"If the Epistle to the Romans rightly has been called 'the cathedral of Christian faith', then surely the eighth chapter may be regarded as its most sacred shrine, or its high altar of worship, of praise, and of prayer. . . . Here, we stand in the full liberty of the children of God, and enjoy a prospect of that glory of God which some day we are to share" (Charles Erdman).
The beauty of Romans 8 can be seen in two of its most prominent characteristics. (1) There is a poetic beauty in the way this chapter begins and the way it ends. It begins with No Condemnation in Christ (v. 1) and ends with No Separation from Christ (v. 39). (2) The emphasis in this chapter on the Holy Spirit is obvious. The Greek word pneuma, translated "S/spirit", is found only 5x in chapters 1-7 and 8x in chapters 9-16, but it occurs 21x in chapter 8 alone, more often than in any other single chapter in the NT.
1. Life in the Spirit (1) - 8:1-4
a. our possession, or the character of our salvation - vv. 1-2
1) the absence of condemnation - v. 1
Anytime you encounter the word “therefore” in Scripture you must ask what is the “therefore” there for? In this instance, it does not logically follow from 7:14-25. Paul cannot be understood as saying: “Because I am enslaved to sin, therefore I am no longer under condemnation”! The connection probably goes back to 7:6. As Schreiner notes, “the reason believers are not under condemnation is because they have been freed from the tyranny of the law, for sin exercises dominion over those under the law” (398).
Condemnation simply means liability or exposure to the penal sanctions of divine law. It is the opposite of justification. If to be justified is to stand boldly before God because righteous in his sight, to be condemned is to cower with fear because unrighteous and worthy of death.
If you are in Christ Jesus, there is no valid reason why you should ever again experience fear or apprehension about your relationship with God or your eternal destiny. That doesn't mean you won't experience such fear. It does mean there is no valid reason why you should. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains:
"There are many who misunderstand this. They seem to think of the Christian as a man who, if he confesses his sin and asks for forgiveness, is forgiven. At that moment he is not under condemnation. But then if he should sin again he is back once more under condemnation. Then he repents and confesses his sin again, and asks for pardon, and he is cleansed once more. So to them the Christian is a man who is constantly passing from one state to the other; back and forth; condemned, not condemned. Now that, according to the Apostle, is a wholly mistaken notion, and a complete failure to understand the position. The Christian is a man who can never be condemned; he can never come into a state of condemnation again. 'No condemnation!' The Apostle is not talking about his experience, but about his position, his standing, his status; he is in a position in which, being justified, he can never again come under condemnation. That is the meaning of this word 'no'. It means 'Never'."
But note well: Paul does not say Christians are free from condemnation because they are sinless but because they are in Christ. No Condemnation is not a universal blessing. It is reserved for those who are in Christ through faith. We must be careful to resist the temptation of false sentimentality that beckons us to give false assurance to a non-Christian simply because they are “sincere,” “nice,” “religious,” “believe in God,” etc.
2) the presence of liberation - v. 2
The "law of sin and death" said: "If you sin you die." But the "law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" says: "Though Christ is without sin, he died for you."
b. our power, or the cause of our salvation - v. 3
1) the deficiency of the law - v. 3a
Negatively speaking, the law could not, cannot, and never will have the power to save a single soul. It reveals sin, it convicts of sin, but it cannot redeem from sin. It isn't because the law is weak or evil (cf. 7:7-13). Rather, we are weak and evil. As Stifler has said, "The anchor of the law was strong in itself, but it would not hold in the mud bottom of the heart."
2) the sufficiency of God - v. 3b
Positively speaking, what the law could not, cannot, and never will be able to do, God could, can, and has done! Note two things.
First, Paul says God sent His ownSon, not just His Son. He wants to emphasize the cost of No Condemnation! If one should ask, "What happened to the condemnation by which we were enslaved? Did it just disappear into thin air?" No. Like a roaring flame ready to consume us, it was extinguished in the bosom of God's own Son. The only reason we are not condemned is because God condemned his own Son in our place.
Second, God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. By sinful flesh he means fallen human nature. So what is the meaning of likeness? Some say Paul is undermining the reality of Christ's true humanity, perhaps suggesting that his flesh is only a facsimile of ours, but not the real thing. However, v. 8b ("in the flesh") indicates otherwise. Others argue the word likeness is Paul's way of saying that Jesus never committed an act of sin. But Paul is talking about character, not conduct.
The best solution is that Paul used likeness to avoid saying that Christ assumed fallen human nature. He took flesh like ours, because really flesh, but only like ours, not identical with it, because unfallen. He uses the word likeness because he feels compelled to use the phrase sinful flesh instead of merely flesh. Had he omitted sinful he also would have omitted likeness. The question remains, "Why does he include the word sinful?" Murray comments:
"He is concerned to show that when the Father sent the Son into this world of sin, of misery, and of death, he sent him in a manner that brought him into the closest relation to sinful humanity that it was possible for him to come without becoming himself sinful. He himself was holy and undefiled -- the word likeness guards this truth. But he came in the same human nature. And that is the purpose of saying sinful flesh. No other combination of terms could have fulfilled these purposes so perfectly" (280).
c. our purpose, or the consequence of our salvation - v. 4
1) holiness: the outer manifestation - v. 4a
2) holiness: the inner means - v. 4b
2. Life in the Spirit (2) - 8:5-13
In this paragraph Paul portrays two forms of human existence, two categories, in one of which all men find a place. John Stott explains:
"If we are in the flesh we set our mind on the things of the flesh, we walk according to the flesh, and so die. But if we are in the Spirit we set our mind on the things of the Spirit, we walk according to the Spirit, and so live. What we are governs how we think; how we think governs how we behave; and how we behave governs our relation to God -- death or life" (88).
The purpose of these verses is not to say that believers are partly dominated by the flesh and partly by the Spirit. Rather, those who are “of the flesh” and “in the flesh” are unbelievers who will die while those who are “of the Spirit” and “in the Spirit” are believers who will live.
a. death in the flesh - vv. 5-8
1) the reality - v. 5
2) the results - v. 6
3) the reasons - vv. 7-8
a) inimical toward God - v. 7a
b) insubordinate to His law - v. 7b
c) incompetent to please Him - v. 8
The inability Paul envisions among unbelievers is not physical or intellectual or due to a lack of some essential mental or emotional faculty. It is a voluntary inability: they can’t because they won’t. Their inability isn’t due to an external power resisting their well-meant attempts to do what is right. They could do what pleases God if only they would. But they won’t. Their will is an expression of their heart. That is to say, choice is the fruit of nature. The crucial question is: are they able, of themselves, to change their nature? The testimony of Paul and others in the NT is No.
b. life in the Spirit - vv. 9-13
1) the condition - v. 9
The distinguishing characteristic of the Christian is that the Spirit of Christ dwells within. He who is devoid of the indwelling Spirit is devoid of Christ. Two observations:
First, the ease with which Paul can move from "the Spirit of God" to "the Spirit of Christ" indicates his belief in the absolute deity of the Son.
Second, here the Holy Spirit is referred to in three ways: (1) as the Spirit; (2) as the Spirit of God (the Father); and (3) as the Spirit of Christ. There are not, however, three Spirits, but one Spirit who simultaneously sustains the same relationship to both Father and Son.
2) the consequence - vv. 10-11
Paul's point is that since Christ is in you through the indwelling Spirit, although you must die physically because of sin, you are guaranteed of resurrection life. This, then, is the answer to the cry of 7:24. [The verb translated “give life” is used 11x in the NT, all of which refer either to regeneration or bodily resurrection, but never to healing from bodily disease.]
3) the conclusion - vv. 12-13
a) our obligation to the Spirit - v. 12
Some argue that Paul breaks off in mid-sentence. If he had completed it he would have said that we are debtors to the Spirit, to live according to the Spirit. Is this true? Are we “debtors” to God?
b) our mortification of the flesh - v. 13
The term to mortify or put to death points to the need for us to ruthlessly reject and repudiate anything inconsistent with life in the Spirit. And if we do not . . . ? "Be killing sin," said John Owen, "or it will be killing you" (6:9). Again,
"When sin lets us alone we may let sin alone; but as sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep when they are still, so ought our contrivances against it to be vigorous at all times and in all conditions, even when there is least suspicion" (Owen, 6:11).
[How important is it for us to mortify or put to death even the "little" sins? Alan Johnson shares this story:
"Several years ago a pastor friend of mine moved to Houston, Texas. Some weeks after he arrived, he had occasion to ride the bus from his home to the downtown area. When he sat down, he discovered that the driver had accidentally given him ten cents too much change. As he considered what to do, there alternately appeared to him little angelic figures sitting on his shoulders and whispering instructions into his ears. One appeared and said, 'You better give the dime back. It would be wrong to keep it. Christ wouldn't keep it.' On the other shoulder a voice said, 'Oh, forget it. It's just ten cents. Who would worry about this little amount. Anyway, the bus company already gets too much fare. With their millions every day they'll never miss it. Accept it as a gift from God and keep quiet.' When his stop came up, he paused momentarily at the front door, and, handing the driver the dime he said, 'Here. You accidentally gave me too much change.' The driver replied, 'Aren't you the new pastor in town? I have been thinking lately about going to church somewhere. I just wanted to see what you would do if I gave you ten cents too much change.' When my friend stepped off the bus he literally grabbed the nearest light pole, held on, and said, 'O my God, I almost sold Your Son for ten cents!" (20).]
3. The Blessings of Sonship - 8:14-17
a. the Spirit of sonship provides us with leading in our lives - v. 14
The word translated "all who" has both an inclusive and an exclusive force: 1) every one who is being led by the Spirit is a son of God; if you are a child of God you are being led by the Spirit; 2) only those who are being led by the Spirit are God's sons; it is a privilege and blessing that is theirs and theirs alone.
What does it mean to be led by the Spirit of God? What help does the context provide in answering that question? What help does the connecting word "for" (v. 14a) provide? Most likely the “leading” Paul has in mind has nothing to do with daily guidance in determining God’s will for decision-making. Rather it refers to being controlled, determined, or governed by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the flesh.
b. the Spirit of sonship provides us with power for our prayers - v. 15
1) who the Spirit is - v. 15a
2) what the Spirit does - v. 15b
Abba - Jesus always spoke of God as "my Father", both as a formal designation and as personal address in prayer. The lone exception to this rule is his cry of dereliction from the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). At that moment Jesus regarded his relationship to God as penal and judicial, not paternal.
In the OT, apart from texts in which God is compared with an earthly father, the word is used of him only 15x. Yet, in not one of those cases does anyone refer to God as "my Father" in personal, individual prayer. But that is precisely what Jesus did and what we are told to do.
Abba, the Aramaic term lying back of the Greek pater, was used in Judaism to express the intimacy, security and tenderness in a family relationship. It was the term tiny children used to address their fathers. In the Talmud we read that when a child is weaned it learns to say abba (daddy) and imma (mommy). There is no precedent in all the literature of Jewish prayer for God being addressed as Abba. According to Joachim Jeremias, "to the Jewish mind it would have been disrespectful and therefore inconceivable to address God with this familiar word. For Jesus to venture to take this step was something new and unheard of. He spoke to God like a child to its father, simply, inwardly, confidently. Jesus' use of abba in addressing God reveals the heart of his relationship with God."
The glorious news is that this is precisely the relationship with God that we have through Jesus (cf. Gal. 4:6). It is by means of the Spirit's ministry within that we cry out: "Abba, Father!"
c. the Spirit of sonship provides us with assurance of our adoption - v. 16
The problem of assurance of salvation: some who are not saved think they are; some who are saved fear they are not. Assurance is the fruit of three truths: 1) The simple declaration of Scripture; i.e., the promise of God (Jn. 3:16); 2) the fruit of obedience (1 John); and 3) the inner witness of the Spirit. Romans 8:16 is speaking of this third basis of assurance.
Some have argued that v. 16 has nothing to do with the issue of assurance of salvation. They contend that Paul’s point is that the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit to God that we are God’s children. In other words, two “spirits” testify Godward; both are advocates of our status before the Father. More likely, however, we should translate, “the Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are children of God” (see the article “The Witness of the Spirit in Romans 8:16: Interpretation and Implications,” by Daniel Wallace). Thus we know that we are saved not only because of the declaration of Scripture and the fruit of obedience but also because of the inner witness of the Spirit. As Wallace put it, “I know I’m a child of God not just because the Bible tells me so, but because the Spirit convinces me so” (10). Paul is describing a witness that is immediate, intuitive, trans-rational (but not irrational), and beyond empirical observation or verification.
It is important to observe the connection between vv. 15 and 16. The knowledge that we are sons of God is not a conclusion we draw from the fact that we cry "Abba! Father!" Our cry of "Abba!" is itself the result or fruit of that conviction which the Holy Spirit has evoked in our hearts. In other words, we first receive the Holy Spirit, who then produces in our hearts the unassailable confidence that we are God's children, an assurance that leads us to cry out, in the Spirit's power, "Abba! Father!"
d. the Spirit of sonship provides us with incentive to lay hold of our inheritance - v. 17
Who or what is our inheritance? Primarily, we inherit God himself! Cf. Pss. 16:5; 73:25-26; Lam. 3:24.
4. Groaning for Glory - 8:18-27
a. an apostolic assertion - v. 18
Verse 18 is Paul's amplification of v. 17. Do not be discouraged, says Paul, if being a "son of God" means you have to "suffer", for the afflictions and sufferings of this life are insignificant when compared with the glory that is to come. Thus, the point of v. 18 is to open our eyes to
"the great disproportion between the sufferings endured in this life and the weight of glory reserved for the children of God --- the present sufferings fade into insignificance when compared with the glory to be revealed in the future" (Murray, 300; cf. 2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Philip Hughes agrees:
"Christian suffering, however protracted it may be, is only for this present life, which, when compared with the everlasting ages of the glory to which it is leading, is but a passing moment; affliction for Jesus' sake, however crushing it may seem, is in fact light, a weightless trifle, when weighed against the mass of glory which is the inheritance of the saints" (157).
How does Paul know? Why is he so certain? Because he's been there! See 2 Cor. 12:1-6.
[As Paul now turns to discuss our hope, he uses language that may at first appear strange. He talks about our hope for heavenly glory in terms of groaning. Creation itself groans. We Christians groan. And finally, even the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, groans.]
b. the groaning of the creation - vv. 19-22
What does Paul mean by "creation"? He does not mean angels, for they were not subjected to vanity and corruption. He does not mean Satan, for he does not long for the day of redemption. He does not mean Christians, because we are distinguished from "creation" in vv. 19,21,23. He does not mean mankind in general, because it cannot be said of them that they were subjected to futility by a will other than their own. He does not mean unbelieving mankind in particular, for they, like Satan, do not long for the day of redemption. Thus, all rational creation is ruled out. By "creation" Paul means the earth, nature, non-rational creation, both animate and inanimate. Paul says two things about "creation":
1) its present defilement - v. 20
This is Paul's commentary on Gen. 3:17-19. The creation is unable to fulfill the purpose for which God made it ("futility"). Creation itself was not at fault. It was God who subjected it to futility because of Adam's sin, but in doing so it was not consigned to hopelessness. There is for creation a day of ultimate deliverance.
2) its future deliverance - vv. 19,21-22
Observe Paul's use of personification (cf. Ps. 65:12-13; 96:12; 98:8). He uses it here in two ways: 1) in v. 19 the creation experiences "anxious longing", lit., a stretching of the neck or straining forward hoping to catch a glimpse of something; a standing on tip-toes, as it were, to see what lies ahead; 2) in v. 22 the creation is likened to a mother in labor; she groans and suffers until the moment of delivery when new life is birthed. See Isa. 11:6-9.
For what, exactly, does the creation anxiously long? According to vv. 19 and 21b, creation longs for and awaits the "revealing of the sons of God," i.e., our final redemption and glorification.
c. the groaning of the Christian - vv. 23-25
1) the prospect of our hope for the future: perfection - v. 23
Elsewhere Paul uses a commercial metaphor when referring to the Spirit and designates Him as the earnest or downpayment on our future inheritance. Here he uses an agricultural metaphor and refers to the HS as the firstfruits of the harvest, a pledge of the full crop to come. What we now have through the HS is only a small taste of the feast yet to come!
The groaning here is not so much because of the burden of sin as it is groaning for the glory of heaven. It is not the groaning of disappointment or frustration but the groaning of anticipation and expectation. These groans are not death pangs but birth pangs. Thus the natural, physical creation and all Christians join together in a virtual chorus of groaning, a symphony of sighs, as it were, as we agonize in anxious expectation of that final day of redemption. See Phil. 3:20-21; 1 John 3:1-3.
2) the product of our hope in the present: perseverance - vv. 24-25
d. the groaning of the Comforter - vv. 26-27
It is because we are not yet glorified, because we still suffer from bodily weaknesses and sin, that we often cannot pray as we should. But that should not lead to despair, as vv. 26-27 explain why.
1) the intercession of the Spirit - v. 26
2) the interpretation of the Father - v. 27
There are several points worthy of note:
(1) Our present condition means that we often do not know what to pray for. Paul is not talking about style or posture or manner but of content in prayer. We are ignorant of what we need, ignorant of what God has promised, and unable to put into words the cry of our hearts.
(2) The Holy Spirit takes up where we, because of weakness, leave off. If we do not know what to pray for, the Spirit does. He intercedes for us "with groanings too deep for words." The single Greek word behind the translation "too deep for words" is used only here in the NT (alaletois). Does it mean ineffable, i.e., incapable of being expressed in human language (cf. 2 Cor. 12:4)? If so, the groans may well be audible, though inarticulate. Or does it mean simply unspoken, never rising to the audible level at all? If the former is correct, the groanings are probably ours which the HS inspires and prompts within us. But the latter is probably more likely. The groans are from the Holy Spirit himself. Moo explains:
"Although we cannot, then, be absolutely sure . . . it is preferable to understand these groanings as the Spirit's own 'language of prayer,' a ministry of intercession that takes place in our hearts (cf. v. 27) in a manner imperceptible to us. . . . We take it that Paul is saying, then, that our failure to know God's will and consequent inability to petition God specifically and assuredly is met by God's Spirit, who Himself expresses to God those intercessory petitions that perfectly match the will of God. When we do not know what to pray for -- yes, even when we pray for things that are not best for us -- we need not despair, for we can depend on the Spirit's ministry of perfect intercession 'on our behalf'" (562).
(3) According to v. 27, "God, who sees into the inner being of people, where the indwelling Spirit's ministry of intercession takes place, 'knows,' 'acknowledges,' and responds to those 'intentions' of the Spirit [i.e., the mind of the Spirit] expressed in His prayers on our behalf" (Moo, 563).
(4) Is Paul referring to the experience of praying in tongues?
5. The Divine Design for Salvation - 8:28-30
a. God's providence - v. 28
· we know
· we know that (not how)
· all things (cf. vv. 17-18)
· work together (not in and of themselves)
· good (= conformity to Christ)
· lovers of God (lest we think that our love for God is ultimately due to ourselves or the work of our own willing, apart from the activity of divine grace, Paul immediately qualifies “those who love God” with “those who are called according to his purpose”; the latter phrase clarifies that we love God only because God has first called us)
Calvin's comment is fitting:
"But we must so cherish moderation that we do not try to make God render account to us, but so reverence his secret judgments as to consider his will the truly just cause of all things. When dense clouds darken the sky, and a violent tempest arises, because a gloomy mist is cast over our eyes, thunder strikes our ears and all our senses are benumbed with fright, everything seems to us to be confused and mixed up; but all the while a constant quiet and serenity ever remain in heaven. So we must infer that, while the disturbances in the world deprive us of judgment [understanding], God out of the pure light of his justice and wisdom tempers and directs these very movements in the best-conceived order to a right end" (I.xvii.1).
b. God's purpose - vv. 29-30
It is important to remember that everyone who believes in the Bible believes in predestination and election. The issue isn't whether you have a doctrine of election but what kind of doctrine you have. The verb to choose/elect is used 22x in the NT, 7 of which refer to election to salvation or eternal life. The noun elect also occurs 22x, 17 of which refer to men and women chosen or elected to eternal life. The noun election occurs 7x, all with reference to salvation. The verb to predestine occurs 6x, 4 of which refer to men being predestined to salvation (cf. Eph. 1:5,11).
1) Foreknowledge: the first link in the chain of grace
a) the Arminian interpretation
The Arminian approach to foreknowledge in this text takes one of three forms.
(1) Foreknowledge may refer to God's knowledge of all men and women from eternity past. In other words, foreknowledge is but a synonym for omniscience. There are two problems with this: a) all those whom God foreknows he also predestines; therefore, if foreknowledge encompasses every human being, then every human being will ultimately be saved (universalism); b) vv. 29-30 are the basis for Paul's assertion in v. 28, a passage that concerns "those who love God, those who are called according to his purpose," i.e., Christians.
(2) The other option is that foreknowledge refers to God's advance knowledge of who would choose or believe in Christ. God elects or predestines unto salvation those whom he foreknows will exercise saving faith in Christ. Election is therefore conditional. God elects or chooses those who first elect or choose Christ. God's elective choice of you, his decision to predestine you to eternal life, was conditioned upon his foreknowledge that you would believe in the gospel. Here is what Arminius himself says:
"To these [previous three decrees] succeeds the fourth decree, by which God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the before described administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and, by which foreknowledge he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere" (Works, I:248).
(3) A slightly different, but related, form of view (2) is the notion of corporate conditional election. Demarest defines it this way: “Evangelical interpreters view election passively as God’s purpose to save the class of people who trust Christ. In other words, election is a statement about the divine plan of salvation; it concerns God’s appointment of the believing community to everlasting glory” (104). Perhaps the best definition is that provided by Forster and Marston:
“The prime point is that the election of the church is a corporate rather than an individual thing. It is not that individuals are in the church because they are elect, it is rather that they are elect because they are in the church, which is the body of the elect One. . . . A Christian is not chosen to become part of Christ’s body, but in becoming part of that body [by free will, exercising faith] he partakes of Christ’s election” (God’s Strategy in Human History, 1974, 136).
A more recent advocate of this view is William Klein in his book, The New People of God: A Corporate View of Election (Zondervan, 1990; see also the book by Shank, Elect in the Son). Klein contends that “God has chosen the church as a body rather than the specific individuals who populate that body” (259). The concern of the NT regarding predestination, says Klein, “is not how people become Christians nor who become Christians” but “what God has foreordained on behalf of those who are (or will be) Christians” (185).
The Arminian-Wesleyan View
It is important to point out that Calvinists and Arminians share a considerable amount of common theological ground, even when it comes to the issue of salvation. Perhaps the most important issue on which they agree is anthropology, or the doctrine of man or human nature. Both camps acknowledge that fallen human beings are born with a corrupt and depraved nature, in bondage to sin, utterly unable to do anything pleasing to God. Both camps agree that unregenerate human beings are willingly enslaved to their fallen natures.
John Wesley affirmed this truth:
"I believe that Adam, before his fall, had such freedom of will, that he might choose either good or evil; but that, since the fall, no child of man has a natural power to choose anything that is truly good. Yet I know (and who does not?) that man has still freedom of will in things of indifferent nature" (Works of Wesley, 10:350).
Wesleyan Arminianism differs significantly on this point with the version of Arminianism espoused by Charles Finney. Finney believed that all people possess the ability, apart from divine grace, to choose what is good no less than they possess the ability to choose what is evil. Contrary to Wesley, Finney rejected the idea that people are born morally depraved because of Adam's sin. In fact, when it came to the doctrine of sin, Finney was more Pelagian than Arminian.
In sum, the Wesleyan Arminian analysis of fallen human nature does not differ fundamentally from the Calvinistic one. So wherein do they differ? Why do Wesleyan Arminians affirm conditional election and Calvinists affirm that election is unconditional? The answer is what is called prevenient (or preventing) grace. According to this doctrine, God graciously and mercifully restores to all human beings the freedom of will lost in the fall of Adam (appeal is often made to John 1:9). Prevenient grace provides people with the ability to choose or reject God. According to Wesley, "there is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored to every man" (10:229-30). This grace, however, is not irresistible. Whereas all are recipients of prevenient grace, many resist it to their eternal demise. Those who utilize this grace to respond in faith to the gospel are saved. In summary, “Arminians maintain that ‘prevenient grace,’ a benefit that flows from Christ’s death on the cross, neutralizes human depravity and restores to pre-Christians everywhere the ability to heed God’s general call to salvation” (Demarest, 208).
The best treatment of the notion of prevenient or enabling grace from an Arminian perspective is provided by H. Orton Wiley in his Christian Theology, 3 vols. (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1952), 2:344-57.
Henry Thiessen explains it this way:
"Since mankind is hopelessly dead in trespasses and sins and can do nothing to obtain salvation, God graciously restores all men sufficient ability to make a choice in the matter of submission to Him. . . . In His foreknowledge He perceives what each one will do with this restored ability, and elects men to salvation in harmony with His knowledge of their choice of Him" (Lectures in Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 1949], pp. 344-45).
There are several problems with the Arminian view:
First, the doctrine of prevenient grace, on which the Arminian view of conditional election is based, is not found in Scripture. See "Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?" by Tom Schreiner in The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will (Baker, 1995), 2:365-82.
Appeal is often made to John 1:9 – “There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.” This could as easily refer to (1) the influence of common grace, or (2) the operation of general revelation. Schreiner contends that “enlighten” does not refer to inward illumination of the heart/mind/will, but rather means to expose the moral state of the heart, i.e., to shed light upon someone so as to reveal and uncover (see 3:19-21).
Second, there is no reference in the text to faith or free will as that which God allegedly foresees in men. It is not what he foreknows but whom.
Third, this view assumes that fallen men are able and willing to believe in Christ apart from the regenerating grace of God, a notion that Paul has denied in Rom. 3:10-18.
Fourth, would not this view give man something of which he may boast? Those who embrace the gospel would be deserving of some credit for finding within themselves what others do not.
Fifth, this view suspends the work of God on the will of man. It undermines the emphasis in the passage on the sovereign and free work of God who foreknows, predestines, calls, justifies, and glorifies. It is God who is responsible for salvation, from beginning to end.
Sixth, even if one grants that God elects based on his foreknowledge of man's faith, nothing is proven. For God foreknows everything. One must determine from Scripture how man came by the faith that God foreknows. And the witness of Scripture is that saving faith is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8-10; Phil. 1:29; 2 Pet. 1:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; Acts 5:31; 11:18).
Someone once said to Charles Spurgeon, "God foresaw that you would have faith, and therefore He loved you." To which Spurgeon replied:
"What did He foresee about my faith? Did He foresee that I should get that faith myself, and that I should believe on Him of myself? No; Christ could not foresee that, because no Christian man will ever say that faith came of itself without the gift and without the working of the Holy Spirit. I have met with a great many believers, and talked with them about this matter; but I never knew one who could put his hand on his heart, and say, 'I believed in Jesus without the assistance of the Holy Spirit'."
[Special Note: The Arminian contends that God foreknows both that some are and others are not going to believe in Christ in response to the gospel. He also affirms that God knows why they respond either in belief or unbelief, for God is omniscient and knows the secrets and inner motives of the heart. God also knows what it is in the presentation of the gospel that proves successful in persuading some to say "Yes" and what it is that proves unsuccessful in persuading those who say "No." The question, then, is this: If God truly desires for all to be saved in the way the Arminian contends, and if he knows what it is in the means of persuasion contained in the gospel that brings people to say yes, why doesn't he orchestrate the presentation of the gospel in such a way that it will succeed in persuading all people to believe? The point is this: Surely the God who perfectly knows every human heart is capable of creating a world in which the gospel would prove successful in every case. And if God desires for all to be saved in the way the Arminian contends, why didn't He?]
b) the Calvinistic interpretation
Before we start, Judith Gundry Volf provides us with an insightful overview of what is happening in this passage:
"Paul portrays salvation as a series of divine initiatives snowballing toward fullness. He links these initiatives so tightly that each is born of the former and bears a promise of the one which follows. Glorification is thus the finishing touch on the indivisible divine work of salvation which originated in God's foreknowledge and predestination of Christians and has come to historical expression in their calling and justification. These verses truly do form a 'chain' of interconnected divine salvific works and so imply a continuity in Christians' salvation" (Paul and Perseverance, p. 13).
The verb "to foreknow" occurs five times in the NT (Acts 26:5; Rom. 8:29; 11:2; 1 Peter 1:20; 2 Peter 3:17). The noun "foreknowledge" occurs in two texts (Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:2).
The place to begin is with a definition of foreknowledge. John Murray writes:
"Many times in Scripture 'know' has a pregnant meaning which goes beyond that of mere cognition. It is used in a sense practically synonymous with 'love,' to set regard upon, to know with peculiar interest, delight, affection, and action (cf. Gen. 18:19; Exod. 2:25; Psalm 1:6; 144:3; Jer. 1:5; Amos 3:2; Hosea 13:5; Matt. 7:23; 1 Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9; II Tim. 2:19; 1 John 3:1). There is no reason why this import of the word 'know' should not be applied to 'foreknow' in this passage, as also in 11:2 where it also occurs in the same kind of construction and where the thought of election is patently present (cf. 11:5,6)" (317).
See, for example, Matthew 7:23 where Jesus reveals his future response to false disciples at the last judgment: "I never knew you, depart from Me." As Baugh has pointed out, "Clearly, mere intellectual cognition is ruled out as the meaning of 'know' here, since it is precisely Jesus' knowledge of their real motives and covenantal status and commitments that leads to their condemnation. Rather, he says that these people never had covenantal relations with him; the Good Shepherd did not know them as his sheep, and they did not know him (John 10:14)" ("The Meaning of Foreknowledge," p. 194). Cf. Gal. 4:8-9
Thus, to foreknow is to forelove. That God foreknew us is but another way of saying that He set his gracious and merciful regard upon us, that He knew us from eternity past with a sovereign and distinguishing delight. God's foreknowledge is an active, creative work of divine love. It is not bare pre-vision which merely recognizes a difference between men who believe and men who do not believe. God's foreknowledge creates that difference! Or again, "speaking about God's foreknowledge may be a way of expressing his eternal commitment to individuals as part of his determination to bring them to faith and to all the glories and benefits of Christ's work" (Baugh, 196).
2) Predestination: the second link in the chain of grace
Predestination is not synonymous with foreknowledge. Foreknowledge focuses attention on the distinguishing love of God whereby men are elected. Predestination points to the decision God made of what He intended to do with those whom He foreknew. See Acts 4:28; Eph. 1:5,11. Predestination is that act in eternity past in which God ordained or decreed that those on whom He had set his saving love would inherit eternal life.
a) the immediate purpose of predestination: our goodness
b) the ultimate purpose of predestination: his glory
3) Calling: the third link in the chain of grace
a) the external call: universal and resistible
b) the internal call: limited and irresistible
Calling, here, “must be understood as effectual. It is not merely an invitation that human beings can reject, but it is a summons that overcomes human resistance and effectually persuades them to say yes to God. This definition of ‘calling’ is evident from Rom. 8:30, for there Paul says that ‘those whom he called he also justified.’ The text does not say that ‘some’ of those called were justified. It fuses the called and justified together so that those who have experienced calling have also inevitably received the blessing of justification” (Schreiner, 450-51).
4) Justification: the fourth link in the chain of grace
5) Glorification: the fifth link in the chain of grace
Note the use of the past tense in describing glorification. Yet we are told in 8:18-25 that glorification is still future. Paul clearly wants to emphasize the fact that our glorification is so sure, so securely set and sealed in the mind and purpose and predestined plan of God, that it may be spoken of as having already occurred.
Observe also that each link is co-extensive with every other link. Paul makes it clear that the objects of God's saving activity are the same from start to finish. Those whom he foreknew, not one more nor one less, these he predestined. And those whom he predestined, not one more nor one less, these he called. And those whom he called, not one more nor one less, these he justified. And those whom he justified, not one more nor one less, these he glorified. Thus "Paul posits a continuity in the beneficiaries of salvation from its first manifestation in God's eternal counsel to its final one in glorification" (Gundry Volf, 14). So, how many did God lose in the process? Not one! All whom He foreknew in eternity past will ultimately be glorified in eternity future. Not one is lost. Not one! No one who is foreknown fails to be predestined. And no one who is predestined fails to be called. And no one who is called fails to be justified. And no one who is justified fails to be glorified!
N.B. There is also immense practical benefit in this interpretation. Vv. 29-30 are designed to provide the theological basis or foundation for the promise of v. 28. In other words, we can know with confidence that God truly will work in all things for our ultimate good (v. 28) because those whom he calls will most assuredly be glorified as well (vv. 29-30). Thus, God will permit nothing ultimately to hinder his eternal good purpose for his called ones.
[Other NT texts to consider on the doctrine of election include John 10:14-16,24-30; Acts 13:44-48; Ephesians 1:3-6; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Peter 1:1-2.]
"'Tis not that I did choose thee,
For, Lord, that could not be;
This heart would still refuse thee,
Hadst thou not chosen me.
Thou from the sin that stained me
Hast cleansed and set me free;
Of old thou hast ordained me,
That I should live to Thee.
'Twas sovereign mercy called me
And taught my op'ning mind;
The world had else enthralled me,
To heav'nly glories blind.
My heart owns none before thee,
For thy rich grace I thirst;
This knowing, if I love thee,
Thou must have loved me first."
Josiah Conder (1836)