WHAT DOES ROMANS 8:28 MEAN?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“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.” It is undoubtedly in the list of “the top 10” most-quoted Bible verses—along with John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 10:9, and Hebrews 10:25. We hear and see Romans 8:28 very often in religious contexts, so much so that it is sickening. Despite its widespread usage, there is very little clarity as to what it actually teaches. Friends, if it is to be of faith, we must look at what the Holy Scriptures say. Otherwise, it is vain religion, useless in eternity. May we handle God’s Word with utmost respect, and let it say what it says in context.
I. ROMANS 8:28—ONE OF THE MOST WRESTED BIBLE VERSES
“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.” Many good, well-meaning people have quoted, and still quote, this verse in a quick, careless manner. Let me be very honest with you, friend. Most have an extremely shallow grasp of the verse. We must guard against reading into the Bible text something that just is not there. Context is key to clarity. In other words, the context—surrounding verses, surrounding chapters, and/or surrounding books—is extremely critical to understanding the meaning of a particular verse. We should treat God’s eternal Word with utmost respect; remember we are dealing with people’s eternal souls!
The Apostle Peter spoke of false teachers who “wrested” (twisted, distorted) the Word of God, especially the Apostle Paul’s epistles, “unto their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:15-16). Also, Paul himself affirmed, “[We] have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). And, we might as well as look at this verse also: “For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:17).
Let us re-read 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.” The common assumption is that this verse means that God manipulates our circumstances so that they turn out good. If someone was miraculously spared an automobile accident, survives a life-threatening illness, receives major financial relief, et cetera, Romans 8:28 is loosely quoted, “See, God works out all things in the end!” The following quote from a bygone commentator summarizes this view: “Thus, all that happens to us, if accepted and applied according to God’s Word, becomes beautiful, 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’ (Romans 8:28).” Not long ago I read a book by another bygone Bible teacher who quoted Romans 8:28 several times in his book and used it in the same manner. It was like Romans 8:28 was the only verse the man knew to quote to comfort suffering people. He meant well, but his mishandling of the verse just made God’s Word more difficult to grasp.
Some will take a very extreme view of this verse. God allegedly works out every minute detail of our lives so that it fits into His prearranged plan for our lives. What specific foods He determined we were to eat at any given time, exactly what outfits we are to wear on what days, where we are to live and work and for how long, what unique problems we were to face for His glory, et cetera. These notions are borne out of Calvinism and the “sovereignty of God.” It is theology but not Bible. It is good religion but not good Bible. We contend that Romans 8:28 in no way supports the idea of a “pre-arranged life map” for each and every person.
Friend, you are free to believe whatever you like, but the best way to look at Romans 8:28 is to look at the previous and the succeeding verses. This is what the Bible student does instead of just inventing some meaning of the verse. It is better to let the Bible say what it says in context rather than making up an explanation so we do not appear foolish.
II. VERSES 1-13. THE HOLY SPIRIT GIVES US VICTORY OVER SIN
After discussing his misery of attempting to live the Christian life in vain (Romans chapter 7), Paul opened chapter 8 with some excellent news. Rather than struggling under the performance-based acceptance system of Law-keeping (“do good so God can be happy with you and you can have victory over sin”), we learn with Paul how God has replaced that legalistic system with the good news of grace. The first 13 verses describe how God the Holy Spirit will use God’s written Word to work in us as we study and believe it (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13). For space and time’s sake, we will quote these verses without commenting. Suffice it to say that the victorious Christian life is the work of the Holy Spirit, not the futile attempts of the Christian in religion!
Romans 8:1-13: “ There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:  That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.  For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.  For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.  Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.  So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.  But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.  And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.  Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh.  For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.”
III. VERSES 14-17. THE HOLY SPIRIT TESTIFIES THAT WE ARE GOD’S CHILDREN, HEIRS OF GOD AND JOINT-HEIRS WITH CHRIST
Let us keep reading in the chapter. Now, Romans 8:14-17: “ For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.  For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.  The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:  And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.”
The Holy Spirit leads us, via sound Bible doctrine that we read, study, and believe, into God’s will. What lifestyle those Pauline epistles described, the Holy Spirit takes the verses and activates them in our lives, that the life of Jesus Christ be manifested in and through us. We can join Father God in doing what He is doing, just as a son would understand and delight in assisting his father in the family business. Just as a son would inherit everything his father owns, so we are “heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ.” As “we suffer with him,” “we may be also glorified together.” This glorification of Jesus Christ and us is explained in the following verses.
IV. VERSES 18-25. THE HOLY SPIRIT GUARANTEES OUR BODILY RESURRECTION AND GLORIFICATION
Proceeding onward in Roman chapter 8. Romans 8:18-25: “ For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.  For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,  Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.  And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.  For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?  But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.”
In verse 18, Paul wrote, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” The Holy Spirit through him proceeds to discuss the curse of sin placed on creation back in Genesis chapter 3. You can especially see that these verses, Romans 8:18-25, discussed our physical bodies being one day replaced with bodies that are “eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). This is the “redemption of our body” (verse 23)—that is, the resurrection, the Rapture, our gathering together unto Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:1). You may also see 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. Beloved, we are not trapped forever in these bodies that are prone to weakness, illness, pain, and death! At the resurrection, when the Lord Jesus calls His Body home to heaven’s glory, our bodies will be fashioned like unto Jesus Christ’s resurrection body. We can compare that to Philippians 3:20-21: “ For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:  Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.”
The Holy Spirit’s personal presence in us (Romans 8:23), His sealing of our inner man, guarantees us hope in that future resurrection. Reading Ephesians 4:30: “And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” And Ephesians 1:13-14 to compare: “ In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise,  Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.”
V. VERSES 26-27. THE HOLY SPIRIT INTERCEDES FOR US IN OUR PRAYER LIFE
Another ministry of the Holy Spirit is that when we pray about God’s Word in light of our lives, He brings into our minds the applicable verses that we studied and believed. This is the meaning of Romans 8:26-27: “ 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.” We will forgo any further comments in order to get to our main text quicker.
VI. VERSES 28-30. THE HOLY SPIRIT AND OUR VICTORY OVER ALL OPPOSITION
By the time we reach Romans 8:28, we have already read about how the Holy Spirit gives us daily victory over sin, how He bears witness that we are the children of God and heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, how He gives us hope in a future resurrection and heavenly glorification, and how He gives us enlightenment concerning God’s Word to and God’s will for us. Now we can read Romans 8:28, with its two following verses: “ 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.  For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.  Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”
Friends, brethren, no matter what troubles we face in life, no matter what satanic opposition, no matter how we fail and give in to sin, no matter who accuses us, no matter who imprisons us or even kills us, Father God has a plan for us in Jesus Christ. Our destiny is fixed in Jesus Christ. Regardless of what happens to us in this life on earth, we can be sure that God has justified us (declared us righteous), and He will glorify us in heaven one day, that He glorify His Son Jesus Christ in and through us in those heavenly places. Our resurrection is sure, God’s will for us in eternity is certain.
Verses 31-39 (the rest of the chapter) explain how we should keep our minds focused on these Bible truths. Satan will use various tactics to discourage us, hinder us, that we forget God’s Word to us, thereby causing our Christian lives not to function properly. We must not let Satan distract us from the cross of Calvary and our identity in Jesus Christ (see 2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
VII. VERSES 31-39. THE HOLY SPIRIT ETERNALLY LINKS US TO THE LOVE OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS OUR LORD
We have now reached the last part of Romans chapter 8. Reading Romans 8:31-39: “ What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?  He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?  Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.  Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.  Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.  For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,  Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Whether troubles, distresses, persecutions, famines, nakedness, perils, or swords (wars), we can be sure that, no matter our circumstances, nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Satan will use our difficulties to cause us to think God has abandoned us or that God does not care about us. However, we go by God’s Word, the Holy Bible, not by our circumstances. We keep our eyes focused on the Scriptures and not on our situations. In God’s Word, we see that He does care for us and He still is with us. He still has great plans for us in eternity future, so no matter what Satan or man may do to us, our destiny is completely secure in Christ (Romans 8:28)!
What does Romans 8:28 mean? Once you read it with its two succeeding verses, it becomes clear. The Bible says in Romans 8:28-30: “ 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.  For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.  Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”
Romans 8:28 is very simple. No matter what happens to us in this life, regardless of the difficulties and heartaches, there is nothing but eternal glory waiting for us in Jesus Christ! As people who have trusted the Lord Jesus Christ exclusively, we will share in His glorification in eternity future. God the Father will use us to exalt His Son forever in the heavenly places. That is the whole purpose of the Church the Body of Christ, the group of believers God “foreknew” because He purposed to form it before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4; Titus 1:1-3). God has fixed our eternal destiny—we (as believers in Christ) will be “conformed to the image of his Son.” Notice our title in Romans 8:28. As members of the Body of Christ, we are “them that love God,” “them who are the called according to his purpose.” Our purpose is to glorify Jesus Christ in the heavenly places forever (Ephesians 1:20-23; Ephesians 2:6-7; Colossians 1:16-23; 2 Timothy 4:18).
Beloved, this explanation is so much more glorious, so much richer, than religion’s cheap, carefree, superstitious, and mindless interpretation of Romans 8:28: “Oh, God will manipulate your circumstances to give you a job to solve your unemployment problem. God will heal you of your terminal cancer so you can have a nice, sweet life. God will work it all out so you can get rid of all your problems and escape all your dilemmas in life. He will give you a wonderful day today if you just claim it in Jesus’ name!” What we need to know is that, even on our bad days, even in our sickness, even in our weakness, even in our difficulties, God has given us grace to endure those troubles (2 Corinthians 12:7-11). Ultimately, that same grace will carry us on into eternity to carry out His will in the heavenly places!