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.
What do eternal security deniers make of Paul’s famous “golden chain of salvation,” as we sometimes lovingly call the truths in Romans 8:28-30?
They deny that the links of this chain are unbreakable.
The truth is that God orchestrates the whole of his providence in the lives of “them that love God” in order to their good (v.28)—he makes all that happens to them work to strengthen and build up their personal Christianity, so that they glorify him all the more.
And Paul explains, in brief, why this is so. It is because they are “the called [to a glorious future] according to [God’s] purpose,” namely his decree of redemption established in eternity past (compare Ephesians 1:4,5,11).
In the passage at the start of this chapter, notice the apostle’s repeated reference to this one particular group of people: “them…them…them…” Paul first refers to these people as “them that love God”; and then he describes them—all of them—in a number of different ways, each way affirming a different truth:
All of “them that love God” are “them who are the called according to [God’s] purpose.” And they alone are thus effectually called (i.e. their calling produces the intended result: their coming to Christ).
All these same people are “them” whom God especially “foreknew” (and God foreknew no-one else in this sense).
All these same people are “them” who are predestinated by God the Father to be conformed to the image of his only-begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ—who himself is the “image of the invisible God” (see Colossians 1:15; 3:10).1
- All these foreknown, predestinated, called and justified people are “them” who are eventually “glorified” by God.
Paul uses this word “glorified” in its past tense, because he is describing each of these things as having already happened, as it were, according to God’s eternal decree—although the glorification of the saints is a future event to them while they still live in this world.
Deniers of the doctrine of God’s preservation of his saints (also known as eternal security) assert that Paul’s “them” should be understood as an unfixed, indefinite, decreasing number of people. They say:
- Not all of those people who are called by God according to his purpose are (or become) “them that love God” in a continuing sense because some, they say, will cease to love God when they change their mind about him and thereby stop being Christians.
- Not all of those people who are justified will be glorified, because some of them will lose their salvation.
It is as though, they say, God wills to save all to whom the Gospel is preached, but his will is thwarted because so many reject the Gospel, and because many who accept it at first lose their faith later—slipping away through God’s fingers like sand.
This is clearly contrary to what Christ promises: “of all which he [God the Father] hath given me I should lose nothing” (John 6:39; see also 17:1-5,24).
Those Whom God Foreknew
Perhaps the most common objection to the Calvinistic (straightforward, logical) interpretation of this passage focuses upon Paul’s word “foreknow” in verse 29. What does this word actually mean?
Those who argue that Christians can lose their salvation insist that “foreknow” means nothing more than that God knows ahead of time what decision a person will make—whether to accept or reject Christ. They argue that God, in eternity past, looked into the future and saw who would exercise their free will in choosing Christ for salvation; and then God blessed those individuals in accordance with his promises for believers.
Many precious, godly Christians hold to this system of doctrine. Yet in this system, God’s predestination is taken to mean that he merely presciently confirms people’s choice to believe in Christ with his gracious power and promises—they are saying predestination is not the eternal sovereign choice of the exalted and great God who does whatsoever he pleases (compare Psalms 115:3; 135:6), and who works out all things according to his will (Ephesians 1:11).
Calvinists answer as follows: this word “foreknow” must mean more than merely “knowing what will happen before it happens,” because, of course, God knows all that will happen before it happens—his knowledge is total. But this Scripture inscribed by Paul is not about all people but about God foreknowing a particular group of people whom he calls “them” whom he predestinated to salvation. This “them” are thus being distinguished from all other people who are not included as among “them”.
The key to properly understanding the word “foreknow” lies in the Biblical usage of the word “know”, in both Old and New Testaments.2 Intended relationship is implied in this word. To “foreknow” is as much as to say, to “forelove”, because believers are foreknown in the special sense of being foreloved—loved before in Christ in the covenant of redemption—which was established before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4; see also 2 Timothy 1:9).
Some people think they know something about Calvinists which we don’t know about ourselves. They say, “Calvinists believe that the elect will be saved no matter what they do, and that the reprobate (non-elect) will be damned no matter what they do.”
There are a few variations on this basic argument, such as, “Calvinists believe the elect cannot lose their salvation no matter what they do.” Or, “Calvinists believe that the elect cannot lose their salvation even if they lose their faith.” Or, conversely, they say, “Calvinists believe the reprobate (non-elect) will never be saved, even if they believe the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and repent of their sins.”
This argument (and its variations) has been used against Calvinists for hundreds of years, even by some who are regarded as the most intelligent, Bible-believing Christians who were or are blessed by God in their ministry. But is this what Calvinists believe? No, we don’t believe this nonsense.
This argument implyies that Calvinists don’t believe in Calvinism!
This argument against Calvinism ignores the first point of Calvinism—the doctrine of total depravity.2 Fallen, spiritually dead men, if they are not elect and therefore will not be saved (and so will never have that regenerating work of God’s grace in their souls) will never truly believe the Gospel. They will never place their hope in the Lord Jesus Christ for their own salvation. And they will never truly repent of their sins before God.
There are no non-elect that come to believe the Gospel.
This argument also ignores the fourth and fifth points of Calvinism—the doctrines of irresistible grace3 and the perseverance of the saints4. These doctrines do not allow that true Christians will continue on a course that will end in eternal damnation in hell, or that they will actually lose their God-given faith or lose their God-wrought salvation.
Further, this argument implies that the doctrines of election and reprobation (and indeed the entire doctrine of the sovereignty of God) are inconsistent with—and contradicted by—the doctrine of man’s personal responsibility. But Calvinists do believe that all people are responsible for their actions, words and thoughts before God. Are there any Calvinists who deny that man is responsible for his sins? I strongly doubt it.
Man has not fallen into a state where he is no longer responsible for his sins. Indeed, we believe that God is the Judge of all the earth who shall do right (Genesis 18:25): of course God holds all people responsible for their sins. Our inability to cease from sinning when unbelievers is a moral inability which leaves us fully responsible to God as the great Judge, for we sin willingly.
Even if we do not understand how Divine sovereignty and human responsibility relate to each other without contradiction, we must admit that we see both these doctrines taught in the Bible and so we must believe in both these doctrines. And indeed, all Biblical doctrines should be preached with the greatest emphasis, without holding back anything.
The Good That God Works in Us
There is more that needs to be said.
They argue, “Calvinists believe that the elect will be saved no matter what they do.”
No, we don’t go there in our thinking. Actually, Calvinists believe the Bible’s doctrine that God chastises his adopted children in this life because of their sins (see John 15:1-2; Hebrews 12:5-11). God takes very seriously his Fatherly responsibility and the honour of his own name.
They argue, “Calvinists believe that the elect will be saved even if they lose their faith in Christ.”
No, we don’t allow that. We point out that the Lord Jesus Christ is our Saviour, and that it is not our faith (in and of itself) that saves us. True Christians can, sadly and to their shame, sin so much that their conscience is stirred up until they lose their assurance of salvation for a dark season—but without actually losing their salvation. Many Christians can tell you that this grievous lapse has happened to them in their past. But God always brings his children to repentance and to a stronger faith.
They argue, “Calvinists think that they are sure of being saved, and that they cannot lose their salvation no matter what they do!”
No, we don’t. This argument is silly nonsense not worthy of brothers in Christ. Where are the true Christians who think they have a licence to sin? They are such a rare species, that I doubt they ever existed.
Rather, we hold to the apostle Paul’s teaching:
God, in his governance of all things, works all things together for good in and around the lives of his adopted children—real born-again Christians, whom he has called to be his according to his eternal purpose (Romans 8:28).
God does this because he has predestinated them to be conformed to the image of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in righteousness and true holiness: this is the good that God works in us through his providential dealings with us and by his Holy Spirit, in this life (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 4:24).
Our entire salvation, from predestination in eternity past to glory throughout eternity future, is all the work of our Triune God alone. He effectually calls us to himself by his irresistible grace, justifies us freely by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, and matures us as Christians in this life and perfects us in the next (Romans 3:24; 8.30; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Hebrews 12:24).
To be continued.
- We must also remember, that all these same people are “them” who are “justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (see Romans 3:22-24).↩
- The Bible sometimes uses the word “knew” as an euphemism, referring to the marital relationship (e.g. Genesis 4:1; Luke 1:34). But here we are talking about Christ and his people, the Church in all ages. God chose to enter into a spiritual, covenantal relationship with his elect people in eternity past. See also, for example, Amos 3:2 and Acts 13:48.↩
- See Irresistible Grace.↩
- See Perseverance of the Saints.↩