Romans 8:29 “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
We often have such a blinkered view of the Christian life, thinking of it in terms of how some years ago, say 2005, we were introduced to the gospel and received Jesus into our hearts and we are now in 2012 and we are going to go on with him into the unknown future. All that is perfectly true, but very limiting, and that is why these words are so expansive. We are being introduced here to a vast vista of the Christian life. Paul also looks back, but not only to the Damascus Road experience when he became a Christian but back and back to before time began, even before the foundation of the world. Then he tells the congregation in Rome, God loved him and God predestined him to salvation. And when he looks forward, it is not just to the next dates in his diary of visits to Rome or Spain. He is looking forward to heaven and to eternity when every one of the children of God is going to be conformed to the likeness of God’s son. Eternity past, and eternity to come, and, in the midst of it all, today, this brief span of our earthly lives. Our years are flying past as rapidly as a dream in a night. It reminds us again that the trials we pass through are not worthy of being compared to the glory that is to be revealed in us.
- GOD LOVED US BEFORE THERE WAS ANYTHING.
Paul speaks here of “those God foreknew” (v.29). I want to make this clear that this phrase means that it was his love that God set on his children before the foundation of the world. ‘Foreknow’ means ‘forelove.’ You understand that this passage isn’t saying that God foresaw that we would with our own free wills make a decision one day to choose him, and, therefore, because of that, God chose us. Now, of course, that thinking makes no sense whatsoever. That is post-knowledge not foreknowledge. But, even if it did . . . even it did . . . that can’t be what Paul is saying, because he doesn’t say, ‘for what he foreknew’ (about us making a decision to take him as God) but Paul says, ‘those whom God foreknew’ – people he before-knew.
The idea here is not simply God’s omniscience, God’s knowledge of everything. It is not a reference to God’s intellectual and propositional knowledge of what is going to happen in the future. In the Bible very often the whole idea of knowledge is much more affectionate than intellectual. For God to know means that God loves. For example you go to the words God speaks through the mouth of Amos the prophet and he says to the children of Israel, “You only have I known of all the nations of the earth.” Now that doesn’t mean God was aware only of Israel because God maintains the whole world. He knows sparrows and stars exhaustively. He certainly knew all about the Egyptians, and the Medes and the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans, but there was a knowledge of Israel which was intimate and caring. There was God’s love for his people, God’s choice of them and God’s concern for them.
In the same way Christ will say on the Day of Judgment to rebel unbelievers, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” Of course he knew all about them. That is why he can pass this judgment on them to depart from him because they’d refused to acknowledge him as God and live for his glory. “We will not have this God rule over us,” they’d said in their hearts, and he knew it. I can even appeal to the story of Adam and Eve where we are told that Adam knew his wife Eve. It wasn’t intellectual knowledge; it was very affectionate. Indeed it was a passionate knowledge, and a loving knowledge. So God’s knowing you means that God has been involved in a love relationship with you in particular – before you loved him – and this has set you apart from every other being in the world. We Christians say, “We love him because he first loved us.”
God knows his people like that, lovingly, affectionately, passionately. There are millions and millions of them, all of them once just like the rest of fallen man, worldly, anti-God, rebels, blasphemers, dead in their sins, without any spiritual life or longing, utter rubbish in God’s eyes, and yet he knew them. He loved those men and women who were by nature utterly unworthy of his love. Can I compare God’s love to a husband and wife who go to a large home where those with learning difficulties reside, and they choose six of them to live with them as their own children, to care for them and nourish and nurture them all. Who sniffily complains, “Tut, tut, they should have taken them all”? Rather we say what love to that group of needy men and women when they needn’t have taken a single one of them. They took half a dozen! Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us that we should be called the sons of God.
The message of Hosea is a prophet’s love for his unfaithful wife which mirrors God’s love for the faithless Baal-worshipping children of Israel. Jehovah can’t stop loving them. That is also the message of Ephesians 5 that Christ loves the church as a man loves his wife. A husband should nourish and cherish his wife just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up to die for her. In other words, we must read into the whole idea of God knowing his people all that commitment and all that jealousy of a man’s love for his bride. A man loves his spouse, and God is in love with his people; God goes to Calvary for his people; God gives himself for his people. It is a love that is prodigal. It is a love that is emotional. It is a love that is passionate. It is a love that gives his own Son and spares him not. It is God’s desperate involvement with his own people, and it is out of that that our salvation comes. God loved us ‘before.’ Before he said, “Let there be light and there was light.” Before the angels existed; before you were born; before you began to know God; before you started to love God he before-knew and before-loved you.
- GOD DESTINED US FOR SALVATION.
“For those God foreknew he also predestined” (v.29). He pre-knew them and he pre-destined them. He foreknew them and he fore-destined them. There is an election and four candidates are standing for the position of Member of Parliament for our county. One is chosen and the others are passed by. So there was a choice that God made, like David choosing five smooth stones out of the brook and passing by others. There was a process of selection in which some stones were passed by and others were destined to be taken u
p by David and put in his pouch to be used in his battle with Goliath.
That is the very simple concept that lies behind the whole biblical doctrine on this subject. Predestination is, in its very essence, God’s selection, and it is always a selection out of a certain constituency, and out of a certain proportion. It always means the non-selection of others. We find the same thing in the challenge uttered by Joshua to the Old Testament church when he says to them, “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.” You are confronted, Joshua says, with a whole multiplicity of gods, a tremendous variety of claimants to religious devotion and service. He says to them plainly that they must determine this day whom they are going to serve. Make your own selection, and in that selection of one god there will be the non-selection of all the other gods. You have the same basic idea of a selection involving a non-selection. Paul tells us that there were “those God foreknew [whom] he also predestined . . .”
But why did God predestine them? You get the glorious answer, because he loved them. Because he was in love with them so he predestined them. The logic of the whole foundation of God’s predestination is God’s love, and we can go back beyond God’s predestination to God’s love. Then we can also ask, “Why did God know them and love them?” And to that there is no answer. I can get back behind predestination to God’s love, but I can’t get behind the love to anything. The love is the ultimate reality. The love is the rock of ages. The love is the foundation. The love is the great source of all of God’s redemption. The river of the waters of life flows out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. It all comes out of God’s sovereign love. I don’t have the least answer to the question, “Why did God love?” I cannot get beyond the love to something more rational, more explanatory, more logical. The love is the headwater; the love is the source; the love is the ultimate reality of God. God is love, and beyond that I cannot go.
The Lord has loved his own people, and I stand before the magnificent fact that God has never been, without knowing his people. It is an eternal love. I cannot conceive of God as not existing. I cannot conceive of God as not being eternal. I cannot think of God as not being triune. I cannot think of God as not being in love with his people. It’s a marvelous thing. It never ‘became’ with God. It never arose in God. It did not suddenly emerge in God. It is part of the reality of God. I cannot deny that it is voluntary in God, that it is discretionary in God, that it is gracious in God, that it is an act of his will, but it is still eternal. It is the only way that God has ever been. He has always known his own people. He has always loved his bride, the church. He has always been completely passionate for the salvation of his people. And it is in that fact that our predestination is rooted. He chose us and he selected us because he loved us with an eternal love before the foundation of the world.
God has predestined us to be sprinkled with the blood of Christ. You see that his predestination was not simply purposing that we would have a lot of privileges. The Christians in the congregation in Rome to whom Paul was writing this letter were not simply predestined to hear the gospel; they were not simply predestined to receive the benefits of common grace – intelligence, creative skills, a powerful conscience and a taste for religion. They weren’t simply predestined to have some evangelist plead with them to come to Christ. They were in fact predestined to have the blood of Christ sprinkled on them and be saved from their sin and guilt. Listen to the words of another apostle, the apostle Peter, his opening words in his first letter. He says that those Christians to whom he was writing, “have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood” (I Pet. 1:2). They had indeed been predestined to hear God’s gospel, and to have Christ offered to them, and to have men plead with them to turn and believe, but, more than that, to be actually sprinkled with the blood of Christ. In other words they were predestined to have the work of Christ and all the benefits of the Saviour actually applied to them in their own personal experience.
You remember the Old Testament incident in which Moses at the directive of God established a covenant between Jehovah and Israel (Exodus 34). Moses was told explicitly that he must take the blood that had been shed and he must sprinkle that blood half on the altar and half on the people. It was by that symbolic act that they became the covenant people of God. And when Peter says that we have been predestined to be sprinkled with the blood it was certainly the blood of the Lamb of God, but that blood is the blood of the new covenant that is shed for many for the remission of sins. They were predestined to be brought experientially and practically into covenant with Almighty God.
In other words, if today the blood of Christ, the blood of forgiveness has been applied to our souls then we owe that to God loving us before the foundation of the world and God predestining us. If today we are members of God’s covenant community then we owe that to divine predestination. If we are members of Zion’s city then that is a matter of sheer vertical sovereign love. Our participation in every spiritual blessing is a matter of the predestination of God because the blood is the symbol of every covenant blessing. The blood secures our forgiveness; it secures our adoption; it secures our assurance of God’s love; it secures peace of conscience; it symbolizes our immortality; it symbolizes our glorification; it symbolizes every single benefit of God’s covenant of grace. Predestination is concerned with the destination of a specific people determined by God. Their destination, God decides, is Golgotha and the cross of Christ to be sprinkled with his blood. Their destination is the empty tomb to be raised up into newness of life with Christ. Their destination is the throne of God in glory there to be seated with Christ in the heavenlies. Their destination is to be conformed to the likeness of God’s Son. Predestination is specifically a saving act of God. We are predestined to salvation; we are predestined to redemption; we are predestined to adoption; we are predestined to union with Christ; we are predestined to be baptized with the Holy Spirit of God. We have been predestined to be Abraham’s seed. We have been predestined by God to be heirs of Abraham’s promise, and that promise, says Paul in Galatians 3, is “that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
In other words, our being predestined covers the whole spectrum of our redemptive privilege. If we are born again then that is because of predestination. If we are converted that is because of predestination. If we are forgiven it’s because of predestination. If we are God’s sons then that’s because of predestination. If we are kept by God’s power then it’s because of predestination. If we are glorified it’s because of predestination. If one day we shall see Christ as he is then it’s because of predestination. If God will wipe away ev
ery tear from our eyes it is because of predestination. If we are to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, then we are specifically told in our text that it is because God predestined us.
Here’s Paul’s word to you. You’re in the midst of nasty stuff, and you can’t see a way out. How can things work out? You’re thinking, “This time I’m done for. This time I don’t see how I can make it through. This time I’m in the dark as to how the pieces are ever going to fit together.” And here’s Paul, and he comes in, and he says, “God set his love on you before the foundation of the world, and he foreknew you, he predestined you, he chose you. He made up his mind about you, and his purposes are not able to be overthrown. You are going to be conformed to the likeness of God’s son. You are! God’s purposes are invincible. There is nothing, there’s no combination of circumstances, there’s no opponent in the world that can overthrow those purposes.” What wonderful teaching, the reformed doctrine of predestination.
But a common logical objection to the doctrine of predestination is raised and it is this; “If what you have been saying about predestination is true then surely men can live any way they please.” Time and again people will say to us, “Surely this insistent emphasis upon God loving us before we were born or had done any good or evil, this emphasis on God choosing our destiny to go to heaven, surely it is a dangerous doctrine. If people have this assurance that it is all a matter of predestination that that will prejudice any walk with God. It will compromise the whole tone and tenor of their discipleship. “Surely,” they say, “that doctrine is prejudicial to the interests of holiness.”
Now if that is ever put to me I reply, “I have no logical answer to that objection. I cannot answer it logically. I can in fact see only a few logical answers to the plea that it can be inferred from the reformed doctrine of predestination that we can go on sinning because that gives God’s grace plenty of scope. It magnifies God’s grace to save a terrible sinning rebel. I have no logical answer to that inference, but I would claim that I have an answer that is greater than a logical answer. I have a great practical answer. I have an answer that says that the very purpose of predestination is to change a man into the likeness of Christ. I am saying that if a man is loved and predestined then the very meaning of that predestination is that God is determined to make him holy.
Now that man cannot say to himself, “God has predestined me therefore I don’t need to be Christ-like,” because if I’m predestined I can’t avoid being Christ-like, because if I was chosen before the foundation of the world I can’t dodge being Christ-like. The very concern of predestination is that men are borne along on the invincible wave of the grace of God that is carrying them along to the point where at last they are characterized in intellect, emotion, commitment and aspiration in total conformity to the image of the Son of God. Those predestined by God cannot go on living in sin, under sin’s dominion. Those predestined by God cannot live lives of antagonism against God. Those predestined by God cannot live in defiance towards the will of their Saviour, because being the object of predestinating grace means that God has taken steps to make it impossible to live like that. He has set up the whole machinery of effectual redemption to the end that he will conform every one whom he has fore-known to the likeness of his Son. God is determined to make us holy – that is the goal of predestination and God has committed all the glory of his own resources, and he has dedicated his omnipotence to making us absolutely Christ-like. He has destined us to absolute holiness before the foundation of the world. He has before decreed that we shall be as holy as Christ.
I would put it to you that it is in many ways a marvelous privilege, this tremendous position given to us in the New Testament, whereby the reality is that just as God predestined the cross of Calvary and the resurrection, so he has predestined our holiness, my holiness and your holiness. Paul speaks of ‘good works’ elsewhere and he says of them that God has foreordained that we should walk in them. It is indeed a marvelous attitude to life today, that as we walk along this road, the journey of this life, and as we go our own way, then we expect to meet here and there those good works which God has predestined for us. It means that as we get up each morning of every single day that we say to ourselves, “I wonder what good works God has prepared for us this day?” If I may be so bold as to use language for which I am surely given every ratification in the New Testament, there is each day something beautiful I can do for God – something beautiful for him – good works which he has predestined for me to do. Just as Christ was predestined to bear the sins of the world and rise from the dead and ascend to heaven with authority in heaven and earth and from there build his church, so we have been predestined to be Christ-like. And it is to that Calvary commitment, not to our own logical powers, that our own defence against antinomianism and against unholy actions lies. It is the very meaning of the atonement itself. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephs. 5:25-27).
Let me add this, that there is not the least connection between this doctrine of predestination and the idea that only a tiny proportion of people will be saved. You know that this is something that troubles people greatly. They read the Bible and they meet the word ‘predestination’ four times and the word ‘election’ fourteen times and they hurry over these God words, because they think such words mean an inevitable contraction of the number that’s going to be saved, as if predestination meant at last God would only have a tiny minority, a small proportion of mankind. I see no reason whatever in Scripture to believe that only a tiny number are going to be saved. Abraham is promised that his seed shall be vast like the sands on the seashore and the stars in the heavens. The great vision John has in the book of Revelation of the numbers in heaven is that they are a multitude that no man can number. We should have that view of God predestining numerous millions upon millions to become glorified in heaven. Even arithmetically where sin has abounded grace will much more abound.
This is a wonderfully encouraging doctrine for evangelism. God gives Paul the singular task of being the first preacher to bring the gospel to the million strong city of Corinth in Greece. It was a seaport of sailors, travelers, temples and priestesses. And if Paul had been apprehensive the day before he began his mission and entered the town then God spoke to him that night, and this is what he said to him; “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no-one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9&10). Paul is told to keep o
n speaking, in the synagogues, in hired halls, in town squares, privately to individuals. Don’t stop speaking about Jesus Christ and all he is and all he has done. Do not be silent. That was his task. God then said that his task was not to leave Paul, but be right by him to protect him. No one was going to attack and harm him. There was no need for Paul to be afraid of this in Corinth. His safety in this city was guaranteed by God. Then God spoke of his eternal predestinating love, that he had foreordained many people in Corinth to become his own chosen redeemed people. “I have them,” said God to him. “I have them in the grip of my eternal love. I have them in my eternal foreordaining grace. I have them, and you will find them as you go on doing what I tell you to do, “keep on speaking, do not be silent” because that is the way you are going to find them. They are the ones who will respond to your message. And never forget that I am with you always. What wonderful encouragement, when we are so few, when our hearts don’t feel love for the people to whom we are speaking, God loves his people and he has chosen them, and he has made up his mind that they will listen to what you have to say and believe your words. What encouragement to evangelism this is, that success does not depend on us but on the eternal predestinating love of God.
3. GOD BEFORE DESTINED US FOR LIKENESS TO HIS SON.
Paul shows us the great design of God’s predestinating grace; “He also predestined [us] to become conformed to the likeness of his Son.” Now we know that this does not mean that we are going to become divine. We are never going to become gods. We are never going to become omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. Never, ever! The Creator-creature distinction will always remain intact without any blurring by God or man. Paul is talking here about moral and ethical likeness to Christ, being totally free from sin, loving God with all our hearts, loving our neighbours as ourselves, full of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control. We shall be always presenting our glorified bodies to God as our reasonable service. Everything we do shall be done to the glory of God. We shall be as holy as Jesus Christ. The work of sanctification which has had a beginning in our lives will be completed and perfected, and we will be glorified. We will love the things that the Lord Jesus loves, and hate the things the Lord Jesus hates, and live like him, and think and imagine like him, and care like him. That is what God has determined to do for us all. God loves his Son so much he has foreordained that the redeemed heavens and earth – the new creation – shall be full of men and women, millions upon millions of them, who are all going to be filled with the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
That is part of the exaltation of Christ. Paul’s mind turns to the resurrected Christ, the ascended Lord, who is now sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. He rules the universe. He will first return to this world, the scene of his conquest of sin and the devil on Golgotha, and when he does he will come on the clouds of glory surrounded by hosts of angels. The whole world will bow and worship him, and the apostle Paul is telling this congregation in Rome to consider who the Lord Jesus Christ is, that glorious image of the Son of God. When John saw him on the prison isle of Patmos he was overwhelmed with the spectacle with Christ’s voice like the sound of many waters and John fell at his feet as one dead. That likeness is the end of our journey; think of that! God is going to grant that you will reflect his likeness. You’re going to be a partaker of his glory.
The prophet Isaiah gave an illustration to his hearers of the glory that one day God would give them when they were restored from their long exile in Babylon; their captivity would be over. The people who had abused them and held them hostage would be silent, and Babylon’s soldiers would have to carry their children on their backs. There would be great joy and acclamation as they come back into the land. That is the picture of the end of captivity, but the apostle Paul tell these oppressed Christians in Rome under Nero’s fearful reign, “Let me tell you something better than that. Let me tell you something more magnificent. You are going to share in the glory of the ascended, the resurrected, the reigning Lord Jesus Christ.” But he’s not done there.
He goes on to say that then the Lord Christ would be supreme, that he would be the firstborn among many brethren. So our transformation into his likeness will not pull him down and make him indistinguishable from million of people like him. Our glorification won’t diminish the exaltation of Christ; it enhances it and magnifies it. In other words, as we are glorified, and as we share in the glory of our older brother (our ‘older brother,’ isn’t it glorious to be able to refer to the Lord Jesus Christ that way?) his glory will not shrink. In fact, it will be more magnificently manifested because he is the only reason why we are all there in that glory. He alone has been the way. There’s been no other way of anyone else to enter that glory. Consider the holiest men and women you have ever known. There will not be one of them who will think they had anything to do with the extraordinary change that will take place in their lives, that they who died skeletal, weak, yellow, in great pain and not at all like the Son of God, are now transfigured, They are people before whom angels bow. I’m going to know, and you’re going to know, and God our Lord is going to know that the reason that we are there and have been changed is only because of what the first-born Jesus has done.
So our participation in that glory itself is going to display more clearly the fact that Jesus is the firstborn among many brethren. He is the first fruits of the resurrection. He’s the first fruits of the ascension, and we reflect his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. The dust of the earth is going to sit on the throne of heaven. In our flesh . . . in our flesh we shall see God. And that will only enhance the glory of the embodied Son of God. And the apostle Paul saying that that is what God has destined before the foundation of the world for you, when he first knew and loved you. “I will do this for them,” he determined. That was God’s purpose for you. That’s the purpose that Father, Son and Holy Spirit had set out for you. And no event of your life can interfere with that purpose, just as every event of Jesus’ life, every part of his humiliation contributed to his exaltation now. I don’t understand exactly how, but it’s so helpful to know that the manifold experiences of your life, many of which we don’t understand, will one day be understood. Now I see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known. We don’t understand them now, we may not understand them in five years, we may not understand them in twenty-five years, we may never understand them in this life. And though they will be much clearer in heaven we may not understand all about them there, but that will be no frustration to us because of that. We will be as contented as Jesus was with what he didn’t know just as much as with what he did know. God has the right to his sec
ret things; they belong to him.
15th July 2012 GEOFF THOMAS