In Part 3 of this series on predestination, I challenged you to do a little homework and search for the word “predestination” using your favorite Bible app. If you did this, you discovered that the word “predestination” isn’t actually in the Bible! What the Bible does talk about, however, are people and events being “predestined” or “foreordained” by God.
This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it’s an important one. For although our eternal “destination” is clearly of paramount significance, we do both God and ourselves a disservice if we fail to marvel at the God-ordained “destiny” that gets us there. Because ultimately, fixating on the result of the process not only truncates our understanding of salvation in general, but quite frankly, also robs God of His deserved glory.
To draw an analogy, imagine Beethoven sitting down to compose his timeless 5th symphony. Before penning the first measure, he already knew how he wanted to open the piece, how it was going to conclude, and which themes he planned to develop throughout all four movements. At the same time, he determined the instrumentation, dynamics, and harmonies that would bring his vision to life when the piece was performed. In every sense of the word, Beethoven “predestined” the entire composition. Every note is intentional, and every musician has a unique part to play, such that audiences today are still awed by the genius of Beethoven’s masterpiece whenever it is performed.
Similarly, God has ordained a “symphony” for all of history which begins with…and eventually culminates in…the establishment of His eternal kingdom. We see the wonder of His vision on full display in the opening chapters of Genesis, wherein He inaugurates an earthly kingdom predicated upon the themes of boundless love, perfect righteousness, and matchless glory. Then, in the final pages of Revelation, we see the supreme glory of God’s Kingdom under the eternal reign of His chosen King, Jesus Christ.
But unlike Beethoven, who had every reason to expect that the orchestra would faithfully realize his vision when his symphony was performed, God foresaw that His “musicians” weren’t going to play the notes as they were written. In fact, He knew that mankind would utterly destroy the sublime harmonies of His magnificent score, preferring selfishness over love, evil instead of righteousness, and shame in place of glory!
Furthermore, whereas Beethoven would have likely thrown up his hands in disgust and stormed off the stage, God did precisely the opposite. For rather than firing every inept musician, God intentionally chose to work every wrong note and miscue into the score. And in the end, when God’s masterpiece finally reaches its climax, we will stand in awe before our gracious God who has brought His Kingdom to fruition…in spite of all of the forces that conspired against it. It’s the very essence of Romans 8:28:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:28 (ESV)
If you’ve heard this verse once, I’m sure you’ve heard it 1,000 times. Unfortunately, though, whenever we read this passage through the eyes and ears of 21st century, western Christianity, we reduce it to little more than a mantra and miss its intended impact. But try to grasp the significance of this verse to the fledgling church in Rome! In the years following Paul’s letter, they would need to cling to the truth of Romans 8:28 as their lives would be marked by relentless persecution, suffering, and martyrdom:
- First century Christians were thrown into prison simply for upholding the name of Christ.
- They were used as human torches in Nero’s gardens, burned alive for their testimony.
- They were torn to pieces by wild beasts in the Coliseum on account of their faith.
In fact, the entirety of Romans 8 reads like an apostolic “half-time speech” given to a battered, demoralized team that has had a rough first half. Paul is essentially encouraging the 1st century church—and by association, us today—to stick to the game plan and play hard in the second half. Because although things may look bleak, Paul wants us to know that our faith is not futile, and that God is still in control. He wants us to remember that the victory has already been won, so that even in the face of overwhelming adversity, we can persevere in the knowledge that nothing can separate God’s children from His love!
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Without a doubt, Romans 8 was written to assure every believer that our suffering is never in vain. For since God is in control of every situation—including our trials—we know that everything happens for a reason, “according to His purpose” (v. 28):
For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it.
Furthermore, since we trust that God is good, we can press on in the full assurance that God’s reasons for allowing our afflictions are also good. Or to put it differently, since God works through all things to advance His kingdom—even when we can’t see it—whatever is good for His kingdom is clearly good for His faithful servants, “those who love God.”
So, is the end of the story—the “destination”—important? Absolutely! Is Christ worthy of the glory, power, and honor that we see Him receive in the final chapters of Revelation? Without question! But if we don’t contemplate the mess between Genesis 3 and Revelation 20, we completely miss the profound love of a Holy, righteous God who was not willing to abandon creation and leave His “orchestra” to its own chaotic, discordant devices; moreover, Christ’s glory is diminished, and His sacrifice effectively becomes little more than a footnote. It’s like listening to only the last 15 seconds of Beethoven’s 5th symphony and thinking we know anything about his masterpiece.
As such, even though knowing that Christ will one day reign in righteousness is what guarantees our future hope, we dare not discount the price that was paid to get there. Jesus is both the Lion and the Lamb, and we cannot separate one from the other. We cannot merely focus on how things ultimately “end up”, because we will fail to apprehend the wisdom and mercy of our God who somehow brings everything together even when it seems that the composition is about to fall apart. This probably seems like common sense, and yet we make this very mistake when we talk about doctrines of “predestination.”
So how does this notion of “God working all things together for good” in Romans 8:28 inform our understanding of what it means for us to be individually “predestined”? Quite simply, it is the key to understanding the next two verses:
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)
To this point in our series, we have been hyper-focused on the events and circumstances that contribute to our conversion, but in these two verses we essentially get “the rest of the story”. Known as the ordo salutis, which is Latin for the “order of salvation”, these verses provide an outline of the steps in a person’s salvation…and being “predestined” takes center stage. Consequently, this passage has spurred endless debate between Calvinists and Arminians, because when Calvinists read it, it sounds something like this:
From before time began, God foreknew everyone whom He was going to save. Accordingly, He determined (predestined) to give them new hearts that were capable of receiving Christ. He did this to guarantee Christ’s inheritance, for all those who have been born again will ultimately respond in repentance to the conviction of the Holy Spirit (calling). And all those who repent and receive Christ are not only declared to be righteous in His sight (justified) but are guaranteed the gift of eternal life when they are eventually glorified in His presence.
Arminians, on the other hand, read the passage this way:
Before anything existed, God looked down through time and foresaw everyone who would one day respond to the Gospel (calling) by falling upon Christ as their Lord and Savior. These are the ones whom God has predestined for salvation, purposing to give them new hearts and thereby declaring them to be righteous (justified) by virtue of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. And ultimately, all those whose sin has been covered with the blood of Christ will one day receive eternal life when they are glorified in His presence.
If you just consider the bold, italicized words in the Arminian rendering, Calvinists object that Arminians get things “out of order”. For whereas Paul clearly puts God’s “calling” of “those whom God foreknew” after He has already “predestined” them, Arminians apparently reverse the chain of events. For that reason alone, Calvinists declare that the Arminian view of salvation is fatally flawed; moreover, they contend that Arminians actually rob God of His sovereignty by turning “predestination” into little more than a divine “rubber stamp”. (And on this latter point, I’m inclined to agree…)
Conversely, Arminians critique the way in which Calvinists constrain God’s foreknowledge, not to mention the issue of free will in general…hence the cycle continues. And quite frankly, as long as we accept the premise that these two verses are primarily concerned with helping us understand how someone “gets saved”, then this debate is doomed (dare I say…destined?) to continue.
The problem is that even though the moment of someone’s conversion isn’t explicitly mentioned, Calvinists and Arminians alike distort this crucial passage by reducing God’s act of “predestining” His children to mean “the cause of their conversion”; accordingly, they will never agree on what the passage means. Because practically speaking, this perspective inherently restricts what it means to be “predestined”, “called”, and “justified” to a single point in time, all focused on the moment that someone accepts Christ. Not that this moment isn’t of utmost importance, but this narrow view of being “predestined” ignores the fact that our justification is ultimately tied to a lifetime of obedience and daily repentance…not a single decision, or even a “good start”:
But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
James 2:20-24 (NKJV)
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ.
Indeed, Calvinist and Arminian interpretations of this passage make sense only if you de-couple these two verses from the surrounding context, which ignores the fact that Paul is writing Romans 8 to believers who are experiencing unimaginable persecution.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
Once again, try to put yourself in their shoes! The believers in Rome were probably wondering if God had rejected them, or if He was punishing them; yet, we have already seen that Paul is assuring them of precisely the opposite. They are in the center of His will, their suffering is for the sake of His kingdom and His glory, and they can persevere in the knowledge that their salvation is indeed secure. Therefore, Paul is urging the believers to remain faithful to the name of Christ, to endure the persecution by holding fast to their eternal hope, and to trust that their suffering is not in vain. As such, perhaps the broader context of Romans 8:18-39 should really be referred to as the patientia fidelium—”the endurance of the faithful”—with the so-called ordo salutis being simply a reminder that those who remain faithful to God can also trust that He will be faithful to keep His promise to receive them into Heaven. Consequently, when we read Romans 8:18-39 in the correct light, it sounds more like this:
I know what you are enduring for the name of Christ, and how you long for our future hope: the redemption of our bodies and spending eternity with Christ! Know that the Spirit of God groans with you as you patiently endure these trials and wait for that hope to be realized. Also know that until that day comes, the Spirit will help us endure in spite of our weakness. For even if we don’t know how we should pray, the Spirit intercedes for us according to God’s will.
Because for all those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose, we can be sure that He is working all things together for good…including our suffering! So do not lose heart, for there are no accidents or surprises with God. He has always known that all of this was going to happen to you, to those whom He loves; indeed, everything that is happening is actually a necessary part of His plan to glorify His Son and expand His Kingdom! So although it doesn’t seem good now, just know that at this time, and for this season, He is calling you to this difficult trial. Not because he is displeased with you, or because He is indifferent to your plight, or because He has removed His love from you, but it is for the sake of the Name of His Son, by whose blood you have been redeemed.
So I urge you in Christ to stand firm, and do not waver from your testimony. Keep trusting in the One who has redeemed you, for we know that when God calls us to endure trials and persecution for His glory, He is actually making us more and more like His Son! Indeed, just as we participate in His sufferings, we will also share in His glory! For as we patiently obey and endure, His Spirit is increasingly revealed in us. And one day, when we see Him face to face at last, that glory will be fully realized for all eternity.
Remember, since God is for us, who can be against us? Nothing He asks of us can separate us from His love, for the sufferings of this present time are for only a moment and cannot compare with the glory that will be revealed in us for all eternity!
As God’s children, then, we need to recognize that what is good for God’s kingdom often means that we will be called to sacrifice for His sake and for His glory. This reality runs contrary to much of contemporary preaching that treats Christ more like a genie than The Lord; however, it should not come as a surprise. For not only did Jesus warn that His disciples should expect persecution, but the apostles repeatedly admonish us to rejoice in our trials because they strengthen our faith even as they develop the character of Christ within us:
Do you remember what I told you? ‘A slave is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you.
Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world.
1 Peter 4:13
We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
Romans 5:3-4 (NIV)
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.
Here again, it’s all too easy to put ourselves and our own “good” at the heart of Romans 8:28, but this only leads to confusion and discouragement when pain and suffering inevitably comes our way. On the other hand, when we start from the standpoint of God’s kingdom and His glory, then this verse becomes a source of strength during those times when our lives aren’t meeting up to our “expectations.” Accordingly, maybe the NIV gets more to the heart of the matter:
And we know that in all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good—with those who have been called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:28 (NIV – alternate translation)
Furthermore, if we are truly “those who love God,” then our response to His call upon our lives—regardless of the personal cost—will be one of willing obedience and devotion. Just like the first century martyrs who died for the name of Christ. Or like those who are dying yet today. Or like Jesus Himself on the eve of His crucifixion. They gave their lives in the certain hope that their heavenly reward is secure for all eternity.
So while it is doubtful that those early martyrs fully grasped the reason that God allowed their intense pain and suffering, it seems clear that God used their vicious persecution to establish an enduring testimony to the truthfulness of the Gospel. It is sheer credulity to assert that so many people would have suffered so intensely for something that they knew to be a mere myth or a lie, so the “good” that God brought out of their affliction was clearly the building up of His church! The blood of the martyrs glorified God by proclaiming the truth of the Gospel then…and it still shouts to us today.
Similarly, while we may not fully comprehend how God is working in the midst of our own tribulations, one day it will be clear to us, and we will praise God for His wisdom and His goodness. We will finally understand how even our most agonizing trials fit into God’s plan; we will see the good that God brought out of every situation; and we will realize that He never let us face anything beyond what we were able to bear:
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
1 Corinthians 10:13
When we read this passage, our minds naturally gravitate towards those things we are tempted to do which would constitute sin; however, disobedience also manifests itself whenever we yield to temptations that prompt us to avoid the things that God is actually calling us to do, especially things that are difficult, painful, or costly. And given the suffering that Paul continually appeals to throughout Romans 8, this latter kind of temptation is probably the thrust of Romans 8:29-30. For although they could have escaped persecution and death by simply renouncing the name of Christ, God was calling the believers in Rome to stay faithful to Him and to trust in His goodness. They don’t need to understand His plan, they don’t need to approve of it, they simply need to obey. Those that do are the ones who will be justified and ultimately glorified, while those who renounce God’s calling, will not:
“But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.” But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.
Accordingly, until the day that we are finally called home to spend eternity with our Lord and Savior, we need to learn to emulate the many heroes of our faith—both past and present—who persevered through excruciating circumstances despite the cost. We need to learn to live by faith and not by sight, because it is our willingness to trust in God’s plan that demonstrates the depth of our faith and truly glorifies Him. Just like Abraham’s decision to leave his homeland…or his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Not to mention the dedication of Peter, Paul, James, and John, who gave their lives for the Gospel. And don’t forget about the faithfulness of Noah, David, and Job! Then, of course, there is Jesus’ supreme act of obedience to the Father when He went to the cross:
He humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
In conclusion, while our individual “destination” is certainly the overarching goal of God’s plan for each of us, the “end result” of His plan is really just that: the inevitable outcome of a sequence of carefully planned events and circumstances that God decreed before time began. For just as Beethoven prescribed the part that each musician would contribute to his symphony, God foreknew all those who would surrender their hearts to Him, and He subsequently gave them unique parts to play in His masterpiece. He mapped out our individual destinies, for our eternal good as well as His glory, such that even the things that seem to be contrary to His plan are nonetheless being integrated by God towards a greater purpose. And along the way, as we faithfully and consistently submit to whatever cross that God has asked us to carry, our obedience not only glorifies the name of Christ, but it simultaneously conforms us to His image:
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.
Romans 8:29 (ESV)
In short, God doesn’t merely predestinate our glorified “end”—which is the emphasis of both Calvinists and Arminians—but He orchestrates the “means” of our sanctification as well. For although God accepts us as we are when we initially come to Christ, He never leaves us as we were. Conversion is simply the first step in God’s broader plan for each of His children, our individual sanctification:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification.
1 Thessalonians 4:3 (KJV)
The heart of “predestination”, then, is really the unique part that God has written for each one of us to play in the drama of redemptive history. His Son is clearly the featured soloist, but God has nonetheless given each of His children supporting parts to play as His Kingdom advances towards its eventual fulfillment. And as we learn to increasingly trust and obey, our wrong notes are fewer, our miscues less frequent, and our parts take on more and more of the Concertmaster’s majestic melody:
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
Thus, when we consider what it means to be predestined by our wise, loving, Father, we need to remember that the journey from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22…including our part in it…is the emphasis of the Father’s sovereign plan. It’s about redeeming what was lost…and glorifying the One who died to redeem it. It’s about establishing His glorious Kingdom upon the earth…even as it is in Heaven. It’s about transformation, reconciliation, and restoration, such that any understanding of “predestination” that skips over the glory of that transformation—for everything…and everyone—simply misses the point.