Does “all things work together for good” in Romans 8:28 mean that God always brings good out of the bad things that happen to us, and how can we know what that good is?
Great question! When you compare translations of Romans 8:28, you find two main variations. Some versions say “God works all things together for good” (NASB, NIV, NLT). Others say, “All things work together for good” (KJV, ESV, HCSB, NET). The reason for this difference is that the NASB, NIV, and NLT follow three early manuscripts of Romans that have God as the explicit subject of the verb “works together.”
On the other hand, the ESV, KJV, NET, and HCSB follow the majority of manuscripts which do not have the word “God” as the subject of the verb “works together.” In this case, I’m inclined to agree with the KJV and others that “all things work together for good” is the best translation.
This verse does not mean that every that happens to us is really good, i.e., “a blessing in disguise.” It does not mean that God will turn all the bad things that happen to us into perceptibly good things. Genuinely bad things happen to genuinely blameless people for no apparently good reason.
What this verse does teach is that “all things” work together for the *ultimate* good of those who love God. That ultimate good is identified in v. 29: “to be conformed to the image of His Son, that he might be preeminent among all his brothers.” The greatest good that can happen to us is for us to become like Jesus, who is the exact image of the Father.
Precisely why, in each case, God permits specific trials, sufferings, and consequences of sin to invade the lives of those who love him is not something He has revealed to us (Deut. 29:29). Neither has He promised to reveal how the “all things” of our lives relate to making us like His Son. What God has revealed to us in Scripture and what is implicit in Romans 8:28 is that He is sovereign, good, wise, and faithful. I call these the four pillars. A life founded firmly upon these four truths about God’s character cannot be shaken.
God is sovereign. That means there is nothing outside the bounds of his control. There are no accidents or “oops’s” in Heaven’s control room. God superintends all things. The book of Job teaches us that nothing comes into our lives as children of God that has not first come before the Heavenly Council to receive God’s permission.
God is good. That means that He has my best interest at heart in everything that He allows to come into my life. God is never mean-spirited. He is never fickle. He always intends good both in what He does and what He permits.
God is wise. That means God never makes a mistake when He allows evil to touch our lives. He never permits too much tragedy. He is never guilty of “overkill.” His wisdom insures that He always chooses the best methods and timing for accomplishing His grand design of fashioning us in the image of His Son. No matter how impossible or how bad our situation appears to be, God’s wisdom enables Him to bring great good out of it for us and great glory out of it for Him.
God is faithful. That means that He always keeps His promises. He is completely trustworthy and absolutely reliable. He never fails. He never falters. He is always true to His word. God’s sovereignty and wisdom conspire together to bring His good plan for “all things” unerringly to fruition in our lives.
No wonder Paul exclaims, “What shall we say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us! He that spared not His own son, but freely gave him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things!”
Does this mean that Romans 8:28 is no comfort that “everything will eventually work out OK?” It depends on what you think OK is. If OK = Christlikeness in the lives of those who love God, then “all things” do work together for good.