By David Kowalski
Someone recently emailed me a question about a misinterpretation of Romans 8:28 that they had heard from a teacher in the Word-Faith movement, asking how I interpreted the verse. I responded as follows.
It helps to examine the context for 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. 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.What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one whojustifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written,‘For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 8:28-39 NASB
First, the passage refers to the sovereign working of God — “Godcauses all things…according to His purpose.” Our working is not credited here and our purpose is not the thing being worked by God. This cuts against the core of Word-Faith teaching which seeks to train people in their use of metaphysical methods to achieve their purposes in life (getting what they want). One of the fundamental errors of prosperity teaching (which spills over outside of the boundaries of their, specific, movement) is that the ultimate purpose of Christianity is our getting what we want out of this life. The New Testament repeatedly teaches to the contrary that the ultimate purpose of Christianity is our doing what God wants in this life. We are told not to fixate even upon our own, genuine needs:
“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ 32 For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” — Matthew 6:31-33 NASB
The kingdom of God is first and foremost His moral reign over our lives. Jesus tells us that His followers will be seekers of that kingdom rule in their lives who do not obsess even over necessary things. Instead they trust God regarding such matters. Those who obsess over how to use Christian faith to get such things as food, drink, and covering show that they do not trust God to provide these things. If they truly trusted God to provide for their needs that would be largely the end of the matter. If, when my kids all still lived at home, I had walked in on a session of my children discussing how to get Dad to provide for their food and drink I would have been insulted and hurt. Did they not trust me with regard to such things?
The first thing stated in Romans 8:29-39 about this purpose that God is working out is that it is about becoming “conformed to the image of His Son.” The overriding purpose of this working of the sovereign God is to make us different kind of people — not to make us feel momentarily comfortable in this life. This working of God begins with His giving us a justified status, but issues forth in a working of a sanctified state that culminates in our being glorified in the next life.
Not only is there no promise that this purpose that God is working out will avoid unpleasantness, Paul emphasizes that the ultimate purpose of God is being worked in us in spite of and even by such things: “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
The conquering that is achieved is not a victory over unpleasant circumstances, but as Romans 8:37 says, it is a victory “in” them. The higher purpose of being conformed to the image of His Son is accomplished in and even by difficult and unpleasant circumstances. God is concerned more with what is eternally good for us than with what makes us feel temporarily happy.
“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” — Romans 5:3-5
Paul here says that tribulation brings about perseverance in our living of the godly life and that this perseverance results in proven, godly character. Those who manifest this character have genuine hope, and in the NT our hope is always said to be in our eternal reward rather than in any temporal matter:
“If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” — 1 Corinthians 15:19 NASB
“Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” — 1 Peter 1:13 NASB
Paul concludes Romans 8:28-39 by telling us that no adversary — not even the attack of demons or death itself — can separate us from this active manifestation of God’s love in conforming us to the image of His Son which culminates in our heavenly glorification. It is this heavenly glorification that we fix our hope on as we seek God’s kingdom rule over our lives now during the sanctification process that conforms us to the image of Christ.
It may be true that “in this world we have tribulation” (John 16:33), but we are victorious in and even by that tribulation because God is accomplishing His higher purpose for us — a purpose that concerns our eternal good more than our temporarily feeling pleased with circumstances that we like just now.
Yes, God is working for our good, but we have very small minds and very low goals if we think of that good as a puny flash in the pan of this life. God is at work for our eternal glory, and that glory far surpasses our getting all of our wants in this momentary “vapor” of a life (James 4:14). As for our current needs, we focus not upon them but upon God and trust Him with regard to such things.
When we encounter tribulation and distress, the promise contained in Romans 8;28 is by no means defeated because it is not a promise to keep us from those things. We take heart and rejoice in these tribulations because we know that God is using all things to bring about our eternal welfare as we become increasingly conformed to the image of Christ on our way to heavenly glory.
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” — James 1:2-4 NASB
I can testify that these are hard truths for the heart to hold on to in the midst of trials but they are truths nevertheless, and we only end up frustrating ourselves even more if we hold on to lowly, false hopes rather than seeing the big, glorious picture that God paints for us in the Bible.
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