We come now to the beating heart of what has been nicknamed Calvinism. But of course, Calvin—a faithful servant of God—did not concoct these doctrines. He taught that where Scripture is silent, we ought not to pry (Dt. 29:29). But he also taught, following Augustine, that Scripture is always a safe guide. The same way that a mother stoops so that a toddler can keep up, so Scripture stoops for us. And if our mother leads us into certain topics, it is safe for us to go there.
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow . . .” (Rom. 8:28-31).
Summary of the Text
We begin with the phrase “all things.” Do not take this in a small way—Paul has just finished talking about how the entire created order is longing for the day of resurrection, in the same way that a woman in deep labor longs for her delivery. When a woman is pregnant, her whole body is pregnant; she is pregnant. All things are involved. So all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose (v. 28). Who are these people? These are the sons of God, who will be manifested. What is His purpose? We have just learned that it is the restoration of all things.
How does this work? Those whom God foreknew, He predestined to a particular end (v. 29). That end was full conformity to the image of His Son, which will obviously happen at the day of resurrection. Predestination here is to that final comformity. And when we get there, it will be manifested that Christ was the firstborn among many brothers (v. 29). We then come to what has been called the golden chain of redemption—those whom God foreknew, He predestined. Those He predestined, He called. Those He called, He justified. Those He justified, He also glorified, and note the past tense (v. 30). It is as good as done—the glorification is predestined, remember. What is the appropriate response to these things? It is the absolute confidence that comes from the knowledge that God is for you, despite your sins, and the resultant understanding that no one and nothing can effectively stand against you (v. 31)
We must begin by dealing with a common evasion. The idea is that God looks down the corridors of time and history, sees you praying to receive Jesus, and on that basis predestines you to eternal salvation. There are (at least) two problems here. The first is textual. It does not say on the basis of what God foreknew, it says whom He foreknew. The foreknowledge is of persons, not events. But of course, this takes the word knowledge into a different realm. God, speaking of Israel, said, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). Of course God (cognitively) knew all the families of the earth, not just Israel. His knowledge here is relational, covenantal. The foreknowledge here is therefore a reference to those “upon whom God set His electing love.” Those whom He knew and loved beforehand, He also predestined . ..
Secondly, the theological problem with the “corridors of time” approach is that it makes God a cosmic “me-too- er,” and it does this without solving any of the problems. It says that God loves us because we first loved Him, clearn contrary to 1 John 4:19. And these corridors of time—who created them? Who governs them? If God foreknew cognitively what would happen if He created the world, and He created it anyway, this constitutes a decision. Try as we might, there is no real way to have a Christian faith in which God is not God.
The Same People
Notice how Paul ties everything together tightly. The people foreknown are the same group that predestined “to be conformed to the image of the Son.” This conformity, as we have just been noting, will occur as the day of the apocalypse of the sons of God, the day our adoption as sons is finalized. So those whom God foreknew, He predestined to be conformed to Christ-likeness, which is their glorification. In between the predestination and the glorification (involved the same set of people), we find calling and justification. In between the foreknowledge and the glorification, nobody gets off the train. If it is possible to get off the train, this makes a hash out of Paul’s argument that begins in the next verse.
Yearning In the Right Direction
Napoleon once said that he would rather meet ten thousand well-generalled and well-provisioned men than one Calvinist who thought he was doing the will of God. There is something in this doctrine that brings backbone along with it. And there is something about rejecting it, or sidling away from it, or nuancing the heck out of it, that promotes effeminacy.
But do not mistake this with fatalism—que sera sera. This is not an exhortation to just hunker down and take it. This is a chapter full of yearning, full of longing, and it is our task as the children of God to discover the work of the Holy Spirit in history, and to groan in labor toward that end. History is not just one random thing after another. There is a telos here. The future is all glory. That glory will be revealed in us, and we are predestined to it. Everything that happens to those who love God is in line with that stated purpose.
The universe is enormously complicated, and we should never minimize that. But we have been told the meaning of it—and we should always remember that the Spirit sticks to the agenda.