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The apparent discrepancy between this profound affirmation of faith and our human experience makes Romans 8:28 one of the difficult sayings of Paul. For how can we see the hand of God at work in the killing of a young child by a drunken driver? Where are God's loving purposes revealed in the agony of a cancer victim's last weeks? What measure of good can be discerned in the massacre of a Christian congregation by guerrillas? All these kinds of experiences and events seem to contradict Paul's affirmation. It is therefore imperative that we understand what it is that Paul is saying and how, in light of his own experience, he was able to say it.
Apart from anything else which might be said about this text, it is clear from the context that it expresses Paul's deep faith and trust in the loving purposes of God. We must remember that this affirmation is not the result of abstract rationalization or theologizing. It is, furthermore, not a word that emerges from the lips of one whose life coasted along in serenity, uninterrupted by the stresses and strains, the pains and perplexities, the turmoil and tragedies that most human beings experience to one degree or another.
No, this word of confidence and hope is written by one who, according to his own testimony in an earlier correspondence, was "under great pressure" and "despaired even of life" (2 Cor 1:8); he was "hard pressed on every side" and "perplexed," "persecuted" and "struck down" (2 Cor 4:8-9); he experienced "beatings," "imprisonments," "riots" and "hunger" (2 Cor 6:4-5). It seems clear that we have in Romans 8:28 no "armchair theory," but a profound affirmation of faith that emerges out of experiences which, on the surface at least, would not seem to support that affirmation.
What then is the "good" toward which God works? I believe we can only discover that when we take the whole context of the passage seriously. In Romans 8:1-18, Paul shows that Christians are people who are "in Christ" (Rom 8:1), whose existence is determined and empowered by the Spirit of Christ who dwells within (Rom 8:9-11). On the basis of this reality, we are "children of God" and "heirs with Christ" (Rom 8:16-17 RSV). We are therefore no longer in bondage to "the law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2).
But to be free from the enslaving realities of sin and death does not mean that we can live our lives unaffected by the continuing presence of sin and death in this world. And it is precisely this dual reality of "freedom from" as well as "continuing experience of" that Paul deals with in the second part of the chapter.
Paul concludes his description of "life in Christ" or "life in the Spirit" by affirming in Romans 8:17 that this new life is lived in the tension between present suffering and final glorification. That is to say, freedom from bondage to sin and death does not mean the absence of either the reality of sin and death or the experience of this reality in the present.
The present reality of "peace with God" and "justification" (Rom 5:1) is but the first installment of God's gracious, redemptive action in Christ. There is much more yet to come. The "not-yet" dimension is already anticipated in Romans 5: beyond the present experience of being at "peace with God," there is the "hope of [sharing] the glory of God" (Rom 5:2) and the expectation of being "saved through his life" in the final judgment (Rom 5:9-10). This "not-yet" aspect of God's redemptive purpose is taken up again: in Romans 8:11 Paul points to the future resurrection of our "mortal bodies," which in Romans 8:17 he refers to as our "glorification." Then he goes on to show "our present sufferings" need to be placed in proper perspective in light of "the glory that will be revealed" (Rom 8:18).
In these verses our experiences, which do not seem "good" at all, are placed in the context of the totality of God's creation, which "in eager expectation" (Rom 8:19) and which is presently "subjected to frustration" (Rom 8:20) and in "bondage to decay" (Rom 8:21). It is a creation which "has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth" (Rom 8:22) just as we human beings "groan" inwardly (Rom 8:22). And just as the total creation "will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21), so we can anticipate "the redemption of our bodies" (Rom 8:23).
The proper attitude for our living between the first installment of our redemption and its final culmination is hope and patience (Rom 8:24-25). Our present situation, says Paul, is a situation of "weakness" (Rom 8:26). If it were not so, patience and hope would not be necessary. Yet it is precisely in the midst of our weakness that the Spirit of God is present and working (Rom 8:26-27).
Thus Romans 8:28 must be seen within the context of the redemptive purposes of God. In all things--in our suffering, groaning, hoping, waiting; in "trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword" (Rom 8:35)--in all things God is working "for the good of those who love him." That "good" is the final and complete realization of God's love for creation, incarnated in Christ, from which nothing can separate us (Rom 8:39).
"In all these things," Paul is convinced, we can be "more than conquerors" (Rom 8:37). Not on the basis of our efforts, nor on the basis of blind faith, nor through a kind of stoic resignation, but rather "through him who loved us" (Rom 8:37) and called us "according to his purpose" (Rom 8:28). That good and loving purpose finds its completion when the whole creation, including our bodies, is freed from bondage to decay.
Prior to this final act in God's redemptive work, it is God's love in Christ that sustains us and empowers us--even in the midst of our experiences of sin and death--"to be conformed to the likeness of his Son" (Rom 8:29). God works in all things toward that good purpose. But only "those who love him" know that, because they are participants "with him" in the outworking of that purpose.