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.
The Arminian objection against the doctrine of unconditional election, still commonly heard today, concedes that there is a doctrine of Divine election in the Bible. But it argues that it is a conditional election.
They say that before the beginning of time, God looked forward into the future and foresaw who would believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and who would not. And then, upon this condition (or basis) of the believers themselves choosing to believe, God therefore elected them to salvation.
The following illustration is sometimes used to assist people in understanding the idea of conditional election:
Imagine that you are on top of a tower in a city, and you looked down upon a busy road junction and observed two cars being driven toward each other. Based on their travelling directions and speeds you predict that they will certainly crash into each other.
You can’t do anything about it—you don’t do anything about it—all you do is “foresee” what would happen, from your vantage point.
Rejecters of God’s unconditional election say that the God’s election of particular people to salvation is similar to this kind of foreknowledge—as though God merely “elected” who would be saved based on the faith that he foresaw they would have.
God did, of course, know all that would happen in his creation even before he created all things. But the reason why God knew all that would happen is not merely through his foreseeing all things, but through his foreplanning and foreordaining all things.
And the only faith in Christ that God foresees in any people is the faith which God himself gives (Ephesians 2:8).
Whenever a person comes to believe in Christ, this happens because it is part of the “all things” that God “worketh…after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11).
The famous Bible passage concerning God’s foreknowledge and predestination is Romans 8:28-30.
The word that deniers of unconditional election point to is in verse 29: foreknow: “For whom he [God] did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.”
This, they contend, is nothing else but God’s foreknowledge of who would turn to him of their own free will (some say they are aided by God’s “co-operating grace,” but it is still essentially their own choice).
But these Bible verses don’t say that.
The apostle Paul here affirms that there are people whom God foreknew, whom he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.
Nothing is said here about God foreknowing that they would have faith. And it is not said or implied that God predestinated them on the basis of their faith (that he foresaw or foreknew would be in them).
No, but it is written that God would predestinate them on the basis of his foreknowing them. It is not their faith that God foreknew, but it is they themselves that God foreknew.
And it is clear from the text, that God foreknows some human beings in this way, and not others. There are “[them] whom God did foreknow”—and others whom God did not foreknow.
This foreknowing cannot be a bare “knowledge of things before they happen”, because in that sense God already knew all things that would happen. It must be a loving, relational foreknowledge of particular individual persons whom God had already chosen from eternity past: chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (see Acts 13:48; Romans 11:2; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:2).
Arminianism (“free-willism”, etc.) fails to adequately take note of the context and usage of the word “foreknew” in Scripture.
When Scripture uses the verb “know,” in both Old and New Testaments, the idea of a relationship is implied (see Genesis 4:1; Jeremiah 1:5; Amos 3:2; Matthew 7:23; 1 Corinthians 8:3; Galatians 4:9).
Predestinated to Be Conformed to the Image of the Son of God
Paul taught that all those whom God foreknew, or foreloved, he predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29).
And in order for these fallen, totally depraved sinners to become so conformed to the image of the Son of God, it was necessary for God to give all these foreknown people to his Son, and for his Son to save them from their sins.
As the Lord Jesus Christ himself proclaimed: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out… And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day (John 6:37,39).
Romans 9:11 speaks clearly of God’s election before works—before anyone can have done (or even thought) good or evil; and Romans 9:16 shows that no-one can deserve, earn or obtain by any human means what God sovereignly dispenses by sheer mercy.
As we pointed out earlier, the only faith in Christ that God foresees in people is faith which he himself gives to them (Ephesians 2:8). God did not give people this gift of faith as a reward for the faith that he foresaw they would have! And neither did God give them faith because he saw in them some worthiness to receive the gift of faith.
There was no worthiness.
Ephians 2:1-3 describes unworthy sinners as being under God’s just wrath, dead in sin. But God gives faith to some unworthy sinners (i.e. to his elect) and not to others because it was his loving good pleasure to do so.
These are those “whom God did foreknow”. These are those whom God “predestinated…according to the good pleasure of his will” (Ephesians 1:5). And this predestination was “for his great love wherewith he loved [them]” (Ephesians 2:4).
God’s election of his people to salvation is personal, individual and particular (i.e. certain specific people were in God’s mind)—and he elected them because of his foreknowing (foreloving) them.
According to the Lord Jesus Christ, his Father even has the names of those who shall be saved “written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). And God’s election distinguishes one person from another: not all, but “few are chosen” in any generation (Matthew 22:14).
This same truth was taught by the apostle Paul at length in his Epistle to the Romans 9. God had chosen certain particular sinners from among fallen mankind in order to show “the riches of his glory” in them by saving their souls (v.23).
Before the time of Christ’s coming into the world, God’s chosen people were mostly within one great extended family—the people of Israel. But notice that “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Romans 9:6)—that is, only those who were “Jews inwardly” were counted by God as the true Israel (compare Romans 2:17-29).
Did God Elect Christ but Not Christians?
There is a less common objection which says that God did not have certain particular human beings in mind when he established his plan of salvation in eternity past. These objectors say that God chose Christ as the means of salvation, but that he did not choose the particular people who will be saved by this means.
This is another denial of the doctrine of the spiritual death of mankind in the fall of Adam, which has rendered us totally unable of ourselves to choose to turn to God.
Fallen, sin-enslaved people do not will to turn to Christ.
“The carnal mind is enmity against God” (Romans 8:7). “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God… There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:11,18).
The objection that “God elected Christ to be the Saviour, but didn’t elect who would be saved”, overlooks the wonderful fact that God, who is rich in mercy, came to us before we began to turn to him—he came to us “even when we were dead in our sins”—in order to “quicken” us (Ephesians 2:4-6).1
Repenting of Error and Growing in Faith
Do all true Christians come to be persuaded of unconditional election? Sooner or later, yes—in their own particular case, at least.
Many of the Lord’s people resist this doctrine, and many have never been taught it in their church. They may remain convinced for many long years that they could, and did, turn to the Lord Jesus Christ by their own free will. This is commonly called the “decision for Christ”.
They have been taught to think that their decision for Christ is the deciding factor in their own salvation—the thing that actually saved them.
But if they are a true Christian there will also be, deep down in their hearts, a God-given humbleness that prevents them from really accepting the idea that their decision to turn to Christ was really their own.
They wonder how their faith could have originated within their own “desparately wicked” soul that never sought after God (see Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:11). And when they think about this, then the contradiction between their taught theology and their actual experience is exposed.
In their humblest, most honest moments of self-examination—especially then they are on their knees in prayer to God—they know that their own salvation is entirely the work of God.
We Owe Everything to God
Contrary to their Arminianism, “decisionism,” “free-willism” or whatever they call their system of thought here, they must admit that but for the grace of God they would not have chosen to believe and to follow Christ.
They have faith in the Lord and they dare not trust in their faith—they dare not place hope in what they think is “their contribution” or “their decision” in their salvation. Their hope will be brought ultimately to rest upon Christ alone—even despite the soteriological2 system that they have been taught.
Yes, they may be true Christians even while struggling with this matter. They may, on the surface of their thinking, be committed to resisting what is called “Calvinism”. But the more deeply they reflect upon their own case, the more they must admit that before they chose God he chose them—and that he must have chosen them in particular.
They may remain in this state of inconsistency for many years—even perhaps to the end of their earthly lives, outwardly-speaking. But in private, on their knees before God, they know that they owe everything to God, from beginning to end.
They are especially aware that they owe everything in their salvation to God. From beginning to end.
But are all Arminians (or free-willists, or whatever) saved? No.
And they will even admit this fact, in that they acknowledge that a number of people who were Arminians at one time are nowhere near the church now.
But those who are brought by God to be truly humble before him, and to prayerfully depend upon him for all things physical and spiritual—these people bear the marks of a true Christian.
Such Christians, although they may still consider themselves to be Arminians, pray like Calvinists, both for themselves and for those whose salvation they deeply desire.
Those who are saved are those who come to understand and believe that their salvation must be entirely the work of God: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9).
They will understand and believe that they were indeed completely “dead in trespasses and in sins,” but now they have been “quickened” (Ephesians 2:1). “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)” (Ephesians 2:4,5).
And it is in their quickened (i.e. regenerate) hearts that they will come to understand and believe all this.
Passing Though Arminianism
God brings many of his people out of the Arminian error, even as he does out of other false belief-systems.
When God draws the elect to himself, in some cases they start within, or pass through a church where they will be taught to deny the Biblical doctrines of providence and unconditional election.
But when they read the Bible for themselves, they encounter these doctrines there. And God may bring Calvinists into their lives, or perhaps a book by John Bunyan or some other Puritan, or by Jonathan Edwards or another Reformed teacher or preacher, historic or present-day.
However it happens in their particular case, they are eventually brought to understand these doctrines and they will struggle to accept them. But the Holy Spirit will cause them to question the entire soteriological system that their church is teaching them.
God will bring them to repent of those errors and he will bring them to a much higher view of himself—as the sovereign upholder and giver of life and breath and all things, who for his own pleasure and glory chooses and calls a people to himself from among fallen sinners of mankind.
Thus they will come to believe that the Triune God alone has saved them—and not anything they did or thought or believed or decided.
True Christians grow in their faith. By “their faith” here we mean their increasing understanding of, and belief in, the doctrines actually taught in the Bible.
It is sad that many of the Lord’s people struggle, perhaps all their lifetime with various Biblical doctrines. But all true Christians learn from God to increasingly repent of wrong beliefs and to embrace the truth (see Isaiah 54:13; Jeremiah 31:33,34; John 6:45; Hebrews 8:10,11).
All of this growth in faith and repentance of error is worked in Christians by the operation of the Holy Spirit.
They will be brought to realise that they have been believing lies, and they will turn from these lies and to embrace the truths that they formerly rejected and opposed.
They will come to hold these truths as exceedingly precious to them! Humbled, they will be amazed that they were so blind before, but now God has made them to see.
They will come to see—sooner or later—that it was God who chose them long before they were moved to seek him. Indeed, they were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).
It is true of them what Jesus himself said to his disciples while on earth: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16).
To be continued.