“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28)
The Holy Spirit gave God’s people some amazing, comforting truths in the eighth chapter of Romans. However, it has become commonplace in Christian culture today for Romans 8:28 to be used in a very broad and general sense to try to comfort God’s people, extending far beyond the immediate context of the verse. Oftentimes, well-meaning believers attempt to use Romans 8:28 to try to explain some bad circumstances that occur in life – a tragic sudden loss of a loved one, a terminal diagnosis is given, a global pandemic, wars, violence, crime and unrest, or any number of other bad things in this world. They attempt to teach in a very general way that “God is working all things together for your good”. This incorrect portrayal tells the struggling child of God that the Lord has caused this event, but it’s okay because ultimately God is using this – just like how supposedly God uses all things, all events in this life without exception – to work together for your ultimate good. While it is true that God’s motivation and goal in his actions are always the good of his children, scripture does not support that all events without exception are working together for our good.
“Why” Did This Happen?
When someone is told that “God is working all things together for your good”, the natural tendency for us is to try to find out “why” did God allow this to happen? That causes even well-meaning Christians to start looking behind every single door and around every corner to figure out “why” God did this. When considering all the wickedness in this world, it is an understandable question in response to this false “all things” notion to try to find out “why” and “how” is God working with this sin for my good. Many well-meaning Christians have been caused to question the integrity and character of God because of the misapplication of this all things text. How could a good God not just allow this to happen, but how could a perfect God be using this sin (a drunk driver killing your child, for example) for my good? They correctly question the direct connecting link of one’s sin and God using that sin for their good. We always get into trouble when we try to attribute an official “why” to anything in this world. There are instances in scripture that the Holy Spirit does give us the “why” God allowed certain events to occur – Job, Joseph, Moses, Esther, Ruth, Jesus, Judas, etc. However, considering all the thousands of events in scripture and probably billions more in life that are not recorded, we can’t take a small sampling of just a few acts of God’s providence that the Lord clarified for us, and then try to perfectly figure out every single event in our life. We can see from the handful of instances in scripture explained versus the billions of other events left unexplained, that for the majority of events in our life we will never understand the full “why” they occurred. However, we can see from those instances in scripture that if God does want us to know “why”, the Lord will give us clarity by the Holy Spirit as to the exact “why” God allowed things to happen as they did in our life.
Our focus when bad things happen should not be trying to find a “why” but simply trusting God in the midst of that trial. We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). It is not our responsibility to see and understand why everything occurs. No, it is just our responsibility to walk by faith, trusting God whether we have clarity in a given situation or not. We don’t need to be continually searching to try to figure out all the reasons why God allowed something to occur. We certainly don’t need to be trying to connect instances of sin and trying to figure out how God is working behind the scenes in that sin to ultimately be for our good. Many people begin to question the integrity of God when they try to see how God is using sin for their good. No, God never actively uses sin to work together for your good. There are many instances in scripture and in our lives where God does suffer sin for a purpose, and God will overrule that sin in his providence for your good and for his glory. God never actively uses sin for your good, but will only overrule that sin for your good. We will clearly reach wrong conclusions when we always try to find God behind the scenes, in the shadows, working sin for our good. We have to be reminded of God’s impeccability above sin. God cannot be tempted with evil and does not and cannot tempt any man to sin (James 1:13). God cannot even behold or look on iniquity (Hab. 1:13). God will not do iniquity (Zeph. 3:5). God hates wickedness (Ps. 45:7); God’s soul hates the wicked (Ps. 11:5); God is angry with the wicked all the day (Ps. 7:11); there are many works of the flesh that God hates (Prov. 6:16-19). The detestable sins of child sacrifice by Israel were not commanded by God and never came into God’s mind (Jer. 19:5).
We cannot look at God’s vehement hatred and disposition against wickedness, and then reach the conclusion that God is secretly working behind the scenes with those things he publicly hates to bring about our good. God forbid! God in his providence can bless and overrule the worst sins of men and bring beauty from ashes in our lives. We see this so many times in scripture with God bringing beauty from ashes. God can, and many times does, overrule sinful actions for his glory and for his people’s good. However, just because God has overruled in his providence for his people’s good from time to time, we cannot then extrapolate that providence to every single action that occurs in this world. We certainly cannot say that God is secretly working behind the scenes with every sin for our good. No, God’s providence will many times bless his children “in spite” of sin, never with God working together with sin.
Things that DO NOT Work Together for Your Good
Just a simple cursory overview of this world shows many things are clearly not working for our good, let alone “working together” for our good. The Greek word that is the basis for “working together” in this text is where we get our English word “synergy”. The “all things” in context are all “working in synergy” for the good of God’s children (the called that love God). However, there are many things in this world that God is clearly not working “in synergy” with. The devil is our adversary who is seeking to devour God’s people (1 Pet. 5:8). Satan is not working in synergy with God behind the scenes for our good; the devil is rather working for our destruction to devour us. The future man of sin will “oppose and exalt himself against all that is called God or is worshipped” (2 Thess. 2:4). This future wicked man will work directly in “opposition” towards God, not in cooperative synergy with him. Lust and sin bring forth death (James 1:14-15) and death is our “enemy”, certainly not our friend (1 Cor. 15:26).
The natural and carnal mind is “enmity” (an enemy) toward God (Rom. 8:7), and in our original natures, we were enemies of God (Rom. 5:10, Col. 1:21). The flesh “lusteth against the Spirit…these are contrary the one to the other” (Gal. 5:17). Our natural flesh is warring against the Spirit (see Rom. 7:16-23 for the internal warfare conflict in the soul of the child of God) and working contrary to the Spirit to cause us to stumble. That’s why the end of the carnal mind is death (Rom. 8:6; death which is our “enemy”, 1 Cor. 15:26), and the end of the broad way is destruction (Matt. 7:13). Friendship with the world is “enmity with God”, and if we are the friend of the world, then we are in turn the enemy of God (James 4:4). There are many other examples we could provide, but finally “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). God is not behind the scenes secretly using the wrath of man for your good to fulfill the righteousness of God. No, the Holy Spirit made sure you understand exactly what that verse says – the wrath of man does not work for the righteousness of God. Therefore, it is evident there are many things in this world that are not working for your good and are definitely not working “in synergy” with God for your good.
Rightly Dividing Romans 8:28 In Context
Now, after briefly considering that all things without exception do not work together for our good, let us consider this verse in its broader context and rightly divide what God is teaching in this verse. “28) And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. 29) For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30) Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. 31) What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? 32) He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:28-32) In this context, “all things” (v.28), “these things” (v.31), and “all things” (v.32) are all referring to the “same things”. What are the “all things” under consideration in the immediate context? The five aspects of the eternal covenant of redemption: foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. God introduces the “all things” in v.28, names what the “all things” are in v.29-30, and then summarizes by saying what shall we then say to “these things” in v.31. These verses are all speaking of the five aspects of the covenant of redemption that are all working in perfect synergy by God for our good.
Before the world began, God “foreknew” a people. Here in Romans 8, this “foreknowledge” is not speaking of God’s perfect omniscience of events and history, but it is speaking of God’s covenant love of his elect. To “know” in scripture often speaks of an intimate knowledge, especially in the context of a marriage relationship – Adam “knew” Eve and she conceived, and they had a son (Gen. 4:1). Adam did not learn facts about his wife. He knew her in an intimate, full, loving way that was bound by a covenant of marriage. This is how God “foreknew” his people. God knew and chose to love a vast group of people – known as the elect – and validated that love by entering into a marriage covenant with his bride, the church. God did not just simply know facts and names of his people; he knew and loved them intimately in the eternal marriage covenant. We could just as easily say, for whom God did “forelove”, he also did predestinate, and God has foreloved his people from before the world began.
For those that God loved before the world began, the Lord also “predestinated” them to be in heaven with him at the end of time. Predestination in scripture always has to do with people, not events. Notice the object of God’s predestination – for “whom” (people) he did predestinate, not “what” (events). The object of God’s predestination is always people (see also Eph. 1:5,11), not unalterably predetermining the events of this world. God did unalterably fix the final destination for all the elect to be with him in heaven at the end of time and to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Everyone that God foreloved was predestinated to heaven at the end of time.
Furthermore, God decreed that all of the “whoms” that were foreloved and predestinated would be “called” by the Holy Spirit in their life. This calling by God is also known in scripture as regeneration, quickening, or the new birth. God calls the elect by the voice of the Son of God out of death in trespasses and sins into life in Jesus Christ (John 5:24, Eph. 2:1). This is the same group of people throughout this entire context. Every child of God that the Lord loved before the world began and predestinated will be called and born again, given a new nature of the Spirit in their soul at some point during their life. We are now given a new nature of God’s goodness, instead of our sinful natures, when are called by God in the new birth.
Those that God foreloved, predestinated, and called were all “justified” (declared righteous) by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus was made to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21). All of God’s children (who have no righteousness of their own, just filthy rags before God, Isaiah 64:6) have received the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ on their eternal account before God. All the foreloved and predestinated elect have been justified in the sight of God by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Then, the final act of the covenant of redemption is for the elect to be “glorified”. The people that God foreloved and predestinated before the world began, were called by the Spirit in their life, were justified by Christ on the cross, all of those same elect will finally be conformed into the image of Jesus Christ and brought into heaven to be eternally with the Lord. Our bodies are sinful and vile, and therefore, our bodies must be changed into the image of Jesus Christ to be fit to live in heaven. This change of our bodies will be made in glorification, and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
These five aspects of the covenant of redemption are definitely “working together” for the eternal good of God’s people. The Godhead is working in perfect “synergy” to accomplish all of these things for the elect. There is perfect synergy between God the Father foreloving and predestinating, the Spirit calling that exact same definite group, and Jesus Christ justifying and glorifying that exact same definite group of people. All of these things in the context – God’s foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification – are all working in synergy for the good of God’s elect that love God because God first loved them. Like we said before, God introduces the “all things” in v.28, names what the “all things” are in v.29-30, and then summarizes and refers back to them in v. 31 by saying what shall we then say to “these things”.
Let’s answer the Holy Spirit’s question. What is our response to “these things”? When we consider all that God has been doing for us in eternity and in time to secure our eternal salvation, our response should then be “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31b) This should be our confidence in God’s love and working for us, for our good in eternity, that if God is for us and on our side, how could anyone being against us in this world overcome our eternal salvation? The answer is that no one can overcome our eternal salvation. That is emphasized in the remainder of the chapter. Because of the “all things” that God worked together for our good in eternity, nothing can separate us from the love of God in this world – not tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword; nothing in life; nothing in death; not angels, principalities, powers, not things present, not things to come, not any other creature can thwart the all things that God has worked together for our good in eternity.
Then in Romans 8:32, we have yet another reference to “all things”. “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” I believe in the immediate context that this “all things” reference is primarily referring back to the five aspects of the covenant of redemption in the preceding verses. However, I think this can teach a broader principle as well. If God saw our need in eternity and loved us enough to send his only Son to die for our sins, why should we ever doubt that God will provide for our all needs and freely give us all things we stand in need of here in our lives as well? If God solved our greatest need in eternity by procuring all that was necessary for our eternal salvation, why should we ever doubt that God will provide for all our comparatively smaller needs here in our lives?
It is not true that all things without exception do work together for our good. However, I do want to clarify that it is absolutely a true principle that all things that “God does” are for our good. As our perfect Heavenly Father, God always has the best interest of his children at heart. When necessary, God sends or allows chastisement for his children in our lives, but even that is evidence of God’s love for us (Heb. 12:6-8). God even sends chastisement for the good and ultimate correction of his children. Sometimes when God suffers a trial of our faith to come in our lives, it is oftentimes to purge away the dross and bring us through the fire as a vessel that is more pure for the Master’s use (1 Pet. 1:7, Prov. 25:4). Therefore, everything that “God does” is always with the ultimate good of his children in mind. With that said, some of the sentiment of Romans 8:28 we addressed before is true, but this verse in context is not the verse to teach that lesson. In his providence, God is oftentimes working even in challenging times, to bless his children in the midst of the storm, but that does not mean that he caused the storm to come. What God does – not all things without exception – is always for the good of his beloved children, both in time and in eternity.