God’s Sovereign Choice – A study on Romans 8:28-9:29 (part 1)

Taylor’s Island, Minnesota. Photo credit: Betsy Quinn

Early into my freshman year of college, I read the book “Erasing Hell” by Francis Chan. I had bought the book a few years before that and had let it collect dust throughout high school. I was intrigued enough to buy the book at 16, but I lacked the time, maturity, and interest to read past the introduction. Two years later as I packed for college, the title again piqued my curiosity. I threw it into a box full of other books I hadn’t got around to reading. After settling into my new life at CNU I quickly realized how much free time I had. Feeling motivated to be productive, I closed my laptop and pulled the box of books I hadn’t unpacked yet from under my bed. “Erasing God” was sitting on the top of the pile of books, so I picked it up and read almost the entire thing in one sitting.

What I read was sobering, profound, and deeply troubling—primarily because the most difficult passage was taken directly from the Bible. In Chan’s response to Rob Bell’s universalist claims, he challenged his readers to carefully and prayerfully read through Romans 9. I promptly obliged. What I read rocked my world.

I struggled to believe what I had read. The implications of this one chapter completely dismantled my understanding of salvation, free will, and God’s sovereignty. In my confusion, I reached out to my local pastor. He agreed to meet for lunch later that week and walk me through what I had read. Our conversation lasted for a little more than three hours. By the end of our meeting, my faith had radically changed. The gospel made far more sense to me than it ever had before. I felt totally at peace when I thought of the assurance of my own salvation. I felt heartbroken for my friends who weren’t believers. Perhaps most unexpectedly, I had never felt so motivated to evangelize. That three-hour-long conversation stands out as one of the defining moments of my walk with the Lord.

I began writing this within a week or two of that meeting. For a number of reasons, I never completed it; I managed to work through Romans 8:28-39 but failed to get into the next chapter. My original intent in conducting this study was to remember the truths my pastor had taught me and encourage myself in accepting this beautiful, overwhelming passage. It was not academically rigorous. It was casual in tone. I wrote it to myself as a sort of letter.

Three years later, I’ve returned to finish what I started. I feel far more familiar with this scripture and these truths now. I have experienced God’s radical sovereignty in powerful ways in the last three years. Hopefully I’ve improved in my ability to communicate. Finally, I want to share these truths with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Come and see, Christian, who your God is and how much He loves you. Please, work through these verses with an open heart, an earnest thirst for truth, and full faith in the goodness of our Lord. Lose all pride. Sacrifice everything to cling to your King—even your understanding of free will. Invite the Holy Spirit to teach you what Paul meant when he wrote, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free,” (Galatians 5:1). Know how deeply your Father loves you.

I’m going to upload this lesson into three parts. Part 1 will include Romans 8:28-39. I’ve made minimal edits to what I originally wrote. Do note: when I first embarked on this study, I used the old NIV translation. Today I use the NASB for all of my studies and lessons. After reading through both and comparing each translation, I feel they’re similar enough to convey the same message. Still, I’ve decided to refer to the NASB instead of the NIV as I first did. If you find the NASB hard to read or understand, try using the NIV or ESV. Both are wonderful and easier to digest. Please let me know if you have any questions or objections to what I’ve written. Remember; I’m no expert or scholar. I’m merely a 22-year-old Christian with a passion for understanding God’s word. I realize that different denominations interpret this in different ways. Lay down your preconceptions, whether they be reformed, liberal, catholic, or anything else. Try reading Romans in one sitting, from Chapter 1 to 16. Speak with your own pastor or small group leader. Pray fervently.

* * *

Romans 8:28 “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.”

This verse is not an ideal place to start. It opens with “And…” which usually means it is building off of what immediately precedes it. We could start in verse 18, but for the sake of staying on topic, I won’t be addressing that section. If you’d like to read verses 18-27 for context, please do.

What do we see in this passage about the character of God? “God causes all things to work together” shows His absolute authority. He does not work just in the things we would expect, like YoungLife and church. He also does not work only in things we do not expect, like getting denied from your top college and getting a random roommate from California or going to a summer camp just to meet girls. The Lord works even in things we couldn’t possibly know about, like the laws of physics and causal chains. We can’t understand all the causes that lead to any particular outcome, but here we see that the Lord understands and orchestrates all causes. Let me clarify ‘orchestrates’. God does not cause every event, but He is active in all events. God cannot commit sin; He is incapable of causing evil. However, He allows others to sin so that He might bring about a particular end. Whether evil or good conspires before Him, all things that have happened, are happening presently, and will happen in the future are strung together in God’s plan. A deist philosophy of God creating the world and then stepping back is simply wrong. Since He created time God has been working in “all things.”

What is it God causes all things to work together for? For good. God is is infinitely powerful, but His work is for benevolence. “Good” can also be translated to “well-being” or “prosperity”. We must ask ourselves: good for whom? All people? No. “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.” Here we see that God’s efforts are not all-inclusive. His work is specific, targeted, and intentional. God’s labor is distinctly for “those who love Him.” Do you love God? If so, know the Lord has been laboring for you and your well-being since time began. I hope this language reminds you of 1 John 4:7-21. John is explicit in explaining the implications of loving God. Those that love God are in God and may have confidence on the day of judgement (1 John 4:17). Remember their origin, though. Humans can only love God if God has loved them first (4:10). Those who do not love God have not the love of God in them (4:8). Here we see the great division of mankind that God makes throughout the Bible: those who love God, and those who do not.

Look back to rest of verse 28. Paul makes two things equivalent. Those who love God are the same as those who have been “called according to God’s purpose”. There is no difference between those whom God loves and those whom He calls. We’ll talk about what Paul means by calling later. Just know that this first verse is the thesis statement of sorts; it is a conclusion which Paul is about to provide premises for in verses 29 and 30.

Romans 8:29 “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.”

How absolutely wordy is verse 29? There is so much content! The dictionary definition of foreknow is “to be aware of something before it happens.” In this case, what God has foreknowledge about is people: before people were created, God was aware of them. That shouldn’t necessarily be news to you, but I hope it is still mind-blowing. Have you ever felt ignored by God? Have you asked, “God, do you even know I’m here?” Please know that God responds “I am aware.” I find that comforting. Our Father knew everything about us before the atoms we are composed of were formed. God’s sovereignty doesn’t stop there, though.

God is both aware and active in the lives of those who love Him. What specifically is this activity? Predestination. Now stop. Don’t try to define this word or think it is something it’s not. Let’s simply use a dictionary definition of the word ‘destined’ and work from there. The definition of ‘destined’ is “(of one’s future) developing as though according to a plan.” Now add the prefix ‘pre-‘ and form a definition in your own words. Here’s mine. Predestination: one’s future develops as though according to a plan, and this plan was established and finalized before any part of the plan was set into motion. If we consider this plan to be identical to “God’s purpose” mentioned in the prior verse, it is clear to see that this plan must have been approved before creation existed at all. Since then, God has been following this plan and has not changed it.

We know who this plan was for (“those who love Him”) but what exactly was the plan? Verse 29 continues and tells us that they are to “become conformed to the image of His Son.” Conform means “to be similar in form or to comply with.” What do we have so far? Those who love God are a specific people whom God has known and planned for from before creation and has since been working for in their best interest.

Jesus is the “firstborn”; He was the first of “many brethren.” This has a lot of implications to it. Being the firstborn, Jesus rightfully receives the inheritance from the Father. The kingdom is His. There will be other siblings, as well. None other will be the oldest, but they will still be siblings and coheirs nonetheless. Those who are Christians will one day be so similar to Jesus they could be considered His brother or sister. We will not be identical twins, but very near indeed. Of course, there will be “many brothers”. Do not underestimate that “many.” We do not know how many people will be Christians and ascend to heaven, but be encouraged: there are a lot of us. With that being said, “many” is not the same as “all”. Those who love God and will one day be considered siblings of Jesus are an exclusive group. This is a subtle and hard truth. As Paul will show in Romans 9, we don’t have to rejoice over this fact. In fact, Paul is right to weep for those who will not enter the kingdom of God. However, though we grieve this truth, we embrace it nonetheless. God does not let us choose what to believe based on how comfortable that belief makes us. He calls us to know truth.

Romans 8:30 “and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”

Now we arrive at what is known as the golden chain of redemption. First, note the order of words. First, “foreknown,”; second, “predestined,”; third, “called,”; fourth, “justified,”; fifth and finally, “glorified.” The first two terms have previously been defined. Calling in this context means the moment Jesus opens our hearts to receive His love; it is when Jesus calls us to run into His arms. Calling is rarely instantaneous. For most Christians, Christ calls them over time. God pursues His people with a loving and determined heart, eager for His children to know who they are meant to be. Justification comes with our union with Christ. Upon receiving the Holy Spirit, we have officially died to sin and have come alive in Jesus as new creations. We are justified because our sin is no longer held against us—it is “just as if” we never sinned, as the saying goes.

What does it mean to be glorified? This one is fascinating because it hasn’t happened yet. Christians will be glorified on the Day of Judgement, when the dead are raised and brought into the full presence of the Lord. Believers shall be glorified in the new heaven and new earth along with Christ who is glorified above all, as described in 1 John 3:2-3. That is incredible! Paul speaks of something in the future as if it had already happened. The use of past-tense here is not coincidental. God’s sovereign plan is so certain to come about that Paul writes of glorification as history. Those who have been justified are as good as glorified; it’s only a matter of time now. Marvel at this: before Jesus died on the cross, those who had already been called and received their calling lived before Jesus did the physical act of death to justify them. Abraham, Moses, King David, and all other faithful followers of the Lord in the Old Testament died before Jesus hung on the cross. Should they be thought of as any less saved than those who came after Jesus? No! Our souls and their salvation have been guaranteed since before they existed.

Now that each link in the golden chain has been explained, see how they are connected. Starting in verse 29, all of those who love God and are foreknown are also predestined. All of those who are predestined are called. Those who are called are all justified and are promised future glory. Those who reach the final link are the same as those who started at the beginning foreknowledge. No additions or edits are made. None join late and none are lost. If you are a part of one link, you have been a part of the entire chain all along.

Take time to digest that. Are you a Christian? Have you confessed with your mouth and believed in your heart that Jesus is Lord over everything, including you? If so, know that not one second has passed when the Lord has not loved you and actively worked toward your glorification. You may inclined to feel guilty or unworthy of such a love. I encourage you to feel honored; recognize what an amazing gift and blessing you have received and be thankful. Don’t let your response end with thanksgiving, though. Read on and let Paul show you how we ought to react. Paul declares that this truth produces a confidence beyond anything we could possibly know otherwise.

Romans 8:31-34 “ What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes—rather who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.”

Paul’s response is so powerful it almost sounds arrogant. If he had been absolutely certain of anything in his entire life it would be his union with Christ and his salvation. What is your name? Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure that is your name? Be more sure that you will be glorified.

Verse 32 tells us of our inheritance. Note how Paul uses a rhetorical question. It should be obvious that the Lord will give us all things; He has already given us the most precious gift of all. Paul asserts in verses 33-34 that guilt is actually the last thing we should feel because no charge can or will be held against us. The only one in all of existence who has the authority to bring charges against us in the King who loved us to the point of death. There is a total lack of conflict in the vertical relationship between God and those humans who love Him.

Romans 8:35-37 “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, ‘For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.”

These two verses address the horizontal conflict that God’s people encounter with creation. Conflict is present and obvious: God’s people face many huge challenges. Hardship was so great for Paul and his fellow early evangelists that they faced “death all day long”, as many Christians still do. Paul doesn’t undermine our struggle, but instead puts it in proper perspective in relation to our eternal destiny. Our horizontal man vs. man conflict has no bearing on our salvation. I would dare say our temporal struggles are irrelevant in determining our salvation. Paul declares this as bluntly as possible. Can these things separate us from God’s love? No. The things that attack our identity and oppose our mission as Christians don’t stand a chance. Not even the Roman Empire could stop the advancing kingdom of God. Nothing we face now has ever separated us from God. The one thing that did—our sin—was conquered for us. We are more than conquerers only through Christ.

Romans 8:38-39 “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Sometimes I am amazed that God let Paul use such strong language in describing our faith. I am more astounded that God’s love is so much greater than even what Paul can begin to put words to. In case he hadn’t made his point clear enough already, Paul lays out the fact of the matter. I noticed that Paul lists commonly feared things: death, satanic forces, oppressive powers, heights, depths. It is also interesting how he groups these listed things. He acknowledges the physical reality—“neither death, nor life”—along with the spiritual reality—“nor angels, nor principalities¹”. He also defines physical existence within time—“nor things present, nor things to come”—and space—“nor height, nor depth”. Even after drawing our attention to specific parts of creation, Paul affirms that no part of creation can separate us from God’s love.

If nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God, why did Paul spend so much time carefully naming different parts of it? Paul’s list includes many of the things we often blame for our separation from God, whether consciously or subconsciously. Yet none of these things can actually keep us from our Father. It is important to focus on the future-tense Paul uses here. Though “nothing will be able to separate us,” we are not perfectly united now. We quite obviously are still apart from God physically: Christ is not still walking on the earth. Even so, a time quickly approaches when “He who is coming will come and will not delay,” (Hebrews 10:37). Absolutely nothing can stop Jesus from glorifying His beloved.

* * *

I hope this has been edifying for your faith. The certainty I carry from reading Romans 8 overwhelms me. Moving forward, we’re going to encounter some incredibly difficult texts. Paul is going to ask and answer several questions few people are willing to ask out loud. Romans 9 addresses how we ought to understand other people’s salvation. That’s an incredibly important and touchy subject, but before we think about others, please reflect on this for yourself first.

I’ll close with a quote from one of my favorite sermons of all time, preached by one of the greatest evangelists in history. George Whitefield says the following in “The Method of Grace,”

Have ye closed with Christ? Is God your Friend? Is Christ your Friend? Then look up with Comfort, all is yours, and ye are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s, everything shall work together for your Good, the very Hairs on your Head are numbered, he that toucheth you, toucheth the Apple of God’s Eye.”2

Amen indeed. I pray this is true for you. Rest in Romans 8, especially as you move forward into the rest of Romans. Scroll to the bottom for part two.


¹ The greek word for “principalities” here is ἀρχαὶ (archai), the plural of ἀρχή (arché) which is somewhat difficult to translate. Strong’s concordance identifies its meaning as either “beginning,” dealing with the origin/starting point of something or being the first of something, or “ruler”, as in kingly rule or magisterial. Thayer’s greek lexicon mentions that Paul uses this term to refer to angels or demons given authority over dominions. Jude 1:6 shares this usage.

“The Method of Grace” by George Whitefield. Quote from page 24.  http://quintapress.webmate.me/PDF_Books/The_Method_of_Grace_v1.pdf 


Part Two can be found here.

3 comments on “God’s Sovereign Choice – A study on Romans 8:28-9:29 (part 1)”

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