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.
A Textual Variant
It is not clear whether “God” is explicitly the subject of this sentence. MSS evidence points to no definitive answer, but the debate has no implication for what theological principle we draw from the text. The Divine hand obviously works upon panta (all things) in some way. This conclusion is consistent with Pauline theology (ex. Eph 1:11) and kata prothesin (according to His purpose) in the following phrase.
Verse 28 is built under oidamen (we know). de (and) continues Paul’s thought-flow from verses 26-27 (ultimately from v.9) yet allows us to acknowledge development in what he is teaching. First, verse 28 could be an elaboration of kata theon in verse 27, which would pack verses 28-39 well together under that theme. Second, verse 28 could point further back to vers3 23, “…we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons.” So verse 28 would be another coping mechanism we have for the “already-and-not-yet” nature of salvation.
I favor the first option, as it seems to most naturally develop the text.
Everything Proves Beneficial
panta sunergei eis agathon (all things work together for good), as suggested above, does not need ho theos to give the Christian hope. Paul essentially says that everything in the Christian’s life proves beneficial. There is no such thing as “wasted experience.” An important discussion is whether it is in spight of all things or through all things that the Christian is benefitted.
First, “in spight” might be favored by the absence of ho theos (God). Paul is not saying that everything in the Christian experience actually results in good. Rather, there is good at the end of all things. Thinking back to verse 23, this would be the redemption of our body. So the comforting knowledge (oidamen) the Christian maintains in every circumstance is that, in the end, there is a resurrection to forever separate him from sin and its effects.
Second, “through” might be favored by the presence of ho theos. Paul is not merely pointing to the end result of the Christian life. Rather, all things actually proves beneficial to the Christian. This is not to say that all things are intrinsically good. All things, therefore, contribute to the Christian’s good. The comforting knowledge (oidamen) the Christian maintains in every circumstance is that, in the present, every experience has meaning. “Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face” (Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”).
I favor the second option, but both options seem orthodox and compatible with the text.
Recipients of Good
The NASB reads, “to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” No serious exegete proposes that these describe two different groups. The two clauses serve adjectival purposes for the same group: Christians. God’s people 1) love Him, 2) are called by Him.
I suggest that the placement of each clause demonstrates where Paul’s thought flow is going. tois agaposi ton theon (to those who love God) comes at the beginning of the verse and tois kata prothesin kletois ousin (to those who are called according to His purpose) comes at the end. This could be coincidence. Yet I suggest that tois agaposi ton theon could have sufficed as a description of the recipients of eis agathon (for good). Paul adds the last phrase to segue into what God’s prothesin (purpose) is (vv.29-30).
If this is correct, verses 29-30 not only explain prothesin but also support oidamen. “We know that everything proves beneficial to us because of verses 29-30.” If verses 29-30 do not function in this manner, the Christian peace of verse 28 (and later vv.31-39) would have no foundation or explanation.
My ultimate conclusion from this verse is that I, as a Christian, have ample reason to believe that my entire earthly experience is, by the grace of God, benefitting me. Below I have provided eight more specific conclusions.
- MSS variations result in no theological variations here.
- God’s ordination of all things is not explicit here (even with the inclusion of ho theos), though this verse certainly allows for it.
- The sovereignty of God is a perfectly relevant doctrine for the church today.
- No experience leaves a Christian hopeless.
- All experiences have meaning to the Christian. Behind every rugged trial is the tender hand of God.
- Salvific relationship is never one-sided. God loves His people and His people love Him.
- Peace in unpeaceful times is never unwarranted.
- It is a godly thing to live without anxiety or despair.