Romans 8:28 contains one of the most precious promises in all the Bible: "And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose."
An accurate understanding and an unwavering faith in this verse can bring peace and tranquility of soul to troubled hearts of the people to whom the promise is made. It has given courage to the fainthearted, joy, and cheerfulness to the afflicted, hope, and strength to the weary. It has led many to press on "toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
The terms, "all things", are used sometimes in the Bible in a limited or relative sense. I Corinthians 15:27, Paul explains that the terms may be used in a restricted sense: "But when he saith, All things are put in subjection it is evident that he is excepted who did subject all things unto him." Thus it is clear that the use of the words "all things" did not mean everything in the universe, for the Father was not put in subjection unto the Son.
Another example of the limited use of the expression, "all things," appears in Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me." Things "in him" - in Christ - were the things he could do; that is, the things the Lord authorized or wanted him to do.
The New Testament also uses the words, "all things," in an unrestricted, universal, all-inclusive sense; as in Hebrews 4:13, "But all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do." Nothing is hidden from the eyes of God. "God knoweth all things," (John 3:20) Here "all things" is used again in an unlimited sense. God knows everything in the universe.
The "all things" of Romans 8:28 means everything; the terms are used here in an unrestricted sense as shown by the context, as corroborated by many other passages of scripture and as demonstrated in the lives of many who love God and are called according to his purpose. Some claim that the passage means only that God has made every provision for man's redemption, but the verse cannot be so restricted.
God makes some things work together for good even to the "unjust." He makes the sunshine, the rain, and the soil, and many other things work together for their good, as well as for the good of the "just." But he over-rules and makes "all things" work together for the good of the obedient believer.
Joseph's brothers committed a cruel crime against him and their father, when they sold Joseph into Egypt, and deceived their father. Potiphar's wife sinned against Joseph and against high heaven when she lied about him and had him put in prison. But God overruled all these and dozens of other things and made them work together for the good of his people and for the accomplishment of his purpose. Joseph said unto his brethren, "And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive" (Genesis 50:20.) Joseph did not understand that all his afflictions would work together with other things for his good, but he learned later that they did (Genesis 50:20).
The context of Romans 8:28 shows quite clearly that their afflictions and even the sins of their persecutors will become contributing factors to their good here and hereafter, just as all the bad things that had happened unto Paul were made by the God of the universe to contribute to the "progress of the gospel" (Philippians 1:12.)
In Romans 8:18, Paul begins a discussion of the "sufferings" of the people of God, in which he states that "all things" work together for their good; then states a conclusion in the form of two questions: "What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?" (Romans 8:31). If we are on God's side, everything that occurs while we are on his side will work together for our good. A great many people and things could successfully be against us, even though God is for us if he did not make "all things" work together for our good.
Even the cruel and sinful deed of crucifying the Christ meant reconciliation and forgiveness.
"Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations (trials); knowing that the proving of your faith worketh patience. And let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking nothing" (James 1:2-4).
Poverty, persecution, affliction and many other things that make us sad may develop within us, qualities of soul which make us more like Christ, more useful in his service, and better fit us for his eternal presence. When this is done, our troubles and tribulations and sorrows have worked together for our good. Anything that makes one a better and more useful servant in the Master's vineyard is for good and is worth everything it costs, regardless of the price in money, toil, pain, and sacrifice.
Several years ago at the end of the third in a series of Sunday morning sermons on this glorious promise of God in Romans 8:28, a young lady about twenty-two or twenty-three years old came forward during the invitation song, confessed her faith in Christ, and was baptized the same hour.
A few days later she told me that none of her relatives had ever been a member of the church before her. When I asked how she first came in contact with the church, she related a story I shall never forget:
Her two-year-old baby girl had died only two months before. She and her young husband were heartbroken. They thought that they just knew that every spark of hope and every vestige of joy and happiness had fled, never to return. She looked about and saw other families of four or five children, all a-love and happy, while the only one she ever had was buried out of her sight forever. She felt that God had been unfair to her in letting her little girl die. At night she could not sleep, and in the day she could scarcely think of anything but her baby lying out there in the cold, damp ground; but she finally came to a realization of the fact that she could not go on that way and live; that she must do something to get her mind off of her sorrow.
Therefore, one Sunday morning she dressed in her best clothes and went out for a walk in the hope that something she might see would help her to think about something other than her dead baby. By mere chance, she came by our meeting house, and without any previous thought or intention whatever, she turned into the building as the crowd was gathering, and sat down on the back seat.
On that Sunday the series of sermons on Romans 8:28 began. When she heard me say that the "all things" in the passage meant everything, she said to herself that not even God almighty could ever over-rule the death of her baby to the good of anybody. But she wanted to hear more on the subject and came back the next Sunday, and the next. On this third Sunday of her coming, she was baptized. She was convinced that even the death of her child had already contributed to her good. She concluded that if her baby had not died, and if she had not been in such deep sorrow, she would not have been out walking that Sunday morning and may never have come in contact with the church of the Lord. She knew too if her child had lived to womanhood, there was the possibility of her being lost. But since she had died in infancy before she ever knew sin of any kind, her little daughter was eternally safe.
She did not think that the Lord had killed her baby to make the mother a Christian: she knew better than that. But having suffered the loss of her child, she now believed that the omnipotent and merciful Father could and did over-rule her loss to her good.
God moves in mysterious ways
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
To whom is this precious and exceedingly great promise made? For whom do all things work together for good? These questions are answered and the people described in the same verse - Romans 8:28. The promise is made to them "that love God" - "to them that are called according to his purpose."
Our love for God is connected inseparably with obedience. "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments" (I John 5:3). "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me" (John 14:21). A part of God's eternal purpose in calling us is that we may be "conformed to the image of his Son" (Romans 8:29).
Therefore, it necessarily follows that when we sin we are lacking in our love for God, and are not living according to the purpose for which he called us. The Lord does not promise to make "all things" work together for our good, while in that condition, because in that state we are not the kind of character to whom the promise is made. The Lord is not for us in our sinning, and many things can be "against us." (Romans 8:31).
This should prevent anyone from saying: "If all things work together for our good, then our own sins must do it." No, "our own sins" keep us from being the recipients of this great promise. He promises to over-rule the sins of the disobedient for the good of those who do love him and live according to his purpose but does not promise to make anything work for the spiritual good of the disobedient.
In Paul's discussion of the abundance of God's grace, he said, "But where sin abounded, grace did abound more exceedingly" (Romans 5:20.) This and other things that he said about the grace, goodness, and love of God might cause some to jump to the erroneous conclusion that their own sins would enlarge the grace of God, and therefore, good would come of their evil. Paul anticipated such false reasoning and dealt it a death blow in advance. He said, "What shall we say then? shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. We who died to sin, how shall we any longer live therein?" (Romans 6:1-2). He proceeded to tell them they had been baptized to live a new life, and that sin should live no longer therein. He put this emphatic question to them: "Know ye not, that to whom ye present yourselves as servants unto obedience, his servant ye are whom ye obey, whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?" (Romans 6:16). Can one yield himself as a servant of unrighteousness and still be the kind of person to whom all things work together for good? "For the wages of sin is death" to those who commit it" (Romans 6:23).
If you think you know of some things that do not work together for the good of the beneficiaries of this wonderful promise, a prayerful study of the following passages will help you to understand.
- Grievous chastening (Hebrews 12:7-11).
- Grief in manifold trials (I Peter 1:6-7).
- Bonds and prison (Philippians 1:12-14).
- Trials that test and develop noble qualities of soul (James 1:2-4).
- Reproach and persecution (Matthew 5:11-12).
- Fiery trials and suffering (I Peter 4:12-16).
God sometimes uses extreme opposites "His wonders to perform." Light and darkness work together to produce the most beautiful color in the flower. The extreme cold of the winter and the heat of the summer make the giant oak. It takes the snow and cold rain of the winter and the warm sunshine of spring and summer to make an abundant wheat harvest. These things work "together," not separately. A little baking soda, or plain flour, or table salt, is not very palatable when taken alone. But a good cook can take all these and a few other ingredients and make them all work together, and a most delicious cake is the result.
If we love God and live according to his purpose, both the bitter and the sweet of our lives will be woven by the hand of God into "beautiful robes of white."