God’s Foreknowledge and Election

Pastor John, isn’t Divine election (God’s choice to save sinners) based upon the fact that He knows everything, even the end from the beginning, and therefore knows ahead of time what man will choose? Though it is a choice made in eternity past, God simply chooses (elects) those He sees ahead of time will choose Him. Correct?

Thanks for your question. God certainly does know everything, including all the future actions of man, but the quick answer is “no,” election is not based on God’s foreknowledge of man’s choice.

Let me start by quoting two key texts:

“For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…” – Rom. 8:29

“chosen, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father…” 1 Pet. 1: 1, 2

These two texts are often used to suggest that because predestination and election are clearly based on God’s foreknowledge (which is a true statement in itself) then man’s choice is the deciding factor. The mistake made here is not to suggest foreknowledge comes before election (it clearly does) but in mistaking the meaning of foreknowledge and how it is used in Scripture.

Assumptions and misunderstandings abound concerning the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge. If we are to come to a biblical understanding of the subject, we need to apply diligence as we allow for the Holy Spirit to lead us into His truth.

All Christians believe in election and predestination. These are biblical words. The disagreement concerns the basis or grounds of election. In this regard, there are two main views held by Christians today:

1. THE ‘FOREKNOWLEDGE” OR PRESCIENT VIEW – (Pre – before; science – knowledge; i.e. before knowledge)

The Prescient view teaches that the election and predestination of an individual is based on God knowing ahead of time what a person will do (the view you state in your question). In this scheme, God merely chooses those whom He sees ahead of time will choose Him. It certainly seems, at least at first glance, to be a fair system. Though a very popular view, and one that I held for many a year, I now believe it to be entirely unbiblical.

Concerning this, Vincent Cheung writes: “The false view of election first takes foreknowledge to mean a passive prescience. That is, they take it to mean that God passively discovers what his creatures would decide in the future apart from his sovereign control, and then he makes a decision regarding the status of these creatures on the basis of this awareness. But this means that his decision regarding the status of these creatures is in a real sense determined by these creatures themselves, and the difference between these creatures and other creatures are in the creatures themselves, apart from God’s sovereign decision to make a distinction between them. It may be said that God is still the one who determines the principles by which men must be saved, but it is the men themselves who decide which ones would receive salvation. The problem with this view is that, even if we allow foreknowledge to mean a passive prescience, the argument remains incomplete and futile. This is because our opponents must establish something else as well, namely, that faith is not a gift from God, but that it is something generated by the creatures themselves. Otherwise, if faith is a sovereign gift from God as the Bible teaches, then for God to base election on foreseen faith would be just another way of saying that he bases election on what he himself will do in the future. That is, if God is the one who grants faith to whomever he chooses, and if men cannot generate faith in and by themselves, then whether foreknowledge refers to mere prescience does not make a pivotal difference for the doctrine of election. In this case, since God knows himself, since he knows his own plans and purposes, and since he knows his own decision regarding how and to whom he would distribute faith, it remains that election is based solely on God’s own sovereign will, and not any foreseen condition in the creatures. Therefore, it is not enough for opponents of the biblical doctrine to assert that foreknowledge means mere foresight or prescience, but they must also establish that faith is not a gift from God, and that men is willing and able to generate in and by themselves faith in Jesus Christ, and that even in their depraved condition, they are still willing and able to choose that which is so spiritually good, that is so against sin and unbelief, and that which is the opposite of their spiritual disposition.”

2. FOREKNOWING = FORELOVING. God, in Sovereign grace sets His love upon an individual and decides to do so without any consideration of foreseen faith or merit in the person.

What the two views agree on is that foreknowing comes before predestination. Romans 8:29 actually states this fact clearly. This is not an argument for either side and should in no way surprise us. God would need to foreknow a person He is going to predestinate to something. God does not predestinate unknown persons, but specific individuals whom He knows. In both systems, monergism and synergism, foreknowing would need to come before predestination. The real question then is “what exactly does it mean for God to foreknow somebody?”

To gain a correct biblical definition of this word “foreknew” (in Romans 8:29), rather than assume its meaning (which is what many do), we need to do some homework and study. When we do this, we find that the word does not merely mean to know future actions beforehand. It has a much more precise meaning. The word “foreknew” (Greek: proginosko) in Romans 8:29 is a verb rather than a noun. It is an action word, and as the text informs us, it is something done by God. What exactly does God do then? The text says “those whom He foreknew…”

But again, what exactly does this mean? We find the answer to this question by going to passages of scripture that have God as the subject of the verbal form, as here in this passage. This is because passages that have humans as the subject would differ substantially in their meaning from the ones where God is the subject, because, I am sure we will all agree, we as creatures “know” things on a very different basis to the way God does.

When we do this, here’s what we find. The verb proginosko is used three times in the New Testament with God as the subject – here in Romans 8:29, then also in Romans 11:2, and lastly in 1 Peter 1:20. This proves to be significant when we ask the question “what, or who is foreknown by God?”

In Romans 8:29, the direct object of the verb is a pronoun that refers back to the called of the previous verse (v. 28). In Romans 11:2 the object the verb is referring to is “His people,” and in 1 Peter 1:20, the object is Jesus Christ Himself.

Each reference then portrays God as foreknowing persons rather than actions. 1 Peter 1:20 says, “For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you.” When God foreknew Christ, did that mean that God simply knew that Jesus would make correct decisions or have faith in His Father? Hardly! It speaks of the Father’s personal intimacy and affection for His beloved Son.

To quote Dr. James White in this regard, “to say that God foreknows acts, faith, behavior, choices, etc, is to assume something about the term that is not witnessed in the biblical text. God foreknows persons not things.”

How does this relate to what we find in the Old Testament? Well there, we have a similar meaning to the word meaning of “foreknew” in the New Testament. This is the Hebrew word “yada.” It refers in a number of instances to God’s “knowing” of individuals. For instance in Jeremiah 1:5, God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Dr. White comments, “Here God’s knowledge of Jeremiah is clearly personal. It is paralleled with the term “consecrated” and “appointed,” pointing us toward the element of “choice.” This knowledge of Jeremiah is not limited to time. In some manner, God “knew” Jeremiah before Jeremiah came into existence.”

We see this same concept in God’s “knowing” of Moses. Exodus 33:17 – “The LORD said to Moses, “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight and I have known you by name.” Again we see the personal nature of God’s knowing of an individual. This refers to a personal intimacy and affection God had for Moses in that he had found favor in the eyes of the Lord. God had chosen Moses to be a recipient of His tender mercy.

I’ll quote just one more passage where we see this word yada used to refer to God possessing a personal intimacy and affection. Amos 3:2 in speaking of Israel says, “You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth; Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.”

The NASB actually translates yada as “chosen,” here, and there is a very strong basis by way of context for this word to be translated in this way. Literally it says, “You only (speaking of Israel) have I known…” It should be obvious to us that God didn’t merely know about Israel, and possessed no such knowledge of other nations, nor that merely God knew the future actions of Israel, and didn’t know the future actions of the other nations. This “knowing” of Israel is deeply personal and intimate and speaks of God’s grace in choosing them to be His people for His Sovereign purposes alone. The word yada is used also in Genesis 4:1 when it says that Adam “knew” his wife Eve. The result of this “knowing” was a child, lets remember – revealing a deep personal relationship.

This is important because it establishes a consistent pattern: understanding how the verb is used in the New Testament, along with these insights from the Old, provides a very strong basis for understanding what foreknew actually means.

Dr. White states, “When Paul says, “those whom He foreknew” Paul is speaking about an action on God’s part that is just as solitary, just as God-centered, and just as personal as every other action in the string: God foreknows (chooses to enter into relationship with); God predestines; God calls; God justifies; God glorifies. From first to last it is God who is active, God who accomplishes all these things.”

“Foreknew” therefore does not merely suggest “a passive gathering of infallible knowledge of the future actions of free creatures” but rather reveals that from start to finish, salvation is a Divine accomplishment, for it is God and God alone who saves, to the praise of His glory alone.

To quote Dr. James Montgomery Boice in his comments on Romans 8:29, “the verse does not say that God foreknew what certain of his creatures would do. It is not talking about human actions at all. On the contrary, it is speaking entirely of God and of what God does. Each of these five terms is like that: God foreknew, God predestined, God called, God justified, God glorified. Besides, the object of the divine foreknowledge is not the actions of certain people but the people themselves. In this sense it can only mean that God has fixed a special attention upon them or loved them savingly.”

I believe this then is the scriptural answer to the question, but before we move on, lets also look at this from a logical perspective. Many believe in the Prescient view of foreknowledge, but this position does not answer the challenge of what God knew from eternity.

What do I mean? Well, as John Hendryx has stated, “if God knew someone would choose hell even before He created them, then this was a fixed certainty (even before their creation), so why did God go ahead and create them? It was obviously, in their view, still within His Providence that these people be lost… or if God already foreknew who would be saved then how can they continue to argue that He is trying to save every man? Certainly God already knows who the persons will be, so why should He send the Holy Spirit to those He knows will reject him.” Ultimately, when this view is subjected to scrutiny, it logically undermines the very position it is seeking to assert.

And… if we still need further evidence, lets just read on from Romans 8:29, to verse 30…”…those whom he called he also justified”.

Question: How many of those whom He called did He justify? There is only one answer: ALL.

Again, as John Hendryx states so well, “If God justifies ALL the persons he calls, it proves beyond all doubt that grace is what sets us apart from other men, not our faith. The grace God exerts in saving us is effectual. We love him because he first loved us. God’s call comes prior to justification, and all who receive that call believe.”

“But,” say others, “God elected them on the foresight of their faith.” Now, God gives faith, therefore he could not have elected them on account of faith, which he foresaw. There shall be twenty beggars in the street, and I determine to give one of them a shilling; but will any one say that I determined to give that one a shilling, that I elected him to have the shilling, because I foresaw that he would have it? That would be talking nonsense. In like manner to say that God elected men because he foresaw they would have faith, which is salvation in the germ, would be too absurd for us to listen to for a moment. – C. H. Spurgeon

2 thoughts on “God’s Foreknowledge and Election

  1. Hey John, I love what you had to say about faith and linking it to monergism, but I have a question about the paragraph where you commented on Rom. 8:29 and 1 Pet. 1: 1, 2,

    “These two texts are often used to suggest that because predestination and election are clearly based on God’s foreknowledge (which is a true statement in itself) then man’s choice is the deciding factor. The mistake made here is not to suggest foreknowledge comes before election (it clearly does) but in mistaking the meaning of foreknowledge and how it is used in Scripture.”

    I was under the impression the traditional reformed perspective concerning foreknowledge and predestination was that one does not precede the other, since they both have been in the mind of God from eternity past. If they both have been in the mind of God from eternity past, then that pretty much squashes any possibly to argue that God predestines the elect based on His foreknowledge since something that has always been can not be based on something else. Am I wrong about that being the traditional reformed perspective?

    Also, in regards to 1 Pet. 1: 1, 2, I was also under the impression that a more literal translation of verse is, “in harmony with” rather than “according to”?

  2. Hi Perry,

    I am not aware of “the traditional reformed perspective” regarding the point you are making.

    I would certainly agree that both foreknowledge and predestination have been in the mind of God from eternity past. God has absolute and total knowledge of all things. Yet it is God Himself who says that “those whom He foreknew, He also predestined…” The group that He foreknew are predestined (for something). I believe this refers to a logical order rather than perhaps a temporal one (timewise), but it is an order, nontheless.

    God sets His love on a particular people (these whom He foreknew) and assigns them a predetermined destiny (He predestined), namely that of full salvation and glorification, as the rest of the Golden Chain makes clear.

    I am not aware of the idea of 1 Peter 1:1, 2 being translated as “in harmony with.” The Greek expression is usually translated as “according to” which is why most translations read that way. Do you know of a translation that reads “in harmony with”? I do not.

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