by Bruce Mills
For the past 16 months, I have been teaching through Romans in my Sunday School class. I recently taught through Romans 8:29-30, which reads, "For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified."
Those verses obviously contain some of the most complex truths in all of theology. There is, perhaps, none so controversial as the matter of God's foreknowledge and predestination of certain people to salvation. In reality, once the two terms are explained, most people's problem isn't with predestination, but rather with foreknowledge, because once the brick of God's foreknowledge is laid, the brick of predestination follows naturally. However, through the years, those two terms have come to be used almost interchangeably, even though they are not synonymous.
After finishing teaching on God's foreknowledge, one man approached me and asked me to summarize my teaching and put it on the blog. My response was that it would be entirely too long to be a blog post. I later discussed this request with another of the elders at the church and he suggested breaking it down into a series of posts so that each could be more "bite-sized." So that is what I intend to do; to write a series on the subject of God's foreknowledge and predestination. I'm not quite sure how many posts it will take, but eventually, I will finish. I'll do my best to summarize what I taught in class and not throw the entire truckload at you. So let's get started.
The first phrase of verse 29 says, "For those whom He foreknew..." Salvation begins with God’s foreknowledge. A Christian is, first of all, someone whom God foreknew. Salvation is not initiated by a person’s decision to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Scripture is clear that repentant faith is essential to salvation and is the first step that we take in response to God, but repentant faith does not initiate salvation. God's foreknowledge is the first step in initiating an individual's salvation.
So let’s examine what this word means. Some people think it means that God looked down through the corridors of time into the future and saw who was going to make the decision to follow Christ and who was not. And once He looked down through history and saw how each of us was going to choose, He then predestined those whom He saw were going to choose to believe in Christ.
However, that viewpoint contains a very serious flaw. Man—who, according to Rom. 3:10-23, 8:7, is wicked, spiritually ignorant, spiritually blind, incapable of understanding the truth, incapable of stopping his iniquity, hates God, and is God's enemy—is dead in trespasses and sins and, on his own, will not make a decision to follow Christ. That’s the first thing we have to recognize.
Secondly, we have to ask the question, “If God just looks into the future and sees some people who believe and some people who do not believe, then where did the faith of those who chose to believe come from?” Is it natural for an unregenerate, wicked, blind, hopeless, helpless sinner to suddenly exercise saving faith in Jesus Christ? No, it’s not natural; in fact, it’s impossible. It can’t happen. The terminology used in Scripture to describe fallen man is that he is “dead in…trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) and his mind is spiritually blind (2 Cor. 4:4). A dead man is incapable of doing anything, and a blind man cannot will himself to see light.
Think of it this way: If “foreknowledge” means that God knows beforehand what people will do in response to Him or to the preaching of the gospel, and then determines their destiny on that basis, what would God possibly see or foreknow except for a fixed rebellion against Him in every person’s heart? Paul has gone to great lengths in Romans 1-3 to explain that man is completely and totally opposed to God. So if foreknowledge was defined in the way some would like to define it, then the only thing God would see would be opposition to Him; not a decision for Him.
So, if the "God-looks-down-through-the-hallway-of-time" approach is incorrect, what does the word "foreknowledge" mean? I believe Acts 2:23 provides some wonderful insight as to what it means. Scripture is always the best commentary on Scripture, and in Acts 2:23, Peter, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, defines it for us. He says that Christ went to the cross “by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.” That’s very important.
The word translated “plan” was used in classical Greek for a council which was convened to make a decision. This was a decision for a pre-decided course of action, so “the predetermined plan” of God means God determined the course of action. “Predetermined” is a perfect participle; that is, it speaks of an action which was completed in the past, but with continuing, on-going results. The word is ὁρίζω, which speaks of marking off boundaries or limits. We get our English word “horizon” from this word. The horizon is the border or boundary between earth and sky. So God pre-decided a course of action and marked off the boundaries of that action. This was His “predetermined plan.”
Now, notice that Peter also says that God’s “foreknowledge” was involved. In fact, I believe that what he is doing here is clarifying what “predetermined plan” means. He is defining “foreknowledge” as meaning a “predetermined plan.” “Foreknowledge” doesn’t just mean that God knows what’s going to happen; it means that He has pre-decided His course of action with the boundaries and limits marked out.
So when we speak of God's foreknowledge, we are saying that He predetermined precisely what He was going to do in regard to certain individuals, and according to Eph. 1:4, He did this before the foundation of the world. So what was it that He pre-decided to do? We'll look at that in our next post.