This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.
A significant number of Christians do not interpret Romans 9:6-29 in the way that I have set out in the previous posts. Very often, Romans 8:28-30 is used to support an argument for a different interpretation of Romans 9. It is therefore important that we consider these verses, to see whether the interpretation I have put forward is consistent with them. Before considering these verses in detail, I would like to note a few things:
First, as we have seen from the structure of the whole of Romans, Romans 9-11 forms a single section of the letter. When interpreting Romans 9, it therefore makes sense first to ensure that Romans 9 is interpreted in a manner that is consistent with chapters 10 and 11, before considering chapter 8. Of course, the correct interpretation of Romans 9 will be consistent with all of Romans, but considering the immediate context before parts of the letter that are less closely related is a good procedure to ensure proper interpretation.
Second, we have also seen that Romans 9-11 has a parallel section earlier in Romans, which is Romans 3:1 to 4:25. After making sure our interpretation of Romans 9 fits with chapters 10 and 11, we should then make sure it fits with this earlier section in Romans, as Paul addresses similar concepts in the two sections.
Third, once we have an interpretation of Romans 9 that fits with these closely related parts of Romans (which I believe is where we have got to), we can check that our interpretation fits with the rest of the letter, including Romans 8. We will do this now, and I hope you will agree that these verses from Romans 8 do not conflict with the proposed interpretation of Romans 9.
It is understandable that people would refer to Romans 8:28-30 in relation to Romans 9, as it does appear soon before it in the text. However, as the structural analysis has shown, it is in a different section of the letter, so it should not take priority over parts of the letter in the same section (chapters 9-11) or the parallel section (3:1-4:25).
Sadly, some people tend to read more into these verses than what they actually say, and draw conclusions about non-Christians or about how people become Christians or who will become a Christian. As I will demonstrate, these verses are not addressing these issues. They are explaining that God causes all things to work together for good for people who are already believers. The verses are not speaking of God determining who will love him, but are speaking of God determining what happens to those who do love him.
We will first consider my preferred understanding of Romans 8:28-30. We will then consider some translation decisions that were made, and then some alternative understandings.
As shown in the structural overview of Romans 8, the central verse of the chapter is verse 18: ‘For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’. On either side of this verse (in verses 12-17 and 19-30) is a consideration of what I have summarised as “glory through suffering for the children of God”. Verses 12-17 focus mainly on the present, while verses 19-30 focus mainly on the future. Verse 18 acts as a transition between these. The outermost parts of the chapter (verses 1-11 and 31-39) explain that there is ‘no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus’ (verse 1, see also verse 34).
Here is 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.”
The people whom Paul is talking about are ‘those who love God’. He is talking about Christians. This fits with what Paul has been saying throughout chapter 8. The chapter begins with ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. The chapter also ends with another use of the term ‘in Christ Jesus’ (8:39).
Just before verses 28-30, Paul refers to ‘us’ and ‘we’ (verse 26), who are ‘the saints’ (verse 27) – i.e. Christians. Verse 28 is similar to Romans 1:7, when Paul addresses the audience of his letter: ‘To all who are in Rome, loved by God, called as saints’. All of the underlined words appear in verse 28, and ‘saints’ appears at the end of verse 27.
The reference to ‘those who are called according to [God’s] purpose’ (verse 28) is also a reference to Christians. ‘Called’ in this verse is best understood as “appointed”, i.e. Christians are “appointed according to God’s purpose”. (An example from outside the Bible is how a barrister/attorney is said to have been “called to the bar”, which refers to their appointment to their role.) This is consistent with Romans 1:7 (as referred to above), in which Paul’s audience is said to be ‘called as saints’, and Romans 1:6, in which Paul states that ‘you also are the called of Jesus Christ’. 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 also shows that a person being ‘called’ by God refers to the time when they became a Christian. The phrase ‘called according to [God’s] purpose’ does not give us any information about how God decides whom he will call, or what the process of someone being ‘called’ involves. (The word ‘called’ is discussed further with reference to Romans 9:24-29.) While the ‘purpose’ to which these Christians are called is not defined explicitly, it is likely to be in line with what follows in verses 29-30, i.e. that these Christians who love God will (eventually) be ‘conformed to the image of [God’s] Son’ and ‘glorified’ (see discussion of these verses below).
Just after verses 28-30, Paul again refers to ‘us’ and ‘we’ (verses 31 and 32). Verse 33 then states ‘who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?’ The elect are the same people Paul has been speaking about, i.e. Christians. We have seen from chapter 11 that God’s elect are all who are currently trusting in Christ. The “elect” does not include those who will trust in Christ in the future but are not yet doing so. When an individual person puts their faith in Christ and becomes a Christian, they become ‘in Christ’, they become a ‘saint’, they become ‘called’, and they become ‘elect’ (as they have joined the elect (chosen) people of God, sharing in the chosenness of God’s Son). Before they trusted Christ, they were not ‘in Christ’, they were not a ‘saint’, they were not ‘called’, and they were not ‘elect’. (If your understanding of the term “elect” is different from this, please see the important discussion from chapter 11 linked earlier in this paragraph.)
Having established whom Paul is talking about, we can see that in verse 28, Paul is giving assurance to his Christian audience (those who love God) that things will work out for good for them. This would have provided great comfort to his original audience. The context is that his Christian audience can expect to go through suffering (verses 17 and 18). All things will work together for their good as they will ultimately share in Christ’s glory (verse 17).
The next verse (29) starts with the word ‘for’. It is beginning an explanation of why Paul’s audience can have assurance that all things will work out for good for those who love God. How can his audience be confident that suffering will result in glory for those who love God? What evidence does Paul have of this? The evidence Paul refers to is the past generations of those who have loved God, who have completed their life-journeys through suffering:
“ For those whom he knew before he also destined before to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”
Verse 29 is looking back at God’s dealings with faithful believers in the past. The context is those who love God (verse 28), so those whom God ‘knew before’ are those who loved God in the past (see translation discussion below). These verses therefore provide assurance that what Paul said in verse 28 is true. Paul’s audience can be confident that all things will work out for good for those who love God, because that is what has already happened to those who loved God in the past.
Regarding the faithful believers of the past, God destined for them before that something would happen to them: that they would be ‘conformed to the image of his Son’. The reason for this was to get a family of brothers and sisters ready in advance for Jesus, so that Jesus would (in the future from their perspective – hence the future orientation) be ‘the firstborn among many brothers and sisters’. I take this as referring to Jesus being the first to be born into resurrection life. After his resurrection, Jesus is referred to as being the ‘firstborn from among the dead’ (Col 1:18) and the ‘firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor 15:20). At the time of Jesus’ resurrection, although he was the first to be “born”, he already had many brothers and sisters because there already were many faithful believers already “asleep” (i.e. who had already died before the time of Jesus’ resurrection). This is why Jesus was ‘the firstborn among many brothers and sisters’. The number of faithful believers who are “asleep” is increasing as more Christians reach the end of their lives. When Jesus returns, all of these people together – Jesus’ brothers and sisters – will be “born” into resurrection life.
“ And those whom he destined before he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Verse 30 continues to speak of the faithful believers who died in the past, to show that all things worked out for good for them: they were ‘called’ (i.e. “appointed” – see above regarding verse 28) by God as his own people, they were ‘justified’ and they were ‘glorified’. Jesus said: ‘Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ (Luke 24:26). The pattern is suffering in life and then glory through death. This pattern is repeated by present believers, as Paul states in Romans 8:17: ‘provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him’. Present believers can look back to believers from the past who have already completed their time of suffering and have reached glory with Christ (having held firm in their faith until death), while those present believers are still undergoing present sufferings and are still looking forward to their future glory. Paul uses the same tense for every verb in verse 30, and these are consistently translated as past tense in English, including the final verb, ‘glorified’, because he is looking back to past generations who have already reached glory. Glory is a future reality for those currently still alive (8:17). The people from past generations have reached glory through suffering in a way that mirrors what Jesus did, which is why they have been ‘conformed to the image of his Son’ (verse 29). The fact they have reached glory shows that all things did indeed ‘work together for good’ for them (verse 28).
Hebrews 2:9-10 also speaks of suffering and glory:
“But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.”
I will now explain some of the translation decisions involved in the translation used above.
“Knew before” / “foreknew”
The phrase “knew before” I have used above in Romans 8:29 is often translated as “foreknew” in modern translations of this verse. These modern translations follow the King James Version (KJV) in translating it that way. However, prior to the KJV, other translations were used for this term. Both William Tyndale and John Wycliffe’s Bible translations use “knew before”. The Jubilee Bible, which translates into English an early Spanish translation by Casiodoro de Reina, a contemporary of William Tyndale, uses “knew beforehand”. The reference to those whom God “knew before” in verse 29 fits with the view that verse 28 is about present believers (from Paul’s perspective), and verses 29-30 are about past believers.
The significance of this difference is that the English word “foreknew” refers to knowledge of something before it happens/exists – knowledge that looks ahead into the future from sometime in the past, whereas “knew before” does not carry this implication. For example, I can say that my grandfather (who passed away a few years ago) is someone I “knew before” – I knew him in the past while he was still alive. It would be very different for me to say that I “foreknew” my grandfather – that I knew him in advance from before he existed!
The usage of this term in Romans 8:29 to refer specifically to believers (from the past) is consistent with the use of the term “known” in the Bible – for a person to be “known” by God refers to more than his mere knowledge about them, but includes a relational aspect as well.
The same Greek word is used in Romans 11:2. Similarly, many modern translations follow the King James Version in using the word “foreknew” instead of “knew before” (as I have proposed). However, the translation “knew before” appears in the Tyndale Bible and in Young’s Literal Translation (from 1862). John Wycliffe has “before-knew”, and the The Jubilee Bible has “knew beforehand”. In this verse, the reference to God’s people whom he “knew before”/“foreknew” is immediately followed by a reference to God’s people in the past – the ethnic Israelites of Elijah’s generation, so the meaning “knew before” fits perfectly with that. Paul is looking back to God’s dealings with these people in the past, and there is no reason to add in an element of God’s knowledge of these people from a point in time even further in the past, with God looking into the future from a time before they existed.
The relevant Greek word appears in other places in the New Testament as well, for example in Paul’s speech in Acts 26:5, where it is not translated as “foreknew” (including by the KJV and popular modern translations). Acts 26:4-5 states:
“ The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem.  They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee.”
The knowledge that these Jewish people had about Paul was not foreknowledge (knowledge of Paul in advance of his existence). It was knowledge from the past, because they knew Paul in the past. Their knowledge of Paul coincided with the existence of Paul.
The relevant Greek word therefore does not necessarily imply a future-knowing element, but the English word “foreknew” does imply this, which makes the word “foreknew” a flawed translation as it brings in a meaning not present in the original Greek and not apparent from the context of this word in Romans 8:29.
In theology, God’s “foreknowledge” refers to his knowledge of the future. This creates a further issue, as when people read the word “foreknew”, they tend to read-in their theological understanding of God’s “foreknowledge” into the text. I believe that God does have this kind of knowledge, but that it is not in view in Romans 8:29 (or the other verses discussed above).
“Destined before” / “predestined”
The Greek word translated as “destined before” has a similar form to the word translated as “knew before”, and I have translated it in a similar way for consistency. Tyndale translated it as “ordained before” and Wycliffe has “before-ordained”. The Jubilee Bible has ‘for unto those who he knew beforehand, he also marked out beforehand the way that they might be conformed to the image of his Son’. The word does not give any detail as to exactly when the destining/ordaining/marking-out took place, other than that it was in the past. It may simply be referring to what God did during the lives of the believers from the past in order to ensure they became conformed to the image of his Son.
Many modern translations use “predestined”, which again carries theological baggage that is not necessarily present in the original text. The situation is therefore similar to that discussed above regarding “knew before”/“foreknew”.
The “corporate” interpretation
I will now explain the “corporate” interpretation of these verses. This interpretation does not use the same translation decisions as the above interpretation. Although I prefer the interpretation above, I consider the corporate interpretation also to be reasonable.
In Romans 8:28-30 (and throughout the chapter), Paul is speaking of those who are currently trusting in Christ. Of those people who are not currently trusting in Christ, some of them will come to trust in Christ later and some of them will not, but Paul is not speaking of those people. This will help us in understanding Romans 8:28-30.
Looking at verse 28 in more detail, it says ‘and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose’. As we have seen, in these verses Paul is speaking of ‘those who love God’ – those who are currently Christians. He states that these people are ‘called according to his purpose’, and his purpose is a good purpose. God’s purpose for them is described in verse 29:
“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 sisters.”
The purpose God has for Christians is that they will be ‘brothers and sisters’ of Jesus. Jesus is the ‘firstborn’ because he has already risen from the dead.
Verse 29 begins with ‘those whom he foreknew’. In this interpretation, these are the same people as those being spoken of in verse 28 – people who are Christians. Verse 29 tells us that Christians have been foreknown by God. No details of this foreknowledge are given here. Paul does not say on what basis Christians have been foreknown by God, or whether this foreknowledge has anything to do with the process of a person becoming a Christian.
This verse does not conflict with the understanding that God ‘foreknew’ the church primarily as a corporate group, with the focus of these verses being on the blessings that apply to the church. The individuals in the church (who correspond to ‘those’) get these blessings as a result of their membership of the church. Whether an individual person is a member of the church depends on whether or not he/she trusts in Christ. However, the status and future of the church as a corporate entity is fixed and is independent of the actions of individuals within it. The church was “foreknown” by God, and when a person becomes a Christian, he/she becomes a member of the group of those “foreknown” by God. This corresponds to the “corporate election” view, which I have discussed in more detail with respect to Romans 11:7-10. (Another possibility not ruled out by this verse is that Christians are “foreknown” by God because God looked into the future and foresaw that they will trust in Christ.)
These verses do not give enough information to determine which of these understandings of God’s foreknowledge is correct (or if another view is correct instead). The main point is that these verses do not rule out such understandings, and therefore cannot be used to disprove these views.
Verse 29 goes on to state that Christians, who have been foreknown by God, have been ‘predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son’. The predestination refers to a “what” rather than a “who”. The “who” has been set out already, and is “Christians”. The “what” that has been predestined is that they will be conformed to the image of Jesus. The “why” is to give brothers and sisters for Jesus. This verse therefore does not say that God has predestined who will become a Christian; it only says that those who are Christians have been predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.
Verse 30 continues with ‘and those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified’. The beginning of the verse refers to ‘those whom he predestined’. We know from the discussion above that this is referring to Christians. So verse 30 sets out a list of blessings that apply to Christians. Christians have been predestined, called, justified and glorified.
Although the word ‘glorified’ is translated in the past tense in English, it is commonly considered to be a reference to the future glory to be received by Christians in the resurrection. The argument is that Paul can speak of it in the past tense because he is so certain that it will happen. Another possibility is that it refers to the glory that Christians have received already (hence the past tense) due to the fact that Christ has already been glorified, and Christians are “in Christ” and therefore share in his blessings. (I prefer the second of these two options for this interpretation.)
The links between the items in verse 30 show that all Christians get to enjoy the whole package of blessings. There are no Christians for whom God withholds certain items from the list. This gives great assurance to those who are trusting in Christ that God ‘will freely give us [i.e. Christians] all things’ (verse 32).
I hope you have seen that these verses from Romans 8 do not conflict with the interpretation of the sections of Romans that we have considered already. All of the interpretations discussed so far are consistent with the previous posts in the series.
Another common understanding
There are some who believe that, before God created the world, he determined the future such that there would be some specific individuals in the future whom he would cause to trust in him and be saved, while there would be other specific individuals whom he would not cause to trust in him and who would therefore not be saved. The individuals determined in advance by God to trust in him and be saved are considered to have been specially loved in advance by God from before God made the world – they are considered to have been “foreloved”, i.e. “foreknown”. All individuals who eventually are caused to trust in God are considered to have always been “foreknown” by God, while the individuals who are not caused to do this are not considered to be “foreknown” by God (God knew that they would exist, but his special “foreknowing” love was not intended for them).
In this understanding, Romans 8:29-30 is considered to be describing the people God chose to save from before he made the world, i.e. those he ‘foreknew’. These verses therefore relate to all of God’s chosen people as individuals throughout past, present and future. Although all of the items in the list of verse 30 are in the same tense (translated into the past tense in English), the verse has to be interpreted in a more complex way to fit this understanding with respect to present believers, who have not yet been “glorified”. The typical way in which this issue is attempted to be resolved is that the past tense of “glorified” is considered to reflect the certainty that it will take place in the future (as discussed for one of the interpretations above). However, this conflicts with Romans 8:17, in which the reference to being “glorified” is in a future perspective, and the same people are considered to be in view on both occasions in this understanding. In contrast, the preferred interpretation put forward above has different people in view in these two instances of the word “glorified”. The future perspective is used with respect to believers who are still alive, while the past perspective is used for believers who have died. That is a much simpler explanation.
This problem with “glorified” being in the past perspective gets even worse when future believers are considered (i.e. those who had not yet started believing at Paul’s time of writing, but who had been chosen by God to become believers in the future). While individual believers of the past and present can be said to have been “called” and “justified”, this is not true for people who have not yet started to trust in Christ but who will do so in the future. Adherents of this view would usually acknowledge that a person is not “called” or “justified” until they become a believer. However, such persons must be included in the past perspective wording of having been “called” and “justified” (as well as “glorified”) because the verse is considered to be referring to God’s chosen people throughout all time.
People with this view tend to understand the term “called” to refer to an “effectual call”, which irresistibly causes the chosen recipient of the call to respond in faith. This understanding is not apparent from the text.
Another problem with this view is that, while the people God “foreknew” in Romans 8:29 are considered to be all of God’s chosen people throughout time (who receive God’s special love and are justified etc.), in Romans 11:2 Paul states that God “foreknew” the ethnic Israelites (not all of whom were true believers, therefore not all of whom were justified). The definition of “foreknew” does not fit comfortably with both verses. In contrast, the “knew before” interpretation put forward above does not have this problem – there is no inconsistency with God “knowing before” both ethnic Israelites and believers from the past.
None of these problems exists for the preferred interpretation that was discussed first in this post.
I have shown that there are a number of different possible interpretations of Romans 8:28-30. It would therefore be unwise for someone to use their preferred interpretation of Romans 8:28-30 to dictate how Romans 9 should be understood. We should instead initially focus our interpretation of Romans 9 on how it fits with the rest of its section (Romans 9-11) and how it fits with its parallel section (Romans 1:16 to 4:25). After doing this, we can consider how Romans 9 fits with Romans 8:28-30.
Of all the interpretations put forward above, only the last one does not fit with our analysis of Romans 9-11 from the previous posts in the series. This interpretation also has more problems than the others, as explained above. It is therefore reasonable to dismiss the last interpretation of these verses, leaving the remaining interpretations as plausible options.
It would not be reasonable to take the position that the last interpretation is correct and then to use this to force a corresponding understanding of Romans 9-11. An important reason for this is that Romans 8 does not address questions such as “how does God decide whom to save?”, “how does someone become a Christian?”, and “why are some saved and not others?”. It would therefore be unwise to use three verses from a passage that is not about these questions as a key to understanding chapters 9-11, which directly address these questions in detail. It makes more sense to let the chapters that address these questions be our primary source for answering them. That is why Romans 9-11 was considered before these verses of Romans 8 in this series.
This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.