N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
Romans 8:28, Part 1
(Rom. 8:28 ESV) 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
This is a difficult verse. I mean, we teach it to children and paste it on refrigerator magnets. But it seems to be tinged with Calvinism with this language about being “called” — and Paul will soon be talking about predestination. And the fact is that bad things happen to good people — not always but often enough to make us want to question the usual way of reading this passage.
“Work together for the good”
One common reading of this phrase is that Paul essentially repeating the thought of Rom 8:18.
(Rom. 8:18 ESV) 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Wright argues that, in context, Paul is not discussing Providential care but the promised inheritance of resurrection and the New Heavens and New Earth (NHNE).
The train of thought is, “God knows the mind of the Spirit; but we know that God works all things together for good for those who love God; therefore (implicit but vital) God works all things together for good for us, we in whom the Spirit is operating.” (This, after all, is where the longer paragraph started, with the Christian being in God’s debt [v. 12]). The intercession spoken of in v. 26 will be heard and answered in ways that, though we cannot at present see them or even conceive them, will turn out to be that for which our groaning prayers have been yearning. “All things”–not just the groanings of the previous verses, but the entire range of experiences and events that may face God’s people–are taken care of by the creator God who is planning to renew the whole creation, and us along with it.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians, vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 600.
Nearly all commentators reject the naive reading that Paul is promising financial prosperity to Jesus followers.
Many Christians misinterpret this verse, thinking that God here promises to give us all kinds of “good” things: jobs, money, health, and so on. But, as the context makes clear, “good” is primarily the glory God will one day enable us to share with Christ, our Lord. In the Old Testament, “good” sometimes has a similar focus, denoting the blessings of the age to come.
Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Romans to Philemon., (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 3:51.
Some other commentators believe Paul wishes to go beyond Rom 8:18 by adding what many call Providence. For instance,
It does not mean that all things are good. They are not, and to call evil good is a grievous error under any circumstances. It means that for those who love God no evil may befall them which God cannot use for their growth and his glory. Paul includes yet another syn- compound, meaning “working together with.” God works in all things—even horrible things—to accomplish his eternal will. This verse testifies to God’s sovereignty, not to the beneficent outworking of circumstances. God does not will all things, but he is at work in all things. Similarly, Paul enjoins believers to give thanks “in all circumstances,” not for them (1 Thess. 5:18).
James R. Edwards, Romans, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 218.
That is, Paul is saying that God remains active to keep pushing history along — including our personal histories — toward redemption when Jesus returns. We may refuse to cooperate with God’s efforts, but if we let him, even truly tragic things that do not come from God can be used by God for our good.
John Stott explains,
But in verse 28 Paul lists five truths about God’s providence which we know.
First, we know that God works, or is at work, in our lives. … He is ceaselessly, energetically and purposefully active on their behalf.
Secondly, God is at work for the good of his people. … Moreover, the ‘good’ which is the goal of all his providential dealings with us is our ultimate well-being, namely our final salvation. Verses 29–30 make this plain.
Thirdly, God works for our good in all things. … ‘all things’ must include the sufferings of verse 17 and the groanings of verse 23. ‘Thus all that is negative in this life is seen to have a positive purpose in the execution of God’s eternal plan.’ Nothing is beyond the overruling, overriding scope of his providence.
Fourthly, God works in all things for the good of those who love him. … No, if the ‘good’ which is God’s objective is our completed salvation, then its beneficiaries are his people who are described as those who love him. …
Fifthly, those who love God are also described as those who have been called according to his purpose. … Life is not the random mess which it may sometimes appear.
These are the five truths about God which, Paul writes, we know. We do not always understand what God is doing, let alone welcome it. Nor are we told that he is at work for our comfort. But we know that in all things he is working towards our supreme good.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today, (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 247–248.
That is, we shouldn’t say something like “It’s all part of God’s plan.” I don’t think cancer and birth defects and drug overdoses are part of God’s plan. God is not the author of evil. But God can take something truly awful — such as Paul’s murderous attacks on the early church — and make a new creation out of even such a man. God may not will cancer, but cancer can teach us to serve other cancer sufferers in need. God can dig deep wells of empathy.
I will no doubt be a better shepherd for having spent so much time in hospitals these last few years. I can speak with chronic pain sufferers in terms that others just can’t. But I don’t think God gave me poor health to help me hone my pastoral skills. Nonetheless, he can use evil for good. Which is something of a miracle, if you think about it.