Romans 8:28 Dilemma

Romans 8:28 is a popular passage in churches, particularly when ministering to circumstances that are painful or hard to explain. But, how does it really apply to me when my life seems to be falling apart?

The entire letter of Romans is a deeply theological section of the Bible. Romans eight essentially functions as the crescendo or the high-water mark for Paul’s meta-narrative of redemption outlined in the preceding chapters. The chapter begins with the mind-blowing statement, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This is the product of justification and it establishes a tone of optimism carried throughout the rest of the discourse. Paul goes on to outline the process of sanctification; the process of being set apart for the work and purposes of God. Throughout the chapter Paul details the process of sanctification with a hopeful view of eternity — the glory that we will experience some day as the adopted children of God. However, there is a practical tension to Romans eight as Paul describes the balance between the hopefulness of our adoption and the sufferings we experience during our sanctification.

Sanctification is not easy. The process of being separated and refined for the purposes of God is often filled with awkwardness and pain. We could probably base this on pragmatism alone but Paul is very clear to explain this with statements like, “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth” in verse 22. A paradox seems to emerge as we experience the good work of God in our lives and yet struggle through this mulish process of sanctification. You might ask: how can so much good and so much discomfort share the same process? God “adopts us as sons” (vs. 15) and yet we’re called to “suffer with Jesus” (Vs. 17). God promises to reveal his “glory” to us (vs. 18) and yet we “groan within ourselves” (vs. 23). We do not “know how to pray” (vs. 26a) and yet God “intercedes for us” through his Spirit (vs. 26b). And, in Romans 8:28 we read that, “[God] causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” and yet I experience painful things all the time. So, what does this statement really mean for those of us who are walking the hopeful yet painful road of sanctification?

Sometimes we do stupid things and the pain that is produced by the natural consequence of our sin or imprudence is a real thing. However, there are times when we don’t do sinful or unwise things and yet our suffering is still alive and well. For example, I had a stomach bug a few weeks ago. It’s not an overstatement to say that I hate stomach sickness and all of the disgusting things that come with it. I’m pretty sure I was not suffering from my own sin or stupidity … I think it was a simple case of the stomach flu. But, how do I reconcile Romans 8:28 with a stomach flu? I know that I love God so how was my nausea and stomach pain advancing anything good? Frankly, I haven’t seen it yet. It may seem like a paradox; the kind of thing where right is wrong … up is down … good is bad. However, before we dismiss Romans 8:28 as being practically useless it would be wise to notice a critical verb in the first clause. Let’s begin with what Romans 8:28 does not say. To be clear, the verse does not say: all things work for good. Romans 8:28 says, “all things work together for good.” The verb “work together” is the Greek word sunegeo and it’s where we derive our word synergy. This is the operative verb in this passage and it is a very important part of the promise being communicated in this verse.

Understanding the true promise of Romans 8:28 is especially important when it’s painfully obvious that our circumstances are NOT working for good; it is in those moments we must understand and embrace synergy. We must understand there is timing, people and circumstances “working together” to produce a broader outcome. Our unexplainable circumstance of hardship may indeed not be working for good as we see it but it is absolutely “working together” with other circumstances to produce something good under God’s sovereignty. There is a greater work being accomplished by God in those moments when our sanctification feels lousy. Perhaps God will choose to disclose his good work to us in time or perhaps her won’t but, in either case the synergy is there. Our mulish and uncomfortable sanctification is playing a part in a much larger and perfect theatre of goodness. This means we should not expect every bad situation or season of suffering to lead to something good. We should, however, find peace in fact that our pain is being used by God to produce a greater good – even better yet, a greater holiness. Don’t dismiss it or treat it flippantly. Maybe God is using your discomfort to generate good in the life of your kids. Maybe God is using your pain to produce something good in the life of your spouse. Trust this Romans 8:28 promise, especially in those moments when things are lousy and it seems like nothing good can come out of what you’re experiencing.


About Matt Brecht
Lead Pastor of NorthPointe Church

7 Responses to Romans 8:28 Dilemma

  1. Frank says:

    A new twist for me that makes it clearer to understand. Thanks.

  2. Greg Jones says:

    I first encountered this verse in college. As a young Christian starting my sophomore year, I had committed my grades to God. I was going to work just as hard as before, but I trusted God to do what he wanted with my grades.

    Well, I failed one course and got C’s on the rest. I was devastated and my scholarship was now on probation. Then a friend showed me Rom 8:28. I wasn’t sure how God could use failing grades, but I decided to trust in this verse.

    The next quarter I thought I was going to flunk out. But by God’s grace I got a B average. However the main lesson was yet to come.

    Because I failed that course I had to extend my college by one quarter. It was during that last quarter at college that I met my wife. And it took another 2 years before we began to date and then get married.

    So it took several years before I could see how flunking a course worked out for good in my life. Now I am very glad that I flunked that course.

    In my case I saw the eventual “working out for good”. But sometimes we may never see it, or it may be that the good is realized in other people’s lives (see Heb 11). At any rate, we can trust God to use it all together for good.

    • mattbrecht says:

      Greg, that’s a very special demonstration of God working all things together for good. I have a few of those moments in my life too and they’re like an alter of worship for me. Sometimes God will give us a peak at what he’s pruposing through our struggles … and when he does it’s very powerful and lasting. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Debbie says:

    Thanks for a wonderful commentary on this great verse!

    I struggle with Romans 6-8…Romans 8:28 begins with a conjunction; in v. 26 & 27 the Holy Spirit interceding for us according to God’s will. We love (and submit to) God; it’s His purpose.

    As long as our pain is more important than God’s glory, we’ll never experience Romans 8:28.

    • mattbrecht says:

      That’s the other side of the coin isn’t it? it’s very sobering when we think about it that way … that we will miss the greater goodness that God desires for us so long as our priority is to limit the discomfort he is using to refine us. Great insight Debbie!

  4. The vision that Christians need is an understanding of how our stories intertwine with the Story God created, is creating, and will create. When we can see the full majestic narrative of the Bible and how we now supernaturally relate to God the Father; all the chaos becomes order. This spiritual perception of who we are, who God is, and reality is based on faith not on sight. Even seeing how God works and understanding that it is Him at work is all by His grace and mercy. Good post, reminded me of this sermon:

    • mattbrecht says:

      “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33) Thanks Logan!

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