by Ken Green
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
We approach now one of the deepest passages of this most profound epistle. In the next few verses, Paul speaks to us of God's purpose, foreknowledge, predestination, justification, and glorification. Interpretations are diverse, but we shall attempt to reach some conclusions that are consistent with the text and context as well as the general teaching of the Bible.
Observe that Paul declares this to be a matter of knowledge and confidence. He had no doubts of the truth of this statement. This is the reason that he could sing in the Philippian jail at midnight and rejoice in his Roman imprisonment.
Do we share his confidence? Can we exclaim in the face of adversity that we know that all things work together for good?
The first thing that stands out is that we must know this truth. “Know” is in the perfect tense. We must know that this is true; and it remains true today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter. You may ask: “How do we know?” There are at least three ways that help us know that God works all things together for good.
First, there is Scripture. It states this truth in many ways. Consider, for example, Genesis 50: 19–20. Joseph said to them: “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” The entire story of Joseph is a study of the validity of this grand promise.
Second, there is our own experience. Most of us can recall times and places in our lives that were very difficult; places where things happened to us that we did not perceive as good. Yet now, years later, we can look back and see God’s presence. We have more joy and assurance than we did before. We can remember and believe that God was working in our lives during those trying times.
Third, there is the experience of others. Perhaps you cannot yet understand why some tragic, hurtful, or difficult thing happened to you. You do not see how it can work for good. But, by observing how God has worked in the lives of other Christians, it can give you hope and confidence that one day you will look back and see that all things work together for good.
Many desire to limit the “all things” to the things of God and the gospel. I believe the context of the passage rules against such. Paul makes this statement in the midst of a discussion of suffering (Romans 8:18, 23, 26, 35-37). He describes in these verses the particular kind of “all things” under consideration.
One may ask, “Do you believe that bereavement, illness, disappointment, and failure will work together for good?” I answer: Yes, with the qualifications stated in the passage. As McGarvey put it, “... all these present ills, hardships, adversities, afflictions, etc. are so overruled by God as to be made to combine to produce the permanent and eternal advantage and welfare...”
These things work together for good. Many things that are not good in isolation may work together for good. The condiments used by a chef to produce a palatable meal would be bitter and nauseating if tasted individually.
Furthermore, things that do not appear good to us at the moment may prove to be for our benefit. Medicine may not seem good when one is instructed to take a dose. Surgery may not be considered good. Discipline may not appear good to a child. Joseph acknowledged that the trials he suffered worked out for good (Genesis 50:20).
But what is the “good” object of these things? It's not that all things work together for our comfort, material success, pleasure, convenience, leisure, or any number of things we might ascribe as good.
Paul informs us of the good in the following verse: “... to be conformed to the image of His Son.” Anything that makes us more like Jesus is for our ultimate and eternal good. Even He had to learn obedience by the things He suffered (Hebrews 5:7; compare with James 1:3-4).
To whom is this grand promise given? It is not given to everybody, but “to those who love God ... who are the called according to His purpose.'' Those who love God are those who walk after the Spirit (Romans 8:4); in whom the Spirit of God dwells (Romans 8:9); who are led by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:14); and who are heirs of God (Romans 8:17).
Those who are “the called” are Christians; they who have heeded and answered the call of the gospel (Romans 1:7; II Thessalonians 2:14).
Such is according to “the eternal purpose of God which He purposed in Christ Jesus'' (Eph. 3:11).