My favorite verse of my favorite chapter of my favorite book in the Bible is Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” I “stumbled” across this verse more than forty years ago in my first year as a believer, and it has been a great comfort throughout my adult life. Its comfort is found in the fact that nothing that happens in my life is random but that the Lord is mysteriously working it all out for good. While this verse has brought comfort to many, one cannot overlook the underlying principle if its promise is to be reliable. It is only possible if God is absolutely sovereign over all things. Another translation puts it even more directly when it says, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good” (Rom. 8:28, NASB). He cannot possibly cause all things to work together for good unless everything is under His sovereign direction. And it’s not just all things, but it’s for all of our lives.
The first chapter of His sovereign working in our lives begins even before we are born. The psalmist writes:
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. (Ps. 139:13–15)
This reminds us that He is our Creator and has demonstrated His grace by giving us the gift of life itself. He has also given each of us aptitudes, talents, and natural gifts according to His purpose. But we must also acknowledge that our natural deficiencies, whether they are physical, intellectual, or emotional, are part of His mysterious providence in forming who we are for His glory. It can be difficult to believe that anything good can result when a child is born with learning disabilities or Down syndrome, but this is the promise of God that even in these circumstances, He is working out His plan for our good.
In the subsequent chapters of our lives, His sovereign working is often seen through the opening and closing of life’s doors. Many of the crisis points in our lives come as a result of major decisions we must face. They are usually decisions that have to be made among various options. Young people need to decide what they’re going to do with their lives. Should I go to college or not? If so, which college should I attend? Should I marry? If so, whom should I marry? Which job should I take? Of course, we should embrace our responsibility and employ God-given wisdom when we come to these questions, but these are important times to believe that the Lord has a plan for our lives. This is where we often see the Lord’s sovereign plan unfolding as He closes one door and opens another, as we are accepted at one college and not others, as we get this job and not another.
God’s sovereign working is often seen through the opening and closing of life’s doors.
I remember one occasion as a young man when two very good positions were offered to me. I couldn’t decide, and I didn’t want to miss God’s will. I met with a very godly former professor who assured me that they were both good options and I couldn’t miss God’s will as I sought His wisdom through prayer. These are times when the following words come alive: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5–6). As the chapters of our lives unfold and we face the challenges of aging adulthood, hindsight often reveals the wisdom of God’s plan, allowing us to see what we couldn’t see before—the path upon which He led us step by step.
As we come to the closing chapter of our lives, we know that He is also the sovereign Lord over our death. Returning to Psalm 139, we read, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (v. 16). As a pastor, I have had the privilege of standing with beloved church members in times of great grief, sometimes when a loved one has been taken suddenly, unexpectedly, or far too young. It has been a moving experience to see how comforted these precious mourners are by the understanding that, although the Lord’s ways are mysterious, somehow He is working out His plan. In these times, it is difficult to see how such things can work together for good. They work together for good because the promise is grounded in the fact that God is good.
In the spring of 2000, James Montgomery Boice was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. In the last sermon that he delivered to his congregation at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, he expressed his trust in his sovereign and good Lord. First of all, he reminded his flock of what he had taught them for thirty years. He said: “If I were to reflect on what goes on theologically here, there are two things I would stress. One is the sovereignty of God. That’s not novel. We have talked about the sovereignty of God here forever. God is in charge. When things like this come into our lives, they are not accidental. It’s not as if God somehow forgot what was going on, and something bad slipped by.”
But then he added his conviction about the goodness of God in the midst of human suffering. “What I’ve been impressed with mostly is something in addition to that. It’s possible, isn’t it, to conceive of God as sovereign and yet indifferent? God’s in charge, but He doesn’t care. But it’s not that. God is not only the one who is in charge; God is also good. Everything He does is good.”
How important it is to remember that even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, our Lord remains our Good Shepherd. Dr. Boice added a hypothetical contingency to the equation. “If God does something in your life, would you change it? If you’d change it, you’d make it worse. It wouldn’t be as good. So that’s the way we want to accept it and move forward, and who knows what God will do?” In these words, you shouldn’t hear passivity about something you can change but acceptance and trust in the Lord about things you cannot. As John Owen wrote: “We cannot enjoy peace in this world unless we are ready to yield to the will of God in respect of death. Our times are in His hand, at His sovereign disposal. We must accept that as best.”
The Heidelberg Catechism beautifully expresses the comfort of the sovereignty of God to the believer at every age in its first question and answer:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and death? A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.
These words remind us that there is a page in the book of every believer’s life where there is a crimson bookmark, whether it is early in the story or later, marking God’s sovereign plan to call us to Himself and to align us with His saving purpose through faith in our risen Savior. Though the book of this life will close one day, the book of eternal life will open. That book has no end. In the meantime, because this divine Author needs no editor, we can know that He is working all things together for good.
Dr. Timothy Z. Witmer is pastor of St. Stephen Reformed Church in New Holland, Pa., and professor of practical theology emeritus at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is author of Mindscape and The Shepherd Leader.