What does Romans 8:29 mean when it says, “…those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined?”
Some people struggle with predestination, so they try to get God off the hook with a wrong view of foreknowledge. These people understand Romans 8:29 to be saying that God merely chooses us because He is able to know—in advance—that we will choose Him. They can’t get around the fact that God chooses us, but attempt to soften the blow with a particular view of foreknowledge that makes it less offensive to our independent minds. So, what is foreknowledge?
An illustration typically given is that of a person watching a parade from a high roof-top. From this vantage point he is able to see the entire parade instead of just the single part seen by those in the parade. The parade represents people in all of time and history, and the roof-top observer represents God. Since God is outside of the parade (or time), He has a perspective that allows Him to see all of it at once – including our decision concerning Christ. With this understanding, foreknowledge is defined as the future aspect of God’s omniscience. He has knowledge (the state of knowing), before. Though it is true that God knows the beginning and the end, the question at hand is whether this is the intended meaning of the word foreknowledge?
Isaiah 46:9-10 reveals God as knowing all, but it also tells us that God’s way of knowing is different than ours.
“I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ’My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,”
Notice that His way of knowing is completely different than our way of knowing. We observe, gather information, react, and grow; but God declares and accomplishes all that He purposes. We imagine God knowing the future in a way that we would (if we could), but the above passage reveals that He does not just see the future, He declares it. God does not learn and grow in knowledge (this would contradict His attribute of immutability – unchanging in all of his attributes); He speaks everything into existence, and it is accomplished as He sovereignly ordains. So, God does not simply know the future, He creates it. An honest look at Scripture – one that tries to fit all of the doctrinal pieces together – will lead you to reject the idea that foreknowledge is simply God seeing, or knowing before it happens.
The reason many people define foreknowledge in this way is because it gives an apparent answer to predestination – a doctrine that disturbs their sense of fairness, and seems confusing in light of their own experience of choosing to follow Jesus. One may say, “Yes, I know I am saved by grace, but it just doesn’t seem fair or right that God would have the power to save everyone, but choose to only save some.” This definition of foreknowledge seems to give an answer to their problem. They think, “God is now fair in choosing because He merely knew (our decision for Christ) beforehand. God still had His choice; it just happened to be based on ours … right?” Wrong.
An honest look at Scripture is not just a search to discover an answer to something we don’t like; it’s a humble recognition that our sinful nature may not like what we discover, and a trust that God will change our heart so that what once bothered us we now offer in reverent, awe-inspiring worship. As you read, please pay close attention to the Scriptures quoted. God’s Word is authoritative, and we must submit to what it says. If you do, I believe Scripture will convince you that this common view of foreknowledge cannot be right because it ignores and contradicts other clear teachings in Scripture. Again, our goal in studying Scripture is not to find interpretations that ease our minds, but to submit to what God reveals, and to trust that it is true, wonderful, joyous, and enhancing of our worship.
As we look at Scripture let’s consider the following reasons why this common view of foreknowledge is wrong:
It assumes something Scripture clearly denies
There are no biblical examples that support this view
It is inconsistent with a biblical view of God as Creator
It does not lead to the praise of God’s glorious grace
1. That God would see any choosing Him: one wrong assumption with this common view of foreknowledge is that God will actually see people seeking and loving and choosing Him prior to any action on His part. It assumes man to have an ability that Scripture clearly denies. Even if God were to only look into the future (instead of speaking it into existence), He would still see no person choosing Him; and if the doctrine of predestination were based on this, then God would likewise not choose any, and all would be lost. This is the description of mankind in God’s Word.
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one … there is no fear of God before their eyes.” – Rom 3:10-12,18
2. That the dead possess life-giving faith: Ephesians 2:1-5 makes it clear that there is no faith, or act of believing to see in those who are spiritually dead. We were all dead, and that death is not physical, but spiritual. Notice in this passage that the wrath of God is associated with our nature, and that this nature (being spiritually dead) walks in sin, not faith, and follows Satan, not God. Among other things, this nature is described as disobedient and following after the passions of our flesh. The difference-maker here is not a description of God looking into the future and seeing who we really are (thank God!); instead, it is His love that grants us what we do not deserve, and His mercy that does not give us that wrath previously associated with our very nature. Again, this common view has a wrong assumption of unregenerate man.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” – Eph 2:1-5
3. That slaves are free to choose their master: even if we were born spiritually alive and able to seek God (which the previous passages deny); Romans 6:17-18 describes us as slaves of sin. Don’t ignore, or be inconsistent with, the illustration given here in Scripture. We know that slaves have no choice to follow the master of their own choosing. They are not in control, but instead, their master controls their destiny. The change of heart described in this passage is not seen as something accomplished by the slave, but is a result of being set free by a new master. The master doesn’t follow the desire of the slave; the slave responds to the master setting him free. The result of God setting us free is our change of heart, which now desires righteousness, and is only now capable of desiring Him. The common view of foreknowledge is wrong because it assumes we are free to do what Scripture denies.
“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” – Rom 6:17-18
4. That those in the flesh can choose to love and submit to God: in Romans 8:7-9, there are only two categories of people: those in the flesh, and those in the Spirit. According to the common view of foreknowledge, if God looked into the future He would be looking at those who do not possess His Spirit, and thus categorized as “in the flesh,” which Scripture describes as those who are unsubmissive and hostile to God. These cannot please God, and yet those who hold this view say that God would see them choosing Him. How is it that God sees fleshly people acting with love and submissiveness? And if Scripture declares that those in the flesh cannot please God, why would we imagine a scenario where they do something so obviously pleasing to Him? Are they in the flesh, or in the Spirit? If God is only looking, and not indwelling, then they are in the flesh. If God indwells them by His Spirit, then they are the predestined who have been acted upon by God, and not passively observed, which then leads to the giving of His Spirit. This wrong view of foreknowledge changes the order of events, contradicts Scripture, and ignores that those in the flesh cannot please God.
“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” – Rom 8:7-9
5. That our (foreknown) faith leads to being born of God: 1 John 5:1 says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Notice that the result of being born of God is our belief in Jesus. Belief is the fruit, not the cause. We are not chosen by God, and born of His Spirit because we believe that Jesus is the Christ; instead, it says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.”
6. That coming to the light is a choice independent from God: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” – John 3:19-21
Those who come to the light (Jesus), do so that it may be clearly seen that this has been carried out in (or wrought; coming from) God. The condition of man, prior to God’s work, is darkness. Those in the dark, hate the light, and do not come to the light; but those who do come to the light (having faith in Jesus), come as a result of God’s work. God does not predestine as a result of seeing man choose Him (this is unbiblical). The free choice of man (prior to God’s work in him) is a love of darkness rather than light. The reason this is the pre-existing condition of man, is “so that it may be clearly seen (God getting the glory) that his works (coming to Jesus and doing what is true) have been wrought in, or carried out in, (born from) God.”
7. That spiritual birth, unlike physical birth, is initiated by the baby: In John 3:3-8, Jesus very clearly speaks of an order. God gives life, and then we are capable of sight. How much clearer an illustration could Jesus give? In speaking of spiritual birth (the beginning of spiritual life), He describes what we know to be obvious in the physical. A baby cannot see the world around him unless he is first born, or given life. Likewise, none of us have the ability to see the spiritual reality of God’s kingdom in Jesus, unless we are born spiritually – not just the first, physical birth, but another, spiritual birth. Flesh only sees flesh, but those born of the spirit are now capable of seeing and embracing Jesus, and this is God’s choice – “the wind (His Spirit) blows where it wishes.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
8. That those only seen by God have the ability to come to Him: Do you ever remember being in the 2nd grade and asking your teacher if you can go to the bathroom? Correcting your grammar, she responds; “Well, I’m sure you can.” Then, realizing your mistake, you ask, “Teacher, may I go to the bathroom?”
Jesus knew the difference between “can” (speaking of ability), and “may,” (which has to do with permission). So, when Jesus says (in John 6:44), “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” He really did mean that no person is spiritually capable of coming to faith in Christ, unless the Father first does something. What must first happen? The Father must draw us to himself. Now, before you define this “drawing” as something He does to all people, we ought to pay attention to verses 37-39 that describe what happens to those whom the Father draws.
“All that the Father gives me (says, Jesus) will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
The Father gives a certain group to Jesus (those whom He draws), and this verse says that ALL of these given by the Father will come to Jesus, and ALL of these will be raised on the last day. So, if we try and apply this “drawing” to all people, what we end up with is a belief that all will be saved – or, universalism. We are once again faced with Scripture that speaks of man’s inability. So, if God were only to respond to man’s independent choice, what would He see? He would not see any coming to Jesus, because no one can come unless the Father first draws him … and all that the Father gives to the Son will be saved.
Jesus then explains people’s unbelief in verses 64-65:
“But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
Those who believe, believe because the Father gave them to the Son; and the explanation given for the unbeliever is the Father not granting them faith in Christ. God initiates (by granting) belief; He does not respond to belief seen in the future.
We ought to reject the common view of foreknowledge because of the overwhelming biblical evidence against it; but another reason to reject it is the lack of any passage that directly teaches this view. Wouldn’t you think that at least one of the times the word foreknowledge is used in the Bible that it would actually teach God looking into the future and seeing our independent choice – this uncaused cause, or “big bang” of faith?
The various forms of “foreknowledge” occur only five times in Scripture, and not once do they ever teach what so many people presume it to be. Wouldn’t you think that when Paul talks about God choosing us “before the foundation of the world” that this would be the perfect place to describe how or why? Well, he does; but he doesn’t teach this view of foreknowledge. Let’s take a look at Ephesians 1:3-10, and see what reason he does give.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time ,to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
First, we see that God chose us in him (Christ) before the foundation of the world. Some may presume that our being “in Christ” is a matter of our choice that is foreknown by God; and He then chooses us based on this knowledge. But this is not actually taught here … or anywhere else. If we want to know how we got to be “in Christ,” a good passage to look at is John 6:37-39 (see above). What we discover there is that the Father initiates it all, not us. It is the Father who gives us to Christ, which produces our coming to Him in faith. We are in Christ, not by our independent decision, but by the Father’s initial act of choosing those whom He would give to His Son.
Second, we see that instead of God responding to something in us, His predestining choice is based on love. This does not fit with the common view of foreknowledge, but with a more biblical definition of foreknowledge that has to do with God’s sovereign choice of a people whom He desires to be in an intimate, loving relationship. There are different kinds of knowing – one kind is relational and intimately loving, and another kind is only factual – such as the observation of people’s actions. The relational kind of knowing fits with the love described here – a love that is behind God’s decision to predestine us unto adoption. Curiously, when you understand this loving kind of foreknowledge it fits both here, in Ephesians 1, and also in Romans 8:29, where we began.
If the common view of foreknowledge were true, Paul has a perfect opportunity to teach it in Ephesians 1. When he says God’s predestining choice is, “according to …” now would be the moment to teach how God looks into the future and sees our faith … but, he doesn’t. Is he silent? No, he gives a reason; it’s just not an answer that agrees with this particular view of foreknowledge. Instead of it being based on man’s choice, Paul says that God’s choice is according to God’s will – so that He may be praised; and according to His purpose and plan. Why doesn’t Paul teach the common view of foreknowledge here? The simple answer is, because it’s not true; and we can confidently say this because Paul’s explanation is not just some other, compatible reason, but a completely contrary reason to this view of foreknowledge. His answer gives God alone the glory. There is no shared credit because God does not share His glory with another (Isa 48:11).
We must be consistent with all of Scripture, and as we’ve seen, the Bible denies unregenerate man’s ability to choose God apart from God’s sovereign intervention. So what do we see him freely choosing? He does have a will, and that will freely chooses what it desires; but, according to Scripture, it chooses to stay in the dark and do as he pleases … and what pleases him is sin. Yes, man does have the freedom to choose, but he will always choose his strongest inclination, and before God changes him, his strongest inclination is always sin.
What’s also interesting about the lack of biblical support is that every use of the word “foreknowledge” relates to people, and not to facts. Every instance has to do with knowing a person in advance, not their actions. There are different ways the Bible uses the word “know.” One way has to do with facts and information, and another way has to do with relationship and intimacy. Every occasion in Scripture where the word, “foreknowledge” (or a variation of it) is used is a relational reference to people, and it is never used in reference to gathering information, or facts. So, positively speaking, a biblical view of foreknowledge has to do with relationship. Since all occurrences have to do with people, a right understanding of foreknowledge sees God deciding to be in a loving relationship before that person even existed. This is not just God being aware of someone, but a biblical type of knowing – a deep intimacy. So, foreknowledge has to do with God’s choice, prior to creation, to be in an intimate, loving relationship with a particular people.
We understand the word “know” in a relational sense. For example, if I were to introduce myself to a stranger, that person could then say that they now know me. They know me by name and they know whatever facts I choose to share with them. That person has limited knowledge of me based on some facts, but they do not know me like my wife knows me. And, even if my wife were to share every fact that she knew about me with that person, they still would not know me like she knows me. We understand this in our human relationships. There is a difference between factual knowledge and relational knowledge. This same truth is also seen in Scripture.
Jeremiah 1:5 says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” Why state the obvious? Of course God knows everyone. But this is not about facts, it’s about relationship; and God has chosen Jeremiah to be set apart as a prophet, to be in relationship with Himself.
Amos 3:2a – “You only have I known of all the families of the earth”
Did God really only know about Israel, and not others? Doesn’t He know everything? Yes, God knows everything and everyone, but He chooses whom He will know in this loving, relational way. We see this in the Old Testament, and don’t struggle with God choosing a people (the Jews), and not choosing to be in relationship with other people. Was His relationship with Israel based on seeing their choice of Him, or did He call Abram out from his pagan family and promise to be in covenant relationship with him? God decided to be in relationship with Abram before the foundation of the world, and (if you are in Christ) He also foreknew you.
We see this type of knowing in the New Testament as well. Matthew 7:23 says, “And then will I (Jesus) declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Jesus only knows those whom the Father gives to him. Yes, He knows about everyone, but He is only in a loving relationship with those whom God foreknew. As He says in John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
Paul understood in Galatians 4:9 that the reason we are in relationship with God is because we are known, or foreknown, or loved by God. We love God because He first loved us; and we know God because we have been known (loved) by God.
“But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world …?”
This is a biblical understanding of foreknowledge (a better view), but another reason you should reject the common view is its inconsistency with a biblical view of God as Creator. In the common view God is seen as outside of time, observing time, gathering information, and then reacting to what He sees in time.
Is time: eternal, self-existent, autonomous, and something simply observed by God; or is it something that flows from the only Creator as a part of His creation? Do we believe Genesis 1:1 when it says, “In the beginning, God?” Do we believe that God alone is eternal, self-existent and autonomous, or did God share eternity with some “thing” called time, which He could observe and respond to?
This type of talk may seem kind of strange, but if we are to preserve the doctrine of creation, and God as Creator, then we must begin with God alone (eternal, perfect, and self-sufficient) and view every single thing that we can call a “thing” as flowing from God’s mouth. When He says, “Let there be _______,” then that “thing” spoken will exist. If God alone is eternal Creator, then everything else must be on that line, and not along-side God, and certainly not influencing Him in His creative decisions. God alone is perfect, and if any of His decisions need some extra outside information, then He is not self-sufficient, but dependent and no God at all.
To view time as something along-side God (which He learns from and reacts to) is to attack God as God – the one who alone is the ultimate cause and source of everything. Do we deny the unchanging character of God by making Him into a being that sees and gathers information and reacts to it? God is not like man. He knows everything perfectly because He creates all. God cannot be both omniscient (all-knowing) and learning by observation. We do not solve a mystery with this view of foreknowledge, we create a contradiction (at best), and (at worst) we deny the very nature of God.
Those who believe in the Genesis 1 creation account need to be consistent when it comes to the doctrine of salvation. Paul was. In 2 Corinthians 4, he wrote:
“… the god of this world (Satan) has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God … For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
God does not see and observe and then choose; God speaks! … and it is so. Salvation is a result of God speaking light into our dark hearts. He is the creator of all things … even our faith.
Lastly, there is a problem with this view because it does not lead to the praise of God’s glorious grace. 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 reads:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; …”
Let me interrupt here. How could Paul possibly say this if God’s choice were a result of seeing our decision for Jesus? Is there any decision in all of history wiser than having faith in Jesus? What other decision affects your eternal destiny? If the initial cause of my salvation could be traced back to my own, independent decision that God simply observed and reacted to, then I have made the wisest decision of all, and Paul doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Okay, let’s continue …
“God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
Clearly, if the common view of foreknowledge is correct, then I am incredibly wise, and I certainly have some room for boasting. We know we shouldn’t boast, but in this view I am still able to do so. However much I credit myself, I diminish that from God’s worship; and instead of being amazed at God’s unmerited favor toward me, I would know that I deserved it more than those whose poor decisions were also seen in the corridors of time.
It sounds terrible (and it is), but if this common view is true then how could these things not also be so? God’s favor in choosing me is now dependent on my superior wisdom. There is something that caused me to stand out from the rest, and so grace is no longer unmerited and I rightly deserve some of the praise and admiration.
If you are blown away by the grace of God and cringe at the thought of saying you are deserving of mercy, and worthy of praise, then you ought to wholeheartedly deny the common view of foreknowledge. Why did God choose us? Ephesians 1 says it was according to the purpose of His will (He is Creator), and to the praise of His glorious grace. There is a better view of foreknowledge; a view that gives God all the glory, and causes us to marvel and worship at the thought of a love so great that it was determined in the mind of God for all eternity. Praise God for His glorious grace!