In our previous study of Romans 8:28, it tells us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” That is, God has a great and good purpose for all Christians and He is working in all the many detailed circumstances of their lives to achieve it. Wonderful as this verse is, the verses that follow are even more wonderful, for they tell how God accomplishes this purpose and remind us that it is God Himself who accomplishes it. The last reminder is the basis for what is commonly known as “eternal security” or “the perseverance of the saints.”
In spiritual matters we are all unbelievers. We are weak in faith. But we are taught in these great verses from Romans that salvation does not depend upon our faith, however necessary faith may be, but on the purposes of God. And it is the same regarding love. The apostle has just said that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him. But lest we somehow imagine that the strength of our love is the determining factor in salvation, he reminds us that our place in this good flow of events is not grounded in our love for God but on the fact that He has fixed His love upon us. How has God loved us? These verses introduce us to five great doctrines: (1) foreknowledge, (2) predestination, (3) effectual calling, (4) justification, and (5) glorification. These five doctrines are so closely connected that they have rightly and accurately been described as “a golden chain of five links.”
The most important of these five terms is “foreknowledge,” but surprisingly (or not surprisingly, since our ways are not God’s ways nor His thoughts our thoughts), it’s the most misunderstood. It’s composed of two separate words: “fore,” which means beforehand, and “knowledge.” So it has been taken to mean that, since God knows all things, God knows beforehand who will believe on Him and who will not, as a result of which He has predestined to salvation those whom He foresees will believe on Him. In other words, what He foreknows or foresees is their faith. Foreknowledge is such an important idea that we are going to come back to it again in the next study and carefully examine the way it is actually used in the Bible.
But even here we can see that such an explanation can never do justice to this passage. For one thing, the verse does not say that God foreknew what certain of His creatures would do. It is not talking about human actions at all. On the contrary, it is speaking entirely of God and of what God does. Each of these five terms is like that: God foreknew, God predestined, God called, God justified, God glorified. Besides, the object of the divine foreknowledge is not the actions of certain people but the people themselves. In this sense it can only mean that God has fixed a special attention upon them or loved them savingly. Foreknowledge means that salvation has its origin in the mind or eternal counsels of God, not in man. It focuses our attention on the distinguishing love of God, according to which some persons are elected to be conformed to the character of Jesus Christ, which is what Paul has already been saying.
Some may think that foreknowledge and predestination (the term that follows) mean the same thing, however the terms are not synonymous. Predestination carries us a step further. Predestination is also composed of two separate words: “pre,” meaning beforehand, and “destiny” or “destination.” It means to determine a person’s destiny beforehand, and this is the sense in which it differs from foreknowledge. As we have seen, foreknowledge means to fix one’s love upon or elect. It “does not inform us of the destination to which those thus chosen are appointed. This is what predestination supplies. It tells us that, having fixed His distinguishing love upon us, God next appointed us “to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.” He does this, as the next terms show, by calling, justifying, and glorifying those thus chosen.
The next step in this golden chain of five links is effectual calling. It’s important to use the adjective “effectual” at this point because there are two different kinds of calling referred to in the Bible, and it is easy to get confused about them. One kind of calling is external, general, and universal. It is an open invitation to all persons to repent of sin, turn to the Lord Jesus Christ, and be saved (see Matt. 11:28, John 7:37). The problem with this type of call is that, left to themselves, no men or women ever respond positively. They hear the call, but they turn away, preferring their own ways to God. The other kind of call is internal, specific, and effectual. That is, it not only issues the invitation, it also provides the ability or willingness to respond positively. It is God’s drawing to Himself or bringing to spiritual life the one who without that call would remain spiritually dead and far from Him.
The next step in God’s great chain of saving actions is justification. We have discussed justification in earlier studies and so we need not discuss it in detail here. Briefly, it is the judicial act by which God declares sinful men and women to be in a right standing before Him, not on the basis of their own merit, for they have none, but on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for them by dying in their place on the cross. Jesus bore their punishment, taking the penalty of their sins upon Himself. Those sins having been punished, God then imputes the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ to their account.
What does need to be discussed here is the relationship of the effectual call to justification. Or to put it in the form of a question: Why does calling come between foreknowledge and predestination, on the one hand, and justification and glorification, on the other? There are two reasons. First, calling is the point at which the things determined beforehand in the mind and counsel of God pass over into time. Remember there is no time frame in God. What God simply decrees in eternity becomes actual in time. We are creatures in time. So it is by God’s specific calling of us to faith in time that we are saved. Second, Justification, which comes after calling in this list of divine actions, is always connected with faith or belief, and it is through God’s call of the individual that faith is brought into being. God’s call creates or quickens faith. It is the call of God that brings forth spiritual life, of which faith is the first true evidence or proof.
Glorification is also something we studied earlier. It means being made like Jesus Christ, which is what Paul said earlier. But here is something we must notice. When Paul mentions glorification, he refers to it in the past tense (“glorified”) rather than in the future (“will glorify”) or future passive tense (“will be glorified”). Why is this? The only possible reason is that he is thinking of this final step in our salvation as being so certain that it is possible to refer to is as having already happened. He does this deliberately to assure us that this is exactly what will happen. Paul wrote, “I always pray with joy…being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:4, 6); which is shorthand for what we are discovering in Romans. God began the “good work” by foreknowledge, predestination, calling, and justification. And because God never goes back on anything He has said or changes His mind, we can know that He will carry it on until the day we will be like Jesus Christ, being glorified.
I want to remind you again that these are all things God has done. They are important things, the things that matter. Without them, not one of us would be saved. Or if we were “saved,” not one of us would continue in that salvation. Do we have to believe? Of course, we do. Paul has already spoken of the nature and necessity of faith in chapters 3 and 4. But even our faith is of God or, as we should probably better say, the result of His working in us. When we are first saved we think naturally that we have had a great deal to do with it, perhaps because of wrong or shallow teaching, but more likely only because we know more about our own thoughts and feelings than we do about God. But the longer one is Christian, the further one moves from any feeling that we are responsible for our salvation or even any part of it, and the closer we come to the conviction that it is all of God.
It is a good thing it is of God, too! Because if it were accomplished by us, we could just as easily un-accomplish it – and no doubt would. If God is the author, salvation is something that is done wisely, well, and forever. God has set His love on us, predestined us to become like Jesus Christ, called us to faith and repentance, justified us, yes, and has even glorified us, so certain of completion is His plan. May He alone be praised!
Romans 8:29-30 Reflection Questions:
What does Paul mean by the phrase God “knew” His people in advance (v. 29)?
How can we explain this in a way that is consistent with God’s love, mercy, and justice?
What difference does it make in your life to know that you have been chosen by God?