These are the notes I made when preaching a sermon on Romans 8:28.
All things work together for good. We are used to hearing this, but much of the depth of it is usually left out. How this happens, what it means, to whom it applies, and what difference it should make is often ignored. This is a tragedy, because in my personal opinion, Romans 8:28 is one of the most powerful and precious promises the Bible gives to believers, and as such it deserves to be completely understood and appreciated.
This being said, I want to refer back to the parts I mentioned usually are missing when people mention this verse. The statement “all things work together for good” only receives its full meaning from the answers to four important questions.
- How do all things work together for good?
- What kind of “good” is this for which all things work together?
- For whom do all things work together for good?
- What is the significance of this promise for living life?
1: So, to address the first question first. How do all things work together for good? After all, this is hard to imagine. If “all” here really means “all,” then that means every little detail of life, every decision and every accident, must work together for good. That is a lot of stuff, and it is hard to imagine, living in the world in which we do, that all of it could work for good.
The answer to this question, of course, is the One who works all these things for good, namely God. In fact, a handful of NT manuscripts actually include “God” as the subject, so as to say, “God works all things together for good.” This phrasing isn’t the original text, but it does show the general Christian understanding that God is the one who makes this verse true. The method to the madness is the sovereign hand of God. Now, my point here is not to explain how God’s sovereignty works, or to discuss predestination or decrees or free will. That’s not the focus of this text. The point I want to make is simple: no matter how He does so, by God’s sovereign power He ensures that nothing happens on earth unless He in His wisdom specifically decides that it will. Whether He is merely allowing the free course of events or giving explicit decrees, we can know that everything which ever occurs comes through the strong and mighty hands of our God. Ps. 115:3. Amos 3:6. Isa. 46:9-11a. This is a sure hope for us. We don’t need to know the inner workings to know that all things can work together for good because we have a strong and good God who makes it happen.
Before I move on to the second point, I actually need to address something else. The verse begins with “we know.” How do we know that all things work together for good for those who love God? Well, Rom. 8:28 is not a complete sentence. It actually continues into Rom. 8:29-30. These explain why we know this. I won’t get in to foreknowledge and predestination right now. My point is the unbreakable chain of hope. Paul lists here the entire process of salvation, from eternity past to eternity future, and assures us that God has already accomplished the full package for us. From beginning to end, our full salvation is a done deal. So if God has already secured every last step of deliverance for us, then, as Paul says, “we know that all things work together for” our good.
2: So, that being said, what does it actually mean that God works all things together for good? There are many things said to be “good.” A heavy Word of Faith preacher might say that this means God works out everything so you can have a new car, perfect health, or ease of life. Others might suggest that this means God will always comfort His people, no matter what happens. However, to really understand this we should consider what God considers “good.” This kind of a discussion could actually be quite long and tedious, but the immediate context of Romans 8:28 can clear this up rather quickly. The next two verse trace God’s care of believers from eternity to final glorification, and the rest of the chapter celebrates the believer’s status in the love of Christ. Taking also John 17:3 into account, we come one step closer. I tie this all together Ps. 16:11, and I arrive at this conclusion: the greatest good for man is God Himself. To experience God, to know Him and the love available through His Son Jesus Christ, is the best thing that for anyone. So I gather that this is the promise: God will work out our lives so that we will know Him as deeply and happily as possible when He finally gathers us together in the end, to the greatest extent that is possible for us all in God’s redemptive plan. God will so work out our lives that when we look back from eternity, our only response will be, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the All-Powerful, reigns! Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory.”
3: Now, given what we just learned about what it means for God to work all things for good, we see that the answer to our third question, “Who benefits from all this?” must be somewhat restrictive, and indeed our text shows so. The latter half of Romans 8:28 says, “for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” This means simply believers, described once from man’s side and once from God’s. The only people who will receive this ultimate good in the end are those who love God. This makes sense, for the good referenced here, the enjoyment of all God is, would mean nothing to someone who doesn’t love God. This, then, is man’s part in this promise. God will work all things for your good if you love Him. Fortunately for us, God grades not on performance but faith, so despite how imperfect our love is, His only Holy Spirit living within us provides enough love for us to make the cut, if indeed we have the Spirit. This brings to mind the other side to this description, those who are called according to his purpose. Now, because this verse clearly equates those who love God with those who are called, this is not referring to simply the general Gospel call. This is the call that is actually effective, which accomplishes the purpose of creating love for God. Everyone who believes in Jesus, who loves Him, has been called in this way, and only those who have this calling will receive God’s work of making everything for good.
The reason I want to explain that only believers, those who have been called and love God, will receive this promise is that people tend to use it as a platitude, even for unbelievers. “Everything happens for a reason,” they say, “and God works everything out for your good.” But this is a dangerous and very incorrect thing to say to someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ. Unless they turn to Him, they will not be getting the ultimate good God works out. Instead, they are condemned already, for they have not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, and unless they come to, they will experience the most horrific judgment. Why mention this at all? It’s scary, after all. But we are called to be love to all people, so that we can be a part of God’s call which brings them to love Him and get this good. And since we are called to love, and love wants what is good for people, then we must do everything to show people they must love God, so then they will receive that ultimate good. If we don’t do that, what kind of love do we have? And if we do not love people who we have seen, how can we love God, whom we have not seen? And if we do not love God, this promise is not for us.
4: All this said, what should this promise actually mean to our lives? I mean, I think we can all agree that this is a really nice thing to know. It is a good hope to know that God works all things together for our good as believers. But what difference does it actually make?
It should make all the difference.
We need to remember that this promise says “all things!” This means everything! Every good deed and every failure. Every storm and every calm. Every laugh, smile, and kiss work for good, but also every frown, tear, scream, tantrum, mistake, failure, struggle, and explosion of chaos. Our powerful God works both the good and the bad into an ultimate good, and He promises that everything in your life will contribute to your enjoyment of His presence in eternity. This is a powerful freedom, and we would do well to live in it. It means don’t worry if your idea for how to minister or love or glorify God is impractical or insane or a mistake. God will use it for good. It means don’t be afraid to talk about your faith in the random times it comes up, because even if you completely botch it, God will somehow use it for your benefit. There is no giving, no good deed, no God-honoring intention, that will mess up your life, because God promises to work out your whole life for good. More than that, there is no failure or struggle or even sin that God does not promise to conquer and make work towards your ultimate joy in His kingdom. So we have no need to live in shame, regret, or what-if’s. We can just move forward continually, always doing whatever we trust Christ in, knowing that even if we screw up God will always work it for our good in the end. This is freedom. There is no reason to back down or be scared or be ashamed. Our God has promised us to make it all work out. So do everything that you can do in good conscience, and enjoy the sweet freedom and bliss that comes with trusting God to take care of it all. And in doing that, we make a great display of the safety of grace, which may well inspire others to love for God and make clear a call from Him in their lives.