God's Purpose

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified." (Romans 8:28-30 NRSV)

This fantastic passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans is a favorite for many, and is often quoted by those who are facing difficult times. I’ve seen the words: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God” on many promise cards and wall plaques, serving up scriptural comfort to those who are in need of reassurance. These words are true; all things do, indeed, work together for good for those who love God. But this promise has a precision of application and a specificity of focus which escapes the realization of most who quote it. The promise doesn’t end with “for those who love God,” but extends also to those “who are called according to his purpose.” This is a critical condition on the promise: we are to be “called according to God’s purpose.” And this, of course, brings up the very pointed question: “what is God’s purpose?”

One of the things which I greatly appreciate about Paul’s letters is that he almost always attempts to answer these kinds of questions – he almost never leaves us wanting for an explanation, even when his explanations are difficult to accept. Paul is a practical theologian: he deals with people’s problems and questions, often with workable spiritual advice and a great deal of patience. Such is the case here. What is God’s purpose to which we are called? Paul spells it out in the next sentence: we are called: “to be conformed to the image of his Son.”

This is an amazing statement, and if we are truly paying attention to what Paul is saying it should give us a moment of pause. Are we willing to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ? The meaning of the word “conform” is “to comply,” “to behave according to socially acceptable conventions or standards,” or “to be similar in form or type.” Do we really wish to have God so mold and shape us that our lives comply with the nature and will of Jesus Christ? Do we really want God to so use and move through us that our words and actions reflect the grace of Jesus to all? Indeed, do we believe that this is even possible?

This is the theological root and meaning of the doctrine of Sanctification, in which we proclaim that the grace of Jesus can and will transform us from sinful people into the kind of people that God wants us to become. In order to be so-conformed we are going to have to accept that our own objectives, our own desires, our own ideas and ways of doing things are going to have to be set aside to make room for God’s will, God’s plan, and God’s objective for us. Most of us are not going to be entirely comfortable with this necessity. We want to do things our own way and live according to what seems right to us, without a thought to God’s call to grace, peace, and justice. We want to be in charge of ourselves, never giving up the illusion of self-control to anyone else. But one of the things which the Gospel teaches us is that God’s purpose for everybody runs contrary to this individualistic drive which so often governs our western, American, “me first” mindset. God’s purpose is that we be conformed to the image of Jesus, and this means that we’re going to have to give up the “self,” the “ego,” the demand that we get to do things “my way,” and accept God’s way as the rule in our lives. Are we ready for this calling? Are we truly ready for Jesus to be Lord of our lives?

I am convinced that most of us are really not so willing to be conformed to the image of Jesus as we would like to admit. We want to stay in charge ... or, at least, maintain the illusion that we’re in charge. This illusion of self-sufficiency keeps us from being open to the Will of God for our lives; we do not experience the fullness of what it means to be a Christian, a member of the Body of Christ and a Child of the Living God because we are unwilling to be called according to God’s purpose. And, because we are unwilling to be called according to God’s purpose, are do not have the experience of “all things working together for good for those who love God.”

So how are we conformed to the image of Jesus? The only way I’ve ever managed to experience this for myself is to set aside my own opinions, partake of the many means of grace, and then act in faith. When I have done this I have noticed that my concern is not with myself but with others. The image of Christ always appears to be directed toward the good of our sisters and brothers, those who are in need, those who are lost in spiritual blindness, those in need of a helping hand, a loving embrace, a healing word and a forgiving spirit. This is how Jesus lived his life in this world, and this is what our lives look like when they are conformed to the image of  Jesus.

© 2011, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.