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Do All Things Really Work Together for the Good? Romans 8:28 in its Context

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You’ve heard it thousands of times: “Don’t worry; everything will work out just fine.” It’s the eternal optimism that is borne not in the crucible of reality but in the wishful thinking of the American dream, of Hollywood make-believe, or of a nave Pollyanna outlook. All of us know it isn’t completely true—we know of children who were cut down by cancer or drunk drivers, of drug addicts who came from good homes, of family men who lost their jobs, of soldiers who returned from battle with one less limb. We know of countless tragedies and needless suffering, yet we repeat the myth to our children without blinking an eye: “Don’t worry; everything will work out just fine.”

This sentiment is not new; it did not start in modern times. Ancient Greeks and Romans uttered something similar to their children, knowing that their words were hollow. And the apostle Paul also said something like this. The difference is that Paul did not write a sanguine blank check; he conditioned his sentiment with important qualifiers, and he defined the ‘good’ as other than comfort and wealth.

In real estate it is said that there are three fundamental principles one must follow when buying a house: location, location, and location. In interpreting scripture, there are also three fundamental principles: context, context, and context. Romans 8:28 is no exception to this rule. If we look at it in its context, we will understand its intent.

The overall context of Romans 8:28 is one in which Paul addresses living by the power of the Spirit in the midst of suffering and pain. Paul was no stranger to suffering; his several near-death experiences, beatings, imprisonments, and persecutions were enough to eradicate any Pollyannaism that might have lurked in his heart. In the immediate context—within the verse itself—Paul expresses prerequisites for the good to take place: “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28, NET Bible). Paul is not giving this promise to all people, but only to those “who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

But what does this mean? Those who love God are, in this context, Christians, because they are called according to God’s purpose (note v. 30: the ‘called’ are also the ‘justified’ who will be ‘glorified’). Some take the present participle ‘who love’ (ajgapw'sin) as a temporal condition, as if to say, “As long as you love God, things work out; but whenever you are not loving God, things do not work out for your good.” This interpretation, however, is unlikely. First, the tense in this construction is most likely a gnomic present, indicating a characteristic rather than a temporal condition. Second, the following verses (29-30) speak of our conformity to Christ, our glorification, as the inevitable outcome of those who love God. And that is not dependent on how much we love God but on the finished work of Christ on the cross. Paul concludes this chapter by making explicit that nothing can separate us from the love of God (vv. 38-39). And by implication that would include even our temporary lapses in our love for the Savior.

What, then, is the good? It is defined for us, initially at least, in v. 29, one of the forgotten verses of scripture: “because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (NET). The good is not our comfort, wealth, or health. It is conformity to Christ! This good is then fully defined in the next verse: “And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified” (NET). Ultimately, all things work together to bring each Christian into conformity to Christ, to bring each Christian to glory. So certain is Paul that this will take place that he speaks of our glorification in the past tense! He uses what is called the “proleptic aorist,” a device in Greek when an author is indicating that “it’s as good as done.” Not only this, but no one is lost between predestination and glorification. Paul does not say “some of those” or even “most of those” when describing each stage of the salvation journey. From predestination to glorification, he uses the simple “those” (ou{" or touvtou"); the repeated pronoun refers back to the entire group mentioned before. No one misses the boat along the way.

When we read Rom 8:28 in its context we can give a positive answer to the questions of pain and suffering in the world. We may see nothing good come of misery and disaster in this world, but this world is not all of reality. There is an ‘until’; there is a place beyond the horizon of what our senses can apprehend, and it is more real and more lasting than what we experience in this mortal shell. God is using the present, even the miserable present, to conform us to the image of his Son. If we define the good as only what we can see in this life, then we have missed the whole point of this text. For, as Paul said earlier in the same chapter, “For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18, NET). Western Christians—especially American Christians—are prone to pervert texts such as Rom 8:28. If our lives are comfortable, if we have wealth, good health, that is fine and well. But it is not the good that Paul had in mind, and it is not the goal of the Christian life.

Related Topics: Scripture Twisting

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