Have you heard this before?

“Honey, I know it hurts — but just remember — all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to His purposes. It’s all gonna turn out right in the end. The Bible promises us that!”

If you have a friend at Church with a King James Bible, no doubt you’ve been patted on the hand and given this speech in the middle of your difficulty. If you have a friend who prefers an NIV, then you get a slightly different version that goes something like…

“We don’t always understand the ways of God, but we do know that He works all things together for the good of those who love God — who are called according to his purposes. Take comfort, friend. God is at work in everything, including the things we don’t understand. He’ll work it all out for your good in His time.”

So, which is it? Are all things working for those who love God, or is God working all things for those who love him?  Is there a third option that’s better than either of these?  Read on!

Let’s get a ton of Greek stuff out of the way first…

So, how do all the words relate?

Well first, here they are in Greek with a bit of explanation:

 Οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι τοῖς ἀγαπῶσι τὸν θεὸν πάντα συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν, τοῖς κατὰ πρόθεσιν κλητοῖς οὖσιν. [1]

oidamen de hoti tois agaposi ton theon panta sunergei eis agathon tois kata prothesin klaytois ousin

And for those who think that they prefer the, you know, literal word-for-word translations out of Greek and into English, here you go!

we know (oidamen) but/and (de) that (hoti) to, for, or with the ones (tois) the ones who love (agaposi) the God (ton theon) everything (panta) work with (sunergei) resulting in (eis) good (agathon) to, for, or with the ones (tois) in accordance with (kata) a purpose (prothesis) to, for, or with called ones (klaytois) to, for, or with those who are being (ousin)

There is much more work to be done.

Greek isn’t like English in many ways.  In simple terms, you can put words into lots of various orders. As long as you know how one word “agrees” with another word, the order you put them into isn’t the primary issue. Not so in English. We pay much more attention to how words are ordered in a sentence. You may also note that for several of the single words, I had to use as many as four or five English words to convey their meaning. That’s because Greek words have a composite nature, consisting of several smaller pieces that all fit together to create the meaning of the word (including things like gender, number, case, tense, mood, voice, etc.). If you’ve ever heard the phrase “parsing Greek words” — the person is referring to the process of breaking the words up into their smaller parts in order to determine exactly how to translate them (or to at least list all of the possibilities, since there may be several!). This will be an important thing to remember when I discuss various interpretive possibilities below.

Regarding the Greek construction in Romans 8:28, and the choices made by the translators of the KJV and NIV, New Testament scholar Tim Geddert has written…

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 [sunergei]. 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! [2]

That’s why the folks who translated the KJV and the NIV into English came to two different conclusions. It’s not because some of them were really devoted scholars committed to the unadulterated purity of God’s word, and the others were a bunch of bible-hating liberals trying to corrupt the true word of God in order to pervert the faith. It’s that both groups had multiple choices, and each group made a reasonable choice based on a variety of real grammatical and theological options.

So, the KJV has things working for called God-lovers,” and…

the NIV has “God working (things) for called God-lovers.”

These are very different theological conclusions based on very different grammatical choices, and both conclusions affect the way the reader interprets reality, the nature of the created order, and the ways in which God engages in the stuff of life!  Do things work?  Does God work things? Are both possible, or are neither of them the best way to think about what the verse is saying (e.g., is there a third way)? More on this later, but first…

There are two other issues that need to be dealt with (briefly). Yep, you guessed it! First, the datives, and second, the meaning of the word sunergei.  You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you!?

First, the datives. A Greek noun or pronoun is in the dative case when it is used as an indirect object. David Alan Black gives at least eleven different ways that datives can be used in Greek.[3] But the key is you have to have some intuitive sense about which one it is, since in Greek, the dative looks the same no matter which use it is conveying (though in English, it looks totally different depending on use!).

Example: Kenny gave the book to Luke.  The words “to Luke” are dative (in this case, a dative of indirect object — “to“).

Example: Luke bought a book for Kenny.  Here, “for Kenny” is dative (in this case, a dative of advantage — “for”).

Example: Luke read a book with Kenny  (in this case, a dative of association — “with“).

Most datives require the use of a word like to, for, or with in order to translate them into English (but in some cases, you can use by, by means of, in, at, on, upon, beside, and even against — among others). The key is knowing whether or not to use to, for, or with (or one of the other options as well) before the indirect object when translating datives out of Greek and into English.  The question before us in this post is what to do with the dative pronouns (tois) in Romans 8:28?

At least three real options…

1. All things work together for good…for those (KJV approach, using a dative of advantage).

2. God works all things for good…to those (NIV approach, using a dative of indirect object).

Now before we move forward, if you have an NIV, open it up (or click here) and check out the footnotes in Rom. 8:28. In the copy I’m using, it’s footnote k — and it reads:

3. “or works together with those who love him to bring about what is good — with those who”

Did you get that?  The NIV translators, though they didn’t put this option into the main text, understand that this is a very real grammatical possibility. The dative pronoun tois (who), when parsed as a dative, since it’s also plural, can be translated…

with (dative of association) those (plural) who (pronoun).

All of that is bound up in the little dative pronoun tois. But more than that! If it should be translated as a dative of association, then this changes how many of us have always read, heard, interpreted, understood, quoted (to ourselves and others in seasons of difficulty), and applied what Paul was trying to say in Romans 8:28.

But before I get ahead of myself, there is one more thing we have to do first.  Remember? Sunergei? Let’s look at that for a minute, then try to put it all together…

Sunergei, (translated “work together”) and the Third Option

What about sunergei (the word translated “work together” in English)? First, let’s look at the implications of the KJV and NIV renderings…

Choice #1 (KJV) – All things work out for my good?

Words mean things, and if the words in Romans 8 really mean that “all things work together,” then we have things doing work.  Circumstances, events, blessings, tragedies, good, bad, beautiful and evil things all working together (for the good of those who love God, of course). That reminds me of hair conditioner. Once I put it in, I gotta let it work so that my hair is soft and shiny at the end of the wash. Is that how the world works? Things are at play, all working together to bring about some cosmic crescendo that will be good for us?

Conversely (because theological conclusions have implications), the implication is that if I don’t love God, and if I’m not called according to his purposes, then things won’t work out so well for me. And further, if things are not working out so great for me — maybe I just don’t love God enough.

This is starting to sound a bit like good and bad karma! Things working for my good, since I love God, and since I’m called according to his purposes.

Choice #2 (NIV) – God works all things for my good?

In this scenario, God is the orchestra director. He is directing all of the things that are happening in the world. In his wisdom,  he is making them all somehow unfold so that in the end, the people who really love God, and who are really called by God, can experience the good end that God planned for them. The ones who “love God, who are called according to His purposes” are the blessed (and passive) recipients of all the good things God is working for them.

So, if my life looks like an unfolding combination of good and bad, tragedy and blessing, joy and sadness (because wonderful and terrible things keep happening throughout my life), then I am to take comfort because this verse tells me that there’s a Divine method in all the madness.  I hasten to say right here that I believe God is in charge of his creation and of history, and he is definitely working for us (and even in the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us and has not forsaken us!), but let’s let the datives talk for a minute. Might they be suggesting one more important possibility when considering the meaning of the word sunergei?

The word sunergei is only used five times in the New Testament (cf. Rom. 8:28, Mk. 16:20, 1 Cor. 16:16, 2 Cor. 6:1, and James 2:22). Again, Dr. Tim Geddert has written:

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 [4, emphasis added].

Choice #3 (NIV, Footnote k) – God works with those who love him to bring about good!

There is grammar and theology behind this choice too (and both are completely reasonable!).  Here, God creates a world, then calls (appoints, and installs) a co-worker inside of the creation in order to advance his good purposes.  God, and his co-laboer(s) subdue the chaos in the world, and in every circumstance and situation that arises, they work together to bring about good in all things. God’s partners and co-laborers are those who love Him, who embrace the call to carry out God’s good purposes — then they get busy, working with God, finding things that are not so good, and engaging in all those things in transformative ways.

In this view, things are not working on our behalf (since we love God). and…

God is not primarily working things only on behalf of those who love God.

Rather, God is working with those who love him — who are called to partner in his good purposes — in order to bring about good in all things.

My personal conviction is that this conclusion:

  1. Best meshes with the biblical theology of human vocation.
  2. Best embraces all of the linguistic possibilities in the text.
  3. Best fits with the larger context of salvation in Romans.
  4. Best dismisses the karma-oriented conclusions of the “things working” perspective.
  5. Best addresses the passive-oriented conclusions of the “God is working things for my good” perspective.

Implications

If option 3 (humorously called ‘NIV Footone k‘) is really the best option, then there are implications.

We should stop thinking of things passively working for our good since we love God.

We should stop being passive about what’s happening to us, believing that God is somehow “working the things” for our good (since we love him so much).

We should stop interpreting bad things that happen as proof that (a) God’s not real, or (b) we must not love God enough.

We should instead seek to understand God’s good purposes in the world.

We should embrace the call to be partners with God, joining the “called in order to bring about his good purposes.”

And we should work!

Work!

Yes, we should, embracing the implications of Romans 8:28, be those who are co-laborers with God in the creation.

Workers, together with God, bringing about good in all things!

In short, if we read this verse the way NIV footnote k proposes, it will change the way we interpret reality, and it will change the way we deal with reality when powers of darkness, evil, chaos, sin, and destruction invade God’s good creation.  Those who are  called to co-labor with God will roll up their sleeves and work with God (and the other called who love God), and will look for ways to bring about good!

After all…

We know that in all things God is working together with those who love him, who are called according to his purposes, in order to bring about good!

——–

Notes:

[1] Holmes, M. W. (2010). The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition (Ro 8:28). Lexham Press.

[2] Geddert, Timothy (1999) Article: Another Look at Romans 8:28 – MB Biblical Seminary, Fresno, CA. para. 5-6.

[3] Black, David A (1998) It’s Still Greek to Me. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books. pp. 52-54.

[4] Geddert. Another Look, para. 16.

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