ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD
1. Even Desertion
Paul states a profound, comforting truth for God’s people when he writes in Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” In a word, not singly, but together all things in the life of God’s people shall work together for their real spiritual welfare.
The life of God’s people resembles a watch. Open it, and what do you see? You see that one wheel is turning in an anti-clockwise direction, but it is attached to another wheel that is working in a clockwise direction. Your first thought may be that the watchmaker is either foolish or confused. But he is neither.
He has so arranged this watch and put in a main-spring to govern all its wheels, that when wound, though one wheel turns this way and another that way, all work together to move the hands around the face of the watch. They appear to be in contradiction but they all work together to the same end.
Such is the life of God’s people. Some wheels in their life run clockwise, which sometimes gives a hope that these things are good for them, but other things seem to be all against them. It is only when their eye of faith is fixed on the great Watchmaker (who has planned everything in His all-wise decree) that they see He has placed the main-spring of free grace within their watch-life so that all
providential and spiritual wheels are governed to work together for their welfare. Yes, people of God, though much often seems counter-clockwise and against you when you see one wheel of providence work within or against another wheel of grace in various spiritual afflictions, spiritual exercises, spiritual disappointments, and spiritual riddles, yet your Jehovah-Shepherd knows exactly what He is doing. He shall work all things together to produce a divine and blessed result according to God’s sovereign good pleasure and eternal counsel.
“Al things” – all good things and all evil things – “shall work together for good.” The best things – including the attributes and works of Jehovah, the promises and providences of the Father, the work and Person of the Son, the graces and labours of the Spirit, the everlasting covenant of grace with all its accompanying benefits of salvation, and all Divine ordinances, such as the Word and sacraments, prayer, the communion of saints – shall all work together for their spiritual good. Even the worst things – including Divine desertion, sin, Satan, infirmities, temptations, afflictions, persecutions – shall all work together for spiritual welfare.
No doubt some of us will say, “It is easy to understand how good things will work together for good, and I know that evil things are supposed to serve the spiritual welfare of God’s people, but how Divine desertion, spiritual affliction, and even sin can work together for their good I cannot comprehend.”
Allow me to show you in a handful of ways how even Divine desertion, spiritual affliction, and sin work together for the spiritual welfare of God’s children, and from this we shall be able safely to conclude that, indeed, “all things work together for good to them that love God.”
Children of God, does not the Holy Spirit use Divine desertion in many ways to your spiritual welfare? (1) Does not Divine desertion drive you to the throne of grace to seek after and prize God’s countenance more than ever, causing you to knock at heaven’s gates with unceasing petitions? (2) Does not the Lord use Divine forsakings to cause you to examine your own soul to discover and stone the accursed thing within that has caused you to desert God and Him to desert you, so that the winter of Divine desertion yields the killing and mortifying of growing weeds of sin? (3) Does not the common cause of Divine absence – sin, cause you to hate sin with a holy hatred? (4) Does not Divine withdrawal cost you the blessed price of trying and exercising all received graces, especially faith, hope, and love, so that the rough file of a missing God is used to scrape off much spiritual rust? (5) Does not an absent God cause you to value more what Heaven has given, so that within your soul special grace does not become common grace, nor common grace
become special grace? (6) Does not a lost God serve to purge you of innumerable remaining infirmities, weaning you away from soul-embraced worldly inclinations, thoughts, and actions? (7) Have you not experienced that the Holy Spirit uses a withdrawing God to cut off everything within you – your experiences, your humility, your unworthiness, your prayers, your faith, and your conversion, yes, all of you, so that total soul-lack may make room for the Lord Jesus Christ in your heart? (8) Has He not used Divine desertion to cut off from your side even the benefits God has given, such as promises and applied texts, so that what He gives does not become lord in your soul over and above the Lord Himself? (9) Does He not delay to come in order to teach you that His delays are not denials, but rather, that His comings are always at His time and in His way, since He is sovereign in all His doings? (10) Does He not hold Himself back in order to teach you that He possesses a full right never to come over to your soul again on account of your sinning against received grace? (11) Like the bride experienced, does not Jehovah often depart to draw you out of the pit of spiritual lethargy to follow and seek Him, crying: “Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?” (12) Does He not lay the foundations of truth deep in your soul through deep desertion, convincing you that God Himself must receive all honour and glory both in Divine presence and Divine absence, and that the difference between them is purely a matter of free and sovereign grace?
Truly, people of God, are not these twelve Spirit-taught fruits of Divine desertion all profitable to your souls even though you fight against them? Can you not see that the Lord brings you into the depths of desertion on this side of the grave to keep you from the depths of damnation on the other side? He holds you above hell by desertion to keep you from hell for eternity. Your desertions work for your spiritual welfare to prepare you for heaven, and to make heaven all the more heaven when you shall finally arrive on the shores of eternal bliss. Truly, even when He appears to be absent, He is still secretly present with His Godhead, majesty, grace, and Spirit.
2. Even Affliction
All things includes not only Divine desertion but also Divine affliction. It is true, afflictions can be very heavy. “If sin is the head of the serpent,” Erskine wrote, “affliction is its tail”; and Luther once told his students, “Though the devil’s head is eternally bruised by Christ, I find that he still has enough power in his tail to knock my conversion out of me.” And yet, people of God, do not afflictions also serve as medicine in the hands of your Great Shepherd to your eternal, spiritual health and welfare?
(1) Through afflictions the Lord humbles His people deeply, showing them who and what they are and remain in themselves Â— nothing but sin and corruption. He teaches them the same truth He taught Israel in Deuteronomy 8, “I led thee through the great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, and I fed thee in the wilderness with manna, that I might humble thee, to prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end.” Affliction not only makes God’s Church humble, but it keeps them humble, for the tree that bears most fruit shall hang lowest to the ground. Affliction removes the fuel that feeds their pride. Like the prodigal son, the Lord brings His people into humbling want, so that they shall not want in the end (Gen. 49:19).
(2) Through affliction God’s flock learn what sin is in its God-dishonouring, defiling, and damning nature. Through affliction, they learn that sin has the devil for its father, shame for its companion, and death for its wages. They learn through affliction what sin is over against the attributes of God, as John Bunyan writes, “Sin is the daring of God’s justice, the rape of His mercy, the jeering of His patience, the slighting of His power, and the contempt of His love.” They learn through affliction that sin is the strength of their death and the death of their strength. In the time of affliction the inward Jerusalem of their soul is searched with candles (Zeph. 1:12) for secret and open sins. Affliction drags sin out into the light, and places it in the light of God’s holy countenance. Affliction strips off the Adam-like fig-leaf covering God’s child strives to cling to by nature. “The sins of God’s people are like birds’ nests,” wrote the Puritan William Bridge, “as long as leaves are on the trees you cannot see them, but in the winter of affliction when all the leaves are off, the birds’ nests appear plainly.” Through sanctified affliction, sin becomes and remains sin.
(3) Rooted in godly sorrow not to be repented of, the Great Shepherd uses affliction, in the third place, as a medicine to destroy the deadly disease of sin in His flock, and to cause them to bring forth healthy and godly fruit, some thirty, some sixty, and some an hundred-fold. When sin bends the soul away from its Shepherd, the Shepherd must send the rod of affliction to set the crooked soul straight. Affliction is the Shepherd’s dog, sent out not to devour the sheep, but to bring them back into the fold again. Sanctified affliction cures sin by grace. “Before I was afflicted I went astray,” David says, “but now have I kept thy word” (Ps. 119:67). By grace, the afflicted soul gives sin gall and vinegar to drink, and with the spear of mortification, lets out the heart-blood of it.
It is as good for a child of God to be chastised with affliction as it is for a young tree to be pruned (John 15:2), for the pressure of affliction presses out not only the awful stink of sin, but also sends
forth the fragrant smell of Divine graces. Do not historians uncover a great spiritual truth when they teach us that in some countries trees will grow, but will bear no fruit because there is no winter there? The life of GodÂ’s children is like a bell Â– the harder they are hit, the better it sounds. They learn more under the rod that strikes them than under the staff that comforts them. No, He is not drowning His sheep when He washes them nor killing them when He shears them. Rather, His washings are needed cleansings; His shearings are necessary strippings; His corrections are essential lessons; His lashes are important instructions; His scourges are good schoolmasters; and His chastisements are indispensable admonitions.
Affliction brings forth golden fruit from its mines, smelts, refines, and forms GodÂ’s jewelled flock until the Divine Goldsmith can see His reflection in the work of His own hands, and they must confess with Job, Â“When he hath tried me I shall come forth as gold.Â” Â“Affliction,Â” said the godly Leighton, Â“is the diamond dust that heaven polishes its jewel with.Â”
(4) The Lord uses affliction for spiritual welfare as a means to cause his people to seek him, to bring them back into communion with Himself, and to keep them close by His side. As sheep will stay close by their shepherd in storms, so the Lord said of Israel, Â“In their affliction they will see me earlyÂ” (Hos. 5:15). The storms and stones of affliction only force GodÂ’s sheep closer to their Shepherd. All the stones that hit Stephen only knocked him closer to the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ, and opened heaven all the more for his soul. Afflictions are often the rusty locks that open the gate once more into the presence-chamber of the King. Affliction drove a woman of Canaan to the Son of David; it drove a dying thief to a dying Saviour. Not ManassehÂ’s crown, but ManassehÂ’s chains were used to bring him to the knowledge that Â“the Lord was God.Â” Even the magnet of GodÂ’s rich mercy does not bring nor keep JehovahÂ’s flock so close to the Great Shepherd as the cords of affliction.
(5) Again, the Lord uses afflictions for good to conform His flock to Christ, making them partakers of His suffering and His image. Â“Christ was chastened for our profit,Â” Paul wrote to the Hebrews, Â“that we might be partakers of His holinessÂ” (Heb. 12:10). God had but one Son without sin, but none without affliction. His afflicting rod is a pencil to draw ChristÂ’s image more fully upon His people. Through the way of suffering to glory they become followers of the Lamb of God who walks before His flock. Every path of affliction they encounter has already been travelled, overcome, and sanctified by their Shepherd whose stream of substitutional blood, from His circumcision to His cross of death, is their sure pledge that no affliction or trial shall be able to separate them from the love of
God in and through Christ Jesus. Their deserved suffering leads them to Christ’s substitutional suffering, which in turn, makes them exclaim, “His yoke is easy and His burden is light.” People of God, is not the time of your sufferings usually when you have most communion with Jesus Christ in His sufferings-whose entire life, as Calvin says, was nothing but a series of sufferings? Can you then complain for the light crosses you have to bear as guilty sinners when you behold the heavy crosses Christ had to bear as the Innocent One?
(6) Further, spiritual afflictions work for good because the Lord balances them with spiritual comfort and spiritual joy. “Your sorrow,” Christ tells His disciples, “shall be turned into joy” (Jn. 16:20). He brings His people into the wilderness to speak comfortably to them (Hos. 2:14). Where godly suffering abounds, godly consolation abounds (2 Cor. 1:4,5). The Shepherd’s rod has honey at its end. God’s Pauls have their prison-songs. The sweet shall follow the bitter. Joy shall come in the morning. The Lord turns their water into wine. Rutherford once wrote: “When I am in the cellar of affliction, I find the Lord’s choicest wines.” In affliction God’s sheep sometimes may experience sweet raptures of Divine joy which fly them to the very borders of the heavenly Canaan. At such moments they may confess with Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty: for He maketh sore and bindeth up: he woundeth and his hands make whole. He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee'” (Job 5:17-19).
(7) Affliction also works for good by keeping God’s child walking by faith and not by sight. If sensible enjoyments were always allowed to believers in this world, they would begin to love this life and live off of their provisions instead of their Provider. Therefore, with their sweet meals, the Lord orders some sour sauce to help their digestion, in order that they may live not by sense, but by faith. In prosperity God’s people talk of living by faith, and often darken counsel by words without knowledge; but in adversity they come to the experimental knowledge of what it means to live by faith.
(8) Affliction works for good in weaning Jehovah’s flock away from the world. A dog never bites those who live in its home, but only strangers. Affliction bites God’s child so deeply because they are too little at home with the Word and the ways of God, and too much at home with the world. If they were more often at home with their Master and Shepherd in heavenly places, the afflictions would be both less and easier to bear. “God,” says Thomas Watson, “would have the world hang as a loose tooth which, being twitched away, does not much trouble us.”
(9) Finally, affliction is profitable in preparing God’s people for their heavenly inheritance. Affliction elevates their soul heavenwards, to look for “a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Affliction paves their way for glory. “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” 2 Cor. 4:17). “He that rides to be crowned,” John Trapp wrote, “will not think much of a rainy day.”
Children of God: is it not enough to convince you that affliction is for your spiritual welfare – that you, indeed, “shall not want” anything necessary or good for you, both temporally and spiritually? Though the wind of affliction is contrary to your flesh, yet it pleases God to use this cross-wind to blow His saints towards heaven. Your afflictions are tailor-made to fit you with Divine precision. Affliction is the loving Shepherd’s rod that disciplines God’s sheep from hell to heaven, so that on the day of earthly departure they may be enabled to confess by grace with Thomas Hooker on his deathbed, “Today hell shall enter heaven.”
3. Even Sin!
Yes, even sin shall work together for good – not for them that love sin, but for them that love God. Rightly Augustine has written, “God would never permit evil, if He could not bring good out of evil.” Here, of course, we tread upon cautious ground, for there is nothing worse than sin, and we must do all in our power to discourage, and not encourage, sin.
We have to maintain at least three important guidelines in our explanation of how sin works to the good of God’s sheep. First, we have to maintain that there is not the least good thing in sin itself, for sin is worse than hell. In and of itself it can work nothing but death and damnation, for it is the evil of all evils. “Sin is like poison, which corrupts the blood, infects the heart, and without a sovereign antidote, brings death” (Watson). Secondly, we have to maintain that those who encourage themselves in sin by the argument that good will come out of it, never have shared in David’s “I shall not want for good,” because the main good is to always hate sin everywhere for the sake of the Shepherd’s name and honour. To do evil that good may come is only to make our damnation just (Rom. 3:8). Thirdly, it is only corrupt nature that can abuse the doctrine of good resulting from sin, for true grace can never play lightly with sin. Sin will work for good only to them that hate it, and hate themselves because of it. It will work for good to them that love God and abhor themselves on account of sin. It will work for good to those who are humbled by sin: who fly to Christ to be saved from it:
who dare not allow themselves the least sin for an entire world; who
count the least sin worse than the greatest affliction; who fight and pray against sin, knowing their own weakness and desiring grace to set the Word of God, the blood of Christ, and the strength of the Spirit over against it.
Yet, even though sin is worse than hell, God, through Christ, and by His mighty over-ruling power, causes His children to feel the sinfulness of sin and directs it to end in the spiritual welfare of His people.
(1) He causes the sinfulness of sin to bring them to true self-examination and self-knowledge. Scripture tells us that the Lord permitted Hezekiah to fall to teach him what his heart was. When in the right place, God’s people desire to know the worst of themselves just as a man diseased in his body wants to know the worst of his sickness. Therefore Job prayed, “Make me to know my transgressions” (13:23). By nature our sins will find us out, but God’s people receive grace to find their sins out. This leads them to a deep, profitable self-knowledge, causing them to confess with Paul, “I am the chief sinner,” or with Bishop John Hooper, “Lord, I am hell and Thou art heaven,” or with Luther, “In myself I am not only miserable, but misery itself.”
(2) The Great Shepherd also causes the sinfulness of sin to bring His flock to true self-condemnation. They pass the sentence of condemnation upon themselves, taking God’s side over against themselves. Watson truthfully says, “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 (by grace), “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 (for the sake of Christ) will acquit me in the upper court of heaven!” God will not step upon a sinner who becomes Adam before Him. Rather, the owning of the sin of the first Adam works for good by making room for the righteousness of the second Adam. God uses the greatest evil to make room for the greatest good. Condemnation, as it were, unlocks the door to salvation.
(3) The sinfulness of sin works for good in a child of God by keeping him in a holy and true self-war. Jehovah’s sheep lead not only a wayfaring life, but also a warfaring life. Their heart is a castle that is in danger of being assaulted every hour. Daily a heavy duel is fought between two seeds, for “the spirit lusts against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). “Watch and pray” should be the motto of their life, though often they are far from it.
(4) Awareness of sin can also yield the profitable fruit of true self-reformation. When God permits His people to fall into sin, His normal design is to break the back of that sin they do fall into. Abraham stumbled in faith, but became a champion of faith. Moses
stumbled in meekness, but was a champion of meekness. Peter stumbled in zeal, but became a champion of godly zealousness. God makes His flock’s maladies their medicines when He gives grace to them not only to find out their sin, but also to drive out their sin. He allows them to set one foot on the neck of their sins, and the other foot on His testimonies (Ps. 119:59), thereby causing even the sins of His sheep to work for good.
Yet, child of God, though the Lord cause sin to end in good, allow me to warn you never to make light of sin, nor become bold with sin. If you should do so, you will pay a high price. Though grace is amazing, do not forget that sin remains dreadful. Remember David. Sin cost him his peace, broken bones (Ps. 51:8) and the terrors of the Almighty. He never recovered his former full joy until his dying day. Though the Lord shall never damn His sheep, yet He will send them to hell in this life when they attempt to tamper with sin. He chastises sin by placing them into such bitter agonies and soul-distress that they can sometimes be filled with horror and be drawn to the brink of despair.
Oh, that the consequences of iniquity might be a flaming sword to keep you from coming near the forbidden tree of sin!
Unconverted reader: sin can only work death and damnation for you unless the Lord steps in between. By nature, through sin we ask God for the shortest way to hell. We would rather sleep our way into damnation than sweat our way into salvation. Do not forget that the damned shall live in hell as long as God Himself shall live in heaven. Hell is a constant dying and yet never dead, a continual burning and yet never burnt up, a never-ending consuming and yet never consumed. In hell there is no relief, no intermission, no mixture of wrath and common grace as in this life. Wrath, curse, enmity, hatred, the gnawing worm of conscience and full remembrance shall be our only portion. Hell is total, eternal lack and want.
Oh that you may become jealous of Jehovah’s flock which can cry out at moments, “I shall not want, for all things shall work together for good by grace.” A few years ago a teacher asked her students if anyone could recite the 23rd Psalm. A little girl came to the front, Faced her class, and simply said, “The Lord’s my Shepherd, that’s all I want.” Little did she realize the depth of what she was saying. those who can experimentally say, “The Lord’s my Shepherd, that’s all I want,” shall never want. He who has the Shepherd has all. With the Shepherd comes all the rest of Psalm 23, yes, the entire Word of God and all true experience, and without the Shepherd nothing is left but condemnation. The teacher was taught by her student. One sentence of a child said more than all her attempted explanations.
Sheep of God: how is it with you? Is the dual desire of possessing the Shepherd with His grace and dispossessing sin with its death
uppermost in your soul? Can you answer on one hand with Chrysostom when sent a threatening message from the empress, “Go tell her that I fear nothing but sin,” and can you answer on the other hand with a godly forefather when offered promotion by King George III, “Sir, I want nothing but more grace”?
Rev. J. R. Beeke