And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. – Romans 8:28-30
Skyscrapers are remarkable. I love standing next to a skyscraper, or getting up on the top floor and looking around. There is something thrilling about being next to something so big and feeling so tiny in comparison. It is a testament to man’s ingenuity and God’s image in us that we can create such incredible structures – they’re just flat out cool. We live in Nebraska though, so the closest thing we have is a grain tower, which is about as close as you can get to a skyscraper while still being totally not cool. If you have lived in a city, at some point you will have seen a skyscraper go up and can testify to how long it takes to build, but what is most fascinating is the foundation that has to be laid for the building to be secure. Whenever a skyscraper is built, they first dig a massive hole, six or eight stories deep, so they can lay a foundation. If this towering skyscraper is going to shoot up eighty floors into the sky, it needs a stable and solid base to keep it upright, or else the hulking mass will topple over at the slightest breeze.
The promise of Romans 8:28 is like a sky scraper that touches the heavens, and Romans 8:29-30 are the thousand-mile deep bedrock that it is built upon. Last week we looked at the freedom and joy that Romans 8:28 promises us, but perhaps you are wondering, how do I know that is true? How do I know that God will come through on that promise? Well, Paul gives us 8:29-30 as his defense for how we know 8:28 to be a promise that we can be certain of. Verse 29 opens up with the connecting word, “For…”, Paul is saying “This is my reason why 28 is true.” So let’s take a look at what this passage has to say to us.
What’s the center?
Romans 8:29-30 is primarily about God’s work in His people. Just look at who the active agent is in the text, it is God doing all of the action, and we are the recipients. This means that this isn’t primarily about us, we are not the center of this passage, rather it is about God and the nature of His love for us. And when we stare at the beauty of God and the depth of His love for us, the higher we will soar on the back of 8:28.
Romans 8:29-30 helps us shape the scope and meaning of the promise of 28 by showing us how God has loved us from eternity past, to the present, and in the future. Today we are going to focus on looking at the nature of God’s love for us from eternity past, next week we will look at the present, and then the following we will look at the future.
What is “Foreknowledge”?
Paul opens up with claiming that “For those whom He foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His son…” But what does that mean? Let’s first define foreknowledge, then we will look at predestination.
From the immediate context we can see that foreknowledge occurs prior to predestination chronologically. And we know that God’s predestining work happens before the earth was even created (Eph. 1:4-5), so this must mean that foreknowledge, whatever it is, happens before even that. The word “foreknowledge” simply means, “to know beforehand” but our English translation of the word “know” is very limited and can skew what this word means. We can “know” all sorts of things, like answers to questions on Trivia Crack or Jeopardy, but we also can know people, and then the word takes on a different meaning. When I say that I “know” my mom and dad, I don’t mean that I simply know facts about them – I mean that I have a relationship with them. Likewise, if I said I “know” Barack Obama, what I really mean is that I know of him, but don’t really know him.
So the question is this: is God’s foreknowledge a knowledge of persons, or facts? Well the text clearly explains that it is a knowledge of persons, because it clarifies it with “those whom He foreknew…” But is God saying that He knows you and me before we were even created, or that He simply knows facts about us? Many people see the foreknowledge of God kind of like a fortune-teller. This train of thought goes: God, being all-knowing, simply knows what will happen before it happens – He metaphorically looks down the hallway of time, and just sees what will happen, and thus has “foreknowledge”. And that is an alluring interpretation of this text, why? Because it still leaves my life under my control; I’m in the captain’s seat, calling the shots, master of my fate and God is my co-pilot.
There is, however, another way to understand this, and it does not say that God just knows what will happen, or is just aware of facts about you, but knows you in an intimate, personal way. Or, in other words, you could say God lovingly chose you. Let’s look at a couple other places in the Bible to see if this has any warrant.
Psalms 1:6 says, “For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” God obviously isn’t saying that he is simply blind to what the unrighteous are doing – He knows everything. The psalmist is comparing and contrasting being “known” by God with “perishing”. The Lord knows the righteous, meaning He has a saving relationship with them.
Amos 3:1-2 says, “Hear this word…O people of Israel…You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” Is God claiming that He is only aware of the family of Israel, and is just clueless as to what everyone else is doing? Of course not – God is saying that He has a unique, intimate relationship with Israel, so much so that He says He knows them.
1 Cor. 8:3 says, “If anyone loves God, one is known by God.”
Matt. 7:23 says, “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
There are many other places that this is used: see Jeremiah 1:5; Gal. 4:8-9; Hosea 13:4-5; 2 Tim. 2:16-19; Romans 11:1-2; Gen. 18:17-19. But probably the most powerful argument for “knowing” being used to mean an exclusive, intimate love, is seen in Gen. 4:1, where we see that “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain…” Obviously this isn’t referring to Adam just knowing what Eve’s favorite candy bar or TV show was; this is saying that Adam experienced Eve in the most intimate and exclusive way that you can – the way that leads to babies being born!
So, foreknowledge doesn’t seem to mean that God simply just knows facts, but rather knows people, and knows them intimately and lovingly. And this all happens, before you and I have done anything, because it is before you and I even exist! God simply loves us.
“But!” someone might ask, “what is the basis for God’s choice? What makes Him love me?” That is the question that immediately pops up in our heads. I have been teaching young people this for quite some time now, and every time we get to this point, mostly they are confused and say, “What’s so special about me? Why would God choose me?” And whenever they ask that, I like to lean in real close and whisper:
If we look at our passage, we see that there is no mention of any condition, requirement or criteria for those whom God foreknows. It doesn’t say, “For those whom He foreknew who would have faith, He predestined” or “Those whom He foreknew who would be smart enough, good enough, evangelistic enough, moral enough, cool enough, He predestined.” Whenever the Bible speaks of why God chooses those whom He foreknows, it never tells us why He chooses who He chooses. The closest thing we get to that is in 1 Cor. 1:27-29, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” God seems to choose what is weak – but he says that because “weakness” is a condition that every finite being meets, that is why anyone who is a Christian cannot boast, because there is no special condition they have met. And that is great news, and here’s why: that means that God’s love is unconditional.
Here is an example: Guys, someday, whenever you get married, your wife will look at you and say, “Honey, why do you love me?” And here is the danger, because you will want to say, “Because you are pretty, smart and funny”, because you love those things about her, but you should be careful about saying that is the reason you love her. If you say that 1) she will then subconsciously feel unlovable when she doesn’t feel pretty, smart or funny and 2) you are, unbeknownst to you, telling her that your love for her is built upon a set of requirements, or in other words, it is conditional. You can tell her that you love those things about her, but the only thing you can say to her in that moment is, “Sweetheart, I just love you for you.” When you love someone, you are making a decision to love that person, not their personality or looks. Listen to me, personalities will change, looks will change, and intelligence will change, and if your love is built on those things, then your love will go away when those things do. When God says that He simply loves us because He loves us, He is promising that His love will never change.
What is “Predestination”?
So, foreknowledge is God’s loving choice of us, before the world was created, then what is predestination? “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” If foreknowledge is God’s motivation, then predestination is the direction. From before time began (Eph. 1:4-5), God predestined that those whom He foreknew would be conformed to the image of Christ; that you and I and every other Christian who has existed on this planet would be transformed from our lowly, selfish, sin-wrought life, into looking, acting, feeling, trusting, thinking and believing like Jesus Christ. And all of this is done “in order” that Jesus might be the firstborn among many brothers – which means that Christ would be glorified and seen as preeminent (Col. 1:15). This is your destiny, your certain, declared, promised before time even began, destiny! God is not changing us from nice people to better people. He is transforming us from dead people, to sons and daughters of God. This is the golden chain of verse 29 and 30 end with “glorified”, because God will carry us all the way to fully purified, holy beings, radically transformed by His grace and love in His presence, after we die.
And all of this happens, before you made any choices, decisions, mistakes or victories. God has decided the matter, before the Garden of Eden even existed. God does not just know what will happen, God declares what will happen (Isa. 46:10). So Christian, rest; the reigns of your life are not in your hands, they are in God’s and that is good news because He is much better at this than you are.
Why Does This Matter?
Now, you could be thinking, “Alright Marc, I know you, you like reading books and studying theology and using big words – but does any of this really matter for life? Does learning about this actually change anything? For goodness sakes, I am a student, I don’t think about these kinds of things.” Well, you should. You are a Christian, and this truth is in the Bible, which is God’s revelation of Himself to Christians, so if it is in the Bible, it should matter to you, and you should think about it. Maybe you don’t think about these kinds of things, that’s fine, but why not start now? I realize that for most of you, this may seem strange, difficult, or unnecessary, but let me give you three reasons why believing in the doctrine of foreknowledge and predestination (often called the doctrine of election) will change your life: It will remind you…
- You did nothing to earn God’s love. If I were to ask you, why are you a Christian and someone else isn’t? You might say, Well because I repented of my sins and chose Jesus. But, why did you repent and choose Jesus when others don’t? Well, because I believed. But, why did you believe when others don’t? Because I had faith. But why did you have faith when others don’t? You see, we have to dig down and see what is at the bottom of our salvation. Either you believe that you are smarter, more spiritual, are just a better person than others, or you throw up your hands, laugh and say, “I have no idea! It’s grace! Sheer grace! I don’t deserve it, there’s nothing in me that’s better than anyone else, it’s all grace!” If you don’t believe that you will subtly and subconsciously feel that you are better than people who don’t believe – you have to, because you are the one who made the choice, and they didn’t. You’ll look down on others with self-righteous pity, or think that they are stupid, and it will stroke your ego. Look, if you hear this and say That doesn’t seem right, I know that I am saved by grace alone, I know I am not better than anyone else, then guess what, you believe in the doctrine of election, you have to. There is nothing about you, good or bad, that earned God’s love; there is no other truth that is more humbling and freeing – if you take yourself too seriously or constantly look down on others, you need to let this truth settle deep into your heart.
- You can do nothing to lose God’s love. If God’s love for you is something you can’t earn, than guess what, it is also something that you can’t lose. God’s love for you is so far removed from being dependent on you, that you can do nothing to alter it; it was decided before the foundations of the earth, woven into the very fabric of creation and as trustworthy and certain as gravity. In Hebrews 4:16 we see that we “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace…” If you believe this truth, though you know yourself to be a wretched sinner who does not deserve God’s love, you will confidently draw near to Him, not because of your righteousness, but because God has given you Christ’s righteousness, promised to you from before time began.
- All things work for your good. Finally, Paul’s confidence for why he knows 8:28 to be true rests on foreknowledge and predestination. God has been working in your life from eternity past, causing all things to work towards the end that He has predestined for you: being conformed to the image of Christ, to the glory of God. So now you can rest – you are not in the captain’s seat, God is. The foundation for this promise is as deep as eternity, and as stable as God’s Word.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.
– Eph. 1:11-