Another Look at Romans 8:28
by Tim Geddert

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)

That is how I once memorized Romans 8:28 many years ago. It has often been a word of hope for me, assuring me that all things, even "bad" things, "work out" for people who love God. In fact there was a time when I interpreted this verse to mean that there really are no "bad things" that happen to believers. If things seem bad, but really serve to fulfil God's good purposes, then even these things are ultimately good. I guess at the time it did not seem unjust to me that only those who love God are promised the benefit of "everything working out." Nor was I troubled by the fact that I often did not see the "bad things" magically transformed into "good things."

I have undergone two changes of mind in my understanding of this verse. I want to share these:

The first (minor) adjustment in my understanding of Romans 8:28 happened when I realized that modern versions of the Bible translate it differently at a very crucial point. In the NIV (for example) the verse does not say that "all things work together" (as though there is some deep magic in the universe that somehow creates the hidden "good" pattern out of all the "bad" pieces). Rather it says, "In all things, God works for the good of those who love him . . ." This version attributes the "working out" not to some universal magic, but directly to God's active involvement.

Now that I am able to read the verse in the original language, I know what caused the change from the KJV and the NIV. The KJV translators viewed "panta" (all things) as the subject of the verb "sunergei" (work together). The NIV translators view "panta" (all things) as the object (technically, the accusative of reference) of the verb.

Both versions (i.e. with "panta" as subject or as object) are grammatically possible. [For advanced Greek students, remember that neuter plurals look the same in the nominative and in the accusative, and that neuter plural subjects take singular verbs!] However, the NIV version is to be preferred for a series of reasons:

  •  Linguistically: The Greek word "sunergei" (from which the English word synergy comes!) does not mean "work out" or "fall in place." In the NT it always signifies the active involvement of real actors accomplishing some task. To treat "panta" as the subject implies that everything that happens is actively and consciously working at the project of making good things happen to people who love God.

  •  Theologically: The Scriptures never attribute good will and active working to "all things." If good things are being made to happen, it is because God is at work, transforming "all things" into something it would not be on its own.

  • Thus, the NIV translation "In all things, God works for the good of those who love him" is clearly better than the KJV translation "All things work together for good to those who love God."

    Now, if you were to check an NIV Bible (preferably an older edition), you would see a footnote alluding to the two translation possibilities. However, the footnote incorrectly ties the two possibilities to manuscript differences. The footnote claims that the KJV version is supported by some manuscripts, implying that the NIV is supported by the other manuscripts. That is not quite true. There are indeed some manuscripts that have two additional (non-original) words in the text, the words "ho theos" (i.e. "God" used as a subject). The KJV version rightly translated the text without these words. So did the NIV translators. However, they translated the same words in two different, but grammatically possible, ways (the NIV choosing the more likely one). What happens when the two words are added to the text is that the KJV translation becomes grammatically impossible. The additional words were probably introduced by a scribe who wanted to make sure that the text was read correctly, with "God", not "all things," as the subject of the verb.

    So the NIV footnote correctly notes that some manuscripts do and some do not explicitly say that God is the subject of the verb. And it also correctly indicates that the verse can be translated two ways. But it wrongly implies that if the words "ho theos" were not in the original text, then the verse means what the KJV says it means.

    To summarize . . . I once thought Romans 8:28 was about "all things working out" and am now persuaded it is about "God working in all situations."

    Now to the second time I changed my understanding of this verse! Even the translation that is given in the NIV needs to be reconsidered. The biggest problem with the NIV version is that it still misunderstands what the verb "sunergei" ("work together") really means. Even if "God" is the subject, the NIV translation treats "sunergei" as though it means God is "working things together" i.e. "forming a pattern" or "mixing ingredients together" so that something new emerges. "Sunergei" in Greek is not about one party working various ingredients together; it is more than one party working on a common project. It means quite literally "work together." If Romans 8:28 says that God "works together . . ." then the obvious question to be asked is "with whom?" If we read the text differently, the answer is clearly supplied in Romans 8:28.

    I have before me a new edition of the NIV. It contains two footnotes to this verse. The first is the same as the one contained in the older version (discussed above). The second says this: "OR . . . works together with those who love him to bring about what is good . . ." This way of reading the verse still views "God" as the subject of the verb "works together." However, on this reading "those who love God" are not the beneficiaries of God interventions; they are God's co-workers! Romans 8:28 is not about God working to bring about good things for us (though God also does that!); Romans 8:28 is about God working with us to bring about good things.

    Those who have studied Greek know that the dative case can be used (among other possibilities) as a "dative of advantage" or as an "instrumental of association." The traditional reading of Romans 8:28 takes the phrase "those who love God" in the first way (God works "for us"). The NIV second footnote interprets it the second way (God works "with us"). Both are grammatically possible. So how does one decide which is correct?

    The best way is to look again at the verb "sunergei"? Is it used in Scripture to speak of "making things fit together / fall in place / produce a pattern"? Or is it used of two parties that are working as a team? In all four other occurrences of this word in the NT, it has the latter meaning (cf. Mark 16:20; 1 Cor. 16:16; 2 Cor. 6:1; James 2:22.) Of these, the first three speak explicitly of God working with people or people working with each other. In the fourth, "faith and works" are viewed as metaphorically "working along with each other." The only way that "sunergei" is used in the NT is when more than one party is "working together." Moreover, the noun associated with this verb ("sunergos" i.e. co-worker, helper, fellow worker) is also always used of two or more parties that are working along with each other! (cf. Rom. 16:3, 9, 21; 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 1:24; 8:23; Phil. 2:25; 4:3; Col. 4:11; 1 Thess. 3:2; Philemon 1,24; 2 John 8). Thus the word is not about making things work together; it is about two parties working together.

    Unless "sunergei" is being used here in a way completely unprecedented in the NT, Romans 8:28 is not about God fitting all things together into a pattern for our benefit. It is rather about God and those who love God working as partners, "working together" to bring about good in all situations. While we (i.e. those who love God and are called according to God's purposes) may at times also be the beneficiaries of "God and others" working together, this verse is probably not primarily about the benefits we receive from God's action on our behalf. It is rather a clear indication that those who are "foreknown, predestined, called, justified and glorified" (see the context of Romans 8:28!) are being transformed, not only in order to receive God's grace, but also in order to become channels of God's grace to others. We were called by God; we love God; and thus we join God's work in the world. God is working to bring about good, and we are God's fellow-workers. God's good purposes will often come about in terrible situations, not because someone "sat back and trusted God's promise" but because someone "joined God's work in the world; became God's hands and feet; became a tangible expression of God's love and God's caring."

    Romans 8:28 is a challenge for us to be those sorts of people. If we are, then ever more people will learn that nothing can separate them from God's love (see the context of Romans 8:28!) Wherever and whenever they feel separated from God's love, God is sending co-workers; God is sending us, to assure them in concrete and tangible ways that God still loves them.

    There is yet another possibility. Sometimes the grammar of a Greek sentence is ambiguous (technically it is called polyvalent). More than one grammatical option is possible and both meanings are intended. Perhaps this is one. Perhaps the verse is about God working both with us and for us to bring about good in tough situations. (For Greek students, this might mean the dative is a dative of reference.) This understanding would focus on the Christian community as both co-workers with God and as beneficiaries of that which God (and our brothers and sisters) does on our behalf. It would also cohere well with the context in Romans 8, where Romans 8:28 can be seen both as God's answer to the "groaning" we experience in this time when God's purposes are not yet completely fulfilled (cf. 8:22-27) and also where people are assured that God's love never leaves them, no matter what their situation (cf. 8:31-39). The community of those being transformed by God (cf. 8:29,30) both receives God's grace and passes it on by "working with God" to bring about good.

    It is hard to preach a text that has a meaning (or multiple meanings) not clearly captured in the Bible translations people carry with them to church. But at least those who have new NIV Bibles can find an alternative reading of Romans 8:28 in the footnote. It is my hope that this alternative reading soon finds its way into the main text and that the other interpretations (the less likely ones that most of us have memorized and/or those that supplement the main reading) are printed as other possible alternatives in the footnote. Then Romans 8:28 can challenge us to be expressions of God's sovereign loving care to others, as I believe Paul intended it to be.

    Title: Another Look at Romans 8:28
    Scripture Text:

    Romans 8:28

    Author:

    by Tim Geddert

    Publication Information: Article, MB Biblical Seminary
    Bibliographic Reference: Geddert, Tim. "Another Look at Romans 8:28." http://www.mbseminary.edu/main/articles/geddert1.htm, 1999.
    Permissions: Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary grants for this article to be cited, duplicated, stored, or distributed electronically for personal use, for use in a church or for use in a classroom, provided that the copies are distributed free, and they indicate the author and the URL of the article.