Continuing on from the previous lesson in verse 8, we arrive at a couple of verses that could really get us off course if we let them distract us from the main point of this chapter.
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Romans 8:29-30 NIV
Here in these verses, those who study and teach the theological concept of “predestination” (which also goes by other terms) would say one thing, while those who emphasize our individual choice whether or not to follow God would say something else.
However, I think that we can learn from these verses without going too far down that rabbit hole. My philosophy on theological debates is that, for those who are mature enough in their Christian faith to get into the details, and have a logical, Biblical-based discussion, it can be healthy to study the finer points of doctrine (like these). For those who are going to just bludgeon other Christians for coming to a different conclusion on a challenging topic (especially those that aren’t necessarily central to our purpose, faith, and salvation), though, why bother getting into an argument in the first place?
If you’re still reading after that thought, let’s first explain a few words:
- God’s foreknowledge means that He knows ahead of time what will happen. Since He sits outside of time, He has already seen all of history, from creation to when He wraps everything up. I think that sometimes messages about the future that God gives to prophets (including the well-known Revelation to John the apostle) aren’t always something that God is promising to do, but are rather just events that He already knows will happen.
- At the word level, predestination is to define a destination or destiny ahead of time. In the theological world, some have interpreted this as God deciding ahead of time who will be saved, and who won’t be saved. In a more general sense, though, it’s an outcome defined ahead of time. In this case, it is the pre-defined outcome (or, literally a “destiny”) for those who choose to come to God.
- I think of being conformed (to a pattern) like squishing clay or Play-Doh into a mold. In our physical, mental, and spiritual selves, we are made into a particular shape or form, through a combination of how we were created, how we let our environment impact us, and the choices that we make. So, being conformed into the image of Jesus is being made like Him in some way. When we choose to follow Jesus, we don’t become God, but we can become more righteous, God-honoring, and loving. (A commentator also suggested that maybe this passage is anticipating our resurrected body, like Jesus obtained after He was raised from the dead. I like that idea, but I also believe that real, positive, transformation occurs for those who follow Jesus even before we get to Heaven.)
- Being called could mean that we are called to salvation, but – in light of verse 28 – I wonder if it also might just mean that we are called to a role in God’s plan: i.e., that we are called to a purpose in serving God.
- Justification is being declared righteous, and comes from a similar Greek word as righteousness.
- And, being glorified could be something that we look forward to in Heaven, but I suspect that we are enjoying portions of God’s glory even here on earth.
We also need to remember that this passage follows Romans 8:28, so it is likely telling us either how God accomplishes good, or who the people are “who have been called according to his purpose”. It’s not a passage that we just pull out in isolation to talk with those who subscribe to certain beliefs about its interpretation.
Personally, I would interpret this passage something like the following:
- God knew ahead of time who, throughout history, would accept Him in faith. He can look forward and backwards across time to identify those who who love Him.
- In God’s plan, those who did so (and, from our linear and limited view of time, will do so) were being made, are being made, or will be made more like Jesus. (We might refer to this process as sanctification.) God also brings these people into His family, where Jesus is the firstborn and the people are brought in who accept Him. These are the same as those who God knew would accept Him. In fact, we even accumulate a family resemblance, kind of like how one can see a family resemblance even among children who have been adopted into a new family.
- As mentioned above, one commentator (Cottrell) interprets this state of being conformed (to be like Jesus) as our resurrected bodies when we are raised from the dead ourselves. Without dismissing that future anticipation, I also think that we should become more like Jesus even while we’re here on earth, whether or not Paul was only referring to our resurrected bodies here. In fact, the Lookout says, “Is God predestining individuals to be saved or is he predestining a believing community to look like Jesus? In light of the next phrase, which completes the sentence, it would seem the latter.”
- Those who God knew would love Him have a purpose, and they were called to that purpose, even as they were pronounced righteous. With this justification, we look forward to glory.
If you interpret this passage a little bit differently, that’s OK. I’m probably not going to say someone isn’t a good Christian when they are studying God’s Word intently and come to a different conclusion from me, as long as that conclusion is based on the Bible and we are both willing to continue to seek God’s truth. (I do have some specific thoughts on the role of God’s calling and man’s free will on salvation, but I prefer to talk to this site’s audience about what the Bible seems to be saying in the context of the larger chapter, here.)
Regardless, though, for those who have confirmed that they love God (by accepting, following, obeying, testifying to, and living for Jesus), righteousness and glory await. And, if you haven’t yet trusted God to take care of you by giving your life over to Him, the invitation is still open!
From Sunday School lesson prepared for February 20, 2022
- The Lookout, February 20, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Romans, Volume 1, by Jack Cottrell. College Press Publishing Company, © 1996.