God’s Foreknowledge in the Bible

QUESTION: Does the Bible teach that God knows the future?

ANSWER: This is the question of divine foreknowledge. One of the main attributes of God is called “omniscience,” which literally means the knowledge of everything. As usually applied, to say that God is omniscient means that he knows everything. This means he knows all possibilities as well as all actualities. In the category of actualities, this means he has complete knowledge of the actual past, the actual present, and the actual future. His knowledge of the future is his foreknowledge.

Divine foreknowledge has always been accepted by most Bible-believers. There have been different explanations of it, however. The usual view is that God knows the future simply because he is infinite (unlimited) in nature and is thus not limited by time. Calvinists, though, deny that God can literally see into the future. Nevertheless they believe that God knows what is going to happen in the future because he has predetermined everything (literally, everything) that will ever happen. Thus his knowledge of the future is not a real “foreknowledge,” but simply the knowledge of what he himself has planned to do as the future unfolds. This is how he knows what human beings will do in the future. They do not have genuine free will; they will do only what God has foreordained them to do.

In recent times some have taken to denying foreknowledge altogether. This view is found mainly in the fairly recent theological movement (1980s &ff.) known as “openness theology” or “openness theism.” Influential representatives include Richard Rice, Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Greg Boyd. This view affirms that God cannot know the future simply because there IS no future to be known. God is still omniscient because he knows everything there is to know; he is not expected to know actualities that do not yet exist. One of the main points of this view is that if God did know the future, there could be no free will. Everything, including every human decision, would be set in stone by the very fact that God foreknows it; thus no one would be free to choose otherwise.

In this brief essay I will show that the Bible DOES in fact teach that God foreknows everything about the future of his creation. I will show that such foreknowledge is very important for some of the most significant elements of the Biblical world view.

First, God’s foreknowledge is the key to understanding his predestination of believers to eternal life in heaven. Calvinists say that all human beings are conceived and born in a totally depraved state as the result of Adam’s sin, and thus no one has the free will to respond to God’s offer of salvation. Thus God himself simply chooses to unconditionally save some and to irresistibly bestow upon these the gift of faith and salvation. But the Bible says otherwise. It says that God predestines to eternal life those “whom He foreknew” (Rom. 8:29; see 1 Peter 1:2).
We need to pay close attention to Paul’s words in Romans 8:29. He does not say that God predestines anyone to become a believer. Rather, he predestines certain ones to be “conformed to the image of His Son.” In this context this phrase does not refer to becoming a believer, but refers to the final resurrection of the body in preparation for life on the New Earth forever (see 8:18-25, especially v. 23). When we are given our new bodies, we will have the same kind of glorified body Jesus now has (Phil. 3:21), making him “the firstborn among many brothers,” as 8:29 says. This is how we will be “conformed to” his image and adopted into the eternal family of God (v. 23). God has already predestined this to happen to us, based on his foreknowledge of our obedience to the gospel and our life of trust in Jesus. He does not predestine us to be and live as believers, but he foreknows whether we will do this or not; and on this basis he predestines us to heaven.

Second, God’s foreknowledge is an important factor in his answers to prayer. Some wonder if our prayers change God’s mind or change his plans. When he hears our prayers, does he at that moment decide to do something he had not planned to do before? When we understand God’s foreknowledge, we can see that the answer is NO. Since before creation God has already foreknown all our prayers, and has already worked his answers to these prayers into his providential plans for the future. Because of his foreknowledge he was able to decide which prayers he would answer and which he would not answer from the very beginning. There is no need for him to change his plans in response to our petitions. He has always known these petitions, and he has always known what he has planned to do about them.

Thus the way God has determined to answer our prayers is similar in many ways to the way he has predestined us to eternal life. Answers to prayer are prearranged according to foreknowledge, just as faithful believers are predestined to glory according to foreknowledge. There is no changing of God’s mind. As C. S. Lewis has said, though we may pray for a healing today, if God in eternity decided to grant it, he has already set in motion the causes necessary for its accomplishment. “Our prayers, and other free acts, are known to us only as we come to the moment of doing them. But they are eternally in the score of the great symphony” (Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 1964, p. 69).

A third item that is dependent upon foreknowledge is predictive prophecy. If God does not know the future, how can he make infallible predictions thereof? Some such predictions may be based on God’s own predetermined plans of his future acts, but some prophecies involve future free-will acts of human beings. Regarding the latter, God is not just declaring what he himself plans to do in the future, but he is also foretelling what human beings will be doing of their own free will.

An example of this is the circumstances leading up to the atoning death of Jesus Christ. In Acts 2:23 the Apostle Peter says that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” The death of Christ was definitely something God had predetermined to accomplish from all eternity (Rev. 13:8, NIV; see 1 Peter 1:20), but it involved many free-will decisions that God knew in advance and included in his plan. These included Judas’ betrayal, Herod’s and Pilate’s decisions, the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, and Jesus’s execution by the Romans (see Acts 2:23b; 4:27-28). God wove together the threads of his own blessed plan of redemption and the threads of the foreknown free acts of unbelievers, and produced a tapestry of unbelievable harmony and eternal significance.

Finally, in the Bible the foreknowledge of God serves the irreplaceable role of providing proof that Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is the one and only true God. This is a theme that runs through a major section in the book of Isaiah, namely, chapters 40 through 48. Here God himself says that the very mark of deity is the ability to declare what is going to take place in the future, the ability to announce what is coming. E.g., see Isaiah 41:21-23, “Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods.” See also Isaiah 42:8-9; 44:7-8; 45:20-21; 46:9-10; 48:3-7. In all these passages God asserts his exclusive possession of knowledge of the future. Such foreknowledge, he says, is proof that he and he alone is God.

Thus in the Bible God’s foreknowledge is linked to predestination, prayer, prophecy, and proof of the true divinity of God. Other specific references to foreknowledge are as follows: God foreknew his people Israel (Rom. 11:2), and he foresaw the justification of the Gentiles (Gal. 3:8). See also David’s remarkable claims (Ps. 139:4, 16). The fact that names have been written in the Lamb’s Book of Life from the foundation of the world is a clear indication of God’s foreknowledge (Rev. 13:8; 17:8). To deny divine foreknowledge requires one to either ignore a large portion of Scripture, or else undertake the major and futile task of trying to explain all these texts away.

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God’s Foreknowledge in the Bible — 8 Comments

  1. Can you explain why in Genesis God repents for creating the earth? Or why he changes his mind after the people of Nineva repent? Or why he God says to Saul I would have established your throne for ever but instead he sins so David becomes the chosen one. There are several scriptures that indicate we have free will in far more compelling way than some of the scriptures you have referred to. God cannot have a meaningful relationship with is if he has foreknowledge of all our thoughts and actions. I think you need to have a look at some epistemology and decide what kind of knowledge God has and whether or not he knows it from outside or inside of time. William Lane Craig has some interesting arguments.

    • I say that this is irrelevant to the question of foreknowledge in Romans 8:29. The proper way to understand foreknowledge in this text is to carefully analyze how the New Testament itself uses the vocabulary of ginosko and its cognates, which I have done in my Commentary on Romans.

  2. I understand the concept of God knowing all that will happen and this is a good explanation. You seem to argue God does not change his mind, but isn’t that what he does in Jonah 3:10? He announces He is going to destroy the city the changes his actions based on their response. I see this as a clear indication God will change His mind based on our actions!

    • Since God foreknows our actions, He does not have to “change His mind.” He bases his dealings with us on this foreknowledge of how we will interact with them. When God issues a statement such as Jonah 3:4, this is actually a warning of what will happen UNLESS there is repentance (see v. 9). But if there is repentance, God does not follow through on the warning. God actually tells us that this is His modus operandi in Jeremiah 18:7ff. The point about foreknowledge is that God already knows how this whole process will work out: He knows His warnings, He knows how men will respond to them, and He knows how He will respond to their responses. His foreknowledge does not make the human side of such interaction any less real, nor does it make God’s side any less real. The process is genuine from both sides, but God is not taken by surprise regarding any part of it.

  3. Hi there. I don’t really understand what you’re saying about predestination. You mention that Calvinists are wrong to believe their position on predestination, but I don’t understand the distinction you’re trying to make regarding their interpretation of Romans 8:29.

    • I did not actually discuss how Calvinists interpret Romans 8:29. Their overall view of predestination is this: In God’s eternal existence, prior to creation, God issued what they call an “eternal decree,” in which God predestined EVERYTHING that will ever happen in this universe, including human acts of sin and human acts of faith and repentance. Thus God predetermined that Adam and Eve would sin, and that this would condemn all their descendants to be born without free will (totally depraved) and born condemned to hell. But another part of the decree was that God unconditionally chose (elected) some of these doomed individuals to be saved, and determined that they would hear the gospel, would be given the gifts of faith and repentance, and would ultimately go to heaven. The rest God determined to leave in their doomed state and to ultimately send them to hell. None of this depends on the individual making a choice either to sin or to accept salvation. It is all God’s unilateral predetermined plan. Any “foreknowledge” God has about any of this is based on the fact that God predetermined it all in the first place, as the content of his comprehensive eternal decree. In fact, all Calvinists I have seen do not even interpret the word “foreknowledge” in Rom. 8:29 as actual foreknowledge. They literally interpret the word as “whom he FORELOVED,” or “whom he FOREORDAINED.” I.e., they make the word “foreknowledge” equivalent to predestination itself. Thus in their suggested meaning it would have to read “whom he predestined, he predestined . . . .” Basically they are denying that the word actually means “foreknowledge” in Rom. 8:29. What I am saying is that the word literally means “to know beforehand, to have knowledge of beforehand.” I.e., whom God knew ahead of time would hear and obey the gospel, and whom he knew ahead of time would thus receive the gift of grace and remain faithful unto death, these he predestined to be raised from the dead, at the second coming, in a glorified human existence just like that of Jesus in his present state.

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