And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:28, KJV)
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. (NIV)
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (RSV)
Three different versions of one verse. Three very different meanings. But which one, if any, is right? Could they all be right?
The original Greek does not help answer these questions. A literal, word-for-word translation would be “And we know all works with unto good, that loving God being called according to purpose.” As is often true, that leaves as many questions as it answers. That means that we probably ought to look at the scriptures as a whole to determine which translation is accurate. But does it make a difference? Don’t they all mean the same thing? Hardly.
The Revised Standard Version translation is the only one that says, “God works for good with those who love him.” This would imply that it is we that are working together, rather than “all things.” It states that God and man are co-creators of good. Some might object to that thought immediately, but is it totally inaccurate? While we are the creature, still God works through us to accomplish his purposes. God could choose to save whomever he will, and condemn whomever he chooses, without any choice, effort, or intervention of man. He did not choose to save us that way. Instead he relies on humans to convince others about his way.
How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? (Rom 10:14)
God works with those who love him in the spread of the gospel. What could be more good than that?
What about the versions that say that God works “for the good of those who love him”? Is this statement true? Does God work in all things for the good of specific followers? Certainly God wants the best for his people, and “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” (Jas 1:17) But can we really say that everything that happens is “for the good” of believers? When an individual shot up a grade school, how was that for my good? There might have been some good come out of that event, but it is hard to say God was working with the individual gunman to bring about good for believers (specific ones or the church altogether). The danger with this translation is that it implies that God controls every detail of every life, and we have no choice. Furthermore, it implies that God causes evil to happen in order to bring about good; that the end justifies the means.
How does that differ from “for good to them that love the Lord”? This version could be interpreted as saying that even when bad things happen, the believers can see some good in it. “To those that love the Lord, God works.” This doesn’t say that everything that happens benefits believers. Rather it says that the attitude of the believer is trust in God, whatever happens. The event may not have had a specific benefit, but God works even so. The good might not have been for the follower of God; nevertheless, the one who loves God believes the good exists for someone.
Ultimately, we ought to look at the context for meaning. This verse comes in a discussion about suffering. Paul says that even if we suffer in this world, our suffering just works to increase our hope in the world to come. Not everything that happens in this life will result in good in this life. We may suffer persecution, ridicule, and even death. The good that God works is the ultimate good, our salvation that we might be with him in eternity. In this context, the translators of the King James Version might actually have made the more accurate translation.