Romans 8:28

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NRSV).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

WE CANNOT UNDERTAKE ANALYSIS of a Scripture passage without saying something about exegesis.  This process amounts to careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text. Exegesis has been called by some as scholarly reading, which means reading in a way that determines the essence of the text through the most complete, systematic notation possible, examining the phenomena of the text and grappling with the reasons that speak for or against a specific understanding of it. Another appropriate description of exegesis is “close reading,” a term borrowed from literature. Close reading means the deliberate, word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase consideration of all parts of a text in order to understand it as a whole.

I find several biblical commentaries to be helpful in unpacking the exegetical meaning of Scripture. In particular, I speak highly of Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Tremper  Longman and David E. Garland,  and Zondervan Bible Commentary, edited by F.F. Bruce. I also frequently use The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), and The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, translated by Alfred Marshall. I often refer to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Daniel J. Treier and Walter Elwell. Reference texts like these can be quite useful when examining a passage of Scripture.

Exposition

Paul introduces yet another benefit of life in the Spirit. He writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NRSV). Some of the ancient authorities read, God makes all things work together for good, or in all things God works for good. Matthew Henry writes, “That is good for the saints which does their souls good. Every providence tends to the spiritual good of those that love God” (1). Henry believes this passage means God uses all circumstances to aid in breaking us off from sin, bringing us nearer to Him, weaning us from the world. He adds, “When the saints act out of character, corrections will be employed to bring them back again” (2). Romans 8:28 brings comfort, direction, and hope to Christians every day. 

This verse contains a promise for believers. Paul is telling us that those of us who love God and are doing our best to obey his commands will come out on top even when bad or wicking things touch our lives. God will always use whatever happens to His chosen to ultimately bring about good. There is obviously nothing good about cancer, sex trafficking, addiction, or death. Such evils exist in the world, and will remain so until Jesus returns to conquer Satan and restore creation to its intended purpose. Romans 8:28 serves to remind us that although sin and Satan are powerful forces on earth , God is more powerful. He is able to redeem and restore any situation, and He will continue to do so until Christ returns in all His glory.

It is not likely Paul literally meant “all things.” This would be rather general, including any and all situations anywhere and everywhere on earth no matter who is involved or affected. He is instead referring specifically to those things that are generally considered adverse and are turned around and used for good; i.e., for accomplishing God’s will for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. This fits nicely with Romans 5:3-5: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Indeed, no matter what we face God is there, working all things out in such a manner that it will ultimately bring about His will for us.

Certainly, we don’t like to fall victim to adverse circumstances. We want God to rescue us from bad situations. Why should a pastor and his family die in a head-on car crash with a drunk driver? Why did Nabeel Qureshi, after converting from Islam to Christianity and joining Ravi Zacharias in a global effort of evangelism and apologetics, die of stomach cancer? Why are churches wiped off the face of the earth by tornadoes? Perhaps the answer is hidden in a remark a Christian said to me nearly two years ago when I was still struggling in active addiction and facing some serious challenges. He said, “God wants you to know that everything you’ve gone through from the time of your birth to this moment right now was ordained by Him to help make you into the man He needs you to be in order to fulfill His purpose.” Whoa! That’s pretty heavy.

Romans 8:29 says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.” This is a companion verse to the promise in verse 28. God allows everything into our lives for one of two purposes—either to bring us into a relationship with Himself or, if we already know Him, to make us more like Jesus Christ.

Some biblical scholars consider Romans 8:28-29 the “the golden chain of salvation.” It is important to read Romans 8 to the end. Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” God did not spare His only Son; rather, He sent Christ to be a propitiation for our sins. Jesus paid the wages of sin and destroyed Satan’s authority over the believer. Paul said, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?” This verse can be interpreted as saying, Shall Christ who has died so that we might live thereafter condemn us? Or, by inference, does Jesus bring about calamity in our lives? Does He put a snare before us that prevents our circumstances from turning out for good in the end? No! Instead, Jesus is constantly interceding on our behalf before the Father (8:34).

The Hidden Will of God

The hidden will of God (His decretive will) includes all He has ordained through every event in history, including the thoughts and hidden intentions of every person. It is critical to realize that, although God works out everything according to the counsel of His sovereign will (see Eph. 1:11), not everything God ordains in His hidden will is pleasing to Him. God’s decretive will is defined as the sovereign, efficacious will by which He brings to pass whatever He pleases by His divine decree. God’s decretive will can have no other effect or consequence than what He commands. He did not request the light to shine in the universe. Neither did He coax, cajole, or woo it into existence. It was a matter of His absolute authority and power through decree. No creature, including man, enjoys this power of will.

As finite beings, we cannot know  or comprehend the hidden will of God. We can only look back in history and know only part of what God’s hidden will was for any particular situation. God’s decretive will always come to pass. Whatever happens has been ordained by God to bring about His sovereign will. As Christians, we are not permitted to know (nor should we seek to know) the hidden will of God. Instead, we must live by what has been revealed in Scripture, trusting that regardless of the circumstances God will bring about good. Rather than causing anxiety about what will happen, we need to take comfort in Paul’s words. Because Christ intercedes on our behalf in every instance, we can enjoy true shalom. God protects us from annihilation no matter what happens in our daily lives (Phil. 4:6-8).

Believers can also rest in the knowledge that God is and will always be as He has revealed Himself in His Word. He is unchanging (Heb. 13:5-6). Christ alone is sufficient for meeting our every need (Phil. 4:13). He is our Rock of Refuge (Psa. 18:2); our very present helper in time of need (Psa. 46:1). God’s hidden will is never meant to be punitive; rather, it testifies to His infinite goodness, mercy, and grace. We can rest in the knowledge that God’s communicable attributes—wisdom, goodness, love, mercy, holiness, righteousness, and justice—are at the root of His will for us and his love for all mankind. God always exercises His power according to His wisdom and knowledge. He sees all time at the same time, allowing Him to know what happened, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future all at once! His wisdom and knowledge are inseparable from His goodness, love, and mercy. He is good toward all He has made. His attributes are identical with His essence.

Martin Luther expounded upon Romans 8:28 in his Commentary on Romans. He wrote, “We must not be surprised that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, since He works together with God’s saints in all they do… He works together with us all things” (3). Luther remarked that God makes all things work for good even though they are evil (in themselves, e.g., sickness, persecution, etc.). There is an underlying suggestion in this Scripture passage that such predestination for good does not apply to those who walk in the wisdom of the flesh and are not called according to the purpose of God. Luther notes that Paul’s use of purpose in Romans 8 means God’s predestination, or His free election, to use whatever happens to further His will.

Regarding Predestination in Romans 8:29

It is critical that we understand the scope of predestination as it is used in this passage. There is much debate between the early Reformers as to whether God chooses to save “only a certain person or persons,” thereby condemning all others to damnation. I believe God preordained the redemptive plan, not who will live and who will die. In any event, “predestination” in Romans 8:29 has a broader scope than identifying those who will receive salvation. The backdrop is “adoption.” It refers to our sharing in the suffering of Christ, and our ongoing sanctification. As we shared in His suffering and death, so also shall we share in His resurrection and new life. As children of the Father, and brothers and sisters of the Son, we enjoy the benefit of God’s will working through whatever circumstance we might face.

Accordingly, Paul assures us that we are more than conquerors through Christ who strengthens us. Therefore, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:38-39). God works everything God for good for those who love him, and who are called according to his purpose. Praise God!

(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nahsville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 1080.

(2) Henry, 1080.

(3) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, J. Theodore Mueller, editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954).

 

Healing Emotional Wounds From Your Past

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. (Romans 8:28, NASB)

Dan and Cindy were a fine, young Christian couple preparing for ministry on the mission field. Then tragedy struck. Cindy was attacked and raped by a stranger in the parking lot one night after work. The police were unable to find her attacker, and Cindy had a hard time bringing any closure to the nightmare. The trauma was so severe that Dan and Cindy moved out of the city. As hard as she tried to get back to normal life, Cindy couldn’t shake the horrible memories and feelings from her experience. She was trapped by her trauma.

One of the most vital things we can learn regarding our Christian life is how to handle the trials that will inevitably come our way. Many Christians naively expect a life of joy once they have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. When hit with adversity, they begin to doubt the love of God. Why me? I love the Lord. I go to church. New believers, especially those who have emerged from a life of failure, are looking for success in their new life, not suffering.

Romans 8:28 is one of the most familiar verses on this subject. The NASB translation states, “God causes all things to work together for good.” Let’s not come away thinking this verse says God causes the very thing itself in order to bring about good in the life of the believer. It is saying, rather, that things don’t just happen to work out for good on their own. God providentially works all things together for good for His people according to His purpose. But while Romans 8:28 is a source of great comfort when it is properly understood, it is often misunderstood and misapplied.

BAD THINGS DO HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

Your story may not be as severe as Cindy’s, but all of us have hurtful, traumatic experiences in our past that have scarred us emotionally. You may have grown up with a physically, emotionally or sexually abusive parent. You may have been severely frightened as a child. Maybe you have suffered through a painful relationship in the past: a broken friendship, the untimely death of a loved one, a divorce. Any number of traumatic events in your past can leave you holding a lot of emotional baggage. Those experiences are buried in our memories and available for instant recall when we least expect it.

The cycle of emotions goes like this: (1) previous life history determines the intensity of primary emotions you experience when (2) a present event triggers the memory of your past trauma, then (3) you perform a mental evaluation in order to manage your present emotional response, attempting to apply reason, resulting (4) in a secondary emotional response, typically far less intense than your primary emotional reaction. Of course, many of these primary emotions lie dormant within you and have little effect on your life until something triggers them. Perhaps you’ve seen this happen when a seemingly innocuous conversation you are having with someone sends him or her storming out of the room. What set him off? you wonder. You unwittingly touched a nerve.

The problem is, you cannot isolate yourself completely from everything that may set off an emotional response. You are bound to see something on TV, or hear something in a conversation, that will bring to mind your unpleasant experience. Something in your past is unresolved, and therefore it still has a hold on you. I once heard it said that when we fail to deal with past events that have caused emotional baggage, we tend to bring the emotions of that past trauma into our current relationships. When this happens, our decisions are not so much undertaken by us as they are driven by the emotions of the prior event.

LEARNING TO RESOLVE PRIMARY EMOTIONS

You have no control over a primary emotion when it is triggered in the present, because it is rooted in the past. Therefore, it doesn’t do any good to feel guilty about something you can’t control. You can, however, stabilize the primary emotion by evaluating it in light of present circumstances. For example, suppose you meet a man named Bill. He looks hauntingly like the Bill who used to beat you up as a child. Although he is not the same person, your primary emotion will be triggered. So you quickly tell yourself, “This is not the same Bill; give him the benefit of the doubt.” This mental evaluation produces a secondary emotion that is a combination of the past and the present.

You have done this thousands of times, and you have also helped others do the same. When people fly off the handle, you try to help them cool down by talking to them. You are helping them gain control of themselves by making them think; by putting the present situation into perspective. Notice how this works the next time you are watching a football game and tempers explode on the field. On player grabs an enraged teammate and says, “Listen, meathead, you’re going to cost us a 15-yard penalty and maybe the game if you don’t simmer down!”

Some Christians assert that the past doesn’t have any effect on them because they are new creations in Christ. I would have to disagree, and here’s why. Either they are extremely fortunate to have a conflict-free past, or they are living in denial. Those who have had major past traumas and have learned how to resolve them in Christ know how devastating past experiences can be. Many Christians have brought their major traumatic experiences to counseling sessions. Some have been abused to such an extent that they have no conscious memory of their experiences. Others constantly avoid anything that will stimulate those painful memories. Most don’t know how to resolve those past experiences, so they have developed myriad defense mechanisms to cope. Some live in denial. Others rationalize their problems, or try to suppress the pain by an excess of food, sex, drugs and alcohol, or other vices.

A major role of psychotherapy is to determine the root of primary emotions. Sometimes psychotherapists resort to hypnosis or pharmacotherapy to get at the sources of their clients’ problems. I worked for eighteen months in a dissociative disorders unit at a psychiatric hospital outside of Philadelphia, PA. Dissociative disorders involve disruptions or breakdowns of memory, awareness, identity or perception. People with dissociative disorders use dissociation, a defense mechanism, pathologically and involuntarily. Dissociative disorders are thought to be primarily caused by previous severe psychological trauma. Patients suffering from possible multiple personality disorder are sometimes treated with sodium amytal interviews in order to assess and manage catatonia, hysterical stupor, and unexplained muteness, as well as in distinguishing between depressive, schizophrenic, and organic stuporous states. My clinical experience at that psychiatric facility involved treating women allegedly suffering from multiple personality disorder, which was thought to be caused by severe, long-term physical or psychological trauma during childhood and early adolescence.

SEE YOUR PAST IN LIGHT OF WHO YOU ARE IN CHRIST

I have come to believe that the answer for repressed memories is found in Psalm 139:23-24, which states, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (NIV)

How does God intend you to resolve your past experiences? In two ways. First, understand that you are no longer a product of your past. You are a new creation in Christ: a product of Christ’s work on the cross. You have the privilege of evaluating your past experience in light of who you are today, as opposed to who you were then. The intensity of the primary emotion was initially established by how you perceived the event at the time it happened. People are not in bondage to past traumas so much as they are in bondage to the lies they believed about themselves, God, and how to live as a result of the trauma. That is why truth sets you free.

As a Christian, you are literally a new creature in Christ Jesus. Old things, including the traumas of your past, passed away. (2 Corinthians 5:17) The old you in Adam is gone; the new you in Christ is here to stay. We have all been victimized, lo, even traumatized, but whether we remain victims is up to us. An old-timer I knew in Alcoholics Anonymous used to share, “Victims drink!” Those primary emotions are rooted in the lies we believed in the past. Now we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds. (See Romans 12:2) The flesh patterns are still imbedded in our minds when we become new creations in Christ, but we can crucify the flesh and choose to walk by the Spirit. (See Galatians 5:22-25)

Now that you are in Christ, you can look at past events from the perspective of who you are today. You may be struggling with the question, “Where was God when all this was happening to me?” The omnipresent God was there, and He sent His own Son to redeem you from your past. The truth is, He is in your life right now desiring to release you from your past. That is the Gospel: the “Good News” that Christ Jesus came to set the captives free. Perceiving past traumatic events from the vantage point of your new identity in Christ is what starts the process of healing those damaged or toxic emotions.

FORGIVE THOSE WHO HAVE HURT YOU

The next step in resolving past conflicts is to forgive those who have offended you.  You have to break free from the typical mindset of, “Why should I forgive him? You don’t seem to understand how bad he hurt me!” The first reason is that forgiveness is required by God. As soon as Jesus spoke the “amen” to his model prayer – which included a petition for God’s forgiveness – He commented, “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (See Matthew 18:14-15) We must base our relationship with others on the same criteria on which God bases His relationship with us: love, acceptance, and forgiveness. (See Matthew 18:21-35)

The second reason is because forgiveness is necessary to avoid entrapment by Satan. Unforgiveness is the number one snare Satan uses to gain entrance to our lives. I read a terrific book on this subject by John Bevere (2004) called The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense. In his preface, Bevere says, “The issue of offense – the very core of The Bait of Satan – is often the most difficult obstacle an individual must face and overcome.” Bevere tells us the Greek word for “offend” used by Jesus in Luke 17:1 is skandalon, which originally referred to the part of an animal trap to which the bait was attached for luring the animal. In similar fashion regarding the sin of offense, the word signifies laying a trap in someone’s way! Paul encourages us to forgive “in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes.” (See 2 Corinthians 2:11)

The third reason is simple: forgiveness is required of all believers who desire to be like Christ. Paul wrote, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32, NIV)

WHAT IS FORGIVENESS?

Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgetting may be a beneficial long-term byproduct of forgiving, but it is never a means to forgiveness. When God says He will remember our sins no more (See Hebrews 10:17), He is not saying, “I will forget them.” God is omniscient; He cannot forget. Rather, He is saying He will never use our past against us. He will remove it from us as far as the east is from the west. (See Psalm 103:12) Moreover, forgiveness does not involve tolerance for sin. It is proper to forgive someone’s past sins, but we must take a stand against future sin.

Forgiveness does not seek revenge or demand repayment for offenses suffered. A friend of mine is notorious for saying, “I’m all about paybacks!” I told him he must not seek retribution no matter what the offense. He said, “You mean I’m just supposed to let them off the hook?” I might have gotten through to him the last time we spoke. I said, “Yes, you let them off your hook realizing that God does not let them off His hook.” We may feel like exacting justice, but we are not an impartial judge. God is the just judge who will make everything right in the end. “‘Vengeance is Mine. I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (See Romans 12:19)

Forgiveness means resolving to live with the consequences of another person’s offense. In reality, we have to live with the consequences whether we forgive the offending person or not. Actually, we are all living with the consequences of Adam’s sin. I can’t count the number of people – believers and non-believers alike – who don’t think that this is fair. Some have even gone as far as to insist they would have obeyed God and not eaten from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Obviously, we’ll never know, will we? So our only real choice is simple: either live with the consequences of the Fall in the bondage of bitterness and offense, or in the freedom of forgiveness.