound by time. He knows what we will do before we do. This doesn’t mean that he chooses for us. I watched you sit in your pews this morning, but I didn’t assign them to you. God is the Great I Am (Exodus 3:14), and is able to see tomorrow as we are to see today. He “foreknows” all that we will do, for he sees us do it.

Those he foreknew “he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.” “Predestined” means to choose, to plan, to purpose beforehand. He has always wanted all of us to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), for he is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

In this case, his plan for our lives is that we “be conformed to the likeness of his Son.” “Conform” means to “make with” or “mold.” He wants us to be like Jesus. He wants us to manifest the character of Christ. What does this mean?

It means that we obey our Father like the One who prayed, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).

It means that we commune with our Father like the One who got up “very early in the morning, while it was still dark” and “went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35).

It means that we refuse sin like the One who said, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only'” (Matthew 4:10).

It means that we forgive our enemies like the One who prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

It means that we serve our friends like the One who washed his disciples’ feet and told us, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).

God wants Jesus to be “the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). “Firstborn” in the Jewish culture meant the preeminent one; we are to imitate him as members of his family, showing the world Christ in us. How are you measuring up?

How can you cooperate?

It is God’s intention to redeem all he permits by using it to make you more like Jesus: more obedient, prayerful, holy, forgiving, and servant-hearted. How can you cooperate?

First, become the child of God. You cannot be like Jesus your brother until you have his Father as your Father. If you do, here’s what God has already done for you:

He “foreknew” you, knowing before time began that you would be here. He “predestined” you, choosing you to be like his Son. Then he “called” you when the Spirit convicted you of your sin and led you to faith in Christ. He “justified” you, cleansing you from all your failures and mistakes so that it is “just if I’d” never sinned. And he “glorified” you as the child of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (v. 30). Become the child of God today.

Second, make his purpose yours. Decide that you will measure success by Christ-likeness, not by performance or possessions or popularity. Not your church by buildings and budgets and baptisms. Measure your life and congregation by the degree to which we are more like Jesus than we were last month and last year. Make this your North on the compass, your non-negotiable mission in life. The next time someone asks you what you want to do with your life, say “I want to be more like Jesus.”

Why? Because your Father knows what is best for you, and he says that this is your highest and best purpose in life. Being like Christ is what you were made and redeemed to do. I have found this fact to be absolutely true in my life. When I am seeking to imitate Jesus, there is a peace and purpose to my life which is missing every other time.

If I preach this sermon to perform or impress you, there’s no joy in it. If I preach to serve you like Jesus, there’s joy in every moment.

When I submit to the temptations of the enemy, there’s dissonance and pain in my soul. When I obey God’s will like Jesus, there’s victory in Jesus.

When I judge or criticize those who hurt me or disagree with me, there’s bitterness in my spirit. When I forgive like Jesus, there’s release and freedom.

When I do my work in my ability, I become tired or bored or dissatisfied. When I seek the Father’s presence like Jesus, there’s power for all he asks and more.

So become the child of God, and make his purpose yours. Third, ask how every experience can make you more Christ-like. This is how God redeems all he permits–by using it to mold you into the image of Jesus. Ask how he is doing this with everything that happens to you, and choose to cooperate with him. When people hurt you, choose to forgive like Jesus. When you’re tempted, choose to be godly like Jesus. When you’re hurting, choose to trust your Father like Jesus. Ask how you can be more like Jesus, and you will be.

Conclusion

So don’t give up, however hard life gets. God redeems all he allows, to make you more like Jesus. Someone told me this week that if the mountain was smooth, we’d have no handholds to climb it to the heavens.

I’m reading John Grisham’s latest novel, The Appeal. Grisham is a modern day phenomenon. His books have sold millions of copies, and movies made from them have made millions of dollars more. This Baptist Sunday school teacher and lawyer writes books his children can read and his mother can endorse. And he does it all in the context of a living faith in Jesus.

But it wasn’t easy. Grisham wrote his first novel, A Time To Kill, at night and on weekends while working as a lawyer in Mississippi. No one would publish it–no one. He finally paid to have it published himself, and sold copies out of the trunk of his Volvo. His garage was filled with unsold copies. But then his second book, The Firm, became a success and the rest is history.

Henry Ford went broke five times before he finally succeeded. Eighteen publishers turned down Richard Bach’s book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, before Macmillan published it and it sold seven million copies in five years.

Richard Hooker worked for seven years on his war novel M*A*S*H only to have it rejected by 21 publishers. He finally decided to publish it himself. It became a runaway best-seller, and led to a blockbuster movie and a highly successful TV series.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach: “Quitters Never Win–Winners Never Quit.” The coach was a better theologian than he knew.

Your Father redeems all he allows, to make you more like Jesus. This is the promise of God.