Rethinking the “Golden Chain” – Romans 8:28-30 (Part 2)

(This is the second post in the series on Romans 8:28-30, for the first post click here.)

(This is a reworking of a previous post on the so-called Golden Chain of Salvation. Several things have been added and two major things have been completely reinterpreted. Many have found the original version of this post helpful so I have left it up at its original location (click here to view the original version of this post). But I have changed my position on the meaning of “foreknew” in Romans 8:29 and “glorified” in verse 30. Due to these radical changes in perspective I feel compelled to rework this post. I would just start from scratch, but many of the points I made in the original version are still applicable, particularly the points aimed at the Calvinistic errors in interpreting this passage of Scripture. For the sake of those who have read the original version I have put all new paragraphs or sections in italics.)

Romans 8:28-30

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those 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 among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”


Foreknew

The term, “foreknew,” is usually assumed to be the first link in the chain. Paul is saying that God has lovingly chosen people whom he knew ahead of time. Calvinists argue that the word “foreknew” means God chose and loved certain individuals unconditionally. They are partially correct. The word clearly implies that God lovingly chose certain people, and the context makes it clear that certain individuals are in view here, but “lovingly chose” is simply not the meaning of the word. We must be clear that the word’s core meaning is “to know someone (or something) beforehand.” It is true that the foreknowing of certain individuals implies both loving and choosing, but not before it means “having knowledge about them ahead of time.” Secondly by reading “unconditionally” into the verse they do more than read in something that is not there, they ignore what is written.

God foreknows all things and all men. But he foreknew his saints in a particular way. From this we deduce that the term “foreknew” implies more than just “he knew that they would exist.” He also chose to relate with them through covenant in a way that he would not relate with others. So “to choose” and even “to lovingly choose” is implied in Paul’s use of the term. But we must remember that these are implications, not the core meaning of the word itself. God chose and loved certain individuals according to his foreknowledge of them. To imagine that he chose individuals without knowing anything about them is simply ignoring the meaning of the word itself.  

Though this passage does not spell out for us exactly what God foreknew about these individuals, it does give us enough information to make a reasonable conclusion. The information in the context, coupled with other related passages, make the picture abundantly clear for those willing to accept it. In Romans 8:29 we read that the passage is about “those whom he foreknew.” There are certain individuals Paul has in mind here. We know this because a chapter later in Romans 9:23-24 he is still talking about these individuals; and when we get to Romans 11:2 and 5 they are still the focus of his attention.

Romans 9:23-24

…in order to make know the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory- even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles…

Romans 11:2 & 5

God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew … So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.

If we ask, “Whom did God foreknow?” and let verse 28 gives us the answer, we will also learn what God foreknew about these individuals. God did not foreknow any specific unbelievers unconditionally, but he foreknew “those who love God.” He foreknew those who would meet a certain condition; those who respond to God’s love by loving him back.

1 Corinthians 8:3 helps us to see that God’s “covenantal knowing,” that is his choosing and election, of someone is conditional, not unconditional. In one sense God “knows” everyone, but he doesn’t have covenantal relationship with everyone. Before he “knows” them in the sense of choosing them to belong to him, he “knows” something about them. He doesn’t choose them randomly, but after knowing something about them. “Know” can sometimes imply “choose,” but it always means “know” first and foremost.

1 Corinthians 8:3

But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

And in John 16:27 we see that the special love given to God’s elect is also given conditionally, not unconditionally. Yes, God loves everyone in the entire world, but he loves those that receive his son in a special covenantal sense. Believers are called to love their neighbors as themselves, even if their neighbors happen to be their enemies. But Christ commanded us to love our brothers and sisters in Christ in an even greater way. Not only are we called to love them as we love ourselves, but we are commanded to love them as Christ loved us. We are called to a higher covenantal commitment with those that trust in, submit to and love Jesus Christ. This mirrors God’s covenantal commitment to those who believe in his Son.

John 16:27

For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.

So we see that God lovingly chose certain individuals according to his foreknowledge of them. We are not explicitly told what God foreknew about these individuals in Romans 8:29, but verse 28 does imply that those whom he foreknew were foreknown to be lovers of God. And we could further argue that they were foreknown to be “in Christ” according to Romans 8:1 since the entire context is speaking of “the saints” (Rom. 8:27). When we look elsewhere in scripture we see that God’s special covenantal knowing (choosing) is reserved for those who love God, though of course God knows all people in another sense (1 Cor. 8:3). And though God loves all men, he has reserved a special covenantal love for those that love his Son and place their trust in him (John 16:27).

Romans 8:28-30 is clearly referring to the doctrine of election. And for those without a theological axe to grind it seems clear that the context assumes that election to salvation is conditional. The word “foreknew” clearly implies God’s loving election, but the implication cannot replace the definition of the word, but must flow from it. God chose and loved those whom he foreknew. And those whom he foreknew were not imaginary blank slates, but they were real individuals who were foreknown to love God and trust in Christ. God foreknew those who would be in Christ (Eph. 1:4).

A common error of Calvinists is that whenever the Bible speaks of God “choosing a people” they say, “Aha, Unconditional Election.” But the biblical doctrine of Election is a far cry from the Calvinistic doctrine of Unconditional Election. The Golden Chain of Salvation does not include the doctrine of Unconditional Election. We must realize that the chain does not actually begin with “those whom he foreknew,” but with “those who love God.”

God’s Work

Before we move on to the rest of the chain we must consider Romans 8:28 since, as we have seen, that is where the chain actually begins. If we boil the chain down to its basic form it would read like this: “Those who love God, that is, those whom he foreknew, he predestined to adoption, called, justified and also glorified.” It is a great mistake to read verse 29 which starts with, “For those whom…” without considering who it was whom he foreknew.

First let’s clarify the meaning of the phrase used in Romans 8:28; “All things work together for good.” This phrase is translated differently in different English Bible versions. In the English Standard Version quoted above it give the impression that things just happen to work out alright for the saints. This is a regrettable translation. We don’t believe in karma, but in God. So in this case the NIV comes closer to what Paul surely had in mind, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those….” This translation makes it clear that things “work out” for the elect because God is actively working for their benefit.

This translation continues the thought Paul began to present in the previous verses. It is not just we who long for redemption and strive for transformation into the image of Christ, but so does God’s Spirit. In verse 27 we were told that the Spirit intercedes “according to the will of God.” And in verse 28 we are told that the saints have been called “according to his [God] purpose.” It isn’t until we reach 29 that we see just what that “will” and “purpose” is. Whatever the world throws our way, God will use it to fulfill his ultimate purpose.

In the book of Genesis we read about how Joseph was treated by his brethren. Though God had chosen their brother to rule all of Egypt and save their family, they rejected God’s plan and betrayed Joseph. Though this was contrary to the will of God, it didn’t matter. God’s wisdom is infinitely resourceful. He is able to use the rebellious acts of men and demons to bring about his purposes. Whatever people might do to thwart God’s plans, God’s ultimate purpose will prevail. It is not that God will make a way, but according to his foreknowledge he has already made a way (Acts 2:23). God planned ahead of time for the sinful choices of men before he ever said, “Let there be light!” He is able to allow men to rebel without getting nervous that his plans will fail. He doesn’t need to control all the acts of men and demons in order to ensure victory, as the master chess player he is always many moves ahead of his opponents. So though Joseph’s brothers tried to destroy God’s plan, he just used their sins to fulfill it. This is why Joseph could say, “Even though you planned evil against me, God planned good to come out of it” (Gen. 50:20).

In the same way, though the world seeks to destroy the Church, Jesus says the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Not because the Church is so wise and powerful, but because God is on their side fighting for them. And as individuals striving for holiness and longing for the redemption of our bodies, we can know that whatever suffering comes our way, God will turn it about for our good. In order to understand just what “good” means in verse 28 we will have to consider what the word “predestine” means in verse 29, as well as what exactly it is that God has predestined. But first we have to understand some more things related to verse 28.

Now we must consider how it is that “we know,” as a fact, that God indeed works all things together for our good. Paul is not expecting us to believe this without any evidence. Instead he is has been giving us the evidence all along and he is about to recap so that we can be more confident in the face of all that the world throws at us.

Ephesians 1:11

In him [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…

Romans 8:28 tells us a fact, namely that God is the one that is working to fulfill his plan for us. Then verses 29-30 go on to tell us that we can be sure that God is indeed working to fulfill his purpose for those who love God by looking at what he has already done for them. What has he done for the saints of God? He foreknew them (i.e. lovingly chose them according to his foreknowledge), he predestined them to adoption as his children, he called them through the gospel, he justified them through the work of Christ and he glorified them by the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. In light of his past work on our behalf, how can we not know with absolute assurance that he will work all things together for the good of those who love him?! If God is for us, who can be against us? (Rom. 8:31)

As we continue on to the various links of the chain we must keep in mind that each link is part of the work of God in Christ Jesus. None of the things mentioned are done by humans, but by God alone. He elects, predestines, calls, justifies and glorifies. The reason we don’t read about faith in Christ or submission to the Spirit is because at this point in his argument Paul is trying to emphasize the work of God in salvation, not our participation with him in it. He spent a good part of the first half of chapter 8 talking about the importance of our participation; now he is trying to get us to focus on the foundational importance of God’s work on our behalf.

We must also keep in mind that each link in the chain he will share is something that has been completed. For those that are in Christ, each aspect of the work of God that Paul will mention has already been finished by Jesus Christ. He has been talking about the difficulties we face as we press on to future glory and telling us that we can be sure that God is working them out for our good in the midst of tribulation. Now he will remind us of the work that God has completed in Christ as proof that God will remain faithful to work for us. He has been speaking of this finished work in Christ since the end of Chapter 3, now it is time for him to wrap up his thoughts before moving onto a different topic in chapter 9. If we don’t understand his line of reasoning we will be confused at why he uses the past tense of the word “glorified” in verse 30. But we will get to that in due time.

To Be Continued…

3 thoughts on “Rethinking the “Golden Chain” – Romans 8:28-30 (Part 2)

  1. Quotations of 1 corinthians 8:3 and John 16:23 are very useful and I never heard about those verses in the context of romas 8. it’s a really illuminating post, thank you!

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