The Bible explicitly speaks about predestination, and therefore, the doctrine is undeniable. However, many disagree on how to interpret its meaning. One view in particular believes that God predestines to salvation all He foreknows will believe on Him. This view is commonly called conditional election because it states God chooses (elects) individuals to be saved based upon (conditioned upon) their foreknown future belief. It makes election conditional on man’s will in essence. The main text used to support this view is Romans 8:29.
Romans 8:29 – For those whom He [speaking of God] foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
From simply reading this verse, it is very possible to make the assumption that God’s predestining is based on His foreknowledge of people’s future faith in Him. However, I feel that the very next verse (v. 30) is vital to a proper understanding of what verse 29 is truly saying. Verse 29 by itself is an unfinished thought in many senses.
Romans 8:30 – And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
This verse forms what many theologians have coined “The Golden Chain of Salvation.” Each element is viewed as a single “link” in the “chain” that is salvation. These links are part of what theologians call the ordo salutis (Latin for “order of salvation”). In other words, there are several doctrines, or “links,” that compose salvation in a logical order. For example, faith comes before justification. There is an order that occurs. In this verse Paul does not include every doctrine in the ordo salutis, but he does give us five: 1) foreknowledge, 2) predestination, 3) calling, 4) justification, and 5) glorification.
For our present discussion, it is significant to note that foreknowledge precedes predestination. Those believing in conditional election see this as evidence for their view. They see it as showing that God’s predestining is based on the previous foreknowledge of those who will believe on Him. This indeed follows the order Paul gives us.
However, I believe that Paul’s inclusion of “calling” makes such an understanding (conditional election) of the text incorrect, and in fact, requires one to eventually rearrange Paul’s given order.
So, what does Paul mean by this word “calling”? There are several incidences in scripture where the authors state that many individuals were called to receive the gospel. However, not every individual believed the gospel and was saved. This is what many theologians have termed as a general or external call. This type of call is in essence what we as believers do when we evangelize, witness, and proclaim the gospel to the unsaved. However, notice that Paul says here in verse 30 that those who are called are justified (not possibly; they are). Therefore, Paul must not be speaking of such a calling, for simply hearing the gospel does not save. Salvation is exclusive to those who receive it and truly believe on Christ. So, again, what does Paul mean by this type of calling?
The calling spoken of here in verse 30 is what many theologians have called an internal call or special call. I, and some others, like to refer to it as an effectual call because it’s always effective in that those who are called in this way always believe, because, as Paul says, they are justified, and that only happens to believers. In other words, whereas a general call is a call given by man, this effectual call is done by God and is always saving.
This necessary understanding of “calling” in this specific verse does quite a bit of damage to the conditional election view. Remember when I stated the conditional election view “requires one to eventually rearrange Paul’s given order”? This rearranging occurs because conditional election believes that what God is foreknowing is people’s response to calling. And on this basis, God predestines those whom He knows will respond properly to that calling. But do you see how this makes calling now logically precede predestination, because God can’t predestine people until He first knows who will respond positively to His calling. But the verse actually has predestination preceding calling. In other words, God predestines individuals to be called; He does not predestine based on one’s response to being called.
Now some of you may refute, “But Kirk, you’re making the assumption that the conditional election view states that God is foreknowing people’s response to the calling. That means you’re also assuming that they think “calling” in this verse is a general call. Don’t they simply mean God foreknows belief. If so, then they could be saying God predestines based on those whom He foreknows will believe and then effectually calls them after that, keeping Paul’s order.”
Well, sure. I suppose you’re right. I was assuming one holding to conditional election believes “calling” must be referring to a general call. That’s because I don’t see how he could interpret it differently. But I guess if they would want to keep Paul’s order, which they should, they could accept that “calling” is referring to an effectual call. But this still does just as much damage to their view. Allow me to explain.
Conditional election states that God predestines based on who will choose Him. So man’s will is the ultimate determining factor for who is predestined, and therefore ultimately, who is called and justified and glorified. According to such thinking, an effectual call is unnecessary. Why must God sovereignly and effectually call people to believe when He already knows that they are going to choose Him? Further, much of the point of conditional election is to guard against a view that states God intervenes in men to effectively call them to belief. Conditional election advocates typically would see this as violating man’s “free will.”
In short, for conditional election to be true, calling (either general or effectual) must come before predestination; and for that to be true, Paul must be wrong and confused. I doubt that.
So what is Paul saying? Paul is saying that those whom God foreknew, He predestined; He predestined them to be called—a calling not given to all but some because it effectively leads to justification and ultimately glorification.
But this still doesn’t help us understand what Paul means by foreknowledge. So what does “foreknow” really mean in this passage? First, the conditional election view makes two false assumptions about the word “foreknow” in this passage. It assumes, first of all, that predestination is based on it. The text never says that. It simply says that the foreknown are the predestined. Secondly, it assumes what God is foreknowing; it assumes He is foreknowing men’s future actions. Now obviously God does foreknow all future actions and who will believe; but that is not what “foreknow” is referring to in this context, as we have seen. Paul is saying that God knows whom He is predestining. It’s actually a much simpler way of understanding the text than the conditional election view of “foreknow.” In other words, God does not predestine unknown people. He knows the predestined people before they exist, before they are born and live their lives. Some translators actually like to translation “foreknow” as “forelove” because “know” really carries with it the idea of relationship. It’s not that God simply had factual knowledge of those whom He was predestining. He loved them, and in love He predestined them (Eph 1:4-5).
So to summarize the point of these two verses (v. 29-30) in their context of Romans 8, God is sovereign in the salvation of all those who believe. Therefore, as believers we can rest assured that God worked and will continue to work everything for our good (v. 28). We never have to fear being condemned (v. 31-34) or being separated from God’s love (v. 35-39).
* Originally posted on former blog, I’m Calling Us Out.