I recently read a devotional about a major crisis a family went through in their quest to adopt a child from China. What was the crisis? The letter sent to the Chinese adoption agency, to reassure them of the mother’s health, was misinterpreted. So instead of telling the agency that she only had a five percent chance of reoccurrence, the translators accidentally stated that she only had a five percent chance of survival. Wow!
It’s funny—and in some ways, dangerous—when things get lost or misinterpreted in translation. Something that means one thing can end up taking on a completely different meaning. We often see this happen when a few words, sentences, or passages are taken out of context. As we’ve seen before, this happens with alarming frequency as it pertains to the Bible.
So today, we’ll be continuing our “Context is Key” blog series where we explore commonly misinterpreted Bible verses. And today’s is a doozy!
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”—Romans 8:28 (NASB)
Romans Chapter 8 is one of the deepest, most profoundly powerful, encouraging, and theologically packed chapters of the New Testament. And the most famous verse in this chapter is undoubtedly Romans 8:28. The verse comes on the tail end of one of a discourse from the apostle Paul (Romans 8:19–30) about hope and perseverance.
In his book, 100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Know by Heart, Robert J. Morgan wrote that Romans 8:28 “is the favorite verse of millions around the world. It’s arguably the greatest promise in the Bible, for it summarizes all the others. It’s the biblical basis for optimism . . . It’s God’s darkroom in which negatives become positive.”
This verse is definitely one of the most beloved verses in the Bible, but also one of the most misinterpreted. Pastor and author Larry Osborne once claimed, “No verse gets misquoted more often when it comes to trying to make sense out of life’s trials. Christians and even non-Christians who have a nodding acquaintance with the Bible quote it more often than all other verses combined. It’s the favorite proof text for the everything-is-good-if-you-wait-long-enough crowd. It’s plastered on coffee mugs, posters, greeting cards, and all kinds of junk . . . It sounds well. It sells well . . . But Romans 8:28 doesn’t say or mean what most people think it does. It doesn’t even apply to a large percentage of those who turn to it for comfort.”
Now, before we can really cement what it does mean, we need to establish what it doesn’t mean.
We can attribute a great deal of the misunderstanding of this verse to its traditional translation . . . most notably the King James Version: “Everything works together for good to those who love God.” Now, this translation is problematic because it can lead to the false assumption that God causes everything, including all evil, and that every evil act, every sinful thing, every malicious and wicked thing done to and against us has a specific purpose in the divine plan. This is not what the apostle Paul was saying . . . at all.
Paul is actually stating something much more reasonable and specific. It’s not that God causes evil, or wills evil; but that in everything, whether good or bad, God works for good. He uses the bad to bring about something beautiful. He makes beauty from our ashes.
God Works All For Good
Another misinterpretation comes from a common misquoting of this verse. You may have heard this verse stated in this way: “God works all for good.” The biggest problem with this is that it leaves out a very important aspect: He works all things for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose. You can’t leave that part out because it’s important.
The word purpose (prothesis) is a very interesting term. It’s used to identify the twelve loaves of bread—representing the tribes of Israel—that were offered to God every Sabbath.
Why would Paul use this word? Because this sacred bread, “the bread of the presence” was laid down before God as a sacrifice. In fact, it was considered among the “most holy” of sacrifices. So what Paul is saying in context here is that God works all things for the good of those who love Him, who have laid their lives down before Him, who have been made holy, and have been set apart to accomplish His will and His plans. We are His bread.
You see, this verse and the greater context of Romans 8—particularly verse 18–39—speaks of trials and suffering. It calls us more than conquerors (Romans 8:37), no matter the situation, because the Lord is working to justify and glorify (8:30) those who are His children—those who love Him—and mold us like bread to be more like Christ (8:29). And we can be confident that no matter what we’re facing, nothing in this world can separate those that love God—and have laid themselves down before Him to accomplish His will—from His love (8:35–39).
What We Know
One of the most significant phrases in this verse is often omitted completely by those who misinterpret it: “And we know.” What’s so special about this phrase? Well, Paul uses the words we know (eidó) to introduce a truth that both Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Rome understood. In his commentary on Romans, Peter Stuhlmacher wrote, “The tradition concerning which the apostle reminds the Romans extends further. According to a common Jewish teaching, a person should get in the habit of saying, ‘Everything which the All-merciful does, he does for the good’ (Babylonian Talmud Berakoth 60b). Paul takes up this tradition and applies it to the matter discussed.” The Romans had similar sayings. So this idea was one that they understood.
And the idea was clear: Nothing is wasted in the life of a believer as God uses all things, all the good things and the bad things that happen to us, to build up our character, make us more like Him, and write redemption into our lives for us—and the watching world—to see.
The Lord uses the brightest and darkest things in our lives—and everything in between—to refine us, strengthen us, sanctify us, and purify us. He uses them to accomplish His perfect will in our lives and in the world, to do amazing things in and through us, to impact the people around us, to save lives, and to change the world.
As believers, Paul is reminding us to rest assured, to be encouraged and comforted by this fact. He is reaffirming to us what we should already know, that God works in every part of our lives, even when we can’t see Him, or understand what’s happening.
There are many examples of this throughout the Bible, and one of the most powerful is found in life of Ruth. In this amazing story, we see a pagan Moabite who clings to God through her mother-in-law Naomi and does what is right and honorable in the sight of God. And through the most tragic and painful experiences of her life—the loss of her husband, seeing her mother-in-law’s seemingly inconsolable grief, and the leaving of her life in Moab behind to go to a land that is generally hostile towards her people—God wrote one of the most beautiful love stories of redemption you will ever read. He used the broken to make something beautiful in the lives of those who love Him.
What Is Good?
Another key thing that needs to be addressed is the idea of good. What is good? How are we defining it? If we’re being honest, our definition of good is likely vastly different from God’s definition.
You see, the overarching purpose is to make us more like Christ. And He uses all things to mold us into that . . . because that’s what it’s all about—becoming more like Jesus, being conformed into the image of His Son, resembling Him! And every circumstance, whether glory or suffering, presents us with the opportunity to choose to follow His example or not.
So good takes on a new meaning. Not whatever makes us happiest or most confortable; not what’s most financially profitable or fun. Good is whatever makes us more like Christ, which is the purpose we’ve been predestined for.
What should you do with this knowledge? For me, knowing this offers me immense comfort and reassurance. Even when things begin to implode around me, when confusion, uncertainty, challenges, difficulties, pain, and grief strike me, I know that God is working to redeem it, and to sanctify me. I know that He is always there even when I can’t seem to understand why I’m experiencing such hardship. I know that nothing can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. I know that He is in control and that I have nothing to fear.
I hope this verse, in its proper context, can offer you as a Christ follower the same comfort and confidence it does to me.
If you have questions, please e-mail me.