Election and Foreknowledge
Foreknowledge, with reference to God, connotes foreordination. The doctrine of election affirms that God chose those whom he would save.
The question at issue here concerns the meaning of foreknowledge with respect to election, particularly in Romans 8:29 – specifically, whether “whom he foreknew he predestined” indicates that God chose whom he would save based on their foreseen faith. Following a brief introduction to the question this essay will sketch out the deciding considerations: the biblical characterization of election, the ground of God’s knowledge, the meaning of “foreknow” with reference to God in Scripture, Romans 8:29 in context, and finally some considerations in Romans 8:29 itself.
The doctrine of election affirms that for purposes known only to himself God chose those whom he would save. He did not choose them because of anything about them but for his own “good pleasure” (Matt. 11:25-27). The Arminian doctrine of election often argues to the contrary, that God chose whom he would save based on foreseen faith – that looking ahead, God saw who would believe and on that basis chose to save them. That is, according to the Arminian doctrine, God “chose” us but only because we first chose him.
Romans 8:29 is the pivotal verse in this discussion, where the apostle Paul affirms, “whom he [God] foreknew he also predestined.” The Arminian argues that in this statement Paul specifically affirms that election is grounded in foreseen faith. I will argue here that this understanding goes beyond what Paul actually says, and in this brief essay I will sketch out the deciding considerations. I will begin with broader considerations and then narrow our focus to Romans 8:29 itself.
The Biblical Characterization of Election
Most broadly, just on the face of it, to affirm that God “chose” us certainly seems to convey divine initiative, not response. That is, “chosen because of to foreseen faith” would render God’s “choosing” irrelevant or at least redundant. But the New Testament everywhere speaks of election as coming from God’s side entirely, grounded in his own initiative and grace. Election is according to grace (Rom. 11:5) and to the praise of his grace (Eph. 1:3-6). We are saved as an outworking of his purpose (Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:4-5, 11; 1Thes. 1:4-5; 2Thes. 2:13-14; 2Tim. 1:9, etc.). God the Father “gave” us to his Son, and it is this that explains our believing response to his call.
You do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life (John 10:26-28).
This principle is illustrated in John 15:16 where Jesus asserts to his disciples, “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” Of course, on one level Jesus’ disciples did, in fact, respond to his call and in that sense “chose” him. But what Jesus plainly indicates is that it was not, in fact, their choice of him that determined his choice of them; it was, rather, his choice of them that determined their choice of him. Sovereign election comes first.
The Ground of God’s Knowledge
The “foreseen faith” view also entails a very serious theological problem: it renders God’s knowledge contingent on considerations outside himself. It portrays God as learning from us what we will do. But everywhere in Scripture we are taught that God’s knowledge is not learned from without.
Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? (Isa. 40:14).
That is to say, God’s knowledge is grounded in himself and in his own determinations, and he is thus eternally omniscient. There never was a time when God looked ahead to learn or discover what anyone would do (Psa. 139:16).
The Meaning of God’s “Foreknowledge” in Scripture
Moreover, we must determine the meaning of “foreknow” as it is used by the biblical writers. Although “foreknowledge” on the part of men carries the simple significance of “perceiving in advance” (Acts 26:5; 2Pet. 3:17), Scripture’s use of this word with reference to God entails a specific theological nuance. Scripture of course affirms that God knows all things ahead of time (Isa. 46:9-10; Acts 15:18), but its use of this term (“foreknow”) entails notions of foreordination also (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:29; 11:2; 1Pet. 1:20; 1Pet. 1:2). Similarly, in biblical usage the verb to know, when used of God, can signify “to elect” or “to set his favor on” (Gen. 18:19; Deut. 9:24; Jer. 1:5) or “to regard with favor” (Psa. 1:6; Matt. 7:23; 1Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9; 2Tim. 2:19). The connotations of God’s foreknowledge follow similarly, only adding the idea of pretemporal intention (i.e., decree).
Let us survey the relevant biblical passages. In Romans 11:2 Paul asserts that “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” – an obvious echo of Amos 3:2, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” It would be a misunderstanding to infer from this (“You only have I known”) that God was unaware of other nations. The obvious meaning is that God “knew” Israel in a particular way. The overtones of relationship and favor are prominent. So also God “knew in advance” the destinies of all nations, but Romans 11:2 / Amos 3:2 assert that God “foreknew” Israel in a more particular sense: he knew them with electing favor (cf. the connection with “election” in Rom. 11:5, 7, 16, 28). That “foreknow” carries this sense seems evident in Romans 8:29 also, where it is used in connection with the concept of predestination. The concepts are distinguished (“whom he foreknew he predestined”), the sense being that “foreknew” connotes a pre-temporal regarding with divine favor, while “predestined” denotes the divine decree itself.
These predestinarian overtones inform the significance of foreknowledge in all its New Testament occurrences. In Acts 2:23 God’s foreknowledge is explicitly causative: Jesus was “delivered over [to death] by the predestinating purpose and foreknowledge of God.” So also in 1 Peter 1:19-20 we read that Jesus the Lamb was “foreknown before the foundation of the world”; the causative connotation of “foreknown,” here, is so obvious that in various translations it is in some versions rendered “foreordained” (KJV) or “chosen” (CSB, NIV). And in 1 Peter 1:2 it again is associated with election (as in Rom. 8:29). This predestinarian sense of foreknowledge shows up in the Septuagint also in the apocryphal book of Judith (Jdt. 9:6).
All this to say that the “chosen because of foreseen faith” interpretation of Romans 8:29 is not in keeping with the meaning of the word “foreknow” elsewhere in the New Testament. Foreknowledge, with reference to God, is closely related to the terminology of predestination and election.
Romans 8:29 and Romans 9
We should also note that the context following Paul’s statement points explicitly to a predestinarian understanding of Romans 8:29. In Romans 9:6-24 Paul argues at length that the success of God’s saving program is due to his sovereign election. That God’s promise belonged to Isaac and not Ishmael was due solely to God’s own choice (vv. 6-9). Similarly, God’s choice of Jacob over Esau had nothing whatever to do with the behavior of either (vv. 10-13); indeed, any notion of foreseen activity as a ground of his choice is specifically denied. God’s determination was made “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad,” and this was “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls” (v. 11). And from this Paul draws the broader application: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (v. 16). In context, Paul’s view of election excludes anything from the human side.
Romans 8:29 in Immediate Context
Coming closer, it is evident that the immediate context of Romans 8:29 itself requires a predestinarian understanding.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 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 (Rom. 8:28-30).
Paul’s intent here is manifestly to encourage believers in light of our weaknesses and the troubles that surround us in a fallen, cursed world that often opposes. Our confidence that God will “work all things together for good” is grounded in the fact that he has called us “according to his [not our] purpose” (v. 28). This purpose stretches from eternity to eternity, securing his people in grace forever (vv. 29-30). The assurance Paul offers stems from nothing about us but from God’s side entirely – his own choice and purpose. From eternity past God has initiated a saving work for us that he will infallibly carry out to our final glorification. Here, Paul says, is solid ground for assurance – not that God saw something in us and responded accordingly but that in grace he set his love on us and determined to make us his forever.
“Whom he Foreknew”
Finally, we should also note that the object of God’s foreknowledge here is his people themselves, not their behavior or actions – “whom [not what] he foreknew he predestinated.” The notions of divine favor and initiative—electing love—remain evident.
Election is God’s sovereign choice of whom he would save, a choice grounded in himself alone apart from considerations of anything in us. God’s foreknowledge is a causative concept closely related to the doctrine of predestination. In those passages that speak of his foreknowledge of his elect (Rom. 8:29; 11:2; 1Pet. 1:2) it further connotes divine favor – God’s electing love and saving purpose. Romans 8:29 – “whom he foreknew he predestined” – is therefore an assuring reminder to us, believers, that our salvation is a divine work from beginning to end.
Soli Deo gloria!
Note: Portions of this essay were adapted from Fred Zaspel’s brief entries in Lexham Survey of Theology.
- Matthew Barrett and Thomas Nettles, Whomever He Wills
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.669–91
- Wayne Grudem, “Election is Not Based on God’s Foreknowledge of Our Faith”
- Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p.532–534
- Thomas Schreiner, Romans, p.451–453
- Sam Storms, Chosen for Life
- Sam Storms, “Elect According to the Foreknowledge of the Father”
- Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol.1, p.77–154
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