Many people cling to Romans 8:28 during times of trouble. After all, Paul tells us that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” giving us a precious promise to cling to when we are facing tragedies and sufferings of various kinds. As with other biblical texts, however, Romans 8:28 can be misunderstood. So, let us take a closer look at this verse so that we can better understand and apply it.
Romans 8:28 Does Not Mean That All Things Are Good
We will start with what Romans 8:28 does not mean. First, the verse is not saying that all things actually are good. Scripture is quite clear that some things, in fact, are not good at all. The book of Psalms, for example, contains many psalms of lament that call out to God for vindication and salvation in the midst of many injustices. Even in the book of Romans, we see Paul identifying certain things as not good. For instance, the Apostle calls out many wicked behaviors and attitudes that are deserving of divine judgment (Rom. 1:18–32). Romans 16:20 refers to the crushing of Satan under the feet of God’s people, and Satan is anything but good.
So, when we are facing physical evils such as natural disasters and illnesses, or moral evils such as abuse and injustice, Romans 8:28 is not telling us to call those things good. True, God can use those things for a greater good, but that does not make them good in and of themselves. They are still evils, consequences of living in a fallen world.
Romans 8:28 Is Not a Promise for All People
We must also understand that Romans 8:28 does not promise that all things work together for the good of all people. Certainly, the Lord does good to all people in some sense. He sends the sun and rain on the just and the unjust, for instance, so that both groups of individuals can have food to eat (Matt. 5:44–45). Yet, Romans 8:28 is not about those universal blessings or common grace benefits that God gives to all people. Instead, the verse tells us that all things are working together for the good of a specific people: “those who love God . . . who are called according to his purpose.” The verse is a promise for Christians, for those who have trusted in Jesus alone for salvation.
Romans 8:28 Is about Our Ultimate Good, Not Temporary Goods
When we read Romans 8:28 in the context of the entire epistle, it becomes clear that Paul expects Christians to suffer during this present age and that suffering will not end until the consummation, when Jesus returns to bring the new heavens and earth (see Rom. 5:3–5; 8:18–27). Consequently, Romans 8:28 is not about the good of suffering’s end; rather, it affirms that things are working together for good in the midst of suffering and that God is working even in suffering for our good. All this serves to point us beyond the goods of this life, such as the alleviation of suffering, to our ultimate good.
Romans 8:29–30 confirms this when it lays out a fuller description of those for whom all things are working together for good. Paul goes through the order of salvation, moving from God’s foreknowledge and predestination of His people in eternity past, to their calling and justification in the present, to their glorification in the future. The good end toward which God is moving is the glorification of His people, which includes their full conformity to the image of Christ and their partaking of the divine nature, wherein they come to embody all of God’s communicable attributes—love, holiness, goodness, patience, wisdom, and so on (2 Peter 1:3–8). To put it another way, all things are being used for the good of our salvation, for the consummation of all of God’s promises to us that we will become perfected in Christ and freed from even the presence of sin.
Romans 8:28 Is about God’s Work
If we are not careful, we might think that Romans 8:28 is telling us that things work together for our good on their own. However, in light of the biblical teaching on divine providence, as well as the immediate context, Paul is really telling us that God Himself is the One who works all things together for our good. Look at verses 29–30 again, where Paul describes the end toward which we are moving. Foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification are all things that God does, and God must work in and through the various circumstances we face—our joys, our troubles, and so on—in order to communicate all of the benefits of salvation to us. He works out all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11).
Romans 8:28 Is about God’s Glory as Well as Our Good
Finally, Romans 8:28 is about God’s glory as well as our good, or it might be better to say that Romans 8:28 is about God’s glory because it is about our good. God’s purpose in creating and redeeming us is to reveal and magnify His glory (Isa. 43:1–7; Eph. 1:3–14). Scripture even tells us that man is the “image and glory of God” and woman “the glory of man,” that is, “the glory of the glory of God” (1 Cor. 11:7–8). We were made to reflect God’s glory, which is the goal of our existence, so we cannot be truly fulfilled unless we are glorifying God. Therefore, as Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us, man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.
In working all things together for good, God is simultaneously working all things together for His glory. And this is the best thing He could ever do for us, for in magnifying Himself, we find our truest and fullest delight (1 Chron. 16:28–34; Ps. 27:4; Phil. 3:12–14). To be sure, we do not always understand how He is doing this, but we can rest assured that our perfectly wise Creator is working in and through even the worst things for our ultimate good and His ultimate glory.