Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, March 27, 2023

Is Everything that Happens Good? (Rom 8:28)

Romans 8:28 is a source of comfort for many in the midst of pain, and it can also be a challenge, even discouraging, for them as well. Part of the problem is that some translations mistakenly give the wrong impression of Paul's intent. Do “all things work for good,” or does “God work all things for good”?

You can watch this blog on YouTube and also my chapel address on the passage.

Most of us are familiar with the wording of the KJV. “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” This basic wording is followed by most translations (ESV, CSB, NRSV, NET).

This is grammatically correct; θεόν is the object of ἀγαπῶσιν, and πάντα appears to be the subject of συνεργεῖ. “We know that all things (πάντα) work together for good (συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν) to them that love God (τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν).”

But there are two problems.

1. The translation makes it appear that all things somehow, all by themselves, work out for good. This is simply not true. There’s not some magical force in the universe guaranteeing that absolutely everything that happens is good. Genocide is not good. Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse are not good. The death of a child is not inherently good.

2. πάντα can also be accusative, which leaves the subject of συνεργεῖ unexpressed. In this case, it is θεόν that is acting as both the direct object of ἀγαπῶσιν and the implied subject of συνεργεῖ (οῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν πάντα συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν). θεόν is close enough to συνεργεῖ for this to be possible. In this case, πάντα is an accusative of respect. The advantage of this reading is that it does make sense. It is God who is at work in all situations to accomplish his good.

These considerations explain the alternative translations found in the footnotes of most of the translations. “God causes all things to work together for good” (e.g., NASB). It also explains the text of the NIV (“in all things God works for the good of those who love him”) and NLT (“God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God”).

There is a textual variant noted in the footnotes of the ESV and other translations (CSB, NET): “God works all things together for good,” or “God works in all things for the good” (πάντα συνεργεῖ [ὁ θεὸς] εἰς ἀγαθόν). Certainly, this longer reading is a later clarification of the original text, but it does get at its meaning.

If your problem with this verse is due to the interpretation that says everything that happens is good in and of itself, then please understand this cannot be what Paul means. It is God who works in the midst of all situations to accomplish good. Our sovereign God has determined that he will allow his children to only be in those situations in which he is able to work for their good.

I prefer the translation “God works in all things for the good.” This is the grammar of the verse and makes sense in the real world.

Having said that, I need to qualify myself. I just had lunch with a friend who had been an alcoholic for 35 years, and sober for the past 8. You could look at the lost 35 years and wonder how it could be good, but as he testifies his alcoholism drove him to Christ and eventually to his wife. I still struggle with saying the death of a child is good, but theologically I have to admit that God works best in the midst of pain, and in the long term God can turn the pain into good

Remember that this promise is only for those who love God; it is not a promise to the world. That is why the Greek starts with the emphasis on “to those who love God,” which unfortunately is often transposed to later in the sentence so that it is close to the final phrase, “for those who are called according to his purpose.”

But perhaps the main question of the verse is the definition of “good,” and the following two verses give Paul’s definition of good. This is the problem of breaking up a single Greek sentence into multiple English sentences; we lose the contextual clues of the larger context. Vv 29–30 define “good” as God working in all situations, for his children, for good, because his sovereign control moves inextricably from his foreknowledge of us to our glorification.” Before time he knew us and pre-determined the benefits we would receive as his children, the greatest being that we would be conformed to the image of his Son. This is Paul’s definition of “good.”

Of course, we want to define “good” in our own terms, which means the absence of pain and the presence of pleasure. The health and wealth heresy is fleecing God’s flock with this perversion of sanctification. And truth be told, most of us would prefer to have a little less pain even if it means we look a little less like Jesus. But God did not ask us how to define “good”; that’s one of the perks of being God.

The joy of the Christian comes from a deep-down faith that God is at work in all the seemingly chaotic situations of life, using our pains and disappointments to accomplish his good, which should be our good, and there is nothing better than looking like Jesus, of being “conformed to the image of his Son.”


¶ Why did you have to mix Calvinist commentary into a discussion about translation? Isn't this supposed to be how to translate, leaving the application of the scriptures to the reader and the Holy Spirit? Your point about the nominative-accusative dilemma of a neuter case is excellent and important. "Yet we have perceived that to the [ones] loving the God he is working all into good..." (choosing the accusative for "all"). Although it is not contradictory in the nominative, just a little more awkward. But then you had to add how a man is an alcoholic for thirty-five years so that God can teach him something. No, there is a devil, there is the flesh, there is free will, and there are bad choices that people make. If that alcoholic had truly "loved God," obeyed him, and committed to him at the start of the thirty-five years, choosing to walk in holiness instead of intoxication, then he could have had an extra thirty-five years of life without that pain and would have been more productive for the Kingdom of God. It was certainly never God's design or intention that he be an alcoholic for thirty-five years, even if he did learn a painful lesson from it, changed his mind/thinking, chose to "love God," and turned his own life around, finally for the good. Your juxtaposition of a comment about the "health and wealth heresy" would imply that his alcohol addiction was part of his "sanctification" as he suffered addiction and the poverty that goes along with it. It is one thing if "pain" is from a good, old fashioned spanking, per the advice given in Proverbs, Heb 12, and so on, to get a child's attention and quickly stop his foolish rebellion, but to accuse God of being the author of thirty-five years of affliction makes the Holy Spirit out to be a spirit of infirmity and poverty, pain running continuously for thirty-five years, no less. Finally, keep in mind that v 29-30 is aorist timeless, aspect-less, "fact-fact-fact," rather than event, then event, then event, on a timeline -- not "past tense" (as if Greek had such a tense, and neither is the Greek perfect tense used here) -- so "pre-defines" is an indefinite, timeless proposition; all the verbs there are in the aorist tense. The same prefix προ is also in the verbs "pre-know" and "pre-bring-forth," however you want to render them into English. This cannot be used as a Calvinist proof text to suggest that God pre-planned our terrible afflictions and other predicaments from the beginning of time, or even, as many suggest, that he pre-damns some and pre-saves others, as the T-U-L-I-P principle goes. ¶ This is a sore point with me, as I spend most of three days of each week out on the inner city streets with my team as front-line Christian street workers reaching out to homeless, hard core drug addicts, and alcoholics. We have "lunch" with hundreds of them every week (we bring food out with us to the streets and serve it there). Some of them speak of the various horrendous things they have experienced and/or are experiencing, and ask, "Where was God, and why didn't he do anything to stop it?" If you tell them, "Oh, God was there among all that evil and is working all things for the good to bring you to God," you may have a Calvinistic self-fulfilled prophecy on your hands when they give God the finger and turn away from him forever, or at least until someone comes along with a better response than that (which sometimes happens to be us). The answer is, "There is a devil, there is the flesh, there are your bad choices and the bad choices of others, following the desires of the flesh, following the promptings of the devil. That was not God. It was not God who was the author or approver of all this tragedy and evil, and there is a way out of this, which we will now tell you about."

Why don't you just say that all things work together for good, but "things" can be good or evil. God uses the evil in the world for his good. I don't understand what the issue is here, the english is pretty plain. It never implies that all things are good.

Friend Wiebe, The whole point of Greek grammar is to reach an understanding of the text. I do not think that you can separate translation from doctrine. Interestingly you yourself use the forum (that is supposed to be for translation), to soapbox your own theodicy. By the way, you do not have to be a Calvinist to believe that God is in control. C. S. Lewis (your fellow non-Calvinist) said, “And since nothing in His work is accidental, if He knew, He intended.”—C. S. Lewis (Miracles, [New York: HarperCollins, 1947, 1996], p. 258.) Friend Mounce, I understand the distinction you are making between “all things work together for good” and “God works all things together for good,” but I must say that both of these translations read the same to me. I grew up with the KJV, and it never crossed my mind that it meant anything other than God at work in my life. The difference is only that one is implicit and the other is explicit. “All things work together for good” seems to me to function in a way similar to a divine passive.

If you are going to comment on my blogs, I ask that you read them carefully and present my position fairly. 1. I am not using Calvin's language. I am using Paul's language in the very next verse. 2. I never said my friend's alcoholism was "so that God can teach him something" NEVER. I said that God can work even in that bad of a situation such that my friend now does not call it evil. I never said, "It was certainly never God's design or intention that he be an alcoholic for thirty-five years." 3. The Greek tense in the indicative is not timeless (unless it is a conative aorist). It has time and often, usually, references a specific event. 4. When you say "'pre-defines' is an indefinite, timeless proposition," I suspect that betrays your theological position. 5. Romans 8:28 does not say God is "working all things for the good to bring you to God." It is a promise to those who love God, his children. I do approve of your last answer, and how you are spending your life. Good work. —Bill Mounce

¶ Re. 2: Thank you for the clarification; I was putting some words into your mouth, which I should have been more careful about, when I said, "you had to add how a man is an that God can teach him something." While I admit I was getting a bit carried away there, there are logical implications to what you said if (for example, 6:20 in the blog video) "pain is the best teacher there is" and "we have a sovereign God who is in control of all things," and (for example, 11:06 in the "chapel" video) "See, our sovereign God has determined that he will allow his children to be in those places and times and situations only in which he is able to work for good." Once you go down that predestination rabbit hole, there is no end to it until the devil's will is considered God's will, or else you have to compromise that somehow. Where did the alcoholic's "pain" come from? That is what I am bringing out, that there is a devil who opposes God, there is the flesh, there are his bad choices, and probably the bad choices of others affecting him. So, God can take what is meant for evil and turn it around for the good, for sure, but let's make sure to keep the evil aspect out of God's intention, whereas the reality is that he may teach us something despite that evil, ultimately foiling the devil's intention to "steal, kill, and destroy" (John 10:10). ¶ Re: 1,3,4, you are begging the question to translate v. 29-30 in the classic Calvinist way, according to reformation-era tradition/dogma, and then, after translating thus, use that translation as a proof text for "predestination," referring to the aorist tense as "the past tense verb" (16:06 in the "chapel" video, there without further qualification). But "predestine" is a loaded Christianese, reformation-era term, from προ-ωριζω, which occurs only six times in the New Testament, and which I have found only four more times in other classical literature (specifically, Plutarch, Clement, Eusebius) referring to other, more generic things (not doctrinal "predestination"), and it only has the Calvinistic religious load in the New Testament if that is read into the term (and dutifully translated as "past tense"). It is not a betrayal of my "doctrine" that causes me to simplify it as (timeless/aspect-less) "pre-defines," nor to reject the prevalent dogma of α-οριστος = "past tense" when even the original term means "without-definition," so without time or aspect/completion. It is another English-ism, assuming that because we Englishmen formally write historical narratives using English past tense, so would the ancient Greek writer have this same Englishman's language mindset. But they used verb grammar differently than we do, there is no Greek "past tense" conjugation, and the Greek perfect tense conjugation is not used here. Hence, I say that I am also just reading "Paul's language" in v. 29-30" to say that it only specifies verb "fact - fact - fact," not "past event, then event, then event" on a timeline going back to the beginning of the time of creation. Is it any surprise that God himself is timeless? Why do Calvinists constrain God to a timeline when he is outside of creation and time? We are the ones living within his creation and on a timeline. Also, by the way, I am using "Calvinism" as a general term, for lack of a better one. I am sure you are aware that John Calvin was not the "Calvinist extremist" that many are today. And I grant that you are not the "Calvinist extremist" that many others are. At the same time, the error of "health and wealth" prosperity extremists who suppose that God wants to satisfy all their worldly pleasures does not justify the other extreme, that "God works best in the midst of pain," or deprivation, abject poverty, affliction, and etc. ¶ So, again, I tell the addicts, "Leave God out of your reasoning. He is not doing this to you and is not even in the equation; you are doing this to yourself, and the devil is accommodating you. Why are you subjecting yourself to and accommodating all this self/devil-inflicted pain, when you can turn instead to God, surrender your life to Jesus Christ, and be free from this bondage?" God "works best" when a man is free from bondage to the devil, the flesh, and sin, and better still if he takes authority over the devil and his works, as Jesus did and taught us to do. If one is so fool to live thirty-five years an alcoholic, that is a waste; that is not "God works best in the midst of pain." Yet after thirty-five years he finally came to his senses and turned to God. In that case if his pain was a "teacher," it was also an evil tyrant of one, and when he finally came to his senses he realized that he didn't need to be under that tyrant. Yet God was waiting patiently for him, as he does for all of us, "not intending (βουλομενος) any to destroy themselves (απολεσθαι, aor. mid.) but to make room (χωρησαι) for all into repentance (μετανοιαν, change of mind/thinking)" -- 2 Pet 3:9.

Good point! That reminds me of what Joseph told his brothers, "You meant it for evil," and "God was not even in the equation."

JasonW, you refer to Gen 50:20, which is typically translated, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." The Hebrew for this is "ואתם חשבתם עלי רעה אלהים חשבה לטבה למען עשה כיום הזה להחית עם רב." This somewhat more literally translates, "and-you have-devised toward-me evil; God has-devised-it toward-good, in-order-that to-accomplish toward-the-day, the-this, toward-to-keep-alive great-people." The LXX Greek is "υμεις εβουλευσασθε κατ' εμου εις πονηρα ο δε θεος εβουλευσατο περι εμου εισ αγαθα οπως αν γενηθη ως σημερον ινα διατραφη λαος πολυς." This similarly translates, very literally, "you devise against me into evil; yet the God devises about me into good, so-as ever may-become as today, in-order-that many people may-be-sustained." Evidently the Calvinists cannot escape the conclusion that the evil done to Joseph was part of God's plan, but that is not what the scripture says. I think that the issue comes from the poor choice of English word, "meant." By "meant," it seems that God "willed" it, that is, had a whole stratagem in mind (including the evil against Joseph) from the start. What happened was that God turned the whole terrible situation around for the good to save both his family and the Egyptians, who were beneficiaries of the blessings of Joseph's presence there. Yet again God foiled the devil's plans, big time, and the plans of evil men, honoring Joseph's faith and upright behavior. And Joseph, by the way, is not analogous to a man who chooses to be a drunkard for thirty-five years.