An old translation of Rom. 8:28 goes like this:
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 can indicate a kind of fatalism and acceptance of ‘all things’ as being a positive and therefore to be a welcomed experience to passively submit to. A much better translation (such as NIV) indicates that God works all things, that the all things are not initiated by God but that as we experience all things, God is deeply involved with us, God being the redemptive God. So in the NIV we get:
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.
It is not simply a better translation theologically but also linguistically. God gets in the all things with us, and refuses to accept a setback as simply coming with an inevitable negative outcome. There is no sugar-coating of the setback but there is a personal commitment (God becoming the subject of the verb ‘work together’) so that at the very least the presence of the Living God is with us.
However, recently I have come across a further push with regard to the verse. This takes it further than simply at a personal level, but into the cosmic level of bringing the whole of creation to a fitting conclusion, to the liberty experienced by those who have been set free from the powers of this world. (A little technical) it is all to do with how the ‘dative’ cases of ‘those who love God’ and ‘those called according to God’s purpose’. It can be as we have it ‘for those…’, in other words for us. Or it can be translated as ‘with those…’ If the latter, and it is the context that suggests this as the actual words used could indicate either translation. So using the ‘with’ (known as the instrumental dative) translation we have:
Οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι τοῖς ἀγαπῶσι τὸν θεὸν πάντα συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν, τοῖς κατὰ πρόθεσιν κλητοῖς οὖσιν.
Literally: We know that with those who love God all things s/he works into good, with those being called according to purpose. (So maybe something like:)
And we know that God works with those who love God toward what is good (for the whole of creation), [working with] those who have been called according to his purpose.
Maybe a little clumsy but the idea is that there is a partnership in the – wait for the big word – eschatological activity in the earth. Backing up in Romans, creation is in bondage in the same way that Israel was in bondage to the Pharoah of the day until they were set free. The ‘sons/daughters of God’ have found freedom, crying out with inarticulate sounds as the expression of freedom… but set free in order to be agents of freedom for creation. Christ as firstfruits of all creation releasing those who have responded to the freedom that comes through the resurrection to join with the groaning of creation, to engage the ‘all things’ that so often work to bring a yet further bondage… In partnership with God, and there is no hope without God, but in partnership with God, those who love God who are called according to God’s purpose line up alongside God… and even in the midst of all things something good is manifest. The future is not hopeless, creation is not doomed, humanity is not sentenced to nothing but bondage… freedom calls, and that freedom calls for partnership.
I think the shift of emphasis makes better sense of the chapter and remains as a challenge for us, but places redeemed humanity as the stewards of creation, as those who see the new creation and in seeing that come into partnership with heaven.