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Romans 8:28-30 is a passage Calvinists routinely cite as confirmatory of the doctrines of election and predestination. But like most Calvinist proof texts, a contextual and exegetical treatment of the passage reveals that it does not teach what the Calvinist says it teaches.
The Calvinist is correct in asserting that God’s foreknowledge is more than mere knowledge of future events based on his omniscience. It is a personal knowledge of an individual based on his eternal purpose to save them that believe. Peter gave voice to this truth in his sermon at Pentecost: “Him [Jesus], being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23).
Peter indicted the Jews for crucifying and killing
the Son of God. But he enlightens them to the fact they exercised
their wicked wills within the context of God’s perfect will! While
they were taking counsel together against Jesus (John 11:53), there
was a greater ‘counsel’ (Gk. BOULE) in play, a determinate
counsel, that set a predetermined horizon for Christ.
The word ‘foreknowledge’ is PROGNOSKO, ‘to
know beforehand’. It’s in a Greek construction with BOULE
that connects the foreknowledge of God with his counsel as part of
that counsel. God knew what would happen; he knew it because he
predetermined it. Integrated with the counsel of God was an infinite
amount foreknown detail fundamental to the determination. But that
vast reservoir of knowledge is unknowable by man. As Paul said:
God’s knowledge is deep, his judgments unsearchable and his ways
past finding out (Romans 11:33). Suffice it to say that God foreknew
the acts of the Jews because he determined by counsel that his Son
Jesus would be the recipient of those acts.
The word ‘determinate’ is the perfect passive participle of the verb HORIZO (Eng. ‘horizon’). It means ‘to set a boundary or limit, to define’ and modifies the verb ‘delivered’. The literal translation is ‘this one having been boundaried’. The One having been boundaried (fenced in) by divine counsel to be the sacrifice for our sins, God delivered (gave over) to his executioners to carry out his sacrificial death by means of crucifixion!
While Peter’s remarks have to do with the death of Christ, they nevertheless connect the concept of foreknowledge with what the Godhead in three-way counsel determined to be done. God does NOT decree things because he knows things. He knows things because he decrees things! God foreknew the events surrounding Calvary because he determined (set the boundaries) from eternity to deliver up his Son. In like manner, when God determined before the foundation of the world to save them that believe, he knew immediately every one of those believers on a personal level.
The classic example is Jeremiah, to whom the Lord delivered these words of assurance: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, [and] I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). Jeremiah was known, set apart for ministry and ordained to preach before his parents conceived him. It was the sovereign purpose and good pleasure of God to save 'them that believe' that caused him to know Jeremiah. Foreknowledge in itself is not causative. It is, however, fundamental to what the boundary-setting counsel of God determines.
Now to Romans 8:28-30: “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. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”
The first order of business is setting the context, which one can find in 8:28, 33 and 39. Paul is making the case for the impossibility of those who love God from EVER being separated from the God that loves them or having their relationship with God severed. He makes his case based on the call of God, which is in line with (1) his eternal purpose to save them that believe, and (2) the fact that God foreknew them, predestinated them, justified them, called them and glorified them. That’s a case for inseparability if ever there was one!
There are five verbs used by Paul to describe God’s redemptive relationship with his elect. See “My Personal Experience with Calvinism” for valuable insight on who the Elect are (8:33) and when God elects them. The doctrine of election is integral to the context. Our focus is on the verb “did foreknow.” The KEY to understanding these verbs, however, is the fact that ALL five are aorist (past tense) in Greek. Paul represents them ALL as accomplished actions. But when did they occur? Did they occur concurrently (at the same time) or consecutively (in stages)?
Some Calvinists cite this popular text as proof that God did all these things for his elect simultaneously before the world began. That makes sense when one considers election in an eternal context. Others see it as a 'Golden Chain’ of redemption, a series five of consecutive links, that began with two links in eternity past (foreknowledge, predestination), two links added within the corridors of history (justification, calling) with one final link added in eternity to come (glorification). Another distinct possibility is that God performs ALL these actions simultaneously in a temporal context the moment a sinner believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe this to be the correct view.
Let's consider what Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia: “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?” (Galatians 4:8). In reasoning with the Galatians, Paul argues that knowing God translates into liberation from bondage to law. So why return to it?
Furthermore, he stresses that God knowing them was a weightier matter than their knowing God. The word 'rather' (Gk. MALLON) means 'to a greater degree or larger measure.' Paul uses the Greek verb GINOSKO ('to come to know') to describe both the knowledge they have of God and the knowledge God has of them. It's generally used of knowledge acquired from experience. Paul employs an interesting use of verb tenses. The phrase 'ye have known God' is an aorist active participle. The phrase 'are known of God' is an aorist passive participle. The Galatians were literally 'ones having known God' who were to a larger measure 'ones having been known of God.'
The Galatians came to know God at the point they believed. But since time had elapsed from then until the time of writing, he uses the aorist participle to capture that time frame. They are therefore ones having known God. In like manner, and more importantly, they were ones having been known of God. Since Paul uses the aorist in both references, it makes sense to reckon God's knowing of them as beginning at the same point in time. That certainly appears to be Paul's intent. If he meant to say that God's knowing of them was antecedent to them knowing him, he might have employed the imperfect tense or another Greek construction to make that distinction. But that's not the point Paul makes here.
What we have is an apparent contradiction. How could God know Jeremiah before he was born but NOT know the Galatian believers before they believed? The explanation lies in the difference one MUST make between the eternal and the temporal. In an eternal context, according to God’s eternal purpose to save them that believe, God knew Jeremiah and the Galatian believers on a personal level BEFORE they believed. But in a temporal context, God knows NO sinner on an experiential level UNTIL he or she believes on the Lord Jesus. There is no contradiction when this key distinction is made.
The verb ‘did foreknow’ (past tense) cannot be used of a lost man. God ‘knows’ the yet-to-be believer (present tense). It can even be said that God ‘foreknows’ (present tense) that individual. But only AFTER he or she believes can it be said that they were ‘foreknown’ of God (past tense). God knew (foreknew) Jeremiah before he was born. But at some point, likely in his youth, he came to know the Lord by faith and God came to know him, just as he came to know the Galatians. But it was only AFTER Jeremiah believed that he was ‘foreknown’ (past tense).
Paul is addressing Roman believers who became ‘foreknown’ at the point of faith, when God came to know them and they came to know God. Believers can ONLY be deemed ‘foreknown’ of God when the eternal becomes temporal. The other four verbs apply to the foreknown as well. The believer, who now has ‘foreknown’ status, is also predestinated by God to be conformed to the image of Christ. Since a ‘foreknown’ (past tense) status is contingent upon faith, so also is a ‘predestinated’ status, a ‘justified’ status, a ‘called’ status and a ‘glorified’ status. They ALL happen at the same time in a temporal context. There is no Golden Chain, but rather a Golden Collection of spiritual realities for the believer once he is IN Christ and Christ is IN him; once he knows God and God knows him!
When we consider Paul’s purpose in describing these realities, it makes perfect sense to mention foreknowledge first. But as for the other four verbs, they are in no particular chronological order. He could have placed ‘called’ or ‘justified’ ahead of predestination since God performs ALL of them concurrently when the sinner believes on Jesus. He could have placed predestination at the end of the list.
The primary scope of this study is to examine the doctrine of foreknowledge. But if one studies the verbs ‘called’ and ‘elected’ in the NT, he or she will find they are virtually synonymous. In fact, Peter uses them in tandem, admonishing readers to 'give diligence to make their calling and election sure' (2 Peter 1:10). This admonition makes nonsense of Calvinism. For if that dubious system is correct, there is NOTHING…zero, zip, nada…a man can do about his calling or election! Moreover, election logically precedes calling in Calvinism. If the Calvinist insists on a chronological listing of verbs by Paul in Romans 8:29-30, why would he not insist on the same approach to 2 Peter 1:10, which would have a man called before elected?
Another argument by Calvinists for a chronological unfolding of the five verbs is that ‘glorified’ is mentioned last. Glorification is normally associated with the final resurrection, when the vile body of the believer will be fashioned like unto Christ’s glorious body (Philippians 3:21). So the Calvinist reckons it a done deal in the mind of God. I have no argument with that mindset.
But a further look at scripture reveals that God glorifies the believer the very moment the Holy Spirit takes up residence in his body. Paul writes: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). While FINAL glorification is yet to come, the PROCESS of glorification is in full swing. It began at regeneration! When sinners believe, they are ‘glorified’ by virtue of the Spirit’s presence in them.
God decreed in eternity past by determinative counsel that his Son would be the Redeemer for sinners. The Father ‘elected’ the Son for that purpose (1 Peter 2:6). He also decreed that he would save them that believe; lost men who would come to him through faith in his Son. These would be his ‘elect’ ones, who would derive an ‘elect’ status by virtue of their union with the Elect One, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The instant those eternal decrees were made, God knew his elect in a personal way. As time ensued and made its way through the temporal chambers of history, those whom God foreknew came to a place of faith due to his gracious influence, at which time they came to know God and God came to know them. Those whom God ‘foreknew’ became the ‘foreknown’.
I shake my head in amazement every time I hear an alleged theologian, in the context of election, define ‘foreknowledge’ as what God omnisciently knew man would do and thus chose to save the man. It is said that God elected men to be saved because he knew they would believe. That is, God chose them for salvation because he knew they would chose Christ. Some standard theological texts (e.g., Systematic Theology by Henry Thiessen) promote this view.
Can anyone fault the Calvinist for his objections to this reasoning? It's nothing more than an unbiblical bailout that attempts to offer an alternative to the unbiblical view of unconditional election taught by Calvinism. Neither Calvinism nor Arminianism will get the student of scripture to the truth of election! And then there is that flawed (and almost insulting) analogy that says: “God has a vote, the devil has a vote and we have a vote. The way we vote decides the election!” That unbiblical quip is the product of intellectual laziness and totally misses the truth of biblical election.
The apostle Peter wrote these words to 'scattered strangers' in his first epistle: “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied” (1 Peter 1:2). Peter calls them ‘elect’ because they are believers. 'According to' is KATA in the Greek, used in connection with the noun 'foreknowledge' in accusative case. Its meaning is 'in agreement with'. What God knew to be true about them in the present was in agreement with what he foreknew from eternity due to his decree to grant an ‘elect’ status to them that would believe in his Elect Son. These strangers with their ‘elect’ status were anything but strangers to the Father! While the world was rejecting them, the Father had wrapped them up in his elective love!
They came to that ‘elect’ status “through sanctification of the Spirit.” The preposition 'through' is EN in the Greek. The case is dative of sphere. That is, God elected them in the sphere of the Spirit's ‘setting apart’ work as he reproved (convicted, convinced) them of sin, righteous and judgment (John 16:8). It is abundantly clear that biblical election takes place AFTER the Spirit completes his convicting work with a faith response from the convicted. Conviction precedes election! The botching of the doctrine of election by both Calvinists and Arminians has led to centuries of needless confusion and contention.
Peter said God elected them ‘‘unto obedience.” The preposition 'unto' is EIS in the Greek, used in connection with the noun 'obedience' in accusative case. It denotes an 'entrance into' or a 'direction toward' its object. The purpose of election is a new direction for the believer, an entrance into a life of obedience. Jesus, the Elect One, learned obedience by the things he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). God desires for his elect to emulate their Lord. In concert with obedience, believers are elected with a view to the 'sprinkling' of the blood of Christ. It is a daily and dynamic sprinkling (cleansing) that takes place as we walk in the light as he is in the light (1 John 1:7).
The election of believers is in agreement with what God knew due to his eternal decree. As we said earlier, God knows things because he decrees things! Election is preceded by conviction that leads to persuasion. Its design is that believers live a life of obedience in fellowship with the Father — a fellowship sustained by a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute sprinkling of the blood of Christ. Peter is essentially telling his readers to keep their eyes on the ball and remember WHO they are and WHOSE they are. May we go and do likewise!
In harmony with the Spirit’s convicting work as requisite to election is Paul’s word to the Thessalonians: “But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13). Calvinists love to cite this ‘proof text’ in defense of unconditional election. But notice that God chose them ‘through’ (EN, dative if sphere) the setting apart work of the Spirit AND the belief of gospel truth. In addition to Peter teaching us that conviction precedes election, Paul confirms that both conviction AND persuasion constitute the sphere in which God elects believers. No man is elected UNTIL he is first convicted of his sin and then believes the truth of the gospel.
The Calvinist typically makes two mistakes here. First, he takes the phrase 'from the beginning' as prehistoric. But since election in a temporal context cannot not take place until a lost men man is convicted and persuaded, the phrase MUST have reference to the beginning of Paul’s ministry at Thessalonica. It was a reminder of how eagerly they heard the gospel and embraced it.
While the phrase 'from the beginning' does refer to the creation in some passages (Mark 10:6, 13:19; John 8:44; Acts 15:18), it is also used to refer to specific points in time, such as (1) the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry (Luke 1:2; John 6:64, 8:25, 15:27), and (2) the beginning of Peter’s vision experience that took him on an evangelistic trek to see Cornelius at Capernaum (Acts 11:4). So interpreting the phrase as a reference to the beginning of Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica is in exegetical harmony with the context and its biblical usages elsewhere.
The second mistake he makes is assigning a meaning to 'salvation' that the context disallows. When he cites the verse as a proof text, he has in mind the matter of salvation from sin…as in justification. But that cannot be the case since Paul represents election as something that takes place AFTER conviction and persuasion.
The context demands that we interpret this salvation as deliverance from the Day of the Lord – the Seventh Week of Daniel – concerning which false teachers had convinced the Thessalonians they were about to experience and endure it. But Paul had taught them previously that the Lord would ‘catch away' believers to be with him forever BEFORE the Day of the Lord ensued (2:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17). In others words, Paul taught the Pre-Tribulation Rapture of the Church!
It is my prayer that this examination of God’s foreknowledge — including the point at which believers God ‘foreknows’ become the ‘foreknown’ — has been instructive. These truths may be unfamiliar IF Calvinism or Arminianism has guided your biblical studies and molded your theological viewpoints. But lack of familiarity is no reason to dismiss the truth. I’ve spent forty years studying these doctrines with an open mind. They are biblical, defendable and hermeneutically solid!
I would encourage you to acquire a copy 'The Other Side of Calvinism' by Lawrence Vance, Ph.D. It's the most thorough, well-documented and rock-solid critique of Calvinism on the market...and validates the truths set forth in this document.
I am neither Calvinist nor Arminian. I am a Biblicist! Those two popular systems of theological thought are both arbitrary and erroneous, have produced centuries of senseless conflict among the people of God and tend to blind adherents to spiritual light that comes from unbiased, contextual handling the Word of God.
One of the great tragedies of ecclesiastical life takes place in our Bible colleges and seminaries where opinionated professors indoctrinate the minds of young preachers and channel them into a structured theological system before they're able to establish their own theological persuasions based on their own exegetical and expository work!