All Things Work Together for Good: Controversy or Comfort?
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 (Romans 8:28 KJV).
This passage is surely one of the most precious to the child of God, fondly embraced in times of trial. And yet, it appears to be seriously misunderstood by many—in a host of particulars. Restoration scholar Moses E. Lard once described it and its companion verses as a battlefield upon which the conflict has been waged “hot and long” (n.d., 279).
The careful student will notice that the text varies slightly in some of the newer translations. The New International Version, for example, renders the passage this way:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (cf. The New American Standard Bible,William Beck’s An American Translation, and Hugo McCord’s New Testament Translation).
The difference in the renditions lies in the fact that some of the ancient Greek manuscripts vary. It is beyond the scope of this article to probe that issue; however, the reader can find a brief and lucid discussion of the data in Ralph Earle’s, Word Meanings in the New Testament (2000, 181). The differences are of no practical moment.
God’s Providential Activity
Romans 8:28 is a key biblical passage having to do with the exalted theme of God’s providential activity in this world. It is only appropriate, therefore, that we introduce this study with a brief comment on that theme. Elsewhere we have discussed the subject in much greater detail (see A Study of Divine Providence ; Jackson 1983, 135-145).
The English word “providence” derives from a compound Latin term that means “to see beforehand.” Theologians employ this word to represent the biblical truth that God was able see the ultimate accomplishment of his goal for the human family, even before the foundation of the world. Accordingly, he has worked in the events of history to effect the ultimate realization of the divine purpose.
In providence Jehovah works through natural law. This stands in contrast to the extraordinary manifestations of the Lord via miracles. A miracle suspends natural law in a given circumstance; providential activity utilizes natural law. God is at work, however, in either instance. A simple illustration will reveal the difference.
For forty years Jehovah fed Israel in the wilderness of Sinai with manna that was dropped directly from heaven (Exodus 16:15). That was a miracle. Today, God provides our food (Matthew 6:11; Acts 14:17; Philippians 4:19), but he does so through natural processes. That is providence.
It is sometimes convenient to classify providence under the following headings:
General Providence – By this expression we refer to the general maintenance of the universe for the welfare of humanity (cf. Matthew 6:26; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3).
Special Providence – In cases of special providence, the Lord works particularly on behalf of his people—collectively or individually. He used Esther as a means of preserving the nation of Israel (see Esther 4:14), and he employed a Persian king, Cyrus, as an instrument for the deliverance of the Hebrews from Babylonian captivity (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1-7).
Having made these preliminary observations, we must note that it is the view of most conservative Bible scholars that Romans 8:28 is a passage that significantly fits into the theme of God’s providential activity. We will now examine several key elements within this important passage.
The expression “we know” exudes an air of confidence. In a context where suffering is a major portion of the discussion, it is important that the apostle establishes the truth that hardships in the life of the Christian do not imply that God is unconcerned with his plight. One of the major points of focus in the narrative seems to be this: how does one reconcile the seeming discrepancy between the status of being children of God and the reality of Christian suffering (v. 17)? The truth of the matter is, the Lord is pursuing a plan that is far above our limited ability to comprehend. In spite of life’s hardships, we must be able to say we know he is a providential companion in our lives.
We know that Jehovah is working in our lives because divine revelation testifies of such. The examples of biblical history establish it, and this glorious truth is set forth emphatically in such passages as the very one under consideration.
Many expositors would cite experience as well (cf. Hendriksen 1980, 279). But to argue providence on the basis of experience is a slippery slope—because experience is so subjective. Even in a case where providence is certain (from a consideration of the divine record), Mordecai could only ask of Esther: “Who knows whether or not you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). And Paul could but comment to Philemon—of mysterious events in the life of Onesimus: “Perhaps he was therefore parted from you for a season, that you should have him for ever” (Philemon 15).
Confident knowledge, therefore, is grounded in objective revelation—not subjective speculation.
Let us attempt to put into balance one of the more crucial phrases of the text: “all things.” What does this include? What does it not include?
(1) It is not necessary to conclude that the “all” of “all things” is absolutely unlimited in scope. Frequently it is the case in biblical literature that the use of “all” is a figure known as a synecdoche, whereby the whole is put for a part. When Matthew records that the people of “all” Judea, and “all” the region in the vicinity of the Jordan were immersed by John (Matthew 3:5), it is obvious that the term “all” is not to be pressed literally. Elsewhere we are told that “all the people” received John’s baptism, and thereby “justified God” (Luke 7:29-30). And yet, within the same context the reader is informed that the Pharisees and the lawyers did not accept John’s baptism. “All” does not always mean “all.”
In 1 Corinthians 2:15, Paul affirmed that the “spiritual man,” i.e., the man who possesses a supernatural measure of the Holy Spirit, is able to “judge all things.” The Greek verb is anakrino, which suggests the idea of determining the true value of an object. Does this mean that the man so described was supernaturally qualified to judge livestock, the value of precious metals, or a variety of other objects? Or is the expression “all things” limited to the immediate context (cf. Colossians 1:20; Ephesians 1:11)? The answer is too obvious to require expression.
(2) Similarly, the “all things” of Romans 8:28 must be qualified by the context in which it is found. The portion of Paul’s Roman letter in which this phrase occurs focuses upon the presence of suffering in the saint’s life. The apostle notes, for example, that if “we suffer with him,” such is of no abiding import, because, ultimately, we also will be “glorified with him” (8:17). Paul mentions that the “sufferings [the plural suggesting a diversity] of this present time [earthly existence] are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed” eventually (v. 18).
The apostle observes that the entire creation, in the divine scheme of things, has been subjected to a “vanity,” i.e., a bondage characterized by corruption (vv. 20-21). There is groaning and pain associated with this current state of man’s existence (v. 22), and from that groaning the Christian is not exempt (v. 23). The child of God, therefore, must exercise patience under these circumstances (v. 25), praying for Heaven’s blessings in the meantime. In his distressed state, the Christian’s prayer efforts may be pursued in pain and without precise knowledge. Never mind; the Spirit of God will assist the stumbling petitioner (vv. 26-27). (See The Intercession of the Spirit.)
It is out of this background that Paul then says: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (NASB).
(3) But the sacred writer continues. He asks: What then shall we say about “these things”? (v. 31). He argues that if God has not held back the greatest gift of all—his own son—does it not stand to reason that he will provide for us “all things” necessary for our spiritual welfare, thus providentially caring for us? (v. 32).
Then, in a series of pointed questions, Paul asks: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ [i.e., the love Christ has for us]?” Shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No; none of these hardships—no force, visible or invisible—can frustrate the divine plan of Almighty God (vv. 35-39).
This is the meaning of “all things” in context.
We must now raise this question: is there anything in the view here set forth that is at variance with information contained elsewhere in the sacred writings? We respectfully suggest there is not. Rather, there are multiple texts that buttress our affirmation.
Before we are prepared to discuss some of these cases, a brief observation is in order. It should be noted that Romans 8:28 does not affirm that God causes afflictions to occur. The Lord is not the source of earth’s ills, or those that befall his people. He permits them, but he does not generate them, necessarily. There is a difference. (There were times, of course, in the Old Testament when the Lord brought hardships upon his own people because of their sins [cf. Judges 6:1]. But even these episodes were designed to be benevolent in nature.)
But we must comment further regarding the limitations of the “all things.” Note several items:
(1) One should not interpret everything that happens as an instance of providence. There are thousands of trivial things that may not result necessarily from divine activity, or work to one’s good. The prospect of providential activity is an exciting potential, but providence is not a rote, mechanistic process that is an automatic cause-and-effect situation.
(2) Providence does not overrule one’s free will. If a person chooses to rebel against the Creator and he turns away from the Savior, God will not coerce him, even through providential means, into submission. One must be honest, open, pliable, and submissive to Heaven’s will. Jehovah respects the volitional constitution with which he has endowed—even honored—us.
(3) One could never rationalize: “Since God works ‘all things’ for my good, I do not need to refrain from sin, for the Lord will use even evil for my ultimate welfare” (cf. Romans 6:1). A denominational preacher, some years ago, in attempting to defend the Calvinistic dogma of “once-saved, always-saved,” declared that he could commit adultery, and God ultimately would work it out for his good. This is a corrupt misapplication of Romans 8:28.
(4) The good that Jehovah works may not be apparent immediately. It may be years before one realizes the benefits that result from heart-breaking events. In fact, one may never—in this life—see the effect of Heaven’s beneficent hand. The patriarch Job passed through many trials as he was used as a pawn of Satan to challenge God’s integrity. Though he was delivered of his afflictions and blessed richly at the conclusion of the ordeal, we actually do not know whether or not he ever was privy, while still on earth, to why all those terrible calamities came upon him. God is still working good—whether we ever realize it or not!
(5) Finally, we must add this note: We believe that some well-meaning students have attempted to assign a forced meaning to the “all things” of this passage. They allege that the phrase refers merely to the combined elements of the plan of redemption, e.g., prophecy, types, Bible facts, commands, promises, etc. This view, we feel, is unnatural. It divorces the passage from its immediate context, and reflects, perhaps, a reactionary mode against certain erroneous ideas associated with human tragedy and the operation of God. In our judgment, this viewpoint is not supported by the evidence.
The verb “work together” (sunergeo) is an active voice, present tense form, which indicates that the activity orchestrated by God is ongoing. The Lord is as providentially active on behalf of his people today as he was in biblical times.
Too, the compound elements of the verb suggest an intricate plan whose components are harmoniously operating toward a grand conclusion. (For a discussion of the success of this heavenly plan, see the author’s comments published elsewhere [Jackson 2000, 197-200].)
Jehovah allows adverse circumstances to work together “for good” for his people generally. The term “good” is the Greek agathos (used 112 times in the New Testament). One aspect of the word has to do with that which is “beneficial in its effect” (Vine 1991, 352), and this seems to be the thrust of the expression in this passage. God is working out things for his people that will result in their ultimate “good,” i.e., heaven. “The Christian’s career must have a good ending, because at every step in it he is in the hands of God and is carrying out the Divine purpose” (Sanday and Headlam 1902, 215). Moule says that the reference is to “the final Good . . . the fruition of God in eternal Glory” (1977, 155).
While it is not necessary to contend that God orchestrates each instance of adversity in the Christian’s life so as to bring good out of it, we do believe the Scriptures indicate that, ultimately, Heaven’s purpose will be realized—even in the hard features of life, e.g., persecutions.
We are confident that there is an encouragement in this passage which prompts the child of God to entertain a positive attitude toward the straits of life, viewing them as character building, and as mere steps to an everlasting glory.
Let us now consider some examples which we believe illustrate the principle that God, as ruler of the universe, is able to take painful circumstances, even when initiated by evil men, and work them for the good of his people.
(1) There is the case of Joseph. As a lad of seventeen years, he was sold by jealous brothers into Egyptian slavery. An evil woman lusted for him, and when he refused her advances she bore false testimony against him. He was thrown into prison where he languished for several years. But because Jehovah “was with him” (Genesis 39:21), eventually Joseph was elevated to a place of great authority. By and by, of course, he became the instrument by which the family of Jacob was received into the safety of Egypt, having been spared from a terrible famine in Canaan. All of this intricate maneuvering was providential—in view of the coming Messiah.
There were many evil attitudes and actions in this amazing chain of events—none of which God was responsible for; and yet, astoundingly, the sovereign Lord was able to implement his sacred purpose in all of these distressing matters. One of the most breathtaking verses in the entire book of Genesis is that which records the words of Joseph at the twilight of his life. To his brothers, he confided: “And as for you, you 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).
(2) In the divine scheme of things, it was the will of God that the Messiah should descend from the tribe of Judah—a tribe that was to wield the “scepter” of a kingly administration (Genesis 49:10). And yet, in the waning days of the judges, when Israel grew weary of Jehovah’s theocratic reign over them, they sought a ruler of their own fashion (1 Samuel 8:6-7), that they might be more heathenish than divine.
The first man to be elevated to the role of king was Saul, the son of Kish. However, he was not from the tribe of Judah; rather, he was of Benjamin (1 Samuel 9:1). God selected him as Israel’s ruler, acceding to their demands (8:22), not because he was ideal, but because he was the very sort of man they wanted—a strong and courageous military leader who could do for them what they felt the Lord had not done! But the prophet Hosea later puts the matter into clearer focus when, on behalf of Jehovah, he enunciates this principle: “I have given you a king in my anger, and have taken him away in my wrath” (13:11).
That does not mean that God is impulsively “angry,” as men sometimes are. No, this reflects a figure of speech known as anthropopathism, whereby a human emotion is attributed to deity in order to emphasize a point. The term is designed to highlight the Lord’s intense disapproval of humanity’s desire to be free of divine restraint.
Even before Saul received his anointing as monarch, Jehovah, through Samuel, warned the Hebrews of the dark days that lay ahead—those distressing times that would be characteristic of Saul’s reign (see 1 Samuel 8:10ff—especially note the phrase “the manner of the king” [v. 11]).
Now here is a crucial point: God was not responsible for bringing a king to the throne. Nor was he responsible for the wicked, headstrong temperament of the surly ruler. Nevertheless, the Lord was able to use even the weaknesses of a man like Saul so as to prepare the way for David’s eventual ascension to the throne. It was, at this historical point, that a lineage from Judah was set in place that would facilitate the fulfillment of Genesis 49:10. And so the less-than-desirable administration of Saul was brilliantly employed by the all-powerful God to bring about a higher good.
(3) The New Testament record contains similar examples. For instance, following the martyrdom of Stephen, a vicious persecution was unleashed against the newly established family of Christ. It was led by no less of a foe than Saul of Tarsus, whose unholy ambition was to exterminate the cause of Jesus the Nazarene (cf. Acts 8:3; 9:1). Disciples fled from Jerusalem and went throughout Judea and Samaria. But everywhere they went, they were “preaching the word” (8:4). God turned adversity into victory. Trials can fuel evangelistic fervor. Checkmate!
(4) When Paul concluded his third missionary campaign, he went to Jerusalem, bearing a collection of money from Asian and European churches to be conveyed to needy folks in Judea (Romans 15:25ff; 1 Corinthians 16:2ff; 2 Corinthians 8-9).
While in the holy city, the apostle was falsely accused of defiling the temple (by escorting a Gentile into the sacred area which was for Jews exclusively). Paul was arrested and abused. He was subsequently taken to Caesarea where he was imprisoned for two years. Eventually, he appealed his case to Caesar and, after a harrowing voyage, finally arrived in Rome. For two years he labored under house arrest, awaiting the disposition of his case (Acts 28).
During his two-year confinement, he continued to proclaim the gospel—quite obviously with considerable success. The apostle’s influence reached even into Caesar’s “household” (Philippians 4:22). Some of the details of these days may be learned from incidental references in the books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon—which he penned during this two-year span.
From the first chapter of Philippians it becomes apparent that, during this time frame, some of the brethren in Rome became envious of Paul’s successes and, incredibly, sought to “raise up affliction” for the noble apostle (1:17).
It is at this point that we must remind ourselves again that God was not responsible for any of these evils that befell his ambassador to the Gentiles. God did not cause the riot in Jerusalem. God did not have his apostle thrown into prison. God did not generate the malicious accusations against Paul. And God did not instill within certain brethren this unconscionable desire to create hardship for Paul in Rome. Yet, somehow, the Lord was able to “work” all these “things” so that they accommodated the “progress of the gospel” (1:12).
Two words are of special interest in this passage: First, Paul says that the things which happened to him have “fallen out” (ASV), or “turned out” (KJV), to the progress of the gospel. The verb is erchomai, which literally means “to come.” Here the sense is “resulted” (Arndt and Gingrich 1967, 311). The perfect tense form suggests an abiding blessing.
Second, there is the interesting term “progress” (prokope). The word is a compound form consisting of pro (toward) and kopto (to cut). Barclay described the term as depicting the work of “cutting away” the trees and undergrowth, as in the case of the preparation necessary for an advancing army (1959, 24-25).
What Paul is suggesting in this text, therefore, is this: In spite of the fact that many seemingly adverse elements have conspired to deter his ministry, these events have not frustrated the divine plan for dispersing the gospel. Rather, they have actually facilitated the growth of the Christian movement. They worked not for evil, but for good. How very thrilling are the providential operations of the Almighty. Who can stay his hand? (cf. Daniel 4:35).
And so as a sort of summary of this section of our essay, we might ask: how is God working good by means of the heartaches and disappointments that come to us in life?
(1) He is working good in helping us to build character.
Count it all joy, my brethren, when you fall into manifold temptations; knowing that the proving of your faith worketh patience. And let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing" (James 1:2-4).
(2) He does us good by opening doors of service.
But I will remain at Ephesus until Pentecost; for a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries (1 Corinthians 16:8-9).
(3) He does us good by allowing us to glorify him. The case of Job is a prime example. “Jehovah gave, and Jehovah has taken away; blessed be the name of Jehovah” (Job 1:21).
“For Those Who Love God”
The apostle now speaks to the issue of who it is that is in receipt of this divine favor. It is to those who “love God,” and who “are called according to his purpose.” Actually, to use a figure of speech, these are two sides of the same coin.
Considering the human side of the equation, the promise of the passage is to those who “love” God. The term is a participle form of the verb agapao. It has been observed by scholars that the New Testament use of this word raises it to a level beyond that which was employed in secular Greek, and even in the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX). Agapao has been described as “a calculated disposition of regard and a pious inclination.” Nigel Turner says that in the teaching of Jesus it implies “being unconditionally available; it may demand the sacrifice of all that is humanly dear” (Turner 1982, 263, 265). Other scholars have noted that agapao “has God for its primary object, and expresses itself first of all in implicit obedience to His commandments, John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10; 1 John 2:5; 5:3; 2 John 6. Self-will, that is, self-pleasing, is the negation of love to God” (Hogg and Vine 1997, 79).
The present tense form in this text indicates that those who live in the hope of this passage are the habitual God-lovers. Love is not a fleeting emotion; it is a way of life. The bottom-line truth is simple: loving God means doing what he says. The faith that avails is that which works through love (Galatians 5:6). Or, as the thought might be expressed otherwise: availing faith is that which is constantly energized (a present participle) by love.
“Called According to His Purpose”
The opposite side of this coin reveals the divine perspective. In apposition to the phrase “those who love God” is this expression: “who are called according to his purpose.” Several things are implied:
(1) The Christian’s hope is grounded in God; it is he who initiates the “call” (cf. Acts 2:39).
(2) Heaven’s call is by means of the gospel message (2 Thessalonians 2:14).
(3) Acceptance of the call must be in a spirit of deep humility (1 Corinthians 1:26).
(4) The “calling” is answered when one, in penitent faith, responds to the command to be immersed in water. At this point he enters the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13), thus becoming a member of Christ’s church (Colossians 1:18, 24). The church is, in fact, “the called-out” (ekklesia) body.
(5) One must persistently walk “worthily” of that noble calling (Ephesians 4:1).
All of this, of course, is in harmony with the divine purpose, which was planned from the very commencement of time (Ephesians 3:11).
There is great practical value in savoring the flavor of Romans 8:28.
(1) An understanding of this text helps the Christian to avoid the murmuring mode, into which it is so easy to slip. The child of God must ever seek to remember that the Lord allows suffering as a means of refining human character.
(2) The wounds of life are “working together” to educate us and to bring us closer to God. (For further study, see the author’s material, "Getting a Grip On Suffering [Jackson 1998, 97-106].)
(3) The “nudgings” of this vale of tears help us keep our focus on eternity—if we are wise enough to decipher the language.
(4) The day will come eventually when the redeemed saint will look back upon the “bruises” received in the “university of hard knocks,” and thank the Creator for the discipline rendered, acknowledging that without it, heaven might never have been gained.
Scripture references: Romans 8:28; Exodus 16:15; Matthew 6:11; Acts 14:17; Philippians 4:19; Matthew 6:26; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3; Esther 4:14; Isaiah 44:28, 45:1-7; Philemon 15; Matthew 3:5; Luke 7:29-30; 1 Corinthians 2:15; Colossians 1:20; Ephesians 1:11; Judges 6:1; Romans 6:1; Genesis 39:21; Genesis 50:20; Genesis 49:10; 1 Samuel 8:6-7; 1 Samuel 9:1; 1 Samuel 8:10; Acts 8:3, 9:1; Romans 15:25; 1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Acts 28; Philippians 4:22; Daniel 4:35; James 1:2-4; 1 Corinthians 16:8-9; Job 1:21; John 14:15, 21, 23, 15:10; 1 John 2:5, 5:3; 2 John 6; Galatians 5:6; Acts 2:39; 2 Thessalonians 2:14; 1 Corinthians 1:26; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Colossians 1:18, 24; Ephesians 4:1; Ephesians 3:11
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