A Website for Basic Christian Doctrine

What Does Foreknowledge Mean?

By Jeremy Cagle

King Louis XIV of France was the longest reigning monarch of any European nation from the Middle Ages until today.1  He began ruling at the age of 4 and finished ruling at the age of 76 and was a king longer than most people in his day lived.  At the beginning of his rule, he was christened Louise Dieudonne or “Gift of God” by a leading bishop in France.  At the end of his rule, his people took to calling him the “Sun King” because he brought France out of an age of darkness and into an age of light.  During his time as king, he also boasted that “I am the state” because he considered himself the absolute sovereign over France.

But, of all the interesting things that happened during the Sun King’s long reign, the most interesting would probably be his funeral.  On September 1, 1715, just 4 days before his 77th birthday, King Louis XIV died as a result of some gangrene he had contracted.  His funeral was held at the elaborate Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and thousands of nobles from France and Europe attended.  But the sight that they saw as they entered the cathedral was highly unusual, especially considering the king’s great love for wealth and splendor.  It was a night-time funeral, so it was dark outside the church, but it was also dark inside.  And at Louis’ request, the only light used to brighten up the massive sanctuary was a single candle placed on top of his coffin.  The lone candle was there to send the message that the light of France had gone out.  The illumination of the empire had left.  The Sun King, the Gift of God, and the state was no more.

And if that was not strange enough, the beginning of the service certainly was.  As the funeral procession was about to begin, the Catholic priest who was presiding stood over the coffin and blew out the candle!  As the room went pitch black and deathly quiet, the priest said to the crowd sitting in darkness, “Only God is great.”2

The priest was right.  There is only one Person in the universe Who can truly be called “great” and that Person is God.  God is the true Sun King.  God is the real light of the world.  God is the absolute ruler over men, not King Louis XIV.  “Only God is great.”

And there is probably no subject in theology that shows the greatness of God more than that of foreknowledge.

I. FOREKNOWLEDGE AND SOME CLARIFICATIONS

The foreknowledge of God says that God knows beforehand who will be saved and who will be lost.3  You can actually see the word “fore” or “before” in the word “foreknowledge.”  God knows will would be saved and who will be lost before He creates them.  Said another way, before anybody chooses to do anything . . . before time began . . . before Adam or Eve or you or I were even alive . . . God knew who would enter Heaven and who would enter Hell.  He knew who would come to Him in faith and repentance and go to glory.  And He knew who would refuse to come to Him in faith and repentance and go to damnation.  All before they ever spoke one word or committed one sinful or righteous deed.  That is what foreknowledge means.

But this attribute has been greatly misunderstood in previous years, so before we look at foreknowledge in the Bible or some objections to foreknowledge, it would be helpful to make a few clarifications about it.

1. Foreknowledge is synonymous with predestination

The first clarification is that foreknowledge communicates the same idea as predestination.  Only from a different angle.  Predestination says that God chooses some to salvation and some to damnation.4  God chooses to send some people to Heaven and some people to Hell.  Again, before anybody does anything . . . Before time began . . . Before Adam or Eve or you or I were even alive . . . God “destined” some to glory and some to damnation.  He ordained their future.  He chose their eternal destiny.  He decided their fate, not on the basis of their behavior, but on the basis of His sovereign will.

And, at first glance, this looks different from foreknowledge.  Foreknowledge sounds like God sits back and watches something happen without getting involved.  He observes but He does not act.  In other words, foreknowledge comes across as passive while predestination comes across as active.  But this needs to be thought through a little more.  As one author writes,

Common sense tells us that no event can be foreknown unless by some means, either physical or mental, it has been predetermined.  Our choice as to what determines the certainty of future events narrows down to two alternatives – the foreordination of the wise and eternal heavenly Father, or the working of blind, physical fate.5

If foreknowledge means that God sits back and watches men do something, then men are in control of the future and not God.  If foreknowledge means that God sits back and watches things happen by random chance, then random chance is in control of the future and not God.  But the Bible makes it very clear that God is in control of the future.

Proverbs 21:1 says,

The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.

Daniel 4:35 says,

All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He [God] does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, “What have You done?”

Isaiah 46:9-10 says,

Remember the former things long past,
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things which have not been done,
Saying, “My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.”

God is in control of the hearts of kings and God is in control of the inhabitants of the earth.  God does according to His will in heaven and on earth.  God declares the end from the beginning and His purpose will be established.  And, because of this truth, foreknowledge goes hand-in-hand with predestination.  God knows that something is going to happen in the future because God is the One Who causes it to happen.  God knows what tomorrow holds because God does whatever He wants to do with tomorrow.  He is in control.  God foreknows because God predestines.

2. Foreknowledge refers to more than just an intellectual knowledge

Not only is foreknowledge the same as predestination, but foreknowledge refers to more than just an intellectual knowledge of something.  Romans 8:28-29 draws this out.6

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.  For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.

Verse 29 does not say that God “foreknew” that the person would believe.  It says that God foreknew the person.  “For those whom He foreknew . . .”  God foreknew the individual.  God knew them in an intimate personal way.  Not in a cold, distant way where He just looked ahead to see what they would do but in a relational way like a husband knows his wife or a man knows his friend.

First Corinthians 8:3 gives the same idea when it says, “but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.”7  Galatians 4:9 gives another usage when it says,

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?8

The Bible says that Adam knew Eve9 and that God knew Jeremiah10 and that Israel did not know God.11  That knowledge refers to more than just an intellectual knowledge.  Israel definitely had an intellectual knowledge of God.  After all, they wrote the Old Testament.  And there would have been no need for the Biblical writers to say that Adam knew Eve in a mere academic way.  Adam knew Cain and Abel and all the animals and plants that way.  There was no need for the author of Genesis to point that out.  Adam knew Eve intimately and Israel failed to know God intimately.  Foreknowledge refers to this kind of intimate knowledge.

God chooses to have a relationship with some people before time began and He predestines them and He calls them and He justifies them and He glorifies them (Rom 8:28-30).  And He chooses not to have that relationship with others.  To quote from Wayne Grudem,

But this verse [Romans 8:28-30] can hardly be used to demonstrate that God based his predestination on foreknowledge of the fact that a person would believe. The passage speaks rather of the fact that God knew persons (“those whom he foreknew”), not that he knew some fact about them, such as the fact that they would believe.

It is a personal, relational knowledge that is spoken of here: God, looking into the future, thought of certain people in saving relationship to him, and in that sense he “knew them” long ago.12

God’s foreknowledge is a personal foreknowledge.  It is not a knowledge of the head only but a knowledge of the head and the heart.  God foreknew people, not facts about people.  The choices of men do not ultimately affect the choices of God.13  And, therefore, God does not sit up in Heaven and wait for us to act so He can react.  God knows who will believe because He chooses who will believe.  He chooses to have a close, intimate relationship with them before they are ever born.

3. Foreknowledge goes hand-in-hand with prophecy

God’s foreknowledge also plays a significant role in prophecy.  In The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, Loraine Boettner writes,

In the eternal ages back of the creation there could not have been any certainty as to future events unless God had formed a decree in regard to them.14

Prophecy makes no sense if God does not predestine the future.  A foreknowledge of the future is impossible without the controlling of it.  For, how could God know with certainty what is going to happen if He does not cause it to happen?  How could God predict the future if He does not determine the future?

Some would argue that God could know what is going to happen without interfering with it.  He could see what men will do without making men do it.  But God’s knowledge is not like our knowledge.  God does just know possibilities, He knows actualities.  His knowledge is perfect.15  If God knows that something is going to happen, then it is going to happen.  It is a sure thing.

For example, I can say that I know that tomorrow I will buy an ice cream cone from the Dairy Queen.  But, in all reality, it might not happen.  The Dairy Queen might close tomorrow for remodeling.  The Dairy Queen might run out of ice cream between now and then.  The Dairy Queen might get struck by lightning and burn to the ground before I get there (which would be most unfortunate).  But my knowledge cannot account for all of these variables.  I know that I will want an ice cream cone tomorrow and I know that I would like to get one at the Dairy Queen but I do not know what tomorrow will bring.

But God does.  God’s knowledge of the future is perfect.  And, if He knows that a man will believe in Him tomorrow, then that man will believe in Him tomorrow.  It is as good as an established fact.  When the Apostle John writes that 144,000 Jews will come to Christ during the tribulation,16 he was not making an educated guess.  God will call 12,000 Jews from each of the 12 tribes and they will respond to that call.  They will repent and believe.  Why?  Because God foreknew them.  Because God predestined them.  Prophecy makes no sense if God is not in control of the future.  But He is in control of the future.  And His foreknowledge makes prophecy possible.

4. Foreknowledge should be taught even though it is controversial

Now, just by defining this attribute, you can see that it is controversial.17  Many Christians in our day and age have a hard time swallowing the foreknowledge of God.  To some, it is offensive.  To others, it sounds problematic.  For, if God knows who is going to Hell, then why doesn’t He try and stop them?  If God decides the eternal destinies of men, then why are men blamed for their decisions?  Why are the lost damned for what God planned to do with them before they were born?

This is a hot topic in many circles today.  It is a touchy issue that raises lots of questions.  Which leads us to the question: Why bring it up?  If it causes so many problems, why write an article on the foreknowledge of God?  Why not overlook this attribute and move on to more pleasant ones like the love of God or the mercy of God?

R. C. Sproul answers that question in his book, Chosen by God.

With a topic people find so unpleasant, it is a wonder that we ever discuss it at all. Why do we speak of it? Because we enjoy unpleasantness?  Not at all.

We discuss it because we cannot avoid it.  It is a doctrine plainly set forth in the Bible. We talk about predestination because the Bible talks about predestination.  If we desire to build our theology on the Bible, we run head on into this concept.  We soon discover that John Calvin did not invent it.18

God’s foreknowledge should be taught because God taught it in His Word.  Predestination should be preached because it is preached in the Scriptures.  We do not have the right to pick and choose which attributes of God we accept and which ones we reject.  We cannot accept God’s love without accepting God’s foreknowledge.  We cannot believe in God’s mercy without believing in God’s predestination.  Because the same God Who loves and has mercy is the same God Who foreknows and predestines.

As Christians, we are not at liberty to study the fun stuff and leave the hard stuff out of the picture.  We must teach all of God’s Word.  And, as R. C. Sproul put it, John Calvin did not invent the foreknowledge of God.19  No one invented it.  It is an attribute of God.  It has been around for as long as He has.  And it is taught in God’s Word so it should be taught by God’s people.

II. FOREKNOWLEDGE AND THE BIBLE

What does the Bible say about the foreknowledge of God?  What do the Scriptures teach on this controversial subject?

1. Man is Dead

The Book of Ephesians is all about the Christian life.  In this short but sweet letter, the Apostle Paul tells the Ephesians who they were before they came to faith in Christ and who they are supposed to be now that they have come.  And chapter 2 specifically focuses on this change.  Verses 1-3 say this,

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.  Among them we too formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

The word for “dead” in verse 1 is nekros. It means “lifeless, without life, deceased, one that has breathed his last, inanimate, inoperative.”20  Nekros has all of the connotations that our English word “dead” contains.  It refers to a person that has no ability to do anything for himself.  There is no life left within him.  He is nothing more than a corpse. He has breathed his last and his soul has left his body.

If you think about it, there is nothing more helpless than a corpse.  I have only performed a handful of funerals but one thing I have never seen at a funeral is the deceased dress himself for the occasion.  I have never seen the dead person get up and thank everyone for coming to the service.  Why?  Because he is dead.  Someone else has to dress him.  Someone else has to get up and thank everyone for coming.  Someone else has to do everything for him because, on his own, he is completely helpless.

Paul says that that was the condition of the Ephesians before they became Christians.  They were nekros. They were totally unable and unwilling to spiritually help themselves.21  And Paul even goes so far as to say that that was their condition from birth.

Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins . . .”  Notice, the verse does not say, “And you were dead because of your trespasses and sins.”  It does not read, “And you were dead as a result of your trespasses and sins.”  Paul does not write, “And you were dead on account of your trespasses and sins.”  Other passages in Scripture teach this but that is not Paul’s point here.22  Paul says “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins . . .” meaning that this was a continual state for the Ephesians.23  “Trespasses and sins” was a part of their nature, not merely a part of their behavior.  “Trespasses” and “sins” referred to who they were more than to what they did.  As some scholars put it, “Man is not a sinner because he sins.  Man sins because he is a sinner.”  The same could be said about the lost Ephesians.  They sinned because they were sinners.  “Trespasses and sins” was in their blood.

Other passages teach this same truth.  In Psalm 51:5, King David writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”  Isaiah 64:6 says,

For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

Jesus Himself said in John 6:65,

For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.

We are born unwilling and unable to come to Jesus in faith and repentance.  We are born “in your trespasses and sins.”  No man can come to God unless God first comes to him.  No man can follow Christ unless it has first been granted to him by the Father.  As Ernest C. Reisinger puts it,

In this unregenerate, fallen state, man has no ability to do anything spiritually good.  Man is a slave; he is in Satan’s prison house and does not have the key to get out . . . Men are blind and cannot see, spiritually deaf and cannot hear, and what is worse, they are dead in trespasses and sins.  But there is a God in heaven who can open blind eyes, who can unstop deaf ears, and, bless His holy name, who can and does raise the dead.24

And that leads us to our next point.

2. God is Gracious

Many people think that the doctrine of foreknowledge is unfair because God chooses to save some and not others.  But what these people do not realize is that, if God did not choose some, then we would all go to Hell because we are all born dead.  None of us have spiritual life on our own.  None of us can believe on our own power.  And, because of that, God’s foreknowledge is based on His mercy.  It is not about fairness, it is about grace.  Fair would be for God to leave men to die in their sins.  Fair would be for God to not get involved.  Fair would be for Him to refuse to choose anyone.  That would be fair.

But foreknowledge and predestination are a result of God’s loving-kindness, not His justice.  They are a result of His grace, which is what Ephesians 2:1-9 goes on to say,

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.  Among them we too formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

As I mentioned earlier, the theme of Ephesians is the Christian life.  Paul is reminding the Ephesians of who they were before they came to Jesus and who they are now that they have come.  And chapter 2 focuses specifically on the change that was made when they first believed.

But notice what man does to change himself in this passage and notice what God does.  In verse 1, man was dead in sin.  In verse 2, man followed the ways of this world.  In verse 3, man gratified his sinful nature.  But verse 4 says, “But God.”  Martyn Lloyd-Jones has preached an entire sermon on these words “But God . . .”25  Man was dead and a follower of this world and a gratifier of his sinful nature “But God . . .”

And here is what God did.  God made us alive with Christ (v. 5).  God raised us up with Christ (v. 6).  God showed us the riches of His grace (v. 7).  And God gave us the gift of faith (v. 8).

What did men do to save themselves?  Nothing.  Nothing.  Paul says that men cannot even believe on their own.  God must make them live and He must raise them up and He must show them the riches of His grace and He must give them the gift of faith.

Why?  Because on his own, man is totally unwilling and unable to save himself.  God has to do it all.  No man births himself, God must give him a new birth.26  No man gives himself a heart of flesh, God must change his heart.27  No man can raise his dead soul from the grave, God must raise it.28  No man can make himself a new creature, God must transform him.29  God.  God.  God.  God.  Salvation is all of God.  That is the point of Ephesians 2 and that is the point of the doctrine of foreknowledge.  As verse 10 says,

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

God prepared to save us and to cause us to do good works in advance. He had our salvation planned out from the beginning.  He predestined us to have a relationship with Himself.  He preordained us to know Him.

Ephesians 1:3-6 also mention God’s mercy and love towards fallen sinners.  It says,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him.

In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

Ephesians 1:11-12 echoes this when it says,

Also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.

In these passages, Paul writes that God chose some before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight.  God chose a certain people to be justified30 and sanctified31 before they had done anything good or bad.  In love, He predestined sinners.  He did not predestine them because He is mean or arbitrary but because He is gracious and loving.  He decided to draw them into Heaven because they would never come there on their own.  As Charles Spurgeon so eloquently put it, “Had the Lord not chosen me, I should not have chosen Him.  Grace!  Grace!  Grace!  ‘Tis all of grace.”32  God must love us by His grace because He could never love us by His justice.  Had we a thousand lives to live, we would never be able to please Him with a single one of them.  So, consequently, God’s love is free.  It is unconditional.  His love is given before men are born because there is nothing they could ever do to earn it.  He predestines men according to His purpose, not according to their behavior.  He foreknows them according to His grace.

3. God Foreknows

While the above verses convey the idea and not the term “foreknowledge,” the term does appear several times in Scripture.  First Peter 1:1-2 says,

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Sprit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.

Believers are chosen by the foreknowledge of God the Father to obey Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with His blood.  Again, predestination and foreknowledge go hand-in-hand.  Christians are chosen because God foreknew them.  They are predestined because He had a relationship with them before they were born.

In regards to God’s relationship with Israel, Romans 11:1-2 says,

I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He?  May it never be!  For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin, God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.

God is not through with the race of Israel.  Why?  Because He foreknew them.  Their eternal destiny does not depend on them, it depends on God.  God’s love is stronger than man’s will and, if He has decided to have a loving relationship with a race of people, that relationship will happen.  Even though Israel’s heart is hardened now,33 it will not be hardened forever.  The Jewish people will eventually come to God in saving faith because they have been foreknown.

First Peter 1:1-2 and Romans 11:1-2 shed some light on the doctrine on foreknowledge but the most concise description of this attribute is found in Romans 8:28-30.  Here it says,

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.  For those whom he foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.

Theologians call these verses the golden chain of salvation.34  This is the chain of events that God enacts to save lost sinners.  And again, notice what God does.  God foreknows.  God predestines.  God calls.  God justifies.  God glorifies.  God.  God.  God.  God.  God.  Notice what man does.  Nothing.  Man’s works are not even mentioned in this passage.  Why?  Because man is dead.  God must do all the work to save man because man is helpless to save himself.  His soul has no life when it comes to the things of God.

There has been some discussion among scholars as to whether these five links are chronological or whether they are put in this order randomly.  But it appears that they are chronological.  In other words, Romans 8:28-30 seem to refer to events that occur in a back-to-back-to-back order.  God foreknows us then He predestines us then He calls us then He justifies us and then He glorifies us.  In the words of James Montgomery Boice,

These five doctrines are so closely connected that they have rightly and accurately been described as “a golden chain of five links.”  Each link is forged in heaven.  That is, each describes something God does and does not waver in doing . . . The first two are concerned with God’s eternal counsel or past determinations.  The last two are concerned with what God has done, is doing, or will do with us.  The middle term (“calling”) connects the first pair and the last.35

To get a better understanding of foreknowledge, it would be helpful to examine the links in this chain.  We have already looked at the first two: foreknowledge and predestination.  The third link is calling and it refers to the inward calling of a believer.  There is an outward calling where men hear the message of salvation but the inward calling is where the Holy Spirit changes a man’s heart to believe that message.  Jesus describes this in Matthew 22:14, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  “Many are called” refers to the outward call.  “Few are chosen” refers to the inward call and that inward call is what Paul is referring to in verse 29.  Those who are foreknown and predestined are called of God.  The Holy Spirit enters their heart and calls them to Himself and they respond to that call.36

The fourth link in the chain is justification.  Justification is the act whereby God makes men right with Himself.37  It is where God pronounces a man “just.”  At the cross, Jesus Christ was punished for the sins of everyone who would believe in Him and those who believe in Him are pronounced just.38  They are given Jesus’ righteousness as if it was their very own.  And Paul says that, for those who have been foreknown and predestined and called, God does this for them.  He saves them from the penalty of their sins by punishing His Son in their place.39

The final link in the chain is glorification.  Glorification is “The perfect conformity of the believer to the image of Jesus Christ, both in body and soul.”40  Glorification refers to the time when Christians are ushered into God’s presence forever.  It involves Jesus’ return to earth,41 our bodily resurrection,42 and the resurrection of the heavens and the earth.43  If God has foreknown and predestined and called and justified a man, He will glorify that man.  He will bring him into Heaven.  He will raise that man from the dead to enter paradise in a new, resurrected body.

And the point I am trying to highlight here is that someone cannot be foreknown and lost.  Someone cannot be predestined and not glorified.  If God knows you in a relational way, then you are going to Heaven.  If God knows that you will choose Him, then you will choose Him.  It is as simple as that.  Foreknowledge refers to so much more than a mere head knowledge.  Paul says that God’s foreknowledge always brings about our eternal salvation.  God’s predestination always leads to our faith and repentance.  The two cannot be separated.  Foreknowledge leads to predestination which leads to calling which lead to justification which leads to glorification.

And in the context of Romans 8, this should be a very comforting thought for the believer.  It should make him feel secure.  After going through the golden chain, Paul highlights this security by asking, “What then shall we say to these things?  If God is for us, who is against us” (v. 31)?  And he proceeds to say that nothing can triumph against God’s elect.  Nothing can harm those who are foreknown.  Not death nor life.  Not angels nor demons.  Not things in the present nor things to come.  Not height nor depth.  Not any power or any object in creation can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord (vv. 37-39).

A Christian can rest safely in the arms of God because he has been foreknown.  He can have security in his salvation because he did not earn his salvation.  God earned it for him.  God drew him to Himself.  Listen to these words from the 19th Century Scottish Preacher, Robert Haldene,

In looking back on this passage, we should observe that, in all that is stated, man acts no part, but is passive, and all is done by God.  He is elected and predestinated and called and justified and glorified by God . . . Could anything, then, be more consolatory to those who love God, than to be in this manner assured that the great concern of their salvation is not left in their own keeping?  God, even their covenant God, hath taken the whole upon himself.  He hath undertaken for them.  There is no room, then, for chance or change.  He will perfect that which concerneth them.44

While it is a highly controversial topic today, there is no thought in the Bible more comforting than the foreknowledge of God.  Paul pointed to it to assure the Roman Christians that they had nothing to fear.  Their salvation was secure.  Their glorification did not depend on them, it depended on God.  We can have that same confidence today.  Those who have been foreknown will be justified.  Those who have been predestined will be glorified.

III. FOREKNOWLEDGE AND SOME OBJECTIONS

With all of the controversy surrounding this doctrine, there are numerous objections that have been raised.  Here are some of the more common ones.

1. What about the Tunnels of Time View?

One of the objections to the doctrine of foreknowledge says that God looked ahead in time to see what men would do but He did not make them do anything.  He looked down the Tunnels of Time but He did nothing more than look.  He foresaw but He did not foreact.  God did not get involved.

According to this view, foreknowledge means that God knew who would come to Him but it does not refer to relationship.  It does not refer to God ordaining some to Heaven and some to Hell.  It is not synonymous with predestination.  Charles Stanley teaches this view in his message on Romans 8:28-30.  He says,

You’ve heard the saying, Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, in the case of man and God, it’s true. We please and honor the Lord when we try to be like Him. In Romans chapter eight, the apostle Paul lays out the process God uses to transform believers into reflections of Himself.

Starting in verse 29, Paul writes about those the Lord foreknew. Foreknowledge involves more than simply seeing events in advance. It also includes bringing to pass whatever the Lord desires for His children’s lives. Foreknowledge specifically involves conforming believers to His image. God has a plan for which He sees the beginning, middle, and end.

Paul also wrote that all believers are predestined. God knew before Creation who would choose to receive salvation and who would reject it. All those who are saved are predestined to be formed in His image.45

While Dr. Stanley does not connect the Tunnels of Time View to foreknowledge (where it is usually placed); he does connect it to predestination.  “God knew before Creation who would choose to receive salvation and who would reject it.”  God looked down the Tunnels of Time to see how men would respond and, in that sense, he predestined them.

There are a few problems with this view and, since we have already talked about some of them, I will not repeat all of them here.  Let me simply point out that this view has a very unbiblical view of the nature of man.  The Bible says that man is spiritually dead on his own.  He is unwilling and unable to come to God.  Romans 8:6-8 says,

For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

First Corinthians 2:14 says,

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

The Bible says that, apart from God doing something, men will never want to come to Him.  Apart from the Holy Spirit changing lost souls, men will not believe.  Lost men will not submit to God because lost men cannot submit to God.  Or accept God.  Or understand God.  Or love God.

So, if God looked down the Tunnels of Time, He would see men who would never come to Him on their own.  If the Holy Spirit never got involved and He left men to their own devises, all God would see if He looked ahead is death.  The Tunnels of Time View misrepresents God’s foreknowledge and God’s predestination but it also misrepresents the Biblical view of man.  “There is none righteous, not even one.”46  “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”47  “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.”  As A. W. Pink writes,

God foreknows what will be because He has decreed it . . . God purposed in Himself to elect a certain people, not because of anything good in them or from them, either actual or foreseen, but solely out of His own pleasure.48

God foreknows because of His own good pleasure.  Not because of the choices of men.

2. What about Prevenient Grace?

Prevenient Grace says that, while everyone begins with a sinful nature, God restores everyone to the point where they can believe.  God gives each man the ability to know Him.  God brings each man to the point where each man can decide on his own.  God levels the playing field so to speak.  While we are born with a sinful nature, God reinstates us so that we can now believe on our own.  Our eternal destiny is now up to us.  Whether we go to Heaven or Hell ultimately depends on what we choose to do, not on what God chooses to do.

John Wesley taught this view.  This has also been the view taught by the majority of Arminian scholars49 down through the ages.  In the words of The Moody Handbook of Theology,

Thus while Arminianism recognizes original sin and depravity, it also teaches that the effects of original sin are erased and reversed in everyone through the grace of God, enabling the sinner to respond actively to God, or cooperate with God in salvation.  No one is condemned because of imputed sin from Adam or because of a depraved nature, but only because of individual sins.50

Man is born in sin.  But God, in His grace, erases the effects of that sinful birth and enables the sinner to actively respond to God and cooperate with God in salvation.  God does not make man believe but He gives man the ability to believe and He leaves the decision up to man.  Those who use that ability wisely go to Heaven.  Those who use that ability foolishly go to Hell.  But men are not saved or condemned because of the choices of God. They are saved or condemned because of their own choices.

What does the Bible say about Prevenient Grace?  Does man cooperate with God in salvation?  Does God repair man’s will?

While this view definitely appeals to our American Democratic spirit, it is not the view taught in the Bible.  Man is born in sin.  Man is born dead to God.  Prevenient Grace gets that part right.  But nowhere do the Scriptures teach that God repairs man’s will so that he now has the ability to make free choices.  Foreknowledge does not teach that God gives man the ability to choose.  Foreknowledge teaches that God gives man the ability to live and man lives.  For those who are not given life, they stay dead.51

We have looked at several passages that teach this but it is worth reviewing one of them.  Ephesians 2:8-9 says,

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Believers have been saved through faith and that faith was a given by God so that no one can boast about it.  Man cannot boast about his salvation because even his faith was given to him as a gift from God.  God does not give man the ability to choose.  God gives man faith.  And man believes.  And man lives.  That is the Biblical doctrine of salvation.  The Arminian obsession with free will is not found in the Bible.  God’s greatest gift to man is not the ability to make a free choice but the ability to live.  And, once God has granted that ability, man lives.  In the words of James White,

Arminians teach that God sends his grace to “persuade” men to believe, but they deny that God can actually raise a man to spiritual life without his assistance and agreement.  They deny that there is an elect people, based solely on the choice of God, to whom God will infallibly apply the benefits of Christ’s atonement.  Grace is limited to being effective on the “willing,” i.e., it is submitted to the power and will of man and his decisions.  It becomes a mere “wooing” force.52

Prevenient Grace teaches that man’s will must be made neutral before he can be saved.  And, in teaching this, it turns God’s will into a mere “wooing.”  But this is not what the Bible teaches.  The Bible teaches that God foreknows, predestines, calls, justifies and glorifies.  He does not “woo.”

3. Doesn’t foreknowledge teach that God forces men to believe in Him?

A common argument against foreknowledge is that it teaches that God forces men to do something that they do not want to do.  It teaches that He violates their will.  If God chooses who will believe in Him and who will not believe in Him, then that means that God imposes His will upon their’s.  He twists their arms and drags them kicking and screaming into Heaven when they would rather go to Hell.  To quote from Norman Geisler,

For God determined that moral creatures would do things freely. He did not determine that they would be forced to perform free acts.  What is forced is not free, and what is free is not forced.53

If man’s will is forced into submission then man is not free.  And, if man is not free, so the argument goes, then man cannot be held accountable for his actions.  God cannot punish man for doing something that he was coerced to do.

Is this what the Bible teaches?  Does foreknowledge violate man’s free will?  Does predestination teach that God forces man to do something?

To answer this, it needs to be pointed out that nowhere does the Bible say that man’s will is free.  A lost man is able to make decisions but those decisions are all tainted with sin.  In fact, he cannot do anything but sin.  He is enslaved to it.  In John 8:34, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.”  In Romans 6:20, Paul describes a sinner’s condition before salvation and writes that, “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.”  A lost sinner is a slave to sin.  His will obeys the mastery of sin just like a slave would obey his human master.54

To say this another way, all men have a free will to sin.  Unregenerate men have the ability to act and think but they do not have the ability to please God because they are captives of the devil.55  They are sons of Satan.56  Until the Holy Spirit gets involved, men are slaves to sin.  After the Holy Spirit gets involved, men are slaves to righteousness.57  But nowhere are men autonomous.58  That concept is found nowhere in the Bible.  Man will be enslaved to the Devil or man will be enslaved to God, but man will never be completely free.

So God’s foreknowledge does not hinder man’s free will because man does not have a free will.  But what foreknowledge does do is change man’s will.  It changes it into a new creature.  It raises man’s fallen will from the dead.  It takes what was once a slave to sin and makes it a slave to righteousness.  As Lorraine Boettner writes,

Strictly speaking we may say that man has free will only in the sense that he is not under any outside compulsion which interferes with his freedom of choice or his just accountability.  In his fallen state he only has what we may call “the freedom of slavery.”  He is in bondage to sin and spontaneously follows Satan . . . After man’s redemption is complete he will spontaneously follow God, as do the holy angels; but never will he become entirely his own master.59

The story is told of a Dallas Theological Seminary professor who was trying to teach this concept to his students.  To drive the point home that man is born spiritually dead to God, he asked them, “What can a corpse do?  What can a dead body accomplish?”  Finally a student in the back of the classroom raised his hand and said, “Stink.  A dead body can stink.”60

Spiritually speaking, all a man can do on his own before God is stink.  All he can do is sin.  No matter what is presented to him on the outside, it will do him no good until his insides change.  And the doctrine of foreknowledge teaches that God changes a man’s insides.  God does not force a man to do something he does not want to do.  God changes a man to want to do what he cannot do.  He resurrects his dead will.  He gives him a heart of flesh and a new nature.  And, when God does that, a man believes and he is saved.

4. Doesn’t God’s foreknowledge negate man’s responsibility?

A fourth objection to God’s foreknowledge is that it negates man’s responsibility.  As the argument goes, if God chooses who will be saved before the foundations of the world, then how are men still accountable for their actions?  How can God hold men responsible for what He chooses to do with them?  How does God’s foreknowledge coincide with man’s responsibility?

That is a great question.  Dave Hunt asks it this way:

God commands all mankind to love him.  But how could that be required of those He doesn’t love and has predestined to eternal torment?  Such an idea is both unbiblical and repugnant to the conscience.  If all men are required to love God, and if we can only love Him because He first loved us, God must love all men.61

While Hunt’s conclusion is wrong, his question is not.  “God commands all mankind to love him.  But how could that be required of those He doesn’t love and has predestined to eternal torment?”  That is a great question.  In fact, it seems to be the key question that people ask when God’s foreknowledge is discussed.

But the Bible never answers that question.  The Scriptures never even give us the faintest solution to this dilemma.  The Old Testament Prophets and New Testament Apostles taught that God’s foreknowledge and man’s responsibility go hand-in-hand but they never showed us how.  In fact, the only semblance of an answer is given by Paul in Romans 9:19-21 and it is not really an answer.  It is more like a rebuke.  Romans 9:19-21 says,

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault?  For who resists His will?”  On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God?  The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it?  Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?

The only Biblical answer to the question regarding God’s foreknowledge and man’s responsibility is “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?”  The answer to the question is that man has no right to ask the question.  At least, man has no right to ask the question in an accusing way.  Paul says, “You are man and He is God.”  ”You are the clay and He is the potter.”  “God has the right to do with you whatever He wants.”

While that answer sounds harsh, it is the only answer given in the Bible.  And that should not come as a surprise.  There are lots of doctrines in the Bible that are not given full explanations.  Consider the Trinity62 or the rapture63 or the resurrection64 or the incarnation.65  All of these doctrines are taught but all of them raise unanswerable questions.  How can God be three persons in one?  How can we all be raised in the twinkling of an eye?  How did Jesus come back to life and how was He able to walk through walls?  And how was He God and man at the same time?

We do not have answers to these questions.  But that does not mean that the doctrines are wrong.  It does not mean that we have the right to accuse God of questionable behavior.  It simply means that those doctrines are mysterious and that the mind of God is greater than the mind of man.  As Isaiah 55:8-9 says,

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts.  Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

CONCLUSION

“Only God is great.”  These words were spoken in the 1700’s by a Roman Catholic Priest at the funeral of one of the greatest men of his day.  But these words are also fitting for the doctrine of foreknowledge.  God alone is great because God alone is free.  God alone is great because God alone rules the universe.  God alone is great because God alone does whatever He wants to with whomever He wants to.  No man can stand in the way of the sovereign purposes of God.

But that does not mean that men are without responsibility.  In Matthew 12:36, Jesus says,

But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.

Romans 14:12 says, “So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.”  God will hold us accountable for the way that we have lived.  God foreknows and predestines us but He also holds us responsible for our actions.  If we come to Him in faith and repentance, we will be saved.  If we refuse to do so, we will be lost.  If we tell sinners about Jesus and His work on the cross, then they can be saved.  If we do not, then they will be lost.  And how does this work?

Augustine explained it this way, “Must that which is manifest be denied because that which is hidden cannot be comprehended?”66  Are we to reject what is plain because we cannot comprehend what is hidden?  Are we to deny the obvious because we cannot comprehend the mystery?  Are we to ignore what we know for the sake of what we do not know?  It is obvious that God decides the destinies of men and it is obvious that God will hold men responsible for their actions in eternity.  But what is not obvious is how it all works out.  We simply do not have an answer to that.  It is a mystery us.

But we do know that the only way to bring lost men to salvation is by telling them of Jesus’ work on the cross.67  We do know that God could save men by zapping them but He doesn’t.  He saves them by taking the message of salvation preached and bringing them to life.  We know that.  That is obvious in Scripture.  What we do not know is who the predestined are.  We do not know the identity of the ones who are foreknown.  That has not been revealed to us.  So we must preach the Gospel to everyone.

Charles Spurgeon used to say that until he saw an “E” stamped on the back of the elect, he would preach the Gospel to everyone.68  That should be our approach as well.  We do not know whom God has foreknown.  That is a secret to us.  But we do know that God saves sinners through the preaching of the cross.  Men’s souls are not in our hands, they are in God’s hands.  And God will save them as we speak the truth to them.

 

  1. The following biographical information about King Louis XIV is taken from The World Book Encyclopedia, Volume 12 (Chicago, Ill.: World Book, Inc, 1994) 478-479. []
  2. The preacher’s name was Jean Baptiste Massillon.  The story about King Louis XIV’s funeral is taken from Edwin Charles Dargan’s A History of Preaching, Volume Two (Birmingham, Ala.: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2003 ed.) 114-115 and Steve Lawson’s Psalms 1-75 in Holman Old Testament Commentary (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 2003) 49. []
  3. This definition is the author’s own, but here is a helpful definition of foreknowledge from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000): “The personal, relational knowledge by which God thought of certain people in a saving relationship to himself before creation” (1242). []
  4. This definition is the author’s own, but it could be considered the view of double predestination.  Double predestination “has been used to refer to the dual concepts of election and reprobation in Reformed theology . . . The classic position of Reformed theology views predestination as double in that it involves both election and reprobation but not symmetrical with respect to the mode of divine activity” (www.theopedia.com/Predestination as of 4/16/11).  Some hold to single predestination, which says that God chooses some to salvation but others go to damnation on account of their own decisions, not on account of the decision of God.  In other words, election is predestined, reprobation is not (R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986) 141). []
  5. Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Philipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1932) 42. []
  6. Romans 8:28-30 is discussed further in Section II, 2 below. []
  7. Italics mine. []
  8. Italics mine. []
  9. Gen 4:1 in the King James Version. []
  10. Jer 1:5. []
  11. Is 45:4 in the King James Version. []
  12. Grudem, 676. []
  13. This does not mean that God does not hold men accountable for the choices that they make (see Section III, 4).  This is simply to say that God is independent.  God does not change His mind because of what men decide to do.  God’s independence means that “He is solitary in His majesty, unique in His excellency, and peerless in His perfections.  He sustains all, but is Himself independent of all, He gives to all and is enriched by none” (A. W. Pink, The Nature of God (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999) 14). []
  14. Boettner, 45. []
  15. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Philipsburg, N. J.: P & R Publishing, 2002) 483-484, 500-505.  The technical term for God’s perfect knowledge is “omniscience.” []
  16. Rev 7:4-8. []
  17. For a discussion of some of the objections to foreknowledge, see Section III below. []
  18. Chosen by God, 10. []
  19. Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008) 503.  R. C. Sproul said this because predestination is considered by many to be synonymous with the name John Calvin or with the movement called Calvinism. “The theology of Calvinism or the Reformed faith finds its roots in the writings of John Calvin, particularly as expressed in the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Calvin’s theology centers on the sovereignty of God, the other doctrines being tied to that premise.”  Predestination flows out of the sovereignty of God and is, therefore, connected to the name of John Calvin by many scholars today. []
  20. Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) 423-424.   We get our English word “necromancer” from this Greek word.  A necromancer is someone who raises the dead. []
  21. Grudem, 1255.  This is called total depravity.  Wayne Grudem defines total depravity as “Man’s total lack of spiritual good and inability to do good before God.” []
  22. Rom 6:21, 23; 1 Cor 15:56; Rev 21:8. []
  23. Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: An Introduction and Commentary in The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. by Leon Morris (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 77.  “This death is not primarily physical death, but the loss of the spiritual life given . . . Thus the description here is not merely metaphorical, nor does it refer only to the future state of the sinners.  It describes their present condition . . .” []
  24. God’s Will, Man’s Will, and Free Will (Pensacola, Flo.: Chapel Library, n.d.) 16. []
  25. A copy of this sermon can be downloaded from http://thegospelcoalition.org/resources/name-index/a/Martyn_Lloyd-Jones/topic/Gospel/&category=sermons as of 4/16/11. []
  26. Jn 3:3-8. []
  27. Ez 36:36-37. []
  28. Jn 5:24-27. []
  29. 2 Cor 5:17. []
  30. See Footnote 41 for a definition of justification. []
  31. J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993) viii, 169-170.  Sanctification refers to the “Christian growing in grace.”  It is the process whereby the Holy Spirit works in a Christian to make him more like Christ. []
  32. C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography: The Early Years (Carlisle, Penn.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005 ed.) 134. []
  33. Rom 11:25-32. []
  34. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996) 531-532. []
  35. “A Golden Chain of Five Links,” borrowed from www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/goldenchain-boice.html as of 4/11/11. []
  36. John MacArthur, Romans 1-8 in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991) 498-499. []
  37. Packer, 164.  “Justification is a judicial act of God pardoning sinners, accepting them as just, and so putting permanently right their previously estranged relationship with himself.”  For more information about justification, see “The Semantics of Salvation” in Issue 4 of /jtst/. []
  38. Rom 3:21-26. []
  39. 2 Cor 5:21. []
  40. Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms (Greenville, S.C.: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002) 194. []
  41. Rev 19:11-21. []
  42. 1 Cor 15:42-57. []
  43. Rev 21:1-5. []
  44. Quoted in James Montgomery Boice, “A Golden Chain of Five Links,” borrowed from www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/goldenchain-boice.html as of 4/11/11. []
  45. Quoted from “The Process of Christlikeness: Romans 8:28-30,” at www.crosswalk.com/devotionals/in-touch/in-touch-sept-9-2006-1421203.html as of 4/13/11. []
  46. Rom 3:10. []
  47. Rom 3:23. []
  48. Pink, 31. []
  49. Ibid., 704.  Arminianism is “A doctrinal system formed by Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) as a reaction to Calvinism in the Netherlands.  These beliefs were later affirmed in the five points of Remonstrance: (1) conditional election based on God’s foreknowledge; (2) unlimited atonement; (3) although man has a free will he cannot save himself; (4) prevenient grace, which enables man to cooperate with God in salvation; (5) conditional perseverance – believers can be lost.” []
  50. Ibid., 523. []
  51. For more information about the deadness/slavery of the will, see Section III, 3 below. []
  52. The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and A Rebuttal to Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free (Calvary Press Publishing, 2009) 301. []
  53. Norman Geisler, Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election, Second Edition (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers, 2001) 55. []
  54. Robert Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical & Historical (Ross-shire, G. B.: Christian Focus Publications, 2005) 413-417.  This does not mean that lost people do no righteous acts.  It means that even the righteous acts that lost people do are unrighteous because they come from a heart that is dead to God. []
  55. 2 Tim 2:25-26. []
  56. Jn 8:42-47. []
  57. Rom 6:18, 22. []
  58. John MacArthur, Slave: The Hidden truth about Your Identity in Christ (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2010) 131-132.  In the words of John MacArthur, “It is important to note that in Roman times, slaves did not choose their masters; rather, masters chose their slaves . . . Similarly, the Bible teaches that God has chosen His slaves by His own sovereign , independent, electing choice.  In fact, He elected them to be His slaves before they were born, and even before the world was created.” []
  59. Boettner, 213. []
  60. This story was told to the writer by Curt Daniel, pastor of Faith Bible Church in Springfield, IL (www.faithbibleonline.net). []
  61. Quoted in Debating Calvinism: Five Points, Two Views (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Publishers, 2004) 48. []
  62. Grudem, 1255.  The Trinity is “The doctrine that God eternally exists as three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and each person is fully God, and there is one God.” []
  63. Ibid., 1253.  The rapture is “The ‘taking up’ or snatching up of believers to be with Christ when he returns to the earth.” []
  64. Ibid.  The resurrection is “A rising from the dead into a new kind of life not subject to sickness, aging, deterioration, or death.” []
  65. Ibid., 1244.  The incarnation is “The act of God the Son whereby he took to himself a human nature.” []
  66. Quoted in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume II, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, Ken.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006 ed.) 962. []
  67. Rom 10:14-15. []
  68. This story is related in John MacArthur’s Nothing but the Truth (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1999) 152. []