Golden Chain of Salvation: Interpreting Romans 8:29-30
God's Greatest Promise
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. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30 ESV)
This passage has been commonly called the Golden Chain of Salvation. This chain is a display of God's sovereignty in all aspects of salvation. He is the author and finisher of our faith in which His decree to save us is unbreakable. We can be assured that the God who foreknew us also predestined us to be called to Himself. And those of us whom He calls to be His people He will justify--being declared righteous. If He justifies us, then He will surely glorify us on the Day of Resurrection. This is God's greatest promise to His children--who are known as those who have believed in Jesus Christ. Let's break it down and look at some of the key terms and phrases.
God Foreknew a People Not Faith
"For those whom he foreknew." The use of the term, foreknew, here does not infer to what God foreknew with prior knowledge from eternity past. The verse says that God foreknew a people not what they were going to do. Many people who read this verse believe that it implies that God foreknew who would have faith in Him. However, faith is not mentioned or even hinted in this or any other passage of Scripture; it is assumed. Rather, it is used in the same way as it is in the first letter of Peter (proginōskō is the Greek word for foreknew/foreknown in these verses in Romans and 1 Peter): "[Jesus] was foreknown before the foundation of the world" (1 Peter 1:20a). Peter was not pointing out what God had foreseen concerning what Christ was going to do. In these verses, "foreknew" and "foreknown" are not translated to mean "foreknowledge"--to know beforehand. Rather, it is speaking about God's relations to those whom He loved before the foundations of the world--unconditionally. So, just as God foreknew Jesus before the foundation of the world, He also foreknew those whom He predestined before the foundation of the world. The Lord said the same to Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you" (Jer 1:5). God was not concerning Himself with anything that Jeremiah may or may not have done but that He set His affection on him before time began. Lastly, God spoke in the same manner concerning the nation of Israel. He tells us in Amos "You only have I known of all the families of the earth" (3:2). Again, God had separated and called out the nation of Israel to be His own people. He gives Israel His reasons why He has loved them in Deuteronomy:
For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.(Deut 7:6-8)
In short, God is saying that He has loved Israel because He has made the sovereign decision to love them apart from any qualities they may have (which are none). Read this passage this way: "The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession and set His love on you because the Lord loves you." They had no merit or worth within themselves, but the Lord sovereignly chose to love them in spite of them as they were no better than any other nation or people groups. In the same way, God unconditionally set His love on people from every tribe, nation, and tongue; chose them out of the world; and gave them to His Son to be His people. He did this before the ages began.
Throughout the Bible, to "know" someone often meant to love or have sexual relations with someone. This is an intimate concept. So, in these cases it means that God predestined those whom He foreknew, or "unconditionally loved before they were born." This verse in Romans is better understood as "those whom He foreloved He also predestined"; "those whom God sovereignly loved before creation began He also predestined"; or "those whom God set His redeeming affection before the ages began He also predestined." Pastor John Piper once said that the love of God is like his love for his wife. He loves all women, but he doesn't love them like he loves his wife. In the same way, God loves all people but not like He loves His bride--the elect. He loves all people in some ways, but He loves some people in all ways.
If you object with "Well, what about faith?," the answer is "what faith?" It is His giving of faith that He had predestined to give freely to those whom He wills--to those whom He calls. Yes, belief is a gift from God just as repentance is also (see Phil 1:29; Acts 11:18; 13:48; 2 Tim 2:25). If God had not predetermined who would believe in Him, then no one would have believed and Christ would have died in vain. So, praise God for His electing love! If salvation is 99.9 % dependent upon God and .1 % dependent upon us, then we all perish and have no hope of eternal life. If God merely gives us enough grace to see Christ, then we see His perfect beauty and holiness, and we become drastically aware of our sinfulness and run away in shame and hate Him all the more. We are like an intrusion (proper name for a group) of cockroaches who dwell in a pitch black cave. We are blind guides walking around in the darkness becoming accustomed to it and loving it. Our rebellion and hatred towards God is much like shining a ray of light on the floor of a cave. The cockroaches scatter and flee from it. That is a descriptive illustration of Jesus' words of judgment in the Gospel of John.
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)
Lastly, there is another important word that must be discussed in verse 28: "For those whom He foreknew." "For" is an indicator word. That which is said after the indicator, "for," is an explanation of what was said beforehand. It could be interpreted as "Because those whom He foreknew He also predestined." The emphasis of what is being explained from the previous verse is more likely when Paul said, "For those who are called according to his purpose." Why and how are they called? They are called according to His purpose as oppose to anything He had foreseen in us (i.e., works or faith). God calls us and works everything for our good. The ultimate good that God works out is our salvation or as Paul explained it, "To be conformed to the image of His Son." Thus, God works everything for our good in order to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ which is His chief goal for our lives.
Predestination based upon God's foreknowledge of faith does not bring God's justice into question where one would say, "Is there injustice on God's part?" (Rom 9:14). It doesn't beg the question "Why does he still find fault?" nor does "For who can resist his will?" come to mind (9:19). Lastly it doesn't cause one to accuse God, the Molder, by saying "Why have You made me like this?" (9:20). Rather, in love we were predestined for adoption as sons according to His will (Eph 1:5) and in love He made us alive with Christ (2:4-5). By grace we have been saved according to His love, purpose, and will.
Next, Paul says that those whom God predestined He also called. Those whom He called He also justified. The first thing to notice is the prerequisites of each action done by God. What must be done in order to be justified? God must call you. What must be done in order to be called? God must predestine you. If God predestines you, then He will call you. If God calls you, then you will be justified. Being justified is the first outward step in our salvation--though it had been carried out in God's plan from eternity past. There are no drop outs or rejections. God's calling is irrevocable, and irresistible. Paul didn't say that only some of those who are called will be justified. No, "those whom He called He also justified."
What we have to grasp is that there are two types of callings: the outward calling and the inward calling. The outward calling is simply the audible proclamation of the gospel to all who hear with their physical ears. The outward calling could also be one who reads the Bible, a tract, or any piece of literature that contains the gospel of Jesus Christ. The outward calling is anything that has the potential of bringing someone to Christ in faith. However, as we have already seen, the outward calling is not enough, because this calling falls on deaf ears, blind eyes, and a heart of stone that does not understand. There is not enough grace in the world for God to give in order for a radically depraved man to receive and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot be spiritually lifted up to a point to where we are able to make a decision of "yes" or "no." That would be like giving a vaccine to a corpse. God must radically change the heart of a radically depraved sinner in order for them to come to the light they once hated. He must give them a new heart to understand, eyes to see, and ears to hear. We either have a heart of stone that loves the darkness and hates the light, or we have a heart of flesh that loves the light and hates the darkness. This is the inward calling of God. The outward calling is the evangelist preaching the gospel to the masses, and the inward calling is God drawing them irresistibly to Christ by changing their heart and giving them His Spirit. Why is it irresistible? In the same way that the heart of stone cannot come to Christ because of its love for darkness, the transformed heart of flesh enables that person to see Jesus Christ for who He is, and when he sees Him he wants that which he sees. His heart has changed, so his desires and affections have also changed. God's irresistible call is not Him forcing us against our will, but it is God merely changing our affections and desires; we now desire Him.
It is obvious that everyone who is called inwardly is justified; however, not everyone is called inwardly. This is not a universal calling to all who hear the outward calling, but God does a work in some while not in others. Paul states, "Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls" (Rom 9:11). Remember, all who are called are justified. If they are justified, then they had the faith to be justified since the righteous are justified by faith. Thus, we have faith in Jesus Christ because we have been called by God as oppose to being called because we have believed. Not everyone has faith upon the outward calling of the gospel, so we can conclude that not everyone is called inwardly through the drawing (click for further explanation if needed) of the Spirit. This link in the chain (God's calling and justifying) shows to prove that the first link, "those whom God foreknew," is certainly not based upon God's awareness of each person's free will of choice since our natural free will only begets rebellion. The only response from all of humanity that God foreknew was total rebellion. Thus, God had to radically intervene by mercifully selecting a multitude of God-hating, wicked sinners. If God sent out His invitation to all and all rejected Him, would He be unjust to send every one of us to hell? Similarly, if God then mercifully selected a few people out of the masses to inherit eternal life, has He acted unjustly? I think not. He is just in both cases: the first case being hypothetical and the second, actual.
The fourth and last link in the chain is "those whom He justified He also glorified." To be glorified is to have our resurrection, or glorified, bodies on the Last Day. Paul speaks of this day as if it has already occurred. Indeed, for that which God has decreed from eternity past will come to pass. However, we are warned from falling away from the faith. God has declared and promised that those who are truly His will persevere to the end. Paul states that "He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil 1:6). Then you might say, "But what if we walk away and reject Christ?" Then I say to you as John said to his readers:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19)
John is saying that those who once proclaimed Christ and now reject Him were never truly a child of God with true faith. They were imposters who were never born again by the Spirit. They had ulterior motives which did not produce saving faith but a counterfeit faith that was not genuine. However, we ought to never infer that those who leave the faith are not out of the reach of God's calling. We are to reason with them and be burdened by their faithlessness hoping that God would bring them back with genuine faith. We are to never assume who is and who is not a genuine believer. Whether a child of God is struggling in their faith or whether they are an imposter posing as a child of God, we don't know. However, "The Lord knows those who are his" (2 Tim 2:19). So, we trust in the Lord.
Scripture testifies that those who endure to the end shall be saved. So, we are commanded to endure in faith. However, that is not merely a requirement for salvation, but it is also an indicator of who are God's legitimate children. Meaning, suppose I say that the Yankees are those who run out on the field to play baseball. We ought to conclude not that they run out on the field and thus become a Yankee, but when the spokesman says, "Yankees take the field," they run on the field because they are a Yankee. In the same way, God calls His sheep, the elect, and they come to Christ in faith as they were called to do. Also, they endure to the end and are glorified because they are a child of God--predestined before the foundation of the world. They are not merely saved because they met some standard that God put forth, but He has called His sheep to come and step out of the darkness and into His marvelous light. To us, salvation merely appears to be conditional to faith--which it is. However, salvation is so much more than who will or will not come to faith in Jesus Christ. It is God invading humanity in order to make a people for Himself.
The Big Picture
Election and predestination are not a flu-shot that God gives to His elect in which they are magically saved. Rather, they are God's blue-prints concerning who, how, and when He gathers His sheep into His fold. It is a glorious work He does through the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is also a great privilege to participate in God's kingdom as one who goes forth to find God's lost sheep. It is a privilege to make disciples of Christ, so don't think that since God has it all planned out, then we don't have to do anything. Wrong! God uses means to bring about His will and purpose. He commanded us to go and make disciples. Paul begged the question, "How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Rom 10:14). Thus, to be saved we must believe, and in order to believe we must hear the gospel preached.
So, what are we predestined to do? Paul tells us: "To be conformed to the image of his Son." What about the warnings of apostasy? Persevering in the faith is a community project from within the church, the believers in Christ. We are commanded to lift one another up in exhortation and rebuke. Falling away from the faith is an impossible possibility in which God warns us to not fall away. He is telling us to not be like the imposters, the tares/goats, in our midst who fall away after their own passions. God commands us to persevere as He called us to do--giving us the grace to do so. An "impossible possibility" means that it is possible for a weak, fallible human to be crushed under the weight of doubt and suffering and then fall away from the faith. Falling away from God is not just a possibility, but it is a certainty apart from the preserving grace of God. However, that which is impossible for man is made possible through Christ who makes our ability to fall away impossible. As a matter of fact, if it were not for the hand of God on my life every day to have faith in Him, I would deny Him before I get out of bed every morning. How are we to obey the command to remain in the faith without hearing it? The same God who brings us to the faith keeps us there. There are passages all over the Bible that describe God's unfailing love for us that we would never fall away from Him. If He bought us with His blood and deemed us forgiven, then there is nothing that can get in the way of that! God loves those whom He disciplines, and if He does not discipline you, then you are an illegitimate child (Heb 12:7-11). The God who called me to the faith has justified me, and He who justified me will also glorify me in the resurrection! What a God we serve!