An appeal for clarity
A favourite text of those who argue about Predestination is Romans 8:29-30. It mentions people being “predestined”, and a lot of speculation has surrounded the concept throughout Christian history. The speculation essentially fails to grasp the point: Gentiles and Jews are equally considered God’s “holy people”.
Predestination and Election
This passage is not primarily about “Predestination” and “Election”. Properly understood, this passage is part of Paul’s argument against Judaisers. I talk about “Predestination” and “Election” in another post, where I show Paul’s own exposition of the doctrine as being different from anything you’ll find in a modern textbook:
A Judaiser is someone who insists that a Christian is either wholly or partially under the Covenant which Moses mediated between God and the Israelites, as found in Exodus 19 and following. Judaisers menaced Paul throughout his ministry because Paul was teaching firstly that Jews could obtain salvation from the terms of that Covenant, by which they had invoked curses on themselves, and secondly that Gentiles were being included in the Elect, without reference to the Moses Covenant. The Jews’ salvation from that covenant was through the death of Christ, in which the believing Jew participates by Baptism:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.”
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, “Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.”
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law
– Galatians 3:11-13
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
– Romans 6:4
So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ,that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God … now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.
– Romans 7:4-6
Gentiles, in a similar way, are Baptised into Christ and therefore count Abraham as their ancestor, without any reference to the Mosaic covenant:
If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
– Galatians 3:29
This teaching incensed the Jews, who held Moses’ Law to be the central contemplation of faith. Paul pointed out that the Jews had been operating an erroneous, replacement-theology:
What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.
– Galatians 3:17
… because in fact, it is Abraham’s belief which is the central contemplation of the faith:
What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
– Romans 4:3
And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.
– Romans 4:11
Paul was persecuted by the Judaisers (Galatians 5:11), and his teaching constantly challenged by them. The Christian leadership heard evidence from both Paul and Peter, and ensured that no misunderstanding should continue: believers are not bound to the Mosaic covenant, the Christian leadership does not need to teach adherence to it, because believers can learn all about it in synagogues if they want to (Acts 15:10-11, 19-21).
For a full exploration of Paul’s teaching on the Judaisers, see this related blog post:
Against the backdrop of that whole argument, the Letter to the Romans is a single, coherent message about Jews and Gentiles who have come to believe in Christ, worshipping together without worrying about cultural distinctions. That was a radical thing in the day.
This brings us to our passage:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 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 within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
– Romans 8:28-30
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
Verse 28 is often taken to mean that no matter what happens in life, God will use it for good ends if you trust Him. That is quite a reasonable thing to say (as long as you count “martyrdom” as one of those “good ends”), but that is not what Paul is trying to say here. He is talking about the overall purposes of God in Salvation history.
The most important thing is to see that “those who are called” is an expression which is precisely, “those who love God”. Paul opened his letter talking about who was “called”:
we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints,
– Romans 1:5-7
so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call
– Romans 9:11-12
including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles
– Romans 9:24
In a kind of ultimate statement about the “call”, Paul explicitly deals with the Jew/Gentile question:
As regards the gospel [the Jews] are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience
– Romans 11:28-30
Paul’s whole point here is that those whom God “calls” are not merely the Jews, but all those who, through their faith, love God.
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 within a large family.
This is frequently taken to mean that God knew beforehand who would end up “saved”, and that there is a sense in which God designed that to happen specifically (and only) to them. That is not what it says at all.
“Those whom he foreknew” is a term referring to the nation of Israel, because God had “known” them as His people before the time of which Paul is speaking (Christ’s victory). He even uses the identical term just a couple of chapters later, unambiguously referring to “Israelites”:
I ask then: 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.
– Romans 11:1-2
It had been God’s desire and design beforehand that these people should come to be conformed to the image of His Son, in which case they would have been a proper mediator between the rest of the world and God. This intended role as mediator is expressed in Genesis 19:6, which interprets for us the meaning of Genesis 12:3. This idea is repeated and explained fully in 1 Peter 2:9. I’ll show you… read these verses together:
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all nations on earth
will be blessed through you.
– Genesis 12:3
You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
– Genesis 19:6
You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
– 1 Peter 2:9
So then, the nation Israel was to be the “firstborn” nation among a large family of nations. That was always the potential for Israel, and the prophets could see it as the ideal fulfilment of God’s promises. For example (and this is one of a great many examples):
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.
– Isaiah 2:3-5
The attempt to read Romans 8:29 as a remark about individual people ending up “saved” leads down a rabbit-hole of philosophical musing about Determinism, which ultimately ends in “mystery” – all the writers who have seriously pursued it, including Luther, Calvin, and others, have all conceded that they cannot reconcile the problems that this line of thinking raises.
But Paul was being very clear and simple, if we only understand his language! He was not entering into a vain philosophical debate about whether God knows what will happen before it happens. He was saying something very simple and very bold: God designed Israel to be his salvation-solution for the world, but they failed.
God didn’t fail, and the plan didn’t fail. God went on to open up the plan further and succeed. But Israel failed (see Romans 11). Is that difficult to believe? Consider Hebrews:
But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.
God finds fault with them when he says…
– Hebrews 8:6-8
And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
This is often linked directly to the preceding verse, and under the same incorrect assumptions, “those whom he predestined” here are thought to be precisely “those whom he called”. That is not so.
Paul has been talking about the Gentiles having been “called”, and has been saying that the Israelites also were “called” in the same way. This verse is saying that “those whom he called”, which includes both Gentiles and Jews, are justified and glorified in precisely the same way as each other.
In fact, Paul has been saying this through the whole letter, starting in the introduction:
Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people…
– Romans 1:5-7
Paul’s point is that, whereas previously “those whom God called” could safely be equated with “those who are physically descended from Abraham”, it can now be seen that it also includes Gentiles, because all are “called to belong to Jesus Christ”, who is the true firstborn Son, an image to which Israel had failed to conform.
Why Paul said it
This was Paul’s central point in the whole letter. It was made so carefully and laboriously, not so that we would have a systematic theology of Salvation, but so that the believers would be equipped to refute Judaisers who insisted that only Jews were God’s “holy people” (refuted in Romans 1:7), “the elect of God” (refuted in Romans 8:33).
I offer a paraphrase of this passage, to aid in understanding it. This, I argue, is what Paul means:
In the end, the people of God will be the winners in the story of life. Those people are the called ones, the ones who love God… not just “the Jews”.
This is because the Israelites, whom God had known before Jesus’ time, had been assigned to fulfil the ultimate role God had in mind -that one nation would like God’s firstborn son, an eldest son among a family of nations; but God had allotted a destiny to all people who love him, so in Christ he also called all of the others, along with the Jews. Now as it follows, everyone he called, he also justified – not just the Jews… And of course, all those whom he justified, Jew and Gentile, he also glorified.
The remainder of Chapter 8 is an encouragement to those whom the Judaisers had been terrorising. It is an impassioned defense of Paul’s central point: Gentiles are fully included in the people of God through Jesus Christ. The next three whole chapters after this one go on in detail to explain how that can be so.
Reading Romans 8:28-30 as a Calvinistic, or Arminian, or any similar concept of personalised “predestination” removes the passage from its context, introduces philosophical ideas that never interested Paul, and which cannot be reconciled with the rest of the Bible, and ignores the overarching concern of the whole letter to the Romans. It is about Jews and Gentiles.