What Does "All Things Work Together for Good" Mean? (Part 2)

The promise of "good" is given to those who respond to God's choice with love and devotion. This begs the question, "What is the good Paul refers to?" Verse 29 reveals the good that God's people are guaranteed. The word "for" connects these two verses. Paul reiterates that those who are called are also "foreknown" and "predestined." "Called," "foreknew," and "predestined" each function as synonyms in the mind of Paul. Verse 29 reveals that believers are chosen by God with one purpose in mind, "to be conformed to the image of his Son." The "good" that Paul refers to is not a change of circumstances or an improved standard of living, but an increased level of personal character and holiness. God chooses believers so they may become more like Christ. In Greek, the word "conformed" (συμμορφίζω) means "to become like." It is no accident that Paul places this verb in a passive tense. The process of becoming like Christ is not merely a human endeavor. It is a divine work. God intends that His children "be His sons after the pattern, model, or image of His Sonship in our nature."1 The Greek word refers to a metamorphosis. This transformation is not simply external or superficial. It affects the depths of the heart and is permanent and lasting. Once again, Paul is not promising Christians a life of comfort or that all problems will eventually work out. Tim Keller asserts, "He means everything that happens to us is working out for our final and ultimate sanctification and holiness and salvation."2 Paul is making the case that God functions as a divine sculptor who through difficulty is able to reshape the chosen into the mold of Christ's perfection. God uses suffering to refine His people into works of art.

However, God is not content simply to make believers like Christ strictly in form. The next verse suggests that God uses "all things" to increase the relational intimacy in the believer's relationship to Himself. Paul states that God predestines and conforms "in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." Believers do not only receive the "family traits" of God. They are also legally adopted into God's family. Firstborn (πρωτότοκος) refers to "being the superior, possessing the birthright, and existing before."3 The status of "firstborn" was previously reserved for Christ alone. It stresses Christ's "right or preeminence or his position as first to rise from the dead. As firstborn, Christ is the heir of all things and the head of the church."4 Christ now shares the position of "firstborn" with His adopted "brethren." Although the believer's actions and behaviors are still being formed into Christ's, he possesses the same rights and privileges as Christ.

All believers are adopted into the family of God as firstborn sons. The practice of Roman adoption is a far cry from the modern American system. In Paul's time, most cases of adoption involved not children but adults. Typically, a wealthy individual without an heir would adopt an adult servant that he trusted so that his property would not be divided upon his death. Paul's language is intentionally gender insensitive. He does not describe adoption as being open to "brothers and sisters." In the Roman world, daughters were regarded as second-class citizens. In saying that believers are all "brothers," Paul is suggesting that regardless of one's gender, race, or social status all believers have the same privilege as a Roman firstborn. The concept of adoption infers that God loves all believers in an identical manner to Christ. In the Roman world, once an adult man was legally adopted, his relationship with his master changed drastically. In a moment "their relationship was changed from formal to intimate, from temporary and conditional to permanent and unconditional."5 Therefore, as a firstborn, all believers can claim an unchanging intimacy and inheritance from God the Father. Once the Roman church embraced the doctrine of adoption, the dividing lines between Jews and Greeks, men and women, rich and poor began to fade away.6

1. Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), Ro 8:29.
2. Keller, "The Christian's Happiness."
3. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
4. Elwell, Baker encyclopedia.
5. Keller, "The Christian's Happiness."
6. F. H. Palmer, "In the New Testament," ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 16.

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