N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
Romans 8:29-30, Part 1
(Rom. 8:29-30 ESV) 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. 30 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 first full-quarter Bible class I ever taught in church was in 1978. It was the college class, and somehow or other, the subject of predestination came up. I explained that I believe in predestination. The class was, of course, shocked.
But I read this passage as well as Eph 1:15, both of which speak very plainly of predestination. “If the Bible teaches predestination, then I believe in predestination. I just don’t believe it means what Calvin says it means. But we should believe it and we should teach it–but only in the sense in which Paul used the terms.” My opinion has not changed (on this question).
(By the way, the way you get college students to believe your teaching is to be honest even when it runs against conventional wisdom.)
Think OT covenant theology not Augustinian speculative philosophy or Calvin’s debates with the Catholics and Anabaptists. And don’t grab your old Bible class notes about the early heresies that the church dealt with centuries after Romans was written. Don’t even begin to talk about Augustine vs. Pelagius. That was centuries later in a very different church, very different Empire, very different philosophical worldview among the Empire’s intellectuals.
Rather, think in terms of the problem Paul actually confronted: What is the relationship of Jews and Gentiles to each other in the Kingdom? Must Gentiles convert to Judaism to become Christians? What is the place of Jews in an increasingly Gentile movement — given that so few Jews submitted to Jesus? How can a covenant given to Abraham and his descendants bless Gentiles who’ve not converted to Judaism? What is the place of Torah in the Kingdom?
Notice how little free will versus determinism figures into these questions. Nor do these questions obviously push us to speculate about many other questions that we obsess over when the topic is Calvinism. Something is not right here.
“those whom he foreknew”
The first thing Paul speaks of is those “those whom [God] foreknew.” Whom did God foreknow? Well, those Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus. I reject Open Theism (the idea that God has limited knowledge of the future, typically because he chooses not to know).
Rather, “foreknowledge” in Romans is the same foreknowledge that’s in Acts and the OT. For example,
(Acts 2:22-23 ESV) 22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Is Peter saying that Jesus had no choice but to go to the cross because of God’s foreknowledge? That’s not the subject of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 at all — and saying that Jesus had no choice eliminates all merit in his sacrifice. Rather, it means what it says: God had a definite plan and knowledge that the plan would work out through Jesus’ being crucified.
Peter had just quoted Joel 2:28-32a, which prophesied the outpouring of the Spirit and forgiveness of sin for those who call on the name of the LORD. The prophecy was coming true!
(1 Pet. 1:20-21 ESV) 20 [Jesus] was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
God knew that Jesus would have to be crucified before the Creation, but God only revealed Jesus when he did in order to benefit “you” (plural). In context, “you” means the church, faithful Jews and Gentiles.
We know that God planned to bring in the Gentiles going back to God’s covenant with Abraham, but we should have suspected that the promise goes back much further in that Adam and Eve were accursed for their sin, exiling them and their descendants — Jews and Gentiles — from the Tree of Life and immortality and from their rightful rule over the Creation (Gen 1:26-28). So to repair what was broken, God had to have a plan to restore the Gentiles as well as the Jews since all of mankind was separated from God.
But Peter goes further and says God’s plan predates even the Creation — which is truly amazing — but for a Being who exists outside of human space and time, why not?
We could cover countless passages, but I find Eph 3 especially fascinating —
(Eph. 3:3-12 ESV) 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
Paul says that the plan to bring the Gentiles into the Kingdom through the gospel was a mystery, meaning a hidden truth, only now revealed to the world through Jesus. But it’s always been God’s purpose and plan to do this.
The fact that God would bless all nations was no secret, but the fact that he would allow Gentiles into Israel/the church/the Kingdom as Gentiles and not as Jewish proselytes was only revealed through Jesus.
- Knowing the future does not make the future happen. God and Jesus did not lose their free will just because they knew what was going to happen.
- God’s foreknowledge may be much more particular, but the emphasis in scripture is on covenantal foreknowledge. That is, God knew where his actions would take him — to the cross — going back to the beginning. The cross wasn’t plan B or C. It was always the only plan — and it always included Israel and always included the Gentiles coming into Israel by means of God in the flesh dying on the cross.
- To Paul, this is a big deal. It’s the reason for his career as a missionary! It’s the whole of his life! It’s the reason he met with Jesus on the road to Damascus. It’s the reason he suffered beatings, stonings, shipwrecks etc. to share the gospel with the Gentiles. He was part of the unfolding of God’s plan, a plan that predates the Creation.
Regarding free will
Now, I readily admit that the question of free will is a legitimate one to discuss and raise — but it’s not why Paul wrote these passages. He’s exulting in getting to live in an age when God’s plan has been revealed more fully and when he gets to participate in the mission (or as Wright would say, “vocation”) of God. Paul sees foreknowledge in narrative/covenantal terms, not in terms of abstract, Medieval Scholasticism.
I spent several posts in the distant past explaining my view of free will. Let me be uncharacteristically brief and then link to some ancient posts —
- If I leave my pill bottles within reach of our three-year old granddaughter, my wife will be upset with me. This is 100% certain. But my foreknowledge of her behavior does not take away her free will. She may choose not to get upset.
- Humans only know the future by extrapolating from the present. figuring what happens if the laws of nature take their natural course. That is, humans can only predict the future of deterministic systems — like planetary motion. And so we can predict human behavior but only for the very new future, and even then, inexactly.
- We unconsciously anthropomorphize God, assuming that he knows the future by knowing the present perfectly and then doing the math to calculate the future — which he can do much better than we can. But this is wrong. (First, even God can’t run the numbers since nature is in fact not deterministic at the quantum level, but that’s not today’s lesson.)
- Rather, both the scriptures and science agree that God exists outside of space-time. The General Theory of Relativity (confirmed by countless experiments) is quite clear on this point (and the presence of black holes, for example, proves the point to a physicist as they are holes in space-time, not just space). Time is part of the fabric of the universe and hence a created thing.
- Pre-creation, there was no time — not as humans experience time — and God remains outside and beyond and unconstrained by our time.
- Therefore, God can see the future because we are creatures tied to a point on the timeline. We can move more or less freely in the three spatial dimensions, but time controls us. We can’t move forward and backward in time except literally at the rate of one day per day. But God is bigger and so outside of the limitations of time. (Augustine reached this conclusion centuries before Einstein based on scripture.)
- Therefore, a system does not have to be deterministic for God to see the future. He just needs to look.
- Free will and foreknowledge, such as God has, are not contradictory.
Ancient posts —