Friday, December 21, 2018

The Golden Chain of Salvation: A Study on Romans 8:28-30 (Part Two)

The first link in the “golden chain”

The purpose according to which those in the body of Christ are called is described in verses 28-29 as follows: “…that, whom He foreknew, He designates beforehand, also, to be conformed to the image of His Son, for Him to be Firstborn among many brethren.” The sequence of events that Paul begins to refer to in verse 29 has been referred to by some theologians as the “golden chain of salvation.” On page 238 of his commentary, A.E. Knoch referred to it as “the golden chain of God’s sovereignty forged for our blessing.” Although less succinct, Knoch’s expression does a much better job at drawing our attention to the truth of God’s control over the entire process of salvation being described in these verses.

It must be emphasized that the entire “golden chain” pertains exclusively to what God has done, is doing, and will do in the future for every member of the body of Christ. Each link in the chain is necessary to achieving the final outcome. In part 75 of his Romans series (“Designated; called; justified; glorified,” page 5),[1] Martin Zender likens the events being described in this verse to a row of dominoes. I think that’s a helpful analogy. Just as the first domino must fall before the next one can (and necessarily results in its falling), the first event referred to in Romans 8:29-30 must occur before the next one can, and so on and so forth until we reach the end of the sequence.

Now, the first two “links” in the golden chain (or the first two “dominos” in the row) are expressed in the words, “…whom [God] foreknew, He designates beforehand, also, to be conformed to the image of His Son...” Some have explained Romans 8:29-20 in such a way that one would think that the sequence being described by Paul began with our being designated beforehand. But that’s the second “link in the chain.” The first divine action referred to in the sequence is expressed in the words, “whom [God] foreknew.” But what did Paul mean by the words, “whom God foreknew?” The most common understanding among Christians seems to be that Paul was referring to God’s foreknowledge of who would - and who wouldn’t - respond to the gospel with repentance and faith. According to this view, v. 29 should be read as follows: “…that, whom God foreknew would believe on Christ, He designates beforehand…” However, that’s not what Paul actually said. And not only is that not what Paul actually said, but – as argued in the previous section – God’s foreknowledge of who would (and who wouldn’t) believe on Christ would, necessarily, itself depend on God’s own prior decision to give some people (but not others) the faith to believe on Christ. Thus, if God has accurate and comprehensive foreknowledge of the future (and I believe that he does), then one of the things God foreknew was that he would be enabling some people - but not others - to believe in Christ.

From everything said above, I think it’s clear why the more popular “Arminian” interpretation of Romans 8:28 (which attempts to preserve human free will) fails so badly. This interpretation is completely undermined by the scripturally-supported fact that God is the one who determines who believes on Christ in this lifetime, and who doesn’t. Since no one believes in Christ apart from God’s giving them the faith to believe, God’s foreknowledge of who would (and who wouldn’t) believe in Christ would necessarily be based on his prior sovereign decision to give some (but not others) the faith to believe in Christ. Thus, in light of a scripturally-informed understanding of why some believe in this lifetime and others don’t, the Arminian interpretation of the words, “those whom he foreknew” still fails to rescue man’s supposed “free will” from the supposed “threat” of God’s sovereignty.   

In contrast with the Arminian interpretation, it should be noted that we’re not being told in Romans 8:28 that God foreknew something about certain individuals (i.e., that they would do this or that). Rather, what we’re being told is that God foreknew the individuals themselves. It was God’s foreknowledge of us - not God’s foreknowledge of anything about us – that is the grounds, or basis, of all the other events described by Paul in Romans 8:29-30. But this raises the following question: since we have good reason to believe that God foreknew all things and all people (see, for example, Isaiah 46:10), how can God’s foreknowledge of certain individuals be understood as the basis of his decision to designate them beforehand and given them a different eonian destiny than the rest of humanity? To better understand how God’s foreknowledge of those in the body of Christ is the basis of his designating us beforehand (along with everything else in the sequence of events described in Romans 8:29-30), let’s first consider Paul’s only other use of the word “foreknew” in Romans.

In Romans 11:1-2 Paul wrote, I am saying, then, does not God thrust away His people? May it not be coming to that! For I also am an Israelite, out of Abraham's seed, Benjamin's tribe. God does not thrust away His people whom He foreknew.Notice that, as in Romans 8:29, Paul is not saying that God foreknew something about the people who are in view in these verses. Rather, it is the people themselves whom we’re told God foreknew. Moreover, Paul seems to be implying that God’s foreknowledge of “his people” is the very reason why God does not “thrust them away.” But how can this be? Well, consider now Amos 3:1-2: “Hear this word that Yahweh has spoken against you, O children of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up from the land of Egypt, saying: ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.’”

Notice the words, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” Obviously, God knew all about “all the families of the earth” when he declared these words to Israel. But the word “known” in this verse does not merely refer to God’s cognitive awareness or intellectual understanding of Israel. Rather, “known” here means that God had special regard for Israel. Of all the families of the earth, they alone had been the objects of God’s special affection and concern (see Deut. 7:7-8; 10:15). And it was by virtue of this unique relationship between God and Israel that the nation had special responsibilities, and was held to a higher standard than the rest of the nations (hence the next words, “I will punish you for all your iniquities”).

This same sense of the word “know” (in which it’s used to mean “have special regard for”) is used elsewhere in scripture as well; see, for example, Gen. 18:19, Ps. 1:6, Ps. 144:3, Jer. 1:5, Hosea 13:5, 1 Cor. 8:3, Gal. 4:9 and 2 Tim. 2:19. Jeremiah 1:5 is especially relevant here, for in this verse we read that God declared to his prophet, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Here, God was expressing the fact that he had special regard for Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb. That is, God specially regarded Jeremiah beforehand, or (in other words) foreknew him. And just as God “knew” (specially regarded) Jeremiah before he formed him in the womb (and thus foreknew him), so God foreknew Israel as a nation. Thus, in Romans 11:2, the sense in which God “foreknew” his people, Israel, is that he had special regard for them before they existed as a nation.[2]

When Paul, therefore, referred to those in the body of Christ as those “whom [God] foreknew,” he didn’t merely mean that God knew about us beforehand (although that is, of course, true). “Foreknew” here means that, in accord with his own purpose, God had special regard for us beforehand. To quote Martin Zender from the aforementioned article, “God set you aside ahead of time, in His mind.” This “setting aside” of certain individuals ahead of time is the idea being expressed in the words, “whom he foreknew,” and is the basis for everything else that we’re told God does (or will do) for “those who are loving God” in Romans 8:29-30. As such, this event necessarily involved God’s unconditional selection of some people, but not others. But when did this pre-selection of certain individuals take place?

In Ephesians 1:3-5 we read, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who blesses us with every spiritual blessing among the celestials, in Christ, according as He chooses us in Him before the disruption of the world, we to be holy and flawless in His sight, in love designating us beforehand for the place of a son for Him through Christ Jesus…”

Most translations have “before the foundation of the world” in v. 4. In either case, it’s clear that God’s foreknowledge (and thus selection) of certain people to be in the body of Christ took place long, long before these people actually came into existence. Thus, when we read in 2 Thess. 2:13 that God preferred those in the body of Christ “from the beginning for salvation,” the “beginning” that Paul had in view here was no later than the “beginning” referred to in Genesis 1:1.

Called according to God’s purpose

In v. 28, the saints to whom Paul wrote – and, by extension, all who are in the body of Christ – are said to have been “called” according to God’s purpose. And that purpose involved being foreknown by God and designated beforehand. Thus, the only people who have been or will be called in the sense that Paul had in mind here are those who were foreknown by God (in the sense that Paul had in mind) and “designated beforehand” by God ”to be conformed to the image of His Son.” As we’ve seen earlier, Paul is addressing the eonian destiny of those in the body of Christ in this passage; thus, being “conformed to the image of His Son” refers to a blessing that will be enjoyed by every member of the body of Christ during the eons to come. And this being the case, the calling in view must be limited to those who have (or will) become members of the body of Christ.

Paul referred to this special calling again in v. 30, where we read: “Now whom He designates beforehand, these He calls also, and whom He calls, these He justifies also...” The sort of “calling” that Paul had in mind in these verses is not a general “calling” that one can choose to ignore or fail to respond to. It is, instead, a calling from God that invariably results in the justification of those whom he calls. This is evident from v. 30, where we find that the same individuals who are called by God are justified by God also. It’s not simply the case that all who are justified were also called (which might imply that only some who are called end up being justified). Rather, everyone that Paul referred to as being called by God end up justified as well. Thus, the nature of this calling must be such that it involves a person’s meeting the conditions necessary to being justified. And since only those who believe Paul’s gospel are presently being justified, the “calling” which Paul had in view must involve one’s being given the faith necessary to being justified.

Paul referred to this special “calling” in 1 Corinthians 1:21-29:

For since, in fact, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom knew not God, God delights, through the stupidity of the heralding, to save those who are believing, since, in fact, Jews signs are requesting, and Greeks wisdom are seeking, yet we are heralding Christ crucified, to Jews, indeed, a snare, yet to the nations stupidity, yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God, for the stupidity of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you are observing your calling, brethren, that there are not many wise according to the flesh; not many powerful, not many noble, but the stupidity of the world God chooses, that He may be disgracing the wise, and the weakness of the world God chooses, that He may be disgracing the strong, and the ignoble and the contemptible things of the world God chooses, and that which is not, that He should be discarding that which is, so that no flesh at all should be boasting in God's sight.

Notice that, according to Paul’s use of the word “call,” those who are called are not merely those to whom his gospel is heralded. Among those to whom Paul and his co-laborers heralded the gospel, only some were “called.” Thus, being “called” involved more than simply hearing the gospel. It involved believing it as well. Although those who were called by God were called through the heralding of Paul’s gospel, their being called necessarily involved being given the faith to believe. And so it is for those in the body of Christ today. It is through the gospel that we’re called by God, but our calling involves more than simply having the gospel presented to us. It involves being given the faith to believe it.[3]

“Whom He calls, these He justifies also”

Having looked at what it means for those in the body of Christ to have been “called,” let’s now consider the next link in the golden chain: our justification. The most commonly accepted definition of “justify” is simply, “to declare or pronounce just (or righteous).” In support of this definition, consider Luke 7:29 (where we’re told that the “entire people, even the tribute collectors, justify God), and compare this verse with Paul’s quotation of Psalm 51:4 in Rom 3:4. When God is understood as the one doing the justifying (i.e., God’s declaring or pronouncing a person “just” or “righteous”), the word involves God’s judicial acceptance and approval of the person. It doesn’t mean that God no longer believes that those justified have sinned, or that God views them as no longer being sinners who continue to sin. Rather, when God justifies someone, it means he no longer sees them as deserving of the negative consequence (or penalty) of their sins (which is what it means for God to have ceased “reckoning” a person’s sins and offenses to them). 

Earlier, I quoted Paul’s words in Romans 8:31-33. Because of the relevance of this passage to the subject of justification, I’ll quote it again: ”What then, shall we declare to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? Surely, He Who spares not His own Son, but gives Him up for us all, how shall He not, together with Him, also, be graciously granting us all? Who will be indicting God's chosen ones? God, the Justifier? Who is the Condemner? Christ Jesus, the One dying, yet rather, being roused, Who is also at God’s right hand, Who is pleading also for our sakes?” (Rom. 8:31-33) Here we see the essential relation between condemnation and justification. Simply put, the two cannot coexist. Justification cancels out condemnation. Those who’ve been justified are no longer under the condemnation of which their sins had made them deserving.

But by virtue of what are those in the body of Christ justified? The answer to this question is, I believe, provided by Paul in Romans 3:22. There, we read that the righteousness which God reckons to us when we’re justified is “through Jesus Christ’s faith.” The righteousness that we receive by our faith in the evangel that Paul heralded among the nations is not based on our own faith, but rather on the faith of Christ. It is because it is through Christ’s faith – and not our own – that the righteousness we receive when we believe this evangel is a perfect and absolute righteousness. The believer’s own faith in Christ - even when our faith is rightly understood as ultimately given to us by God (Rom. 12:3; Phil. 1:29) - simply cannot be the basis of the absolute righteousness that we receive when we believe Paul’s evangel.[4] Rather, the “righteousness of God” that Paul had in mind in Romans 3:21 and elsewhere is the perfect righteousness of Christ, who lived and died in perfect obedience to God, and - unlike sinful humanity - was never “wanting of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). It is this righteousness that is “reckoned” by God to the believer when he or she believes the evangel that Paul heralded among the nations, and which Paul referred to variously as “the evangel of the grace of God,” (Acts 20:24), “the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:17-18), “the evangel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the word of the conciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-20). It is by believing this “word” or evangel that one becomes “God’s righteousness in [Christ]” (2 Cor. 5:21). But how can this absolute righteousness of God be justly “reckoned” by God to those who believe Paul’s evangel?

Union with Christ

To answer this question, let’s consider Paul’s words in Galatians 2:15-21. In verses 15-16, Paul wrote: “We, who by nature are Jews, and not sinners of the nations, having perceived that a man is not being justified by works of law, except alone through the faith of Christ Jesus, we also believe in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by works of law, seeing that by works of law shall no flesh at all be justified.” According to Paul, it is by believing in Christ Jesus (i.e., in accord with the truth of Paul’s evangel) that we are justified through and by “the faith of Christ Jesus.” The meritorious basis for our justification is thus not our own faith, but rather the faith of Christ. Since the “righteousness of God” that one receives when believing Paul’s evangel is based on Christ’s faith - i.e., the faith that Christ had when, in obedience to God, he died on the cross - it follows that the righteousness of God that is “reckoned” to those who believe Paul’s evangel is a perfect, absolute righteousness.

Paul went on to write the following in verses 20-21: “With Christ have I been crucified, yet I am living; no longer I, but living in me is Christ. Now that which I am now living in flesh, I am living in faith that is of the Son of God, Who loves me, and gives Himself up for me. I am not repudiating the grace of God, for if righteousness is through law, consequently Christ died gratuitously.” Paul is here presupposing a spiritual union that he had with Christ while he lived. It was this spiritual union that allowed Paul to say that he had been crucified with Christ, and that, while he continued to live “in flesh,” Christ was living in him. It was this intimate spiritual union that enabled him to write that he was “living in faith that is of the Son of God” – that is, the faith in which he was “living” was not his own, but that of Christ’s. And it is this spiritual union with Christ that every member of the body of Christ also has.

When those pre-designated by God to become members of the body of Christ are given the faith to believe the evangel through which they are called to their expectation, they are placed in spiritual union with Christ (Rom. 6:3-9) and thus become “in Christ” – a phrase which occurs some twenty-five times in Paul’s letters (e.g., Rom. 8:1; Gal. 3:27-28; Eph. 1:3-13; 2:5-7; etc.). This inseparable, vital union that believers in Paul’s evangel have with Christ Jesus is what is being expressed by Paul’s “body of Christ” imagery (1 Cor. 6:15-19; 10:16-17; 12:12-27; Rom. 12:4-5; Eph. 1:23; 3:6; 4:4, 12-16; 5:23-33; Col. 1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15). Being thus in spiritual union with Christ, the faith of Christ – and the perfect righteousness that he had by his faith in God – becomes the faith and righteousness of those who are in union with Christ. Thus, the salvation of those in the body of Christ has nothing to do with any “works which are wrought in righteousness which we do,” but is the result of God’s mercifully justifying us in Christ’s grace, so that we may be “enjoyers, in expectation, of the allotment of life eonian” (Titus 3:4-7).

“Now whom He justifies, these He glorifies also”

The last words quoted above lead us to the final link in the chain: our glorification. The reader will recall that, in verse 29, the destiny for which God pre-designates us is said to involve our being ”conformed to the image of His Son, for Him to be Firstborn among many brethren.” The “many brethren” referred to at the end of verse 29 is not a reference to all humanity, but to that category of persons who were referred to as “those who are loving God” in v. 28 – i.e., everyone in the body of Christ. But what does it mean to be “conformed to the image of His Son?”

Christ has always been a sinless human being, and it follows that we, too, must be made sinless in order to be conformed to his image. But what else will this involve? In Philippians 3:20-21, Paul gave us a brief glimpse into what this conformity to the image of God’s Son will involve: “For our realm is inherent in the heavens, out of which we are awaiting a Saviour also, the Lord, Jesus Christ, Who will transfigure the body of our humiliation, to conform it to the body of His glory…”

Notice the words, “body of our humiliation” and “body of His glory.” Whatever else our future glorified state will involve, it’s not going to be a “disembodied state.” We’re going to have bodies. In fact, I think scripture indicates that our glorified body is going to be an upgraded and perfected version of the bodies we currently possess. Earlier in Romans 8, Paul had referred to our glorification as involving “the deliverance of our body” (Rom. 8:18, 23). Notice what Paul didn’t say. He didn’t say we were going to be delivered from our body. Glorification is not about escaping our body, or transitioning into some immaterial, ethereal existence. Rather, the body that makes us who and what we are is going to be delivered. Delivered from what? Apparently, it’s going to be delivered from its mortal condition (and from everything associated with mortality, and which makes it a body of “humiliation”).

What Paul touches on in Phil. 3:21 is given a more expanded and detailed treatment in 1 Corinthians 15:42-49:

Thus also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is roused in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor; it is roused in glory. It is sown in infirmity; it is roused in power. It is sown a soulish body; it is roused a spiritual body. If there is a soulish body, there is a spiritual also. Thus it is written also, The first man, Adam, “became a living soul:” the last Adam a vivifying Spirit. But not first the spiritual, but the soulish, thereupon the spiritual. The first man was out of the earth, soilish; the second Man is the Lord out of heaven. Such as the soilish one is, such are those also who are soilish, and such as the Celestial One, such are those also who are celestials. And according as we wear the image of the soilish, we should be wearing the image also of the Celestial.

Some point to the expression “spiritual body” and jump to the conclusion that, after we’ve been vivified, our body is going to be non-physical. However, a “spiritual body” is no less physical than a “soulish body.” It’s simply a body that is dominated by, and under the full influence of, spirit. And as noted earlier, the body we’ll have when glorified shouldn’t be understood as completely distinct from our present body; it will be the same human body, only it will have been “delivered.” Notice the little word “it” in the above passage (IT is sown in corruption; IT is roused in incorruption,” etc.). What Paul had in mind was clearly one body that will be undergoing a change (rather than being completely replaced). Just as Christ’s body underwent a change or transformation in the tomb (rather than being replaced) when he was roused from among the dead by God, so will our bodies undergo the same sort of change.

Some believe that, when we’re glorified, we’ll no longer be human (at least, not in any real and meaningful sense). The assumption that seems to be underlying this view is that humans are essentially mortal, flesh-and-blood beings. However, we mustn’t confuse being “human” with being “mortal,” or confuse having a human body with having the same limitations we presently have. There is no good reason to believe that being human essentially involves mortality, or having corruptible flesh with blood circulating in our veins. Rather than thinking of our present and future life as involving being human and then being something else, I think it would be more accurate to think of our present and future life as involving life as an imperfect human followed by life as a perfected human. Our glorification will involve both change and continuity.

Scripture does not, I don’t think, support the view that Christ ceased to be human after he was vivified by God. Even after his resurrection and ascension, he remains “the Man, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Christ's body was perfected when he was vivified, but he didn't stop having a body. In Luke 24:39-43, it’s clear that Christ’s body was just as physical and tangible after his resurrection as it was before he died. Clearly, Christ's human body underwent a radical change and gained amazing new properties and capabilities, but Christ still had (and has) an essentially human form. Even with his body’s new capabilities, it’s just as tangible and spatially present now as it was before he died. In the same way, when our body is delivered and we're conformed to the body of Christ's glory, we’ll still be essentially human.[5]

Consider, again, Pauls words in 1 Cor. 15: Thus it is written also, The first man, Adam, “became a living soul:” the last Adam a vivifying Spirit. But not first the spiritual, but the soulish, thereupon the spiritual. The first man was out of the earth, soilish; the second Man is the Lord out of heaven. Such as the soilish one is, such are those also who are soilish, and such as the Celestial One, such are those also who are celestials. And according as we wear the image of the soilish, we should be wearing the image also of the Celestial.

Paul clearly understood Christ, in his present, vivified state (and in his present heavenly location), to be human, for he referred to him as being “the last Adam” and “the second Man.” Paul was referring to Christ in his present glorified state here. Just as Adam became the first man when he became “a living soul,” so Christ became “the last Adam” and “the second Man” when he was roused by God to a state of incorruption, glory and power. And since Adam was obviously a human when, having become “a living soul,” he became the “first man,” so Christ - as “the last Adam” and “the second Man” - should likewise be considered a human. Christ, in his present glorified state, is essentially a perfected human being and the pinnacle of God’s creative achievement. Thus, our being conformed to his image can mean nothing less than our being introduced into the same glorified state of perfection – not as non-humans, but as humans who have been conformed to the celestial image of “the last Adam” and the “second Man,” and who have thus been made fit for eonian life “in the heavens” and “among the celestials.”

[2] This same sense of “foreknew” is probably what Peter had in mind in 1 Peter 1:20, where Christ is said to have been “foreknown, indeed, before the disruption of the world…” According to this understanding, Peter was not talking about God’s prior knowledge of Christ (although God did have prior knowledge of Christ); rather what Peter had in mind was the prior regard that God had for Christ “before the disruption of the world.”

[3] In a number of my articles defending the doctrine of the “two gospels/evangels” I emphasized the fact that it is through one of these two evangels - i.e., the “evangel of the Uncircumcision” and “of the Circumcision” (Gal. 2:7) – that God calls people to their eonian expectation. I’m not sure how clear I was on this particular point in the articles referred to, but the sort of “calling” that I had in mind is that to which Paul was referring in the above passage. Those who will be enjoying eonian life “in the heavens” and “among the celestials” during the eons of Christ’s reign will, at some point during their mortal lifetime, be called by God through “the evangel of the Uncircumcision,” while those who will enjoy eonian life on the earth in the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel will, at some point, be called by God through “the evangel of the Circumcision.”

[4] This view also makes better sense of Paul’s words in Romans 1:17, where we read that the righteousness of God is revealed “out of (or “from”) faith, for faith” (ek pisteos eis pistin). When we understand this verse to be foreshadowing what Paul would later write in Romans 3:22, the verse becomes much less enigmatic: “Out of faith” in Romans 1:17 corresponds to “through Jesus Christ’s faith” in Rom. 3:22, and “for faith” in 1:17 corresponds to “for all, and on all who believe” in 3:22. Thus, interpreting scripture with scripture, “out of faith” can be understood as a reference to Christ’s faith, and “for faith” can be understood as a reference to the faith of those who believe Paul’s evangel (and who have consequently been justified on the basis of Christ’s faith).

[5] One would have to prove that a human body could never be anything other than what it is during this mortal lifetime in order say that Christ ceased to be human when he was vivified. And I'm honestly not sure how one could go about proving that. Christ clearly had a flesh-and-bone body after his resurrection, so for anyone to argue that “human flesh” can’t do what Jesus did after his resurrection, one is merely assuming that (1) God can’t so modify human flesh (and the human body as a whole) in such a way that a human being is enabled to do exactly what Christ is now able to do, while remaining essentially human, and (2) that what makes a person “human” is their having a body with the same exact properties and limitations that mortal humans have. I don’t think either of these assumptions are valid.

The Golden Chain of Salvation: A Study on Romans 8:28-30 (Part One)


Having grown up in a church that that has its roots in the theological system known as “Calvinism,” I was first introduced to distinctively Calvinistic doctrines in elementary school. By middle school, I had become a full-fledged, “five-point Calvinist,” and remained so until my early twenties. During my time as a Calvinist, I remember Romans 8:28-30 as being one of the main proof-texts that I understood as supporting my theological position. Although I no longer see Calvinism as a scripturally tenable (or God-honoring) position, I do think that the Calvinistic understanding of Romans 8:28-30 is, generally speaking, sound, and that Calvinists have been correct in claiming that Romans 8:28-30 completely undermines the more common Christian view (which places an emphasis on the role of the human will in salvation).

According to what most Christians believe, every human being – through the exercise of his or her “free will” – plays an ultimately decisive role in determining whether or not they will be saved. Among Protestant Christians, this is sometimes referred to as the “Arminian” position (usually to distinguish it from the Calvinist view). However, it should be noted that the “Arminian” view of man’s role in salvation is not distinct to non-Calvinist Protestant Christians; the soteriological positions of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church predate Jacobus Arminius and the development of his theological position by hundreds of years, and I can see no essential difference between these positions in regard to what is affirmed (and denied) concerning the involvement of God and human beings in the salvation process. Each view places an emphasis on the alleged “free will” of human beings, and each view affirms that humans play an essential and ultimately decisive role in their salvation.

In contrast with the position which sees man’s will as being essential and ultimately decisive in his salvation, I believe that Paul’s words in Romans 8:28-30 support the following position: there are a definite number of individuals whom God has unconditionally chosen and pre-designated for a salvation that the rest of humanity will not enjoy (and by “unconditionally” I simply mean that their selection by God was not based on any conditions that God foreknew would be met by them, or on anything that they would or wouldn’t do). Having unconditionally chosen them beforehand for this special salvation, God later enables these people - and none others - to meet the conditions necessary to receiving it (i.e., by granting them faith in the truth). It is this position that I’ll be defending in this study.

An awareness of God’s sovereignty

In Romans 8:28-30 (Concordant Literal New Testament) we read the following:

28 Now we are aware that God is working all together for the good of those who are loving God, who are called according to the purpose
29 that, whom He foreknew, He designates beforehand, also, to be conformed to the image of His Son, for Him to be Firstborn among many brethren.
30 Now whom He designates beforehand, these He calls also, and whom He calls, these He justifies also; now whom He justifies, these He glorifies also.

Although I’ve written in greater depth on the subject of the sovereignty of God elsewhere (here’s a link to the article), I didn’t focus on Romans 8:28-30 in that article. However, in retrospect, I definitely think I should have. God’s sovereignty (i.e., God’s complete control over, and ultimate responsibility for, all that takes place in the universe) shines brilliantly throughout this remarkable passage.

In verse 28 we find Paul affirming the fact that the circumstances of this life are being coordinated by God for the benefit of “those who are loving God.” There is no contextual reason why the “all” of this verse should be understood as being anything less than absolutely comprehensive. Although it’s far easier to be thankful for the reality of God’s sovereignty when we’re not suffering (and when tragedy is mercifully kept at bay), God is just as much in control over the painful circumstances of life as he is over life’s many blessings. Irrespective of what we’re going through at any given moment, God is ultimately responsible for the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

This fact is in accord with the truth expressed in Ephesians 1:11, where we’re told that God is “operating all in accord with the counsel of his will.” Relatively few Christians seem to actually believe and fully appreciate the truth of God’s sovereignty. Even Calvinists - despite all of their talk and emphasis on God’s sovereignty - can be quite inconsistent on this matter (with some Calvinists retreating to a view that is virtually indistinguishable from the Arminian position, on occasion). Scripture, however, is quite clear that God is sovereign in an absolute and comprehensive sense.

According to scripture, whatever God intends to do, he does, and no one can successfully resist him when it’s his will that something occur: “He does according to his will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand!” (Dan. 4:25) “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Thus, if it’s God’s will that a certain person be saved at a certain time, then it’s inevitable that that person will be saved at that time.

In chapter nine of Romans, Paul defends the idea that God is in absolute control over the destiny of human beings (Rom. 9:9-18). In response to his affirmation of God’s sovereignty, Paul has a hypothetical objector ask the following questions: “Why, then, is He still blaming? For who has withstood His intention?” It should be noted that this hypothetical objector takes seriously everything that Paul wrote in verses 14-18. The objector doesn’t try to “explain away” the clear implication of Paul’s argument, but rather takes for granted the inability of humans to thwart God’s intention to be merciful to some and to harden others.

In verses 20-21, Paul answers his objector as follows: “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?’ 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?” Notice that Paul doesn’t dispute the premise inherent in the objection (which is that humans can’t “withstand God’s intention” to show mercy to some and to harden others). Instead, Paul simply argues that God - by virtue of being God - has the right to do what he wants with his creatures, in the same way that a potter has the right to do what he wants with his clay. And – as Paul goes on to explain - this means making some people into “vessels for honor” and “vessels of mercy,” and making other people into “vessels for dishonor” and “vessels of indignation” (Rom. 9:21-24).

Since God is “working all together for the good of those who are loving him,” does this mean that all of the evil we experience during this lifetime is actually good? By no means. Paul was not saying that everything that God is “working together” is, in fact, “good.” The “all” that God is working together for the good of those Paul had in view includes both good and evil (i.e., suffering and pain), and evil is obviously not the same as “good.” Much of what takes place in this lifetime is not intrinsically “good” in the sense of directly benefiting anyone, or promoting their wellbeing and flourishing in this life. And Paul, of course, knew this. He elsewhere referred to the age or “eon” in which we’re living as “wicked” (Gal. 1:4), and as consisting of “evil days” in which believers can, and do, suffer (Eph. 5:16; Rom. 8:18). Paul himself suffered a great deal throughout his life as an apostle of Jesus Christ (see, for example, 2 Cor. 11:21-33).

Thus, contrary to the message of Joel Osteen and other modern-day “prosperity preachers,” Paul knew full well that, as long as we remain on this earth in these mortal bodies (and until we undergo the radical change that is referred to in 1 Cor. 15:51-57), our “best life” will never be “now.” It will remain a thing of expectation, being “reserved for [us] in the heavens” (Col. 1:5; 2 Cor. 5:1-9). While the events of this life are preparatory for the “good” that Paul had in mind in Romans 8:28, this “good” is not something that will be fully realized or enjoyed in this mortal lifetime.

The good of some?

Paul elsewhere made it clear that God is the “Savior of all mankind,” and that God’s intention is that “all mankind be saved and come into a realization of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4-6 and 4:10). And as I argued in my article series ”A Ransom for All,” Christ - by laying down his life in obedience to God - procured the salvation of all humanity from the condemnation of which our sins have made us deserving (which is what it means for Christ to have “died for our sins”). Because of Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf, all humanity will ultimately be vivified and placed beyond the reach of death, and will one day live in perfect relational harmony with God (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

Given the fact that God’s sovereign plan clearly involves the salvation of all humanity, in what sense can it be said that God is working all together for the good of some but not all? To better understand how God can be said to be working all together for the good of some - but not all - individuals, we need an adequate understanding of what scripture reveals concerning the “ages” or “eons.” In Ephesians 3:11, Paul referred to God’s “purpose of the eons.” Most Bible versions erroneously use the adjective “eternal” in this verse, despite the fact that Paul used the plural form of the Greek noun aión” here (the noun aión simply meaning “age” or “eon”). Paul elsewhere revealed that there have been past eons (Col. 1:26), that there is a present eon in which we’re now living (Gal. 1:4), and that there will be future eons (Eph. 2:7). We also know that there was a time before the eons began (2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2), which means that time has not always been measured by “eons.”

Now, the Greek word that is most often translated as “eternal” in most Bible versions (such as in the expression “eternal life”) is the adjective aiónion.” As I’ve argued in greater depth elsewhere (click here for part one of my seven-part study on this subject), the word aiónion should be understood as the adjectival form of the noun, aión. As the adjectival form of aión (“age” or “eon”), the word aiónion should be understood as meaning “lasting for, or belonging to, an eon or eons,” and would be better translated as “eonian” or “age-abiding.”[1] The English adjective “eternal,” on the other hand, corresponds to the noun “eternity” rather than the noun “age” or “eon.” And based on how the word aión is used in scripture, eternality is not an idea that is inherent in, or expressed by, the word. Consequently, “eternal” (or “everlasting”) is simply not a good translation of a word which essentially pertains to one or more temporary periods of time.

At this point, many Christians (both those of the Calvinist and the Arminian persuasion) would object that the future “age” or “eon” - i.e., the one that we’re told in scripture is still “to come” - is not going to be a temporary period of time. Rather, it is believed that this future “age” or “eon” is going to be endless in duration. However, that’s not what scripture reveals. In Ephesians 2:7, Paul stated that God will be “displaying the transcendent riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus,” and that this display would be taking place in the oncoming eons.” Paul used the plural form of the noun aión in this verse (aiósin), and in nearly every English version I’ve checked, this fact is reflected by the use of the plural word “ages” or “eons” to translate it. Since an unending eon cannot precede another eon, we must conclude that the eon to come will - like the eons preceding it - have both a beginning and an end (and based on what is said in 1 Corinthians 10:11 and Hebrews 9:26 - in addition to other scripturally-informed considerations - we can further conclude that the entire series of eons will eventually end).

In Romans 6, Paul referred to the gift that God graciously gives to those who believe the gospel that he was heralding among the nations as “eonian life” (Rom. 6:22-23). “Eonian life” is not life that is limited to the eons, or life that will continue only as long as the eons continue. God is referred to as the “eonian God” and as the “King of the eons” (Rom. 16:26; 1 Tim. 1:17). But of course, God will continue to exist even after the eons over which he reigns (and during which he is carrying out his “purpose of the eons”) have run their course. God’s life is no way affected by the passing of the eons that he created, and neither will ours be after we’ve been given the same “power of an indestructible life” which enables Christ to be living for the eons to come (Heb. 7:16-17, 23-25; Rev. 1:18).

Eonian life is simply life that will be enjoyed during the future eons of Christ’s reign (which are the “oncoming eons” referred to in Ephesians 2:7). It will be a tremendous blessing and privilege to live as God’s “vessels of mercy” during this future time (a privilege that relatively few humans will enjoy). The emphasis on these future eons that is inherent in the expression “eonian life” doesn’t mean or imply that, after the blessing-filled eons of Christ’s reign end (and Christ’s reign will end, according to 1 Cor. 15:24-28), the life of those living during these eons will end as well. Once we’ve been made immortal, our life will always continue (that’s what it means to be immortal, after all). As will be the case for God himself, our life will simply cease to have the quality of being “eonian” after the eons have ended.

Those who are loving God?

In light of what’s been said above, I think we can reasonably conclude that the “good” that Paul had in view in v. 28 is the good that believers will be enjoying during the eons to come (which, again, are the eons of Christ’s reign, which will end when "the last enemy, death" is abolished). And insofar as Paul had this good in view, it would be accurate to say that God is not, at this present time, “working all together” for the good of all. Rather, he is working all together for the good of “those who are loving God.”

The words “those who are loving God” have led some believers to wonder whether they’re, in fact, included within the category of people that Paul had in mind here. However, Paul could not have had in mind a state of continual and perfect obedience in which one is loving God with all of one’s heart, soul mind and strength (in accord with what Christ said is the “greatest commandment” in Mark 12:29-30). Had this been the case, no human except Christ himself could possibly be said to “love God.” It must be emphasized that Paul was not exhorting those to whom he wrote to love God so that they could be included among those for whom God was working all together for the good. Rather, Paul was giving a description of what was already true of those to whom he wrote.

By the words “those who are loving God,” Paul was referring to the saints to whom he was writing, and – by extension – everyone who, through faith in Paul’s evangel, has been justified through the faith of Christ and become a member of that spiritually-united company of saints that Paul referred to in his letters as “the body of Christ.” It is those in the body of Christ who, through faith in Paul’s gospel, have received “the spirit of son ship” (Rom. 8:15) and “the firstfruit of the spirit” (v. 23), and who consequently will be “enjoyers of an allotment from God” (v. 17).

Later in chapter 8, Paul referred to this category of people as “God’s chosen ones”: ”What then, shall we declare to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? Surely, He Who spares not His own Son, but gives Him up for us all, how shall He not, together with Him, also, be graciously granting us all? Who will be indicting God's chosen ones? God, the Justifier? Who is the Condemner? Christ Jesus, the One dying, yet rather, being roused, Who is also at God’s right hand, Who is pleading also for our sakes?” (Rom. 8:31-33) “Those who are loving God” are, therefore, God’s chosen ones. They are justified in the blood of Christ (Rom. 5:9), and cannot come under condemnation (8:1). And, as we’ll see shortly, the “chosen” status of those whom Paul had in view was fixed by God long before they were born (and thus before they did anything good or evil), and is not something that can be lost or forfeited. Thus, the people whom Paul referred to as “loving God” are not saved or chosen because they are “loving God”; rather, their love for God is simply one of the ways that their “chosen” status is manifested.

Thus, whatever Paul meant by the words “loving God” should be understood as characterizing all who are in the body of Christ. And this fact suggests to me that “loving God” consists of having a certain attitude or disposition toward God that is the result of our having come to a realization of the grace of God in truth (as revealed in Paul’s evangel), and which involves our awareness of God’s love for us in Christ. As I understand it, the kind of love that Paul had in view here – that is, agape love - involves ascribing intrinsic worth or value to someone (or to something, such as money). Thus, “those who are loving God” can be understood as those who, out of an awareness of God’s love for them, are esteeming God and regarding him as a being of supreme intrinsic worth/value.

This love for God will, of course, express itself in different ways depending on the individual believer and the circumstances in which they’re in. And I think it goes without saying that the degree to which this love will find complete and consistent expression in our lives will always be deficient (at least, during this lifetime). However, I don’t believe there is a single member of the body of Christ who cannot be said to be “loving God” in the sense that Paul had in mind when he wrote these words.

Excursion: The teaching of Paul and Christ concerning why some believe and others don’t

Before moving on to the first link in the “golden chain” of Romans 8:29, I think it would be helpful to consider the following question: Why do some believe in Christ, while others don’t? Most Christians see their faith as an expression of their own “free will.” Both faith and unbelief are viewed as a choice (or the result of a choice) that some make and others don’t. According to this understanding of faith and unbelief, the only needed explanation for why some believe and others don’t is to be found in the people themselves. Thus, when confronted with the reality of people dying in unbelief, many Christians would simply say (or at least think in their hearts), “Well, as tragic as an unbeliever’s death is, their remaining in unbelief was their free choice. When all’s said and done, those who die in unbelief have no one to blame but themselves. If they hadn’t chosen to be so proud and self-reliant - or if they hadn’t chosen the things of this world over what really matters - they might’ve been able to recognize and admit their need for a Savior. Then they probably would’ve made the better (and wiser) decision to believe in Christ, like I did.”

In contrast with the above view, scripture does not present human beings (or their supposed “free will”) as being the ultimate explanation for why some believe and others don’t. Instead, scripture takes us “behind the scenes,” so to speak, and shows us what’s really going on when some believe and others remain in unbelief. According to scripture’s “behind the scenes” explanation, it is God himself who is truly responsible for the faith of some and the unbelief of others. For example, we read that, during Christ’s earthly ministry, no one could become truly acquainted with (and “see”) God except those to whom Christ has chosen to reveal him (Mt. 11:25-27), and no one could understand the “mysteries of the kingdom” or could receive Christ’s teaching except those to whom it had been granted (Matthew 13:11). In fact, Christ declared that no one could receive even one thing unless it had been given to them from God (John 3:27). This would necessarily include the faith needed to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, or that Jesus died for our sins.

In John 6 we find that Christ also taught that no one could come to him (which, in the context, meant believing on him) unless God had previously drawn them to himself (vv. 36-40, 44). In v. 45 Christ explained this “drawing” by God to mean being “taught of God” - i.e., hearing from the Father and learning the truth. All who were being drawn by God at this time came to Christ (believed on him), and it is these whom Christ said he would “raise up on the last day,” and who will thus “have life eonian.” It must be emphasized that, in the context of this chapter, Christ was explaining why those to whom he was speaking had not believed on him (v. 36). Christ attributes the unbelief of these people to the fact that God had not given them to him, by means of drawing them. Had they been drawn by God, they would’ve come to Christ (i.e., believed on him). Since they didn’t believe, it’s evident that they hadn’t been drawn by God, and weren’t among those whom God was giving to Christ for him to “raise up on the last day.”

Christ gave the same explanation for unbelief later on in this chapter, when speaking concerning Judas. In John 6:64-65, we read, “There are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” The words, ”…no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” refer back to Christ’s words in v. 44 (”No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”), and were understood by Christ as being the explanation for why Judas did not believe. According to Christ, then, all who were coming to him (believing on him) during his earthly ministry were doing so because it had been granted them by the Father to come to Christ (i.e., believe on him). It is these whom Christ will be raising up on the last to enjoy eonian life. Since not all Israelites will be raised up by Christ on the last day, it follows that God was only drawing, and giving faith to, some.

In accord with the above, the apostle Paul clearly believed that both repentance and faith were gifts from God, and that those who have repented and come to believe the truth have done so only because it was God’s will that they - and not others - do so. In 2 Timothy 2:24-25, Paul wrote, “Now a slave of the Lord must not be fighting, but be gentle toward all, apt to teach, bearing with evil, with meekness training those who are antagonizing, seeing whether God may be giving them repentance to come into a realization of the truth…” Notice that it was not merely an opportunity to repent that Paul believed had to be given by God. Rather, it was repentance itself (with the implication being that those to whom God gave repentance would, in fact, repent and “come into a realization of the truth”).

As with repentance, Paul also understood that a person’s faith was also a gift from God. God has assigned a “measure of faith” to every member of the body of Christ (Rom 12:3), and those who believe on Christ do so because it was “graciously granted” to them by God to believe (Phil 1:29). So, it is not just that salvation is a gift from God (although it is). More than this, the very requirements for salvation (e.g., repentance and faith) are gifts of God as well. Hence, Paul could rhetorically ask the saints in Corinth: “For who is making you to discriminate? Now what have you which you did not obtain?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Everything we have – including the “measure of faith” by which we believe – was given to us by God (Acts 17:25). Nothing we have originates with us.

In accord with this view, Paul understood that it was God’s grace - not his own innate goodness, desire or willingness - that was the source of his faith and love (1 Tim 1:13-14). When a person believes and becomes a “new creation in Christ,” this is no less the sovereign work of God than was the original creation; it is all God’s doing (2 Cor. 5:17-18). Apart from God’s spirit at work in our mind and heart, we would have no interest in spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). Our hearts must be opened by God just so that we will pay attention to what is being said when the gospel is heralded to us (Acts 16:14), and those who hear and believe the truth do so only because they were appointed, or set, by God for this (Acts 13:48). No one becomes a believer or remains an unbeliever apart from the divinely-controlled circumstances that God is using to accomplish his redemptive purpose in the world.

[1] There are a number of contemporary, evangelical Christian scholars who’ve acknowledged that the expression commonly translated as “eternal life” should best be understood to mean “the life of the age to come.” See, for example, C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the First Gospel, pp. 144-50; George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, pp. 290-292; J.I. Packer, "The Problem of Eternal Punishment," Crux XXVI.3, September 1990, 23; "Evangelical Annihilationism in Review," Reformation & Revival, Volume 6, Number 2 - Spring 1997; John Painter, 1, 2 and 3 John (Sacra Pagina), p. 195; Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, pp.73-74; John G. Stackhouse, Jr. "Jesus Christ," The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, p. 151; N.T. Wright, Romans, p. 530.