For an Informed Love of God
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Do all things really work for good? (Romans 8:28)
The ESV represents the standard translation of this verse. “For those who love God all things work together for good” (see also the NET, KJV, HCSB).
The reason these are poor translations is because they make it appear that “all things” mystically make everything that happens good.
Part of this is just common sense, after you have stripped away the religiosity and shallowness of the church’s stereotypical response. Don’t’ get me wrong; I believe our sovereign God is all good all the time, but it is just nonsensical to say that every evil thing that happens is good, regardless of how you massage it theologially. That may work for Pollyanna but not for regular folks. All things are not good; and if we say they “can” be good, then we are adding a word to the text that isn’t there. There is no textual variant with δύναται.
My wife just got back from a two day course on sex traffixing. My goodness, have you heard how this works? How older people prey on the insecurities and loneliess of disenchanted girls who frequent the malls (and this would include Christian girls)? And each of these 14 year old girls who are manipulated into sex for their pimp’s financial gain — this is good?
Part of the answer lies in the Greek. The text does not say that “all things” work together for good. The NASB gets this part of it right. “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.” The NLT does a great job. “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God.”
I think the NIV gets it the most right. “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” It gets the word order right. τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν πάντα συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν. Most importantly, these last three translations see that the subject of the verb συνεργεῖ is “God,” not “all things.” συνεργεῖ must go back to θεὸν, not πάντα (see how “God” is the subject in the next two verses). I know a neuter plural subject can take a singular verb, but that can’t be what Paul is saying. To make any sense, πάντα must be accusative, either as the direct object or as an adverbial accusative of respect” (see Moo).
Paul is saying that for those who love God – in other words, this is not a promise for non-believers — God is at work in all situations to bring about good. And I would insist that the “good” is ultimately “his” good, which by implication would be our good. Our sovereign, all-loving, all-powerful God can work in any and all situations to bring about good, even in sex trafficking.
But “all things” can’t be the subject of συνεργεῖ, otherwise it is just wrong.