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Romans 8:28-30 Biblical Commentary:
ROMANS 8:26-39. AN OVERVIEW
This much beloved passage celebrates that God is always present and always willing to help in our hour of need (v. 26)—that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (v. 28)—that, if God is for us, it really doesn’t matter who is against us (v. 31)—and that there is no power strong enough or circumstance dire enough to separate us from the love of God (vv. 35-39).
ROMANS 8:28-30. ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD
28We know that all things (Greek: panta—accusative plural) work together (Greek: sunergei—third person singular) for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose. 29For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30Whom he predestined, those he also called. Whom he called, those he also justified. Whom he justified, those he also glorified.
“We know that all things (panta—accusative plural) work together (sunergei—third person singular)for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose“ (v. 28). Should the subject of this sentence be “all things” as the KJV and NRSV translate it (“all things work together for good”) or God (“God works together all things for good”)? The Greek is not clear, and scholars differ. Wright believes the subject to be God (“God works together all things for good”), and I agree:
• Wright notes that God is the subject in verse 27 and again in verse 29. If Paul intends “all things” to be the subject in verse 28, he should clarify the rapidly changing subjects in those three verses. He fails to do that, suggesting that God should be the subject of all three verses (Wright, 600).
• However, even if “all things” is the subject, God has to be the behind-the-scenes actor who makes them work for good. “All things” are hardly good in and of themselves. It requires God’s powerful hand to transform bad to good. Given a choice of subjects, why not choose the one (God) that makes this clear?
• The Greek also makes clear that God should be the subject. “All things” (panta) is accusative (a direct object) rather than nominative (a subject). Also, “all things” is plural while the verb, sunergei, is singular. The subject and verb should agree, but “all things” and “work together” fail to agree. “God” and “works together” agree—both are singular.
Is this of academic interest only, or does it make a difference? I believe that it makes a difference that, while subtle, is quite important. We often quote this verse to encourage people who are suffering. When we tell them that “all things work together for good,” we fail to make clear that it is God who has power to bring good out of bad—who transforms Good Fridays into Easters. When we say “all things work together for good,” it sounds as if we believe “all things” to be good—that we are counting as insignificant the circumstances that caused their pain. Therefore, “all things work together for good” comes across as a platitude, as if we were saying, “Don’t sweat it—it’s going to be O.K.” We should not be surprised if the sufferer dismisses such counsel as drivel—and dismisses us as spiritual caregivers as well.
But if God is the subject (“God works together all things for good”), it remedies these problems and, as nearly as I can tell, creates no new ones. Given the choice between a questionable translation (“all things work together”) that creates problems and a less questionable translation (“God works together”) that does not, why not choose the latter?
“to those who are called according to his purpose” (v. 28b). The promise does not apply to everyone. Only the person who loves God and is called according to his purpose is assured that God will transform his/her bad situation to bring a good result.
The idea of God’s call goes back at least as far as Abram (Genesis 12:1). God’s call might seem exclusive, but the Parable of the Wedding Banquet speaks of the king’s invitation extending to “as many as they found, both bad and good” (Matthew 22:10). The king found no fault with any invited guests, good or bad, except for the man who failed to don a proper wedding garment. The king punished only that man. Jesus concluded the parable, “For many are called, but few chosen” (Matthew 22:14), suggesting that God extends the call broadly, but it is effectual only for those who respond appropriately.
“For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. Whom he predestined, those he also called. Whom he called, those he also justified. Whom he justified, those he also glorified” (vv. 29-30).
Note the progression of the verbs in verses 29-30. They start at the beginning of time (foreknew) and extend to the end of time (glorified):
God’s goal is our justification and glorification (v. 30), which entails being “conformed to the image of his (God’s) Son” so that we might become part of God’s large family (v. 29). From the beginning, we were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), but that image was distorted and broken in the Fall (Genesis 3). God foreknew that we would fall, but predestined us to be restored our original image by becoming like the Son. God intends us to become Christ-like—to bear the image of Christ.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bartow, Charles L., in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Gaventa, Beverly R. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, Vol. 38A (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Morris, Leon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
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Copyright 2011, Richard Niell Donovan