In Romans 8:28-30 we are given a panoramic view of God’s work in saving sinners, beginning in eternity past and extending into eternity future:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 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. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Puritan William Perkins referred to this passage as the “Golden Chain of Salvation,” as it reveals the order by which God saves His people – each aspect being a link in an unbreakable chain. The links themselves are found in the passage. First, God foreknew, then He predestined, then called, justified, and ultimately glorified.
In many ways, this is too much for us to take in. One preacher I heard likened it to viewing the Mississippi river. You have this enormous, 2,300 mile stretch of river, but you can only see what’s in front of you. The fact that it starts in MN and empties into the Gulf of Mexico is more than you can take in – unless you were to get a high enough vantage point to see the entire thing at once.
And in a sense that is what Paul is doing here. He is taking believers, who otherwise would be limited in their knowledge of salvation to what they had personally experienced, to a higher vantage point to view the entire path – with God’s foreknowledge as the headwaters and our glorification as the culmination of that journey.
But Paul is not introducing these weighty theological concepts just for interest’s sake. Let’s not forget the context of Romans 8. Paul has been comforting the Christians in Rome by reminding them that the present sufferings they were experiencing were not worth comparing to the glory that awaited them. Although we, and all of creation, are groaning now, we are comforted by the fact that glory awaits, our hope of salvation abides, and the Spirit assists us.
But knowing the shaky confidence of suffering believers, Paul does not leave it there. They want to know whether these comforts will stand fast in the midst of the floods of “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” or will they be swept away like our worldly comforts so quickly can be.
Paul traces the route of saving grace to make the point that if God has taken such providential care of these grand events, you need not fear that He will lose track of you along the way.
Let’s see how Paul is emphasizing the comfort and confidence available to the suffering Christian, beginning in verse 28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Note the confidence! We know. We are certain, we have no doubt, that all things – suffering included – work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose. Here he has made clear that all of these truths are applicable only to the believer.
And to believers, he is saying “don’t worry. Everything is going to work out for your good!” The suffering that you experience in this life is not meaningless, nor is it a sign that you have been forgotten by God.
We’ve talked before about how this does not mean that God will “turn every setback into a comeback” for your immediate, material good in this life.
In part, verses 29-30 reveals that God is not working out all things in order to bring about our happiness. God is working out all things in order to bring about our holiness.
But there is more at work than merely offering clarification.
By taking a believer on a tour of the full path of salvation, these verses make clear that God’s eternal purpose is, has always been, and forever will be secure. And so no matter what trouble comes, no matter how bad it gets, God will not abandoned you. He will not repent of His love for you. You will not be rejected, and you will never again find yourself under His condemnation.
I recognize that the theological waters we are about to travel run deep. It can be difficult to see through to the bottom and some places may even appear daunting. But keep in mind that these doctrines are not introduced to bring about controversy, but comfort.
Let’s look at each of the stages of our journey of salvation, taking in a fuller view of all that our loving Father has done for us.
We begin here at the headwaters, the fount of our salvation, which is found to be the foreknowledge of God. Paul says that we know that all things work together for good, for or because “those whom He foreknew…”
When we speak of God’s foreknowledge, we are not speaking of ‘foresight,’ which would be to see what is coming before it happens.
It is not the case that God simply looked ahead through the proverbial tunnel of time and learned who would choose to follow Jesus and then moved accordingly.
Note that verse 29 speaks of “those whom He foreknew,” and not “what He foreknew.” This is not speaking of God’s knowing a future event, but his knowing a person.
The word “foreknew” literally means to know beforehand. But of course, God knows everything and everyone – so what does it mean for Him to foreknow someone? To “know” in Scripture refers to having a deep, intimate relationship with someone.
Perhaps the first example that comes to mind is Genesis 4:1 “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.”
Similarly, in Amos 3:2, God said of Israel “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” To the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
The same understanding of the word “know” carries over into the New Testament. In John 10:14-15 Jesus said “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
Time and again we see “know” in Scripture given as indicating an intimate, personal relationship. So you could think of this phrase “those whom He foreknew” as meaning “those whom He foreloved.”
And it is this perfect love, set on us as His people, that is the fount of confidence Paul is giving the hurting Christian. God loves you. The Creator of the universe knows you with an intimate, personal, abiding affection and did before you came to Christ and before you were ever born. And therefore you can trust that anything He allows to come your way is not to harm you but to help you.
So what happens as a result of God setting His affection on someone? This takes us to the next phase of our winding river, as Paul states “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined…”
In its broadest sense, predestination is the doctrine that God ordains everything that comes to pass and works all things according to the counsel of His will.
In a narrower sense, predestination (or election) speaks of God choosing a people to Himself. Now remember, we are taking a 90,000 foot view of redemption, and so we won’t give a full treatment of predestination here.
What we want to take in now is the fact that God’s love is not mere sentiment. It translates into divine action. In the Old Testament we see God’s election at work in choosing Israel as His chosen people, His treasured possession – not because they were the biggest or greatest nation, but solely because He set His love on them.
In regards to our salvation, predestination simply means that after having set His love and affection on you long before you were ever born. God decided that, as the foremost expression of this love, you would be brought to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Such amazing love!
Remember, God is under no obligation to save anyone. Paul spends a great deal of time in Romans showing how all of mankind has sinfully rebelled against God and is deserving of His wrath and condemnation. As a result, we are both unable and unwilling to turn to God on our own.
And yet, in His own wisdom and for His own holy purposes, God has exercised His perfect will to rescue and redeem for Himself a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
And He accomplishes this by adopting – a willful act initiated by the parent – sons and daughters through Jesus Christ – giving us “the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”
We see both of these truths combined for us in Ephesians 1:4-5:
… He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, In love He predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved.
We who are in Christ are there not by the power of our will, but of God’s. We were chosen, or elected, or predestined to salvation in love. And our passage reveals even more than that.
Look at verse 29 in full: “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.”
What is that God has predestined? “Being conformed to the image of His Son.”
This is speaking of our becoming more and more like Christ – a process typically referred to as sanctification. Here Paul addresses not only the purpose to which we have been predestined, but he reveals the particular good that “all things” are working together towards.
There is no greater good that we could experience than to be like Jesus, and every aspect of your life – the year you were born, the country you were born in, your family, your unique hardships, your talents, your opportunities – all things work together in service of that divine purpose.
Even the painful things. Often, especially the painful things. Like a sculptor, who with every strike of his hammer and chisel chips away everything that does not fit the likeness of the individual being sculpted, so too does God chip away everything in us that does not fit the image of Christ until what remains is the perfect likeness of Jesus Christ in us.
Can that process be painful? Yes. Does it include suffering? Yes. Does it include chastisement for sin? Yes. But is it worth it? Absolutely.
This process continues throughout your life and is actually not completed until the end of the journey, which is the glorification mentioned in verse 30. The things you experience in this life – both good and bad – are means to this glorious end.
But we continue reading and see that even our conformity to Christ is a means to an even greater end! “…He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
This phrase indicates a position of preeminence, of utmost authority.
Speaking of the King David, Psalm 89:27 says “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” Was the psalmist unaware that Jesse had 8 sons, and David was the youngest? Of course not! This phrase indicates that he was first in rank, a position of power and authority.
In Colossians 1:16, we read: “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” And in verse 18: “And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent.”
God has chosen to save a particular people and make them like Christ so that He will be recognized to be the first born among many brothers. Ultimately, God’s plan of salvation is for furthering the glory of God the Son!
We’ve seen the foreknowledge and predestination, both of which took place before the foundation of the world. Next we look at the calling of God, an aspect of salvation that all believers experience first hand.
“And those whom he predestined he also called…”
Everyone whom God has foreknown and predestined are called, and shortly we shall see that all those He calls are justified and glorified. But wait, you say – isn’t everyone who hears the Gospel called to believe it? And we know from Scripture and from experience that not all of them respond in faith, so how can all the called be justified and glorified?
To answer that, we must make a distinction between the external call of the Gospel and the internal call of the Gospel. While the external call reaches the ear, only the internal call reaches the heart.
An external call comes when someone hears the Gospel preached – and it can be and often is rejected. The internal call, which is the work of God the Holy Spirit, always accomplishes its perfect work and results in conversion.
Jesus taught in John 6:44-45 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws Him…” and in 6:65, “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7); “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14).
Without the internal call of the Spirit, the external call of the Gospel not only falls on deaf ears, it falls on dead hearts. Ephesians 2:1 tells us, “dead in the trespasses and sins.” And the dead do not respond unless they are brought to life. And this is just what we see a few verses later!
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
That movement from being spiritually dead to being made alive is made possible by the effectual, internal calling of the Holy Spirit.
So if it is the internal of the Spirit that causes us to come to faith in God, does that mean that the external call of the evangelist is unimportant? Not at all – Proclaiming the Gospel is essential!
God has determined not only the ends, but the means – and the means that God has ordained is the proclamation of the Gospel. We are to freely offer the promise of the Gospel to all people.
These truths about God’s sovereignty in salvation do not limit the scope of our evangelism, it merely informs our understanding of what all has taken place when a person comes to Jesus.
And once that occurs, we know that the individual who comes to faith is “justified.”
“and those whom he called he also justified…”
Having been foreknown and predestined long before we were born, in His own perfect timing the Spirit called us to respond to the Gospel – and when we responded in repentance and faith we were justified.
Justification is when God pardoned all our sins and accepted us a righteous in His sight based on the righteousness of Christ.
This pardon was, of course, purchased for us on the cross, when “For our sake he made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
As with the previous stages, our justification is not based on our works or worthiness. Instead, justification comes by faith alone in Christ alone. This truth has been a primary focus throughout the book of Romans and is something that we have seen in prior weeks.
In Romans 3:21-28 we read:
… the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
When we are justified, not only are we forgiven and our debt of sin against God is paid in full, the positive righteousness of Christ is actually credited to our account! Which means when God sees you, He sees the perfect obedience of Jesus!
After tracing the flow of the river of redemption up to this point, we arrive at where it empties out into eternity: Our glorification.
“… and those whom He justified He also glorified.”
Here we arrive at the appointed end of God’s redemptive purposes. You can think of glorification as the fullest, greatest, and most complete form of our salvation. To be glorified means to be rendered glorious, to be clothed in splendor, set in an honorable position.
Glorification is the final and complete removal of sin which takes place not in this life, but at our entrance into the next. Those who God foreknew and predestined, and who He called and justified by faith in Christ, will enjoy their redemption fully when they are glorified.
This is the certain result for all who love God. So certain that Paul does not say “those whom He justified He will also one day glorify.” No. He says “He also glorified.” When God has decreed a thing it is as good as done!
What a tremendous truth. This is what Paul pointed us to last time were together as a source of comfort and strength: You will be glorified. You will be made fully like Christ. You will enter into your heavenly rest. Your greatest joy, your greatest treasure, your greatest good, is perfectly secure.
This is when you receive your perfected, resurrection body for all eternity. It is at our glorification that we complete our adoption process, that we receive a perfected resurrection body, that we are freed from the very presence of sin, and that we are made fully like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and enter into eternal fellowship with Him.
Beyond this, there are joys and blessings and benefits that we could not begin to fathom. As 1 Corinthians 2:9 says, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
And the greatest blessing that awaits is that we – completely freed from the hinderance of sin – will worship our Savior with fulness of joy, casting our crowns at his feed at praising His name forever.
But beyond the wonders and joys that await us, I want to draw your attention to what Paul has shown here, which is just how securely your progress through this redemptive path is in the hands of God.
Your soul has been, is, and will be secure at every phase of God’s redemptive plan. If the Good shepherd begins with 100 sheep, He will not arrive with 99.
Jesus said in John 6:37-39:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me. And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
Are you in distress? Are you suffering? Do you have doubts? Are you weary from your fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil?
To you, our passage says “Fear not.” For God will not lose track of you. All who begin at the initial headwaters will find themselves at the end of the river, with none lost along the winding journey.
It was grace that brought you safe just far, and grace will lead you home. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).
If you have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no calamity that could befall you which would jeopardize this truth: you will be glorified in Him.
No matter how much we might suffer, we need not lose hope or give an inch to doubt about the security of our salvation in Christ or the assurance of His ever-present love for us as His adopted sons and daughters.
That is the message of Romans 8:28-30, and it is a message that not only provides us with comfort in the midst of suffering, but confidence to endure hardships as servants of Christ, knowing that “… for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”