What Does Romans 8:28 Really Mean?

antique BibleIs it possible to overuse a verse of Scripture? Certainly it is easy to misuse a verse, and in the process be robbed of its true riches.

Romans 8:28 is one of the best known verses in the whole Bible: “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Did I say this was one of the “best known” verses of Scripture? Let me revise that statement. It is one of the most often quoted verses of Scripture. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to quote a verse without really knowing it.

When I was in high school, I had a friend that I really looked up to. Greg was bright, talented, and most importantly he deeply loved the Lord Jesus. Unlike some of our other Christian friends, Greg was going somewhere for God. If anyone had a promising life of ministry ahead of him, surely it was Greg.

Early one Friday evening in the spring of my junior year, the phone rang. Greg had just had a freak accident. He was in a great deal of pain, and the doctors were not sure if he would pull through. I remember like it was yesterday staying up all night, sitting on the hospital floor, praying, numbly, staring at the “intensive care” sign that stood between me and Greg. I prayed for healing, and I had strong faith that God would answer. It never occurred to me that His answer might be “no.” It was. A few days later Greg entered the presence of Jesus.

Greg’s father was not a Christian, and he was understandably a broken man. Many of us who were Christians had opportunity to share with him. I will never forget when one of my brothers in Christ said to Greg’s dad, “You know, the Bible says all things work together for good.” His reaction was both understandable and predictable. He was angry and bitter, not only at Greg’s death, but at the sheer audacity of someone apparently labeling his son’s tragic death as “good!”

While I realized that this feeble attempt at comfort was well intended, it hurt me as much as anyone. To me it was a thoughtless and insensitive platitude that was totally inappropriate and untimely. Since then in my ministry I have seen a great deal more accidents and sickness than I care to think about. And more than once I have heard Romans 8:28 used in the wrong way at the wrong time.

Can I make a confession? For a while, I didn’t even like to hear Romans 8:28. In a strange sort of way, I almost resented it. But finally I came to my senses. I began to realize that if there was a problem, it was with the user of the verse, not the verse itself. I had been guilty of throwing out the baby of divine truth with the bath water of human insensitivity.

There are at least two key things which we need to understand about Romans 8:28 in order to use it in the right way. First, the verse is a statement of fact about believers, “those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” It is one of those precious pearls that should not be cast at the feet of unbelievers. They cannot possibly understand its significance, and are likely to gain from it a perverted view of God, or an image of the Christian faith being a naïve game of “let’s pretend everything is rosy, even when the roof caves in.” The often quoted verse that unbelievers need to hear is John 3:16, not Romans 8:28.

The second essential point about Romans 8:28 is that the focus is not on isolated events in the believer’s life, but on the sum total of all events. Do you see the difference between saying “each thing by itself is good” and “all things work together for good”? Think about it. The difference is tremendous. The verse does not tell me I should say “it is good” if my leg gets broken, or my house burns down, or I am robbed and beaten, or my child dies. But it does say that God will use these events, and weave them together with every other facet of my life in order to produce what He knows to be the very best for me.

chocolate cake: an analogy to Romans 8:28When I was young, my mother used to bake delicious cakes. Before she made a cake, she would lay out each one of the ingredients on the kitchen counter. One day I decided to try an experiment. One by one I tasted each one of the individual ingredients to a chocolate cake. Think about it. Have you ever tasted baking powder? How about baking soda? The flour was horribly bland and I won’t try to describe the raw egg. Even the “semi-sweet” chocolate tasted terribly bitter compared to the sweet milk chocolate I was used to eating. To sum it up, almost everything that goes into a cake tastes terrible by itself. The striking thing was that when my mother mixed it all together in the right amounts, placed it in the oven, and then laid it out to cool, an amazing metamorphosis took place. The cake was delicious. Isn’t that something? While the individual ingredients tasted terrible, the final product tasted terrific! If I would have judged the whole cake on the basis of the individual ingredients, I would never have believed it could be good.

Do you see the analogy to Romans 8:28? The individual ingredients of trials and apparent tragedies that come into our lives are neither “delicious” nor desirable. In fact, at first taste they are often very bland or even bitter. But God (shall I call Him the Master Baker?) is capable of carefully measuring out and mixing up these ingredients in order to produce a final product that is truly good. He does not ask us to immediately see every individual event as wonderful. He does expect us to trust that He is sovereignly at work even in that event, and will use it in concert with everything else for our very best good.

Once I heard a fellow pastor say, “I’m tired of hearing people tritely use Romans 8:28.” So am I. But I am not tired of Romans 8:28 itself, and pray that I never will be. When you use this powerfully explosive verse (and you should use it), handle it with care. But whatever you do, don’t stay away from it. The truth it contains can change your whole outlook on life.

Randy Alcorn, founder of EPM

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over fifty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries

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