This post was originally published in September 2015. -ed.
You’ve probably heard the proverb “Familiarity breeds contempt.” That’s often true with relationships and institutions, as your close proximity reveals cracks and blemishes you wouldn’t notice in passing. However, when it comes to Scripture, familiarity usually breeds carelessness.
Many of the “Frequently Abused Verses” we’re considering have been maliciously ripped from their context, misappropriated, and misapplied. Their original meaning has been twisted and contorted to serve a foreign purpose and make a fraudulent point.
However, in some cases, the abuse is much more passive. That’s true of the verse before us today—Romans 8:28, “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.”
At first glance, it might be hard to imagine how such a simple, straightforward verse could be abused. How could anyone misconstrue and misrepresent this wonderful promise from God?
But in this case, the abuse of this verse is tied to its familiarity and simplicity. Most believers have heard this verse so many times that they rarely stop to consider its larger context, or give any thought to the point the apostle Paul had in mind when he first wrote it. Call it “needlepoint theology”—the great passages of Scripture that most often wind up on wall hangings and throw pillows are the ones we’re least likely to prayerfully consider and thoroughly study.
Romans 8:28 is a prime example of how careless familiarity can lead to corruption. The verse is applied to virtually every hardship, disappointment, and trial that believers encounter. It’s an all-purpose spiritual salve for every situation.
A Better Life
Here’s one example—a devotional reading from Joel Osteen. Romans 8:28 appears to be one of the prosperity preacher’s favorite verses—this is just one of the many entries he’s written on it, titled “When Life Isn’t Fair.”
Everyone goes through things that don’t seem to make sense. It’s easy to get discouraged and wonder, “Why did this happen to me?” “Why did this person treat me wrong?” “Why did I get laid off?” But we have to understand, even though life is not always fair, God is fair. And, He promises to work all things together for good for those who love Him.
I believe the key word is this verse is “together.” In other words, you can’t just isolate one part of your life and say, “Well, this is not good.” “It’s not good that I got laid off.” “It’s not good that my relationship didn’t work out.” Yes, that’s true, but that’s just one part of your life. God can see the big picture. That disappointment is not the end. Remember, when one door closes, God has another door for you to walk through—a better door. Those difficulties and challenges are merely stepping stones toward your brighter future. Be encouraged today because God has a plan for you to rise higher. He has a plan for you to come out stronger. He has a plan to work all things together for your good so that you can move forward in the victory He has prepared for you! Joel Osteen, https://www.joelosteen.com/Pages/MessageViewer.aspx?date=2013-02-22
With some variation, that represents many believers’ general understanding of what Paul meant in Romans 8:28—“Don’t let life get you down. God’s going to make everything better!”
Of course that oversimplification goes beyond the original intent of Paul’s words. There’s no biblical basis for Osteen’s promise that God always has a better door for us to walk through. In fact, His Word promises that life won’t always be happy, rich, and full—sometimes we’re meant to suffer (1 Peter 4:12).
It’s in the midst of that suffering that Romans 8:28 is most often deployed. We want to trust that God is working, even through our trials, to bring about His will. And there’s plenty of biblical evidence to back up that hope. The story of Joseph in the Old Testament is one of the clearest examples.
Joseph was severely beaten and sold into slavery by his brothers. He endured the illicit advances of his boss’ wife, and was thrown into prison after she made false accusations against him. He lingered in prison for years before he was released and brought in to council Pharaoh himself. He was given a position of leadership, in which the Lord used him to spare Egypt and countless surrounding communities—including his own family—from famine. At the end of his story, as he reconciles with the brothers who kick-started all his suffering, he acknowledges God’s sovereign hand working through it all: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20).
Stories like Joseph’s give us confidence that God is always working behind the scenes to bring about His will. But He might not have such monumental purposes for our suffering. Sometimes it’s simply for our own spiritual growth that the Lord allows us to suffer through trials (James 1:2). The Spirit’s refining, sanctifying work is often painful, but the spiritual fruit it bears is well worth the struggle.
In his commentary on Romans, John MacArthur explains that God is working out
our good during this present life as well as ultimately in the life to come. No matter what happens in our lives as His children, the providence of God uses it for our temporal as well as our eternal benefit, sometimes by saving us from tragedies and sometimes by sending us through them in order to draw us closer to Him.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1-8 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991) 473-474.
But is our spiritual growth and temporal blessing the ultimate “good” Paul describes in his words to the Romans? A careful look at the context of verse 28 points us to an even greater promise from the Lord.
A Certain Eternity
In the immediate context of Romans 8, Paul is not dwelling on our current suffering, but looking forward to eternity. In verse 18, he mentions the “sufferings of this present time,” but only to say that they cannot compare to “the glory that is to be revealed to us.” From there he explains how creation groans to be free from the curse of sin (Romans 8:19-22), and how believers likewise long to see the fulfillment of their faith (vv. 23-25). Then he describes how the Spirit intercedes on our behalf according to God’s eternal purposes (vv. 26-27).
The theme continues in the verses immediately following:
For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30)
In the context of the believer’s eternal glorification, we need to understand the “purpose” for which God is working all things together as not merely our temporal good, but our eternal good. In that sense, Romans 8:28 isn’t merely a promise that God is watching out for us in this life; it’s a guarantee that He is working out all aspects of our lives toward His ultimate goal of our future glorification. It’s a promise that our eternity with Him is secure.
In a sermon on this passage called “Groanings Too Deep for Words,” John MacArthur explains that powerful promise this way:
The point is this: Because of the plan of God and the provision of Christ and the protection of the Holy Spirit through His intercessory ministry, God is causing all things to work together for our final, eternal, ultimate good. Not everything in this life works out for good—far from it. Oh, you might draw a good lesson from it. You might draw a good outcome from it. You might be drawn to the Lord. It might increase your prayer life. It might strengthen you. It might give you patience. It might perfect you, mature you. It might make you able to counsel other people and strengthen them because . . . you’ve been comforted by God in the same struggles.
All of those are wonderful realities, but that’s not the good that’s being spoken of here. The good that dominates this passage is that ultimate, final good that is the glorification of true believers. We are secured to that final good, that which is the best.
In His providence, God is sovereignly orchestrating all events according to His will, for His glory and our good. But we’re not guaranteed that all our struggles will be turned into blessing. Sometimes He will rescue us from tragedies; other times it’s our suffering that brings about His desired result. Our perspective on His sovereign goodness cannot be bound to our own circumstances—if Joseph had remained in the Egyptian jail for the rest of His life, would God be any less good, or His will less than perfect?
What we are guaranteed in Romans 8:28 is that regardless of what we have to endure in this life, our eternity with Him is unassailable. Nothing can stand in the way of His plans for our future glorification.
And in the midst of life’s struggles, what better promise could we cling to?