Finally, allow me to defend the doctrines of grace exegetically. I will briefly examine John 3:1-8, John 6:35-45, John 10:14-30, Romans 8:28-39, Romans 9:1-24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Ephesians 2:1-10, and 1 Peter 1:1-9 in order to prove that the doctrines of grace are not only biblical, but that they are, in fact, utterly and totally clear. To argue that these doctrines are not clear in Scripture, or that God Himself wanted to leave these issues open to all sorts of differing interpretations is completely irresponsible, given the exegesis that follows.
Many more passages of Scripture could be examined. We could look to the manifold evidence in the Old Testament of man’s ruin in sin and inability to do that which pleases God (cf. Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Deuteronomy 29:2-4; 1 Samuel 24:13; 2 Chronicles 6:36; Job 14:1; 15:14; Psalm 5:9; 51:5; 58:3; 143:2; Ecclesiastes 7:29; 9:3; Isaiah 48:8; 53:6; 64:6; Jeremiah 10:7-8, 14; 13:23; 17:9; Ezekiel 36:22-23; Micah 7:2-4). We could also look in the Old Testament to find that God is free and powerful to save whomever He wills (cf. Genesis 50:20, 24; Exodus 3:7-8; 6:6-8; 9:16; 12:51; 19:5-6; 33:19; Deuteronomy 6:6-10; 10:15; 14:2; 26:19; Psalm 3:8; 37:39; 62:1-2, 7; Isaiah 43:4-7, 11; 45:21; 63:9; Jeremiah 3:23; 31:3; Hosea 11:1; 13:4; Amos 3:2; Jonah 2:9; Malachi 1:2-3). But for now, let us limit our exegesis solely to passages from the New Testament.
John 3:1-10 details the famous interaction between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. The latter approaches Jesus at night and says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (v. 2). Jesus’ response is, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3). Nicodemus was taken aback by Jesus’ answer, and he was probably confused, because he then asked, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4). Nicodemus assumes that Jesus is referring here to physical birth, but that is not what Jesus has in mind. Jesus responded, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5).
So we need to take stock of a few things so far. Twice Jesus has said that unless one is born again, which is the same thing as being born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter or even see the kingdom of God. The key question here is, “What does it mean to be born again, to be born of water and the Spirit?” We know that it does not refer to the water of physical birth since Jesus goes on to say, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6). Jesus is making a categorical distinction between the flesh and the Spirit, so we know that his reference to water here is not a reference to the physical water of birth.
Furthermore, this is probably not a reference to Christian baptism since that subject has not been broached up to this point in John’s Gospel, nor does it appear in the immediate context, nor even would it be instituted until after Jesus rose from the dead (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). Rather, Jesus’ reference to being born of “water and the Spirit” is probably a reference to Ezekiel 36:25-27, where God says to His people, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean . . . And I will give you a new heart . . . And I will put my Spirit within you.” The point of this passage is that God Himself will cleanse and renew His people, “causing [them] to walk in His statutes” (v. 27). Furthermore, God says, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name” (v. 22). So the passage in Ezekiel is dealing with God’s freedom and power to save His people. That is the background of the statements made by Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3:3-5.
This view is then confirmed by Jesus when Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” (v. 9), and Jesus responds, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (v. 10). The point that Jesus is making is that his statements here not a new teaching, nor do they refer to something that Nicodemus would not have known, like Christian baptism. Rather, the statements here come from the Old Testament, something a “teacher of Israel” should have known. What this means is that Jesus’ statements here, like those in Ezekiel 36, are not about physical birth but about spiritual birth. This points out the fact that it is God, by His Spirit, who gives the new birth. This is also confirmed by the fact that the phrase “born again” could just as easily mean “born from above.”
So what Jesus is doing in v. 6 (“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”) is setting up a contrast between what the flesh can do and what the Spirit can do. He goes on to say, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (vv. 7-8). The point Jesus makes here is that the Spirit is the one who gives the new birth. That’s what “born of the Spirit” means. But then the question comes, “How exactly is one born of the Spirit?”
In the context, Jesus gives the answer: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (v. 8). The point is that the Spirit is free to give life to whom He wills. Just like no one can control the wind and cause it to blow one way or the other, no one can control the Spirit and cause Him to give new life. Just as the wind is free to blow where it wishes, so too the Spirit is free to give life to whom He wishes. In a word, God is free to save whom He wills.
Furthermore, the imagery Jesus uses of being “born again” is telling. We know that he must be talking about the freedom of God to save whom He wills. This is called “regeneration,” literally “recreation.” It is God who is the only actor here. God is the one who regenerates His people, who makes them born again. We know this because we cannot “recreate” ourselves. We cannot make ourselves “born again.” Just as we did not cause ourselves to be born the first time, so too we do not cause ourselves to be born the second time, or again.
What this means is that regeneration must precede our faith. We must be born again before we can believe. Our faith cannot be the cause for our being born again because that turns the metaphor on its head. Rather, the context clearly demonstrates that the Spirit is free to grant life to whom He will. He is free to cause us to be “born again.” God is free to “give you a new heart,” to “remove the heart of stone from our flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). This passage clearly teaches the freedom and power of God to save those whom He will.
Historically regeneration has been a synonym for the I of TULIP, “irresistible grace.” The point of irresistible grace, which is the same as the point Jesus makes in John 3:1-10, is that the saving grace of God cannot be resisted forever. If He is truly free to save whom He will, that means He is free to overcome our sinful rebellion and grant us grace whenever He chooses. That’s what it means to be “born from above.” It is God who causes us to be born again, not because of anything we can do (like our faith). This must be the case (regeneration must precede faith) because if we need to be born by the Spirit to see and enter the kingdom of heaven, it logically follows that we could not have done anything to cause the Spirit to make us born again. How could you do anything physically good before you are physically born? And how could you do anything spiritually good before you are born by the Spirit? Rather, let us praise God that He has taken out our heart of stone, giving us a heart of flesh, causing us to be born again by His Spirit.
John 6:35-45 contains these famous words from Jesus: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (v. 35). Thus we see that those who come to Jesus, those who believe in him, will be satisfied. He himself will be their bread. But then he goes on to say, “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe” (v. 37). There are people standing in Jesus’ presence who do not come to him, who do not believe in him. In the context, the group of people near him are the same ones he fed when he fed the five thousand men (6:1-15). That night, Jesus walked on water (6:16-21) to the other side of the sea. The next morning, “when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus” (6:24).
Then, once they find him, Jesus says to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (6:26). In effect, the crowd is following Jesus not for Jesus’ sake, but solely so that they can have their felt needs met. They didn’t want Jesus; they only wanted the gifts that Jesus could give them. They received the bread that he gave to them the previous day but missed the fact that he himself is the “bread of life” (v. 35). So when Jesus says, “you have seen me and yet do not believe,” (v. 36), he really means that they do not have genuine faith in him. They do not come to him as the bread of life, but only as a kind of butler who can fulfill their immediate needs.
Now we must ask: Why do some people not believe? If it’s true that whoever comes to Jesus, whoever believes in him, will find all their satisfaction in him, why do some people not come to him, not believe in him? How can it be the case that Jesus is the “bread of life” yet there are some who “have seen [him] and yet do not believe” (v. 36)? Jesus answers these questions with this statement: “All that the Father gives to me will come to me” (v. 37). This statement functions as an answer because it points out the necessary condition which causes someone to come to Jesus, namely the giving of the Father. The reason that people come to Christ is because the Father has given those people to Christ. The Father’s act of giving comes before our act of coming to Christ. Notice the phrasing of the text: “All that the Father gives to me will come to me.” All of God’s chosen people will believe in Christ. The reason that some do not believe is because they are not chosen by God to believe. But all of those who are chosen, all of those whom the Father has given to Christ, will believe in Christ without fail.
So when Jesus says, “you have seen me and yet do not believe” (v. 36) and then says, “All that the Father has given me will come to me” (v. 37), he is clearly saying that the unbelieving Jews before him do not believe because they have not been given to Christ by the Father. They have not been chosen to come to Christ, to believe in him. This is the U of TULIP, unconditional election. The point is that God saves sinners, not because they believe in Christ, but in order that they believe in him. And that is the exact teaching in v. 37: people come to Christ, not in order to be chosen by God, but because they are chosen by God. Predestination, understood biblically, is just the teaching that God’s love for us is not conditioned by anything in us, whether it’s who we are or what we can do; rather, God’s love for us comes out of His free grace and love toward us in Christ. But we also see the I of TULIP, irresistible grace. Those whom the Father has chosen will come to Christ. It is impossible for God’s saving grace to fail to redeem a single one of God’s chosen people; all of them will come to believe in Christ.
Jesus continues: “and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (v. 37). This clause demonstrates that those who believe in Christ will never be rejected by him. The Jews in front of him cannot think: perhaps I am not chosen. If I come to Christ I will be rejected. They cannot think that because all who come to Christ, all who believe in him, will never be rejected. They will never be cast out. It simply is not the case that there are people out there who genuinely want to believe in Christ but nevertheless are not chosen and so cannot. All who genuinely want to believe, all those who do actually believe, will never be rejected by Christ. So if we put the whole verse together, “All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out,” we see why those who come to Christ will never be cast out: they have been chosen by the Father to believe in Christ! The first reason that Christ will not reject those who come to him is because the Father has given them to Christ. The Father has chosen a specific people and given them to Christ, not because they believed but in order that they should believe. That’s why Christ will never cast them out.
Furthermore, Jesus says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me” (v. 38). The word “for” indicates that Jesus is explaining why it is that he will never cast out those who believe in him. So the second reason that believers will never be cast out is because Christ has come to do the will of the Father. And what is that will? Jesus answers, “that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (v. 39). So those who come to Christ, those who believe in him, will not be cast out because it is the Father’s will that Jesus loses none of them. And not only will he not lose any of them, but he will raise the entire group, all those whom the Father has given him, on the last day.
This is further explained when Jesus says that the will of the Father is that “everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (v. 40). Those who look on the Son, which as we have seen are those who have been given by the Father to Christ, have eternal life and will be raised up on the last day. None of them will be rejected. None of them will be lost precisely because Christ himself will fulfill the will of the Father and save His chosen people. This points out both the L and the P in TULIP, limited atonement and perseverance of the saints. We will discuss limited atonement in more detail in John 10:14-30, but for now it must be said that Christ does not, indeed cannot, fail to fulfill the will of his Father. The fact that the will of the Father is that Christ should lose none of all that He has given to him should be an incredible comfort to our souls. And this is all that limited atonement is meant to safeguard. The work of Christ on the cross does not merely make it possible for people to be saved, but it actually saves those for whom it was intended. The will of the Father is that Christ should lose none of the elect. And since Christ cannot fail to fulfill the will of the Father, none of the elect will be lost.
And now we see the intimate relationship between limited atonement and perseverance of the saints. If it is indeed true that Christ’s work actually saves the elect, then it must be equally true that the elect will never fully nor finally fall away from saving grace. If the elect could ultimately fall away, then the work of Christ does not actually save them. If you have one truth, you must have the other. If it is true that the will of the Father is that Christ should “lose nothing of all that He has given him,” then it must also be true that Christ will “raise it up on the last day” (v. 39). Those who think that our salvation can be lost must necessarily think that Christ could somehow fail to fulfill the will of the Father. But since we know that Christ and his work will not fail to accomplish all that the Father intends to accomplish by it, we know that our salvation cannot be lost. Christ will not fail. He will “lose nothing” of all the Father has given him. He will raise us up on the last day.
The Jews then “grumbled about him, because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’” (v. 41). They think they know who Jesus is, and it offends them that he calls himself the “bread of life.” They ask, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” (v. 42). The Jews basically question the identity of Jesus and ask questions related to his origins. How could he possibly be the “bread from heaven” if we know who his parents are?
But then, “Jesus answered them, ‘Do not grumble among yourselves” (v. 43). Jesus knows they are grumbling. He knows that what he has been saying offends them. Yet he is about to say something even more offensive to them. He continues, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (v. 44). In effect, Jesus is saying that humans do not have the ability to come to him, to believe in him, unless God the Father causes them to believe. It’s not merely the case that people do not come apart from God’s drawing, but that they cannot. Jesus here teaches what would come to be known as the T in TULIP, total depravity. A better name for it might be “moral inability,” which is the truth that fallen humans are morally unable to believe in Christ because they are dead in their trespasses and sins.
Most Christians I know are thoroughly enamored with the idea of “free will,” despite the fact that Jesus here teaches precisely the opposite truth. We do not actually have free will in the sense that we can either choose to come to God or choose to refrain from coming to Him. If we did have free will in that sense, it would mean that we could actually come to Christ apart from the Father’s work of drawing. But Jesus says that no one can come to him, meaning that they do not have the free will ability to believe in him.
Notice also that Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (v. 44). The second clause teaches that all those who are drawn by the Father will be raised up by Jesus on the last day. We saw previously that Jesus accomplishes the Father’s will in that he loses nothing of all the Father has given him, and here we see that those whom the Father draws, the Son raises to eternal life. This means that if you are drawn by the Father, you will be raised by the Son. This points out the relationship between the I and the P of TULIP. The drawing of the Father here is irresistible; it accomplishes precisely what God intends to accomplish. No sinner can withstand the saving grace of God, but rather is made willing to believe in Christ when God draws him. And we see that those who are drawn by the Father will be preserved to the end, they will persevere in faith and obedience, and that Jesus himself will raise them on the final day. And since we know that not everyone will be raised by the Son to eternal life, we know that the Father does not draw everyone. Rather, He draws all those who He has given to Christ (cf. v. 37).
What we have now seen is that all five petals of the infamous TULIP acronym are clearly present in John 6:35-45. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (v. 44) signals total depravity. “All that the Father gives to me will come to me” (v. 37) signals both unconditional election (in that the Father gives a specific people to the Son) and irresistible grace (in that those whom the Father has chosen will come to Christ). Jesus says he comes down from heaven to do the Father’s will, which is “that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (v. 39), and this signals both limited atonement (in that the work of Christ actually saves those whom the Father has given him) and perseverance of the saints (in that Christ will not fail to accomplish the Father’s will, but instead will raise up all the elect of God to eternal life on the final day). Praise God that even when we could not believe in Christ, He has drawn us by His irresistible power. Praise God that He gave us to His Son, not because we had believed, but in order that we would. Praise God that we have a powerful Savior, one whose work for us actually saves us and will not fail. Praise God that He is totally capable of keeping us from falling, being able to raise us up on the last day.
John 10:14-30 contains Jesus’ famous words: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (vv. 14-15). Jesus is using a figure of speech here to point out the fact that he is a faithful master, one who intimately knows and loves his people. He loves them so much, in fact, that he lays down his life for them. This is an obvious reference to the cross, and it points out the L in TULIP, limited atonement. Jesus lays down his life for his people, his sheep. Jesus also says that his sheep are not among the Jews only, but that he has “other sheep who are not of this fold” whom he must also bring, who will listen to his voice. This is a reference to the Gentiles who will come to faith in Christ. The result of Jesus laying down his life for the sheep is that “there will be one flock, one shepherd” (v. 16). So the death of Christ actually accomplishes the salvation of all of his people, from both the Jews and the Gentiles, and makes them into one people. They were once separate peoples, but now, because of the death of Christ, they are made into one people (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22).
After Jesus says these words, “There was again a division among the Jews” (John 10:19). Eventually they grow tired of speculating (vv. 20-21) and ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (v. 24). Apparently they are tired of Jesus not being straightforward with them about his identity, so they confront him and want him to tell them who he really is. Jesus then responds, “I told you, and you do not believe” (v. 25). Despite how irritated the Jews are about Jesus not telling them his identity, he plainly responds by saying that he has, in fact, told them who he is. He says, “The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me” (v. 25). All of the miracles he has performed to this point of John’s Gospel (like turning the water to wine [2:6-11], healing the official’s son [4:46-54], healing the man on the Sabbath [5:2-9], feeding the five thousand [6:2-14], walking on water [6:16-21], and healing a man born blind [9:1-7]) serve as the loudest possible declaration: Jesus is the Christ.
So Jesus has told them that he is the Christ, yet they do not believe. Why is that? Why is it the case (again) that there are people who have been with Jesus, seen his signs, heard his words, and yet still do not believe that he is the Christ? Jesus answers, “You do not believe because you are not among my sheep” (John 10:26). The reason, according to Jesus, that there are people who have seen the clearest evidences of his identity but still do not believe is because in order to believe you must be a sheep. Note clearly that believing in Christ is a result, not the cause, of being one of his sheep. No one believes in order to become a sheep; rather, we believe because we are his sheep.
This strongly implies both the U and the I in TULIP, unconditional election and irresistible grace. Unconditional election safeguards the biblical teaching that God is always and everywhere the initiator of our salvation. Thus, He makes us sheep and then we believe. The connection with irresistible grace is seen in that it follows logically from unconditional election. Those whom God has made sheep will believe in Christ for salvation. Not a single one of them will fail to believe in Christ, and this happens by God’s irresistible grace.
Furthermore, we see that there are two groups of people Jesus has in mind here. First, we have his sheep, as we have seen. But then second, we have those who are not among his sheep. Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and his sheep come from among both Jews and Gentiles. But there are those who are not among his sheep, and for that reason they do not believe. It should also be noted that since there are two groups of people (sheep and non-sheep), and since Christ lays down his life for his sheep, it follows that Christ does not lay down his life for the non-sheep. This points out the L in TULIP again, the teaching that the intention behind Christ’s death was to save his sheep, not every single person who has ever or will ever live. If God did intend for the death of Christ to save every person, then either we would have universalism (the teaching that everyone will be saved), or we would have a Christ who actually fails to accomplish the Father’s will since some of those for whom he died will not ultimately be saved. And since we know that neither of those options is biblical, we conclude that God did not intend to save every person by the death of Christ. Rather, with this text, we say that God intended for Christ to “lay down his life for the sheep” (v. 11).
According to Jesus, a distinguishing factor of the sheep is that they “hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (v. 27). Jesus points out that he has an intimate knowledge of and love for his sheep, and in turn, his sheep follow him. Jesus also says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (v. 28). There are several things to examine here. First, Jesus says that he gives his sheep eternal life. This signals that the passage is talking about the doctrine of salvation. The illustrations Jesus uses throughout this passage (like him as the good shepherd and his people as the sheep) are salvific illustrations, pictures related to our salvation. This substantiates the view that Jesus laying down his life for the sheep is actually a reference to his death on the cross.
Second, Jesus does not say that he only makes eternal life available to them, but that he gives it to them. Many evangelicals think that when God gives us the gift of salvation, it’s still up to us to accept that gift. But this text denies that claim. Jesus here says that he gives his people eternal life. It’s not merely something that he makes available to them, waiting for them to exercise their faith in order to accept the gift. Rather, he gives it to them. This points out his sovereign power to give “life to whom he will” (5:21). Salvation truly is a gift of God’s grace in Christ towards undeserving rebels. God doesn’t wait for us to accept the gift (by faith) before he saves us. He gives us eternal life. This is the I of TULIP, irresistible grace. It’s the truth that God’s grace in Christ is invincible, unstoppable. The Holy Spirit is fully capable of overcoming our rebellion, applying the benefits of Christ’s atoning work to us whenever He sees fit.
Third, one of the effects of Jesus giving his sheep eternal life is that they will never perish. Eternal life can never be taken away, precisely because it is eternal. Jesus does not give his people “temporary” life, but eternal life. This strongly implies the P of TULIP, perseverance of the saints. Those who follow Christ, those who have eternal life, will never perish. If one of them perished, Christ would not be the “good shepherd.” This means that the gift of eternal life is permanent. It cannot be taken away. When God saves a person, He will not suffer them to be lost.
This is exactly what Christ declares in the next verse: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (10:29). Here we see again that the Father has given a specific people to Christ (cf. 6:35-45). But notice also the straightforward declarations by Jesus here: “no one will snatch them out of my hand” and “no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” Those whom the Father has given to the Son will not be snatched out of the Father’s hand precisely because “no one is able to” since the Father is “greater than all.” There could not possibly be a stronger statement of perseverance of the saints, the P in TULIP. The elect of God will persevere in faith and obedience to the very end because God the Father will preserve them.
Here it’s important to answer a common objection. It goes something like this: “Well sure, no one can snatch us out of God’s hand, but that doesn’t mean we can’t jump out!” Despite how ludicrous it may sound, it’s actually quite common. But surely if God is “greater than all,” that means He is greater than us. And if no one is able to snatch us out of His hand, then He is surely capable of ensuring that we do not jump out. Imagine God being “greater than all” yet unable to stop His beloved people, those who were chosen in Christ from all eternity and for whom Christ died, from jumping out of His hand. Such an imagination is just that: an imagination.
Christians everywhere rejoice that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). For many, this is the greatest promise in all of Scripture. The supreme God of heaven and earth, the One “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things” (11:36), the One who “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11), the One who will not allow “anything else in all creation” to separate us from His love “in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39), this God, whom we worship, is the One who works all things together for our good. What an astonishing promise!
What this means is that everything that happens to us in our Christian life is designed by God for our good. Everything. When the Bible says that all things work together for good, it means that literally everything that happens to us, everything we go through in our lives, works for our good. From the beginning of our new birth until we draw our final breath before beholding the full glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, “all things work together for good.” What a promise. That’s where we rest our hope. That’s how we make it, or rather, how God by His sovereign power ensures that we make it.
But what exactly is the “good” mentioned here in this verse? It’s incredible to know all things work together for our good, but we must also consider what that “good” actually is. What could it mean? For starters, we know for certain that the “good” in this text cannot be any kind of material prosperity, for Paul later asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (vv. 35-36, emphasis added).
So, contra popular opinion, the “good” cannot mean that we will be happy, healthy, and wealthy all our days. When we think of the “good” here we must also hold in our minds that the “good” apparently includes things like intense suffering (“tribulation”), anxiety (“distress”), oppression (“persecution”), hunger (“famine”), lack of material possessions (“nakedness”), and being in a state of peril (“danger” and “sword”). So what, then, is the “good”?
Romans 8:29 provides our answer: “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.” The word “for” signals to us that Paul is going to make an argument which explains his previous statement. So in this case what Paul is saying is, “the reason that ‘all things work together for good’ is that God foreknew and predestined His people to be conformed to the image of His Son.” The reason we know that all things work for our good is because God has always been doing good to us, making sure that we become more and more like Jesus Christ. So the “good” in this text means being transformed to be like Christ. We could say that “all things work together to ensure that we become more like Jesus Christ.”
Now, to whom does this promise apply? Who is it exactly that can say, “Yes! All things work together for my good, to make me more like Jesus”? Does it apply to all people? Or is there a specific group of people in mind?
The answer to 99% of biblical/theological questions will be solved if we just keep reading, and that rule applies here. The full text of Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” So, then, to whom does this promise apply? It applies to those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose, which, as we’ve seen, is to conform them to the image of His Son. In other words, this promise, the promise that all things work together for good, does not apply to all people, but only to Christians: those whom God has called according to His purpose.
“But God calls everyone,” someone might object, “and therefore this promise does apply to all people.” Yet the text does not and cannot mean this. The reason is because the ones who are called according to God’s purpose are the same ones whom God “foreknew” and “predestined” to be conformed to the image of His Son. “And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified” (v. 30). The promise of all things working together for good applies to those who are called according to God’s purpose, and those who are called are also justified and also glorified. What that means is that this promise applies only to Christians. It cannot apply to all people because not all people are justified and glorified, but only Christians. So for those who call upon the name of Christ in genuine faith, and for those only, all things truly work together for good, ensuring that they become more and more like Christ.
Finally, we need to ask perhaps the most important questions. What is the foundation of this promise? How do we know for certain that this promise will come true? How can we trust that God will really work all things together to make sure that we become more and more like Christ?
The answer to these questions is crucial for the Christian life. We need to know and rejoice in the fact that God works all things together for our good. When we’ve had a terrible week at work, when our family members have soul-crushing health problems, when the family dog passes away, when we feel utterly distressed about the happenings in our lives, we need this solid ground upon which to stand. We need to know that all things, even the most difficult things we go through, really do work together for our good. So how we answer this question really matters.
We know that all things work together for our good because this promise rests on the absolute sovereignty of God to foreknow, predestine, call, justify, and glorify His people (v. 30). The greatest promise in all of Scripture rests on the rock-solid foundation of the sovereign power of God: His freedom and power to save sinners according to the good pleasure of His will (cf. Ephesians 1:5). Those people upon whom God has set His electing love, those whom He has chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, those whom He has called by His irresistible power to believe in His Son, those whom He has declared righteous because of the righteousness of Christ counted to them, those whom God glorified (the unshakable certainty of our glorification is seen here by the fact that the verb is in the past tense), those are the ones who can say that all things work together for their good.
And what a tremendous comfort it is to know that “those whom God predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified” (v. 30). This has been called the “Golden Chain of Redemption.” The passage mentions five links in the chain of our salvation: foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. God’s foreknowledge should not be viewed here as merely God looking forward down the corridors of time to see who would believe in Him, but should rather be seen as His initiating love for His people. (See passages where God’s knowledge is equated with His love: Genesis 4:1; 18:19; Jeremiah 1:5; Amos 3:2)
But even if we don’t take the view that God’s foreknowledge here is the same as His love, the text still does not support the view that God viewed certain people believing and then predestined them for salvation on that basis. There are several reasons for this: 1) the concept of faith is completely absent from the context; 2) the fact that God predestined His people to be conformed to the image of His Son makes absolutely no sense unless He first knew them; 3) the burden of Paul’s argument in this passage is to demonstrate the absolute freedom and power of God to save His people. That’s why he immediately asks this rhetorical question: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (v. 31).
Predestination refers to God’s choosing of certain sinners to be saved (in the context “conformed to the image of His Son,” v. 29). Predestination is a major link in our salvation, which is seen in the fact that those who are predestined are also called, justified, and glorified. God ensures that those whom He predestined will actually come to faith, be justified, and eventually be glorified. Calling here refers to effectual calling, otherwise known as irresistible grace. This is the case because those who are called are justified and glorified. We know that the gospel invitation is universal in the sense that it is preached to all people. But since not all people who hear the gospel believe and are justified, we know that calling here cannot mean the universal offer of the gospel, otherwise everyone who heard the universal offer of the gospel would believe, be justified, and be glorified.
Justification refers to God declaring His people righteous before Him on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. And glorification refers to the biblical teaching that we will receive glorified bodies upon resurrection. The important thing to notice about the Golden Chain is that the same group of people is in view the entire time: “those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” All of those whom God foreknew are predestined, called, justified, and glorified. Not one of them is lost. No one leaves the train early. They all make it to the destination. What a comfort it is to know that our salvation is invincibly secure.
Paul then asks these questions: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (v. 31). These questions indicate that Paul is about to draw some practical implications for the Roman Christians. He has already declared that “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (8:28). He has also proclaimed that those whom God foreknew, He also predestined, called, justified, and glorified (cf. v. 30). And now, at this point in his argument, Paul is making another point: Since God works all things together for our good, and since our salvation is invincibly secure, no one can be ultimately against us. God has been working to save us, to make us more and more like His Son, Jesus Christ, from before the foundation of the world (“foreknew” and “predestined” from vv. 29-30; cf. Ephesians 1:4-5). He has called us by His Spirit, made us into His people, and declared us righteous because of the work of Christ (cf. Romans 8:30). He will preserve us to the very end, at which time He will glorify us (v. 30), fully transform us into the image of His Son (v. 29), and present us to Himself “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that we might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). From the beginning, in the middle, and to the end, our salvation is truly all of God’s glorious grace. And since this is the case, no one can be ultimately against us (Romans 8:31).
Paul supports his argument even further by asking, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave him up for us all, how will He not also with him graciously give us all things?” (v. 32). There is much to say about this verse. First, this question functions to support Paul’s argument that no one can be against us. Since God is “greater than all” (John 10:29), and since He has given us His own Son, it follows that no one can be ultimately against us. This is the case not only because our God is supreme but also because He has been supremely gracious towards us in giving up His own Son. The fact that Jesus Christ has not been spared, that he was given up for us to die on the cross as a “propitiation” for our sins (cf. Romans 3:25), signals to us that God has been infinitely gracious towards us. We know that God is for us because He has given up His own Son.
Second, this verse is a clear reference to the L in TULIP, limited atonement. Notice that the Son was given “up for us all.” Notice also that God will graciously give all things to those for whom the Son was given up. Now the question: Who is the “us”? Is it all people without exception? This cannot be the case because we know that not all people receive all things with Christ. Those who will endure the infinite hatred of God in hell for all eternity for their sin while God pours out His wrath and punishment upon them will most certainly not receive all things with Christ by God’s grace. Only the people of God will receive all things with Christ, for the Son has been give up only for them. That is the clear implication of this text.
And this implication is confirmed by the next verse: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (v. 33). The answer is no one. God causes all things to work together for their good. They are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. Christ has been given up for them. No one can bring a charge against them because “it is God who justifies” (v. 33). God Himself is the one who declares His people righteous before Him because of the work of Christ. And, as we have seen, this does not, indeed cannot, apply to all people; rather, it applies only to “God’s elect,” for only they are declared righteous before God.
The reason that no one can condemn is because “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (v. 34). The death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession of Christ are both the grounds of and the evidence for God’s love for His people. Christ’s death accomplishes the salvation of those whom God has chosen to redeem. Christ’s resurrection vindicates his work. Indeed, “it is finished” (John 19:30). The work of Christ is not partly finished. Christ did not simply do all he could do and then leave the rest up to us. Rather, his work for us is actually, genuinely finished. We see this in the fact that Christ is “at the right hand of God” (v. 34). The author to the Hebrews says it this way: “After making purification for sins, he [Christ] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3). The fact that he sat down means that nothing needs to be added to his work. It really is finished. And finally, the fact that Christ is indeed interceding for us, like the Holy Spirit (cf. Romans 8:26), means that our salvation is invincibly secure. The prayers of Christ do not fail. If they did, if they could, he would not be a reliable savior. He would be a failure to the extent that his prayers failed. But he is no failure. His prayers do not fail. So when Christ prays for his people, we can be fully confident that they will indeed be kept until the end.
This is further confirmed by Paul when he asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (v. 35). As we’ve already mentioned, literally nothing (not “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” [v. 35]) can separate us from the love of Christ. That’s Paul’s point here. Indeed, in all these things, in the midst of the worst kinds of suffering on earth, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (v. 37). The reality that “we are being killed all the day long” (v. 36) does not take away from the fact that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth” will be able to “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 38-39). And just in case you think Paul leaves room for something else to potentially separate us from God’s love in Christ, he says, “nor anything else in all creation” is able to do that (v. 39). Our God who reigns as King over His creation is fully capable of saving us by His grace: from the beginning, in the middle, and to the very end. To Him be glory!
Romans 8 is one of the most beloved chapters in all of Scripture. It surveys the towering heights of God’s grace toward His people in Christ. Christians everywhere rejoice that “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (v. 28). What could be greater than to know that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 38-39)?
But the book of Romans does not stop at chapter eight. It continues into chapter nine, a chapter significantly less loved and less popular. If Romans 8 surveys the towering heights of God’s grace, then Romans 9 surely dives into the depths of God’s revelation to consider the foundation of that grace: His absolute freedom to be merciful to whom He wills and to harden whom He wills (cf. 9:18). And to be honest, this concept of God’s complete sovereignty over human salvation is not a popular teaching at all in contemporary evangelicalism. Perhaps this is why Romans 9 is so unpopular. So what I want to do here is provide a brief summary of this most unpopular of biblical passages. What does Romans 9 really teach?
The main point of Romans 9 is v. 6: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.” Romans 8 ends with this proclamation: “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 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. And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified” (8:28-29).
In Romans 9 Paul anticipates an objection: “Paul, if what you’re saying is true, then why aren’t God’s chosen people, Israel, turning to Jesus, their messiah, to be saved? Surely the word of God has failed, right?” Paul retorts: “It is not as though the word of God has failed.”
In order to understand Romans 9, we must understand this problem. In Romans 8, Paul argues that God’s purpose in salvation is invincible, unstoppable. He summarizes: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave him up for us all, how will He not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?” (vv. 31-33, emphasis added). The answer: no one. “It is God who justifies” (v. 33). God counts His people righteous on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, and therefore nothing “shall separate us from the love of Christ” (v. 35).
But Israel, God’s chosen people, by and large reject their own messiah. They are not saved, evidenced by Paul’s “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (9:2) for them. And that is the problem! If it is true that the word of God has not failed, why do the majority of Jews reject the messiah?
Paul’s answer is the word of God has not failed, but hear how he explains it: “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named’” (v. 6). The word of God has not failed, even if the vast majority of Jews reject Christ, because the promises of God never pertained to all of Abraham’s physical offspring. “It is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise who are counted as offspring” (v. 8). The promises of God for salvation apply only to the elect, the true Israel within the visible covenant community.
A major objection made by some at this point is that Romans 9 deals with corporate election for historical service, not individual election for salvation. Perhaps what this text teaches is not that God freely and graciously chooses some for eternal salvation and not others, but that God chose specific people groups to bring the message of salvation to the world. This might sound plausible at first glance, but there are at least three reasons this cannot be the case:
First, both Romans 8 and Romans 10-11 deal with issues relating to individual salvation. It would be strange to insert a discourse on corporate election for historical service in Romans 9, only to resume a discussion of individual salvation in Romans 10-11.
Second, Paul wishes that he “were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of [his] brothers” (v. 3). Why would Paul wish to be cut off from Christ over a group of people who simply were not chosen to bring the gospel message to the world? That interpretation makes no sense. On the contrary, Paul’s argument is that some of his kinsmen are not chosen for salvation, thus leading to his sorrow and anguish.
Third, Paul uses individuals to demonstrate the force of his argument, which is that God elects certain individuals and passes over others. He distinguishes between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, but he also makes use of Pharaoh. Any interpretation of this text which posits a corporate view of election must say that Pharaoh is also a reference to nations, but Pharaoh is not referred to in this way in this context. The cumulative force of these arguments shows that in Romans 9 Paul is talking about individuals and election for salvation.
This point is established further by v. 11, which speaks of “God’s purpose of election.” While this is dangerous and emotional territory, for the Bible-believing Christian there is no escape from its reality. The Bible obviously refers to election, so we must “do” something with it. Instead of saying that it can’t mean ‘x’ ‘y’ or ‘z’ for whatever reason, let’s allow Paul tell us exactly what he means.
In reference to Jacob and Esau, Paul says, “ they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad–in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of Him who calls” (v. 11). This is not the end of Paul’s argument, but notice that election is not based upon anything in the creature, be it good works or even faith; election is based solely on “Him who calls.” The point is that God is free to elect whomever He wills.
Continuing, Paul says, “[Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (vv. 12-13). This is not a reference to historical election or nations. God’s election here deals with historical individuals and their salvation. This is true because in the next verse Paul brings up an objection that he has heard before: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” (v. 14).
Paul has been to synagogues, preaching the doctrine of election, and he has heard the objections: “That’s not fair! If you’re saying that God is free to elect whomever He wills then God is unjust! I could never believe in a God like that.” Maybe you’ve heard these objections. Maybe you are the one objecting. But understand that hearing or having these objections demonstrates that we understand Paul correctly.
Why is God not unjust to elect some and not others? Paul answers: “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (v. 15). But hang on a minute: That is only a restatement of the problem! The objector thinks God is unfair because He is free to do whatever He wills, and Paul’s answer is, “God is not unjust and this is not unfair; God is free to do whatever He wills.”
How is this an answer? Mercy, like grace, is not something that can be demanded. In the words of R.C. Sproul, “As soon as we think God’s grace or mercy can be demanded, we are no longer thinking of God’s grace or mercy.” What it means for God to be God is that He is free to be gracious to whom He will, and to harden whom He will (v. 18).
“So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (v. 16). Mercy, compassion, and grace do not depend on the creature in any sense whatsoever. God, the sovereign King of the universe, has the right to be merciful to some and to harden others. To object to this is to fall under Paul’s condemnation: “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (v. 20). No. The Potter has absolute rights over the clay to “make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” (v. 21).
Why does God do this? Why does all of this talk of election and of God’s freedom even matter? Can’t we all be satisfied with “just” having a relationship with Jesus? We don’t need the doctrine of election for that, right? Besides, all this talk of predestination only serves to divide people. Why should we try to get to the bottom of an issue when that issue has caused Christians to argue and to have to “agree-to-disagree” for so long?
These questions, well-meaning as they are, presuppose a dangerous reality: that we are the center of the universe. But God will not have this. Notice why God works this way, why He takes away every ground of boasting in ourselves, our works, or our will. He says to Pharaoh: “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (v. 17).
God freely bestows mercy upon some and hardens others in order to make His name known throughout creation. Our salvation is not about us in the slightest degree; it is all about God. The purpose of the universe generally and of salvation specifically is the praise of God’s glorious grace (cf. Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14).
Perhaps the reason so many Christians bristle at the truth of God’s freedom in election and salvation is because it takes away from us what we so desperately want: to be the point. We want so badly for everything to revolve around us, to be meaningful in the world so that we get all the praise. But this is not how God operates. God is at the center; He is the source of all, including our salvation, to the praise of His glorious grace.
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