In Romans 8:29, Paul writes this: "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers."
What does Paul mean by predestined?
First, remember Paul teaching that we are saved by grace, through Christ; a salvation that is received (experienced) by faith, which, itself, is God's gift of grace (a sharing in Christ's own faith, through the Spirit--see the KJV translation of Gal. 2:20).
Thus we understand that our salvation does not rest on what we, of ourselves, do. Rather, it rests on what Christ has done, and is doing, on our behalf.
Through the Incarnation of his only Son, God the Father, through the Spirit, has redeemed no less than the whole of creation (not just part of it, nor just some people and not others). When we talk about the redemption of the creation through the Incarnation of the Son of God (which is accomplished through Jesus’ conception, birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and continuing session), we are not talking about just some logical argument or some finely tuned set of propositions. Rather, we are talking about the mystery of ultimate Truth itself, the mystery contained in the being of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.
When the Son of God takes up the created order into himself by becoming something he was not (that is, human), what he takes up cannot fail to be redeemed, because it has been taken into the One who “upholds the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3). When we trust in Christ, we are not just hoping things will work out all right, we are in communion with the Reality who eternally makes all things all right. It’s all summed up in what Paul writes in Romans 8:31-33.
We have been predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son of God. It was God’s great plan from the beginning, the mystery of the ages revealed in Jesus Christ at the fullness of time, to redeem wayward humanity (all of us) to himself.
Some people are called to faith in Christ and taste his redemption before others (Ephesians 1:12). Those called to faith early are a living testament to the grace God has poured out on the world, a grace that will come fully into view at the appearing of Christ (Titus 2:11-14). And it is all done according to the foreknowledge of the God of grace who has been working out in Christ his gracious plan for humanity from the beginning (Matthew 25:34).
The creation cannot fail to be redeemed and transformed when the Son of God takes it up into his own being. It becomes a new creation. As the original creation was declared “good” by God, then spoiled by rebellion, so the new creation is made “good” in Christ, and cannot be spoiled, because it dwells in the uncreated light of the Son.
What God makes is good. Human freedom is good. What humans have done with that good gift of freedom is not good. But, in Christ, God redeems sinners. In Christ, God chooses all.
The doctrine of predestination is sometimes referred to as “election,” in the sense that God chooses some people out from among others for his own purposes. Abraham was chosen, or elected, by God, for example, as were his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob. Other chosen (elected) ones included Moses, Joshua, David, the prophets and of course, the people of Israel were chosen from among the other nations.
The apostle Paul wrote about predestination in several passages. In Romans 8:28-30; Ephesians 1:3-6, Paul emphasizes that election is specifically “in Christ” and that it is solely a matter of God’s own choice for his own purposes.
Then, in Romans 9-11, Paul takes the question of election further by exploring the question of Israel’s rejection of her Messiah. In the course of his argument in Romans 9-11, Paul asks the question, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory – including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:22-24).
As you might expect, this passage has been much debated over the centuries. Taken out of its context, it sounds a lot like double predestination – some predestined to be saved, the rest predestined to be damned. But we should take note of two important factors. First, Paul is not making a statement. Instead, he is asking the question, What if? The point he is making in Romans 9 and 10 is that:
- Israel has failed to be found righteous before God because they sought after righteousness their own way instead of putting their trust in Christ.
- This does not mean that God’s covenant promises have failed, however, because God is free to have mercy on whomever he chooses.
- God has had mercy on the Gentiles by bringing them into the kingdom through faith, and he has had mercy on Israel by saving a remnant though faith.
Yes, Paul argues, Israel has rejected Christ and therefore, except for a believing remnant, falls under the covenant judgments. But… then comes the biggest and best But statement in the world!... “And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again” (Romans 11:23).
That’s right. Initial unbelief is not the end of the story, after all. These people rejected Christ, yet God still holds out hope for them, hope rooted in his eternal purpose for humans and manifest in his gracious love and power to bring people, in Christ, into his kingdom. The God who is forever faithful to his covenant love provides opportunity for unbelievers to become believers, and he can do it even for dead, unbelieving Israelites! Indeed, through Christ, unbelief can turn into belief!
Paul continues: “So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins’” (verses 25-27).
God works in his own ways and in his own times, but his work is aimed toward one final outcome, his will for all people to be saved: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (verses 32-33).
Even if God were to pre-consign some to damnation and some to salvation, we would have no room to complain, because pots don’t tell the potter how to make them. But the good news---the gospel truth---is that even though God has every right to destroy us all, he instead takes our sins on himself in Christ and so redeems us and saves us. God knows what he is doing – giving us his kingdom – regardless of how it sometimes looks to us, and we can trust him to do it.