Known and Foreknown

Romans 8:29–30

29 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. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Amos 3:1–2

1 Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt:

2 “You only have I known
of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you
for all your iniquities.

Upon what basis does God predestine people to salvation? That the Lord predestines is beyond dispute, as the word clearly declares this time and time again. But how does he do so?

In this discussion, we have two key options. Either the Lord predestines people based on his own sovereign will, a divine mystery not available to us, or he predestines based on his foreknowledge of our actions. The Calvinist will argue that God predestines people to salvation based on his own good pleasure. The Arminian argues that God only predestines based on his foresight of who will and who will not choose him. For the Calvinist, the argument relies primarily on the biblical truth that no person can come to the Lord without the Lord sovereignly drawing that person (cf. John 6:44), bringing a dead heart to life (cf. Eph. 2:1-4). The Arminian, opposed to the concept of divine election based on God and not man, inserts the concept of prevenient grace—an argument that god has graciously moved all humanity to a neutral position so that the final decision is still left in the hands of mankind.

One common Arminian argument for a foreknowledge or prescience view of predestination comes from Romans 8:29, which says that those God “foreknew” he predestined. Some believe that this verse is suggesting that God predestined to salvation all those he foreknew—knew beforehand—that they would respond to the offer of grace in Christ. But is this what is being said? Is this the only option?

Without settling the full argument in a tiny little post, I want to point out one verse from my daily Bible reading that shows that the concept of God’s knowledge of a people is something different than simply God having intellectual awareness. In Amos 3:2, God is speaking of the nation of Israel. God says of Israel that they are the only people he has “known” of all the families on earth. I believe this concept bears strongly on whether or not the foreknowledge of Romans 8:29 has anything to do with an Arminian understanding of predestination.

What can the word “known” mean in Amos 3:2? Can it mean intellectual awareness? No. Why? God knows all things. God has intellectual awareness of all peoples. No way can God say that Israel is the only nation of which he has had intellectual awareness.

How is Israel different than the other nations? Israel is a nation that has entered into covenant relationship with the Lord. They are set apart, not because of intellectual awareness, but because of intimate, relationship-based knowing. Remember that the word for knowledge is used euphemistically for the intimate relationship of husband and wife, and you will get the point. God is saying of Israel in Amos 3:2 that Israel is the only nation that he has known, the only nation that he has taken to himself as his own.

Now return to Romans 8:29. Those whom God foreknew, he predestined. In verse 30, we see that all he predestined, he subsequently called, justified, and glorified. Thus, all the predestined are saved. Nothing breaks this chain. And we must conclude that all the foreknown are saved.

Are all human beings saved? No. only those who are predestined are saved. Are all foreknown? It depends on what foreknown means. If foreknown means intellectual awareness, then all are foreknown and should be predestined to salvation. If foreknown means intellectual awareness, then the chain is broken. And note that no language in any part of this verse says anything about foreknowledge of particular actions or choices. That concept is inserted by the Arminian.

But if the “known” in foreknown means the same as known means in Amos 3:2, that God took them to be his own, then the chain makes perfect sense. Beforehand, God chose a people to be in relationship with him. Those he foreknew, took to be in relationship with himself, he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. Then he called them, justified them, and glorified them without any possibility of failure.

Appointed to Eternal Life

When we speak of salvation, we need to be careful to speak with the Bible’s own language. After all, the Scriptures are inspired by God and perfect in every way. Our own surmises, not so much.

In Acts 13, Paul has preached the gospel in Antioch to a group of gentiles who are saved. But look at the biblical language for that salvation.

Acts 13:48 – And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.

Note the ordering, as it has important ramifications for our understanding of God’s sovereignty in our salvation. The text could just as easily have said that, as many as believed were appointed to eternal life. But this is not the text. The word of God says that those who had been appointed to eternal life believed.

IF your understanding of how a person is saved is based primarily on the individual person, this text will rub up against it in an uncomfortable way. But, if you grasp that God and his divine will is at the center of how people are saved, the text will make sense to you. Is the appointing of a person to eternal life based on their faith, or is the faith of a person a result of their having been appointed by God to eternal life?

Let’s look at a couple of other places where Scripture speaks in a similar way just to see that this is not some sort of anomaly in Acts that is merely confusing in its wording.

John 8:47 – Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

Notice why Jesus said the people do not believe? They do not believe because they are not of God. The Savior does not say that they do not belong to God because they do not believe. Instead, he says they do not believe because they do not belong to God.

John 10:26 – but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.

In John 10, when Jesus speaks of the people as sheep and him as the good shepherd, he points out that the religious teachers around him do not believe because they are not his sheep. HE does not say that they are not his sheep because of their lack of faith. Their lack of faith is the result of not being his sheep.

What do we see then? In Acts, the appointed believe. IN John, the ones who do not believe do not believe because they do not belong to God. The language of Scripture shows us the sovereign will of God is the determining factor that brings anyone to salvation. A person believes if they are appointed to do so by God. A person who does not believe does not believe because of his own sin. The unbeliever shows that he was not appointed by God for salvation, but God has allowed him to continue in accord with his desires.

What do you take from this? Christian, if you believe, know that this is a gift given to you by God. Give God all the glory for your salvation. Your faith is a result of God’s sovereign work. God did not choose to save you after you showed him you would believe.

But, Christian, if this makes you uncomfortable, remember that no person is forced to sin by God. Neither does God force these folks away from him. God commands all people to repent (Acts 17:30). People do not repent because they do not want to. God is not in any way treating the unrepentant in an unjust way. If God owes us anything, he owes us his judgment for our rebellion against him.

All human beings are naturally opposed to God in our sinfulness. There are some that God has chosen, out of a desire to show his love and grace, and he has appointed them to eternal life. It is those he gives the gift of saving faith. Thus, if you are saved, it is a result of God’s sovereign election, a depiction of God’s great mercy and kindness, and a gift that you did nothing at all to earn. Give God praise and thanks, as this is truly grace upon grace.

A Quick Thought on God Knowing You

One common interpretive tool to attempt to make sense of the predestining grace of God is a heavy reliance on the concept of foreknowledge. Those who would argue that God responds to the future choices of his free creatures in order to determine his decree of predestination have to argue that God, with divine foreknowledge, looks down the corridor of time and sees who will and who will not choose him.

A reformed response to this kind of thinking is to point out that God’s word regularly uses the idea of God knowing someone with a different semantic meaning than simple information. When the Lord knows a person or a nation, the Lord is expressing that he has a particular favor on them. After all, the Lord knows, intellectually, all that there is to know. But for God to know you is for him to have a particularly loving relationship with you.

Consider the words of God at the beginning of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 1:4-5

4 Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

What is God declaring to Jeremiah? Why is it such a significant turn of phrase? God says that he knew Jeremiah even before Jeremiah was formed in the womb. If this is merely God saying that he had knowledge of Jeremiah’s existence or even Jeremiah’s future choices, that is both amazing and ordinary. It is amazing, as we know our God knows all things. But it is ordinary in that this phrase would mean nothing more to Jeremiah than the expression of the fact that God has intellectual awareness of Jeremiah in just the same way that God has intellectual awareness of all human beings.

But look at the parallel. To know Jeremiah was for God to consecrate him. For God to consecrate Jeremiah was to set him apart as a prophet. The knowledge is put in a parallel position to the consecration in the poetic lines. This is not God saying that he understood what kind of guy Jeremiah would be and so he chose to use him. No, it is God saying that, before Jeremiah was ever formed, God had already set upon Jeremiah his consecration, his sacred calling. God knew Jeremiah in a special way, not in the same, ordinary way that God has knowledge of all humanity. God chose Jeremiah before he was born so that Jeremiah would be set apart and fulfill a glorious divine purpose.

An Anticipated Argument Pointing to Predestination

Romans 9 is one of those chapters of the Bible that carries with it a ton of theological weight. This is true especially regarding the doctrine of election. In the middle of his conversation about the people of Israel and how some are saved while many rejected the Messiah, Paul begins to talk about the sovereignty of God in some fairly radical terms.

Paul talks in Romans 9 about God choosing Jacob and rejecting Esau, even before either had been born. The point was that God made his choice of which twin would carry the line of blessing and promise, and that choice is not based on the relative goodness or badness of either boy. God picked Jacob. God let Esau go his own way.

Then Paul talked in even stronger terms about Pharaoh in the Exodus. Pharaoh’s heart was against God. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as well. A look back at chapter 1 of this book would remind us that God has, in times of judgment, handed people over to their own desires and allowed them to become as evil as they wanted to. This is a great example of what hardness would look like.

As the argument builds, it looks more and more like what Paul is saying is that God elects some to follow him, predestining them to salvation. It also looks like God hardens some, leaving them to their own sinful ways that will turn them more and more against him. It looks like Paul is telling us that all who are saved are saved because God chose to save them and acted on their hearts. It looks like those who are not saved are not saved because they opposed God and God left them to themselves. It looks, well, Calvinistic.

What is most convincing to me that Paul is teaching the doctrine of election here the way that reformed believers claim is what comes next. Paul anticipates the objection to what he has just written. This is something that Paul has done a couple of times already in Romans. Paul will write for a bit, and then he will show you what those who oppose biblical teaching will claim.

So, watch the objection Paul anticipates. Ask yourself if Paul’s anticipated objection and his response to that objection tells you that Paul is turning away from a doctrine of sovereign election or if he is in fact telling us, “Yes, that is what I’m saying.”

Romans 9:19-24 – 19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Look at the objection Paul anticipated. People will ask how sovereign grace can possibly be fair. After all, nobody can overpower God. Nobody can resist God’s will. So how can it be right for God to judge people for rejecting him if he never elected them to eternal life?

Paul anticipates that objection. And if Paul was not teaching sovereign election, Paul would have said, “No, you misunderstand me.” But Paul does not say this. Instead, Paul responds with a reminder that we, as sinful creatures, have no right to question the way of salvation and sovereignty of the Lord. We are clay, and the potter who shapes the clay is the one who has the final say so as to what the clay will be. The potter does not exist for the clay, but the clay exists for the potter. And if there is any question as to who must be more free, the potter must be more free than the clay that the potter is using to shape things for the potter’s glory.

My point is not to remove all discomfort from this passage. Nor is my point to unpack its implications. But, I believe that it is important that we see that the anticipated objection that Paul speaks in verse 19 is a proof that what he was saying in the prior verses is exactly what it looks like; it is the doctrine of sovereign election. And we need to see that Paul’s response to the objection does not turn away from sovereignty to emphasize human autonomousfree-will. Instead, Paul doubles down on the fact that the freedom of God is ultimate.

If you want to put all this together, there are two truths you have to hold. If any person is saved, they are saved because God elected them, converted them, and saved them. If any person is lost, they are lost because they, in their sin, have never wanted to love and follow God. For the saved, God moves to overcome their natural rebellion against him, changing their desires so they come to him. For the lost, God allows them uninterrupted freedom, and they will always use that freedom to choose against God. In no case does God do anything here to treat any human being unjustly. In every case, every human life will glorify the Lord by either demonstrating his sovereign mercy or his perfect justice.