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.
This is one with which you are VERY familiar. However, I intend to shed a different light on it. Most of the time Christians focus on the first half of the verse and simply recite the second half because it is part of the verse. I want to focus on the second half.
TO them that love God we know that all things work together for good. Who loves Him? Christians, those chosen in Christ, the Elect of God, the Church - SAVED folks. He is NOT talking about the lost because according to John 3:20, they do NOT love God - they HATE God.
OK, now that we’re straight on who loves God, look at the second half of the verse. Paul is writing about the same group of people. Those who love God are also those known as “the called.” The Greek word from which “called” is translated is kletos and in this passage it is not a verb, but an adjective. Christians are “the called ones” - and we are “the called ones” according to His purpose. Who did God give a specific call to? Those He chose in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). God doesn’t CALL everyone and His Word never says he CALLS everyone. Yes, He COMMANDS all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30), but He doesn’t CALL everyone to salvation. How do I know? The answer to that is easy. God justifies and glorifies (saves) each and every person He CALLS (Romans 8:30).
God does not call most people (1 Corinthians 1:26) and THAT is why they don’t believe, that is why they don’t love Him. God has not done a work in them nor has He given them belief (John 6:29, Philippians 1:29). We, the Elect, ARE “the called ones” according to His purpose. Not because we believed - but according to HIS PURPOSE. The “call” according to His purpose comes before belief. Without the call, belief will NEVER come because the lost, i.e. those who aren’t called, hate the Light (John 3:20) and will not accept anything from the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14).
And by the way, a lot of people even misunderstand the first part of the verse. Said another way - To Christians, all things work together for good. FOR the good of individual Christians? NO - for the good of God and the Glory of God.
God is in control and on the throne, the steps of the righteous are ordered of God (Psalm 37:23), God works in us to will and to do according to His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13)... all of which are reasons why God wants us to thank Him FOR everything (Ephesians 5:20). Did all things work together for the good of Stephen (Acts 7:58-60)? Did all things work together for good FOR the early Christian martyrs who were fed to lions? No. Did things work together for good FOR Jim Elliott? No. All things work together for good, FOR God and FOR the kingdom - not always good for “the called ones” individually.
Here is a similar passage: I once heard Dr. Sam Cathey preaching on Philippians 1:21 - and the difference between “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” and “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” If you’re interested, here is the short read of what Sam Cathey said:
“If Paul had written ‘For me to live is Christ’ he would have been boasting. It would have been something that HE had accomplished. He would be drawing a conclusion about his life. But since he wrote ‘For TO me to live is Christ’ he was revealing his attitude, he was revealing his philosophy. He was saying this, ‘As far as I'm concerned, as far as my attitude is concerned, if I live it's Jesus, and if I die it's more of the same. So what difference does it make, live or die?’ His evaluation of life was the same as his evaluation of death. It's just a continuance of the same. You folks oughta be so in love with, so aligned with, Jesus, down here on this earth, that if you died tonight, you would have no trouble getting acclimated to your new surroundings.”
So in a nutshell - the difference between God’s Word in Romans 8:28 (...TO them that love God) and what a lot of people believe (...FOR them that love God) is this: our attitude toward all circumstances is that our sovereign God is in complete control and will work out things for HIS good and NOT all things will work out for OUR good. The difference in syntax is subtle, but the meaning and reality are the exact opposite. I sincerely believe it’s one of the methods Satan is using to exalt the flesh of weak Christians, carnal Christians, and people who think they’re Christians.