The Question of God's Foreknowledge by Pastor John Samson
Almost a year ago to the day (11/15/05), I posted an article here on this blog regarding God's foreknowledge. Since that time I've had some very encouraging feedback from people concerning the impact it had on them, with many saying that it caused them to examine very firmly held traditions in this area. I post it once again here in the hope that it might be helpful to those who may not be in the habit of regularly checking through the archives.
Question: In Romans 8:29, the text reads "For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son..." Does this not therefore suggest that because foreknowledge comes before predestination in the text, then predestination is simply based on God's foreknowledge: because God foreknows or sees in advance (with full and complete knowledge) what a person will do, and who it is that will respond in faith to the Gospel, He simply predestinates those whom He knows ahead of time will believe?
Answer: Certainly this is how I understood this passage for many years and it is the way that many deal with the issue of predestination in our day. Previously, I also pointed to 1 Peter 1:1-2 which talks of those who are "chosen, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father..." and assumed that this verse would add weight to the idea that election and predestination is based on God knowing ahead of time what we will do - God merely chooses those whom He sees ahead of time will choose Him.
At first glance, it certainly seems to be a legitimate interpretation, yet the fact that foreknowledge comes before predestination should in no way surprize us. That's because God would need to foreknow a person He is going to predestinate to something. God does not predestinate unknown persons, but specific individuals whom He knows. So this not really an argument for either side in this debate. In both systems, Arminian and Reformed, foreknowing would need to come before predestination. The real question then is "what exactly does it mean for God to foreknow somebody?"
Actually there are a number of problems with the interpretation in the question, not the least of which is that scripture reveals very clearly, that left to himself, man will always choose against Christ, because of his hostile disposition to God. Man is dead spiritually, and needs his heart of stone to be removed and a heart of flesh put in before he has any interest in seeking the God of the Bible (Rom. 3:11; Rom. 8:7, 8; 1 Cor. 2:14). Outside of regeneration, man by nature is the enemy of God.
The interpretation also falls down because the word "foreknew" does not merely mean to know future actions beforehand. It has a much more precise meaning. The word "foreknew" (Greek: proginosko) in Romans 8:29 is a verb rather than a noun. It is an action word, and as the text informs us, it is something done by God. What exactly does God do then? The text says "those whom He foreknew..."
To gain a correct biblical definition of this word foreknew, rather than assume its meaning (which is what many do), we need to do some homework and study. In this case it means we need to go to passages of scripture that have God as the subject of the verbal form, as here in this passage. This is because passages that have humans as the subject would differ substantially in their meaning from the ones where God is the subject, because, I am sure we will all agree, we as creatures "know" things on a very different basis to the way God does.
When we do this we find the verb proginosko is used three times in the New Testament with God as the subject - here in Romans 8:29, then also in Romans 11:2, and lastly in 1 Peter 1:20. This proves to be significant when we ask the question "what, or who is foreknown by God?"
In Romans 8:29, the direct object of the verb is a pronoun that refers back to the called of the previous verse (v. 28). In Romans 11:2 the object the verb is refering to is "His people," and in 1 Peter 1:20, the object is Jesus Christ Himself.
Each reference then portrays God as foreknowing persons rather than actions. 1 Peter 1:20 says, "For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you." When God foreknew Christ, did that mean that God simply knew that Jesus would make correct decisions or have faith in His Father? Hardly! It speaks of the Father's personal intimacy and affection for His beloved Son.
To quote Dr. James White in this regard, "to say that God foreknows acts, faith, behavior, choices, etc, is to assume something about the term that is not witnessed in the biblical text. God foreknows persons not things."
How does this relate to what we find in the Old Testament? Well there, we have a similar meaning to the word meaning of "forknew" in the New Testament. This is the Hebrew word "yada." It refers in a number of instances to God's "knowing" of individuals. For instance in Jeremiah 1:5, God said to Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Dr. White comments, "Here God's knowledge of Jeremiah is clearly personal. It is paralleled with the term "consecrated" and "appointed," pointing us toward the element of "choice." This knowledge of Jeremiah is not limited to time. In some manner, God "knew" Jeremiah before Jeremiah came into existence."
We see this same concept in God's "knowing" of Moses. Exodus 33:17 - "The LORD said to Moses, "I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight and I have known you by name." Again we see the personal nature of God's knowing of an individual. This refers to a personal intimacy and affection God had for Moses in that he had found favor in the eyes of the Lord. God had chosen Moses to be a recipient of His tender mercy.
I'll quote just one more passage where we see this word yada used to refer to God possessing a personal intimacy and affection. Amos 3:2 in speaking of Israel says, "You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth; Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities."
The NASB actually translates yada as "chosen," here, and there is a very strong basis by way of context for this word to be translated in this way. Literally it says, "You only (speaking of Israel) have I known..." It should be obvious to us that God didn't merely know about Israel, and possessed no such knowledge of other nations, nor that merely God knew the future actions of Israel, and didn't know the future actions of the other nations. This "knowing" of Israel is deeply personal and intimate and speaks of God's grace in choosing them to be His people for His Sovereign purposes alone. The word yada is used also in Genesis 4:1 when it says that Adam "knew" his wife Eve. The result of this "knowing" was a child, lets remember - revealing a deep personal relationship.
All this is important because it presents a consistent pattern: understanding how the verb is used in the New testament, along with these insights from the Old, provides a very strong basis for understanding what foreknew actually means.
Dr. White states, "When Paul says, "those whom He foreknew" Paul is speaking about an action on God's part that is just as solitary, just as God-centered, and just as personal as every other action in the string: God foreknows (chooses to enter into relationship with); God predestines; God calls; God justifies; God glorifies. From first to last it is God who is active, God who accomplishes all these things."
"Foreknew" therefore does not merely suggest "a passive gathering of infallible knowledge of the future actions of free creatures" but rather reveals that from start to finish, salvation is a Divine accomplishment, for it is God and God alone who saves, to the praise of His glory alone.
To quote Dr. James Montgomery Boice in his comments on Romans 8:29, "the verse does not say that God foreknew what certain of his creatures would do. It is not talking about human actions at all. On the contrary, it is speaking entirely of God and of what God does. Each of these five terms is like that: God foreknew, God predestined, God called, God justified, God glorified. Besides, the object of the divine foreknowledge is not the actions of certain people but the people themselves. In this sense it can only mean that God has fixed a special attention upon them or loved them savingly."
I believe this then is the scriptural answer to the question, but before we move on, lets also look at this from a logical perspective. Many believe in foreknowledge as described in the question (the Arminian view) but this position does not answer the challenge of what God knew from eternity.
What do I mean? Well, as John Hendryx has stated, "if God knew someone would choose hell even before He created them, then this was a fixed certainty (even before their creation), so why did God go ahead and create them? It was obviously, in their view, still within His Providence that these people be lost... or if God already foreknew who would be saved then how can they continue to argue that He is trying to save every man? Certainly God already knows who the persons will be, so why should He send the Holy Spirit to those He knows will reject him." Ultimately, when this view is subjected to scrutiny, it logically undermines the very position it is seeking to assert.