A Commentary by John Stott
In the last twelve verses of Romans 8 the apostle soars to sublime heights unequalled elsewhere in the New Testament. Having described the chief privileges of justified believers – peace with God (5:1-11), union with Christ (5:12-6:23), freedom from the law (7:1-25) and life in the Spirit (8:1-27) – his great Spirit-directed mind now sweeps over the whole plan and purpose of God from a past eternity to an eternity still to come, from the divine foreknowledge and predestination to the divine love from which absolutely nothing will ever be able to separate us.
To be sure, at present we experience sufferings and groans, but we are sustained in the midst of them by the hope of glory. So far it is only a ‘hope’, because it is still future, unseen and unrealized, but it is not on that account uncertain. On the contrary, our Christian hope is solidly grounded on the unwavering love of God. So the burden of Paul’s climax is the eternal security of God’s people, on account of the eternal unchangeability of God’s purpose, which is itself due to the eternal steadfastness of God’s love.
These tremendous truths the apostle declares three times over, although from three different perspectives. He begins with five unshakeable convictions (28) about God working all things together for the good of his people. He continues with five undeniable affirmations (29-30) regarding the successive stages of God’s saving purpose from eternity to eternity. And he concludes with five unanswerable questions (31-39), in which he challenges anybody to contradict the convictions and affirmations which he has just expressed.
a). Five unshakeable convictions (28).
Romans 8:28 is surely one of the best-known texts in the Bible. On it believers of every age and place have stayed their minds. It has been likened to a pillow on which to rest our weary heads.
We note that verse 28 begins with the statement *we know*. Verse 22 began likewise. So here are two assertions of Christian knowledge, one about the groaning creation and the other about God’s providential care. Yet there are many other things which we do not know. For example, ‘we do not know what we ought to pray for’ (26). In fact, we are caught in a continuous tension between what we know and what we do not know. It is just as foolish to claim to know what we do not know as it is to confess not to know what we do know. In those areas in which God has not plainly revealed his mind, the right attitude for us to adopt is that of Christian agnosticism (see Dt.29:29). But in verse 28 Paul lists five truths about God’s providence which *we know*.
First, we know that *God works*, or is at work, in our lives. The familiar AV rendering that ‘all things work together for good’ is surely to be rejected, since all things do not automatically work themselves together into a pattern of good. The AV statement would be acceptable only if ‘it is the sovereign guidance of God that is presumed as the undergirding and directing force behind all the events of life’. An early copyist evidently felt the need to make thus explicit by adding ‘God’ as the subject of the verb. But the manuscript support for this reading, although ‘both ancient and noteworthy’, is insufficient to secure its acceptance. The addition is also unnecessary, for the order of words permits the translation, ‘we know that for those who love God he is working…’. He is ceaselessly, energetically and purposefully active on their behalf.
Secondly, God is at work *for the good of* his people. Being himself wholly good, his works are all expressions of his goodness and are calculated to advance his people’s good. Moreover, the ‘good’ which is the goal of all his providential dealings with us is our ultimate well-being, namely our final salvation. Verses 29-30 make this plain.