Romans 8:28 is one of those much beloved, oft quoted verses. Everybody likes it. It is the kind of thing people like to stick of mugs and t-shirts. If we’re going to hear about the sovereignty of God – which gets people hot under the collar for some reason – let’s think of it in Romans 8:28 terms. God’s sovereignty ultimately works for my good. That’s a truth we can get behind.
Unfortunately, as with the overwhelming majority of things ripped out of context, the truth of Romans 8:28 is usually massaged to mean whatever the person quoting it wants it to mean. If all things work for my good, then God will only ever do what is good for me. So far, so true. So, goes the reasoning, what is good? Money is good. Health is good. Every wish-dream I can possibly imagine must be good. If all things work together for good, God must surely be gearing up to give me all this stuff.
It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to see how many of things might prove not to be so good. If the history of Israel tells us anything it is that when everything is going pretty well, they do not suddenly start to thank God and believe in him more, but forget him and think all is well. Far more dangerous than difficult circumstances that cause us to press into our reliance on God are good times where we fool ourselves into thinking we have no need for him. Then, of course, there are the various biblical warnings specifically against these things at any rate. The New Testament has lots to say about storing up treasures on earth and seeking after money. These apparently good things are not warned against for nothing.
We all know instinctively anyway that too much of a good thing is a problem. Just think of “good” weather, for example. Good, in the eyes of many in the West, means pleasantly warm and sunny. But again, Israel knew only too well the problems associated with that sort of good weather all the time. What they were usually crying out for was rain. That was the good weather they wanted. But anybody who has lived along the flood plain of a river know that such good weather is not good if that’s all you get. I used to live in a rainy English town (as all of our towns are) that – unlike where I live now – was not on top of a hill, but flat and on the banks of a river. Every time it rained, bits of the town came close to flooding. Most years, the town flooded somewhere. What we soon recognise is that both these forms of weather are good in moderation, with too much or too little of either representing a major problem. This is merely the case with weather, but what we perceive as only good all the time elsewhere may not be as good as we often think.
The point here is that what the Lord calls good is not necessarily what we deem good. Indeed, the goodness that God has in mind for his people is far better than any good we might dream up in our own imaginations. We are so dull in our thinking, with such limited capacity for imagination, that we can only really conceive of material or emotional immediacy. If I am healthy, wealthy and happy – possibly to the Nth degree – then my good will be served. That is the highest good we often think about. But Romans 8 is clear that this is NOT the good to which God works all things.
Romans 8:29 tells us the specific good to which all things are working. Indeed, it begins with ὅτι (hoti, for). What we read in Romans 8:28 is specifically related to what we read in v29. Romans 8:29 tells us how all things work together for the good of those who love Christ. And it tells us that ‘those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.’ This is the good to which all things work for those who love Jesus. All things work to the end of making us more like Christ and conforming us to his image.
When we understand that purpose, it changes the way we read Romans 8:28. it means whatever happens to us is God’s means of making us more like Jesus. That is the good to which all things are working. Which means whether we have loads of money or none, good health of bad health, emotional stability or emotional turmoil, apparently good circumstances or seemingly bad circumstances, an easy life or a hard life, God is using these things to make us like Jesus. That particular good is the highest good of all. To be made like Christ is more valuable to us, a greater good, than any other thing we might imagine or wish for.
What is great about Romans 8:28 is not only that God is sovereign, nor that all things work together for our good, but that the good God has designed for us is far better than any good thing we might imagine for ourselves. Whatever good we can think of, God intends all things to work towards our ultimate good of becoming like Jesus. That good is far good-er than any goodly thing we might think of.