Is Everything that Happens Good? (Rom 8:28) - Mondays with Mounce
Romans 8:28 is a source of comfort for many in the midst of pain, and it can also be a challenge, even discouraging, for them as well. Part of the problem is that some translations mistakenly give the wrong impression of Paul's intent. Do “all things work for good,” or does “God work all things for good”?
Most of us are familiar with the wording of the KJV. “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” This basic wording is followed by most translations (ESV, CSB, NRSV, NET).
This is grammatically correct; θεόν is the object of ἀγαπῶσιν, and πάντα appears to be the subject of συνεργεῖ. “We know that all things (πάντα) work together for good (συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν) to them that love God (τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν).”
But there are two problems.
1. The translation makes it appear that all things somehow, all by themselves, work out for good. This is simply not true. There’s not some magical force in the universe guaranteeing that absolutely everything that happens is good. Genocide is not good. Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse are not good. The death of a child is not inherently good.
2. πάντα can also be accusative, which leaves the subject of συνεργεῖ unexpressed. In this case, it is θεόν that is acting as both the direct object of ἀγαπῶσιν and the implied subject of συνεργεῖ (οῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν πάντα συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν). θεόν is close enough to συνεργεῖ for this to be possible. In this case, πάντα is an accusative of respect. The advantage of this reading is that it does make sense. It is God who is at work in all situations to accomplish his good.
These considerations explain the alternative translations found in the footnotes of most of the translations. “God causes all things to work together for good” (e.g., NASB). It also explains the text of the NIV (“in all things God works for the good of those who love him”) and NLT (“God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God”).
There is a textual variant noted in the footnotes of the ESV and other translations (CSB, NET): “God works all things together for good,” or “God works in all things for the good” (πάντα συνεργεῖ [ὁ θεὸς] εἰς ἀγαθόν). Certainly, this longer reading is a later clarification of the original text, but it does get at its meaning.
If your problem with this verse is due to the interpretation that says everything that happens is good in and of itself, then please understand this cannot be what Paul means. It is God who works in the midst of all situations to accomplish good. Our sovereign God has determined that he will allow his children to only be in those situations in which he is able to work for their good.
I prefer the translation “God works in all things for the good.” This is the grammar of the verse and makes sense in the real world.
Having said that, I need to qualify myself. I just had lunch with a friend who had been an alcoholic for 35 years, and sober for the past 8. You could look at the lost 35 years and wonder how it could be good, but as he testifies his alcoholism drove him to Christ and eventually to his wife. I still struggle with saying the death of a child is good, but theologically I have to admit that God works best in the midst of pain, and in the long term God can turn the pain into good
Remember that this promise is only for those who love God; it is not a promise to the world. That is why the Greek starts with the emphasis on “to those who love God,” which unfortunately is often transposed to later in the sentence so that it is close to the final phrase, “for those who are called according to his purpose.”
But perhaps the main question of the verse is the definition of “good,” and the following two verses give Paul’s definition of good. This is the problem of breaking up a single Greek sentence into multiple English sentences; we lose the contextual clues of the larger context. Vv 29–30 define “good” as God working in all situations, for his children, for good, because his sovereign control moves inextricably from his foreknowledge of us to our glorification.” Before time he knew us and pre-determined the benefits we would receive as his children, the greatest being that we would be conformed to the image of his Son. This is Paul’s definition of “good.”
Of course, we want to define “good” in our own terms, which means the absence of pain and the presence of pleasure. The health and wealth heresy is fleecing God’s flock with this perversion of sanctification. And truth be told, most of us would prefer to have a little less pain even if it means we look a little less like Jesus. But God did not ask us how to define “good”; that’s one of the perks of being God.
The joy of the Christian comes from a deep-down faith that God is at work in all the seemingly chaotic situations of life, using our pains and disappointments to accomplish his good, which should be our good, and there is nothing better than looking like Jesus, of being “conformed to the image of his Son.”
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