This paper will address the theological and modern cultural implications of Romans 8:28-39 through a proper analysis of the words, context, and thus appropriate application of this scripture to today’s culture.
Romans 8:28-30 sets the tone of this portion of scripture by first and foremost making God the active subject. This is stressed by the verbiage of what God is doing within the context of these verses. He works, He foreknows, He predestines, He calls, He justifies, and finally and ultimately He glorifies. It is my intent to show that throughout these verses there is nothing the person must do. Indeed it is only what God is doing that matters, that keeps us, that justifies us, that glorifies us, and more importantly, that glorifies Him. Our first section (Romans 8:28-30) enters with a magnificent statement of how mighty is our God. Never do believers enter into the context of this verse unless we are willing to see them as objects. God is the subject!
8:31-35 displays for us the power of the one who we just learned is active in the life of those He has chosen. He is also effective. It is exemplified here that through the relationship of Christ and the Father within the Trinity and because of God’s great power, there exists a bond that nothing can break. Once again we see the triune God doing the work of retaining those He has chosen. Those who believe remain an object, although an object of God’s action.
Only in verses 8:36-39 do we come to terms with our role and worth in this heavenly relationship. You see, there is an intended order to these passages. It is outlined similar to this: Because God is who He is and does what He does (Romans 8:28-35), this is who we become then (Romans 8:36-39). If the meaning of this passage is seen to be “who a person is” in relation to God then the meaning is certainly lost. What I mean is that if we start with ourselves and look up towards God presenting to Him who we have found ourselves to be, then we miss who He is all together because we don’t yet know who we are. Neither can we know who God is until we are willing to die to self daily; for it is by God’s personhood we become in touch with our own personality. That is, we must start from the opposite perspective; we must know who God is to know who we are. He created us; how could He not be able to tell us who we are? When we start with a keen sense of who God is, only then do we come to a full and faithful revelation of who we are. We are most often taught the opposite. We learn from a young age to be unique, different, an individual, and we are essentially told to know God by knowing ourselves. In this system exists the very definition of Humanism: to find ourselves in everything and let ourselves be everything, including God. Romans 8:28-39 astutely leads us to a place where God does and where we simply be and live…believe! Let’s explore the depths of these verses, word by word, phrase by phrase; all the while giving the author the honor of allowing him to determining the meaning of his own words.
We have to consider the context in which Paul’s letter to the Romans was written. By considering the historical situation that Paul writes from, we can possibly find more insight into the deep theological concepts he presents in this letter. We can also find profoundly applicable insight from observing the literary context. That is to say we will be looking at the purpose Romans 8:28-39 plays in the greater scheme of the entire book. By this method we will honorably treat the scripture and give adequate consideration to what the author was communicating to his original audience.
Paul writes his letter to the Roman church from Corinth expressing his desire to visit, ultimately on his way to Spain (Rom 15:23). His letter is carried to the Roman church by Phoebe, a woman, who presents controversy in our modern context. The controversial question is if she was a deacon or simply one who served in the church. Michael A. Harbin, in his book The Promise and the Blessing: A Historical Survey of the Old and New Testament, finds evidence that she was a deacon.
“In the Greek text of Romans 16:1, Phoebe is called a diakonos, “servant, minister, deacon” (for the later, English has the feminine form, deaconess). Both the NIV and NASB translate it as “servant.” There is debate whether this designation means that she was the wife of a deacon, or that she was a female who occupied the position of a deacon within that church. It is most likely the latter.”
This seems to have no direct bearing on our discussion of Romans 8:28-39, however, just like some of the principles we will discuss, this shows how some of our human traditions influence the way we read scripture. Are women Deacons permissible in scripture? If so what is their scope of authority? What about the testimony of the New Testament on the subject? These are apt questions but must be abandoned for another time as they are not specifically addressed in the verses we are observing. It still remains that we must approach with our assumptions thoroughly destroyed so as to let scripture, indeed to let God shape us.
There seems to be as many views on the purpose of Paul’s letter to the Roman church as there are people who comment on it. They range from a simple introduction to the Romans who hadn’t met Paul yet, a mere product of opportunity since Phoebe was going to Rome anyway, greeting of old friends, and more intrinsic purposes such as giving the Roman church their first apostolic teaching. The latter seems to me to be the more plausible purpose. It would have been increasingly more difficult for the leaders of the church in Rome to resist and counter other influences within the church from the Roman culture. As it was, there were already divisions between Gentile and Jewish believers. Jewish believers still felt compelled to adhere to the dietary laws and sacred days while the Gentile believers entirely rejected this on principle as well as the Jews who held such views. Given Paul’s call to unity within the church, stated in other letters he wrote to other churches, this text, taken in that context, would be consistent with many of Paul’s other teachings.
In terms of literary context we can observe that Paul writes what is in essence a theological essay. This letter addresses many of the theological topics that have filled many books since. Within that construct we can see chapter 8 to be a treatment of the Holy Spirit’s role in the believer’s life and who that produces in them. Paul instructs us on the spirit controlled life. He tells us of what a life lead by the spirit of God looks like. In emphasizing the difference between the sinful mind and the mind controlled by the spirit, Paul tells us “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so.” (Rom 8:7) This brings me to expand on my initial point. I said earlier that the person must do nothing, contextually emphasizing that it is God who does, who acts. Here we have a supporting statement that progresses my earlier statement, in fact to a condition of inability. The person apart from God CAN NOT do anything relating to salvation. If the unsaved cannot submit to God’s law then who is it that does the work in one’s initial confession of faith?
Here in these same initial passages of Romans 8 we also have the relationship between sin, our bodies, the spirit within us, and our behavior. We are told that our bodies are dead because of sin, if Christ truly lives within us. Our spirit is said to be alive because of righteousness. Paul steps us through even this basic teaching so that we may not misunderstand. When he states in verse 11 that our spirits are alive because of righteousness he is not referring to any righteousness that could be credited to us. The emphasis is still on God. It is God’s spirit inside us which impregnates us with righteousness, and that not of ourselves. Only then does Paul show how “the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” may “also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Rom 8:11). So in 8:1-11 we see the evidence and effects of the spirit placed within believers. Verses 12-27 then are a powerful glimpse at the hope that belongs to those within whom God has placed His spirit. Paul describes this as a hope for what we do not have. “…Who hopes for what he already has?” (Rom 8:24).
In Romans chapter 9 Paul expands on his teaching of God’s work in each individual believer and increases it to the congregation of believers. Differentiating between Jew and Gentile, Paul shows how obedience to the law earns nothing in this new covenant, and in fact has become a stumbling block, while also showing how the Gentiles, “who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it”. The emphasis is on faith. Faith in what? God’s work!
So our literary context yields thusly: God places his spirit in the believer who is then credited with God’s righteousness, through the righteousness of the spirit there is hope as an heir of God, God has chosen those whom will be heirs and this not according to any merit of any person, the faith that God compels one to have according to His eternal calling is what saves.
From here we can proceed into analysis of Romans 8:28-39 with a clear conscience, knowing that we have considered the context in which the writer penned this letter, as well as the context in which the intended audience would read it. Let us now consider the specifics of these verses.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
In verse 28 we start out with the conjunction “And”, which connects the following statement to the previous verses. By “And” Paul is communicating an addition to the previous ideas of the Holy spirit placed within believers to deliver hope. What is Paul adding? He is adding the concept of God’s work and the permanence of that work. Paul uses the pronoun “we” to imply all who believe. This would include not only himself but his audience as well. So, when Paul says “we know” he is saying “believers know.” Then we have the present tense verb “works” which refers to God and what He is doing. God works, not believers. What does he work? He works all things! Does this have a limiting modifier? No it does not. All things are worked by God. And for what? We read that he works all things for the good of those who love him. So we see that God works good. Does this even account for trials and what we determine to be bad? By the description of “all things” it most certainly does. We may also observe a cause and effect relationship respectively between loving God and Him working good for those who love Him. Loving God is here stated to be the sole condition for God working good in the life of the believer. Next we see that the pronoun “who” refers once again to believers, but now is in the context of yet another of God’s acts. We read that those who believe have been called. By whom have they been called? The statement “his purpose” implies that God has called the believer, and for a specific purpose. The past tense nature of the verb “called” emphasizes God’s action before the believer’s action of loving him. So verse 28 tells us that God calls us to love Him and then works good for those who love Him, not only for their good but for His purpose, which is perhaps why we may not see our trials as good; because he is working them for His purpose, not ours.
Verse 29 introduces us to the scope of God’s work within time. Such words as “foreknew” and “predestined” call attention to God’s eternal nature, both in terms of the future and the past. Proginosko (Foreknew) and Proorizo (Predestined), in all occurrences pertaining to God’s action, both carry with them the sense of God’s work happening before any and all action. 1 Corinthians 2:7 puts this emphatically, “…that God destined for our glory before time began.” In this verse we see the same sort of hope of glorification with Christ delivered through the Holy Spirit, except here God’s framework of time is quantified as being “before time began.” We can astutely relate our verse to this in such a way as to see that God’s foreknowledge and predestination of those who would love Him happened before time began. What, exactly was it that God foreknew and predestined? Verse 29 blatantly states that God foreknew and predestined those who would be “conformed to the likeness of his Son”. God chose, before time began, all those who would love Him. From the idea of predestination follows God’s call from before time began. In regards to the word “called” (kletos, or kaleo), The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance states,
“the authority of the speaker dictates the nature of the calling.”
Since the “speaker” here is God, the nature of the calling would be of ultimate authority. All occurrences of this word, in either form (kletos, or kaleo) imply God’s imputation of righteousness for each one called.
In verse 29 there is also what seems to be a phrase out of place which directly relates Christ-likeness to God’s call. Indeed it is likeness of the Son to which God calls each believer, so as to ascribe the Son’s qualities and characteristics to them. It is evident by who is doing all the work so far (God) that crediting believers with Christ’s righteousness has nothing to do with the believer but has everything to do with God’s power to influence His creation and His capacity to act outside of time.
Verse 30 presents a sequenced list that flows appropriately towards heaven; starting with God before time and ending with glory. Working within the context cited from 1 Corinthians 2:7 “before time began” we gain an appropriate perspective on the work God is doing. He predestined us to Christ-likeness, calling us to righteousness through our relationship with the Son by our shared spirit with him, He justified us in the image of Christ as a means to legally and morally establish again a right relationship with Him, and He glorified us as a means of glorifying himself. Since it is all God’s work in us there is no glory to be had for ourselves. The proper perspective of God’s work must be present at the end of verses 28-30, with no credit of work going to the individual believer; for in our next few verses (31-35) we will see dramatic consequences if we are not reliant upon the perfect work of the triune God in causing salvation for those He has chosen before time began. We may assign no act of will or cause of salvation to the believer, not even in a decision to believe, if Paul’s next statements are to be true. To credit the believer with any work thus far is to effectively make Paul’s statements hereafter entirely false.
What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
Once again, as in verse 28, here in verse 31 we start with a conjunction connecting the flow of communication back to the preceding verses. Paul is asking a question related to the fact that God does all the work in saving those He has designated. “What, then, shall we say in response to this?” In Response to what? The response is in the context of God’s work and the finality of that work. To paraphrase: what does God’s work in his act of saving those he has chosen mean to us? In a very ultimate sense, we next read what cannot happen to believers because of God’s power and work. Through rhetorical questions we are implicitly guided to an understanding of what God’s perfect work prevents. It prevents a complete breakdown of the perseverance of salvation by virtue of God’s defining characteristics. God is, by definition, perfect in all ways knowable. This quality permeates the work He is displayed to be doing in Romans 8:28-30. God is also, by definition, all powerful; no one and nothing can undo what God has done. This quality also permeates God’s work. It therefore logically follows, as Paul implies, that no one can stand against those whom God has chosen to love Him, so as to undo the righteousness God has given them; nor can they condemn those God has called to righteousness. God has the power to save, and he does, for eternity.
If we were to credit the believer with any part of salvation, to include the final act of confession, we would fundamentally flaw the structure of salvation and the entire thing would crumble like a house of cards. If at any one point within salvation man’s imperfect and incongruous nature were to impose itself, it would necessitate the vulnerability of the whole. Man does not possess perfection; nor do we have all power. Simply for the lack of those two necessary attributes, if reliant upon human action, salvation becomes an imperfect institution void of any idea of permanence. If people influence salvation then Paul’s question “who can be against us?” truly is answered, “whoever has greater authority and/or power than man.” Likewise, Paul’s later question “who is it that condemns?” is also answered in the same way. There are several beings in scripture that have greater power and authority than man. The only one who operates in defiance of God, and therefore the only one who would condemn or be against those who love God is Satan. If God’s salvation is limited by human decision (will) then Satan would have already succeeded and salvation would have been doomed to failure at the outset. The very existence of the biblical ideal of salvation is solely reliant upon man having no part in it, or it truly ceases to exist in any effective or meaningful way. So, here in verses 31-34 we have the effect of God’s work in saving those whom He chooses and the idea that none are able to contest God’s decree. As Paul powerfully states, “it is God who justifies.”
Verse 32 seems confusing considering who is being referred to by the many He’s and him’s, but if we follow the pronouns we can see a reaffirmation of a previous statement that is here expanded upon. “He who did not spare his own Son,” obviously refers to God. What is He doing here? He is graciously giving “all things” to those who love Him, even though He already gave his son. “Son” in verse 32 connects forward to the next “him” in the second part of the verse implying that God gave up his Son for us all. Note that “us all” connects back to “we” from verse 31, therefore meaning all those believing, and not all people. And we now see Paul’s logical deduction of God giving those who believe all things, along with his Son. It would follow that we could accurately say God did not withhold his Son from those who love him, so we can expect that the one who even gave his Son would give us “all things”. “All things” being spoken of here calls back to verse 28 where we learned earlier that God works good in all things for those who love him. This is reminiscent of that same statement. We see that God gives us all good things, and we were assured earlier (verse 28) that this is all according to his purposes.
We also find an affirmation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in verse 34 as a means of supporting the claim that he “is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance gives two other words for “interceding” that could very well be interchangeable in this context; they are appeal and petition. Though it may be amateur and cliché to do so, I will quote Webster’s dictionary in designating an appeal as “a legal proceeding by which a case is brought before a higher court for review of the decision of a lower court.” Also, petition is defined as “an earnest request.” I feel that the legal atmosphere is fitting given the legal implications of God’s justification of those he predestined. In this way Jesus makes an earnest request of the father, who needs only consider who he predestined when rendering his judgment. Seated at the place of honor next to the father, with him in heaven, Christ loves us and requests of the father on our behalf. It is fitting that we see Paul change from talking about our inseparability from God, to that of Christ. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Certainly the one seated at the right hand of God, interceding for the saints, who died and was raised to life again, and who has been given by the father to those who love him, would be capable of retaining the ones who believe in him.
Verse 35 starts a list that is short of exhaustive but seems to be intended to carry that very idea. Paul imputes God’s power to Christ through a logical sequence that parallels what we learned in preceding verses. God’s work is perfect and cannot be undone by anything. Likewise Paul says that nothing can separate us from Christ, as if to say that Christ shares God’s power of keeping those he has called over-and-above any other earthly power. This is evident by Paul’s listing of things that are indeed bigger than anything or anyone on earth yet fully within God’s power to control. Beginning with abstract things (trouble, hardship, persecution) Paul does a good job of painting a picture that negates any other power except God’s in being able to influence any one of these things. This idea repeats in verses 38 and 39 when Paul lists most powers one could think of which might have the unlikely ability to affect our call to Christ-likeness. It is transparently clear at the end of verses 38 and 39 that we must not have a single thing to do with our salvation or the powers listed therein (death, life, angels, demons, present, future, height, depth), all of which are greater and more powerful than we are, could surely overcome us. It is only by a power greater than all of these we are saved, kept, and glorified.
As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In verse 36 Paul cites Psalm 44:22 where the Psalmist cries out to God to save them, to redeem them so they may triumph once more as their fathers did “long ago”. Paul then, in verse 37 says this is not the case with us. We have been declared as heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). How can you be more than conquerors, you may ask? A conqueror defeats the nation and forces the people into submission. Conquerors take their plunder by force, probably never earning true allegiance and loyalty. An heir carries with him the name of the king and the alliance of the people. How can we be more than conquerors? We are heirs to the throne of grace. We needn’t take it by force, nor can we; it has been given as a gift of love to those whom God has elected before time began according to his purposes.
The truth of these verses would have resonated with the people in the Roman church since they were used to being subjugated. They would have looked with excitement on God’s ability, beyond that of their oppressors’. Conversely, in our culture we have trouble letting go of our precious free will to decide if we want to follow God. Our apprehension is understandable given the men, women, and children who fought to deliver to us the freedoms we enjoy. In this way we plow head-long into the most acute human tradition we face: pride. One of the defining songs of our country states “…and I’m proud to be an American…”. It is this sort of pride that compels us to place our patriotism over our faith; to identify ourselves first as Americans instead of Christians. Enjoyment of one’s country is not a bad thing but we toe the line when we try to impose our national tradition on God’s power. When I approach God with a capacity to choose if I should follow him or not, I am fundamentally telling God to woo me. “Convince me to follow you Lord, you’ve done some pretty impressive stuff already but I’m harder to win than that.” No! God has decided, and none can contend with him. So clear your schedule, cancel your appointments, clear out your savings account, and sell all your possessions; because if God wants you there is no way to resist. He will have his way. We will not have ours. We must not, or all is lost.
The permanence of God’s call is so beautiful. Why would anyone ever want to impose fallible human standards upon such a heavenly relationship as exists between our Lord and ourselves? I suppose it would be a product of a misunderstanding of that relationship. Knowing that God, before he created time, decided to set me aside for his own pleasure and purpose, that all I would do on this planet during this life would have eternal purpose and perspective, is amongst the most profound thoughts a human can think. A being that can and does exist in-and-of himself, because of himself, and for himself, could never “need” me; but he wants me. In Romans 8:28-39 we find such profundity as to define the meaning of life itself. If 1 Corinthians 13:13 says “the greatest of these is love” and Romans 28 says that “God works for the good of those who love him” then it would follow that the greatest good is to love God. Life: purpose found!
Michael A. Harbin, The Promise and the Blessing: A Historical Survey of the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan 2005)
Edward W. Goodrick, John R. Kohlenberger III; The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan 1999)
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/appeal (accessed 14 May 2010)
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petition (accessed 14 May 2010)
 Michael A. Harbin, The Promise and the Blessing: A Historical Survey of the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan 2005) 512.
 Edward W. Goodrick, John R. Kohlenberger III; The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan 1999) 1561.
 Edward W. Goodrick, John R. Kohlenberger III; The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan 1999) 1549.
 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petition (accessed 14 May 2010)