All Into Good
Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. (KJV)
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. (NAS)
Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (NIV)
Here we have three different translations of Romans 8:28 with three different meanings. So, which one is right? The King James Version makes it seem that things work for good. The New American Standard translation says God works things for good. The New International Version says God works all things for the good of those who love him. Do things work for good? Or does God work things for good? Or does God work things for those who love Him?
Maybe it doesn't matter. The overall sense of these three translations is much the same. They all say, in different ways, that despite the fact that we have to deal with some bad things, ultimately everything ends up being good. We can just leave it at that. However, a problem arises when this verse is used as a proof of some other idea. For example, if all things work for good, does "all things" include evil? That would mean that God creates evil for the purpose of doing good! This idea can create some difficult theological questions. But, if the translation is misleading, and we can correct it, then all these strange ideas vanish.
In my opinion, all of these translations are misleading. Now, I know it's presumptuous for me, a layman without any formal training, to declare that all these experts in the ancient Greek are wrong. Hopefully, I can show you why I think the way I do and in the process you can see another way to approach studying the Bible that helps understand vague passages. To begin with, we can look at the original Greek and see if the vocabulary and grammar can help.
The word for God (Theos) only occurs once in this verse and it is accusative case. That means that God is the object of something: our love (agaposin). Thus, Paul isn't saying "God works" so the NAS and NIV are interpreting not translating. The KJV is much closer to what Paul said. Unfortunately, that leaves us with a translation that implies "things" work. That's where the problem is. There are many things that do not work good and to try to say so leads to some serious theological problems. Does an act of murder work for good? You can understand why later translators shifted the syntax and interjected the idea that it is God that is working and not things. In so doing, they missed something important.
The word translated "all things" is just the adjective for "all" in a plural form without any noun attached to it. When used that way, Thayer's Greek lexicon says it means "of a certain definite totality or sum of things, the context shewing what things are meant." Most people who read this verse fail to look at the context and just assume that "all things" refers to everything there is. We don't need to do that, but can just take it to mean "the whole" of what Paul has been talking about.
Next, the word translated for in the English versions is the Greek word eis. Thayer's Greek lexicon says it is "a preposition governing the accusative, and denoting entrance into, or direction and limit: into, to, toward, for, among." The lexicon says that eis can be used of a place or metaphorically. Obviously, Paul is not using the word in reference to a place, but to indicate direction towards the end of "goodness." It is the idea that things are ultimately working into good. So, "for" here means into or towards good. This demonstrates the overall idea that the condition we are in is a temporary one and that God intends to bring about good despite our condition.
So, what we have is that there are things which are used to work towards the end of good on behalf of those who love God and are called to His purposes. But, what are those things? We can find out by looking at the larger context of the entire eighth chapter of Romans.
Paul has a certain writing style that extends a thought over many verses. It is dangerous to quote just a single verse without reference to context. Throughout Romans, Paul will begin a passage with a word like "therefore" or "then" to introduce a conclusion. He then follows with a series of statements that support the conclusion. These supporting statements begin with "for" and are often extended and joined with other statements that begin with "and" or "but." This is the reverse of the way we normally do things. We state a list of premises and then draw a conclusion. You can see this beginning with the first verse of chapter 8:
There is therefore now no condemnation... (verse 1)
Verse 12 begins a new thought with "Therefore, brethren, we are debtors," and continues through verse 15. A new thought begins in verse 16 and is followed with another list of "for" and "and" statements. Then, in verse 26:
Romans 8:26-28 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
Verses 26 through 28 contain the "for" that supports the statement that the Spirit helps our infirmities. The way the Spirit helps are infirmities is "likewise", or in the same manner, that the Spirit does all the other things that Paul has just talked about. Now we can know what "things" work into good: the work of the Spirit of Christ, given to us for faith, that makes intercession for us. It is the action of the Spirit that works all into good. It is never the carnal mind or action that does the good that God wants to achieve. It is always the Holy Spirit.
Matthew Henry's commentary is essentially the same:
The concurrence of all providences for the good of those that are Christ's. It might be objected that, notwithstanding all these privileges, we see believers compassed about with manifold afflictions; though the Spirit makes intercession for them, yet their troubles are continued. It is very true; but in this the Spirit's intercession is always effectual, that, however it goes with them, all this is working together for their good. * * *
The privilege of the saints, that all things work together for good to them, that is, all the providences of God that concern them. All that God performs he performs for them, Their sins are not of his performing, therefore not intended here, though his permitting sin is made to work for their good. . . . Either directly or indirectly, every providence has a tendency to the spiritual good of those that love God, breaking them off from sin, bringing them nearer to God, weaning them from the world, fitting them for heaven... He worketh all things together for good; so some read it. It is not from any specific quality in the providences themselves, but from the power and grace of God working in, with, and by, these providences. All this we know--know it for a certainty, from the word of God, from our own experience, and from the experience of all the saints.
Now, that wasn't so hard, was it? Studying the scripture is something that needs to be done diligently, using all available tools with the goal of understanding what the scripture says to us. Most so-called problems with the Bible are due to lazy saints or people with an agenda who continually read their own ideas into scripture. Those types of "things" never work into good!