When Romans 8:28 is understood in it’s entire context, it is one of the most satisfying and powerful verses any believer would want to know. Yet it is also one of the most mis-understood and misapplied verses in the Bible. We must tread carefully.
Making Sense of Romans 8:28
Rodgers Atwebembeire shows us the true meaning of this verse in the context of Romans 8 as a whole. Along the way he picks up on the frequent misinterpretations and inconsistencies which rob this verse of the incredible comfort and assurance it was meant to give it’s original readers – and still gives all believers today.
Jump to a topic at these time-stamps:
- Introducing Rodgers Atwebembeire (0:01)
- How We Shortsightedly Abuse Scripture to Encourage Sufferers (0:28)
- Prayer & Bible Reading: Romans 8:28-30 (1:45)
- The Popular Interpretation of Romans 8:28 (02:45)
- Word-Faith Movement Interpretation: A No-Problem Guarantee (05:40)
- Another interpretation: Let’s Celebrate Suffering (07:10)
- The Critical Importance of Context (08:05)
- Who Is Romans Written To? (08:35)
- How To Live In The Midst of Suffering (09:30)
- 4 Encouragements for Believers (11:30)
- God’s Ultimate Goal For a Believer’s Life (17:45)
- It’s About Holiness, Not Happiness (23:00)
- Fulfilling God’s Purpose, Not Ours (25:40)
- The Risk off Misusing Scripture (28:00)
We Need All The Pieces of The Puzzle
“Think of your life as a puzzle. A puzzle only makes sense when all the different pieces have been brought together. Now you can see the big picture.
When you are holding a single piece of the puzzle, not only do you not understand what the puzzle is about, but the piece itself looks useless. And until it comes together with the other pieces to form a complete picture, you are not even sure what you are holding in your hands.”
Explore more sermons, articles and videos by Rodgers Atwebembeire here
Text: Romans 8:28
Date preached: May 2020
Location: New City Community Church, Kampala, Uganda
Greetings to you brothers and sisters. It’s and honour and privilege to share God’s word with you. My name is Rodgers Atwebembeire, a pastor of New City Community Church and a Director of the Africa Centre for Apologetics Research (ACFAR) a ministry that equips God’s people for biblical discernment, the defence of the faith, and cult evangelism.
Abusing Scripture to Encourage Sufferers
For a while now we’ve been talking about some topic called abusing scripture to encourage sufferers. This especially becomes important in the wake of this COVID-19 pandemic. Where so many people are worried about the future, so many people have been infected or affected by this virus. Some have experienced loss of property, loss of jobs. Some are separated from their loved ones.
It’s understandable that they worry – that they are afraid. That they are wondering what God is doing in the midst of this crisis. They wonder what the Bible has to say about things like pandemics, like COVID-19.
Looking For Answers
In a situation like this, it’s not uncommon that so many people come up to give answers to the questions of life. Especially preachers who open the Bible or try to exposit the scriptures to explain what is going on.
Some of them – intentionally or unintentionally – are unfortunately using Bible passages for purposes for which they were not intended. A point in case that we would like to look at today is the famous verse Romans 8:28.
But before we go forward, I would like to pray, read the passage, and then we can see what it’s really about.
So let us pray.
We praise you precious Lord for your goodness and grace. That in moments of crisis and chaos you still reign supreme and remind us that Christ is the answer for all things, and the solid foundation upon which we must stand – if we are to be safe and secure. As we go through this crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic; unsure of tomorrow, not aware of what is going to happen next, we are looking up to you for help and sustenance.
We are looking for answers. But even above all, we are looking for peace that surpasses human understanding. Would you please speak to us. Especially as we open your word to seek to understand it as it was meant to be.
For Jesus’ sake we pray. Amen
So, our famous verse Romans 8:28. Let’s read it as we begin from verse 28 to verse 30.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
There it is. Romans 8:28-30. Now you will agree with me that this is one of the most popular and comforting passages in the whole Bible.
A Popular (and Comforting) Passage
It is written today on gift cards. It is hung in houses as decoration. It is used in moments of pain and suffering. It is used to remind people who are going through suffering that God cares about them; that God remembers them; that God loves them; that they need to hang in there – especially as they wait for God’s rescue in this present time. For God to deliver them from whatever trials or challenges they are going through.
God’s Better Purpose For You…
This passage has been used to encourage those who are going through pain. To remind them that God is there to work out things for their good. So, for instance, if you have lost a job you are told “Don’t worry. God has a better purpose for you. Maybe God wanted you to lose that job so that he can promote you to a better one.”
Or maybe your marriage has fallen apart and you are told “Don’t worry. Maybe God has a better wife for you in plan. Probably your first wife was not God’s will for you. So, you should expect a more beautiful one. Much younger or probably one who loves you more than everybody does.”
We’ve heard things like this:
A young woman is raped and she’s told “Don’t worry. God is working out things for your good and for your betterment.”
But How Does This Make Sense?
And as we continue to hear statements like this we wonder… is really Romans 8:28 about God working out things for us for our good? And if that is the case, how do we make sense of the challenges, the trials and the problems that we go though? Are they really all working for our good? And in what ways do we see these things actually working for our good?
If I have been having a job and I lose it, in what way do I see the loss of my job working for my good?
The Word-Faith Interpretation
Now, we also have other people who have interpreted this verse differently. Especially those who fall in the word-faith movement that promotes the prosperity gospel. Who will tell you that this verse is actually a blanket statement providing immunity against all problems.
So, no problems should come your way because God must work all things for your good. If you never went to school, don’t worry. God will use your illiteracy or your academic ignorance to still work out purposes for you to make you a great person.
They look at Romans 8:28 as a guarantee that no problems will come your way
One Extreme: A No-Problem Guarantee
So they look at Romans 8:28 as a guarantee that no problems will come your way because God is working out good things, and everything – no matter what it is – it must work for your good, to make you the kind of person you would like to be.
So, people use it to claim riches, people use it to claim healing, people use it to claim jobs, people use it to claim visas. And now, especially as we come to this crisis of the pandemic, we find people using Romans 8:28 even much more for making sense of what is going on.
And what are they saying? You cannot fall sick, you cannot have the Coronavirus, because as a Christian God is making things work out for your good. So part of being that goodness is that you cannot fall sick.
Another Extreme: Let’s Celebrate Suffering
On the other hand, we are having people who are giving up and are acknowledging or accepting suffering as a normal part of life. And they are saying “Well, if we suffer it’s because God is trying to work out something better for us. So let’s celebrate suffering. Let’s give up. Let’s not fight. Let’s not try harder when we encounter challenges because Romans 8:28 says this is part of the story – this is part of the journey – and God wants to use our pain and our suffering to bring about the good that we desperately need.”
Now there are two extremes.
One is using the verse against suffering. The other is using the verse to submit to suffering and give up all hope of rescue – or any attempt to better their lives. Simply because they are believing God will make things work out for them.
What is Romans 8:28 Really About?
But if we think for a moment, what is Romans 8:28 really all about?
In trying to understand what the scriptures say, we must always remember that context is king.
Remember the Context
And as you well know, in trying to understand what the scriptures say, we must always remember that context is king. That the Bible has a context in which it is addressing God’s people, and God’s word must be taken in the context in which it was intended if it is to be understood very well.
So, we must remember, for instance, that Paul is writing to the church at Rome. That he is writing to men and women who have confessed Christ Jesus as their personal saviour and Lord. And he has been explaining the gospel in terms of it’s source, in terms of it’s context, in terms of it’s scope, in terms of the benefits that come through to those who have accepted Jesus as their personal saviour and Lord.
Paul Is Addressing Believers
And when we come to Romans 8:28, Paul is talking about the life of a believer, especially as it is lived under the power of the Holy Spirit.
How do you live by the power of the Spirit in the midst of suffering and pain?
We will notice that a number of themes cut through Romans 8. Especially themes to do with suffering. And key to this chapter is Paul’s address to believers who are called to live by the power of the Spirit in the midst of suffering and pain.
Living By The Power Of the Spirit
How do you live by the power of the Spirit in the midst of suffering and pain? In the midst of trials and pandemics? And as you may well remember, Paul himself was not a stranger to suffering. His near death experiences, his beatings, his imprisonments, his persecutions, are enough to show us that in Romans 8, Paul is not trying to give a panacea against present suffering.
In Romans 8, Paul is not trying to give a panacea against present suffering.
This is not a “Do this and you will no longer suffer,” chapter. In fact, as we look back at the context of Romans 8, we see that Christians will actually suffer.
Christians Will Suffer
In Romans 8:18 he says “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”
In Romans 8:35 he asks a question. “What shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or stress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?” You come to verse 26 and he says “For thy sake we are being put to death all day long.”
You go to verse 38 he says: “For I am convinced that neither death… shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus…”
There are all sorts of problems that will characterise the life of a believer.
What is Paul saying?
Making Sense of Future Glory & Current Strife
That there is death, that there is sorrow, that there is trouble, that there is sickness. That there are all sorts of problems that will characterise the life of a believer. And that the believer’s life is actually meant to be lived in a context of trouble and trials; of great suffering. But all this must be lived under the power of the Spirit of God.
In fact, if there is anything that comes out very clear in Romans 8, it is how believers are called to make sense of the promise of future glory in light of present suffering.
How do believers live? How are they supposed to make sense of God’s promise that there is a future glory coming for all those who believe, especially as they live in light of the current or present suffering.
And what is Paul’s answer to that question? Paul’s answer to that question is that God is working out all things together for the good of those who love the Lord, and those who are called to his purposes.
God is in charge. No matter what the present looks like, the future is sure and secure.
How do Christians experiencing present suffering, undergoing current challenges, like COVID-19, how do they make sense of God’s promises that the future will be bright? That there’s a glory that awaits them – even as they work through the darkness of today’s darkness and challenges.
God Is In Charge
And the Apostle Paul says that your future glory is guaranteed – is assured – even in spite of the present circumstances. Especially because, number 1, God is making all things to work out for your good.
God is in charge. And because God is in charge, you are sure that he will not fail. You are sure that no matter what the present looks like, the future is sure and secure.
God Is Working Things Together
Number 2, Paul wants the Roman believers to understand that God is not only in charge of the process of bringing his promises to come to fulfilment, but God is the one making things to work together.
Paul is not saying that every single thing that comes into your life is working for your good.
Now, a key point there that you need to understand is that God is working things together. That when we come to understanding Romans 8, Paul is not saying that every single thing that comes into your life is working for your good. Paul is not saying that when you have an accident and break your leg that that accident necessarily is going to result into a blessing.
Look At The Big Picture
Paul is saying that things working together. As things work together – both the good and the bad – all individual incidences put together – God is sovereignly working all those things as a whole; as a big picture – to bring about good for you.
In other words, if you think about life as say a puzzle – that the puzzle always has different pieces. And the puzzle only makes sense when all the different pieces have been brought together.
The Pieces of The Puzzle
So when Paul is saying God is making all things to work together, he is saying that individual pieces of the puzzle in and of themselves are not what the promise is about. And, in and of themselves, will not make sense.
Individual pieces of the puzzle in and of themselves are not what the promise is about.
When you are holding a single piece of the puzzle, not only do you not understand what the puzzle is about, but the piece itself looks useless. And until it comes together with the other pieces to form a complete picture, you are not even sure what you are holding in your hands.
And the promise in Romans 8:28 is about togetherness of all things. Not just individual experiences in your life. But all the totality of your whole experiences put together – that God is sovereignly working in and through them for your good.
The promise in Romans 8:28 is about togetherness of all things. Not just individual experiences in your life.
And what that also means is that God is not only working through the positive things or the negative things, but he is working through both. The key word being there ‘all things.’ That the sovereign God in his wisdom knows how to work through your problems and your positives; through your poverty and your prosperity; through your pain and your good moments, to make it to work for the good of those who love the Lord.
The sovereign God in his wisdom knows how to work through your problems and your positives
Usually, Christians today will forget the word ‘all’ and they will start focusing only on the positive side. And they forget that God has promised that all things, both good and bad.
Pain & Positives, Poverty & Prosperity
So if you are experiencing crises, or you are going through pain or suffering of some kind, it is part of the ‘all’ that God must use.
God does not only have to use good things like job promotions, like great academic rewards and excellences, like buying a new house. God will also work through pain. God will also work through cancer. God will also work through the death of a loved one. God will also work through the accident that you are going through.
God does not only have to use good things like job promotions… God will also work through cancer.
And in the totality of all the experiences that you are going through, God sovereignly works through them to bring about good.
Some Parameters To Applying The Verse
Number 3, we must remember that there are some parameters within which this verse is applicable. For instance, did you notice that the Apostle Paul says that “God works out all things for the good of those who love him.”
What does that mean?
This verse is not a blanket security statement for everybody who reads the verse or who claims it.
That this verse is not a blanket security statement for everybody who reads the verse or who claims it. Or anybody who just claims to love God. Paul goes further and qualifies the kind of people who love God by saying that “those who are called according to his purposes.”
People Called By God
So, they are not just people who say they love God, but they are people who have been called by God himself. They are people who have been set apart by God himself. They are people who have been saved by God himself.
In other words, Paul is talking about born again believers. That this verse is applicable to people who have been saved – not just anybody who reads it or who just grabs the promise and runs with it.
The promise is not working because you grabbed it, or because you prayed through it, or because you say you love the Lord, but because you have been called according to God’s purposes.
In other words, this is really a passage for believers, and not just a general claim or a general application to anybody who has read the verse. It is very important that we understand that.
What is Good?
But point number 4, we need to be asking ourselves, when the scripture says that all things are working together for the good of those who love the lord, what is this ‘good’ that the Apostle Paul is talking about?
Does this good mean material property and prosperity like we are hearing so many people say? Does this mean that it is physical healing and restoration of the body like we hear some of the people use it when they are praying for healing?
Is It Comfort, Health and Wealth?
In a time like this of the pandemic crisis what does a verse like Romans 8:28 mean?
Does that mean it’s OK to suffer, it’s OK to be affected by the virus? After all, one of these days God will use it to bless those who have suffered or been sick by the COVID-19 virus? Is that what the Apostle Paul was saying?
And the answer unfortunately is no.
The Apostle Paul is talking about being conformed into the image of Christ Jesus.
When Paul talks about God working all things together for good, he’s not just talking about our comfort or our health or our wealth. In fact, if you look at verse 29, the Apostle Paul is talking about being conformed into the image of Christ Jesus.
Becoming Conformed To The Image of Christ
Look very closely at what Paul says.
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
So what Paul is saying here, is that for those that God called, that God is going to see them through – no matter what circumstances of life they go through. That God is using all the different experiences and situations in their lives for one goal: to bring their lives to glorification.
The goal of God working in the life of a believer… is to conform them to the image of his son.
To bring their lives to a point where they are confirmed into the image of Christ, his son. Where they are in the likeness of Jesus himself.
The goal of God working in the life of a believer, the goal of God sovereignly working through the good and bad situations of the believer’s life, is so that he can conform them to the image of his son. That is what it means for all things to work for the good of those who love the Lord.
How Do We See The Results?
How do believers know that all things have worked for their good? When they have been conformed into the image of Christ Jesus.
When circumstances in life – both the good and the bad – have resulted in their sanctification. When circumstances of life – both the god and the bad – have worked to bring them to a place of glorification, where they now look like Christ himself.
When we look at Romans 8:28-30 one of the things we learn and find encouragement in, is not so much so that God is going to take away our problems, or so that God is going to protect us in these present times. But that God is going to ultimately, climatically, make whatever it is that is happening in our lives, work for our glorification – work for our conformity into the image of Christ Jesus his son.
A Most Satisfying and Powerful Verse
In fact, when this verse is understood in it’s entire context, it is one of the most satisfying and powerful verses any believer would want to know.
This process cannot fail because God is in charge and God never fails
Especially remembering, number 1, that this process cannot fail because God is in charge and God never fails. Number 2, remembering that what God has begun in his power and sovereignty, he must bring it to completion. And that’s why Paul can confidently say that those whom he predestined, even before they became believers, are the people that ultimately must be glorified.
What God Has Begun, He Will Complete
There is no such a thing as along the way they may be lost. Along the way they may lose their salvation. Along the way – maybe due to trials and temptations – they might walk away and turn their backs against God.
God never loses any of those that he has called.
As much as believers will experience pain and suffering – to the point where they might be tempted to deny Jesus who saved them – we have the security and assurance of God’s promise in Romans 8. That God never loses any of those that he has called.
That no matter what they go through, whether it is COVID-19, whether it is the loss of loved ones, whether it is the loss of jobs. As much as these are painful experiences, God still uses them to conform those he has called into the image of Christ his son.
Will Things Turn Out Good Immediately?
Does this verse say that our sufferings are going to turn out for good immediately in the present? No.
Unfortunately, bad things continue to happen. Even to those who believe.
The current reality even shows us that unfortunately, bad things continue to happen. Even to those who believe. And many of the believers even reach their point of death without ever seeing how God has made these bad things to work for their good.
It’s About Holiness, Not Happiness
Remembering especially that believers are not just here for happiness but for holiness. That God is not bound to work things out to make them happy. But God will do whatever it takes, whatever is possible, to see them become holy people.
The goal – the ultimate good – is not one of happiness of believers, but one of holiness.
The goal – the ultimate good – that is being described in this Bible passage, is not one of happiness of believers, but one of holiness. And quite often holiness might mean a lot of pain. Holiness might mean learning endurance and perseverance. Holiness might mean sacrificing the current happiness so that we can experience the holiness and the glorification that God has prepared for us.
The Bad and The Good, Together
We can take comfort in Romans 8:28 not because God is solving our problems magically or immediately or in the current present, but that God is working through whatever it is that we are going through. Bad and good together. To bring us to the conformity of the image of his son.
God is promising that even as we walk through difficulty, much as he might not take away our difficulties today, he is none the less working through those difficult circumstances to help us to know him more intimately. To obey him more fully. To have our character shaped into the likeness of Christ Jesus.
We must remember that all things (including the bad and the good) are working together.
And so as believers we cannot expect only good stuff in this life. Nor can we hope to see only bad stuff in this life. But that both must continue to work together to fulfil God’s purposes for our lives.
God Is Working For His Purpose, Not Ours
As believers we must remember that God is not working for our purpose but his. So the goal is not our happiness and our feeling good, but God fulfilling his purposes to his glory.
Many times believers may be tempted to come to this passage, thinking that God is working to fulfil our purpose. That God is working to make us happy. That God is working to meet all the desires of our hearts. And when we see these things not happening in our lives we are tempted to wonder where God is. We are tempted to think that maybe God has forsaken us.
We are confused about what this verse was originally meant to mean.
A Comforting Assurance
But what Paul wants us to know – and what we need so that we can understand this passage well and see it as it works in our lives productively – is that we must see this passage in the entire context.
That we must see this passage as intended to fulfil God’s purpose and not necessarily ours. That this passage is not immunity from present suffering. But rather it is a comforting assurance of God’s future glorification of us. That this passage promises that both good and bad must work together and therefore, in present suffering we must remember it’s part of God’s plan.
Prosperity without pain is not a complete picture. Remember, all things must work together.
When we are going through prosperity, we must remember it’s equally part of God’s plan. And prosperity without pain is not a complete picture. Remember, all things must work together.
So today you might be prosperous, tomorrow you might not. Today you might be healthy, tomorrow you might be sick. There is a sense in which you might experience God’s blessing today, but at the same time there is a sense in which you are experiencing the so many pains that characterise a sinful world.
Yet, in God’s providence, both the pain and the prosperity are working together to fulfil God’s purpose. To bring ultimate good, which is conformity into the image of Christ Jesus.
Making Sense of Our Lives
When we remember this, then we begin to make sense of the circumstances of our lives. We begin to understand why even when we pray by faith, God does not just miraculously wipe out the COVID-19 pandemic immediately.
Even the pandemic is part of God’s plan.
It is not a sign that God is not hearing our prayers. On the contrary – it’s a sign that even the pandemic is part of God’s plan. That it is part of God’s way of sanctifying his people; of teaching them perseverance and endurance; of calling them to repentance; of teaching them dependance and trust in him; of teaching them how to wait upon God. Braving the current challenges as our eyes are focused on the glorification that awaits all those that love the Lord.
Making Sense of Romans 8:28
Is Romans 8:28 about prosperity? No.
Is it a call that we should continue to suffer because after all God tomorrow will bring good out of it? No.
In fact, God has not promised that he will use our suffering to make us better immediately. Rather, he has promised that he will use our suffering, our joys, and our pains together – to bring about ultimate glorification. To bring about ultimate conformity into the likeness and character of Christ.
The Risk Of Misusing Scripture
When believers take a verse like this out of context and use it as a blanket statement for prosperity or for wellness in times like these, not only do they hurt themselves by embracing a fantasy or a dream that might never come to pass, but they misrepresent God’s word. And therefore, they lose God’s power that we find in the scriptures.
It is important for us as believers to remember that we are called not just to read the scriptures but to understand them in their context so that we may apply them well. And only as we apply God’s word well into our lives will we experience the full and final benefit of scripture as it was intended.
Paul’s Intention in Romans 8:28
And this is what’s Paul’s intention.
That even as God’s people go through present suffering, they must remember that it’s part of God’s plan. That one day God is going to use whatever it is that’s been happening in their lives and is going to make it work for their future glorification.
Even as God’s people go through present suffering, they must remember that it’s part of God’s plan
That yes, there is hope ahead. But until then there is crisis, there is chaos, there is suffering. And Christ is working through all that crisis and chaos to make us the kind of people that God has called us to be.
That we who have been predestined, we who have been called – no matter what we go through, no matter where we pass – ultimately God must use these things to work for our glorification.
Hope In The Midst of Crisis
May God bless you so much as you make sense of Romans 8:28.
May God remind you that this is actually a powerful verse that speaks to the certainty of your glorification. No matter what you are going through.
May he help you to lift your eyes from the current temporary reliefs that are aimed at happiness, that you may focus on holiness. And that as you seek to be confirmed in the image of Christ Jesus, you will grow in understanding God. You will grow in God’s grace. You will grow in your perseverance and patience as you wait upon Christ, and you will see his plan of making you come to pass. To the glory of his name.