And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
In our last meeting we touched on how the initial verse (Romans 8:28) conveys that God has a definite plan wherein He is utilizing “all things” toward the consummation of that which is “good” and glorious. In life’s difficulties, God does not enter in on the third, ninth or eleventh hour like the cavalry who rescues then seeks to make the best of a bad situation. What we see in the course of human events is according to a glorious and benevolent design.
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: (Eph. 1:11, Rom. 11:33, Heb. 6:17, Rom. 9:15, 18)
Our heavenly Father doesn’t merely see us through the storm; He is the maker of storms (Psalm 107:25).
But the artwork of God’s hand is can be so intricate that the strokes will often appear to us as random and even devastating things. He is like the artist you will sometimes see rapidly painting a picture on a stage to music—a scribble here, a scrawl there and an occasional dot and it just looks like a mess—until in the end he turns the canvas right-side up and you become astonished at the portrait that was painted before your very eyes.
This masterful, yet often difficult to identify, artwork is designed “for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” i.e. Christians. We discussed last time how we lose the richness of the fabric of this verse if we nurture a false notion of what the “good” is that God has in mind. What is the good of which Paul writes? If we are called according to God’s purpose, what is that purpose?
The noun “purpose” prosthesis means “that which is planned in advance.” What is the resolve, the purpose and plan of God to which the Christian has become such a central component that we can view all of the operations of creation as having an aim toward our good? I must say, it’s an overwhelmingly optimistic view of life.
But we must dispense with the notion that the“good” and “purpose” has to do with our dreams or things working out the way we would prefer, which is where the verse often brings us in our thinking. As if the current difficulty is a bump in the road—a road leading to God eventually giving me what I really want. Romans 8:28 is much greater than that!
As we seek the context of Romans 8:28 we find a doctrine the Apostle connects to this great verse of encouragement that wars against, not only the natural mind, but often finds disfavor within the church itself. One might wish to consider that the passages in the Bible that war against our natural intuitions carry the most sanctifying messages; this certainly falls into that category.
We have been given the firm conviction that our prayers are submitted “according to the will of God”(Romans 8:27) by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, answered in perfection. The Apostle desires his readers enjoy the blessed assurance that all things, good and evil, are operating according to the impeccable design of God for the good of His children. This now culminates in an explanation of God’s holy and eternal decree as it pertains to His unalterable design for you and for me. This is expressed in the next verse (and again in the one following).
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to beconformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29).
For Whom He Foreknew
Since this is one of the many flagship passages expressing the doctrines of grace, otherwise known as Calvinism, there is a temptation to launch into an apologetic in defense of that position (and there certainly will be a bit of that). I would prefer, though, to remain tethered to the encouragement and blessing (rather than entering into a polemic) the Spirit of God provides with these words. The doctrines of grace should not be reduced to a mere theological argument. The doctrines of grace are to be presented as a blessing!
In order for the child of God to enjoy the unadulterated encouragement designed lift us through and strengthen us in “the sufferings of this present time” (Romans 8:18) this verse needs to be understood in its fullness. For that to be achieved, certain impositions on the text must be addressed and dismissed. What I mean by that is this verse presents God as much more sovereign (or in control of all events, including our very hearts) than people are comfortable with. Because of this, the verse gets thrown into an exegetical blender where men push the button of human autonomy.
We find one example of that in the opening phrase“For whom He foreknew.” This phrase has been the source of continual and often acerbic debate for centuries. A popular understanding (the first one given to me as a young Christian) is that of God looking down the corridors of time and knowing in advance the choice a person will make. It is in the light of that knowledge that He predestines them to be conformed to the image of His Son.
There are numerous variations of this found in Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism, Molinism, Open theology, etc. But these all amount to approximately the same thing—that God will not impose His will upon the creature. Of course with that comes the necessity of a reconstruction of our understanding of the level of sin and its damaging affects upon the human heart and will.
If you will indulge a few short answers (since I do prefer to offer why this is such a blessed message, I will be brief): Scriptures are not short of passages which teach of complete and total inability found within the natural human heart to seek after God.
As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.12 They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one” (Romans 3:10).
So, if foreknowledge meant that God was looking for who, in the future would, according to their own will, seek after Him, it would be an empty set. Not to mention that if God sees that they will choose Him, what necessity is there in Him predestinating them? They can get there on their own just fine.
Recognizing this difficulty, some suggest that the Holy Spirit will supply a certain level of prevenient grace. He will sort of pick up the incapacitated sinner and seek to shake him to his senses. But in the final analysis, it is left to the sinner to exercise his own independent volition to grab hold of salvation. He will lift us to the top of the tree, it is supposed, but we must pick the fruit. He will throw us the life-saver, but we are left to our own will to grab it.
A question that is so often left unanswered in this brand of grace is what is the independent antecedent cause for the right choice of the sinner? If it is not God who effectively and graciously changes the human heart leading the sinner to most assuredly grab the fruit, then what is it? Who is it? What is it about you that brought you to say “yes” to Christ—to cry out “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15)? Some say free will, as if the human will is an uncaused cause, rather than the hinges on the door of decision which must be pushed in one direction or the other.
It is precisely here that we begin to underestimate not only the strength of God’s hand in our salvation, but the eternal, infinite love of the Father toward those who have called upon His name. If our eyes have been opened by the grace of God to the truth of Christ our minds must go deeper than thinking that God is a friend that we just happened to meet—even though He knew in advance that it would take place.
“For whom hos He foreknew” is much more personal than simply knowing an event will happen, as if God is an infallible fortune teller. “For whom He foreknew” conveys a superior thought than “For whatHe foreknew.” What this verse loses in that inferior understanding is that God knew you and He knew me.
What we find if we look through the Scriptures which speak of God knowing you or me is a reference to God’s eternal and covenantal love for those whom He has chosen. One of many examples can be found in God’s calling of Jeremiah as a prophet. There is a parallelism with God’s knowledge, consecrating and appointing:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:5).
The verse is not limited to saying God knew what would happen with Jeremiah. From eternity past God knew him, sanctified him and ordained him to be a prophet. When God knows someone it is not relegated to simple fact gathering or our resume—past, present or future. In Amos 3:2 God says of Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” Did God not have infinite knowledge of the surrounding nations as well? He certainly did; but not in the same way.
In a very personal, intimate, loving and covenantal (promise making and promise keeping) way, God has known you from eternity past and has decreed—predestined—that you would not be left in your sins but that you, brothers and sisters in Christ, would be“conformed to the image of His Son.”
“Predestined” has become a provocative word. Mention it in the Bible study and the eyes will roll and the excessive carbon dioxide which accompanies the immoderate exhaling, no doubt, contributes to the global warming crisis. But the word is in the Scriptures (numerous times) so to avoid it for the sake of peace does harm to the message contained therein. And the word does mean what it sounds like.
“Predestined” proorisen in the Greek, similar to English is comprised of a prefix pro meaning in front of or before and horizo meaning to mark out definitely or to determine; all this to say that our destinies are determined by God “according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). God has a purpose for you and me. There is a place where we are being brought—a destiny He has determined.
This is not presented to us by Paul, or by the Holy Spirit, to goad us into an argument or for us to figure out ways to dismiss it because, at first blush, it appears to violate our notions of human freedom. This is presented to us that we might rest in the peace of knowing that in the same way (to go back a few verses) our prayers are presented refined and perfected by the Spirit; in the same way every last single event is designed for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose; that God has, and will continue to work out His immutable purpose to bring those whom He knew in eternity past to be conformed to the image of His Son.
Humans, for some reason, like things to be left (at least to a certain extent) to chance. We like games where you roll the dice or deal cards. We like to combine that chance or luck with our own skill to see what we can do what we’ve been given. From a certain perspective life can be observed this way. But the last thing we should desire is that our eternal destinies be left to chance combined with human wisdom and virtue.
When, by the Spirit of Christ we cry “Abba, Father,” when we, though checkered with sin and doubt, come to realize that we have faith in Christ, that says much more than we initially realize. We can rest assured that God has “put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:22). We can know that “all the promises of God find their Yes in Him (Christ)” (2 Corinthians 1:20). God knew us from eternity past and will most assuredly bring us to His desired good of which verse 28 speaks. So what is the destination? What is the good toward which all things work? Verse 29 seems to indicate what God is doing in us and verse 30 what He has done for us. We will speak of what God is doing in us then get to verse 30 in our next meeting.
The Image of His Son
The good to which all things are working and that which God has predestined to take place in all believers is that we “be conformed to the image of His Son.” In an ultimate and eschatological sense we see this reach its fullness in the final resurrection when the Lord Jesus Christ…
…will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:21).
The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:47-49).
But the conforming to Christ is not restricted to the final resurrection. One might say the eschaton has invaded human history. For even though we will one day in glory fully bear the image of the man of heaven, it would be a mistake to assume that God is not currently doing that work of transformation.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed (present, passive, indicative) into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).
No doubt this comes from the pastoral heart of the apostle. It comes from the pastoral heart of pastors, parents and all those seeking to see Christian maturity in those under their care. As Paul wrote:
…my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Galatians 4:19)!
This is the good to which all things are working. As discussed earlier, this can be a highly uncomfortable process.
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11).
The “good” to which “all things” work should not be thought of as the events working out as much as the training of our souls. All of creation is God’s classroom and we are His students. He will faithfully train us. He will complete the work He began (Philippians 1:6) and then we will, like Christ, referred to here at the “firstborn among many brethren” enter glory. Paul will build on what that glory consists of in the following verse.