Romans 8:28 is one of the Bible best-loved verses. “All things work together for good to those who love God…” And yet things frequently don’t seem to work together for good. For example, let’s say you have been saving up for a better car for the last 18 months. The one you have now is unreliable and you finally have enough money to replace it. But before you do, you incur unexpected bills that wipe out all the money you’ve saved and then some. How does that work for good?
And that is nothing compared to what some people experience. How does a cancer diagnosis work for good? A tragic accident? How about a tsunami? The death of a child? The deaths of tens of thousands of children in war and famine? In what sense are any of these things good?
The answer is, they are not and the Bible never says they are. In fact, it says quite the opposite. These things are not good but God is. He is so wise, so capable, and powerful that he can make even bad things like these serve his people’s good.
But in what sense do such things work for our good? Verse 29 provides the only answer to that question that makes any sense. Let’s read the promise in verse 28 again and then look for the answer in verse 29: “…all things work together for good to those who love God, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”
Conforming us to the image of Christ is the good that all things must serve. God will use anything and everything – even bad things – to conform people to the image of his Son. This is what God calls good: People that look, think, feel, and act like Jesus.
If that is not what we call good, if we choose some other good – whether comfort, power, popularity, or wealth – all things will not work for our good. But they cannot help but work for us when the good we’ve chosen is the good that God desires: conformation to the image of his Son.
Shaping millions, perhaps billions, of people so that they are like Jesus has been God’s purpose from the start. A Jesus-shaped humanity is what he calls – and has always called – good.
God does not just want this good for us but for everyone. What’s more, he intends this good to spill over to the rest of creation. This was Paul’s point earlier in the chapter when he wrote (verses 19 and 21): “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. … that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” The good of all creation – whether animate or inanimate, rocks, trees, dogs, horses, elephants, chimps, people, all – awaits the revelation of the sons of God; that is, awaits the conformation of humans to the image of Christ.
This has been the plan since the very beginning. Even before Adam was created, God was determined to shape humanity into the image. “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).
In ancient times leaders would place images of themselves throughout their kingdoms. (They do it today, too, in countries all over the world, including ours – just think back to the election, when pictures of Joe Biden and Donald Trump were everywhere.) Ancient leaders used those images to remind people of who was in charge and who cared for them.
When God created the earth, his plan was to place his image – humans – everywhere, a sign that he rules the world. But humans were not just signs, placed like billboards throughout the land. They were to be God’s living images, ruling creation (Genesis 1: 28) as his representatives, with his love and wisdom flowing through them to bless all creation. Everywhere one looked, or so it was intended, one would find the image of the gracious and benevolent king acting with grace and benevolence towards his creation.
To be made in God’s image was our glory. It conferred on us unspeakable dignity and delegated to us enormous responsibility. Adam’s sin (and ours) derailed that and the loss has been incalculable. God’s image was defaced and, from certain perspectives, unrecognizable. Yet, from his perspective, God sees it still, fractured thought it is.
The Bible teaches that humans were formed in God’s image, then deformed by sin. But now, through Christ, we can be reformed into the image – the living, working image – of God.
The second of the Ten Commandments forbids the making of idols or images (“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”) The word Paul uses in Romans 8:28 is the same one the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in the second Commandment. This explains why such images were banned: Because God had already authorized an official image of himself: humans. Idolatry both distorts the perception of God and degrades the position of humans, relinquishes their authority to non-human, non-image bearing things.
Humans abandoned God’s plan to shape humanity into the blessed image; God did not. He is still intent on having millions – perhaps even billions – of images of himself blessing and delighting all creation. He is making that happen by conforming those who love him to the image of his Son.