Exegetical Thoughts from 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.

Exegetical Notes

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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.

  1. MSS variations result in no theological variations here.
  2. God’s ordination of all things is not explicit here (even with the inclusion of ho theos), though this verse certainly allows for it.
  3. The sovereignty of God is a perfectly relevant doctrine for the church today.
  4. No experience leaves a Christian hopeless.
  5. All experiences have meaning to the Christian. Behind every rugged trial is the tender hand of God.
  6. Salvific relationship is never one-sided. God loves His people and His people love Him.
  7. Peace in unpeaceful times is never unwarranted.
  8. It is a godly thing to live without anxiety or despair.

Defining Sanctification in Light of Romans 8:29-30

Romans 8:29-30 is famously dubbed “The Golden Chain of Redemption.” Five complete, Divine actions drive the passage: foreknew, predestined, called, justified, glorified. This overview of God’s work in salvation is referred to as monergistic (meaning “with one energy”) because God alone accomplishes it all.

One striking detail is that Paul seems to skip sanctification. Shouldn’t it be, “justified, sanctified, glorified”? One explanation might be that sanctification is not a monergistic work and so would not be appropriate for Paul’s point in Romans 8:29-30 (i.e. to explain how God works good in believers’ lives [v.28] and that if God is for us no one can be against us [v.31]). Yet this explanation does not seem appropriate. For Paul’s argument to work, the entire work of salvation must be monergistic. Leaving out one facet that doesn’t support his theology would at best be dishonest, at worst an upheaval of Paul’s apostolic integrity.

I suggest that Paul excludes sanctification because it does not ontologically progress the saint in salvation. In the remainder of this article I will defend and detail this proposition. First, we need to understand “predestined” in 8:29. Second, we need to understand the three terms introduced in verse 30: called, justified, glorified. Third, after this analysis is complete, a definition of sanctification can be arrived upon.

Chosen to Be Conformed

Foreknew” does not communicate that God based His election on foreseen faith. This foreknowledge is relational and is actually the doctrine of Unconditional Election itself (I’m not going to defend this here, but feel free to ask me questions in the comment section below).

Predestined” needs further explanation – unto what did God destine His elect to? “…predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” Conformity to Christ’s image is the end unto which God has determined His elect. “Predestined” is not the act of God conforming us but the decision of God to conform us.

What is “the image of His Son”? Some suggest that it refers strictly to bodily resurrection (ex. see Paul Sloan, around minute 20). I consider this focus to be too narrow because of Paul’s emphasis on a present yet future salvation (Romans 8:12-25) – the “already and not-yet.” “Firstborn” refers to something being preeminent or exalted. Paul is literally saying, “so that Jesus would be the exalted elder brother of many” – or perhaps, “so that Jesus would be glorified among many.”

That being said, conformity to Christ’s image seems to only be possible through resurrection. “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col 1:18). “Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Cor 15:49). This seems to be what Paul speaks of in Romans 8:23, “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” This redemption of the body is our resurrection, which Paul refers to as our adoption.

Yet this is intriguing, because Paul earlier wrote, “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (v.15-16). So which is it? Are we presently adopted as sons, or do we await a future adoption? The text appears forcing us to answer, “both” – but not in a mysterious sense. I suggest that Paul is actually referring to two resurrections: one of the spirit, one of the body. This would make sense of the “already and not-yet” theology found in Romans 8.

There is first a spiritual resurrection: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgression, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:1, 4-6). There is second a physical resurrection: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, be the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:21).

Because each resurrection is of the same man and unto the same end (conformity to Christ), we should see this as one resurrection with two facets. 1 Peter 1:3-4 may support this: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you.” Christ’s physical resurrection in some sense secured for us a birth which we presently experience yet will one day receive in full.

Our resurrection is often called “birth” and thus appropriates the Biblical term of “adoption” and “child of God.” In the complete work of resurrection, we are reborn into Christ’s image. Regeneration would be the spiritual birth, where our hearts are conformed. Resurrection would be the physical birth, where our bodies are conformed. Considering these things, continue with me through Romans 8:29-30.

Judicial and Ontological Conformity

Paul introduces the final three Divine actions in verse 30. The calling pursues and accomplishes God’s purpose without fail (cf. 8:28; 31-39; 9:6-13), so it is effectual rather than invitational. This would be regeneration – the effectual work of God whereby a sinner is spiritually resurrected, given a heart that loves and clings to Christ (Ezek 36:26-27; 1 Jn 5:1). Justification, as Paul so laboriously detailed prior to this, is the Divine declaration that an individual is not guilty. The final action “glorified” must be referring to our physical resurrection and acquisition of heavenly bodies (cf. Rom 8:21). These three actions are distinct from the previous two (foreknew and predestined) because they involve God’s interaction with us in time. While election and predestination occurred prior to our birth, calling, justification and glorification are accomplished after we begin to exist.

I consider it appropriate to view the first two actions as God’s purposing and the final three actions as God’s accomplishing. If this is correct, then calling, justification and glorification comprise God’s work of conforming us into Christ’s image (i.e. what He predestined the foreknown unto). Calling and glorification refer to ontological conformity; justification refers to judicial conformity.

The judicial conformity provides the basis upon which God ontologically conforms us. God never changes and so always deals with men by a consistent standard. This standard has not and will not be broken, even for the purpose of conforming someone into Christ’s image. It is upon the basis of Christ’s obedience and death that God is then able to be just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:26). It is common to say, “I am justified, therefore righteous,” but this statement is false. Justification does not make us righteous, it declares us righteous. We are given Christ’s unblemished record – thus, judicially conformed to His image.

The ontological conformity is the transformation of our being. This is the act in which God literally makes us righteous. Our calling is first, glorification is second. In terms synonymous with the purpose of this article: our spiritual resurrection is first, physical resurrection is second. We are first made inwardly like Christ, second made outwardly like Christ.

So What is Sanctification?

In light of these things, how might we define sanctification? It is not a creative work of God whereby an individual is made into Christ’s likeness. This creative work occurs in regeneration and resurrection. However, sanctification clearly depends on God’s work within us (Jn 15:1-9; Phil 2:12-13). As God works within us, these two passages clearly state that we must work-out this Divine grace. Sanctification is synergistic because both our energy and God’s energy are necessary. “But doesn’t that mean salvation is by works?” No, because sanctification is not a creative conformity to Christ’s image.

Regeneration and resurrection completely conform us to Christ’s image. Absolutely no work is needed on our part in order to bring these two things about. Sanctification must by nature be a different kind of work than foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. In sanctification, what is already conformed to Christ’s image? Our heart. What has yet to be conformed? Our body.

Sanctification, I propose, is the progressive discipline of the flesh to conform to the affections of one’s regenerate heart. The energy to accomplish such discipline is only found in God, but the action of discipline is done by the individual. Further, the monergistic work of salvation (Rom 8:29-30) in no way hinges upon the amount of sanctification one experiences. Conformity to Christ’s image is accomplished in the resurrection of the spirit and body. Consider these texts that seem to support my proposition:

But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. – Hebrews 5:14

But I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. – 1 Corinthians 9:27

Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. – Galatians 5:24-25

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called. – Ephesians 4:1

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and wo work for His good pleasure. – Philippians 2:12-13

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8

This understanding of sanctification is congruent with the semantic use of the word. “Sanctify” means “to make holy,” or “to set apart.” Israel was commanded to sanctify itself from the world and to God. The sanctification clearly occurs only as far as an individual is obedient: “You shall consecrate yourselves therefore and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. You shall keep My statutes and practice them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Lev 20:7-8). So here we see the synergistic work of sanctification. The Israelites were responsible to be holy – but God had already done a work to make them holy. God monergistically separated them from the world and to Him, then He told them to live in that separation. New Testament believers have the same responsibility. Our sanctification is essentially our work of setting ourselves aside for God – and this work is only possible by the power of God (again: Jn 15:1-9; Phil 2:12-13).

So why is sanctification excluded from Romans 8:29-30? Because it is not a creative, salvific act of God whereby we are made into Christ’s image. Sanctification is rather the synergistic, progressive discipline of our body, whereby it is conformed to righteousness while we await a physical resurrection.

A Doxology of Romans 9

The God of Romans 9 is radically different than many people may be comfortable with. While most professing Christians exalt God as an anthropocentric Deity Who seeks man’s benefit above all else, Paul firmly presents Him as a God-centered God Who seeks His glory above all else. These things can be hard to accept. When I first began to see Scripture’s clear testimony concerning the nature of God, I wondered, “What does it look like to worship a God like this?” What does poetry praising the God of Unconditional Election read like? How do I praise God in light of His sovereignty over all things?

To the delight of my easily frustrated mind, God’s sovereignty in salvation is one of the most natural truths to praise Him for. I would like to share ten hymns that I’ve found helpful in drawing doxology from the theology of Romans 9. If you click on any title below, your computer device should be taken to an audio recording of the respective song.

I. Whate’er My God Ordains Is Right

Samuel Rodigast

Whate’er my God ordains is right // His holy will abideth
I will be still whate’er He doth // And follow where He guideth
He is my God, though dark my road // He holds me that I shall not fall
And so to Him, I leave it all // He holds me that I shall not fall

Whate’er my God ordains is right // He never will deceive me
He leads me by the proper path // I know He will not leave me
I take, content, what He hath sent // His hand can turn my griefs away
And patiently I wait His day // His hand can turn my griefs away

Whate’er my God ordains is right // Though now this cup I’m drinking
May bitter seem to my faint heart // I take it all unshrinking
My God is true each morn anew // Sweet comfort yet shall fill my heart
And pain and sorrow shall depart // Sweet comfort yet shall fill my heart

Whate’er my God ordains is right // Here shall my stand be taken
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine // Yet I am not forsaken
My Father’s care is ‘round me there // He holds me that I shall not fall
And so to Him, I leave it all // He holds me that I shall not fall

II. Great Is Thy Faithfulness

Thomas O. Chisholm

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God, my Father
There is no shadow of turning with Thee
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou has been, Thou forever wilt be

Summer and winter, and spring-time and harvest
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
Thine own ear presence to cheer and to guide
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine with ten thousand beside

Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me

III. God Moves in a Mysterious Way

William Cowper

God moves in a mysterious way // His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea // And rides upon the storm

Deep in unfathomable mines // Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs // And works His sov’reign will

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take // The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break // In blessings on your head!

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense // But trust Him for His grace
Behind a frowning providence // He hides a smiling face!

His purposes will ripen fast // Unfolding ev’ry hour
The bud may have a bitter taste // But sweet will be the flow’r!

Blind unbelief is sure to err // And scan His work in vain
God is His own interpreter // And He will make it plain!

IV. Our Sovereign God

Tom Pennington

Our Sov’reign God by His own word // Sustains this world and reigns as Lord
No angel, demon, sinful man // Can change His course, restrain His hand
O sov’reign God, we praise Your pow’r // Your wisdom, goodness we adore!
We bow our hearts before Your throne // Help us, O Lord, to trust You more!

When the fullness of the time had come // God sent His own beloved Son
To keep God’s aw, live in our place // To bear our sin, guilt and disgrace
Dead in our sin, estranged from God // We fled as rebels from His love
In sov’reign grace He made us sons // And saved us from the wrath to come

Before our birth He planned our days // Laid out our course, ordained our ways
The moments of our lives He weaves // So all the glory He receives
To those He loved before all time // To all He called, in grace renewed
He cannot lie; His Word is true // He makes all things to work for good!

He has written hist’ry’s final page // His Son’s return will end this age
The Lamb will come in glorious might // Take back His world and end its night
How deep the wisdom of our God // Unknown, unfathomed are His ways!
None counsels Him or knows His mind // We bow before Him all our days.

V. All Creatures of Our God and King

Francis of Assisi; paraphrased, William H. Draper; Thomas Ken

All creatures of our God and King // Lift up your voice and with us sing
Allelulia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam // Thou silver moon with softer gleam
O praise him! Alleluia!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong // Ye clouds that sail in heav’n along
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice // Ye lights of evening, find a voice
O praise Him! Alleluia!

And all ye men of tender heart // Forgiving others, take your part
O sing ye! Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear // Praise God and on Him cast your care
O praise Him! Alleluia!

Let all things their Creator bless // And worship Him in humbleness
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son // And praise the Spirit, three in One
O praise Him! Alleluia!

VI. I Sing the Mighty Power of God

Isaac Watts

I sing the mighty power of God // That made the mountains rise
That spread the flowing seas abroad // And built the lofty skies
I sing the wisdom that ordained // The sun to rule the day
The moon shines full at His command // And all the stars obey

I sing the goodness of the Lord // That filled the earth with food
He formed the creatures with His Word // And then pronounced them good
Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed // Where’er I turn my eye
If I survey the ground I tread // Or gaze upon the sky!

There’s not a plant of flower below // But makes Thy glories known
And clouds arise and tempests blow // By order from Thy throne
While all that borrows life from Thee // Is ever in Thy care
And ev’rywhere that man can be // Thou, God, art present there

VII. O Father, You Are Sovereign

Margaret Clarkson

O father, you are sov’reign // In all the worlds You made
Your mighty word was spoken // And light and life obeyed

Your voice commands the seasons // And bounds the ocean’s shore
Sets stars within their courses // And stills the tempest’s roar

O Father, You are sov’reign // In all affairs of man
No pow’rs of death or darkness // Can thwart Your perfect plan

All chance and change transcending // Supreme in time and space
You hold Your trusting children // Secure in Your embrace

O Father, You are sov’reign // We see You dimly now
But soon before Your triumph // Earth’s ev’ry knee shall bow

With this glad hope before us // Our faith springs up anew
Our sov’reign Lord and Savior // We trust and worship You!

VIII. Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

Joachim Neander; tr. Catherine Winkworth

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear // Now to His temple draw near
Praise Him in glad adoration!

Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wonderously reigneth
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen // How thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Praise to the lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee
Ponder anew // What the Almighty can do
If with His love He befriend thee.

Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him
Let the Amen // Sound from His people again
Gladly forever adore Him!

IX. When This Passing World is Done

Robert Murray McCheyne

When this passing world is done // When has sunk yon glaring sun
When we stand with Christ in glory // Looking o’er life’s finished story
Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe

When I hear the wicked call // On the rocks and hills to fall
When I see them start to shrink // On the fiery deluge brink
Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe

When I stand before the throne // Dressed in beauty not my own
When I see thee as thou art // Love thee with unsinning heart
Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe

When the praise of heav’n I hear // Loud as thunders to the ear
Loud as many waters’ noise // Sweet as harp’s melodious voice
Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe

Chosen not for good in me // Wakened up from wrath to flee
Hidden in the Savior’s side // By the spirit sanctified
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show
By my love, how much I owe

X. My Lord, I Did Not Choose You

Joseph Conder

My Lord, I did not choose You // For that could never be
My heart would still refuse You // Had You not chosen me
You took the sin that stained me // You cleansed me made me new
Of old You have ordained me // That I should live in You.

Unless Your grace had called me // And taught my op-ning mind
The world would have enthralled me // To heav’nly glories blind
My heart knows none above You // For Your rich grace I thirst
I know that if I love You // You must have loved me first.