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 2
(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.
Of course, we’ve covered the heart of the predestination question in the previous two posts. But there are a few remaining points that need to be considered.
First, Paul clearly considers predestination distinct from foreknowledge. Many modern readers assume that foreknowledge necessarily triggers predestination, because there can be no foreknowledge if there is free will. But Paul plainly sees predestination as a blessing beyond foreknowledge — “those whom he foreknew he also predestined” — and so as the words are used by Paul, they are not logical equivalents. What’s the difference?
Well, foreknowledge can be entirely passive. Give me a crystal ball and magic powers and I can see the future (not really but you understand). But knowing the future isn’t the same as causing the future to unfold as you wish. That’s predestination. God is not only an observer of the future, but he is also an active participant in the present and the future to bring about his desired results.
That sounds a lot like some forms of Calvinism in which every single thing is interpreted as the will of God. If a serial killer tortures and kills hundreds, well, God has a plan and it’ll all work out. It makes God the author of sin. And that is certain the furthest thing from Paul’s thinking.
Rather, Paul is still thinking in covenantal/narrative terms. That is, God made certain promises to Abraham and Israel, and God will keep those promises despite Israel’s stubborn hearts and idolatry. Ultimately, God keeps his word despite the fecklessness and rebellion of humans. His promises are predestination.
Notice also that predestination is a collective blessing. It’s “those he called” not “each one whom he called.” “Those” refers to Israel — and ultimately Israel as reconstituted in Jesus as faithful Jews with faithful Gentiles grafted into the Jewish stock (Rom 11). These are “those” who are predestined to be adopted as brothers of Jesus, to call God Abba! and to possess the Spirit of Christ.
How do I know? Well, I’ve read ahead and know what Paul is going to say in Rom 9 – 11. But I’ve also read behind and know what the prophets said. They said nothing of God predestining every single thing ever. In fact, you can’t read Gen, Exo, and Num and reach such a conclusion. I mean, Israel rebelled, murmured, complained, and rebelled some more — so much so that God was ready to wipe the entire nation out and make a new one out of Moses’ descendants only. Who would argue that God would predestine rebellion against himself? (Well, some would, but some would have lost touch with reality in their theologizing.)
So predestiny is found throughout the prophets. In fact, the very fact that there exists such as thing as prophecy by itself demonstrates the nature of God’s predestination. He not only knows the future, but he’ll cause it to unfold as he wishes — from Gen 3 to Rev 22. The Bible is filled with this aspect of God’s nature.
But the scriptures tend to speak in collective, covenantal, national terms. God promises Abraham a great nation — not that every descendant would be elect and saved. Hence, God’s promise is kept if only a remnant is faithful and saved. There are, of course, times when God speaks of the future of an individual, but we read our culture back into the scriptures when we assume that every promise is about individual salvation — how I go to heaven when I die. Maybe it’s about God’s promise to bless every nation through Jesus, which tells us but a little about the fate of a given individual.
Now, at this point, if you’re like me, you’re wondering why this is such a big deal. I mean, if I can’t claim a confident salvation because God has promised that the church is elect, foreknown, predestined, and ultimately glorified, what has that to do with me — if I can rebel, fall away, be damned, and lose these promises?
Well, it’s good to know that God’s Kingdom will never be defeated. It may lose some battles. It may be sent into the wilderness to hide. But it will survive to the end of time. When I cast my lot with the church, I’m tying myself to a body that is God-guaranteed to last forever. The Kingdom will prevail because God has so promised. I just need to get on board and hang on tight.
And it matters that God wants the Kingdom to succeed. That is, contrary to much preaching, God isn’t asking trick questions and looking for foot faults in order to damn me. Indeed, he is literally moving heaven and earth so that his promises will be kept. For millennia he’s been working a plan designed to save the world — and if I lose that salvation, it won’t be because I wasn’t smart enough to read between the lines and suss out the silences. It’ll be because I chose to rebel — and that will be my fault entirely.
And it tells me that God sees Christians as a single nation and a single race separate from all other nations and races. He predestined that this Kingdom would come into existence as a single Kingdom under a single King. When we see what God is trying to do, we understand much better what we should be trying to do. Our mission or vocation becomes, in part, to unify the Kingdom by recognizing the unity God has already provided. We don’t have to work for unity. We have unity. We have to work to rid ourselves of our false perception that we are divided by how we worship, how we organization, and the denominational title we hang on our buildings.
Like earthly siblings, our brothers aren’t exactly like us, and because we are so alike, the differences annoy us and make it hard to gather as family. But like earthly siblings, family should ultimate triumph as we have but one Father and eat at but one table.
Wright explains it, so typically, from a different point of view —
The five great verbs (foreknown, foreordained, called, justified, glorified), crashing chords at the end of the movement, are all to be understood as Christ-shaped. That which is true of the Messiah is true of his people.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians, vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 602.
From the foundation of the world, and from God’s blood oath with Abraham, God’s and Jesus’ fates have been foreknown and predestined by God. As God passed between the sacrificed animal carcasses and walked through the pool of blood, he became predestined to die on the cross.
Just so, Christians, as a nation and a race elect by God, have been foreknown and predestined to die with Jesus in baptism and, more importantly, die with Jesus in daily sacrificial living. We are sons of God not just because we’re saved but because we share in Jesus’ inheritance and the path to that inheritance: service, submission, suffering, and sacrifice — all leading to justification and glorification.
To be “justified” is to be declared innocent of all charges and hence part of God’s community. It’s the judge’s verdict following a trial. Pilate found Jesus guilty but God overrode that decision, justifying Jesus by the resurrection. Just so, as we re-enact the death, burial and resurrection of our Savior in baptism, we are also justified — declared innocent of all charges despite the world’s disagreement. God speaks through baptism and it’s judgment that matters. And so we are joined to God as his children — even when we don’t get along with our siblings.
Jesus’ resurrection was followed by his ascension to heaven, in bodily form. His soul didn’t leave his body and flit off to the heavenly ether. Jesus — body, soul, and spirit — all went to heaven to be enthroned at God’s right hand as the Son of God reigning on David’s throne over Israel — the newly reconstituted Israel that we call the Kingdom or the church.
Just so, when we arise from the baptismal waters, we are enthroned in heaven with Jesus. No. Really.
(Eph. 1:20-21 ESV) 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.
(Eph. 2:4-7 ESV) 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
In both Rom 8:30 and Eph 2:6, our glorification with Jesus is spoken of in the past tense, as though it’s already happened. And perhaps from God’s perspective — from outside of earth time — that’s true. But from our own perspective, it seems likely that Paul is speaking proleptically, that is, speaking of a future event as so certain that it can be expressed in the past tense.
As a result, Paul skips sanctification, going straight from the baptistry to the glory of God’s Presence — because in a sense we are already glorified. While we have yet to undergo the full transformation that Paul describes as happening at the general resurrection in 1 Cor 15, God has come to live within us already. God’s Glory is already present through the Spirit.
And, already, we’ve been given dominion over God’s Creation. I mean, no other species on earth has the power to both heal and to destroy the environment. We have the power; it’s just a question of whether we’ll use it for God’s purposes or for some other.