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. Rom 8:29 ESV
Given the manifold references to election and predestination in the Scriptures, some Arminian apologists look to Romans 8:29 to argue that these references do not speak about unconditional election, but rather conditional election. That is, God’s predestination of individuals unto salvation is conditioned upon their free decision to choose Him, which He foreknew before the foundation of the world. Those whom he foreknew he also predestined… In other word, in the understanding of the Arminian, before time began God saw those people who would choose Him, and He then predestined them for the benefits of salvation. Therefore, it is argued, Romans 8:29 becomes the lens through which we should view other references to election and predestination in the Scriptures. This understanding of election is sometimes called “election/predestination according to foreknowledge.”
There are several problems with this interpretation on exegetical, contextual, logical, and semantic grounds. We’ll take these in order.
First, the Arminian interpretation is not based on sound exegesis, which refers to reading out of the text. Rather, it amounts to eisegesis, which refers to the act of reading something into a text. Rom 8:29 refers to people, not actions when it says, “those whom he foreknew.” It says nothing about God foreseeing that they would choose Him, that they would believe, or anything else about their future actions. It says that He foreknew them. The Arminian position is not even implied. It simply cannot be derived from the words in the text.
My first Greek professor gives a great rule of thumb for supporting one’s interpretation on a given passage. He says, “you’ve got to be able to put your finger on the page of Scripture and say, ‘This is why I hold this interpretation.’ If you can’t do that, abandon your interpretation.” The Arminian can’t do that in this case because the words are not there. For this reason, it would be equally valid to interpret the verse to mean, “those whom he foreknew would like spinach” or “those whom he foreknew would prefer jeans over slacks.” These two options take no more liberty with the text than does the Arminian interpretation. This is clearly a case of a favored theology being forced into a passage, rather than deriving a theology from the words of a passage.
Second, the Arminian interpretation does not fit with the immediate context. All of the verbs in vv29-30 are active verbs with God as the subject. Paul is seeking to encourage believers suffering in this present life that God determined from ages past not only to save them, but to carry that plan to its completion, their glorification. Indeed, if we read to the end of the chapter we see in the entire section the idea that glorification is sure because it is God who is accomplishing it. Nothing can prevent that from happening. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. How peculiar, then, to deduce, based on something that is not even stated in the passage, that all of God’s work on behalf of the believer, intended by Paul to be a comfort to the reader, in the end rests on the shoulders of the reader. If that were the case, vv38-39 should more appropriately read, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor almost anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Further, if we look at the greater context in ch9, we find Paul explicitly rejecting the notion that God bases His choice of certain individuals on His foreknowledge of their actions. In explaining God’s choice of Jacob over Esau, Paul writes in vv10-13, And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad--in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls--she was told, "The older will serve the younger." As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." Clearly, Paul here asserts that God chooses according to His own purpose, not because of foreseen actions on the part of individuals.
The Arminian interpretation of Romans 8:29 can also be rejected on logical grounds. Predestination according to foreknowledge, as the Arminian view presents it, shows God to be completely passive in predestination. In fact, His predestination is shown to be a completely meaningless, unnecessary, and ineffectual gesture. Why would God predestine an event that He has already seen will inevitably come to pass without His involvement? His predestination does not accomplish anything. Rather, what is efficacious is the decision of the sinner to believe. Consider this: because God has foreseen that the sinner will believe, and his “predestination” is based on that future belief, it would be far more appropriate to say that the sinner has predestined himself for salvation, albeit via the foreknowledge of God. For man is the true actor in this scenario, God simply passively observes the future action of the sinner.
The only reason I can find for this superfluous act of predestining something that is already destined to occur is that God would like to take the credit for what this sinner freely chose to do. But for God to do so is dishonest since He had no hand in the sinner’s decision, according to Arminian theology. (If He did have a hand in it, according to the Arminian, He has violated the sinner’s libertarian free will. More on this in Sunday School.) This scene ends up making God sound like a first-grader on a playground arguing with another kid:
“I chose you first.”
“Nuh-uh, I chose YOU first.”
“NO, I chose YOU first.”
And so God’s so-called “sovereign plan” is thereby handed to Him by fallen man, even though He would seek to claim authorship. Try as one might to square that with the strong statements about God’s sovereignty that we’ve been talking about in Sunday School, the Arminian will always come up empty here. The God presented in this interpretation of Roman 8:29 is not the God of the Bible.
And yet, the best reason for rejecting the Arminian interpretation is semantic. Next time, we’ll look at the range of meaning for the word “foreknew,” and put this one to bed.
Jack W. Cottrell, “The Classical Arminian View of Election” in Perspectives on Election: 5 Views, ed. Chad Owen Brand (Nashville: B&H, 2006), 85-88.