GOD’S FOREKNOWLEDGE: WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
JACK COTTRELL – JUNE 2016
My adult Bible study class (First Church of Christ, Greendale, IN) has been studying the book of Romans. Today was our second Sunday on Romans 8:29, and our focus was the foreknowledge of God. Among other things I presented four reasons why God’s foreknowledge is an important doctrine. (It is just serendipitous that all four points are alliterative—all begin with “Pr–”.)
I. PROPHECY. Generic prophecy is by definition any message spoken on behalf of someone else. One major kind of prophecy, though, is predictive prophecy, i.e., a message that predicts something that is going to happen in the future. The Bible has many examples where God predicts future events, often things that will happen hundreds of years later. Some of these can be explained by God’s purposive decision to personally cause an event to happen at a chosen point in the future, especially predictions relating to the birth of the Messiah (e.g., Isaiah 7:14).
Some predictive prophecies, though, are the result of God’s foreknowledge of as-yet-future human free-will choices, i.e., choices that he knows certain people will make in certain circumstances yet in the future. One such prophecy is Isaiah 44:28: “It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd! And he will perform all My desire.’ And he declares of Jerusalem, “She will be built.’ And of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid.’” This prophecy was written probably in the late eighth century B.C., about the man who became king of Persia almost 200 years later (c. 539 B.C.). The fulfillment of this and other prophecies related to Cyrus is recorded in the book of Ezra (see Ezra 1:1-4). King Cyrus defeated the Babylonians, set the Judean captives free, and allowed them to return to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.
Another predictive prophecy involving God’s foreknowledge of future human acts is Psalms 22: 17-18, “I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; they divide my garments among them. And for my clothing they cast lots.” This is a Psalm of David, whose life ended around 970 B.C. Thus it refers to something that was going to happen a thousand years later (Matt. 27:35-36), something foreknown to God and revealed to David by the Holy Spirit. For another example see Jesus’ own prediction concerning the Apostle Peter, made during the Last Supper, the night before the crucifixion: “Truly I say to you, that this very night, before a rooster crows twice, you yourself will deny Me three times” (Mark 14:30). The amount of detail here shows that this was not a guess, but a predictive prophecy based on foreknowledge.
II. PROOF. The second example of the importance of foreknowledge is actually a continuation of the first one. It is simply this: the fact that God foreknows the future, as demonstrated by his predictive prophecies, PROVES that he alone is God. There are always many false gods whose reality and deity and power are claimed by their followers. To such claims the One True God says: “OK, if you are a god, prove it! And one main way you can prove it is to predict the future! These phony gods cannot do this, BUT I CAN DO IT, AND I HAVE DONE IT! My unique foreknowledge of the future proves that I alone am God!”
Several times in Isaiah 40-48 God issues this challenge to his so-called rivals. For example, in 44:7-8 he says, “‘Who is like Me? Let him proclaim and declare it; yes, let him recount it to Me in order, from the time that I established the ancient nation. And let them declare to them the things that are coming and the events that are going to take place. Do not tremble and do not be afraid; have I not long since announced it to you and declared it? And you are My witnesses. Is there any God besides Me, or is there any other Rock? I know of none.’”
Another such example is 45:20-21: “‘Gather yourselves and come; draw near together, you fugitives of the nations; they have no knowledge, who carry about their wooden idol and pray to a god who cannot save. Declare and set forth your case; indeed, let them consult together. Who has announced this from of old? Who has long since declared it? Is it not I, the LORD? And there is no other God besides Me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none except Me.’” See also Isaiah 46:9-10.
Here God himself points to his foreknowledge as proof that he and he alone is the One True God.
III. PRAYER. Some have concluded that if prayer is meaningful, then it must have the power to change God’s mind. But this seems to somehow make God’s will depend on ours. How can we say that God answers prayers without somehow diminishing the nature of God? (I discuss this in my book on God the Ruler, pp. 367ff.)
The answer lies in the foreknowledge of God. Even before he created this universe, he already knew every prayer that would ever be uttered. Even then he was able to decide which prayers he would answer and how he would answer them. Thus there is no need for God to change his plans in response to our petitions. From the beginning he has known them, and has known what he has planned to do about them. Answers to prayers are prearranged according to foreknowledge.
This shows that even though our prayers do not change God’s mind, they do influence what God decides to do. In his foreknowledge, as God processes all our foreseen acts and decisions—including our prayers, he plans his own decisions and deeds in connection with them. Thus some of the things God has determined to do, in answer to our prayers, he would never have done if we had not uttered these (foreknown) prayers!
IV. PREDESTINATION. The final reason why foreknowledge is important is the one Paul is emphasizing in Romans 8:29, namely, that God’s foreknowledge of our free choices is the means by which he predestines us to be part of his eternal family in heaven: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.”
Some Christians do not like to talk or think about predestination, because they associate it with Calvinism. But there is a huge difference between how Calvinists understand predestination, and the predestination to which Paul is referring here. Both sides correctly define predestination as God’s pre-creation decision to later bestow salvation on some people and not others. Both sides correctly believe that God is the one who chooses whom to save and whom not to save.
But here is where the similarity ends. There are at least two HUGE differences between Calvinistic predestination and the predestination to which Paul refers in Romans 8:29. One difference focuses on the CONTENT of the salvation God predetermines to bestow on his chosen ones. Paul specifies that God predestines that we (the chosen ones) will be “conformed to the image of His Son.” The context of Romans 8 shows that he is speaking specifically of giving us, in the end times, a new, glorified, resurrection body just like the one Jesus has now (vv. 11, 18-23; cf. Phil. 3:21). This is when we will be fully adopted into God’s family (vv. 15-17, 19, 22-23). This is why verse 29 refers to Jesus as “the firstborn among many brethren”: he was the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18), but not the only one. God has already predestined that we too will be raised in new bodies into God’s eternal family.
But how does Calvinism interpret the salvation to which certain people are predestined? They do not limit it as Paul does here, but affirm instead that God has predestined to bestow upon certain chosen ones the entire gamut of salvation, beginning with the act of faith itself. He chooses not just who will be in heaven in the end, but who (of all the sinners in the world) will become believers and remain believers until they die and are raised again. But this is not what Paul says! Paul says only the END is predestined, not the MEANS. Calvinists incorrectly say both. They are wrong.
This leads to the other main difference between Calvinist and Biblical predestination. It has to do with the REASON why God chooses and predestines some, but not others. How does God decide whom to predestine to heaven? Here is where the word and concept of foreknowledge becomes important! Paul says that the ones God FOREKNOWS are the ones he predestines. Exactly what does he foreknow about us that causes him to choose us? In a nutshell, he foreknows who will meet the conditions for salvation that he specifies at any point in redemptive history.
Calvinists themselves are the ones who introduce this concept of conditions into the discussion. The Calvinist system of sin and salvation is usually summarized in the acrostic T-U-L-I-P. The “T” is total depravity, which is actually why God has to choose who will believe and who will not: every human being is born (because of Adam) with a sinful nature that is so severe that no one is able to believe, or to meet any other conditions that God might specify for receiving eternal life. Therefore God’s choice of certain ones has nothing to do with a “foreknowledge” of who will meet specified conditions, such as faith and repentance. Thus they speak of the “U” of unconditional election, where true foreknowledge is irrelevant.
But Paul says the predestination to heaven is somehow based on God’s foreknowledge of something about us, and we conclude from other Biblical texts that this is a foreknowledge of who will indeed meet the conditions God has specified for receiving salvation. We think of these conditions as the “gospel commands” of believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. Thus because God foreknows from the beginning who will obey the gospel, he can predestine who will receive the final gift of a renewed and glorified body just like the one Jesus has now. (This is the “purpose” according to which we have been “called”; see v. 28.)
(For more details on predestination, see chapter 22 in my book The Faith Once for All; and my essay on “The Classical Arminian View of Election,” in the book edited by Chad Brand, Perspectives on Election: Five Views.)
Here, then, are four reasons why the reality of God’s foreknowledge is important for our Christian living and thinking. It is a key presupposition of certain PROPHECIES; it is a solid PROOF of God’s unique existence; it is a factor in our PRAYER life; and it is the basis for our PREDESTINATION to heaven.