Some of us make a habit of grabbing a verse, giving it a good shake, and squeezing its scrawny neck until, in desperation, it gasps out what we want it to say.
It has been well said that, “A verse without a context is merely a pretext.”
There is a verse that is so ingrained in the memory and vocabulary of us evangelicals that we pop it out reflexively and unthinkingly when we or a fellow believer hits a bumpy patch of difficulty in life. Its automatic use is akin to “God bless you!” when someone sneezes.
This droned out, pat-on-the-back verse is Romans 8:28.
And 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. (Rom 8:28 NAS)
Now this is a wonderful, encouraging verse, but it’s misuse because of improper emphasis as well as its being lifted out of context risks damaging the intent of the Holy Spirit in inspiring it.
…a wonderful, encouraging verse, but it’s misuse … risks damaging the intent of the Holy Spirit in inspiring it.
Problem 1) Improper emphasis. When we put the emPHAHHHSIS on the wrong SYLAHHble we get a stilted sentence. The danger in this verse is that in our minds we focus on “all things work together for good.” In fact, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that is often the only portion of the verse we quote!
Further danger is in its misuse to say that, “everything will work out favorably in the circumstances of the lives of those that love God.” In this use it’s a positive thinkers good luck charm, a way of saying, “Have faith, the details will turn out happily in this life.” But this verse does not say that at all. The word for “good” here does not mean “favorable circumstance”. Its use here is along the lines of moral or spiritual goodness. The second problem of emphasis is the tendency to emphasize, “those who love God” without the further explanation of who it is who loves God, and what is the root cause of us loving God: those who are called according to His purpose. The apostle John puts it in perspective, “We love, because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19 and, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10 NAS)
Paul qualifies “those who love God” as “those who are called according to His purpose.” Which leads us to the bigger picture of context!
Problem 2) Not considering the context. Here it is: Suffering in light of Eschatology. Bummer, I know, for those that think we can be sanctified without a solid knowledge of eschatology.
The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.
18 For 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. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.
23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.
24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees?
25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.
(Rom 8:16-25 NAS)
The prior context to Romans 8:28 says that there is excellent reason that present suffering is to be stood up under, with the encouragement of the Spirit, in light of the glory to be revealed in us when we return with Christ, after the Rapture of the Body of Christ, in our glorified bodies, co-heirs and co-regents with Christ, to redeem this fallen creation. It teaches that the hope of Romans 8:28 is not to be seen/fulfilled in this life (v24-24), but is the Blessed Hope after this life.
Bummer… for those that think we can be sanctified without a solid knowledge of eschatology.
v17 and 18 touch on the doctrine of rewards, the Bema Seat of Christ. The magnitude of glorification is tied to “if we suffer with him”. Also, v18 that any present suffering, with Christ in mind and heart, is orders of magnitude smaller than the future happy state and joy of those who endure it. This is not meant to diminish the awfulness of suffering or the misery of those under it’s grubby hand, but instead it truly dignifies and gives purpose to it that is far and away better. God does not waste pain.
The follow-on context is also vital, for it explains “those who are called according to his purpose” as, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; 30 and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” (Rom 8:29-30 NAS)
Notice the explanatory “For”. Romans 8:28 is true because of v29 and 30! Foreknowledge of God (which is not mere prescience about the future, but it causes the future), leads to predestination unto moral/spiritual conformity to the image of Christ. Predestination leads to calling (the greek word for “election”) leads to justification, and justification to glorification.
This is, in a nutshell, a passage about the sovereignty of our good God who has a divine purpose for things that mold and shape and squeeze his beloved children that will issue forth in their greater glory in the life to come.
This is the “good” that v28 is all about. It should be pointed out that “all things working together for good” led to the beheading of Paul, the inverted crucifixion of Peter, the imprisonment of the aged John, the violent death of all the other apostles, and… to you knowing Christ (if you do) because of their patient perseverance under trial.
So you might consider releasing your death-grip on this passage and give its context a little air to breathe next time it pops into your head.
Here is an excellent resource by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason on the topic of keeping our favorite verses in context. Never Read a Bible Verse.