An Exegetical Look at Romans 8:28-30
~ Romans 8:28 in the Authorized Version ~
"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, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified."
In this passage we have what is known by theologians as "The Golden Chain of Redemption". It is the truth that God is the one who foreknew then predestined then called then justified and then glorified his people. Five links are in that chain. And all of them are something that God does. And all of them are contingent on the preceding link. At the beginning of this list we also have that beloved verse that tells us about God's providence over everything with regards to those that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. This is a key passage in regards to the Doctrines of Grace.
God's Calling & Providence
To begin, look at verse 28: "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." In the first place we see God's sovereignty and providence over all things. It does not say some things, but all things. God ensures that all things work together for good to them that love him. This does not say that every individual thing in our lives will be good. But rather it says that it will work together for good. This means that everything, whether it is good or bad in our life, righteousness or wickedness, blessing or cursing, it all happens in such a way that it works together for good to those who love God. It is important to notice that God must be sovereign and that his providence must be over all things in order for this to be true.
Secondly, we see that those who love God are, "them that are the called according to his purpose." So who loves God? It is them who are the called according to his purpose. The question arises, does the Bible ever use the words "call," "calling," and "called" in more than one way. That is, does the Bible ever use the words in a general sense (as in the general call of the gospel for all men everywhere to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ) and also in an effectual sense where the call must be heeded? Here we see that the called must be in the effectual sense because if all were called then all would love God. And then all things would work together for good for all people everywhere. But this is not what the verse is saying. It is saying that all things work together for good to those that love God, and that those that love God are the ones who are the called according to his purpose. This is an effectual calling.
Thirdly, the reason behind this calling is the purpose of God: "to them who are the called according to his purpose." In other words, the calling is based on something found in God, not in man and his purposes. This is very important if one is to understand the Doctrines of Grace. Whether God has revealed all of these purposes to us or not is another issue. Whether we can understand them or not is another issue. The fact is, that God works all things together for good to them who... are the called according to his purpose.
The Golden Chain of Redemption
Next, let's look at verses 29 & 30: "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." Notice that these are all things that God does. It does not speak of anything that man does. God is the one who does all of these things from beginning to end.
Now, the question people tend to ask at this point is, "But what about the first one: foreknow? Doesn't God look down through the corridors of time and foresee who will willingly choose to believe on Christ?" This raises the issue of the debate between Uncondtional Election and Conditional Election. In other words, did God elect people in order to believe, or did he elect people because of their believing? Is the condition for God's purposes according to election based on something in God or something in man? That is the issue of the debate between Unconditional Election and Conditional Election. The Arminian position would have God chronologically electing before man's believing because God chooses before the foundations of the world. But logically speaking, man believes before God elects, because God elects on the basis of foreseen faith. For the Calvinist positon of Unconditional Election, election is both chronologically and logically before faith. People come to Christ in faith because they were chosen by God.
So which is it? Is there any way to tell from this text whether God predestines on the basis of foreseen faith or on some other reason? First of all, notice the word "foreknow." What does it say God foreknows? It is the people God foreknows. It is not merely something about the people that God foreknows. It is the people themselves. "For whom he did foreknow..."
Secondly, what does it mean for God to foreknow someone? Well, what does it mean, in the Biblical sense of the word (as it is often used) to know someone. Genesis 4:1 reads, "And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD." In this first instance of the use of the word in the Bible it has to do with an intimate relationship. Adam did not know something about Eve, he knew her. Amos 3:1-2 states, "Hear this word that the LORD hath spoken against you, O children of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up from the land of Egypt, saying, You only have I known of all families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." Obviously, God knew all families and nations because He is creator of them all and knows all things. But He did not know all the families of the earth in the covenantal relationship He had with Israel. In the New Testament we see:
John 17:3, "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent."
Galatians 4:9, "But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?"
Matthew 7:23, "And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity."
In the first verse, we see that eternal life is knowing God and his Son Jesus Christ. In the second verse we see that in reality when we know God it is in fact God that knows us. In the third verse we see that those who don't know Jesus Christ were never known by the Son. In all of these cases, it has to do with an intimate relationship, not knowing something about the other person. This can be clearly seen in Matthew 7:23 because Jesus certainly knows things about people (cp. John 2:24,25) but he says he never knew these people. So to know someone is to love someone. The idea of Romans 8:29 is that God foreloved. This fits perfectly in the context (see Romans 8:31-39).
The third thing to notice is actually when we trail halfway down the golden chain: Foreknew [then] Predestined [then] Called [then] Justified [then] Glorified. Now we come back to the question as to whether or not to be "called" in this passage is efficacious. Do those who are called in this passage always become justified? The answer is yes. The text implies all who are called are justified. It does not say some who are called are justified, but simply says, "whom he called, them he also justified". In other words, if God has called you in the Romans 8:30 sense of the word, you are justified. In fact, this is what makes this chain unbreakable from start to finish because this can be applied to any link in the chain. All who were foreknown were predesinated. All who were predestined were called. All who were called were justified. All who were justified were glorified. Therefore, all whom God did foreknow... them he also glorified.
So besides the fact that this shows that the calling here is an effectual calling, why would that have any bearing on the first point of foreknowing? It is because this call is effectual that all the glory goes to God in the work of salvation. God did not foresee faith and elect on that basis. If he had, then the calling here could not be effectual. But we have seen already that it must be effectual for all who are called are justified. In other words, if God predestined people on the basis of foreseen faith, then there would be a general call which people could respond to and with their own free will accept or reject. Then, all that are called would not be justified for some would reject this call. But since this call is an effectual call that always results in justification, God has not placed the hinge of justification on man's free will decision and elected His people on that basis.
And so God gets all the glory. It is God who is sovereign. It is God who sovereignly works all things for good to them He called by His providence. It is God who foreknows. It is God who predestinates. It is God who calls. It is God who justifies. It is God who glorifies. The emphasis is on God and what he has done. Soli Deo Gloria! To God be the glory alone!
Q. Matthew 22:14 says, "For many are called, but few are chosen." Doesn't this prove that there is no such a thing as an effectual calling since not all who are called are chosen?
A. Words can have different meanings and applications in different passages. I am not saying that the words "call," "called," or "calling" are always used in the effectual sense. I think sometimes it is referring to an effectual calling, other times a general calling. To say that the word "call" has to mean the same thing in every case is like saying the word "saved" has to mean salvation from hell in 1 Timothy 2:15. It seems clear that the usage of the word in Romans 8:28-30 is in an effectual sense, however it is used in Matthew 22:14.
Q. Couldn't this just be referring to a group of people instead of individuals?
A. I think I have demonstrated from the text of Romans 8:28-30 that the calling is an effectual calling in this case. Changing the people from individuals into a group of people doesn't help this. If the call is a general call which goes out to everyone then everyone would be in that group of collective people who are justified. Because [all] who are called are justified. This would be universalism which I think we agree that Scripture does not teach. Also, the context uses plurals such as "them" (Romans 8:28), etc. Which are all plural. Specifically, verse 33, "Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth." The word "elect" in the Greek is eklekton (long o). This is in the plural. If this was a group of people, it would be in the singular. It is not. It is in the plural and is therefore many individuals.
Q. If predestination is true, then why would people want to live holy lives. If people are predestined to salvation, then wouldn't they just want to live licentiously since they are secure in either way?
A. It is interesting that Paul responded to a very similiar criticism in Romans 3:8 and 6:1 in regards to preaching the gospel of grace as opposed to works. In the text we have been considering, however, three things should be noted: First of all in verse 28 we see that those who are the called love God. Secondly, in verse 29 we see that God predestinated to be conformed into the image of His Son. This is significant considering that God foreknowing His people means that He sets His love upon them. God is bringing them into a relationship through His Son with the purpose of conforming them into the image of Christ. God is not just predestining some people to eternal life and letting them live however they want. He is sovereignly directing His love upon His elect people and graciously saving them according to His purpose and conforming them into the image of His Son. Thirdly, The Golden Chain of Redemption does not leave off with justification, but continues through to glorification. God finishes the work He begins in His people.
Q. Why is The Golden Chain of Redemption presented in the past tense?
A. Theologians have observed that since this is speaking about what God is doing the tense was being viewed from God's perspective. Therefore, it is so sure in the mind of God that it could be said that it has already been accomplished. Perhaps Paul is strengthening the fact that this is something that is so sure that he writes of it here in the past tense.
Q. What about the claim that God foreknows His people as believers and thus predestines believers to become conformed into the image of Christ and thus having nothing to do with initial salvation?
A. I have no problem with saying that true believers are predestined to be conformed into the image of Christ. This certainly fits the text. However, to shift the meaning of the text over to mean that God foreknows His people as believers in order to make election conditioned upon whether the person is foreseen to be in Christ or not, does not fix the issue of the called. If this calling is effectual as has been pointed out numerous times, then the foreknowing of God cannot be conditional upon the free will decision of the people to place themselves in Christ, but on the sovereign grace of the Lord to effectual draw His people to His Son.