The Foundational Action of God
God’s action for us and in us through Christ is the foundation underneath our pursuit of practical maturity in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
God’s design for us to pursue practical maturity in the gospel didn't begin after we believed the gospel. Rather, it began when he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to believe the gospel in order that we would become conformed into the image of Christ.
So our obedience to the gospel is subsequent to and the consequence of God’s action for us and in us through Christ. Several texts teach this but let's consider, for example, Romans 8:28–30.
Paul asserts in verse 28 that “all things” work together for the good for those who love God. Then, in verses 29–30, he provides five reasons why:
- God foreknew us (Romans 8:29);
- God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his son (Romans 8:29);
- God effectually called us to faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:30);
- God justifies us (Romans 8:30), and
- God will glorify us (Romans 8:30).
For our purposes, I’ll simply unpack foreknowledge and predestination.
The God-Centered Context
Some argue that Paul means that God foresaw who would believe, and he therefore chose this group to believe based on his foresight of their faith. According to this reading, God’s choice to save some is based on his foresight that some would choose him first. But, in my view, this reading of Romans 8:29 does not take seriously the force with which Paul discusses God’s sovereignty in both the immediate and the remote context of Romans. It also doesn't take seriously the Old Testament roots underneath Paul’s view of God’s foreknowledge.
In my view, God’s foreknowledge refers precisely to his predetermined decision to set his covenantal love upon a people for his glory. Foreknowledge in Romans 8:29 does not refer to God’s foresight for the following three reasons. First, the immediate and remote context of Romans 8:28–30 is strongly God-centered. That is, God’s action for God’s purposes is emphasized.
- In Romans 8:3 Paul states that God condemns sin.
- In Romans 8:11 God raised Jesus from the dead and God resurrects those who believe in Jesus.
- In Romans 8:29 God predestines.
- In Romans 8:30 God calls.
- In Romans 8:30, 33 God justifies.
- In Romans 8:30 God glorifies.
- In Romans 8:31 God is for “us.”
- In Romans 8:32 God did not spare his son but offered him for “us.”
- In Romans 9:11–13 God loved Jacob and hated Esau so that God’s electing purpose would stand apart from their works.
- In Romans 9:17 God raised up Pharaoh to destroy him.
- In Romans 9:22–24 God created vessels of wrath and vessels of destruction.
- In Romans 9:24–25 God calls Jews and Gentiles to be vessels of mercy.
- In Romans 11:1–24 God hardens some Jews so that they would not be saved and includes some Gentiles within his saving purposes.
- In Romans 11:33–36 Paul praises God for his incomprehensible ways.
Predestined to be Conformed into the Image of Christ
Second, notice that Paul mentions predestination in verse 29 where he states that God predestined us to be conformed into the image of Jesus Christ. The verb “to predestine” (proorizō) in 8:29 occurs elsewhere in the New Testament, and every occurrence refers to God’s predetermined choice to do something apart from any foreseen faith (for example, Acts 4:28 refers to God’s determining the choices of Herod, Pilate, and the Gentiles to do precisely what he wanted them to do with regard to Jesus’s death; 1 Corinthians 2:7 refers to God’s predestination of his divine wisdom; Ephesians 1:5, 11 refers to God’s predestination of some to be saved in accordance with God’s good pleasure).
We define the term "predestine" in verses 29–30 like this: that God chose to save some individuals and to conform them into the image of Christ based on his desire and glorious grace, not based upon foreseen faith.
This interpretation is supported by Paul’s statement that God predestined some humans to be conformed to the image of Jesus in verse 29. It is supported again when he states that God’s predestination results in the effectual calling of sinners to believe in Jesus Christ (verse 30). And again in the justification of sinners (verse 30). And again in the future glorification of believers (verse 30).
But the major point to see in these verses comes in verse 29: God’s action to predestine some to be conformed into the image of Christ results, decisively and without exception, in those people actually being conformed into the image of Christ. So this conformity into the image of Christ is both subsequent to and the result of God’s initial action of foreknowing and predestining them to such an end.
But the main thing to note in these verses, for our purposes, comes from verse 29. God’s work in predestining some to be conformed into the image of his Son results, decisively and without exception, in those people actually being conformed to Jesus. And not only that, but this conformity to Jesus is both subsequent to and the result of God’s initiative in foreknowing and predestining them to such an end.
What Is Conformity into the Image of Christ?
Conformity to the image of Christ is becoming like Christ in spiritual maturity. In Romans 12:1–2 Paul urges Christians not to be conformed to the present evil age, but to be transformed by the renewing of their mind, and in Romans 8:29 Paul states that God predestined some humans to be conformed into the image of his Son.
Quite simply, this means that God predestined a people to be saved and to be conformed into the image of Jesus by their lives of obedience to Jesus Christ. That is, Paul refers to spiritual transformation by faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit, and this transformation results in a changed life of obedience (cf. Romans 12:1–15:12).