Question: "What does it mean that God predestined those He foreknew (Romans 8:29)?"

In several contexts Paul describes how God is sovereign and involved in the process of people being justified (declared righteous). In Romans 8:29 Paul explains that we can learn some important things about God because of His election: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”

Just before he mentions the fact that God predestined those He foreknew, Paul makes the striking statement that God causes all things to work together for those who love God and are called according to His purposes (Romans 8:28). That statement gives believers in Christ confidence that, even when circumstances are discouraging, they can know that God is in control and has a plan.

Paul then provides detail to show the trustworthiness of God in working all things together for good. Those whom God foreknew He predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29a). We learn a couple key points about God here. First, we discover that God has foreknowledge of people before they even exist. Jeremiah records that God knew and consecrated him before he was born (Jeremiah 1:5). David wrote that God had written all of David’s days in a book, ordaining them before they began (Psalm 139:16).

Second, we learn that God does indeed predestine certain people (that is, He “determines beforehand,” “ordains,” “decides ahead of time” who will be saved). In Ephesians 1 Paul explains that God the Father chose believers to be in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and predestined believers to adoption as sons of God (Ephesians 1:5).

The Bible teaches that God foreknows and predestines His children, and this presents some challenging questions regarding whether people can choose—or does God’s sovereignty preclude human ability to choose? Historically, the Calvinist position has emphasized God’s sovereignty over human choice, while the Arminian position elevates human choice over God’s sovereignty. These two theological traditions attempt to resolve the perceived tension between human choice and God’s choice. The Bible makes things a bit simpler than do the two traditions.

The passages in the Bible that address the relationship of God’s sovereignty to human choice do not send us to door number 1 or door number 2, but to a third door. One thing we learn about God, if He predestined those He foreknew, is that God is sovereign; predestination is a theological fact. But we also learn in the Scriptures that people are accountable for what they choose. Mary is commended for her choice (Luke 10:42), and Moses is commended for his (Hebrews 11:24–25). Paul made a choice about whom he would serve with (Acts 15:40). The Scriptures are full of people who make choices; at the same time, they are also full of statements affirming that God’s will trumps human will (for example, Romans 9:16).

One theological option is that God is sovereign, and people really don’t have choice. Another suggests that people choose; thus, God can’t exercise His sovereignty over human choice. The third option is simply that both are true—God is completely in control, and humanity makes choices and is completely accountable for those choices. The Bible does not present these as irreconcilable truths (as theological traditions sometimes do). We learn that, if God predestined those He foreknew, He both knows His creation before it exists and He determines important things about His creation. If God is great enough to be the Creator of all, then He is not stumped by the mutual existence of His sovereignty and human volition, choice, and responsibility.

Perhaps we ought to let Scripture dictate how we view and understand God rather than theological traditions that sometimes draw their conclusions from extra-biblical ideas. We can only be certain of descriptions of God’s character if He reveals them in His Word.