One of the greatest promises found in the Bible is that God can cause all things to work together for good for those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear brethren argue that this passage does not mean what it says. They try to limit "all things" to apply to only what immediately precedes this passage in Romans 8, i.e., the love of God, our hope, and the help of the Holy Spirit. It is true that this is a limited promise, but the context indicates the limit is not on the "all things" but to whom this promise applies. This promise is limited "to those who love God" and "to those who are called according to His purpose." For those who love God and are called, I believe "all things" means all things. An important point to remember is that this does not mean that all things are good, but that God can work good out of all things!
One common method used to limit "all things" is to quote passages where the phrase "all things" is obviously used in a limited sense. We should recognize that the context sometimes does limit this phrase, but we also should recognize this phrase is also used in an unlimited sense. One example would be when Jesus said "all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me" (Luke 24:44). Were there any of the prophecies concerning Christ that did not come true? What about John 1:3 where we are told "All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made?" What was made without Christ? In Acts 24:14, Paul said that he believed "all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets." He also taught that we are to "do all things without complaining and disputing" (Phil. 2:14). Is there anything we can do with murmuring and disputing? It should be obvious as we read these passages that the phrase "all things" does not prove anything by itself. The context determines whether "all things" should be understood in a limited or unlimited sense.
The context of Rom. 8 teaches that though we are children of God we will still experience suffering in this life (8:18). We greatly desire to be freed from the corruption we find ourselves in at this time (8:19-23). We maintain our hope because we know our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (8:24-25, 18). The Holy Spirit also helps us in our prayers (8:26-27). With this knowledge and knowing that "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God" (NASV), we can face the future with all confidence and joy. It does not matter whether we face tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or sword, because in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us (8:31-37). The list found in 8:35 is not an exhaustive list of the sufferings that can come to Christians. Instead, they represent the kinds of experiences God can cause to work together for our good and help us to be "more than conquerors." To understand this passage properly, we must remember to whom God gave this promise. This passage applies only to those who love God and are called according to His purpose. These are the ones who 8:29-30 says God foreknew and predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son. The limitation of this passage is to whom it applies, not the "all things" that God can work together for our good. For those who God foreknew and predestined to glory, "all things" means ALL THINGS.
Many reject any idea of God predestinating individuals because they automatically associate it with the teachings of John Calvin. They understand that Calvin's teaching on predestination violates many Biblical principles so they react by rejecting all teaching of predestination as it relates to the individual. This is another example where people have fought one erroneous extreme with another. Calvin taught that God unconditionally predestined individuals unto salvation and predestined others to condemnation before creation. His concept of predestination clearly violates Biblical principles. The Bible plainly says we are responsible whether we accept or reject God's Word. If we are saved, it will be from our choosing to receive God's gift of salvation and if we are lost, it will be the result of our refusal to be obedient to the faith.
Many believe that predestination refers to only a certain class or group of people but it does not refer to any particular individuals in that group. They believe that God predestined the plan by which man would be saved, but not the man who would be saved by the plan. This is an attempt to avoid the obvious errors of Calvinism, but it swings too far the other direction. If we will use all of the verses that apply, we will see the Bible teaches that God predestines both the plan and the man. Although God predestined the saved, the Bible clearly teaches that we are responsible to choose to obey the plan.
The passages that teach election are not limited to an impersonal plan but also apply to individuals as well. Some passages refer to the elect as a group while others identify specific individuals. In 2 Thess. 2:13, Paul wrote that "God from the beginning chose you for salvation." God did not just choose the church but also chose the Thessalonians from the beginning. What beginning is Paul referring to? He told the Ephesians that "He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world...having predestined us to adoption as sons" (Eph. 1:4-5). In Ephesians, Paul clearly teaches that the church was the eternal purpose of God. He also says God chose more than just the plan, he taught that God chose the Ephesians, too! In Eph. 1:11, Paul says "we...being predestined." Paul not only taught that God predestined the church, he also claimed God predestined the people in the church.
Peter addressed his first epistle to pilgrims who were "elect according to the foreknowledge of God" (1 Pet. 1:1-2). Notice that Peter says the pilgrims were the elect, not just the plan by which they were saved. Paul even mentioned one of the elect by name when he said Rufus was "chosen in the Lord." The word translated "chosen" is eklektos, the word from which we get "elect" in 1 Pet. 1:2.
John wrote of some "whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 17:8). This is a negative statement, but it would be meaningless to say that some names were not written in the book of life since the beginning unless there were others whose names were written there from the beginning.
How could God predestine, even before creation, which individuals will be saved, and could even write their names in the book of life and still hold us responsible for our actions? The answer is found in the foreknowledge of God. A correct understanding of the connection of God's foreknowledge with predestination is the key to understanding the whole question of election to salvation. Rom. 8:29 tells us "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son." 1 Pet. 1:1-2 says that the pilgrims were "elect according to the foreknowledge of God". God's foreknowledge is the means by which He predestined individuals to be conformed to the image of His Son. His foreknowledge permits Him to know who will submit to the conditions of salvation and who will fail to be obedient even before they are born. Many object to this teaching, but is God capable of foreknowledge or not? Are we willing to accept Jehovah's claim to be able to declare the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:9-10), or are we going to simply cut this passage out of our Bibles? If He does possess foreknowledge, then why should we have any problem with God being able to foreknow who will be obedient and who will not?
Many who accept that God possesses foreknowledge deny that God elects individuals. They do not seem to notice the inconsistency involved in this. They reject individual election because they believe it cannot be separated from the Calvinistic doctrine of election. This is not so. Calvinism does teach individual predestination, but this is not what makes it Calvinism. The error of Calvinism is that it teaches election is unconditional. The difference in the Bible and Calvinism is not between individual and general predestination but between conditional and unconditional election.
God's predestination is the result of His foreknowledge. He foreknows who will be obedient to the gospel and who will not. Those whom He foreknew are the ones He predestined to be glorified like Jesus Himself.
The Calvinist teaches that God unconditionally selects sinners and predestines them to become believers. The Bible teaches that God selects all believers and predestines them to become His children in glory. These are the ones Romans 8:28 applies to! Those who God foreknew will be faithful to the end no matter what trial or difficulty will come their way!
In trying to prove the "all things" in Rom. 8:28 is limited, some have searched for examples of events that did not work together for good for those involved. One such example would be the destruction of a brother by the carelessness of one who ate meats in front of him (1 Cor. 8:10-11). Another example would be in Matt. 24:12 where the love of many would grow cold because of the difficulties they experienced. The question is asked: "What good could possibly come out of these situations?" The answer is that the promise in Rom. 8:28 would not apply in these situations. We must remember the context! The context deals with those whom God foreknew and predestined and glorified. If someone through weakness lets the callousness of another brother cause him to stumble so that he quits serving the Lord, he was not one whom God foreknew and predestined to glory! This passage is dealing with those whom God foreknew would love Him so much that they will not let any hardship, suffering, temptation, sorry brethren, or anything else stop them seeking to be in His presence. For these people, God promised that all things would work together for good.
There have been many examples where God has kept His promise. We serve the God who could turn the betrayal of Joseph's brothers, the false accusation by Potiphar's wife and the neglect of the butler into occasions for exalting Joseph. Through all of his trials, Joseph remained faithful and conquered through what others meant to be evil. God could use Moses' time in the wilderness to train him so he would be better equipped to lead the people out of bondage. David wrote many Psalms from which we can receive comfort as the result of his experiences being pursued by Saul. Through these experiences, David learned, more than ever, that it was God to whom he must turn for help. If God can turn the evil plotted by Haman into good for His people, then why can He not continue to do so today? When Saul of Tarsus cruelly persecuted the church, causing both men and women to be put to death, those who were scattered went out teaching the Word. Later, while Paul was in prison, it was an occasion for the Praetorian guard to hear the gospel.
There is no tragedy that God's people cannot overcome and find good in with the help of their God. It is not dependent on just our perseverance, but we are "more than conquerors through Him."
We must always remember that this promise does not apply to everyone! Many people have turned bitter because of problems they have experienced. Some allow their love to grow cold when they face difficulties. Others blame God for their problems and turn away from Him. This promise in Romans 8:28 applies only to those who continue to love God no matter what hardships they may face in this life. This promise is for those who keep trusting the Lord though they may face tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or sword. For these faithful children, not only does God promise that He will work all things together for good, but they will also be more than conquerors through Him who loved us.
Sufferings can help us in many ways that prosperity rarely can. They help keep our mind on Heaven. Sufferings keep our desire strong as we long to be freed from the corruption of sin and the unfairness and wickedness that surrounds us today. Our sufferings cause us to strive even more to be able to live with God. 2 Cor. 4:16-18 tells us "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." Does our affliction work for us or not? Instead of whining and complaining, James tells us to "count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing" (Jam. 1:2-3). We do not go out looking for trials, but when they come, if we will remain faithful, we will be better people as a result of the experience. Rom. 5:3-4 teaches that we should know "that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope." Do we really know this and believe it or do we just recite these words without understanding?
Suffering and hardships also help us grow by equipping us to be able to better help others who are experiencing similar pain. Paul said that "God...comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor. 1:3-6).
Even our sins can help us to be more compassionate with others (Heb. 5:1-3). This is obviously no excuse to sin, but, even in this, good can come to those who love the Lord. It does not take much observation to notice how the self-righteous deal much harsher with others than those who are aware of their sins and short-comings.
Good can come even from the deaths of the faithful. When a nurse watched J. P. Miller as he died of cancer, she wanted to know of the source of his hope and was later baptized." The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church" became a saying about the Roman persecutions. Many pagans could not understand how Christians were able to face even the most terrible forms of death with such calmness. Some were converted after watching how the Christians died. I became a Christian largely through the influence of a young woman who was a quadriplegic from a car wreck. It was a true tragedy, but it provided an opportunity for her to influence me and many others to turn to the Lord who gave her such great hope and joy. This does not mean that our accidents, diseases, deaths, persecutions, etc. are good. These are only a few illustrations of how God can work even these events into good for those who love Him.
These examples illustrate why God does not always answer our prayers for protection and deliverance from evil. Sometimes He does deliver us, so we should pray for deliverance, but sometimes He allows suffering to occur or to continue. In these cases we must trust that the wisdom of God has discerned a higher good that will come from the affliction. Perhaps we will observe or experience this higher good or perhaps it will take place without our being aware of it. After all, God sees the whole pattern of His providence while we see only a small part of it. In such cases, there is no alternative to trusting the goodness and wisdom of the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe.
When tragedies strike any of us, they should cause us to turn even more to God and fix our hope even more on our eternal home. Whether it may be sickness, accidents, loss of property or anything else, are we not reminded that this earthly body is not our home? It is through suffering that we often turn to God with greater zeal than before.
It is through the fires of suffering that Israel had much of their dross removed. Even today, we who are "protected by the power of God" may still be "distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith...even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:5-7). Sufferings test and develop our faith. Many fall away and become bitter because of hardships, pain, persecution and even trouble from within the church. These sufferings separate the good ground from the rocky ground. Those who endure the refiner's fire come out purified as gold and silver, fit for the Master's use. According to the context, the promise found in Romans 8:28 applies only to those who continue to serve God no matter what sufferings they experience.
We must remember that God is Sovereign Ruler of all. He can use men's decisions for His purpose even when they do not obey His commands. We serve the God who could use the jealousy and wickedness of Joseph's brothers for His purpose. He could use the Philistines to chasten His people. God could use the arrogance of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans for the benefit of His people. This is why Paul could affirm that "we know that all things work together for good to those who love God." This shows a complete confidence in God. It indicates that God's goodness towards His people cannot be stopped by any action, whether from sin-corrupted nature or from the wickedness of rebellious men themselves. Even pain and suffering may be used to bring about good results by the only wise God. It does not matter whether our sufferings are the result of chastening, testing, time and chance, or corruption in the world because of sin. Sufferings can help those who remain faithful to God to draw even closer to him and strive even more to be conformed into the image of Christ.
A proper understanding of Romans 8:28 will affect our lives. Once we really accept this great promise given by God, we will have freedom from fear. When we are truly convinced that God loves us and that His sovereignty rules over all, we no longer need to fear anything that could happen to us in this world. We know that our God is in charge, and He will see that all things work together for good for those who love Him (Psalms 91:5-6, 9).
We will live a life free of worry. It is easy for us to worry about a multitude of things, but we must learn to follow God in trust and faith. This is not a simple resignation to fate as many advise by saying "there is no need to worry over things you can't do anything about." Instead, it is a recognition that a loving and personal God is in charge of the Universe.
We will live a life of trust in God. It is one thing to claim belief in God's sovereignty, but it is another thing to live our lives totally dependent on His love. Faith is more than believing certain doctrinal facts, it is also personal trust in the personal God. This will affect the way we cope with day-to-day circumstances. It enables us to live without the worry and fretting that is so common in the world.
We will live a life of submission. We should understand that God does not directly cause all the various events in our lives. However, nothing can happen without His permission. As the Sovereign Ruler over all His creation, God is in complete control of all activities at all times. We learn to live and to pray in complete submission to His will, even as Jesus did when He prayed "Father, if it is Your will, remove this cup from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done" (Luke 22:42). During times of difficulties, we will have the attitude of David when he said "here I am, let Him do to me as seems good to Him" (2 Sam. 15:25-26). We should be able to speak as Job when he said "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21). This does not mean that we do not try to help ourselves. It does mean that when we have done our very best to take care of our responsibilities, we still trust in God no matter what, and do all things without murmuring or complaining.
We also will live a life of confidence knowing that God is in control and that the future will turn out according to His purposes. This is especially important when we see so many forces that are constantly working against God and His people. One purpose of the book of Revelation is to assure us that God is in control of all things and will bring all things to a just end. The message of Revelation can be summed up in Rev. 11:15: "The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!"
While discussing my position on Rom. 8:28 with one brother, he wrote: "if one took it in the absolute sense, he would be embracing an absurdity." In response, I replied that NOT to believe that Jehovah, the Living God, the All-powerful, All-loving, All-wise God, can work all things together for our good is the real absurdity.
Limiting this passage is more than limiting a verse, it is limiting our God. We would be saying He cannot override evil in the lives of His children and turn it for good. Let us not have "a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof" (2 Tim. 3:5). The same God who could turn the greatest crime of the ages, the creature murdering his Creator, and turn it into good for us, can turn all things into good if we will keep our love for Him steadfast to the end.
(Wayne Wells preaches in Texarkana, TX.
He is the webmaster for http://godofmercy.com
and can be contacted at email@example.com.)