The Foreknowledge of God
Peter describes believers as "chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father" (1 Peter 1:2). Paul says: "those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son" (Romans 8:29). These are simple statements. But what do they mean?
What difficulty is caused when these statements are misunderstood! The misunderstanding arises because it seems obvious what "foreknowledge" means.
In fact, what happens is that people read into Scripture their own ideas and they don't properly consider the way the word is used in the Bible. What's the misunderstanding and what damage does it cause? And, more importantly, what's the Biblical content of this idea?
The reasoning that causes problems runs something like this.
God is infinite in himself and in all that he is. His knowledge of events is therefore unlimited; he is omniscient; he knows all things. The Psalmist therefore can say: "You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD" (Psalm 139:2). In similar vein, the writer to the Hebrews affirms:
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.Hebrews 4:13
So, the argument runs, foreknowledge is based on this omniscience of God. God knows everything beforehand. Therefore he knew beforehand the state of people's minds and hearts. He was aware of what they would do under certain conditions. More specifically, he knew who would respond to the message of the gospel and who would not. On the basis of such "foreknowledge" — so it is alleged — he chose as his people those whom he knew would accept the gospel if it were presented to them. So, they argue, the foreknowledge of God is the basis of election, as the Scriptures say.
Thus runs the popular misconception of what these passages mean. It more or less equates God's foreknowledge with God's omniscience and it explains election as an act of God based on man's anticipated response to the gospel message.
The difficulties of that interpretation of God's election are enormous. For example, it presumes that people are ready to accept the gospel if it is presented to them in a persuasive way. It envisages that the human will has a natural ability to respond to the gospel. But the Bible does not describe man in that way. Man is dead in his sins. He is not capable of responding to the gospel unless life is implanted in him, by an act of God. What God foresaw in regard to man's response to the gospel was his hardness of heart and impenitence.
Moreover, this method of interpretation results in a scheme that gives the honour of salvation to man and not to God. According to it, election is not based on God's choice of man, but on man's choice of God. God by this so-called election does nothing but rubberstamp man's own decision. God simply falls in line with man's wishes, bowing to his choice; God worships at the feet of man rather than the other way round.
Again, this scheme attempts to reverse the order that Paul gives in Romans 8:29-30. There is a chain of events there, with each link tightly tied to its neighbours in an orderly way so as to provide absolute security for God's people: foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified. This proposed interpretation of events rearranges the links. In effect, it starts with calling and man's response to the call; it then slots in predestination. But this rearrangement makes a nonsense of it all. This destroys all security. Instead of election being as secure as God's will, it is as trustworthy as man's will, for a chain is as strong as the weakest link. This empties it of all value.
And so we could go on. But we will not. For our purpose is not to treat this subject from a theological point of view but from a Biblical one. Our concern is to look at the New Testament passages which use this word in connection with God's purpose and ask: what does the word "foreknowledge" actually mean? How is it normally used? Can its meaning sustain the weight that has been placed on it in accordance with the popular (mis)conception of it?
There is a saying in Spanish: "tell me who you go around with, and I'll tell you who you are". A man is known by his mates. So too the areas to which words apply may be suggested by the words with which they are linked. It is therefore of some significance to note that Peter speaks of Jesus being "delivered by the determinate counsel (set purpose) and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23).
The Bible does not allow us to think of Jesus' work as something that the Father decided to do because he knew it was going to happen anyway. He appointed Christ as the Saviour of his people; he purposed to send him into the world. Christ came, conscious of being commissioned by the Father, aware that his activity in the world was determined by God's eternal purpose. "I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do" (John 17:4).
In Acts 2, Peter is referring to a sovereign, gracious and eternal purpose of God in appointing the Saviour's work. In that context, foreknowledge is used; into that background of God's sovereign purpose it happily fits.
Relationship: Not Information
Turning to one of the passages in our headline (Romans 8:29), we may note that Paul is clearly talking about God's knowledge of people, not his knowledge of facts about them. This observation alone works against the view that the foreknowledge that Paul has in mind referred to people's receptivity or their faith. It wasn't some fact about them, but they themselves that God foreknew.
But more importantly, what does it mean for God to "know" people? We must focus on the fact that "knowing" in the Scriptures frequently refers to intimate, personal relationship.
For example, in the Old Testament we have Adam "knowing" his wife (Genesis 4:1). This obviously doesn't mean he knew about her. It refers to the intimacy of the marital bond. So much for the way this word is used in human relationships.
Again in the Old Testament, we have an important verse referring to a relationship in which God is a partner. Speaking about "the whole family" which he "brought up from the land of Egypt", God says: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities" (Amos 3:2).
Is this verse a denial of God's omniscience? Was he unaware of what other nations were doing? Was he blind to their sins? Of course not. The knowledge referred to here isn't knowledge about peoples. It is intimate, personal relationship with one people that is in mind.
With Israel alone had God entered into a covenant; they alone had experienced his special love set on them; they alone had felt his special care and protection. On that basis they had been brought up from Egypt. The N.I.V. captures the right thought when it says: "you only have I chosen of all the families of the earth". To know is to choose. God's knowledge of Israel implies a select relationship with them.
From the New Testament we have an example of this. Some excluded from the kingdom of heaven will say: "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?" Then will come the dreadful reply: "I never knew you" (Matthew 7:21-22).
This is not a failure in Jesus' ability to be aware of all things. He is not saying that, though seated on the throne with all authority in heaven and earth, he had overlooked them. He does, however, deny that there has been a personal relationship between them. They may have served him, but it did not spring from a personal bond between the Lord and themselves.
If "knowledge" refers to intimate, personal relationships then "foreknowledge" refers to such relationships previously established.
So when Paul and Peter refer to foreknowledge they are not referring to God's prior awareness of them, but to a prior special, personal, intimate, select relationship established with them. This again destroys the view that predestination is based on God's foresight of faith in the objects of his choice. Indeed both the nature of the action of the verb "to know" and the tense of the verb that is used by Paul suggest that he is speaking about the act of establishing such a personal relationship.
The starting point of Paul's great chain of events is not God knowing something about them. It is God's act in entering into a relation of intimacy with the people to which he is referring. Other passages of the Scriptures make it plain that that was an act entirely based on grace. Having constituted his people on this basis — having thus foreknown them — God then decrees the particular goal for which this relationship was forged, that is, he predestined them.
It is just this that Peter is saying too. When he speaks about these Christians being elect he has in mind a specific goal towards which their election was effected: sanctification through the Spirit. But he, like Paul, does not simply concern himself with the goal of election. He traces the process back to the act that made them special in God's sight. Hence he says they were elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.
God first made them his own by "knowing" them, that is by entering into a relationship of intimacy and warmth. On that basis, he then ordained for them that they would be set apart as different by the operation of the Holy Spirit.
This interpretation of events is far removed from the popular misunderstanding of what foreknowledge means. It restores the origin of salvation to God's will not man's. It finds its origin not in God's foreseeing something but in a personal relation God establishes with his own.
It also enriches our understanding of God's electing grace by stressing the warmth and intimacy of it all. His establishment of a relationship of "knowledge" cannot, by its very nature, be a cold, impersonal thing, but something warm and delightful. It is that of which foreknowledge speaks.
If we have doubts on this score we need but look at other occasions when this word foreknowledge is used in the New Testament in regard to people. There are others beside his church whom God has foreknown.
Israel and Our Lord
In Romans 11, Paul discusses the place of Israel in God's purposes. He calls attention to the fact that he himself, a believer in Christ, is a descendant of Israel and he appeals to the remnant idea, exemplified in the experience of Elijah. This is proof, he says, that "God did not reject his people whom he foreknew" (Romans 11:2).
Here is confirmation that foreknowledge refers to God's initiative in establishing a select relationship. It is ridiculous to think that foreknowledge here is based on some foreseen goodness which caused God to choose Israel as his own. In Deuteronomy, the basis for that special relationship between God and his people is clearly stated to be God's love and the view that it was based on something worthy in themselves is specifically rejected (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
The relationship with his elect is spoken about in the same terms as his relationship with Israel, revealed in Old Testament times. Both refer to a gracious act in the past eternity by which he establishes a personal relationship with them.
More interesting yet, and strange to some at first sight, is the fact that the Father foreknew Jesus. This parallel between the Father's relationship with his people and the Father's relationship with Christ is obscured by the fact that the A.V. has "foreordained" and the N.I.V. "chosen". Both these accurately represent the basic idea Peter is conveying, but what he actually says about Christ is:
He was foreknown before the creation of the world but was revealed in these last times for your sake.1 Peter 1:20
What does it mean that Christ was foreknown? It means precisely what it meant in reference to God's chosen people. It does not, of course, mean that God foresaw that he would come into this world to suffer and die and rise again and so he decided to rubber-stamp what Christ was doing. It refers to a relationship of deepest intimacy established between the Father and the Son.
We need not be put off by such a thought. The Son was always in the bosom of the Father, enjoying love and affection. But the Scriptures make it plain that besides that ongoing relationship a new relationship was assumed. The Son too was elect. He was appointed as the chief cornerstone in Sion (1 Peter 2:6). A decree was issued appointing him as king over his people: "you are my son; today I have begotten you" (Psalm 2:6-9). The Father conferred a kingdom on him in covenant terms (Luke 22:29).
This was not done in cold or impersonal terms. Christ was not only elect; he was precious. Glory was given to him, appointed for him, on the completion of his task (John 17:24) — the reward of a delighted Father. As he went about the task assigned to him, the Father gave him proofs of his approval: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11). It is little wonder that our Lord himself could speak of the fact that the Father "loved him before the foundation of the world" (John 17:24).
In fact, both these expressions — "I am well pleased" and "loved" — are capable of referring to the beginning of a relationship. But whether we accept that view or not doesn't matter, because the picture is clear. Before the foundation of the world, the Father selected Christ as the chosen instrument of his saving purpose. He assigned him a task; he promised him rewards; and he poured his affection on him. So the Son, being eternally an object of love in the Father's bosom, became precious to him as the appointed servant who was to accomplish the task of redemption. "Because of this," said Jesus, "the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I might take it again" (John 10:17)
All this explains why he is spoken of as the one that was "foreknown". Before the world began, the Father established a special relationship with the Son in which he was appointed Saviour — a relationship characterised by intimacy and warmth. Thus he foreknew him.
What emerges from this study is the unique relationship between Christ and his people. He and they are one; treated as one in the Father's sight. Both are elect; both are precious; both belong to a special relationship established with them by the Father in warmth and intimacy; both are therefore foreknown.
If we could appreciate the full meaning of this remarkable truth of the unity of Christ and the believer, we would have no difficult in understanding what foreknowledge means. The Father's foreknowledge of us runs parallel to his foreknowledge of the Son. Indeed, if we understood this parallel, we would understand all there is to know about God's purpose of salvation.