A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 8:29-30. b). Five undeniable affirmations.
In these two verses Paul elaborates what he meant in verse 28 by God’s ‘purpose’, according to which he has called us and is working everything together for our good. He traces God’s good and saving purpose through five stages from its beginning in his mind to its consummation in the coming glory. These stages he names foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification and glorification.
First comes a reference to *those God foreknew*. Since the common meaning of ‘to foreknow’ is to know something beforehand, in advance of its happening, some commentators both ancient and modern have concluded that God foresees who will believe, and that this foreknowledge is the basis of his predestination. But this cannot be right, for at least two reasons. First, in this sense God foreknows everybody and everything, whereas Paul is referring to a particular group. Secondly, if God predestines people because they are going to believe, then the ground of their salvation is in themselves and their merit, instead of in him and his mercy, whereas Paul’s whole emphasis is on God’s free initiative of grace.
Other commentators have therefore reminded us that the Hebrew verb ‘to know’ expresses much more than mere intellectual cognition; it denotes a personal relationship of care and affection. Thus, when God ‘knows’ people, he watches over them (Ps. 1:6; 144:3), and when he ‘knew’ the children of Israel in the desert, what is meant is that he cared for them (Hos. 13:5). Indeed, Israel was the only people out of all the families of the earth whom Yahweh had ‘known’, that is, loved, chosen and formed a covenant with (Am.3:2). The meaning of ‘foreknowledge’ in the New Testament is similar. ‘God did not reject his people [Israel], whom he foreknew’, that is, whom he loved and chose (11:2) (cf. 1 Pet.1:2). in the light of this biblical usage John Murray writes: ‘”Know”…is used in a sense practically synonymous with “love”…”Whom he foreknew”… is therefore virtually equivalent to “whom he foreloved”.’ Foreknowledge is ‘sovereign, distinguishing love’. This fits in with Moses’ great statement: ‘The Lord did not set his affection on you and chose you because you were more numerous than other peoples….But it was because the Lord loved you….’ (Deut. 7:7f.; cf. Eph.1:4f.). The only source of divine election and predestination is divine love.
Secondly, *those he foreknew*, or foreloved, *he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers* (29). The verb *predestined* translates *proorizo*, which means to ‘decide upon beforehand’ (BAGD), as in Acts 4:28 (‘They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen’). Clearly, then, a decision is involved in the process of becoming a Christian, but it is God’s decision before it can be ours. This is not to deny that we ‘decided for Christ’, and freely, but to affirm that we did so only because he had first ‘decided for us’. This emphasis on God’s gracious, sovereign decision or choice is reinforced by the vocabulary with which it is associated. On the one hand, it is attributed to God’s ‘pleasure’, ‘will’, ‘plan’ and ‘purpose’ (Eph.1:5, 9, 11,; 3:11), and on the other it is traced back to ‘before the creation of the world’ (E.g. Eph.1:4) or ‘before time began’ (1 Cor.2:7; 2 Tim.1:9; cf. 1 Pet.1:20; Rev.13:8). C.J.Vaughan sums the issue up in these words:
Everyone who is eventually saved can only ascribe his salvation, from the first step to the last, to God’s favour and act. Human merit must be excluded: and this can only be by tracing back the work far beyond the obedience which evidences, or even the faith which appropriates, salvation; even to an act of spontaneous favour on the part of that God who foresees and foreordains from eternity all his works.
Neither Scripture nor experience allow us to weaken this teaching. As for Scripture, not only throughout the Old Testament is Israel acknowledged as ‘the one nation on earth that God went out to redeem as a people for himself’, to be his special ‘treasured possession’ (2 Sam.7:22ff; cf. Ex.19:3ff.; Dt.7:6; 10:15; 14:2; Ps.135:4), but throughout the New Testament it is recognised that human beings are by nature blind, deaf and dead, so that their conversion is impossible unless God gives them sight, hearing and life.
Our own experience confirms this. Dr. J.I.Packer, in his fine essay *Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God*, points out that in fact all Christian people believe in God’s sovereignty in salvation, even if they deny it. ‘Two facts show this,’ he writes. ‘In the first place, you give God thanks for your conversion. Now why do you do that? Because you know in your heart that God was entirely responsible for it. You did not save yourself; he saved you…There is a second way in which you acknowledge that God is sovereign in salvation. You pray for the conversion of others…You ask God to work in them everything necessary for their salvation.’ So our thanksgivings and our intercessions prove that we believe in divine sovereignty. ‘On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed.’
Yet the mysteries remain. And as finite and fallen creatures we have no right to demand explanations from our infinite and perfect Creator. Nevertheless, he has thrown light on our problem in such a way as to contradict the chief objections which are raised and to show that the consequences of predestination are the opposite of what is popularly supposes. I give five examples.