What Does "All Things Work Together for Good" Mean?

Life is full of disappointment. Whether it is mundane or tragic, man's days are filled with spills, breakups, accidents, disease, death, and malice. Part of the human experience is finding a way to endure the inevitable trials of life. As a Christian and campus minister at the University of West Georgia, I must be able to provide students with a framework to withstand trials. I have primarily ministered to college football players. In the game of football, the question is not "Will I be injured or disappointed" but "When?" Pain and disappointment are a major part of the fabric of the game. I am often with players in hospitals and training rooms as they receive season and career-ending diagnoses. It is my responsibility and desire to offer these men the Biblical truth, hope, and the encouragement they need to move forward.

In crisis situations, one verse that is often cited is the famous Biblical maxim "all things work together for good."1 Well-intentioned Christians offer this spiritual phrase in order to lift the spirit of the downtrodden. One prominent pastor calls this expression a "blessing box... a collection of verses you rip out of context and recite without concern for what came before and after the verse. It feels good, so you use it."2 People use this verse to convince themselves and others that good will eventually come in the midst of their particular trial. Unfortunately, in an attempt to help those in distress, they render a powerful promise impotent. Their failure to cite and explain the entire verse often leads to greater discontent. Neutering this profound theological truth reduces it to temporary salve at best.

Our human experience suggests that not all tragedies end well. Sick people die, broken families fail to reconcile, and relationships remain broken. These issues force one to wonder, "Does God really promise all things to end up good? And if so what is God's definition of good?" It is my desire that this paper would provide the reader with deeper insight into the treasure contained within Romans 8:28-30. When one rightly interprets and lives in light of this passage, it changes the way he encounters hardships. It also transforms the counsel he provides others in their moments of grief. This verse is more than a pithy statement for the heartbroken. It is deeper and richer than a cliché engraved on a coffee mug or bumper sticker. It is a rich theological expression of God's unchanging love.

Romans 8:28-30 is a majestic finale. Paul explains that those who trust in the righteousness of Christ can possess a remarkable assurance of hope. Paul explains:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

This rich text is brimming with terms with deep theological significance.

First, Paul reveals "all things work together for good." This is an inclusive statement. It is not restricted to bad things or good things but includes all of life's experiences. Implicit in this statement is the fact that a Christian's circumstances are often no better than those of the unbelieving world. Those who love God will face terrible experiences. Furthermore, things cannot work together for good apart from God's sovereign power. Tragedies do not work together for good on their own, God works through them to bring good. This careful explanation does not promise a life of comfort and ease to all believers or suggest that bad things are actually good. Instead, it affirms that God possesses the ability to bring about a good effect in all things. At first glance, this promise of good seems directed to all humanity. However, Paul does limit this promise to only those "who love God... and are called according to his purpose." These are two ways of describing the same group of people, namely believers.

Christians are described as those who "love Him." Christian love is an active setting of the heart upon God and His glory. The Greek word Paul uses is agapē; this word refers to unconditional love. It is love directed to "the undeserving, despite disappointment and rejection."3 While the English language only offers a generic word for love, the Greek contains several words that are translated as love. There is, "eros sexual love... phileō, spontaneous natural affection... philadelphia brotherly love... storgē, natural affection between kinfolk."4 Paul's choice of agapē clearly aligns with Christ's teaching that "He that has my commandments and does them, he it is that loves me."5 The love that Paul describes in this verse is not merely intellectual or emotional. It is a vigorous direction one's heart towards God's character. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones comments on this word choice, "I believe that Paul had a special reason for using the term ‘love' rather than the term ‘believing' at this point. One of the best ways whereby we can decide immediately if we really love God or not is our reaction to adversity."6 According to Paul, those who simply believe God exists can't claim the guarantee of Romans 8:28. Only those who love God for who He is can lay hold to this promise in the midst of difficulty.

This promise is also reserved for those who are "called according to his purpose." The calling that Paul refers to is not the general call of hearing the message of the Gospel. The word Paul chooses is "predestined" (κλητός). This verb clarifies that those who have been chosen by God are truly called to faith. In a later Epistle, Paul reveals that believers are "called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."7 In Ephesians, Paul explains that the timing of God's choice occurred "before the foundation of the world."8 The believer's assurance of faith is rooted in God's choice that preceded human obedience and even the creation of the universe. The called find their assurance not in their own merit but in God's call and commitment to uphold them.9 Thus, the predestined are able to join John Newton in believing "All shall work together for good; everything is needful that He sends; nothing can be needful that He withholds."10 According to Paul, this is plain knowledge to the household of believers. The entire passage begins with a reminder that "we know." "Know" (οἶδα) means "to have seen or perceived, hence to know, appreciate."11 Paul is suggesting that assurance of salvation is a plain and daily experience. It is a well-known fact amongst Christians who walk with God amidst trials and suffering.

1.    Romans 8:28.
2.    Tim, Keller, "The Christian's Happiness: Romans 8:28–30," Happiness & Weeping (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 7/6/1997).
3.    Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).
4 .   Ibid.
5.    John 14:21.
6.    Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 8:17-39, The Final Perseverance of the Saints (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1975) 202.
7.    1 Corinthians 1:9.
8.    Ephesians 1:4.
9.    Elwell, Baker encyclopedia of the Bible.
10.  John Newton, Cardiphonia: The Utterance of the Heart; In the Course of a Real Correspondence (Edinburgh: Waugh & Press, 1894), 371-372.
11. Robert L. Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries: Updated Edition (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998).

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