Heard a radio interview where the guest speaker recited Romans 8:28 saying essentially that God creates good out of the bad in the world. It’s as if to say that “God comes in behind us and cleans up our mess.” I know this is a popular reading of this passage and that it brings some kind of comfort to think that God is like a loving parent who makes things right when his children get hurt or misbehave.

The NIV renders Rom 8:28 as “in all things God works for the good,” whereas the ESV has “all things work together for good,” leaving out the preposition “in.” So, which is it and why is this important? Does God produce good out of the bad in our world (as the NIV suggests)? Does this passage teach something like “from” all things God brings about good? Does God make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak? The Greek reads

“Οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι τοῖς ἀγαπῶσι τὸν θεὸν πάντα συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν, τοῖς κατὰ πρόθεσιν κλητοῖς οὖσιν.”

With little doubt “we know” (oἴδαμεν) that God’s providence is at work in the world and he does have things under control; even our suffering and adversity (see vv. 35-37; Job 2:10). But it is hardly the case that God waves a wand over the bad things in our life and transposes them into good. More importantly, we should be careful not to impose some ad hoc interpretation on negative events in our lives simply because they yield some favorable results and then boast “See! I knew that all things work together for good.”

Here’s the rub. Believers cannot glibly claim “It’s all good” because Romans 8:28 says so. This is no endorsement for some kind of “In the end everything turns out alright” philosophy. This text does not teach an “evolutionary optimism” (Dunn) where every event in the chain magically and eventually turns into a favorable one. Some things are less than optimal (or intrinsically evil) and are not good in themselves, no matter the outcome. Just a moment’s reflection will show that life is too complicated for such a neat and tidy, even romantic, construct. We simply can’t draw a straight line between every event and insist that all events were “meant to be.” There’s too much mystery around why things happen and we mustn’t expect that we can connect all the dots showing a clean relationship between them. You won’t convince me that “It’s all good” and we can’t get that from Rom 8:28.

An example may help. Although Paul was thrown into jail and then rejoiced that the Gospel was being proclaimed as a result, he did not for one minute think that being in jail was a good thing. What excited him was that God would use his negative circumstances to advance the Gospel (Philippians 1:12ff). By itself, however, being imprisoned remained a bad thing.

At every turn, then, we must be careful to define “good” in God’s terms, not ours. And, we must be ready to call some things “bad” if that is what our moral intuitions tell us. The next verse, Rom. 8:29, tells us that the good God has in mind is specifically for believers “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Everything (“all things”) do move toward that goal and purpose of God. This is not to say, however, that God’s good end will have only good means. In other words, it’s not all good.

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