And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom [those] he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom [those] he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. (Rom. 8:28-30)
Our passage opens with God’s wonderful promise to work actively to bring “good” out of everything that happens to those who
- Demonstrate genuine love for God (present participle), and
- Are “the called according to his purpose.”
The “good” is not health, wealth, and worldly happiness, but is rather defined in verse 29 as His purpose to make us like Jesus (“conformed to the image of his Son”).
In our text, Paul traces God’s saving purpose through five stages from its beginning in God’s mind (foreknowledge) to its ultimate consummation in the coming glory (glorification).
These five stages he names as
- Justification, and
In this message, we will limit our study to the first of these stages: God’s foreknowledge.
Within the last ten years, a number of thinkers within the evangelical church have begun to deny God’s perfect knowledge about the future. They suggest that the sovereign God has chosen to limit certain aspects of His foreknowledge of human free-will choices so that they can remain truly free. The current term for this view is “open theism.”1
The presupposition underlying open theism is this: if what God foreknows has to happen, then God’s foreknowledge must involve predetermination, thereby denying man’s grace enabled ability to make truly free decisions.
I wish to approach our study of foreknowledge by seeking to answer biblically two questions:
- “How much does God know?” and
- “Does foreknowledge predetermine the future?”
How Much Does God Know? The Question of Omniscience
GOD’S KNOWLEDGE IS TOTAL
The Psalmist said that God’s “understanding is infinite” (Psa. 147:5). The biblical concept of “infinite” includes the ideas of “beyond measure, without limit, beyond comprehension.”
This means God knows all there is to know. In addition to infinite understanding, God claims to be the “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last” (Rev. 22:13).
This implies that He has complete knowledge of all things, past, present, and future and has no need to learn. He already knows how everything will end.
In fact, God has never learned anything from anyone. Isaiah stresses this truth with a series of rhetorical questions: “Who hath directed the Spirit of the Lord, or being his counselor hath taught him? With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge, and showed to him the way of understanding?” (Isa. 40:13, 14).
God knows effortlessly all that can be known. He knows with a fullness of perfection that includes every possible item of knowledge. “I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done” (Isa. 46:9, 10).
God knows effortlessly all that can be known. He knows with a fullness of perfection that includes every possible item of knowledge.
He knows the future and is never surprised or amazed. “Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O Lord, Thou dost know it all” (Psa. 139:4). God is “perfect in knowledge” (Job 37:16).
ACTUAL AND POTENTIAL FUTURE
God Knows the Difference Between the Actual Future and the Potential Future
In relation to any given point in time, God has complete knowledge of all that will happen after that point in time (the actual future), as well as complete knowledge of all that could happen after that point in time (the potential future). God knows the difference between the potential future and the actual future.
There is a perfect example of God’s knowledge of the possible future in the life of David. When Saul was seeking David to kill him, David asked God, “Will the men of Keilah deliver me up into his hand? Will Saul come down, as thy servant hath heard? O LORD God of Israel, I beseech thee, tell thy servant. And the LORD said, He will come down. Then said David, Will the men of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hand of Saul? And the LORD said, They will deliver thee up” (1 Sam. 23:11, 12).
God knew that if David stayed at Keilah, the inhabitants would deliver him up to Saul (the potential future). This is foreknowledge. But, since God told David what He foreknew, David left Keilah and they were not able to deliver him up to Saul.
Thus, God’s foreknowledge did not “predestinate” David’s capture.
Another example of God’s knowledge of all possibilities without determining the future is given in Luke 10:13. Jesus said, “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.”
Jesus said they could have repented and would have repented if they had seen the mighty works He performed.
Therefore, foreknowledge and predestination are two different things and must not be combined.
ACTUAL FUTURE AND EXPERIENTIAL TIME-SPACE EVENTS
God Differentiates Between Knowledge of the Actual Future and Knowledge of Experiential Time-Space Events
God’s foreknowledge of all future events differs from His experiential time-space knowledge.
For example, 1 Peter 1:20 speaks of Jesus as the Lamb of God who was “foreknown” before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for our sake. There is a difference between what God “foreknows” about the future and the actual experiential occurrence of the foreknown event in time-space history.
For example, God foreknew that Abraham would offer Isaac in obedience to His command. However, when Abraham actually offered Isaac in time-space history, God could say without denying His foreknowledge, “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gen. 22:12). God was not declaring that He just “learned” something He had not previously known would happen. Rather, He was saying that Abraham’s obedience demonstrated experientially in a time-space context what He already knew would happen from His eternal foreknowledge.
God was saying that Abraham’s obedience demonstrated experientially in a time-space context what He already knew would happen from His eternal foreknowledge
In like manner, Jesus was the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). God foreknew that Jesus would be slain. When Jesus was actually slain on Mt. Calvary, God’s foreknowledge became experiential time-space knowledge.
Does Foreknowledge Predetermine the Future?
Although we have already touched on this subject, we need to examine the key passages that address the use of “foreknowledge” in the New Testament. It occurs seven times, two times as a noun (prognosis), and five times as a verb (proginosko).
THE TWO NOUN USES OF FOREKNOWLEDGE
The two noun uses are Acts 2:23 and 1 Peter 1:2. In Acts 2:23 we read, “Him [Jesus], being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” This verse indicates that God made His plans (boule) in light of what He knew (prognosis) would happen.
God’s knowledge that wicked men would crucify His Son does not, however, imply or necessitate causation. In other words, just because God knew what would happen, there is nothing in the verse that says He “caused” wicked men to crucify His Son. Nor is there any evidence that the specific people who chose to crucify Jesus had to do so.
The set of verses that teaches human responsibility for choices must not be set aside because of “logical” paradoxes. Those who participated in God’s plan for crucifixion did so willingly and of their own grace-enabled free choice. There is no textual evidence that they were pawns in a “predestinated” future which was set in motion by God’s foreknowledge.
Through the grace of God, each person who participated in the crucifixion could have chosen not to participate. There were others who would have chosen to take their place. In 1 Peter 1:2 we read, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied.”
This verse says God foreknew all who would accept Jesus’ saving provision and thereby become elect. His foreknowledge, however, did not “cause” them to respond to His saving work in Christ any more than foreknowledge in other areas results in people as puppets on strings.
THE FIVE VERBAL USES OF FOREKNOWLEDGE
The five occurrences of “foreknowledge” as a verb are as follows:
- “Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee” (Acts 26:5);
- “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren (Rom 8:29)2;
- “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew (Rom. 11:2)3;
- “For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you” (1 Pet. 1:20)4; and
- “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled
men and fall from your own steadfastness” (2 Pet. 3:17).
God knows all future events perfectly, including the grace-enabled free, moral choices of human beings. What He foreknows will happen is certain to happen.
While some of these certainties are necessary, others are truly contingent (capable of taking place in more than one way). It is not contrary to Scripture to say that, whereas the free acts of morally responsible persons are contingent, the freedom to choose does not contradict certainty.
The same event can be both certain from the standpoint of God’s foreknowledge and contingent from the standpoint of human choice. God’s foreknowledge of an event does not demand causation of that event.
It is also true that some events (such as prophecy) are necessary and as such are produced by providentially guided causes that allow no other possibility. “That God knows which choice I will make (so long as we consider knowing as ‘mere’ knowledge) in no way necessitates the choice.
Then the future is both certain and open; it will not be closed until it occurs. The action is, therefore, truly contingent and really can go either way, even though the way it will go (to write tautology again) is the way it will go.”5
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.
- Among the advocates of open theism are Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, David Basinger and Gregory Boyd.
- Forster & Marston, God’s Strategy in Human History, 205: “The foreknowledge [Paul] has in view implies a complete understanding of them, of their characters, their weaknesses, and their reactions. He is saying that God completely understood those to whom he gave the destiny of being conformed to the image of Christ.”
- Forster & Marston offer two possible interpretations of this verse: (1) God knew that Israel would reject Christ, yet he made promises to them and will not go back on them now (i.e., he foreknew “their thinking and actions”); or (2) that “God entered into a personal relationship with Israel before their later unbelief to which Paul refers.” The concept of choice would be present in (2) but only as a necessary component of entering a personal relationship (p. 194).
- Forster & Marston, 193: “God foreknew the redemptive function of the Messiah before history began, but its actual manifestation did not come until the New Covenant.” This focuses on the “foreknow…but manifested in these times” contrast.
- Robert E. Picirilli, “Foreknowledge, Freedom, And The Future,” JETS, Vol. 43, 2000 p. 263.