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 8:26-27. THE SPIRIT HELPS
26In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weaknesses, for we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can’t be uttered. 27He who searches the hearts knows what is on the Spirit’s mind, because he makes intercession for the saints according to God.
“In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weaknesses” (v. 26a). The words “In the same way” links this verse to those that preceded it. In verse 18, Paul spoke of “the sufferings of this present time,” and went on to speak of creation waiting “with eager expectation” (v. 19) to “be delivered from the bondage of decay” (v. 21). He said that all creation groans in pain (v. 22), as do we “who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body” (v. 23). He spoke of our “hope for that which we don’t see,” telling us that “we wait for it with patience” (v. 25). It is in the midst of this suffering, groaning, and waiting that the Spirit intercedes for us (v. 26).
“for we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can’t be uttered” (v. 26b). Sometimes when we pray, we know exactly what we want to say and what we want God to do. Such prayers easily degenerate into a “to do” list for God. At other times, we find ourselves so overwhelmed that we can pray only “God, help me” or “God, forgive me.” At times, we try to pray but fall asleep or find ourselves distracted by other concerns. The good news is that, just as God has the grace to provide access to salvation that we don’t deserve, he also has the grace to hear prayers that we don’t know how to pray.
“groanings which can’t be uttered” (v. 26b). While some have chosen to interpret this phrase to mean glossolalia—speaking in tongues—there is little to commend that opinion.
“He who searches the hearts knows what is on the Spirit’s mind, because he makes intercession for the saints according to God” (v. 27). Instead of translating our “to do” list into a special language reserved for communication with the Father, the Spirit adapts our prayers to fit the will of God. That is a blessing, because it allows us to pray from the heart freely without fear of making a mess by asking wrongly. Indeed, if God answered every person’s prayers as asked, the result would be chaos. By running our prayers through the Spirit-filter, God spares us that.
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.
ROMANS 8:31-36: IF GOD IS FOR US, WHO IS AGAINST US?
31 What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how would he not also with him freely give us all things (Greek: panta—all things)? 33Who could bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who justifies. 34Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, yes rather, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Could oppression, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36Even as it is written, “For your sake we are killed all day long. We were accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
“What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (v. 31). These are the first two of a series of rhetorical questions. The setting is a courtroom where God, predisposed in our favor, sits as judge/advocate. We should not imagine, however, that “us” means all people. Paul is talking about “those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (v. 28). He is talking about those whom God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified (vv. 29-30).
The first question (“What then are we to say about these things?”) signals the importance of what follows (Gaventa, 421). The second (“If God is for us, who is against us?”) is Paul’s way of announcing that, if God is for us, it really doesn’t matter who is against us. Christians in Paul’s day faced many opponents, but none of those opponents, even operating jointly, had the power to thwart God’s purposes. Christians in our day face opponents too, but Paul’s assurance applies to us as well. God is for us too. As the abolitionist Wendell Phillips said on the eve of the Civil War, “One on God’s side is a majority.”
“He who didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all” (v. 32a) alludes to Genesis 22, where Abraham obeyed God, even when God required the sacrifice of his beloved son, Isaac. God’s angel stopped Abraham at the last minute, drawing his attention to a ram caught in a thicket—a sacrifice provided by God to take the place of Isaac on the altar. The angel then communicated this blessing from God to Abraham:
“Because you have done this thing,
and have not withheld your son, your only son,
that I will bless you greatly,
and I will multiply your seed greatly like the stars of the heavens,
and like the sand which is on the seashore.
Your seed will possess the gate of his enemies.
In your seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed
because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:16-18).
In the Abraham story, God’s angel noted, “have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12). Then the angel drew attention to the ram caught in the thicket and gave Abraham permission to withhold his hand from sacrificing his son. However, God “didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all” (v. 32). God required more of himself than he would require of any of his servants.
“how would he not also with him freely give us all things?” (panta—all things) (v. 32b). Paul argues from the greater to the lesser. If God has given the greatest thing (his Son), will he not also give us lesser things (all things) as well?
When Paul asks if God will not also give us “all things,” he “may have had in mind simply those things necessary for salvation, …(but) it is more likely that he had in mind the ‘all things’ of creation” (Dunn).
“Who could bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who justifies” (v. 33). Again this is a courtroom setting with God in charge—the same God who elected and justified us. Paul’s words remind us of Isaiah, who said, “Behold, the Lord Yahweh will help me; who is he who shall condemn me?” (Isaiah 50:9). Who can hope to overturn God’s judgment?
“Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, yes rather, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us” (v. 34). Again, we have a courtroom scene, but this time it is Christ Jesus who intercedes for us—who acts as our counsel, our defender. Paul mentions Jesus’ death and resurrection. If by his death and resurrection Christ reversed our condemnation and effected our salvation, who can undo his work? If Christ serves as our advocate, who can expect to win a judgment against us?
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Could oppression, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (v. 35). Christians were subjects of persecution from Jews and Romans alike. Famine implies hunger, and a hungry person can think of little but food. Hunger was a key element in Jesus’ temptation (4:2-4). Romans used nakedness to shame men who were being crucified. Sword implies violent death. Paul had suffered many of these, and they had not destroyed his faith.
“Even as it is written, ‘For your sake we are killed all day long. We were accounted as sheep for the slaughter'” (v. 36). Paul quotes from Psalm 44:22, which expresses the distress of those who are subject to martyrdom for their faith. The Psalmist was obviously familiar with such treatment, and Christians of Paul’s day were too.
ROMANS 8:37-39. WE ARE MORE THAN CONQUERORS
37No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (v. 37). The love of God enables us to be “more than conquerors”—to rise above every adversity.
“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord“ (vv. 38-39).
Paul lists ten potential adversaries in four pairs and two singletons:
• Death, nor life: Death is fearsome in its inevitability and finality, but life can be fearsome too—painful—grinding. But Christ gives us hope of eternal life—a life that is both enduring and blessed—lived in the presence and love of God. Christ also helps us to see the slings and arrows of this life from a higher perspective that diminishes their scale and makes them seem less terrible.
• Angels, nor principalities: We are surprised to see angels in this list, because we think of angels as God’s messengers, but there are also angelic forces opposed to God (Rev. 12:7). Rulers can refer either to spiritual or earthly powers. Consider the host of tyrants who have reigned in the past century and the millions of people—often their own subjects—who have died at their hands. Paul assures us that, while rulers might separate us from life in this world, they cannot separate us from the love of God and the life that he offers.
• Things present, nor things to come: We are surprised not to see “things past” on this list, because people are often gripped by events of the past (whether good or bad) and saddled by guilt from past sins. Paul focuses instead on “things present” and “things to come”—the challenges that we face in the present and the trials that we fear in the future. It can be painful to read the terrible things that newspapers report, but Christ assures us that God is moving history toward a glorious goal instead of a dismal end.
• Powers: These could be spiritual or earthly powers.
• Height, nor depth: This could be a reference to astrology. If so, Paul is saying “that neither the height (when a star is at its zenith) nor the depth (with all its unknown potential) is strong enough to separate us from God’s love” (Morris, 342). Or it could be a reference to the heights of space and the depths of oceans, meaning that we have nothing ultimate to fear from comets above or tectonic forces below. Or it could refer to the heights and depths of our emotions, meaning that neither our great joys nor our great sorrows can separate us from God.
• Any other created thing: If Paul were to try to be comprehensive regarding everything that we might fear, the list would go on forever—so he ends the list with this catch-all phrase that assures us that nothing—absolutely nothing—”will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
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 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)
Copyright 2008, 2011, Richard Niell Donovan