God’s Sure Purpose – Romans 8:29-30
In verse 28, the apostle throws suffering saints a lifeline – that all things are working for the good of those who love God. However, he not only describes believers in terms of their commitment to God (their love to him) but also in terms of God’s commitment to them (his calling and purpose). I think the apostle knows that believers who are in the thick of spiritual battle will be the most aware of their own fickleness, and to make this promise hang solely on their own resources would be to empty the promise of any real hope and joy. But Paul does not make the promise to depend either solely or ultimately upon the believer. For underneath our faith is the calling of God (cf. 2 Thess. 2:13-14) and underneath the calling of God is his eternal and unchangeable purpose. What Moses sang to Israel is true of those who are sons and daughters of Abraham by faith: “There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty. The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:26-27).
To make this promise depend only on the love the believer has for God is like living in a building without a foundation which goes down deep into the earth and which depends only upon its own weight to secure it to the ground. Such a building may last for a long time, but when the tornadic winds of suffering and tragedy strike, it will easily blow away. Believe me, because I’ve seen it happen. My dad’s first workshop was like that – one of those large portable buildings. It was good enough, I suppose, but when it came face to face with a tornado, the winds just picked the building up and scattered it all over the place. We were all terrified and ran for the nearest hallway. My dad just stood there watching and lamenting, “There goes my shop.” The fact of the matter is that we all need something stronger than our own will-power and faith and love. We need the everlasting arms of God beneath. And this is exactly what the apostle offers us in our text.
This is not a text to wrap around the head of the closest Arminian. That was not Paul’s intention in writing this, obviously, since Arminius wouldn’t come around for another sixteen hundred years. Though I’m not saying that it can’t be useful in establishing correct doctrine over against false doctrine, we will go wrong if we only approach the Scriptures with the mindset of a theological bulldog, always looking for the nearest heretic’s leg to chew off. This is not meant primarily for the sake of argumentation, it is meant to encourage you in the face of suffering and hardness, and to give you the spiritual grit and determination and courage to face the winds of opposition without becoming bitter or despairing so that we give up.
If you want to be strong in the midst of battle you need to have a vision of God’s sovereign grace, the kind that is underlined in Romans 8:28-30. Believing that your salvation ultimately depends on God, not yourself, is not a theology that tends towards spiritual slackness; on the contrary, it gives to those who truly believe it uncommon courage. Which is what I think the apostle wants this truth to do for you.
Let me give you an example of this. Say what you want about John Calvin, he understood this truth better than most. And those in his day who embraced his vision of God’s sovereignty didn’t, as is so often falsely alleged, use this doctrine as an excuse for sin and slothfulness. Rather, it gave them the faith to face the most fierce and dangerous persecution. The following is an excerpt from a history of the Reformation, and in particular as it unfolded in France. As background, you need to know that most of the preachers who embraced the Reformed faith in France had been trained in Geneva by Calvin and then took their faith back to France, where many of them faced the most determined opposition. But here is how they met it: “Many expired in ecstasy, insensible to the refined cruelties of the savages who invented tortures to prolong their agony. More than one judge died of consternation or remorse. Others embraced the faith of those whom they sent to the scaffold. The executioner at Dijon was converted at the foot of the pyre. All the great phenomena, in the most vast proportions, of the first days of Christianity, were seen to reappear. Most of the victims died with the eye turned towards that New Jerusalem, that holy city of the Alps, were some had been to seek, whence others had received the Word of God. Not a preacher, not a missionary was condemned who did not salute Calvin from afar, thanking him for having prepared him for so beautiful an end.” How did Calvin prepare them for that? By teaching them the theology that comes to the fore in verses like the ones before us. May the truths contained in these verses infuse us with the same kind of courage and conviction!
What we see in the verses before us is the unpacking of the purpose of God in our salvation, and then secondly, the inevitability of the fulfillment of God’s purpose. Or, to put it another way, we have what is the content of God’s purpose and why we can have confidence in it, that God’s purpose is good and that it is certain. God’s purposes are not like man’s purposes. We can have complete and full confidence that it will come to pass: “The LORD of hosts has sworn: ‘As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand” (Isa. 14:24). The bedrock beneath the promise of verse 28 is more lasting and firm than the Rock of Gibraltar.
God’s Good Purpose: to conform you to God’s Son.
Paul writes, “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” (29). It is important to ground our knowledge of verse 28 in terms of verse 29, because it helps us to understand what it meant by all things working for our good. All things work for our good in the sense that the work to make us more and more like Jesus. As the apostle puts it to the Corinthians, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). In fact, this is why the spiritual gifts are given, so that we might be more like Christ: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . . speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13, 15). And this is how the apostle John describes the eternal blessedness of the saint: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2).
This is the best of news, because the Son of God enjoys perfect communion with the Father which is the fountain of all true and lasting blessedness and joy, and conformity to Christ must therefore inevitably result in purer and fuller joy. To the Corinthian Paul describes it in terms of glory as he does as the end of verse 30 as well. Let us once and forever put away from our minds that conformity to Christ means that we must do with less joy and happiness. No, rather, it is the opposite. To run from Christ is to run from the purest and lasting joy; to become more like Christ means to enlarge the resources of our capacity for joy and peace. As the hymn puts it: “but purer and higher and greater will be, our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.”
Now what does this mean? Well, first of all we must put away the notion that conformity to Christ means that we will become like him in every respect. It doesn’t mean we will become little gods. It doesn’t mean we will achieve deity. That is a blasphemous notion and is nowhere, least of all here, taught in Scripture. You can see that in verse 29, because the apostle says that the end result of conformity to Christ is that he will become the firstborn among many brethren. The firstborn enjoyed a special status among the sons in the ancient family, a status which could only be enjoyed by one of the sons. So we are not to be like Christ in every respect. Our conformity is ultimately so that Christ will be magnified and exalted above all the saints as the object of our worship and praise and love.
At the same time, we must not read the term “firstborn” in a way that diminishes the person of Christ. It is not meant to convey the idea that the Son of God was the first created being, as some teach. For the reason given why Christ is to be called the firstborn is not that he was first created, but rather because we are conformed to him. Our conformity to Christ is given as the reason he is the firstborn among many brethren. This points not to creation but to redemption. This is just another way of saying that Christ holds preeminent status among the children of God, and the reason he holds this preeminent status is because he is the eternal Son of God who became incarnate so that he might be the only redeemer of God’s elect. As such, he defeated sin and death for us, resurrected to glory as the first among many sons. Yes, he became like us, but the one who became like us is one with the Father (Jn 1:1-3). Only one who was both the Son of man and the Son of God was able to redeem and save us.
To understand what it means to be conformed to Christ, we must go back to verses 17-18. There the apostle writes that we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” We are conformed to Christ in the sense that with him we are heirs of God and all that that implies. It also means that in the present we suffer with him. But ultimately it means that we will be glorified with him; in other words, that like him we will share in the resurrection from the dead (cf. Phil. 3:10-11).
It also implies that we are being made more and more holy, conformed to Christ in the sense that we share in his holiness (cf. Heb. 12:10). Some have argued that sanctification does not find its way into the “golden chain” in verses 29-30, but it is right here in conformity to Christ. Neither must we argue that this aspect of conformity to Christ awaits our being taken to heaven or the age to come. As Paul argues in his letter to the Ephesians, this is happening right now. And as Paul has argued earlier in the chapter (8:1-13), the believer is even now not in the flesh but in the Spirit, walking in the Spirit and mortifying the sin in their lives.
Again, this is the very best of news. For Christ came to undo everything that Adam did. Adam brought sin and death into the world by his disobedience. That was the point of chapter 5:12-21. And he brought the entire human race along with the physical creation into a state of bondage to corruption and futility. When we are struggling with depression and loneliness and anxiety and pain and addiction and guilt we are dealing with the ravaging effects of sin. Even the pleasure that sin offers is a poisonous mixture that inevitably leads to greater pain and suffering, if not in this world, then in the world to come. But Christ has undone all that in his redemptive work. As we are united to him and are conformed to the image of the one who redeemed us, we are more and more freed from that which is destructive and given that which is life abundant.
But the main point of these verses is that this purpose is sure and certain. So that brings us to our next point.
God’s Certain Purpose: the Golden Chain of Salvation.
How do we know that God will fulfill the purpose for us? The answer is that our present faith in God is rooted in deep realities that go backward into eternity past and forward into eternity future. The roots of our confidence are anchored in eternal and unchangeable realities. What are these realities?
This is not, as some claim, a reference to God looking down through the corridors of time to see what we will do and then conforming his purpose to ours. That would completely undermine our confidence in God’s purpose by making it to rely ultimately upon our own feeble purpose! Rather, this is a reference to God’s eternal love for us which motivates his good purpose for us. Let me give you four reasons why we must read it this way.
First, because to say that foreknowledge means God foreseeing what we will do, implies that our faith is not a gift freely given to us by God. But this is how Scripture represents it. For when Peter made his confession of faith, our Lord explicitly tells him that the reason he was able to give this confession is because his Father revealed it to him (Mt. 16:17). Our Lord told the crowds in Jn. 6:44 that no one can, is able to, come to him in faith unless the Father draws him (Jn. 6:44). In Eph. 2:8,9 we are told that faith (along with all of salvation) is a gift of God. In Phil. 1:29, the apostle writes that believing in Jesus is something which is given to us. But if faith is a gift of God, then faith is not something God merely foresees but something which he gives.
Second, the use of this word in both the NT and OT often means more than mere prescience. In the OT, to “know” someone often carried connotations of intimacy. In this way, God is said to know Israel alone of all the nations of the earth (Amos 3:2; cf. also Jer. 1:5; Gen. 18:19; Ps. 1:6). This meaning is carried over into the NT. This is explicit in Rom. 11:2, where God is said to foreknow Israel and this is the basis of the claim that God will not reject them – clearly “foreknow” there must mean something along the lines “dedicated or devoted to.” The same thing is true of the use of the word in 1 Pet. 1:20, where it is said that Christ was foreknown before the foundation of the world (interestingly, the KJV translates this word as “foreordained”). To be foreknown by God then means that God has been devoted to us with a fierce and unchanging love from all eternity.
Third, God is not said here to foreknow actions but persons. It is not something about us, or something that we will do that is said to be foreknown here. It is believers themselves which are said to be foreknown! This fits much better with the idea that foreknowledge here implies God’s covenant commitment to us from all eternity.
Fourth, this foreknowledge is only true of some people. Now God foreknows all things about all people in the sense that he knows beforehand who they are and what they will do. There is nothing distinguishing about that kind of foreknowledge. But if this means that God has foreloved us from all eternity, then that is true only of God’s elect.
For these reasons, I take “foreknowledge” here to be synonymous with Gods’ gracious choice of his people in Christ before the world began. This is greatly encouraging because it means that behind God’s purpose for us is God’s eternal and unchanging love to us. God did not somehow become loving toward us because of something we have done or become. It is not rooted in our love to him, although the fact that we are embraced in God’s purpose is evidenced in our love to him. But it is not rooted in our love to him. Rather, we love him because he first loved us with an eternal and saving love.
Here Paul gets to the content and essence of God’s purpose, a purpose which issues and is consummated in final salvation. We’ve noted that the content of God’s purpose is that we are conformed to the image of his Son so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. However, it is a purpose to which we are predestined. People sometimes will say that they don’t believe in predestination. But you cannot be a Christian and not believe in it. Paul clearly teaches it. So the way some people get around it is by interpreting “foreknowledge” as meaning mere prescience so that God’s predestination of people to salvation means that he simply purposes beforehand to save those who put their faith in Jesus.
But this undermines what it means to predestine and empties the word of any real meaning. Predestine means to determine the destiny of someone or something before it takes place. If God is simply rubber-stamping our own choices, he is not determining our destiny, we are. Rather, it must mean that our final destiny in terms of final salvation is ultimately determined by God, not ourselves, and that he did this before the world began, from eternity past. Our eternal future is rooted in God’s love and purpose in eternity past.
A lot of people object to this because they think that if you embrace this doctrine then you will have no reason to believe or be sanctified or witness or pray or whatever. But such an objection is not rooted in the Bible but in assumptions which are nowhere taught in Scripture. I agree that the Bible clearly does not disconnect God’s purpose from faith and love to God. It does not disconnect God’s purpose from prayer or evangelism. But they will say, “Ah, but if you really believe this, then logic requires you to be careless about those other things.” I disagree! Logic on its own does not require us to reject this doctrine because reason and logic simply do not require us to say that predestination in this sense requires us to say that it does not matter what we do. These are assumptions that people bring into the argument. But it’s important to see that the rejection of this doctrine is not rooted in Scripture or logic but rather in a pre-commitment to certain assumptions, in particular, to the assumption that we are, and must be, ultimately self-sovereign. I reject that assumption, and I think the Bible does as well.
At the same time, to reject what I think is a Biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty in predestination is to rob us of so much comfort and security. If you don’t see your need for that then I’m afraid you don’t really understand yourself that well. Thank God that he holds us firmly in his hand and has done so from all eternity. This doctrine is expressed in the saying, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.” Not just “I know someone who knows the future” – but “I know who holds the future”! That’s predestination! Well, there’s a lot more we could say about this doctrine, but I’ll save that for our consideration of the next chapter.
What does Paul mean by this? Is he talking about what is sometimes called the “general call,” the call that goes forth in the gospel to all men that they should believe the gospel and repent of their sins? No. The reason he can’t be talking about this is because this call is something that always issues in final salvation. It leads to justification and then to glorification.
In the Bible, to be called is a reference to conversion, moving out of a state of sin and darkness to righteousness and light. Paul uses the word in this sense in numerous places (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:23,24,26-31; 2 Thess. 2:13-14). It is effectual in sense that this call to faith always issues in the response of faith.
Thank God for calling us out of darkness! If one wants a more convincing proof of God’s miracles in the present day, one need look no further than the miracle of conversion and the new birth. He can take the most hardened unbeliever and make them devoted disciples of Christ. Consider the apostle Paul! Here was a man who murdered Christians and yet God made him the foremost apostle. And he was not meant to be an outlier, but as he puts it, he was “an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16). He can take you, wherever you are, and completely transform your life. Like Lazarus, he can take you in your spiritual deadness and simply by his call awaken you out of your deathly sleep, your bondage to sin. There is no sin that he cannot free you from. There is no darkness so dark than he cannot dispel it by his light.
God invades history, he comes into our homes and hearts and brings his kingdom with him. That’s what the apostle is saying here. He does not make these wonderful plans for us and then leave us to ourselves to work them out. He calls us, and when he calls those whom he foreknew and predestined, he does so effectually.
You see, Christianity is not just a philosophical system but a personal meeting with a personal God. It is a miraculous encounter with one who made all things and who is remaking all things in Christ. Have you met him? Have you encountered him? Better yet, has he found you? As Paul put it, “now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Gal. 4:9).
Now, this verse (Rom. 8:30) was written to those who had already believed. Paul wants them to know the behind their profession of faith is the work of God. They are not out there dangling on their own, and dependent upon their own resources. But what of those who are not committed to Christ? What if you do not identify as a believer in Christ – what do you do with this? Does it mean that you should sit down and do nothing? No! Instead, you reach out for God, knowing that if this verse is true, God is there to be known and encountered and that if you truly seek him he will enable your very seeking of him. He has promised that he will turn away no one who comes to him. So come to him!
I won’t dwell on this because we’ve already spent a lot of time unpacking what the apostle has had to say about this. Suffice it to say that those who are called are inevitably justified. Those who respond in faith to the summons of the gospel have all their sins forgiven and are given a status of perfect righteousness in Christ. He takes our sins and we are granted his righteousness. It is the most glorious of exchanges.
Those who are justified are glorified. They are finally saved. Paul does not say that some who are called are justified. No, those who are called are justified. If you are a called person you are also a justified person. In the same way, those who are justified are glorified. Not some, but all. Now you will notice that the tense here is the past tense, although for all of us this is yet future. It is even future for those who are in heaven, because our glorification is not complete until we are resurrected from the dead at Christ’s second coming. But Paul writes in the past tense because it is as sure as if it had already happened. It is that sure.
Why is it so sure? Because our final salvation does not depend ultimately upon us. It does not finally depend upon our love for God but upon God’s love for us: he foreknew us before all times and we love him because he first loved us. It does not finally depend upon our purpose for God, but upon God’s predestining purpose for us. It does not ultimately depend upon our finding God but God finding us in our misery and our ruin, for he calls us. It does not ultimately depend upon our imperfect righteousness, which is but filthy rags, but upon the perfect righteousness of Christ in our justification. And so we come to heaven and eternal glory. We may not be much now, but one day we will with Christ be glorified.
In these two verses the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints is effectively summed up. Because God is at the bottom of our redemption and salvation, our hope is secure. All who are foreknown are predestined, and all who are predestined are called, and all who are called are justified, and all who are justified are glorified.
Praise God for his sure and complete and glorious salvation!
 George P. Fisher, The Reformation (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1912), p. 220-221.