Book Review: All Things for Good (Thomas Watson)
The most sweeping promise in scripture
Whenever difficult circumstances arise in your life, usually Romans 8:28 is not far away. Whether coming from your own heart or words spoken to you by a friend, Paul’s words are a ringing truth that we are quick to appropriate in difficult times.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
This is the most sweeping promise in the Bible. If you are a child of God through faith in Jesus, then literally everything in your life is working together for your good. On its face, this promise seems far too sweeping. How can anybody possibly claim that all things work together for our good? That is the question that Thomas Watson chose to take up in 1663, and we have his words recorded in All Things for Good (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986).
A refresh of Puritan thought
Watson was one of the Puritans, a group of Christians that grew up in the church of England but were frustrated that the church was not following the Bible wholeheartedly. They wanted a “pure” church and so the label “Puritans” was applied to them as an insult, but one which they eventually embraced. The Puritans published many books in their heyday, generally picking a doctrine or even a single verse and milking it for every bit of truth they could. All Things for Good is an example of this, 127 pages of meditation on Romans 8:28.
Banner of Truth has done the Church a great service by republishing these works, but with the language lightly freshened so that it sounds less like you’re reading Shakespeare. They have made the Puritans accessible to this generation, and if you’ve never read a Puritan, Thomas Watson is surely one of the best to start with.
The heart and flow of Watson’s work
Watson wants you to believe God when He says that all things work for your good. He starts out the chute by pointing to a way we rarely use this text – reminding us that all of the good things in your life work for your good. We normally turn to this text when undesirable things happen, but God is using the good things in your life just as freely. God is working good in your life through his promises, through other Christians in the church, through the many ways He blesses you every day.
Having exhausted that, he begins to consider how the bad things in your life are working for your good. This is, of course, why most people would pick up the book. He looks at bad things under four headings: the evil of affliction (painful circumstances), the evil of temptation, the evil of desertion (when God seems to withdraw his presence in your life), and the evil of sin (when others genuinely do wrong to you.)
In my reading, I really needed to hear about God’s good purposes in withdrawing his presence. Watson does not candy-coat the truth. He’ll tell you straight up, “God is just in all His withdrawings … We usually desert God first; therefore we have none to blame but ourselves” (39). But Watson is a pastor and he doesn’t leave you in hopeless dread. He reminds us that “None but the godly are capable of desertion. Wicked men know not what God’s love means, not what it is to want it. They know what it is to want health, friends, trade, but not what it is to want God’s favor” (40). Feeling deserted by God is actually evidence that you belong to him! He reminds us that feeling deserted by God sends us searching for him, rummaging through his word and crying out in prayer. (42) The sense of desertion even allows us to see and love Jesus better: our sense of desertion is just the smallest taste of what he knew as he cried out “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” (43, reflecting on Matthew 27:46.)
After working through the ways that both blessings and trials work for our good, Watson spends a significant amount of time on the conditions that go with this promise. It is a promise made to those (1) who love God, and (2) who are called according to his purpose. Watson calls us to search our own hearts and see whether we truly love God. Many have grown up around the church and know a lot about God without actually knowing and loving God himself. Watson provides 14 ways you can examine your heart to see if you love God (74-87), and then he provides a list of 20 reasons that should motivate you to love God more (88-98).
Watson provides a brief defense of the doctrine known as effectual calling (more popularly - and less helpfully - called “irresistible grace” from the TULIP acronym.) That’s not the focus of his book, but he does explain it, defend it, and point out why it matters. For example, if you have been called, this should not be a reason for arrogance, but rather an opportunity to “Pity those who are not yet called. Sinners in scarlet are not objects of envy, but pity; they are under ‘the power of Satan’ (Acts 26:18). They tread every day on the brink of the bottomless pit; and what if death should cast them in! O pity unconverted sinners! If you pity an ox or an ass going astray, will you not pity a soul going astray from God, who has lost his way and his wits, and it upon the precipice of damnation?” (119-120). The doctrines of grace are meant to fill us with gratitude as well to encourage and empower us to reach the lost.
One thing I particularly appreciate about Watson is his use of language. He finds such clever turns of phrase. For example, he points out that “When Christians grow more in love with the world … they are like the fish in the gospel, which had money in its mouth (Matt 17.27). They cannot lisp out three words, but one is about mammon” (100). His works overflow with this sort of imagery which makes his writing so compelling.
An accessible step into the Puritan soul
I have a collection of about 20 books in this Puritan Paperback series. They are all worthy reads, but they are not all equally readable. Watson is a delightful read and this book covers literally every circumstance of our Christian lives. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Do you need a reminder that the trials in your life are neither meaningles nor random? Do you need a reminder of how deeply God is devoted to his people, especially in the midst of your troubles? Do you just need a fresh batch of reasons to marvel at the love of God and find new motivation to love him more? Give Watson a try.