This small book of 127 pages is packed full of good spiritual insights. The nine chapters bring out the meaning and usefulness of 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 typical Puritan fashion, Thomas Watson divides the verse into its separate clauses. This allows him to explain the meaning and implications of each nugget of truth found in the verse.
I wanted to “explain” what the book is about and defend the general thrust of his argument. The reader can easily forget where Watson is going as he slowly works through the book. Why does he spend so much time explaining what it means to love God (ch. 4-6)? In reading the title of the book, the reader may naturally assume that the book is about how everything works for the good of believers. Watson explains what that means and how that actually happens. But what do loving God and the meaning of effectual calling have to do with this book? If we don’t keep the “big picture” before us, we’ll blunt the force of the whole argument.
I was forced to reckon with this difficulty when I could not really remember why he was dealing with loving God. I relished what I had read in the beginning but could not help myself wondering if Watson had in fact wandered from his point. After spending some time trying to unravel this “mystery,” I came to realize that I (and not he) had in fact wandered from the big picture.
We went to this book to help us understand how even the difficult things in our lives work for our good. He does that admirably. The first three chapters are the most engaging and beneficial on account of its immediate connection to our present struggles. Many of us have profited immensely from these first three chapters (pp. 9-65). But curiously, he deals with the love to God in chapters 4-6 (pp. 66-103). Why? There are two reasons for it. First and foremost is the text itself. All things work together for good to them that love God! Many people have a gut level feeling that everything will work out for good — there is no rational and theological reason for such a conviction. God never promised this to everyone without exception. God promised this to those who love Him. It is for that reason Watson spends so much time on the theme of “love to God.” If all that he had said is true about how everything works for our good, then we must first be lovers of God. The second reason this is so helpful is because of the overall objective of book. Too often we can be preoccupied with out particular plight and struggles. Our fixation on our difficulties can often draw our eyes away from God. It is good for the soul to ponder God’s love to us and our response to that love. If we do not love God, then can the things we love help and save us? Can those things or persons make all things to work for good in our lives? No. This duty of loving God is not a legalistic law — it is to our benefit that we love God. “Love to God is the best self-love. It is self-love to get the soul saved; by loving God, we forward our own salvation.” (91) Again, to turn our eyes away from self-pity and towards our relationship to God can only help us.
The Content of the Book
As I already mentioned, the first three chapters (almost half of the book) explain how all things works for good. The introduction exposits the verse while the next three chapters enlarges the truth. The first chapter explains how the “best things work for good to the godly.” God’s attributes, promises, mercies, along with the Spirit’s graces, God’s angels, communion with saints, Christ’s intercession, and the prayers of the saints all work for good. Good things will do good to believers. Watson explains how these eight things are marvelously used by God to work for our good. Most of these listed are easy to understand since we can quickly see how they work for our good. Just to give one example, when dealing with the “promises of God work for good to the godly,” he offers an example of the Lord being merciful. He says, “God is more willing to pardon than to punish. Mercy does more multiply in Him than sin in us.” (15) If we are in great trouble, there is the truth of Ps. 91:15, “I will be with him in trouble.” “God does not bring His people into troubles, and leave them there. He will stand by them; He will hold their heads and heart when they are fainting.” (16) But how do God’s promises work for our good? “They are food for faith; and that which strengthens faith works for good. The promises are the milk of faith; faith sucks nourishment from them, as the child from the breast.” (17)
The seventh example of the best things that work for good is Christ’s intercession. “Christ is not content till the saints are in His arms… when Satan is tempting, Christ is praying!” Then he uses the oft quote passage from Ambrose.
Christ’s prayer takes away the sins of our prayers. As a child, says Ambrose, that is willing to present his father with a posy [a small bunch of flowers], goes into the garden, and there gathers some flowers and some weeds together, but coming to his mother, she picks out the weeds and binds the flowers, and so it is presented to the father: thus when we have put up our prayers, Christ comes, and picks away the weeds, the sin of our prayer, and presents nothing but flowers to His Father, which are a sweet-smelling savour. (23)
The second chapter takes on the more difficult issue. What about the bad things that happen to us? Do they ALL work for good? His answer (as the theme verse indicates) is an emphatic YES! “Do not mistake me; I do not say that of their own nature the worst things are good, for they are a fruit of the curse; but though they are naturally evil, yet the wise overruling hand of God disposing and sanctifying them, they are morally good.” (25) This is an important point. Christians do not minimize the evil of some things but God is not constrained by them — He overrules them in the life of believers for their good. The evils of affliction, temptation, desertion, and of sin all work for good to the godly. We have all been instructed on how afflictions work for our good. I’ll quote just a few choice sentences.
—“As the hard frosts in winter bring on the flowers in the spring, and as the night ushers in the morning-star, so the evils of affliction produce much good to those that love God.” (27)
—“A sick-bed often teaches more than a sermon.” (27)
—“When you dig away the earth from the root of a tree, it is to loosen the tree from the earth; so God digs away our earthly comforts to loosen our hearts from the earth.” (29)
The fourth one deals with the sins of other people and our own particular sins.
The sense of their own sinfulness will be overruled for the good of the godly. Thus our own sins shall work for good. This must be understood warily, when I say the sins of the godly work for good — not that there is the least good in sin. Sin is like poison, which corrupts the blood, infects the heart, and, without a sovereign antidote, brings death. Such is the venomous nature of sin, it is deadly and damning. Sin is worse than hell, but yet God, by His mighty overruling power, makes sin in the issue turn to the good of His people.…The feeling of sinfulness in the saints works for good several ways. (48)
He gives three general points. One, sin makes us weary of this life; he longs for the day of release. Two, his sense of corruption makes the poor saint prize Christ more. “He that feels his sin, as a sick man feels his sickness, how welcome is Christ the physician to him!” (49) Three, it makes him apply himself to “six especial duties.” It makes him search himself. “It is good to know our sins, that we may not flatter ourselves, or take our condition to be better than it is. It is good to find out our sins, lest they find us out.” (49) It makes the believer abase himself — “Better is that sin which humbles me, than that duty which makes me proud.” (50) He lists four more (50-51). Lest we seek to misunderstand this, Watson also warns us at the end.
But let none ABUSE this doctrine. I do not say that sin works for good to an impenitent person. No, it works for his damnation, but it works for good to them that love God; and for you that are godly, I know you will NOT draw a wrong conclusion from this, either to make light of sin, or to make bold with sin. If you should do so, God will make it cost you dear… If any of God’s people should be tampering with sin, because God can turn it to good, though the Lord does not damn them, He may send them to hell in this life. He may put them into such bitter agonies and soul-convulsions, as may fill them full of horror, and make them draw night to despair. Let this be a flaming sword to keep them from coming near the forbidden tree. …Again, I say, THINK NOT LIGHTLY OF SIN. (51)
The third chapter answers the question “why all things work for good.” “The grand reason why all things work for good, is the near and dear interest which God has in His people.” (52) God entered into a covenant with us through Christ. Because we are His people and He our God, He will make it work for good. “If God does not give you that which you like, He will give you that which you need.” (52) He is a physician to us and knows what is best for us and “knows what will work most effectually.” “Some are of a more sweet disposition, and are drawn by mercy. Others are more rugged and knotty pieces; these God deals with in a more forcible way… God does not deal alike with all; He has trials for the strong and cordials [pleasant tasting medicine] for the weak.” (52) He is our Father and as a husband to us. Therefore, we can be sure that our God will cause everything to work for good. “Things do not work of themselves, but God sets them working for good. God is the great Disposer of all events and issues.…Things in the world are not governed by second causes, by the counsels of men, by the stars and planets, but by divine providence.” (55-6) Watson exhorts the reader to adore God’s providence.
“What a blessed condition is a true believer in! When he dies, he goes to God; and while he lives, everything shall do him good.… A believer’s dying day is his ascension day of glory.” (56-7)
Conversely, “to them that are evil, good things work for hurt.” (58) “The common mercies wicked men have, are not lodestones [magnets] to draw them nearer to God, but millstones to sink them deeper in hell (1 Tim. 6.9).” (58) Remember, God is not their God and He is not in a covenant with them.
God’s wonderful wisdom is displayed in the way He can take the “worse things imaginable” and turn them to be good for the godly. “When a creature goes further from us, it is that Christ may come nearer to us.” (60) Things and persons may often be taken away from us so that Christ may become dearer and nearer to us. He can take the fury of the wicked and convert it for good. “Either the wicked shall not do the hurt that they intend, or they shall do the good which they do not intend.” (60)
As a result, we ought not to be discontent on account of “outward trials and emergencies.” “There is no sins God’s people are more subject to than unbelief and impatience.… Discontent is an ungrateful sin, because we have more mercies than afflictions; and it is an irrational sin, because afflictions work for good. Discontent is a sin which puts us upon sin. ‘Fret not thyself to do evil’ (Psalm 37.8).” (61) Therefore, “If God seek our good, let us seek His glory. If He make all things tend to our edification, let us make all things tend to His exaltation.” (65)
The next three chapters, as already mentioned, develop the duty of loving God. “Despisers and haters of God have no lot or part in this privilege. It is children’s bread, it belongs only to them that love God.” (66) For that reason, he explains what that love to God means. He wants our entire love! “God will not be an inmate to have only one room in the heart, and all the other rooms let out to sin. It must be an entire love.” (68)
“There is nothing on earth that I desire beside thee” (Ps. 73:25) He must be our sole and entire love. We must love him more than those dear to us, more than our estate. For that reason, he has “tests” to see if we love God in chapter five. First thing he asks is where does our mind go to when alone? “A sinner crowds God out of his thoughts. He never thinks of God, unless with horror, as the prisoner thinks of the judge.” (74) But those who love God are delighted in knowing God and naturally tend to think longingly upon Him. He also wants to have fellowship with him. The believer will desire to be with Him, to fellowship with Him as lovers always wish to be together. “Sinners shun acquaintance with God, they count His presence a burden…” (75).
Several other tests are given. One of them is to love what God loves and that includes His laws. But many “pretend to love Christ as a Savior, but hate Him as a King.” (81) Another one is that the saint will have “good thoughts of God.” (83) Why he lists this in this book becomes evident when he notes how a believer responds to very severe and painful circumstances. What kind of thoughts does he or she have of God? The believer should say, “This severe dispensation is either to mortify some corruption, or to exercise some grace. How good is God, that will not let me alone in my sins, but smites my body to save my soul!” (83) Remember, “It is Satan that makes us have good thoughts of ourselves, and hard thoughts of God.” (83)
Chapter six is an exhortation to love God. He says “to love God is a better sign of sincerity than to fear Him.” (91) Many do fear God but only the Spirit can enable a person to truly love God. The last three chapters are about effectual calling (following the theme verse) and about God’s purpose (a chapter of a few pages). It is a mini treatise on effectual calling.
So, only those who love God and are genuinely called by God will have everything work for good. That is why he spends so much careful time on these topics. We might have wanted Watson to present more examples of how everything works for good but that would be improper when the truth of that statement also includes the qualifications of loving God and of being effectually called.
Afflictions reveal our character, our spiritual nature. Those who love God and are called by Him through the preaching of the gospel (as they responded to His Word) may be assured that everything will work for good. Men may mean it for evil but God will always turn it for good. He is absolutely sovereign and is also our good heavenly father.
This little book will be beneficial to those who are struggling. The reader should keep in mind the big picture. It is not enough to believe that everything will work for good; we must love God who effectually called us according to His purpose. “God did not choose us because we were worthy, but by choosing us He makes us worthy.” (124) The benefit of this book will take time — our experiences will begin to prove the truth of Rom. 8:28 and as we set aside time to reflect, we will take heart because our gracious heavenly father is orchestrating everything to work for good.