Summary: When Paul says "all things work together for good," does he really mean all?
Dr. James Dobson wrote a book in 1997 entitled When God Doesn’t Make Sense. The book was written for anyone struggling with trials and heartaches—the death of a loved one, disease, divorce, rejection—in the hopes of understanding the meaning of suffering in the world. He takes the reader through eleven chapters until he reaches the conclusion. It’s the conclusion we’re all looking for when it comes to hardships, trials and heartaches in this life. You know his conclusion? “I don’t know.” Eleven chapters, and he finally gets to point—I don’t know.
I stand as one before you today who can answer the question the same way. Why do we go through trials? Why do we face hardships? Why is there suffering in the world? Why does God allow evil? These are all hard questions. We want answers. The best answer I can give is, “I don’t know.” Oh, we go to the Bible to try to find the answer, and one of the places we often go is Romans 8:28. That’s the first verse we read in our passage today: And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (NKJV). We hear the word all and we ask, “Does all mean all?” Yeah, see…we do with that verse what we do with so many other verses. We take a single verse and try to form a deep theological answer to a complex issue. Oh, that it were so easy. It can lead us to a shaky theology that fails us in those hardships and difficulties. Scripture is like real estate. In real estate, three things are important: location, location and location. Well, in scripture, three things are important: context, context and context. If we want to understand if all means all, we have to understand all of what the author was saying.
I buy a lot of books. Books are the tools of a good preacher. I can look at the cover of a book, and the title may tell me a little something of what the book is about, but it may not. I can turn the book over and read the back and discern a little more about the contents and the author’s intent. I can read inside the dust cover and still learn more, but mostly it’s mere speculation as to the point the author is making. I can skim the table of contents and get a feel for the information, and I can even select a chapter to read. I may have a pretty good indication about what the author is trying to communicate, but if I want to really know his/her point, I must read the all the book. Only then can I know the context of the content.
Thus, lies the problem with formulating a theology on a singular verse of scripture. If we want to know what Paul meant when he wrote “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purposes,” we have to understand the verses around it, and we have to understand where it fits in the entirety of the letter he wrote to the Romans. We can’t know if all means all until we know all the argument Paul is making as he writes those words. And you know what I discover? I discover that theology becomes really confusing. I just need practicality. I just would like to know, “Is God working in all this mess of a life of mine?”
The answer, for Paul and for us, is, “Yes.” All really does mean all. The overall context of Romans 8:28 is one in which Paul addresses living by the power of the Spirit in the midst of suffering and pain. Paul was no stranger to suffering; his several near-death experiences, beatings, imprisonments, and persecutions were enough to eradicate any Pollyannaism that might have lurked in his heart. In the immediate context, Paul lists some qualifiers for the good to take place: “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28, NET Bible). Paul is not giving this promise to all people, but only to those “who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
But what does this mean? Those who love God are, in this context, Christians, because they are called according to God’s purpose. We have to be careful to not say, “As long as you love God, things work out; but whenever you are not loving God, things do not work out for your good.” That’s bad theology. No, if we have faith in Christ, then all means all. Immediately after, Paul speaks of our conformity to Christ, our glorification, as the inevitable outcome of those who love God. And that is not dependent on how much we love God but on the finished work of Christ on the cross. Paul concludes this chapter by making explicit that nothing can separate us from the love of God (vv. 38-39), and by implication, that would include even our temporary lapses in our love for the Savior.