And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed (KJV).Of all of the verses in the Bible, this is the one that has taken me the longest to discover what, to me, provides a satisfactory interpretation, corresponding with conditional election. On the surface, it sounds as if these people had been elected to believe. Then, it seemed to follow that all who had been elected to believe believed on that occasion.
As I pointed out in the study of John above, there were those who were already saved prior to the coming of Jesus Christ. They believed in the redemptive message revealed in the Old Testament. They had a personal, trusting relationship with God. Probably most of these true believers lived in Palestine. Since Jews had migrated to others parts of the world, some of these true believers would have lived in other parts of the world as well. Since our concern in this passage is with what took place in Antioch in Pisidia, I think we could safely say that there were some in Asia Minor who were saved by believing the Old Testament redemptive revelation prior to Paul’s first missionary journey. They were already saved by faith, but they had not come in contact with the message of Jesus Christ.
Along with the spread of the Jews, there was the spread of the influence of Jewish monotheism, the way of life set forth in the Old Testament, and the redemptive revelation that was intended to be a message of hope for all mankind. Many Gentiles were influenced by the Jews as they went forth. Proselytes (Acts 2:10 and 13:43) were Gentiles who embraced the Jewish faith including circumcision of the males.
F. F. Bruce says that the “simple monotheism of Jewish synagogue worship” and Jewish ethics attracted many Gentiles who were not ready to become full proselyte Jews. Some of these Gentiles went to synagogue and became very familiar with Jewish prayers and readings from the Septuagint. Others even observed Sabbath and abstained from certain foods. Thus Bruce argues, “That the first Gentile to hear and accept the gospel should be a God-fearer is the more significant because, as we shall see later in Acts, it was such God-fearers who formed the nucleus of the Christian community in one city after another in the course of Paul’s missionary activity.”
These Gentiles who were influenced by Jewish thought, but chose not to become proselytes, are referred to as devout men or God-fearers. If some of the Jews were saved by faith before the coming of Jesus, it follows that some of the Gentile proselytes and God-fearers were also saved by faith. I think that any serious study of Acts must keep this observation in mind. I am not suggesting that all of these God-fearers were saved prior to hearing that Jesus the Messiah had come. There would have been some who would not have taken matters that seriously. However, I do believe that some were saved by believing the redemptive revelation of God given in the Old Testament before they heard the gospel message. That possibility no longer exists. But it did exist during this transition period.
The Gentiles who had been influenced by the Jews as they had migrated to different parts of the Roman Empire would not have found the concept of individual salvation as distinguished from corporate salvation as objectionable as the Jews did. I think this could account for much of the early success in reaching Gentiles with the gospel.
Now, let us see how this viewpoint helps us understand Acts 13:48. Verse 43 mentions “proselytes.” They were among those who were persuaded by Paul and Barnabas “to continue in the grace of God.” On the next sabbath day “almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” (verse 44). The Jews were envious of the success that Paul and Barnabas were having and spoke against them (verse 46). Paul and Barnabas, then, turned to the Gentiles. When this move was made to the Gentiles, it is said, “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (verse 48, kjv). The Greek word for “ordained” is tassō. It means “to ordain,” “to appoint,” “to allot,” or “to assign.” The form of the word that appears in verse 48 is tetagmenoi. It is a perfect passive participle form of tassō. It is preceded by ēsanwhich is the imperfect form of the Greek word eimi (to be). The expression ēsan tetagmenoiis what is called in the Greek a periphrastic pluperfect construction. The literal meaning would be “as many as were having been appointed to eternal life believed.” Or in a less literal way, it would be “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.”
The “had been appointed to eternal life” or the “appointment to eternal life” had occurred before they heard and believed the gospel that was presented by Paul and Barnabas. However, the wording does not require that this appointment to eternal life must be a reference to eternity past. I think what the verse is telling us is that all of those who had been saved prior to their hearing the New Testament gospel subsequently believed when they heard the gospel being presented by Paul and Barnabas. At the moment of their salvation in the past, they were appointed to eternal life. When they heard about the redemptive work of Jesus the Messiah, they believed and became New Testament believers.
I believe that what I have given is the most likely interpretation of this passage. If this is the case, this passage would present no problem for the position of conditional election. I would also like to point out that, in so far as the wording is concerned, it could be possible for Acts 13:48 to refer to an appointment made in eternity past. However, there is a problem for those who hold that position. The verse says, “As many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” If it is a reference to an unconditional appointment in eternity past, it would then mean that of the group present that day “as many as” or “all among them” that would ever be saved were saved on that occasion. I would doubt that those who believe in unconditional election believe that. It is hard to believe that, of that group, from among those who did not get saved on that occasion no one ever got saved later.
— F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation. (J. M. Pinson, ed.; Nashville, TN: Randall House, 2011), pp. 163-169.