On the foreknowledge of God

a sermon on Romans 8.26-39


ver the course of July, the lectionary has had us working our way through portions of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and each week I basically have had to set aside any presumption of being able to preach on both the Romans reading and the Gospel reading. That is a kind of tactical decision, based on my belief that in a fifteen-minute sermon it is pretty much impossible to even begin to address what is being raised in both of the readings. So, while we always hear the passage from Matthew read aloud, my focus has been on the epistle.

And now comes this week. The way this week’s reading from Romans is set out, in just thirteen verses there are at least three or four sermons waiting to be preached. Thank you, Paul…

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We get in the very opening verse one of apostle’s more startling and poetic statements— that “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words,” or as the King James Version translates it, “with groanings which cannot be uttered.” It is an insight that actually inspired Gord Johnson to write a song that we sang last Sunday night:

Spirit help us in our weakness
We don’t know how we should pray
Intercede for us in ways that
Say the things that we can’t say
Spirit groan; Spirit groan; Spirit groan
For your people

Then right away comes a sentence that has all too often been used in ways that are trite; the stuff of pious greeting cards: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” Well yes, certainly, but when that gets pulled out of context and used to suggest that we are all due to receive success and prosperity, or—even worse—when it is used to rationalize some deep loss or tragedy… At that point, we might need to do some deeper reflecting on what it means for things to “work together for good,” and to be particularly mindful that to his statement about all things working together for good for those who love God, Paul adds, “who are called according to his purpose.” And here we get plunged into one of the real challenges of this passage, the issue of being “called.”

I’m not sure if your ears caught it as the passage was read aloud, but this section of the letter to the Romans twice includes a word that can be a bit of a hot-button in the world of theology: “predestined.” Just in case you missed it, this is what we read:

For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Add to this the fact that just a couple of verses later, Paul uses the term “God’s elect,” and suddenly we’re up against what sounds like one of the thorniest of all theological issues, namely that if some are “predestined” and “elect,” does that mean some people aren’t? That some aren’t chosen or elected, and so by definition excluded from the life and hope and future that God has promised us? And even as I was writing that question, I imagined some astute, careful and conservative Calvinist thinker stumbling across this sermon online, preparing to refute me if I dare to say otherwise.

Now I need to point out that the word that is translated as “predestined”— the Greek word “proōrisen”—appears only rarely in the New Testament, and never once in the Gospels. Along with this passage in Romans, it occurs in Acts, 1st Corinthians, and Ephesians. In Acts and 1st Corinthians, it actually refers to the life, death and resurrection of Christ as being in accordance with God’s plan, while in Ephesians it has to do with the inclusion of Gentiles as part of that divine plan. In each instance, the word actually seems to be pointing more to the wideness of God’s mercy than to some exclusionary theology. In fact, for Karl Barth, the great 20th century Reformed theologian, the only way to frame predestination is in terms of God; God has predestined Godself, in and though Jesus Christ, to be given for the sake of human salvation.

It is something of this that the biblical scholar Paul Achtemeier is picking up on in his commentary, when he writes,

The fact that the future is in God’s hands, where we neither put it nor from which we can take it away, Paul understands to be the basis of confidence and joy, rather than of fear and pain. For that reason Paul speaks of predestination in the context of hope.

The destiny of the whole of creation is set, and “that destiny is redemption” (Achtemeier).  To be named as elect, predestined, or adopted by God is simply an acknowledgment that we are already caught up in that redemption; in the destiny of all of time and history.

Yet in the context in which Paul is writing his letter, this grand redemption could seem a pretty distant thing. Those who received his original letter knew too well what the engines of the Roman Empire were doing, and it wasn’t pretty. The resistance to this Gospel vision was real, and the potential cost high. Asking the rhetorical question, “who will separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul recites a list of some of the things with which the early Christians had already been confronted: “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword.” If this is what faces the elect—the predestined and adopted children of God—it doesn’t seem like much of a deal to be chosen, does it?  Yet still Paul can say that, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  And then he continues,

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is pure poetry again, which is where Paul so often goes when he is in full flight. And you know, in the Anglican tradition these verses are read at aloud at every funeral; in the face of death, we proclaim that nothing—not even the death being marked at that very funeral—can trump the love of God in Christ Jesus. If it is that into which we called, elected and adopted, then there is no need to fear. We need to trust the truth of our being chosen, and entrust the future of all of creation and all of humanity to the God for whom our sake poured himself out for the sake of the world.


Jamie Howison

2 Responses to On the foreknowledge of God

  1. Bryan says:

    Being a recovering Calvinist (Thanks Boethius and Anselm)I was looking at this section last week knowing it would come up. Two things struck me:

    1. The “Golden Chain of Salvation” as some have taken to call it starts not with predestination but with foreknowledge. This allows some ambiguity into the interpretation because it doesn’t give an indication into how God foreknew and what that foreknowledge is of. This forces a good Calvinist like Charles Hodge will say in his commentary:

    “It is evident, on the one hand, that ‘foreknowledge’ expressed more than to know in advance, and on the other hand that it means something different for the word ‘predestination’, as can be seen [in the next line]”

    To me it is a crack that allows Boethius’ understanding that God is not in time and therefore knows everything at once. Paul didn’t give us a clear answer, so we can speculate and do some theologizing here.

    2. Paul’s overall point here has little to do with the eternal fate of those not foreknown. He is comforting the believer. He’s saying; “Look you are a believer, God knows that, it was his hand doing it all along, so don’t think that he will stop now, his hand will carry you all the way to being glorified.” These few lines about foreknowledge and predestination are connected directly with the last line. What is it saying when it says God did foreknew, has predestined, is conforming, and will glorify? Why that nothing can stop this process so nothing can separate us from God’s love.

    This passage above all are meant to comfort the believer, and every Calvinist that knows their stuff would agree with that.

    Now, off to catch up on some sleep.

    • Jamie says:

      Bryan, you have no idea how much I like to read your comments! Careful, clear, and with just the right kind of challenge to the preacher. Keep ’em coming.

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