Romans 8 might be the best-known and most-comforting chapter in the whole Bible. I’ve come back to it again and again over the years with the effect of greater hope, greater joy, and greater resolve, and—if you pause right now and read it—it’s easy to see why.
In the previous seven chapters, Paul reviewed the ins and outs of the gospel. He wrote about the universal and all-pervasive effects of sin for both the Jew and the Gentile, the religious and the non-religious, culminating with the conclusion that we are all without excuse and are guilty before a holy God (Romans 1-3). He reminded us that we can only have peace with God and be right with Him through faith, just as Abraham was made righteous by faith so many centuries ago (Romans 4).
But this faith is not some ambiguous and non-specific feeling; instead, our faith is in the truth of the gospel, the message that even though we were sinners, Christ died for us. Having believed this message, we are indeed at peace with God, right with Him (Romans 5). In this new standing, we are to pursue holiness with our whole selves, though Paul freely acknowledged the battle against sin will be great (Romans 7). But, despite that battle, he began Romans 8 by reminding us that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Paul continues in the chapter to write about our adoption as God’s sons and daughters and help us see that the indwelling Holy Spirit reminds us of this new identity. He wrote about the vast love of God in Christ, which extends beyond any bounds, and goes so far as to say that God is not only with us, but for us, and we have evidence of this advocacy in the fact that God has already given His own Son for our ransom.
In the middle of all this joy, all this glory, is Romans 8:28. It’s a verse that is a bulwark of hope for those who are suffering, for it reminds us of God’s purpose, love, and intentionality:
“We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
We’ve read it. We’ve recited it to our souls on dark days. We’ve had it said to us in the midst of trouble. Though often repeated, we might easily misunderstand this beautiful and life-giving promise. Here are three ways we might misunderstand Romans 8:28:
- God works for our good, not our comfort.
Romans 8:28 is a verse for difficult circumstances. We read it upon the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the illness of a loved one. But, as we read it, we should be careful to understand that the promise is not for our circumstances to change. This is not the promise of a new and better job; a complete healing; or a healthier relationship to replace the one that’s lost. It is not, in other words, a promise for our ease and comfort. It is instead a promise for our good. And the greatest good for us is to know God, to walk in His ways, and to be conformed to the likeness of His Son. This is the end of God’s work. We should be careful when reading or quoting this verse not to mislead ourselves or others to believe that God is promising to give us someday a comfortable existence, for He is not. He is promising that as we walk through difficulty, He will use those circumstances to help us know Him more intimately, to obey Him more fully, and to have our character molded into the likeness of Christ.
- God works according to His purpose, not ours.
Similarly, we might read Romans 8:28 as a promise that God is going to make all our dreams come true. Just hold on, we tell ourselves, God has promised that all these things are going to eventually work out so we can do the thing or be the thing we want to be. That’s not what Romans 8 tells us. God is working all circumstances not so that our purpose for our lives can be fulfilled, but to fulfill His purposes through our lives. And what is His purpose?
Ultimately, regardless of who or where we are, His purpose is to bring glory to Himself and His Son. As we pray Romans 8:28, we should remember that we are not the center of the universe. God is. And true fulfillment and joy in life come not in trying to get God to bless our plans for our lives but instead finding our place in His ongoing story of His own glory in the earth.
- God works in all things, not just big things.
When we read that God works all things together for our good, we tend to think of the most significant, life-altering situations we’ve ever experienced. But, those are all big things. The milestones. The dividing markers. Curious, though, that the verse doesn’t say that God works the big events of life for our good. In fact, we could go so far and say that if we only think of this promise in terms of the “big,” then we are failing to grasp the true—and somewhat ironic— immensity of what we find here. “All” is, if I could say it like this, much bigger than just the big things.
“All” means all.
It means the daily commute. The casual conversation over coffee. The date night with your spouse. The almost nightly discipline of your children. The prayer before dinner and the bedtime stories at night. “All” means all. “All” even goes beyond those events of which we are immediately aware. It means those things right now happening halfway across the world we have no idea about. It means political decisions made at the highest levels. It means acts of nature and random news stories we read about. Somehow, even these things are for our good. Such is the amazingly intricate work of God—that God might be working in yet unknown ways and in yet unknown people to provide for His people in yet unknown ways.
“All” means all. Breathe it in. Because it’s happening right now. Even now, God is working all things, for our good but not necessarily our comfort, for His purposes rather than ours. This is a good word. And it’s a true word.
Michael Kelley lives in Nashville, TN, with his wife, Jana, and three children: Joshua, Andi, and Christian. He serves as director of Groups Ministry for Lifeway Christian Resources. Find him on Twitter: @_MichaelKelley.