Friday, January 30
Romans 6:15-23: In this section Paul largely repeats what he had insisted on in the earlier part of this chapter (compare verses 1 and 15)— namely, that God’s gift of grace is free only in the sense that it cannot be earned. It is not free in the sense that it excuses Christians from stern moral and ascetical effort.
Strenuous activity and a robust sense of obligation, that is to say, pertain to the Gospel every bit as much as they did to Law. Man under grace has no fewer responsibilities than man under the Law. (Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount indicates that he has vastly more.) Speaking of "obedience to righteousness," then, Paul clearly agrees with James’ teaching about the necessity of "works": “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (verse 16)
The holding of correct doctrine is also of the essence. At the time of baptism a believer submits himself "from the heart" to a "form of doctrine" (typos didaches), a creedal standard, a "rule of faith" (regula fidei), of which "you have taken delivery" (paredothete). Paul refers here to the teaching contained in the Tradition (paradosis) that he himself had received in preparation for his own baptism (16:17; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Timothy 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1).
Once again, we observe that Paul presumes that these Roman Christians, none of whom had been catechized by him or his close associates, had nonetheless received the same foundational doctrine, in an established form (typos), that he himself had received. This is the authoritative Apostolic Tradition, which is clearly earlier than the writings of the New Testament itself.
In the profession of faith associated with the rite of baptism it has long been customary for believers to repudiate Satan just prior to their confession of the lordship of Jesus. Paul’s wording here appears to reflect this custom. The baptized Christian has exchanged one form of service for another.
In this connection Paul introduces the theme of Christian liberty (verses 18,22; 7:3; 8:2,21; Galatians 2:4; 3:28; 4:22-31; 5:1,13). This liberty is not to be confused with the supposed freedom given by the indulgence of the flesh, he says (verse 20). Alas, examples from Christian history prove (and Christian pastors today are well aware) that a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching about justification through faith has sometimes led, by a strange sort of logic, to very pernicious views about moral freedom. Such a process, however, leads the believer back to the reign of death (verses 21,23).
In context the "holiness" (hagiasmos) of verses 19 and 22 appears to refer to the sanctification and consecration of the Christian’s body, which requires control over the passions of the body (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7; 1 Timothy 2:15). "This assertion may be hazarded, then, that it has been shown that death is the fellowship of the soul in the state of sin with the body, and that life is separation from sin" (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 4.4).
In contrast to the reign of death, the Christian’s goal is eternal life. Men earn death; it is their "wages." Eternal life, however, cannot be earned. It is the free gift (charisma) of God, given us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This eternal life also pertains to the Christian’s body, because it begins with the baptism of the body. Accordingly, commenting on these verses, Tertullian wrote sometime about the year 200: "Thus, throughout this series of meanings (sensuum seriem), withdrawing our members from unrighteousness and sin, and applying them to righteousness and sanctification, and moving them from the wages of death to the free gift of life, [Paul] undoubtedly promises to the flesh the recompense of salvation. Now it would not at all have been consistent that any rule of holiness and righteousness should be explicitly enjoined on the flesh, if the latter were incapable of receiving the reward of that discipline. Nor could baptism be properly ordered for the flesh, if by means of its regeneration a course were not begun unto its restoration" (De Resurrectione Mortuorum 42.8-9).
Saturday, January 31
Romans 7:1-12: Already in this epistle Paul has touched on the function of the Law with respect to the reign of sin and death. In the present chapter he treats this theme in a more ample fashion. How is it, he wonders, that something so godly as the Law, given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, should actually serve the interests of sin and death?
When Paul had reflected on the historical function of the Law a few years earlier, his attitude had been more positive (Galatians 3:22-23): “we were kept under guard by the Law.” Now, however, it has become clear here in Romans that Paul’s views of the Law have shifted and deepened (3:20,31; 4:15; 5:13,20). They have shifted in the direction of a dialectic and deepened in the perception of a mystery.
The real problem, Paul will argue here in Romans, was not with the Law in itself; the problem was in man, whose bondage to sin and death rendered him incapable of observing the Law. The Law, remaining external to man, did not alter him within. Grace, he will argue later in this epistle, alters man from within.
To illustrate the Christian’s freedom from the Law, Paul resorts to an analogy prompted by his considerations of death in the previous chapter. He compares the Law to the regulation of marriage, which provides for the dissolution of marriage at the death of one of the partners. Now, as has already been shown, Christians died to sin in their baptism. Since they are dead, therefore, the Law can make no further claim over them (verses 1-6; 6:9,14).
This was the truth at stake in the Judaizers’ conflict in Galatia a few years earlier, when Paul saw the Gospel itself to be at risk. The affirmation that Christians are still bound by the Mosaic Law meant for Paul that they would return to the reign of death. Their union with Christ in baptism and faith would count for nothing.
In baptism the Christian had died, however, by being sacramentally united to Christ in His death (verse 4). It is through their union with the sacrificial body of Christ that Christians are delivered from the curse of the Law (Galatians 2:10-20; 3:13). They are no longer “wed” to the Law, but to the Lord who died and rose again. This mystery introduces the "eschatological now" (verse 6), "the newness of the Spirit" (6:4).
In contrasting this newness of the Spirit with "the oldness of the letter," Paul touches on an exegetical theme that he had treated at some length the previous year (2 Corinthians 3).
In verses 7-13 Paul adopts the first person singular to speak on behalf of the human race, which has experienced the transitions of its moral history. The "I" in these verses, then, is the whole human race coming to grips with sin, death, and the Law. (On Paul’s use of the "I" to designate men or believers in general, cf. 14:21; 1 Corinthians 8:13; 13:1-3,11-12; 14:6-19.)
The Law in these verses is the Mosaic Law, but the latter is understood in such a way as to include those adumbrations of the Law known earlier than, and apart from, Moses (cf. Sirach 17:4-11; 44:20). Indeed, even Adam knew certain components of the Law (cf. Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2.24; Ambrose of Milan, De Paradiso 4).
Paul’s argument is easily summarized: Man is made a moral agent only when he is faced with a moral responsibility. If there are no commandments that might be disobeyed, sin is lifeless (verse 8). A commandment, however, revives sin, as it were (verse 9), thus putting man into the realm of death (verse 10; 5:13). That
is to say, by means of this very good commandment (verse 12), sin brings man to death (verse 11).
Tertullian later made powerful use of these Pauline verses in his argument against Marcion (Against Marcion 5.13.13-15).
Sunday, February 1
Genesis 32: After taking leave of Laban, Jacob must think about how to approach Esau, for Esau represents the tricky aspect of Jacob’s homecoming (vv. 4–7). Esau, meanwhile, has moved south to the land of Edom, a dry and inhospitable land that lucidly explains the words of God, “Esau I have hated, and I have appointed his borders for destruction and made his heritage as dwellings of the wilderness” (Malachi 1:3).
If Jacob is feeling threatened by Laban, he now feels even worse from the information that his older twin is coming to meet him with four hundred armed men. That last part is hardly the sort of detail calculated to allay anxiety. Indeed, a certain sense of anxiety may be exactly what Esau wants to inspire in Jacob. If so, the maneuver is successful.
Jacob does two things (vv. 8–13). First, he prepares for the worst, taking certain practical steps with a view to at least a partial survival of his family. Second, he takes to prayer, certainly the most humble prayer he has made so far.
Ultimately, after all, this is a story of Jacob’s relationship to God. Up to this point, God is still Isaac’s God, the “God of my fathers” (v. 9). Jacob has not yet done what he promised at Bethel—take God as his own (28:21). God had also made certain promises to Jacob at Bethel, and Jacob now invokes those promises.
He continues his preparations for meeting the brother he has not seen in twenty years (v. 14–23). He sends delegations with gifts, which are intended to impress Esau. Jacob, after all, knows that Esau has four hundred men, but Esau does not know how many Jacob may have. Jacob’s gifts, including five hundred and eighty animals, verge on the flamboyant.
Jacob approaches the ford of Jabbok, at a place called Peniel, or “face of God” (v. 30). The Hebrew text of verses 17–31 uses the word “face” (paneh) no fewer than six times. Jacob knows that Esau will soon be “in his face.” He must “face” Esau, which is why he is going directly toward him. Up to this point, Jacob has been a man of flight, flight from Canaan, flight from Haran, flight from Esau, flight from Laban. This all must change. Jacob cannot face his future until he has faced his past.
Even before he can face Esau, however, Jacob must face Someone Else (vv. 23–33). This encounter with God, which apparently Jacob has not anticipated, is far more significant than his encounter with Esau. A millennium later the prophet Hosea would meditate on this scene. This wrestling match is Jacob’s decisive encounter with God.
Everything changes. First, his name is changed to Israel (v. 29), as Abram’s was changed to Abraham in a parallel encounter with God (17:3–5, 15). Second, God is no longer simply “the God of my fathers.” He is now “the God of Israel” (v. 20). Third, Jacob will limp from this experience for the rest of his life (vv. 26, 32–33). No one wrestles with the living God and afterwards looks normal and well-adjusted. There is a further irony here. Jacob began life by tripping his brother as the latter exited the womb. Now Jacob himself will be permanently tripped up by a limp.
Jacob has remained on the near side of the river all night long, not fording the Jabbok with the rest of his family. When he rises in the morning, he must limp across alone. Esau and his four hundred men are just coming into view.
(Taken from P. H. Reardon, Creation and the Patriarchal Histories)
Monday, February 2
First Samuel 2:1-11: Among the characters from Holy Scripture used as models of prayer in traditional Christian literature, few appear as often as Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Starting with Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus of Rome near the dawn of the third century, those who wished to be instructed in the ways of prayer have had recourse to Hannah’s example, as contained in the first two chapters of First Samuel.
It is worth observing that Hannah’s prayer serves a significant purpose in the literary structure of that book. Bearing in mind that the Books of Samuel were originally a single book–not two–we readily discern that both the opening and closing scenes of that book have to do with worship.
Thus, chapter 1 of First Samuel describes the regular pilgrimages that Elkanah’s family made to the ancient shrine at Shiloh, while the last chapter of Second Samuel finishes with David’s purchase of the site of the future temple at Jerusalem. At the beginning of the book, the Ark of the Covenant is in Shiloh, but the Ark has been moved to the new site as the book ends. Sacrifices are offered in each place, whether by the priest Eli or by David. In both places, likewise, there is a description of prayer.
First Samuel starts with two prayers of Hannah, and Second Samuel closes with two prayers of David (24:10, 25). Moreover, these prayers themselves are similar. Hannah’s petition, inspired by her great distress, takes the form of a vow; if the Lord should give her a son, she promises, she will dedicate him to the Lord. And at the end of the book, David’s prayer, made in response to the plague that afflicts the people through his own sin, takes the form of resolve to dedicate a new temple to the Lord. David’s resolve, implicit in 2 Samuel 24, is elaborated in 1 Chronicles 21 and Psalm 131(132). Thus, the Book of Samuel begins and ends with similar prayers, in the context of sacrifice.
There are further parallels between the canticle of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 and the canticle of David in 2 Samuel 22. Indeed, these canticles form an “inclusion” to the book. Thus, in David’s canticle God is praised for having kept the promises contained in Hannah’s canticle. For example, while Hannah says of the Lord that “He will guard the feet of His saints, but the wicked shall be silent in darkness” (1 Samuel 2:9), David will say of Him, “He makes my feet like the feet of deer” (2 Samuel 22:34) and “You enlarged my path under me; so my feet did not slip. I have pursued my enemies and destroyed them” (22:37–38). Once again, too, there is the shared image of the shrine or temple. Whereas Hannah’s canticle is chanted at the house of the Lord in Shiloh, David’s canticle says of the Lord, “He heard my voice from His temple” (22:7). This parallel is all the more striking inasmuch as the new temple has not yet been constructed.
Because the Davidic rise and reign form the substance of the Book of Samuel, these various parallels between the prayers of Hannah and David are hardly surprising. Indeed, Hannah ends her canticle with a promise and prophecy about David, saying of the Lord, “He will give strength to His king, and exalt the horn of His anointed” (1 Samuel 2:10). This theme is later taken up in David’s own canticle, which declares that God is “my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge” (2 Samuel 22:3).
We may observe, in this respect, that Hannah’s canticle near the beginning of Samuel serves much the same purpose as Mary’s Magnificat near the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, both of them introducing themes about the putting down of the mighty and the raising up of the lowly. In fact, one wonders if there has ever been written a commentary on the Magnificat that did not mention its many lines and sentiments shared with the canticle of Hannah.
(Taken from P. H. Reardon, Christ in His Saints)
Tuesday, February 3
Romans 7:13-25: Although the "I" in these verses represents the human experience generally considered, it would be wrong to assume that Paul is not speaking from personal experience. Very wrong. Paul knew on his own pulses what it was to offend God. He had offended God grievously. He had experie
nced the dilemma described in these verses. He was well aware what it meant to be a great sinner, even while meticulously observing the smallest parts of the Mosaic Law (Philippians 3:6; Galatians 1:13-14).
Indeed, it was Paul’s own strict adherence to the Law that had led him to the most serious sin of his life, the only personal sin on which he ever comments—the persecution of Christians. In Paul’s conversion he was made aware, in a way that he would never forget, that his endeavor to achieve righteousness by the observance of the Law had led him into his worst sin: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?”
It was in that experience of his conversion that he discerned "another law in my members, working against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members" (verse 23).
That is to say, it was his very zeal for the Law of God that had occasioned his worst sin against heaven. He had not been doing what he had intended to do (verse 15). Sin had taken over his life. He had been acting as a slave of sin. Thus, in his conversion Paul learned the experience common to all the children of Adam—namely, the radical inability to find justification before God without the reconciling grace of Christ.
No, this dilemma was not the fault of the Law. It was, rather, the manifestation of the power of sin in man’s very flesh, this flesh burdened with death. Sin is not in the Law; sin is in man’s very flesh, working through death (verses 13-15). Inherited sin is internal to man, which is why grace must become internal to man.
With his mind, then, man contemplates the Law, but it remains external to him. There is another "law" internal to man: the law of sin and death, the law that man really obeys (verse 19).
The dilemma that Paul describes here is well known to anyone who has "tried to be good," and moralists have often commented on it (Epictetus 1.26.4; Horace, Letters 1.8.11; Ovid, Metamorphosis 7.20-21; Dante, Purgatorio 21.105).
A man forced to do what he really doesn’t want to do is properly called a slave (verses 16,23; 6:13,19), and a man without Christ is certainly a slave to sin. This is the reign of death. It abides in man’s very flesh, which Paul calls "this body of death" (verse 24; 6:6; Philippians 3:21). As we have had occasion to remark more than once, "sin reigns in death." Death is the legacy left us by Adam. It reigns in our very bodies. It was to free us from death that Christ rose from the dead.
Verses 17 and 20 have occasionally been interpreted as excusing man from the responsibility for his sins. If this were the case, of course, man would not need a Savior. The whole of the Bible, however—and Paul especially—contends that the children of Adam are destined for eternal damnation, except for the mercy of God poured out in the reconciling blood of Christ. Sin is never excused. Sin is paid for.
Wednesday, February 4
Romans 8:1-11: Once again Paul begins with the "eschatological now" (verses 1,18; 3:26; 5:9; 7:6; 11:5; 16:26).
The "condemnation" of which we are free is the ancient "curse," the finality of death and corruption (Galatians 3:10; 2 Corinthians 3:7,9).
This section, which climaxes with the promise of God’s victory over death and corruption at the final raising of our bodies (verse 11), introduces a more extensive meditation on the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, hitherto referred to only five times in the previous seven chapters, will be named twenty-nine times in the present chapter, easily the highest concentration in all of Paul’s writings, and even in the whole New Testament.
The grace of justification—"this grace in which we stand" (5:2)—comes from the Holy Spirit who abides in us. Unlike the Law, by which we can never be justified, the Holy Spirit is internal to us (verse 2). The indwelling Holy Spirit is the reason of our final salvation, which is the resurrection of our bodies. Because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, they will rise again.
If, however, we go back to "live according to the flesh" (verse 5), this flesh which is still destined to die (verse 10), we place ourselves again under the reign of death.
Those who do so "cannot please God" (verse 8). And pleasing God is the summation of man’s moral duty (1 Corinthians 7:32; 2 Corinthians 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:15; 4:1). The grace of justification, therefore, places on the believer a most stern obligation to bring his mind and his conduct under "the things of the Spirit" (verse 5). Only thus will he be truly free of sin, death, and the Law (verse 4).
The word for "mind" in these verses is not nous, as in the previous chapter, but phronema, perhaps better translated as "mind set," or “frame of mind.” Paul is contrasting two kinds of consciousness and intentionality (verses 6-7,27). Outside of the four times here in Romans 8 (verses 6 [twice],7,27), phronema is not found in the New Testament. Also the verb form of this noun, phroneo, which means “to think on,” or “to set one’s mind on,” is found in Romans several times (8:5; 11:20; 12:3,16 [twice each]; 14:6 [twice]; 15:5). Romans is preeminently a book about how to think correctly on the subject of faith and justification.
Man’s real problem was not the Law, but man’s indwelling sin (7:22-23). Inasmuch as it remained external to man, the Law was unable to take away sin (verse 3). Man could not be justified by something that remained external to his being. The new, internal principle of his righteousness is the Holy Spirit, who dwells within him (verses 9-11; Jude 9). The requirement of the Law, that is to say, is "fulfilled in us"(verse 4) by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
God, therefore, does not simply declare the believer righteous; He makes the believer righteous. Because sin is internal to man, righteousness must be internal to man. Righteousness is not an act of God that remains only forensic and external. If that were the case, it would be no improvement over the Law.
In order for the Holy Spirit to be sent forth into our hearts, God first sent forth "His own Son" (ton Heavtou Huion) (verse 3; Galatians 4:4-6). This sending forth of the Son refers to the entire economy of the Incarnation, including all that the Son accomplished in this world, in the nether world, and in His glorious exaltation to heaven. The "mystery of Christ" is a single reality (3:24-25; 4:24-25; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21; Galatians 3:13).
Assuming the mortal flesh of our fallen race, Jesus experienced death, the curse of our sins, and thereby conquered sin, atoned for sin, and took away sin (Galatians 1:14; 1 Peter 3:18; Numbers 8:8). All of this Jesus did in human flesh, mortal flesh, like our own (en homoiomati).
The Spirit, then, is in the Christian, and the Christian is in the Spirit (verse 9). Remembering that the Greek word for "spirit," pneuma, means breath, the correct analogy is one of breathing. The air is in us only if we are in the air. The air and ourselves are mutually atmospheric. It is thus too with the Holy Spirit.
Finally, our bodies will rise from the dead because they are the temples of the Holy Spirit (verse 11). When we die, our souls leave our bodies and go to God. The Holy Spirit, however, does not leave our sanctified bodies. Even in their humiliation, their decay and dissolution, they remain the abiding place of the Holy Spirit, who will raise them up on the last day. The ultimate victory is over death.
Thursday, February 5
Romans 8:12-27: Hitherto we have considered how the Christian’s heart is sustained by his memory of the past, his recollection of what God has already done for him in Christ. Now, however, Paul will speak of the Christian’s encouragement by bearing in mind what God will yet do for him in the future. As we have had several occasions to observe, the vocabulary of salvation (such as "saved") in the Epistle to the Romans tends generally to be in the future tense. Man’s definitive salvation consists in the resurrection of his body, the final victory over the reign of death.
It was in man’s body, after all, that sin "reigned in death." Mortality was the essence of Adam’s legacy to us, the very embodiment of his sin. Salvation is not complete, therefore, until the resurrection of our bodies. Several years earlier Paul had argued that thesis in 1 Corinthians 15. He returns to it several times, as we have seen, in Romans, and he deals with it again in the present passage. The final object of the Christian hope, for Paul, is not even the soul’s departure to be with God in heaven. It is, rather, "the redemption of our body" (verse 23), this very body laid low by death, but from which the Holy Spirit refuses to depart (verse 11).
It is by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, or sonship (huiothesia—Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5), that we are made the children of God (verses 14-17). It is for this reason that the Lord’s Prayer, the "Our Father," is supremely the prayer of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we can only pray it in the Holy Spirit. It is only the Holy Spirit who gives us to say, "Abba, Father," just as it is only the Holy Spirit who gives us to say, "Jesus is Lord." Only in the Holy Spirit do we know the true identity of the Father and the Son.
The Holy Spirit both makes us the children of God and alters our consciousness so that we know ourselves to be the children of God (verse 16). The Holy Spirit, then, is the new, internal principle by which we are united to the Father and the Son in knowledge and in love.
But there are obstacles to the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and these must be resisted and overcome. The Christian must mortify, "put to death," whatever in himself is inimical and recalcitrant to the Holy Spirit (verse 13). This effort will involve a measure of suffering, which we unite, by intention, with the sufferings of Christ (verses 17-19,25).
This suffering pertains to the very birth pangs of Creation, for Creation too awaits the revelation of God’s glory in the resurrection of our bodies (verses 18-23). Just as the sin of Adam left the mark of death on all of Creation (Genesis 3:17), Christ’s final victory over death is the object of Creation’s hope and longing. Creation itself will be delivered from its "bondage of corruption" (verse 21). This physical corruption, this decay, was not part of God’s original plan. It is the mark of the reign of death, and it will be removed forever when Christ, at the end of time, returns to claim the bodies of the redeemed (1 Corinthians 15:23-28).
This final salvation of all Creation, which Paul speaks of here in Romans 8, will become a major theme—the recapitulation of all things in Christ—in his letters to the Colossians and Ephesians, written during the two years that he will soon spend in prison in Caesarea (Acts 24:27).
Although manuscripts vary on the
point, it appears that the words "the adoption" do not properly belong in verse 23 and should be left out. The expression is not found in the earliest papyrus copy of the text, and its insertion here, difficult to explain, seems at odds with the context.
Verse 24 is one of the few places in Romans where "saved" is in the past tense. It is significantly qualified by "in hope."
From his own experience as a man of prayer (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; cf. James 4:3), Paul knew that "we do not know what to pray for as we ought" (verse 26). The reference to the Spirit’s "intercession" is literally hyperentygchanei, a verb which originally meant "to interrupt," "to assume control of." That is to say, the Holy Spirit interrupts, He breaks into our prayer. He takes over and guides our prayer. He becomes the divine "over-voice." We do not hear Him, but God does.
The initial manifestation of this take-over by the Holy Spirit is found in the words "Abba, Father" and "Jesus is Lord," the two dogmatic affirmations that we can make only in the Holy Spirit. God recognizes what the Spirit implores in our prayer (verse 27). The words "Thy will be done," which are at least implicit in all Christian prayer, testify to our conviction that speaking to our Father in heaven invariably puts us in a realm beyond our comprehension. In Christian prayer there is always more going on than we know.
Friday, February 6
Romans 8:28-39: In this section Paul brings to a close—and to something of a climax—the second part of the Epistle to the Romans (chapters 5-8), on the theme of the Christian existence of those who have been justified in Christ.
In verse 28 there is a textual problem respecting the word "God," because the extant manuscripts vary on the matter. Depending on which manuscripts are followed (and sheer antiquity is not an adequate guide here, because the manuscripts come from various ancient Christian churches, and some textural mistakes seem to have been introduced rather early), the meaning of the passage is either "in everything God works for good with those who love Him," or "God makes everything work together for the good of those who love Him," or "everything works together for the good of those who love God." All of these readings testify to God’s providential control of events in the lives of those who love Him.
That is to say, this verse introduces the theme of Divine Providence, by which God brings mysterious influences to bear on the direction of history. Paul now inaugurates this theme. He will continue it through the rest of this chapter, and then in chapters 9-11 he will apply it directly to the historical situation that the early Christians were facing—namely, the rejection of the larger masses of the Jewish people with respect to the Gospel. Why did that happen? Paul’s response will be: Because God had in mind some greater good that would ensue. God is the Lord of history. He knows everything ahead of time. Knowing everything ahead of time, He quietly and mysteriously arranges and prearranges circumstances in order to bring about the greater good.
Thus, Paul will continue the ancient theme of God’s providential ability to bring good out of evil. This thesis, which will form the substance of his argument in chapters 9-11, is a common one in the Old Testament. It is obvious, for instance, in the stories of Joseph. Paul will appeal to its presence in the stories of Esau and Pharaoh.
God’s knowledge of the future is the basis on which He is able to arrange for those circumstances that will influence the course of events. The English biblical word for this divine activity is "predestination," which in context means "adjusting things ahead of time." In Holy Scripture this category always refers to God’s historical adjustment (the word is chosen with some trepidation, for we have no idea how the Lord does these things), based on the divine foreknowledge. It never means an eternal decree that imposes itself on history. The latter concept, which is quite unbiblical, did not appear until fairly late in Christian history, and it is has been the source of endless theological confusion.
Those who love God (or however else verse 28 is to be interpreted, as we saw above) are the "predestined" (verse 29), "those who are called according to His purpose" (verse 28). These "predestined and called" are not a separate category of Christians. The terms refer to the body of those who constitute the Church, the Christians who have responded to God’s initiatory love and call (1:6; 1 Corinthians 1:12).
This statement of Paul has nothing to do with anyone’s alleged predestination to heaven or hell. It is not a statement of theodicy. Although God certainly knows all things ahead of time, including each person’s eternal destiny, He does not predetermine those actions that lie within the realm of human freedom. Men make their own choices, for which they alone are held responsible. God foreknows these actions, but He does not predetermine them.
We do not understand how God influences the activities of history, but we do know that He never acts in such a way as to remove man’s freedom of choice. In the words of John of Damascus, "We should understand that while God knows all things beforehand, He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that wickedness should exist, nor does He choose to compel virtue" (De Fide Orthodoxa 2.30).
What, then, does Holy Scripture mean when it asserts that God "predestines"? The verb itself, proorizo, means "to arrange ahead of time. In the biblical context, where this verb appears with "foreknow" (proginosko, “to know ahead of time”), the verb signifies the providential arrangements by which He brings people to the grace of the Gospel. That is to say, predestination embraces the mysterious influences that God brings to bear on history, so that all things work together for the good of those who love Him.
This is very clear in the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. God made use of the sins of Joseph’s brothers to predestine—to arrange for—the deliverance of Joseph’s family: “And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God. . . . But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 45:7-8; 50:20).
“To predestine,” as understood in the Bible (where, in fact, the noun never appears) has no reference to any alleged divine decree whereby some people are consigned to heavenly life and others to everlasting damnation. On the contrary, God wills all men to be saved. Indeed, in the Bible, predestination does not refer to any divine decree at all. It is a description, rather, of God’s providential activity in history, working to bring good out of evil.
Nowhere, therefore, does Holy Scripture hint even faintly at a person’s "predestination to hell." In fact, this repulsive idea does violence to the Bible, in which predestination is always a category of grace, never of punishment. Predestination pertains invariably to the divine call, not the rejection of that call. It is always a description of the divine favor, not disfavor. It certainly does not include God’s arrangements to have someone damned.
In His providential guidance of history, God makes use of man’s sins. He never “prearranges” those sins nor wil
ls those sins; He does not, that is to say, predestine men to sin. Even less does God predestine anyone’s damnation. Damnation was never God’s idea, and the majestic sovereignty of God receives no glory from anyone’s eternal loss.
Moreover, the Bible never speaks of predestination except in relationship to Christ’s relationship to the Church. The foreknowledge and predestination of God is Paul’s way of describing the priority of divine grace in redemption and justification. The initiative is God’s, not ours. We foreknew nothing; we prearranged nothing. God has done it all. He knows and He determines, ahead of time, what form His work in history (including the history of each of us) will take.
Those who truly experience His grace are aware of themselves as known by God (1 Corinthians 8:3; 13:12), loved by God (1 John 4:19), chosen by God. When he speaks of predestination, Paul is describing the experience of life in the Christian Church. That is to say, it is an existential concept. It pertains to spiritual experience.
Consequently, it has no dogmatic content. One cannot say, “I am saved” the same sense he can say, “Jesus is Lord!” The latter is a dogmatic statement representing an absolute truth. The experience of being “predestined,” however, pertains only to the existential order. It cannot be an object of faith, and therefore it does not have the certainty of faith.
Christians, then, are "predestined to be conformed (symmorphous) to the image (eikon or icon) of His Son." That is to say, believers are summoned to share in Christ’s own relationship to the Father, so that Christ "might be the firstborn among many brethren." By divine grace—the infinite favor of God—they participate in the Son’s knowledge and love of the Father (Matthew 11:27), who regards them as His children, the younger brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ (John 2:17).
It is because these justified Christians have become, by virtue of their justification, "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) that they can, in utter truth, look into the face of God and say, "Our Father." They partake, already, of the divine glory (verse 30).
The purpose of these reflections, Paul says, is to bring hope and reassurance into our hearts. God will never back away from His grace and His call. For this reason, there is no force in heaven or on earth or under the earth that can separate us from the love of God in Christ (verses 31-39). God is permanently on our side. He will never betray us.
Moreover, if God has already given us His beloved Son, He will certainly give us everything else we need (verse 32; 1 Corinthians 3:22-23; Philippians 3:21). Paul has heard accusations brought against his Gentile converts, because the latter did not observe the works of the Mosaic Law. Paul will tolerate none of this criticism. These Christians have been justified through the grace of God received in faith, he says. Who dares to bring an accusation against them? (verses 33-34) And Paul’s defiance here includes Satan, that ancient accuser of the brethren.
Even less, then, will believers be accused by Christ Himself, whose blood purchased their redemption from the slavery of sin and death. Here Paul briefly mentions the Lord’s exaltation to the heavenly sanctuary, where He abides as our mediator and intercessor forever (verse 34; Hebrews 7:25; 9:24; 1 John 2:1; Revelation 5).
Likewise, those sufferings that Christians must sustain in the maintenance of their faith (verse 36) will not separate them from the love of Christ. Paul’s tone here is exhortatory as well as declaratory. That is to say, he declares that God will never be unfaithful to us, and he gently exhorts that we be never unfaithful to God.
The situation of the justified Christian may be likened to that of a man in a poker game, who has been dealt the royal flush. He did nothing to gain the royal flush. He did not work for it. It was freely given. He received it on the deal. He holds it in his hand. As long as he holds on to those cards, he cannot possibly lose, for no hand is greater than the royal flush. The one thing he must never do is to discard. All he must do is sit tight and keep a firm grip on those cards. No one, in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, can take them away from him.