Predestination-Freewill Dyspepsia (P4)
This is where many Bible students get all tied up in knots. They read the word predestined in a verse and suddenly the larger Bible goes dark and all they can see and think and feel is that one word. Let's start by understanding a basic governing pattern we see in Scripture: God foreknows, then decrees. Then we will advance the concept and narrow our study specifically to predestination decrees that orbit salvation.
God Foreknows, Then Decrees
God foreknows, then decrees. His foreknowledge informs and counsels His decree. The exact Biblical phrase for this administrative pattern is "the counsel of His will". The phrase "the counsel of" refers to the guidance of His own omniscience/omnitemporal knowledge/foreknowledge; the phrase "His will" refers to His authoritative decree as a result (on any matter). The phrase is found in Ephesians 1:11 (ESV): ...who works all things according to the counsel of his will.
Plenty of scriptures show us this pattern of divine activity. As you read, keep in mind the phrase "His foreknowledge informs and counsels His decree", or the verbatim Biblical rendition, "the counsel of His will".
Jeremiah 1:5: Jeremiah
A simple, straightforward scripture showing this pattern is Jeremiah 1:5 (ESV). Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations. God's foreknowledge is seen in the phrase, "before I formed you in the womb I knew you". His resultant decree or will is seen in the phrase, "I appointed you a prophet to the nations". To use Ephesians 1:11's wording, God's omniscience counseled Him to will that Jeremiah be a prophet.
Psalm 139: David
In Psalm 139, David writes about God's foreknowledge-to-decree activity. In verses 1-6, he describes, in a most beautiful and intellectual way, God's omniscience. He focuses especially on God's omnitemporality and foreknowledge.
As we looked at previously, one manifestation of omniscience is omnitemporality, which David describes in verse 5 (ESV): You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. David says God is "behind" him as his rear guard (past time zone), "before" him as the One who goes ahead of him (future time zone), and God's hand lays upon him with covering and power in the here and now (present time zone). God is equally and fully present in all three time zones, which David creatively describes as behind-upon-before.
We also looked at previously how one manifestation of omnitemporality is foreknowledge, which David uses multiple phrases to describe. In verse 2 he says (ESV), You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. In verse 4 he says, Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. These are perhaps the clearest and most detailed descriptions of God's foreknowledge in all the Bible.
In verses 7-12, David describes God's omnipresence. In verses 13-15, he describes God's omnipotence.
Then suddenly, in verse 16, David comes full circle back to God's foreknowledge and the decrees that flow from it (NKJV): Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. God saw David's substance, "being yet unformed"--before it came into actual existence. God then decreed and wrote down the days fashioned for David (his ideal plan for him, life purposes, vocational destiny, key experiences, etc.), before one of them ever came to be. Can you see the administrative pattern here in verse 16, beginning with all the omni statements in verses 1-15? God omnisciently foreknows, then decrees.
Isaiah 49:1-7: Jesus & Paul
This meaty prophecy is first and foremost about the Messiah. Verses 1-6 list decree after decree after decree about the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus (verses 8 and 9 also). Verse 7 is the foreknowledge passage, describing both the indignities and honors Jesus would experience (ESV): ...to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: "Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves..." The pattern continues: God foreknows, then decrees.
A second layer of this prophecy refers to Paul. In the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, Paul quoted a piece of this prophecy verbatim (Isaiah 49:6) and said the Lord commanded he and Barnabas from it (Ac 13:47). Additionally, the Lord Jesus Himself said Paul would take "my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel" (9:15 ESV). These three audiences--Gentiles, kings, and Israel--are the three audiences listed in Isaiah 49:5-7 (Israel in verse 5, Gentiles in verse 6, kings in verse 7).
Regardless of which layer the prophecy is applied to, Messianic or Pauline, the pattern of divine activity is there regarding both: God foreknows, then decrees.
Luke 1:13-17: John the Baptist
In this well-known passage about the identity and mission of John the Baptist before he was born, Gabriel is speaking directly for God. We might expect, then, to see some semblance of the foreknowledge-to-decree pattern. Read Gabriel's message; it is a rich back-n-forth of foreknowledge and decree, foreknowledge and decree, foreknowledge and decree. The pattern persists: God's foreknows in His omniscient counsels, then decrees authoritative wills accordingly.
Romans 8:29: Born-Again Christians
Finally we arrive at Romans 8:29, a passage that is either a nuclear power plant (if correctly interpreted) or a radioactive waste zone (if misinterpreted). The passage says (ESV): For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son... Young's Literal Translation words part of it this way: because whom He did foreknow, He also did fore-appoint...
Is this verse about salvation proper (who gets saved versus who gets reprobated to hell), or something orbital or secondary to salvation? We'll get to that question next. For now, simply notice once again the foreknowledge-to-decree pattern. As Young's Literal words it: He did foreknow, He also did fore-appoint. God foreknows, then decrees. The counsel of His will.
Salvation, Transformation, or Glorification?
Now for the question that has led to many aggravated conversations in the body of Christ. What, exactly, does God's predestination decree in Romans 8:29 refer to? Paul said we were predestined "to be conformed to the image of his Son".
What, then, does "conformed to the image of his Son" refer to? Does it refer to salvation, i.e., our positional conformity to Christ imputed to us at the born-again moment (Heb 10:14)? Does it refer to transformation, i.e., our practical conformity to Christ that we grow into attitudinally and behaviorally as we walk obediently with Him every day (2Co 3:18)? Does it refer to glorification, i.e., our physical conformity to Christ that happens at the end when we are resurrected with a glorified body exactly like His (Php 3:21, 1Jn 3:2)? The New Testament uses "conformed to the image of his Son" in all three ways--positionally, practically, and physically. Therefore, we have to narrow down and pinpoint how the phrase is being used in Romans 8:29. That answer will answer our original question: what does God's predestination decree in Romans 8:29 refer to?
The Firstborn Among Many Brothers
Immediately after saying "predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son", Paul says "in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers". Here is the full verse again with my underline (ESV): For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. The crucial phrase, "in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers", tells us what dimension of "conformed to the image of his Son" Paul is referring to--salvation, transformation, or glorification.
The Firstborn from the Dead
The Messianic title firstborn is shorthand for firstborn from the dead, referring to the resurrected Lord Jesus and all that comes with His resurrection. Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 1:5 use the full title, firstborn from the dead.
There were resurrections before Jesus', as in 2Kings 13:21 and Lazarus, but those individuals died again. Jesus was the first to permanently defeat death, raised to never die again. This is one dimension of Jesus' status as firstborn from the dead. A second dimension is, Jesus was the first to be resurrected in the new era, an era that would eventually lead to the end and the restoration of all things (Ac 3:21). Jesus' title firstborn or firstborn from the dead, therefore, refers to His resurrection, permanent defeat of death, glorified body, post-incarnation immortality, inauguration of a new era. Acts 26:23 and 1Corinthians 15:20 present the same truths, but with slightly different wording.
Consequently, when Paul says the Father wants Jesus to be the firstborn "among many brothers", he is referring to believers who will also experience a physical resurrection, a new glorified body, a sinless immortality. Jesus is the older brother and firstborn, He went first into resurrection glory, we are the younger siblings, we are next for resurrection glory. Hebrews 2:10-11 say this precisely (NIV, underline mine): In bringing many sons and daughters to glory...are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. God is bringing many sons and daughters to a future glory. The Biblical word for this is glorification. It happens at the end, at the return of Christ.
Romans 8:29's predestination decree, then, has nothing to do with who gets selected for heaven and who gets reprobated for hell. It is referring to our physical conformity to Christ at His return--physical resurrection, a new glorified body, a sinless immortality--that the firstborn from the dead might actualize as firstborn among many brothers. He is the firstborn from the dead now, but on that Day, when all the sons and daughters are brought to that same glory, He will be the firstborn among many brothers in actuality and substance, not merely in spirit.
Romans 8:30 confirms this, laying out the ultimate endgoal of God's total salvific work: glorification. Paul writes (ESV, underline mine), And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
The larger context of Romans 8:29 also confirms this.