Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Is God Worthy of Trust: Divine Foreknowledge

Romans 8:28 is a famously misunderstood verse. It is pasted over every situation in which a Christian goes through like a Band-Aid. But some hurts are too serious for Band-Aids. They can do little for gaping scars and internal wounds. Such is the nature of life for many of us. If Romans 8:28 is spewed out by every pastor and layman without a second thought we will not take much joy in our suffering, nor will we find much hope in God’s goodness. When we come to understand the context of Romans 8:28, however, and we see that the “good” that “all things” are working towards is our being made more like Christ then we know, that like Christ, we must suffer, and that the price is worth the prize. In a like manner the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge is often applied to our lives like a quick fix proof text. But unless we know what this doctrine means, and means for us specifically, it will generate very little faith from our hearts.

The doctrine of divine foreknowledge is often assessed as God ability to know what will take place in the future before it comes to pass. It is exactly what it says, fore-knowledge, that is knowledge prior to event. This definition, however, falls short, for the word contains something more than simply “prior knowledge.” As John Frame explains, “Often in biblical languages, as in English, when the verb know has a noun rather than a fact-clause as its object, it refers to a personal relationship, not a knowledge of information.”[1] To demonstrate what he means, the author quotes Psalm 1:6 as evidence.

Psalm 1:6 for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
Does this verse simply mean that God is aware of what the righteous are doing, the information is accessible to Him? Surely it must mean more, for the “way of the righteous” seems rather obvious. No, in this passage it is implying that God watches over, guards and keeps, the way of the righteous man, for in the beginning of the chapter we read “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.” One of the ways he is blessed is that God keeps him in the path of righteousness.[2] This brings us to a very important distinction: foreknowledge must also involve foreordination.

If the words seem to be a bit confusing hold on to them, there key to understanding the great truth of God’s foreknowledge and why it should give us confidence in God. Foreordination, like foreknowledge, means to do something beforehand. In this case it means that God ordains, or decrees, something to take place prior to its actual taking place. For God to truly have a knowledge of the future, for Him to be certain that anything really will happen the way He sees it, then He must decree that it be so. God establishes that it will happen and because of this He knows it will. Perhaps it’s hard to grasp in the abstract, let’s look at a concrete example.

In chapter 48 of Isaiah we find the people of Israel have been in captivity in Babylon for sometime. The Fall of Jerusalem took place in 587 B.C. and even before this some were already in slavery. Many have died in captivity; many have been born in captivity. But there is good news on the horizon: soon King Cyrus of Persia, will release them to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. But before this happens God intervenes to prepare them for the release. God prepares them for their release by announcing it before hand.

Isaiah 48:1-3 Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and who came from the waters of Judah, who swear by the name of the LORD and confess the God of Israel, but not in truth or right. 2 For they call themselves after the holy city, and stay themselves on the God of Israel; the LORD of hosts is his name. 3 "The former things I declared of old; they went out from my mouth and I announced them; then suddenly I did them and they came to pass.

It is important here to note why God says he foretold the event. He did it because “I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, 5 I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, 'My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them.'” The people of Israel confessed God with their mouths, but it was “not in truth or right.” They had actually, in practice, adopted the idols of their captors and were worshiping them. Man’s heart is full of sin and so in order that God’s work might not be attributed to an idol, God foretells the work that will be done. God foreknows what will take place in this situation. But more than simply a knowledge of facts, God has foreordained the events to take place. See how He describes the destruction of Babylon by Cyrus and the release of Israel:

Isaiah 48:12-15 12 "Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he; I am the first, and I am the last. 13 My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand forth together. 14 "Assemble, all of you, and listen! who among them has declared these things? The LORD loves him; he shall perform his purpose on Babylon, and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans. 15 I, even I, have spoken and called him; I have brought him, and he will prosper in his way.

Note the strong language of divine sovereignty in the text. It is God who does, who lays, who spreads, who calls. God loves, performs, speaks, calls, and brings. The “him” of verses 14 and 15 refer to Cyrus, and while we concede that it is Cyrus, himself, who crushes Babylon and frees Israel, it is really God who performs his purpose on Babylon and brings Cyrus our and prospers his way. God does all these things!

So we see here that God’s foretelling of the events of Israel’s release and Babylon’s defeat is not comforting simply because God knows it will happen. Rather we rejoice to know that God has His hands in all things. What He foreknows He has foreordained, and so nothing is beyond His realm of control. While of course this opens up a whole theological can of worms (i.e. how do we deal with bad things that happen to us), we must never forget that Romans 8:28 teaches both God’s sovereignty and His love for us. He works all things out for our good, which is conformity to Christ.[3]

Is God trustworthy? He is trustworthy because He is sovereign over all. He not only knows what will happen in the future, but He knows because He has ordained it to happen. This is most wonderfully seen in our salvation. Romans 8:29-30 reads:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

God’s foreknowledge is not an impartial reception of information. It is an active love, that brings about the salvation of His elect people.

How does all this help us to trust God better? It gives us confidence that no matter what we are facing we know that God has a purpose in it. Sometimes His purposes are beyond the scope of our small minds, in fact often they are, but what a comfort it is to know that nothing just happens, nothing is a mistake, unknown, or out of God’s control. We can trust God because in His foreknowing all things, His hands are at work in ordaining them to take place that all His purposes might be done, including our sanctification.

[1] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God. (Philipsburg: P&R, 2002). 72.
[2] It is relevant here to document that both the NIV and the NLT translate the verse as “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous…” and “The Lord watches over the path of the godly…” The NASB also suggests that “approves” and “has regard to” are possible synonyms for the word “knows”.
[3] For further discussion on this subject see D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990).


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