RPM, Volume 16, Number 6, February 2 to February 8, 2014

Promise and Predestination in Romans 8:28-30

By Laurence D. Grigg

Laurence Grigg grew up in Duncan, British Columbia. In 1992 he received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of British Columbia and in 1995 received his Masters of Christian Studies from Regent College. For the past twelve years, he has worked in the oil and gas industry in Alberta. Laurence, his wife Kathy, and their two children Katrina and Liam currently live in Calgary, where they attend New City Church, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America.

Introduction

In Romans 8:28 we find one of the most profound and beloved promises in the New Testament. With great pastoral concern, the Apostle Paul gives hope and reassurance to the persecuted believers in Rome with the promise that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him." According to John Piper (1995), "When it comes to the . . . buildings we call the promises of God, Romans 8:28 shares the tribute of being one of the two or three greatest" (p. 122). The reason, Piper claims, is that Romans 8:28 contains within itself virtually every other promise God has made to us (p. 123). Regrettably, many Christians today misapply this sweeping promise by isolating it from its literary setting or by misunderstanding its vocabulary. In this article, I will explain Romans 8:28 in light of its context and define to whom and in what circumstances this promise applies. I will also unpack the various theological concepts Paul introduces in these verses, with particular attention to his other uses of these concepts in Romans. Finally, I will show that the concept of predestination plays a much more significant role in understanding verse 28 than has been previously appreciated.

Literary Context

Romans 8:28-30 falls within Paul's larger argument that extends from verses 18 to 30, where the apostle focuses on the believer's suffering and hope of the glory to come. Verse 17 introduces the fact that believers who currently share in the sufferings of Christ will also share in his glory. This verse springboards the reader to Paul's major thesis in verse 18 that the eternal glory that believers will enjoy far outweighs any of their temporary physical sufferings, no matter how severe. In fact, the entire created order groans as it looks forward to sharing in the final redemption of the believers (vv. 19-21). The believers also groan as they wait in the certain hope of the resurrection of their bodies (vv. 22-25). Finally, the Spirit himself groans within believers as he sustains them in their weaknesses by interceding for them (vv. 26-27). Believers can be confident that their weakness, groaning, struggles and suffering are all working toward their ultimate good (v. 28) since the Lord will accomplish his eternal purposes on behalf of the people of God (vv. 29-30).

Paul begins and ends his argument in verses 18 to 30 with a reference to divine glory. It was a common practice for writers of ancient manuscripts to mark the start and end of a paragraph unit with an identical word or phrase. Since first-century Greek did not use paragraph indentations and since ancient correspondence was intended to be read aloud to others, the repeated thematic reference helped indicate the beginning of a new paragraph. For Paul, however, the theme of glory not only brackets the paragraph, but also weaves through the verses like a red thread: "the glory that will be revealed in us" (v. 18), "the glorious freedom of the children of God" (v. 21), "adoption to sonship" (v. 23), "the redemption of our bodies" (v. 23), "the good" (v. 28), "conformed to the likeness of his Son" (v. 29), and "glorified" (v. 30).

Paul initially describes the sufferings of God's people as sharing in Christ's sufferings (v. 17b), which are in addition to the regular sufferings that all human endure. These sufferings come only because we are followers of Christ. As far as we are aware, there was no organized persecution of Christians in Rome when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, but the believers nevertheless experienced considerable opposition to the gospel. In particular, the fanatical cult of emperor worship was pervading the Empire, and when Christians proclaimed that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord and Saviour, they naturally provoked hostility at every turn. In verse 36, the apostle writes, "We face death all day long. We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." However, in verse 18, Paul moves beyond the voluntary aspects of suffering to what he describes as "the sufferings of this present time." These sufferings seem to include all the afflictions, external and internal, we may encounter in this present age. The suffering Paul describes touches God's creation (vv. 20-21), God's children (vv. 22-25) and even God himself (vv. 26-27). Paul writes this paragraph to establish a strong hope for the believers facing suffering of all kinds. He reassures them that God is at work in all their circumstances and will bring them to a great and glorious resurrection in the age to come.

Argument

28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. 1 (Rom. 8:28-30 NIV)

Paul opens verse 28 with the clause "And we know that," which acts as a transition from what we do not know (vv. 26-27) to what we know (v. 28), from the believer's halting prayer to the Lord's decisive action. The apostle then declares that God is at work in "all things" (weakness, groaning, suffering, or whatever misfortune we may encounter) for our ultimate good. This promise is for "those who love God" and those who are "called according to his purpose." Here Paul describes believers both as those who choose God and as those whom God has chosen. He finds no contradiction here since, for Paul, the latter precedes the former. About a year earlier, he wrote to the Corinthians that "whoever loves God is known by God" (1 Cor. 8:2-3), implying that those who love God are those who have already been chosen by God.

That God is at work for our good, even in our adversities, is such an extraordinary promise that Paul gives a more detailed expression of it in the two verses that follow. God's plan of redemption for his people actually involves predestining them to be fashioned after the likeness of his Son so that Christ might be the firstborn among his brothers (v. 29). Describing Christ as "firstborn" is an acknowledgement of his pre-eminence over the created world (see Col. 1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 1:5). Therefore, the purpose for God's glorification of believers is to exalt his Son throughout eternity.

In verses 29 and 30, Paul defines God's plan of redemption through a sequence of five divine actions — foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification and glorification. These actions present the progress of God's redemptive plan from the past (foreknew, predestined) to the present (called, justified) to the future (glorified). Paul links these verbs in a popular literary construction known as a sorites, or a "stair-step" argument, 2 in which the predicate of one statement becomes the subject of the next one, and so on, leading to a climactic statement, as follows:

those God foreknew
he also predestined
those he predestined
he also called
those he called
he also justified
those he justified
he also glorified

This stair-step construction allows Paul to argue from cause to effect with rhetorical effect. Each of the five verbs appears in the third-person singular with God as the subject, indicating that believers themselves do not accomplish God's purposes, but God alone. Moreover, the pronoun "those" corresponds to the same group of people throughout the sequence. As Douglas Moo (1996) points out, these pronouns "leave little room for the suggestion that the links in this chain are not firmly attached to one another" (p. 535). Although the word "all" does not appear before the pronoun "those" (e.g., "all those whom God foreknew he also predestined"), it is strongly implied from the context. We assume, therefore, that everyone who participates in God's foreknowledge also participates in the other four events.

Vocabulary of 8:29-30

The five verbs in the stair-step argument are brimming with theological meaning. In verses 29 and 30, Paul reduces a constellation of weighty ideas down to a string of technical terms. He introduces these concepts to assure his readers that their future destinies rest on the rock-solid foundation of God's eternal purposes. Obviously, the believers in Rome are acquainted with these theological concepts at some level since Paul leaves them unexplained. However, Christians today need a working definition of each of these words in order to understand the rhetorical thrust of the argument.

Foreknowledge

"Foreknow" is a compound verb that literally means "to know beforehand." Since "foreknowing" is the first or initiating event in the stair-step argument, the word implies something that God does prior to the other events and only for believers (since everyone God foreknows is also predestined, called, justified and glorified). Therefore, with the word "foreknow," the apostle must be conveying something stronger than simply God's prior knowledge of facts since this type of omniscience applies to everyone and everything, not just to believers. So what exactly does Paul mean when he uses the verb "foreknow"?

Paul has used the verb "foreknow" in one other place. In Romans 11:2, he asks, "Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew." Paul argues that God has not rejected Israel because (1) Paul himself belongs to the remnant of Israel, chosen by God's grace; and (2) God has "foreknown" Israel rather than "rejected" her. The verb "foreknow" here connotes something opposite in meaning to "rejected." Paul must be implying God's accepting or selecting individuals beforehand, an understanding that fits nicely with his autobiographical account in Galatians 1:15-16, when he writes that God "set me apart from my mother's womb and called me by his grace." Paul experienced God's call when he met Christ and left his former life of Judaism, but prior to this event God selected Paul. Interestingly, one of the Hebrew meanings for "know" is "choose," which may have influenced Paul's particular understanding of foreknowledge. In Amos 3:2, for example, God says to the people of Israel, "You only have I known among all the families of the earth." God, of course, knows every family on earth, but he has selected only one family to be his chosen people. Therefore, when Paul uses "foreknow," he implies "select," "elect," or "accept" beforehand.

One of the most widely held views of foreknowledge among lay students of Scripture today is that God knows in advance which people will have faith in Christ and predestines these people to eternal salvation as a result. This argument is by no means new; it has appeared for centuries in various forms in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Thomas Edgar (2003) writes, "Prescience fits well in this passage [Rom. 8:29]. Due to his omniscience, God certainly knows beforehand who will believe" (p. 60). In other words, a person freely believes in Christ and, because God foresees this faith ahead of time, he acts accordingly by setting in motion the stair-step process of Romans 8:29-30. However, according to the logic of Paul's argument, God's foreknowledge (or prior election) causes his predestination, which causes his call, which causes his justification, which causes his glorification. But since faith in Christ is linked to justification (Rom. 3:28; 5:1; 10:10), we have to move all the way to the fourth action in the sequence before faith comes into play. Therefore, we cannot claim that a person's faith is the de facto cause of the whole chain of events when in fact faith/justification is included in the chain and has its own antecedent cause, namely, God's call. The "foresight of faith" view of foreknowledge turns out to be a circular argument since it begins with something that it is trying to end with. And since a circular argument is a logical fallacy, it must be rejected.

Predestination

The verb "predestine" means "to decide or determine a course of events beforehand." The word is unique to Paul (1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 1:5, 11; Rom. 8:29-30) as it does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament or in any previous Greek literature, not even the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament). In the apostle's use of the word, "predestine" implies not only that God has chosen individuals, but also that he is working out a plan with respect to his chosen ones. Whereas foreknowledge implies God's selecting people in advance for his purpose, predestination implies God's active and immediate involvement in bringing about this plan. Despite Paul's infrequent use of the word "predestine," we cannot avoid the underlying theme of predestination in Romans 8:18 to 11:36. For Paul, the entire cosmos is a God-ordained stage against which the great drama of redemption plays out. As we have seen, the "all things" in verse 28 embraces all the sufferings of this present age (8:18-27), which God is working out for our ultimate glory. Moreover, in verses 31 to 39, we find that God is actively involved in overcoming all events and created realities in the vast cosmos that might oppose his love for his elect. Finally, chapters 9 to 11 present Israel's history from beginning to end in terms of God's sovereign choice. If God ultimately fulfills his covenant promises to Israel, he will also keep his promise of glory and unending love for the people of his new covenant.

Calling

For Paul, divine calling denotes someone's initial conversion or regeneration. In Romans, Paul uses the verb "call" to describe a creative act when God calls individual from a condition of "not his people" into a condition of "His people" (Rom. 9:24-26). God grounds his salvation on his decisive and irrevocable call so that "his purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls" (Rom. 9:11-12; 11:29). Paul also uses call-language in his letter to the believers in Galatia, when he associates the call with the time they first embraced the gospel (Gal. 1:6) and explains that he himself was called when he left his previous life in Judaism to follow Christ (Gal. 1:13-16). Moreover, to the Corinthians, Paul explains that a large group of Jews and Greeks heard him preach the gospel, but only a smaller subset of this group, referred to as "those whom God has called," actually believed his message (1 Cor. 1:23-24). He later urges these same believers to look back to the particular circumstances they were in when God called them and reminds them that God's call is a shared experience, far more important than any ethnic and social differences (1 Cor. 7:17-24).

Paul sees God's call as a divine appointment to salvation, when the Lord encounters fallen humanity and brings them to Christ through his overruling grace. For Paul, the divine call does not refer to the general call of the gospel that invites all people who hear it to believe in Christ and be saved. Instead, Paul understands the call as the internal call of God's Spirit on the heart that brings about regeneration. This is the call that occurs when God "makes his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God's glory" (2 Cor. 4:6) or when "the Lord opened Lydia's heart to respond to Paul's message" (Acts 16:14). Paul never attempts to explain how people are called, but he does imply that all who have been called know that they have been called. In Romans 8:29-30, we also learn that God's call comes to individuals as a result of his divine foreknowledge and predestination.

Justification

Whereas calling involves regeneration (something God does to his people), justification involves pardoning (something God does for his people). In Romans, Paul often uses the word "justification" as a kind of shorthand for "justification by grace through faith." When God justifies people, he declares their sins forgiven through the work of Christ. But God not only pardons sinners through an act of grace (Rom. 3:25-26), but also credits them with righteousness (Rom. 4:3) so that they enter a position of full acceptance and privilege before God. Paul uses the verb "justify" fifteen times in Romans. While it has a range of meanings, most uses of "justify" imply the forensic sense of acquittal of punishment and crediting of righteous. This sense is strongly implied in Romans 8:30 because of its close proximity to the verses that follow: "Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us" (vv. 33-34). Here Paul describes an eschatological court proceeding where all those who are resurrected appear before God. The prosecution accuses the believers, but God does not condemn them. Instead, he allows Christ to intercede for them.

Glorification

God has always intended for humans to share in his glory (Gen. 1:26). The first man, Adam, failed; but the second Man, Christ, came in the fullness of the Father's glory (John 1:14), and all God's people will bear his glory in the life to come. They will be "raised in glory" (1 Cor. 15:43) with a body "like unto his glorious body" (Phil. 3:21) in "the likeness of the man from heaven" (1 Cor. 15:49). God is very interested in our bodies because they exist to bring glory to him not only in this life but also in the life to come.

For the inhabitants of Rome, glory was tied to military victory as conquering generals would enter Rome surrounded by cheering masses celebrating the victory on behalf of the Roman state (Fay, 2006, pp. 153-154). In contrast, Paul understands "glory" as the future state of believers that follows a time of suffering with Christ. He expresses this concept variously as the revelation of the children of God (v. 19), the freedom of the children of God (v. 21), the adoption to sonship (v. 23), the redemption of the body (v. 23) and conformity to the image of Christ (v. 29). Many commentators conclude that this final description of conformity to Christ refers to the process of sanctification brought about by God's Spirit. To be sure, Paul does teach that "we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory" (2 Cor. 3:18). However, Paul's emphasis in Romans 8:18-30 is the glorification of believers at the resurrection when their bodies become incorruptible, fashioned after the glorified body of the Lord Jesus.

Vocabulary of 8:28

When we examine the vocabulary in Romans 8:28, we find similarities to the ideas expressed in verses 29 and 30. First of all, the word "called" in verse 28 also appears in verse 30. Paul seems to use this word as a kind of shorthand for conversion or regeneration by the Spirit. Secondly, "the good" that believers are promised is later described as "conformed to the image of his Son" (v. 29) and "glorified" (v. 30). Third, God's "purpose" in verse 28 is another way to refer to God's foreknowledge, which precedes his call. In 2 Timothy 1:9, we discover that God's purpose actually causes his call: "He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace." God's purpose is his gracious decision to select his people (foreknowledge), which gives rise to working out his purposes (predestination) in his people. Finally, the statement that God works in all things is a statement about God's predestination. In Ephesians 1:11, we find a verse with a remarkably similar vocabulary and context to Romans 8:28. Both passages address the future inheritance of God's glory as a blessing of redemption. Both passages claim that God's pre-existing purpose gives rise to his "working" in and for his people. Both passages use the same Greek words translated in English as "all things." And both passages refer to God's working in order to "conform us" to God's will (Eph. 1:11) and to God's Son (Rom. 8:29). Only the Ephesians verse uses the verb "predestine," but Paul the Romans verse strongly implies the idea in the words "in all things God works."

The following chart presents the parallel vocabulary in Romans 8 verses 28, 29 and 30:

FOREKNOW
PREDESTINE
CALL
JUSTIFY
GLORIFY
Rom 8:28
“according to his purpose”
“in all things God works”
“called”
“for the good”
Rom 8:29
“foreknew”
“predestined”
“conformed to the image of his son”
Rom 8:30
“predestined”
“called”
“justified”
“glorified”

Why is the vocabulary in verse 28 so different from what we find in verses 29 and 30? I suggest that Paul is paraphrasing some kind of source material in verse 28. C.E.B. Cranfield (1979) also concludes that Paul "is deliberately incorporating a piece of traditional teaching" into this verse (p. 424). I can only speculate here, but the introductory words "And we know that" in verse 28 may indicate that Paul is drawing on some shared oral or written material with which both he and his audience were familiar. He does use this introductory formula for direct quotations in 1 Cor. 8:1 and 4. Secondly, the phrase "those who love God" is very uncharacteristic for Paul. The apostle refers to God's love for us countless times, but, apart from Romans 8:28, mentions our love for God only in 1 Corinthians 8:3. (We do find a second occurrence in 1 Corinthians 2:9, but Paul is directly quoting from Isaiah 64:4, so the words are not his own.) That the content of Romans 8:28 derives from a secondary source, such as a primitive Christian confession, may account for the dissimilar vocabulary and arrangement in verse 28 when compared to verses 29 and 30, which are entirely Paul's words.

When we examine the chart above, we find that predestination is central to verses 28, 29 and 30. Moreover, each verse ends with the believer's glorification, which is the goal of God's predestination. The promised "good" in verse 28, therefore, does not refer to anything we receive in this temporal life. Unfortunately, some Christians understand the promise of verse 28 as "Everything will turn out fine if you just wait long enough" or "Don't worry! The sun will always come out tomorrow," or something similar. These interpretations have much more to do with popular wisdom than with the teaching of Paul. Sadly, such interpretations only detract from the true treasure this promise holds for the people of God. This present age promises hardship and suffering, especially for those who follow the Saviour. However, God is at work in all our circumstances to lead us to glory in the age to come; and "when the day of glory dawns," writes F. F. Bruce (1985), "the people of God will at last attain the goal which God has ever had in view for them" (pp. 159-160).

Conclusion

In Romans 8:28-30, the Apostle Paul compassionately reassures the believers in Rome, who face continuing hardship for the sake of Christ. According to Paul, groaning and suffering are the normal circumstances of the Christian journey as we live between justification and glorification, between the old creation and the new creation, between the sufferings of this present age and the glorious resurrection of the age to come. Paul casts the wonderful promise of verse 28 in words familiar to the Roman believers. He then follows with a concise, chronological presentation of God's plan of redemption that includes the final resurrection of the saints, fashioned in the image of the glorified Son and gathered around him as the family of the Redeemed. We who love God can view our present struggles through the prism of the unassailable character of God, who gives great hope and meaning to all life's trials and moves us toward a greater vision of God's purposes. As John Piper (1995) rightly observes, "Once you walk through the door of love into the massive, unshakable structure of Romans 8:28, everything changes" (p. 123).

NOTES:

1. Verse 28 poses several challenging text-critical and translational difficulties. I accept the translations of the NIV, NASB, RSV and NEB translations, which place "God" rather than "all things" as the subject of "works."

2. There are at least six stair-step constructions in the New Testament (1 Cor. 15:15-18, Rom. 5:3-5; 10:14-15; 2 Pet. 1:5-7; Jas. 1:2-4; 1:14-15).

Works Cited

Bruce, F. F. (1985). Romans. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Revised Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.

Cranfield, C. E. B. (1979). A critical and exegetical commentary on the epistle to the Romans. Vol 1. Romans 1—8. 6th edition. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Edgar, T. R. (2003). The meaning of PROGINWSKW ("foreknowledge"). CTS Journal 9 (Spring 2003), 43-80.

Fay, R. C. (2006). Father, Son and Spirit in Romans 8: Paul's understanding of God with special reference to the Roman recipients. PhD dissertation. Deerfield: Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Moo, D. (1996). The epistle to the Romans. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Piper, J. (1995). Future grace. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers.

Contact Information

Laurence Grigg
194 Country Hills Heights, NW
Calgary, Alberta
T3K 5G3

Phone: 403-226-8588
E-mail: lgrigg@shaw.ca

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