Lately I have been writing some exegetical thoughts on Romans 8:28 – 9:23 in preparation for multiple discussions I have been involved in with individuals opposed to the Reformed faith. As it turns out, every one of those individuals has chosen to discontinue the discussion before it ever really went anywhere. I’m not the least bit surprised. I’ve been conversing with synergist interpreters on a regular basis for six years now. This “shoot and run” tactic, where you just assert your opinion and simply express your dislike for the other position, then bail before they respond, sadly appears to be the normal behavior exhibited by many of these folks. It is no wonder that so many critics of the Reformed faith clearly do not understand the position they criticize when they won’t even stick around long enough to allow that position to be heard.
Well, I don’t want my time and efforts to have gone to waste, so I’ve chosen this outlet to share the thoughts and findings I have made on this text. By the grace of God, maybe I will gain some new readers and a productive discussion can come of this yet. I welcome all comments and criticisms (but uncivil or otherwise unnecessary remarks will not be approved). If someone out there finds the Reformed position to be unpersuasive and actually has something productive to contribute to the conversation (I am becoming more and more convinced that very few of you actually exist), I would love to hear from you. I encourage readers to pass the link to this study along to friends, pastors, or just whoever you think might be interested in discussing things further, or whoever may simply benefit from reading.
I’m not entirely sure yet how I will break up this study, but I will most likely deal with the text in small units. I will, however, have to of course do some overlap to keep up with the context. My notes on this text currently consist of over 20,000 words, so I will be tackling the discussion in a series of posts (you’re welcome). Today I would like to just start with a quick look at Romans 8:28-29, and more specifically Paul’s usage of the words “foreknew” and “predestined” in verse 29:
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 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.
This word, “foreknew,” is commonly misunderstood, because rarely is it carefully considered and defined according to the author’s own usage before an assumed meaning is applied. The text here says that “for those whom he foreknew he also predestined.” To some people, the meaning seems obvious. “The predestination follows foreknowledge. Therefore, to say that God predestines someone means only that He chooses those whom He foresees would freely choose Him.” This is the reasoning that can commonly be heard, even from the pulpit. In other words, God’s “predestination” (if we can even really use that term here) is based on foreseen faith in the believer. “Predestination,” then, is really just a fancy biblical way of saying that God recognized what man would choose, and then stamped it with His approval. However, this is only the “obvious” meaning of the text if one comes to it excepting for it to say a certain thing. Upon closer examination, the interpretation simply fails, because it does not acknowledge the way in which the word “foreknew” is being used in this verse.
The word “foreknew” in verse 29 is proegnō, which is the aorist active indicative form of proginōskō – “to have foreknowledge.” In other words, it is an active verb. It is not a noun (i.e. the knowledge being a thing, as if God were possessing it). It is, rather, an action that God is performing toward an object. It does not mean that God is just passively acquiring knowledge of something in the future. The point that Paul is making in the verbal chain in verses 29 and 30 is that God is stepping forward in each of these actions and actually doing something to affect an object. So to understand this verse to be saying that God simply knew of these individuals beforehand, or of what they would do or choose, I would suggest is simply and objectively wrong. What Paul is specifically telling us is that God did something toward the object, just as He did with the “predestinating,” as well as with the “calling,” “justifying,” and “glorifying” that follow in the next verse. All these verbs share the same grammatical characteristics, which indicate that Paul is telling us that these are five actions of God which He is performing toward a certain object — the same object in each instance.
Secondly, we must note that this object is personal. It is a reference to individuals themselves, and not a reference to their actions or choices. “Those whom he foreknew.” Again, every verb in this verse and the following verse is an active indicative and has the same object, “those whom.” The object assigned to the first verb is the same object assigned to all those that follow, as indicated by the kai (“also/and”) between each verb. “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” The identification of the same exact object for both verbs is unavoidable. Paul is talking about individuals, not merely their actions, and he is talking about the same group of individuals throughout the whole verbal chain in vv. 29,30, and not a “narrowing” audience where he starts out with a general application of all humanity, and then narrows his scope to those that would actually be saved. It is the same object throughout, and that object is personal. So it is only proper to understand this “foreknowing” in the same sense in which we understand the “predestinating,” “calling,” “justifying,” and “glorifying” that follows. Whatever this “foreknowing” means, it cannot mean that God simply passively takes in knowledge of what men would choose in the future, because all these verbs express definite activities that God Himself is actively doing, and doing toward someone.
Thus, the reading of this text which assumes the meaning, “those whom God foreknew would believe he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son,” forces an additional qualifying notion onto the text that is neither present, nor implied, nor even consistent with what Paul is actually saying. And yet, so often is this understanding just assumed when reading the verse that many develop a whole doctrine off of it without even thinking twice. That’s something called reading the Bible through the lens of your preconceptions. The people who make this mistake say that God looked down the corridors of time, saw which individuals would freely choose to accept His offer of salvation, and on the basis of that foreseen faith, “predestine” (i.e. recognize and stamp approval on) them to salvation. I would suggest such an idea is no where to be found anywhere in the pages of Scripture. It seems obvious only to those who unwittingly expect to find it there because of their tradition. But when we get down to actually studying the details of the text, we find that no such idea can be derived out of a careful study of the Bible.
So then, if Paul is not talking about God’s mere foreknowledge of human decisions, then what does it really mean to say that God foreknew someone? Well, many have suggested it before, and I agree: In Scripture, this word “foreknew” is almost identical in meaning to the word “foreloved.” It is expressing a loving action that God performs toward a group of people, in choosing in eternity past to express His special favor toward them.
The Scriptures use the words “know” and “foreknow” in a very interesting way. Rather than referring only to a knowledge of something, they often convey the meaning of intimacy in relationship. For instance, in Genesis 4:1 we read, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” Is this telling us that Eve became pregnant simply because Adam knew information about her? Of course not. There is obviously a much more intimate meaning intended there.
The examples in which this euphemism is used in reference to God’s relationship to His people are even more common and forceful. For example, in Jeremiah 1:5, God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” Is this just a reference to the fact that God knew all about what Jeremiah would do in his life? No, this statement is made in the context of God’s appointing of Jeremiah to his special task as prophet. What God is saying is that before Jeremiah was even born, He determined to set His heart upon him and appoint him to a special task. Similarly, in Amos 3:2, God says, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” Is Israel really the only family on earth that God knows anything about? Certainly not. God’s “knowing” of Israel signifies that this family is His special object of affection and concern. This is why the verse concludes by saying, “therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” God chastises those whom He loves. The intended meaning is that He has a special intimate relationship with these people that He does not share with the rest of the world. Let’s consider one more example, this time from the mouth of Jesus. Matthew 7:22-23: “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Once more the meaning here is obvious. Jesus knows about every person. So why does He say here, “I never knew you”? The context is clear that the “knowing” (or rather, not knowing) is in the sense of having never been intimately connected with Christ.
John Murray gives the following explanation of the verb “foreknew” in Romans 8:29:
It should be observed that the text says ‘whom He foreknew’; whom is the object of the verb and there is no qualifying addition. This, of itself, shows that, unless there is some other compelling reason, the expression ‘whom he foreknew’ contains within itself the differentiation which is presupposed. If the apostle had in mind some ‘qualifying adjunct’ it would have been simple to supply it. Since he adds none we are forced to inquire if the actual terms he uses can express the differentiation implied. The usage of Scripture provides an affirmative answer. Although the term ‘foreknew’ is used seldom in the New Testament, it is altogether indefensible to ignore the meaning so frequently given to the word ‘know’ in the usage of Scripture; ‘foreknow’ merely adds the thought of ‘beforehand’ to the word ‘know’. Many times in Scripture ‘know’ has a pregnant meaning which goes beyond that of mere cognition. It is used in a sense practically synonymous with ‘love’, to set regard upon, to know with peculiar interest, delight, affection, and action (cf. Gen 18:19; Exod. 2:25; Psalm 1:6; 144:3; Jer. 1:5; Amos 3:2; Hosea 13:5; Matt 7:23; I Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9; II Tim. 2:19; I John 3:1). There is no reason why this import of the word ‘know’ should not be applied to ‘foreknow’ in this passage, as also in [Rom. 11:2] where it also occurs in the same kind of construction and where the thought of election is patently present (cf. [Rom. 11:5,6]). When this import is appreciated, then there is no reason for adding any qualifying notion and ‘whom He foreknew’ is seen to contain within itself the differentiating element required. It means ‘whom he set regard upon’ or ‘whom he knew from eternity with distinguishing affection and delight’ and is virtually equivalent to ‘whom he foreloved’. This interpretation, furthermore, is in agreement with the efficient and determining action which is so conspicuous in every other link of the chain – it is God who predestinates, it is God who calls, it is God who justifies, and it is He who glorifies. Foresight of faith would be out of accord with the determinative action which is predicated of God in these other instances and would constitute a weakening of the total emphasis at the point where we should least expect it….It is not the foresight of difference but the foreknowledge that makes difference to exist, not a foresight that recognizes existence but the foreknowledge that determines existence. It is a sovereign distinguishing love.1
So the most reasonable conclusion is that Paul is utilizing the biblical synonyms of knowledge and love in this text. The verb “foreknew” means that God, in eternity past, determined to set His heart upon certain individuals (not because of anything they did, but purely according to His purpose – cf. v. 28), and that loving action of God is the basis of His predestination of them, which is itself the basis of each of the other verbs that follows in verse 30. In other words, an individual’s choice to have faith is not the cause of predestination, but instead it is the result of it (cf. Eph. 2:8-9; 1 John 5:1). God is the determiner of His plan for creation, not man. That, I believe, is Paul’s main point throughout these chapters, as we will see more and more clearly as we progress in this study. His intention is to demonstrate the freedom of God in salvation, not the freedom of man.
Finally, this interpretation of “foreknew” as “foreloved” is not made redundant by the “he predestined” that comes after, because predestination has to do with establishing a purpose in advance, and not necessarily a loving relationship. In other words, to foreknow an individual is for God to choose to set His heart upon that individual, and to predestine that individual is, on the basis of that love, to purpose that the individual would then be saved. One commentary states the matter like so:
In what sense are we to take the word “foreknow” here? “Those who He foreknew would repent and believe,” say Pelagians of every age and every hue. But this is to thrust into the text what is contrary to the whole spirit, and even letter, of the apostle’s teaching (see Ro 9:11; 2Ti 1:9). In Ro 11:2, and Ps 1:6, God’s “knowledge” of His people cannot be restricted to a mere foresight of future events, or acquaintance with what is passing here below. Does “whom He did foreknow,” then, mean “whom He foreordained?” Scarcely, because both “foreknowledge” and “foreordination” [i.e. predestination] are here mentioned, and the one as the cause of the other. It is difficult indeed for our limited minds to distinguish them as states of the Divine Mind towards men; especially since in Ac 2:23 “the counsel” is put before “the foreknowledge of God,” while in 1Pe 1:2 “election” is said to be “according to the foreknowledge of God.” But probably God’s foreknowledge of His own people means His “peculiar, gracious, complacency in them,” while His “predestinating” or “foreordaining” them signifies His fixed purpose, flowing from this, to “save them and call them with an holy calling” (2Ti 1:9).2
In summary, to foreknow persons means that God has chosen in eternity past to act toward the individuals in love — that is, affect the action toward them — and not just passively take in knowledge of what they will do or choose, contrary to the popular, yet tradition-inspired reading of this text.
With these considerations established, a lengthy discussion of “predestined” is not necessary, for there is only one way to properly understand the term in this context. It must be understood as a reference to God’s unconditional electing action of particular individuals. That is to say, His choosing of certain individuals to be saved is not based on anything in them (such as foreseen faith) (hence the “unconditional”). It is based purely on His own purpose in salvation to save whom He intends to save, toward His own glory. And this is the most natural reading of the text to begin with. It does not rely on having to come up with fancy ways of defining “predestined” like the synergistic camp is required to do in order to maintain their view.
Speaking of which, there is another unwarranted understanding of predestination forced onto this text which I have thus far failed to mention. It has sometimes been suggested that God merely elects “a people,” that is, a group or sphere of persons, but actually leaves it up to the individuals to determine (by their choice of faith) whether or not they belong to that sphere. That understanding of “predestined” is simply impossible here. The personal reference forces us to understand the object of the verb to be individuals, not just a grouping. If God only elects a “group,” but does not specifically choose the individuals who make up that group, then His election is an election of an abstract idea, and not an election of persons. If God cannot say, “I am choosing John, and Sarah, and Nathan, and Amanda,” but can only say, “I am choosing to save ‘a group of people,’ the contents of which are undetermined,” then the personal reference makes no sense here, because that is not an election of individual persons; it is an election of an abstract sphere — an impersonal grouping or concept, the contents of which are not determined by that electing act itself. That is not what Paul is telling us. The object he uses makes it clear that the predestination is a predestinating of the specific individuals who actually make up that group. It is the specific contents of that group that the electing act is defined as determining. That is the only way to make sense of the personal reference.
We will see as we progress through this series that this unconditional election of individuals unto salvation is the only way to properly understand what Paul is talking about, because he is later going to anticipate and respond to certain objections that are specifically related to natural concerns that one would have about the idea of an unconditional election (e.g. how God would be just in the act). It would make no sense for Paul to raise such objections if he meant anything else by “predestined” than the most obvious and natural understanding of the word. Thus, the best way to understand Romans 8:29 is in the most straight-forward way possible: Those individuals whom God determined to specially love, on the basis of His own sovereign purpose, He also determined to save.
1 Murray, J., The Epistle to the Romans, Vol. I, pp. 316-318. Quoted in Steele, D. N., Thomas, C. C., The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented, p. 86.
2 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. (1997). A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Ro 8:29)