I have struggled for years with the "foreknew" and "predestined" parts. I believe the Bible 100% and actually understand what is being said; however, there is something I can't quite get.
Maybe I can ask my question this way: I am blessed with two grandsons. God knew from the beginning everything about these children. Could one be predestined by God to be conformed to the image of Jesus and not the other, or neither be predestined by God to be conformed?
I know God wants every person to conform to the image of His Son. One thing I read stated, "God foreknew that some would be willing to be conformed to that image and He predestined and called them to do so."
Maybe you will share your understanding and thoughts with me and I will "finally" get it.
One of the problems that I have with trying to explain what is being said with predestination and foreknowledge is that it is easier to prove what it is not saying than to try to explain what it is saying. It is also a subject where it is hard to get to a point where I could confidently say, “okay, I've got it now.” The fact that you are struggling with it is not really a surprise and it certainly isn't unique. There are dozens of books written on the topic and I'm sure many thousands of articles. Even when I've gotten to the point where I am fairly sure of what the answer is, I struggle with trying to explain it to others. I think that is because there are so many competing concepts about what is meant.
There are two primary predestination passages, one section in Romans and one in Ephesians. The verse that you quote is Romans 8:29 where Paul says, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
The first question we need to ask ourselves is if the “For those God foreknew...” means us as individuals or us as a collective. If individual, it would then be equally translated as, “For each of us whom God foreknew...” If as a collective, it could be translated as, “For the group which God foreknew...” Knowing which one he intended gets at the heart of trying to understand what Paul is revealing about predestination.
The simpler way (at least in English) is if Paul was talking about us as individuals. As you pointed out, if God foreknew us as an individual, it creates a bunch of questions about how free will mixes with the predetermination of God. If, however, he meant us as a group, the free will questions go away, but then the passage can't be used for a lot of favorite doctrines. So here are some other passages that deal with free will to consider.
"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9).
"This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (I Timothy 2:3-4).
If God wants everyone to come to repentance and if we accept that he is all-powerful, then why can't he just force all men to be saved? Why would he arbitrarily pick on a select few to be saved? Or another way to ask the question is if God is responsible for determining the end state of all people and he wants them all saved, why can't he just save them all without regard to their desires or behaviors? Since the “individual” solution seems to run into untenable problems, we have to explore the idea that he is dealing with the plan of salvation on a collective level.
So, let me restart with a premise that may be worded a little oddly. “For the church which God foreknew...” Now to understand what I mean here, the church or body is the collection of those who are saved (both living and dead) and not any earthly organization. Basically I'm using it in the way Jesus used it in Matthew 16:18 and Paul's use in Ephesians 5:23. This simplifies the Romans 8 passage.
Now let's take a larger section of Romans 8 and insert [in the body] after each of the pronouns for clarification purposes.
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those [in the body] who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those [in the body] God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those [in the body] he predestined, he also called; those [in the body] he called, he also justified; those [in the body] he justified, he also glorified.
"What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us [in the body], who can be against us [in the body]? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all [in the body] —how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us [in the body] all things? Who will bring any charge against those [in the body] whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us[in the body]" (Romans 8:28-34).
What this way of looking at it does is to shift the focus away from us as individuals and toward the church that Jesus died for. While it is still true that the church is entirely composed of individuals, they are a specified subset of individuals who meet a specific set of qualifications. That is a bit disappointing for some people because they like being thought of as the center of God's attention. However, if the real emphasis is on the church, then we have a lot of responsibilities to God. It means that God is interested in the growth of the church and the building up of the church. We have a mission to be deeply involved in the progress of the church because it is the group that inherits all the promises.
The group is predestined to be in the likeness of the Son. That would mean then that we can become a part of the group that is predestined by joining the group. It also means that the blessings are promised to the members of the group and not to us as random individuals. As a member of the group it may be necessary that some of us die young (think of the great persecution that was going on in the early church), as in the case of Jesus himself, but when such things must happen, the group as a whole is still blessed.
The ultimate blessing, of course, is being one of the brothers of Christ and therefore we will be called from the grave just as Jesus, the firstborn, was called.
The other passage in Ephesians has been used to bolster the argument that the predestination in Romans 8 was meant to be the individual and not a collective group like the church. This is going to sound like a crazy way to prove this, but what I'm going to do is first misquote Ephesians by leaving out a few words. As you read it, see if it doesn't sound like a really good explanation of predestination the way most people think of it.
The Misquote (please read it carefully and see if you can tell what is missing):
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing. For he chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us. We have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. We were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.
The above passage completely “proves” the common idea of what predestination means. It spells out completely that God “pushes” salvation on us because that is what God wants to do. Those of us who happen to be destined for holiness were chosen before the beginning of the world. We can't help it that God loved us that way. We just have to accept the wonderful state that we were assigned to and accept that there are others who weren't so fortunate.
However, I took out a very key ingredient that somehow is commonly overlooked when studying this passage. I believe even people who have this passage nearly memorized have a hard time seeing what is missing – all because we so quickly scan it.
Now here is the same passage (Ephesians 1:3-14) quoted correctly and the missing words highlighted.
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
"In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory" (Ephesians 1:3-14).
I don't think Paul was just trying to be wordy, he wanted us to know something special about the plan of salvation. Those that are saved are saved “IN” Christ. So the predestination that Paul is talking about only occurs to those in the collective group of “in him” as opposed to the group who are “out of him.”
Let me walk through each one.
...blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. If you are “in Christ”, you are blessed with every spiritual blessing. The opposite of that is that if you are not in Christ then there are no blessings promised to you.
...he chose us in him. He did not choose us on a one-on-one basis, but rather he chose those of us who are “in him”. The opposite group is composed of everyone who is not in him.
...adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ. We are not just adopted at random, we can only be adopted through Jesus. Jesus has to be the one that approves of our adoption.
...has freely given us in the One he loves. It was freely given to us, but only in the one He loves (Jesus). If you are not in the One He loves, then He hasn't given you anything.
In him we have redemption. The emphasis again is that the redemption comes from being “in him”.
....which he purposed in Christ. The plan wasn't just put into effect in some haphazard way, the plan was to do everything important through Christ.
In him we were also chosen. Some would like this to say “we were chosen to be in him”, but it doesn't say that. It says that because we are “in him” we can now consider ourselves to be a part of the chosen.
...you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth. Now we're getting to the part where it is all starting to tie tightly together. We were included in the group of those in Christ when we heard the Word, obeyed it, etc. Before we heard the word, we would have been part of the group that was outside of Christ.
...you were marked in him with a seal. You were only marked with a seal by being “in him”. There is no mark for those who are outside of him.
So, getting back to the original concept. The idea of predestination in the scripture can be summarized by saying that God predetermined (or predestined) before the beginning of the world to set up a church through his Son's sacrifice and that those who belonged to the church would be blessed, honored, called, chosen, adopted, loved, and redeemed. Membership in the group would be by those willing to believe in Jesus so strongly that they are said to be “in him” and “conformed to his likeness”.
I hope this answers the question. Please let me know if I've missed something.