There have been no shortage of abuses and misrepresentations of Romans 8:28. People in the church often use it out of context to comfort one another through whatever crisis they may be presently experiencing as if Paul were basically saying, “If you’re a Christian, than no matter how challenging, difficult, or confusing life may seem, take comfort in the fact that God will make everything work out alright.” This has led many to think God will make all manner of things happen in one’s life ultimately to serve the individual’s own selfish desires in life’s present circumstance.
So, if there is financial hardship for example, they would claim God would give you finances in order to be financially stable. If physical illness, God would give you healing so you might have the ‘good’ of not experiencing said illness or affliction, etc. Not only have people in the church taken up this misrepresentation of Romans 8:28, but many Christian books and publishers have jumped on board to further abuse this verse which in truth is a priceless gem of Scripture and genuine encouragement regarding the goodness and faithfulness of God.
So, what does Paul mean when he writes, “… all things work together for good”?
The first thing to note is that Paul doesn’t mean our good or simply whatever desire we may have for ourselves. The ‘good’ Paul writes of is not our good, although it is good for us and to our benefit. For example, when a good, loving parent raises a child, the parent may provide things that the child presently desires such as candy or desserts or a toy, however, the parent will not give the things to their child whom they love all the time even if their child desires them all the time. A loving parent provides and withholds out of love for their child, that is, for their good. It is not good for the child to get what they want all the time, so a loving parent sees that a child receives things that will nourish it and help it to grow, that will keep it safe, and things that will make it feel happy, healthy, and loved. So it is with our relationship with God that we, not unlike small children ever needy but rarely wanting what we truly need, will ask God to give us the desires of our hearts and then become, like a child, frustrated and angry with God when we don’t get what we want.
Does this mean this verse is wrong and God doesn’t work all things for the good?
Absolutely not! It means that we have misunderstood the passage and misunderstood God. God is perfectly good, loving, and faithful. So, we can trust that if something doesn’t seem to work out in a good way in our lives that God, our Loving Parent, has a good purpose for it in our lives that we likely don’t see or recognize as good in our present circumstance. God is omniscient as well as omnibenevolent, so while we may think we understand our lives well as we live them better than anybody, our perspective in comparison to God’s (aside from being sinful and flawed, and God being perfect and sinless) is like seeing the shape, color, and size of our favorite flower and believing that we know that flower better than anyone when in reality God not only knows all we know of that flower but knows all the universe down to the subatomic makeup of the earth and every single flower in the past, present, and future from before time began as the Creator of all things and sustainer of all things.
When God’s greatness and power and love and understanding is then applied to our lives, we can begin then to grasp how things may not appear very good for us but also that God is working behind the scenes for our good which may not because of our selfish, sinful nature correspond with what is good to us in the moment. Our thinking is as one solitary flower when God’s is more vast than the universe, deeper than the subatomic, and as expansive as all of time past, present, and future, and even before time began, so we can most certainly trust God with the circumstances of our lives even when we can’t comprehend how something could possibly be for our good or even when something is clearly bad that God will use it for the good of His all-loving, all-benevolent, all-knowing purpose in our lives.
The ground for Paul’s statement in Romans 8:28 is in the following 2 verses in God’s activity in the past, present, and future in regards to conforming the follower of Jesus to the image of Christ. Now, the Apostle Paul doesn’t provide this encouragement without qualification. He begins, “… for those who love God…” which is to say those who have been bought with the blood of Christ, the redeemed, those reconciled ones who no longer are enemies of God, those who supernaturally have such a transformed heart that they can, by no power in and of themselves, but purely by God as His Spirit gives the ability can claim to love God.
As John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10),” and later, “We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).” So, those who love God can only do so because God has changed their heart of stone to flesh (See Ezekiel 11:19) and by His Spirit caused them to turn from a life of sin to the Gospel of grace in Christ Jesus. The ‘good’ Paul writes about is for those who love God, but that is not the only qualification Paul provides in Romans 8:28. Paul also writes, “… for those who are called according to his purpose.” So, the ‘good’ that God works is for those who are called by God and works according to His purpose.
That is to be conformed to the image of Jesus for the glory of God the Father (vv. 29-30). The reality of a follower of Jesus being conformed fully to the image of Jesus will not come to fruition until after Jesus returns and brings about the new heavens and new earth where genuine followers of Jesus will dwell with God. Therefore, the ‘good’ is a future glory that awaits those who persevere by faith and it is certain indicated by the wording “glorified.” So, there may be a great deal of suffering and bad things that happen in the life of a follower of Jesus which should not be at all surprising, I mean, look at what happened to Jesus’ first disciples. However, the encouragement for the follower of Jesus is not in a change in their temporary circumstances that they may be facing as severe or harsh as they may be, but in the reality that as clouds parted and dissolved by the bright sun the bad that we face and experience will not last forever in that all we face is preparing us for a future glory where there is no more suffering, evil, tears, sin.
A ‘good’ that is beyond all present worldly comparison is a good that Christians can hope for and that doesn’t evaporate like the false interpretations of Romans 8:28 which anchor a hope in a change of present worldly circumstances being the ‘good,’ but rather in a ‘good’ that is fixed in the activity of God, that is certain, that nothing can change or take away. This is a hope that is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven, and more precious than gold (1 Peter 1).