When I was working as a bishop, interviewing clergy for parish jobs, one of the questions I would sometimes ask was, “If you could take one chapter of the Bible to a desert island, which would it be?” To make it more interesting, I would often add, “Let's say you’ve already got Romans 8.” Otherwise nearly everyone would choose it; it's one of the great summaries of the message of the whole Bible, full of challenge as well as comfort.
One verse in Romans 8 is particularly well known—but usually in a misleading translation. In the pantheon of classic verses many Christians learn in childhood, not far behind John 3:16 (“God so loved the world...”) comes Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good to them that love God.”
A text to cling to, many people think, when things go wrong. A kind of spiritual version of “Every cloud has a silver lining,” or “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” Fellow Christians might remind each other of the verse as a way of offering comfort, consolation, and reassurance that things will all work in the end.
Except it isn’t what St Paul wrote.
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The King James version, which I just quoted and which we all learned, made it sound as though “everything,” all events in the world, had a kind of inner dynamic which would guarantee a happy outcome. But if you know the way Paul’s mind worked it feels very odd to speak of “all things” running themselves in that way. That idea belongs to the world of ancient Stoicism, not to Paul’s very Jewish way of thinking.
The verb Paul used doesn’t mean "works to", as in the King James. It means ‘works with’. (The 1952 Revised Standard Version got this right, but changed some other bits of the verse, and the idea didn’t catch on.) Paul was saying two things which the King James Version missed.
First, he was saying that it's God who works "all things together for good," not that “all things” were doing it under their own steam. Second, he was explaining how God does this. Specifically, he does it in collaboration with certain people. He recruits human beings to share in his purposes in the world.
This idea sends shivers down some theological spines. We’ve often been warned against any idea that humans can co-operate in the work of salvation. But salvation isn't the focus of this part of Romans 8. Salvation, to be sure, remains the ultimate horizon, but this particular passage is about vocation. It’s about how we repay the debt of gratitude we owe to God (verse 12). Those who have been grasped by the gospel of Jesus, those in whose hearts the Holy Spirit has been at work, now have a specific role, a task, within God’s ongoing purposes.
This makes excellent sense within the larger biblical thought-patterns. Back in Genesis—to which Paul refers frequently in Romans—humans were made to work as God’s partners in his creation-project. They were, specifically, “image-bearers”: God’s agents in reflecting His wise purposes into the world, and reflecting the praises and prayers of the world back to God.
Now, in Romans 8, Paul explains how this works in practice. God knows that the present creation is “groaning together,” like a woman going into labour. These labour pains are the birth-pangs of God’s new creation. And people who have been grasped by the gospel, people who are led by the Spirit, are called to share in that “groaning”, in prayers of lament. (The Hebrew scriptures, as Paul knew well, offer plenty of guidance in how to pray that kind of prayer.)
When that Spirit-led lament is happening, as Paul explains in verses 26 and 27, God himself, who searches the hearts, will hear that groaning from the dark places of creation’s pain. And those who pray that way, even when—precisely when!—they don’t even know what to pray for, will thereby be formed, shaped, into the Jesus-pattern, the pattern of the cross, sharing the pain of the world so that the world may be redeemed. Paul says exactly that in verse 29. And they will thereby be co-operating, not indeed in the work of their own salvation, but in the larger purposes of God for his battered and bleeding creation.
So what we might have met in Sunday School, as an apparently comforting proverb about how everything is going to pan out all right somehow, is in fact a challenging—but still also comforting —statement about Christian vocation. At the very moment when we are caught up in the unspeakable groaning of all creation, the Spirit is working in our hearts to bring us in tune with God’s loving and healing purposes. God made humans to share in his work. We are to be people of prayer at the places where the world is in pain. And in the present time this kind of lament is what prayer looks like. When we take up that calling, we are caught up in the love of God; and God is working all things together for good with those who love him.
That’s why, in the new edition of the New Testament for Everyone, I have translated Romans 8:28 this way: “We know, in fact, that God works all things together for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” It's partly also why I wrote a whole book, Into the Heart of Romans about just that one chapter of the Bible.
So, teachers and preachers and Sunday School leaders, do please continue to get young people to learn Romans 8:28. But please get it right. We need a new generation of people prepared to collaborate with the God of creation and new creation. We need people who learn the art, and the struggle, of prayer. Especially the prayer of puzzled lament. Not least at a time like this.
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