In Romans 8:28 Paul famously assures us that “all things work together for good.” This is a much-quoted and much-misunderstood verse. Here it is in full:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
One way this verse is misunderstood is to turn it into an indefinite assurance that “everything that happens has a purpose”; things will work out well for everyone, eventually. But this promise is given only to “those who love God.” Those who do not love God have no such assurance.
But this still leaves a question: What is the “good” that will come to those who love God? Expanding on what I shared in my sermon opening today, I’d like to share three answers.
All Things Work Together for What?
First, there is the “prosperity gospel good.” Many professing Christians—perhaps even most in places as diverse as America and Africa—believe that if a Christian has enough faith God will eventually shower them with material blessings. For example, consider this:
God takes pleasure in blessing you, and it’s His will for you to be prosperous… It’s His plan for your life to have enough to take care of all your needs and be a blessing to others, too! To be able to take your family out for a nice meal, to live in a good home, to drive a great car, to go on a nice vacation, and to be able to bless others as you have been blessed… Believe God for a little extra to give, and a little extra to enjoy, and speak His promises of abundance over your life. As time passes, your faith will increase as well as your ability to receive abundance in your finances… Declare that He supplies all of your needs according to his riches in glory, expect His prosperity in your life, and thank Him before you see any change because you know it’s coming!
There is a lot of truth in those words, but also enough serious error that my employer, which sells Christian books, does not plan to order any more of this title for our shelves. I won’t unpack here all the problems with prosperity gospel thinking. Anyone who reads the New Testament carefully should see that for many of Jesus’ most faithful servants, faith in God meant “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:11), not nice vacations!
Seeing the errors of the prosperity “gospel,” many Christians look closer at the context of Romans 8 to see what “good” Paul had in mind. They note verse 29, which comes next:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
This leads to a second option: the “character-development good.” What good does God want us to enjoy? He wants us to “be conformed to the image of his Son.” What does that look like? Quite naturally, many readers think of moral qualities. What is Jesus like (WIJL)? What would Jesus do (WWJD)?
In this reading, God uses every circumstance of our lives to deepen our character. Suffering is his special way of filling us with more of his Spirit-fruit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Suffering teaches “those who belong to Christ Jesus” to “crucif[y] the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:22-24). The end result is that, as we go through all the joys and especially all the sorrows of life, we look more and more like Jesus.
What earnest Christian would not rejoice at this news? This is indeed good! And, unlike the prosperity “gospel” interpretation above, it is also true, as many Bible passages prove.
But is this the “good” that Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 8:28?
I don’t think so. A closer look at context suggests a third option, something we might call the “glorification good.” And I think it’s important to hear what Paul is saying.
Notice the final clause in verse 29. Why does God want to conform us to the image of his son? “In order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Elsewhere in the New Testament when “firstborn” language is used about Jesus, it consistently refers his exalted position–over angels, over creation, and especially over death (Col. 1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 1:5 and Luke 2:7 uses it to refer to Jesus’ natural birth order). That speaks of glory.
Similarly, in the one place where the same term is used to refer to Christians, we read of “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). That, too, suggests glory.
Back to Romans 8. Does our linguistic clue fit with Paul’s flow of thought? Consider verse 29, which comes next:
And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
This verse brings Paul’s thoughts to a climax. In many modern translations it is the end of a paragraph, with the next paragraph transitioning to wide-angle reflection on all that has been said before (“What then shall we say to these things?”). The “punch-line,” then, of Paul’s thought in this entire pericope (“puh-RICK-uh-pea,” fancy biblical studies language for “literary unit” or “section”) is the word “glorified.”
The ESV translation provides the heading “Future Glory” for verses 18 through 30. This is fitting, for the word “glory” is important in the entire pericope. Working backwards, this is what we find:
The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom. 8:21)
Notice here that the glory spoken of belongs to “the children of God.” Talk of “children” foreshadows the language of Jesus being “the firstborn among many brothers” that we found in verse 29.
The first sentence of this pericope also mentions our glory:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8:18)
And, in the verses that lead into this entire pericope, we find this:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:16-17)
Notice here the focus on our position—like Jesus—as “children of God.” Again, this closely matches the language of Jesus being “the firstborn among many brothers” that we found in verse 29.
In fact, the whole pericope from verses 18 through 30 function as an elaboration and proof of the claims in verses 16 and 17, and glory is at the heart of it all:
- Verses 16 and 17: Paul claims that we who have the Spirit are Jesus’ brothers and will someday inherit the glory that he has inherited, provided we are willing to first suffer with Jesus.
- Verses 18 to 30: Paul moves from “groaning” to “glory,” detailing the suffering we experience, assuring us of the Spirit’s help, and promising that our glorification is as good as done (“glorified”—past tense).
In this context, there can be little doubt: When Paul told his amanuensis to write “all things work together for good,” the “good” he had in mind was the future glorification of God’s children.
Why does this matter?
First, if you believe the “prosperity gospel good” interpretation of Romans 8:28, you will be sadly disappointed. Your faith is likely to be crushed beneath the persistent sufferings of this life. “When tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word,” you may “fall away” (Matt. 13:21). Or, equally bad, if you actually do enjoy prosperity here and now and pin your hopes on it, you will lose your life when you inevitably die. Make no mistake; the prosperity “gospel” is deadly.
But second, if you believe the “character-development good” interpretation of this passage, you are also in danger. As “all things” that bring suffering into your life “work together” and unrelentingly bear down upon your soul, you may grow weary of God’s refining fire. Being good may pale in comparison to being comfortable. I know it does for me sometimes.
Paul claimed that “if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Taking up your cross and denying yourself is no fun. That’s why Paul said what he did. I don’t care how much you end up sharing Christ’s character, cross-bearing is a really, really bad deal for you unless you believe the incentive of eternal reward. In fact, it is such a bad deal that you probably won’t be able to psych yourself into keeping it for long.
Not even Jesus could bear his cross without focusing on “the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2). Thus Peter urges you, too, to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13).
In short, you need to set your hope on being “glorified,” not merely on being “good.”
When you read Romans 8, never stop at verse 28. But never stop at verse 29, either. It sounds super spiritual to focus on suffering to become like Jesus. And you will indeed need to suffer if you are going to become like Jesus. But don’t try to be more spiritual than Jesus. Just aim to be with him and like him—good, yes, but also glorified!
For, one day, the two will be perfectly one, with suffering no more.
I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready for some glory. And yes, in another “moment” or two (2 Cor. 4:17), it will come. There is indeed “Such a Thing as Glory”!
May you catch a glimpse of glory to come as you walk through the “all things” of this week. And share your thoughts, glorious or otherwise, in the comments below. Thanks for reading.