Occasionally, somebody will ask me, “What’s your favorite verse in the Bible?” My favorite verse is one that Christians, historically, have clung to in times of
uncertainty, confusion, or tremendous loss. It’s Romans 8:28: “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.”
I believe Romans 8:28 is perhaps the single greatest promise in the Bible, but it’s also the most misunderstood and misapplied promise in the Bible. We’re going to discover what this verse does and doesn’t promise.
The Context of the Promise
Before we look at this jewel of a verse, we need to understand the setting in which this jewel is found. This section of Romans 8 is talking about the great inheritance we have as children of God. But before we get our full inheritance, there is going to be a time of suffering. Before the glory comes the groaning. Before the hallelujahs come the hurts. Before the crown comes the cross.
In verses 18–19, Paul talked about the suffering that is a part of God’s plan: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.”
Because of sin in the world, all of creation is suffering and groaning, looking for something better that is yet to come. We suffer and groan as well. Sin has infected our bodies, and the fallout of sin affects our lives every day. But in the midst of this suffering, we can know with certainty that “God causes all things to work together for good” (v. 28).
The Condition of the Promise
However, this is not a promise for everyone. Notice the condition Paul stated: “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (emphasis mine).
We think there are all kinds of people in the world today, but really there are only two: those who love God and those who hate God. And the Bible says the only people who can know that God is working all things together for good are those who love God—that is, those who are properly related to God through faith in Jesus Christ. This promise is only for Christians.
The Content of the Promise
So what exactly does Romans 8:28 promise? Many people misapply and misunderstand this verse, so I think it would be helpful to examine what it is not claiming.
What Romans 8:28 Does Not Promise
First, this promise is not claiming that all things are good. You’ve probably heard people say, “There’s something good in every situation.” Try telling that to the parents of a child who has been murdered. Your words will fall flat. The fact is, dark is not light. Sorrow is not joy. Death is not life. Paul was not saying that all things are good. Some things that happen are absolutely evil.
Second, this promise is not claiming that we can see good in all things. Again, some people say, “If you just look hard enough or wait long enough, you’ll find a silver lining in every cloud.”
My parents were both committed Christians, and when things didn’t go my way, they quoted this verse to me. After I had lost a contest at school or broken up with a girlfriend, they would say, “Robert, don’t worry—God had His reason. All things work together for good to those who love God.” I appreciate that my parents were trying to help me see the bigger picture. But life is not like a television program where everything is resolved in thirty or sixty minutes. There’s not a happy ending to every story—not in this life, anyway.
But the greater problem with the reasoning that if we look hard enough or wait long enough, we’ll see the good in any situation is that we have a wrong view of the word good. We try to define good on our own terms.
When Paul said, “God causes all things to work together for good,” he was not saying that everything is working together to make your child a star athlete. He was not saying God is using all the disappointments in your dating life to bring you the perfect spouse. He was not saying God is using the hardships at your job to make you more successful in your career. That is not the “good” Paul was talking about.
What Romans 8:28 Promises
If Paul was not saying all things are good or that we can see some good in all things, then what is this promise saying?
First, God has a purpose for your life. Romans 8:28 goes on to say, “To those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” The word “good” is related to “purpose.” Paul was saying all things are working together for God to accomplish His purpose in your life.
And what is that purpose? Verse 29 says, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” God chose to save you for a purpose: to mold you into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ—that is, to shape you to be like Jesus in your actions, your attitudes, and your affections. He wants you to love what Jesus loved, to think as Jesus thought, and to do the things that Jesus did.
The word “good” in Romans 8:28 is not a synonym for healthy, successful, admired, or fulfilled. That’s not what everything is working together to accomplish. It’s working together to make you like Christ.
Second, God’s purpose for your life includes “all things.” When you have a steady income, a fulfilling marriage, obedient children, and great health, it’s easy to say, “All things are working together for good.” But “all things” also means that unwanted divorce, that undeserved termination, and that unfair accusation are working together to make you like Christ.
Have you noticed it’s the hard things that most forge the character of Christ in your life? It’s not the easy things that make you look like Jesus; it’s the difficult things. As A. W. Tozer wrote:
If God has singled you out to be a special object of His grace you may expect Him to honor you with stricter discipline and greater suffering than less favored ones are called upon to endure.
If God sets out to make you an unusual Christian He is not likely to be as gentle as He is usually pictured by the popular teachers. A sculptor does not use a manicure set to reduce the rude, unshapely marble to a thing of beauty. The saw, the hammer and the chisel are cruel tools, but without them the rough stone must remain forever formless and unbeautiful.1
God uses all things, especially the hurtful things in your life, to mold you into the image of His Son. We can embrace the pain in our lives, knowing that God is using that pain to accomplish His purpose.
Third, God is in control of all that happens to us. Notice that Paul said, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good” (emphasis mine). God is in control of every circumstance in your life. In fact, God is the author of your life plan. In Psalm 139:16, the psalmist said, “In Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” Before you drew your first breath, God planned every detail of your life. None of it was left to chance. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” God is in control of all things. That means when we are assaulted by adverse people and adverse circumstances, we can know that it’s not accidental. God has a purpose behind everything that happens to you, and nothing happens to you that He has not allowed—and yes, even planned. Nothing comes into your life that has not first been sifted through the perfect, wise, and loving will of God.
Perhaps the greatest illustration of that in the Bible is the story of Joseph. He was sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused of rape, thrown into prison, and forgotten by his friends. And yet the Bible says over and over, “But God was with Joseph.” Finally, through a set of miraculous circumstances, God placed Joseph as Pharaoh’s right-hand person in Egypt, and he was instrumental in saving his brothers and their families from famine. Joseph had every right to seek revenge, but he chose instead to forgive. He said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph didn’t try to sweep what his brothers did under the rug. But he said, in essence, “God is bigger than you are, and He took the evil you did against me and used it for good.” God is in control of all things that happen to us.
Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, was given to fits of depression when he would take his eyes off God and focus on his circumstances. One of those times, he came home to find his wife and children dressed all in black, as if for a funeral. He asked, “Who is dead?”
His wife, Kate, replied, “Have you not heard that God is dead? My husband, Martin Luther, would never be in such a state of mind if he had a living God to trust to.”
Luther said, “Kate, thou art a wise woman. I have been acting as if God were dead, and I will do so no more.”2
God is alive, and He’s working in your life right now to accomplish His purpose for you.
That’s a promise you can claim in whatever circumstances you are facing.
From Bitter to Sweet
In his book If God Is Good, Randy Alcorn talked about his mom’s hobby of baking cakes. He said before baking a cake, his mom would always set out the ingredients on the kitchen counter: raw eggs, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla extract. One day, he decided to see how each ingredient tasted. He wrote, “I discovered that almost everything that goes into a cake tastes terrible by itself. But a remarkable metamorphosis took place when my mother mixed the ingredients in the right amounts and baked them together. The cake tasted delicious. Yet judging by the individual ingredients, I never would have believed cake could taste so good.”3
There are some things that happen to us that are bitter in and of themselves, but Romans 8:28 promises that God takes the good things, the not-so-good things, and the terrible things in our lives and blends them together to produce good—to mold us into the image of His Son. Aren’t you grateful for a God who is able to do that? That’s why I believe this verse is truly the greatest promise in the Bible.
1. A. W. Tozer, “Stricter Discipline for God’s Willing Children,” in Evenings with Tozer: Daily Devotional Readings (Chicago: Moody, 2015), February 20.
2. As quoted in Charles Spurgeon, “Exposition by C. H. Spurgeon: Isaiah XLI 1–20,” The Spurgeon Center, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/two-i-wills-in-isaiah-xli/#flipbook/.
3. Randy Alcorn, If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009), 288.