The Progress of Salvation
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined … and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (8:29a-b, 30)
In delineating the progress of God’s plan of salvation, Paul here briefly states what may be called its five major elements: foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification.
It is essential to realize that these five links in the chain of God’s saving work are unbreakable. With the repetition of the connecting phrase He also, Paul accentuates that unity by linking each element to the previous one. No one whom God foreknows will fail to be predestined, called, justified, and glorified by Him. It is also significant to note the tense in which the apostle states each element of God’s saving work. Paul is speaking here of the Lord’s redemptive work from eternity past to eternity future. What he says is true of all believers of all times. Security in Christ is so absolute and unalterable that even the salvation of believers not yet born can be expressed in the past tense, as if it had already occurred. Because God is not bound by time as we are, there is a sense in which the elements not only are sequential but simultaneous. Thus, from His view they are distinct and in another sense are indistinguishable. God has made each of them an indispensable part of the unity of our salvation.
For whom He foreknew, (8:29a)
Redemption began with God’s foreknowledge. A believer is first of all someone whom He [God] foreknew. Salvation is not initiated by a persons decision to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Scripture is clear that repentant faith is essential to salvation and is the first step that we take in response to God, but repentant faith does not initiate salvation. Because Paul is here depicting the plan of salvation from God’s perspective, faith is not even mentioned in these two verses.
In His omniscience God is certainly able to look to the end of history and beyond and to know in advance the minutest detail of the most insignificant occurrences. But it is both unbiblical and illogical to argue from that truth that the Lord simply looked ahead to see who would believe and then chose those particular individuals for salvation. If that were true, salvation not only would begin with man’s faith but would make God obligated to grant it. In such a scheme, God’s initiative would be eliminated and His grace would be vitiated.
That idea also prompts such questions as, “Why then does God create unbelievers if He knows in advance they are going to reject Him?” and “Why doesn’t He create only believers?” Another unanswerable question would be, “If God based salvation on His advance knowledge of those who would believe, where did their saving faith come from?” It could not arise from their fallen natures, because the natural, sinful person is at enmity with God (Rom. 5:10; 8:7; Eph. 2:3; Col. 1:21). There is absolutely nothing in man’s carnal nature to prompt him to trust in the God against whom he is rebelling. The unsaved person is blind and dead to the things of God. He has absolutely no source of saving faith within himself. “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God,” Paul declares; “for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14). “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).
The full truth about God’s omniscience cannot be comprehended even by believers. No matter how much we may love God and study His Word, we cannot fathom such mysteries. We can only believe what the Bible clearly says-that God does indeed foresee the faith of every person who is saved. We also believe God’s revelation that, although men cannot be saved apart from the faithful action of their wills, saving faith, just as every other part of salvation, originates with and is empowered by God alone.
While He was preaching in Galilee early in His ministry, Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). But lest that statement be interpreted as leaving open the possibility of coming to Him apart from the Father’s sending, Jesus later declared categorically that “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (v. 44). New life through the blood of Christ does not come from “the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).
Paul also explains that even faith does not originate with the believer but with God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
God’s foreknowledge is not a reference to His omniscient foresight but to His foreordination. He not only sees faith in advance but ordains it in advance. Peter had the same reality in mind when he wrote of Christians as those “who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Pet. 1:1–2). Peter used the same word “foreknowledge” when he wrote that Christ “was foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet. 1:20). The term means the same thing in both places. Believers were foreknown in the same way Christ was foreknown. That cannot mean foreseen, but must refer to a predetermined choice by God. It is the knowing of predetermined intimate relationship, as when God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer. 1:5). Jesus spoke of the same kind of knowing when He said, “I am the good shepherd; and I know My own” (John 10:14).
Because saving faith is foreordained by God, it would have to be that the way of salvation was foreordained, as indeed it was. During his sermon at Pentecost, Peter declared of Christ: “This Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of God-less men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). “Predetermined” is from horizō, from which we get the English horizon, which designates the outer limits of the earth that we can see from a given vantage point. The basic idea of the Greek term refers to the setting of any boundaries or limits. “Plan” is from boulē, a term used in classical Greek to designate an officially convened, decision-making counsel. Both words include the idea of willful intention. “Foreknowledge” is from the noun form of the verb translated foreknew in our text. According to what Greek scholars refer to as Granville Sharp’s rule, if two nouns of the same case (in this instance, “plan” and “foreknowledge”) are connected by kai (“and”) and have the definite article (the) before the first noun but not before the second, the nouns refer to the same thing (H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament [New York: Macmillan, 1927], p. 147). In other words, Peter equates God’s predetermined plan, or foreordination, and His foreknowledge.
In addition to the idea of foreordination, the term foreknowledge also connotes forelove. God has a predetermined divine love for those He plans to save.
Foreknew is from proginōskō, a compound word with meaning beyond that of simply knowing beforehand. In Scripture, “to know” often carries the idea of special intimacy and is frequently used of a love relationship. In the statement “Cain had relations with his wife and she conceived” (Gen. 4:17), the word behind “had relations with” is the normal Hebrew verb for knowing. It is the same word translated “chosen” in Amos 3:2, where the Lord says to Israel, “You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth.” God “knew” Israel in the unique sense of having predetermined that she would be His chosen people. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, “kept her a virgin” (nasb ) translates a Greek phrase meaning literally, “did not know her” (Matt. 1:25). Jesus used the same word when He warned, “Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’ ” (Matt.7:23). He was not saying that He had never heard of those unbelievers but that He had no intimate relationship with them as their Savior and Lord. But of believers, Paul says, “The Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim. 2:19).
He also predestined (8:29b)
From foreknowledge, which looks at the beginning of God’s purpose in His act of choosing, God’s plan of redemption moves to His predestination, which looks at the end of God’s purpose in His act of choosing. Proorizō (predestined) means literally to mark out, appoint, or determine beforehand. The Lord has predetermined the destiny of every person who will believe in Him. Just as Jesus was crucified “by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23), so God also has predestined every believer to salvation through the means of that atoning sacrifice.
In their prayer of gratitude for the deliverance of Peter and John, a group of believers in Jerusalem praised God for His sovereign power, declaring, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27–28). In other words, the evil and powerful men who nailed Jesus to the cross could not have so much as laid a finger on Him were that not according to God’s predetermined plan.
In the opening of his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul encouraged them with the glorious truth that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (Eph. 1:4–5).
Much contemporary evangelism gives the impression that salvation is predicated on a person’s decision for Christ. But we are not Christians first of all because of what we decided about Christ but because of what God decided about us before the foundation of the world. We were able to choose Him only because He had first chosen us, “according to the kind intention of His will.” Paul expresses the same truth a few verses later when he says, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him” (Eph. 1:7–9, emphasis added). He then says that “we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (v. 11).
and whom He predestined, these He also called; (8:30a)
In God’s divine plan of redemption, predestination leads to calling. Although God’s calling is also completely by His initiative, it is here that His eternal plan directly intersects our lives in time. Those who are called are those in whose hearts the Holy Spirit works to lead them to saving faith in Christ.
As noted under the discussion of verse 28, Paul is speaking in this passage about God’s inward call, not the outward call that comes from the proclamation of the gospel. The outward call is essential, because “How shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14), but that outward call cannot be responded to in faith apart from God’s already having inwardly called the person through His Spirit.
The Lord’s sovereign calling of believers gives still further confirmation that we are eternally secure in Christ. We were saved because God “called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Tim. 1:9). Emphasizing the same truths of the Lord’s sovereign purpose in His calling of believers, Paul assured the Thessalonian that “God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. And it was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13–14). From beginning to end, our salvation is God’s work, not our own. Consequently, we cannot humanly undo what He has divinely done. That is the basis of our security.
It should be strongly emphasized, however, that Scripture nowhere teaches that God chooses unbelievers for condemnation. To our finite minds, that what would seem to be the corollary of God’s calling believers to salvation. But in the divine scheme of things, which far surpasses our understanding, God predestines believers to eternal life, but Scripture does not say that He predestines unbelievers to eternal damnation. Although those two truths seem paradoxical to us, we can be sure that they are in perfect divine harmony.
Scripture teaches many truths that seem paradoxical and contradictory. It teaches plainly that God is one, but just as plainly that there are three persons-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit-in the single God-head. With equal unambiguity the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man. Our finite minds cannot reconcile such seemingly irreconcilable truths, yet they are foundational truths of God’s Word.
If a person goes to hell, it is because He rejects God and His way of salvation. “He who believes in Him [Christ] is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). As John has declared earlier in his gospel, believers are saved and made children of God “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). But he makes no corresponding statement in regard to unbelievers, nor does any other part of Scripture. Unbelievers are condemned by their own unbelief, not by God’s predestination.
Peter makes plain that God does not desire “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Paul declares with equal clarity: “God our Savior … desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3–4). Every believer is indebted solely to God’s grace for his eternal salvation, but every unbeliever is himself solely responsible for his eternal damnation.
God does not choose believers for salvation on the basis of who they are or of what they have done but on the basis of His sovereign grace. For His own reasons alone, God chose Jacob above Esau (Rom. 9:13). For His own reasons alone, He chose Israel to be His covenant people (Deut. 7:7–8).
We cannot understand God’s choosing us for salvation but can only thank and glorify Him for “His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). We can only believe and be forever grateful that we were called “by the grace of Christ” (Gal. 1:6) and that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29).
and whom He called, these He also justified; (8:30b)
The next element of God’s saving work is justification of those who believe. After they are called by God, they are also justified by Him. And just as foreknowledge, predestination, and calling are the exclusive work of God, so is justification.
Because justification is discussed in considerable detail in chapters 17–18 of this volume, it is necessary here simply to point out that justified refers to a believer’s being made right with God by God. Because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” men can only be “justified as a gift by [God’s] grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).
and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (8:30c)
As with foreknowledge, predestination, calling, and justification, glorification is inseparable from the other elements and is exclusively a work of God.
In saying that those whom He justified, these He also glorified, Paul again emphasizes the believer’s eternal security. As noted above, no one whom God foreknows will fail to be predestined, called, justified, and ultimately glorified. As believers, we know with absolute certainty that awaiting us is “an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Ultimate glory has been a recurring theme throughout Paul’s epistle to the Romans. In 5:2 he wrote, “We exult in hope of the glory of God.” In 8:18 he said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” He anticipated that marvelous day when “creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).
To the Thessalonians Paul wrote that our ultimate glorification is the very purpose for which we are redeemed: “It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:14).
This promise of final glory was no uncertain hope as far as Paul was concerned. By putting the phrase these He also glorified in the past tense, the apostle demonstrated his own conviction that everyone whom He justified is eternally secure. Those who “obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus [receive] with it eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10). That is God’s own guarantee.
God’s Effectual Call
And those he predestined, he also called. …
My wife Linda and I have many different personality traits, which is a natural thing for husbands and wives, and one of them is the way we respond to someone’s call. If we are walking down the street and someone calls out so that we can hear the voice but cannot quite distinguish the words, my wife assumes that the person is calling her and turns around. I assume that the person is calling someone else and keep on going. The same thing is true if a driver of a car blows the horn. I ignore it; it must be for someone else. Linda thinks someone is trying to get her attention.
I do not know what that says about the two of us, perhaps only that Linda is more “people oriented” than I am and that I am more “task oriented” than she is. But it is an interesting observation in view of the word we need to look at in this study. The word is “called,” and it occurs in the statement that “those he [that is, God] predestined, he also called …” (Rom. 8:30).
This word is the next link in the great golden chain of salvation by which God reaches down from eternity into time to save sinners. The point of this word, the third link, is that, unlike myself but like Linda, those whom God calls not only hear his call but actually respond to it by turning around and by believing on Jesus Christ or committing their lives to him.
Calling: External and Internal
But we need to back up at this point and review a distinction I made two studies ago, when I first introduced the golden chain. It is the difference between a call of men and women that is merely external, general, and (in itself) ineffective for salvation, and a call that is internal, specific, and regenerating.
The first call is an open invitation to all persons to repent of their sin and turn to Jesus. As I have mentioned, it was spoken by Jesus himself in many places. For example, he said in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” In Matthew 16:24 he explained, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” He said in John 7:37, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.”
This last invitation was spoken in Jerusalem on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, when people from many lands and nationalities were assembled. There were Jews from every part of Palestine as well as from many regions of the Roman Empire. There were also Gentiles, some who had become Jewish proselytes but also some who, no doubt, were merely interested bystanders. We get a feeling of what this audience must have been like by remembering the composition of the crowd that had assembled at Pentecost when Peter preached the first sermon of the Christian era, likewise extending a general call to all to believe on Jesus. We are told that on that occasion Jerusalem was filled with “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs …” (Acts 2:9–11).
When Jesus (and later Peter) called such people to faith, the call was universal. It was (and is) for everyone. Anyone who wishes can come to Jesus Christ and be saved.
Today that same call flows from every true Christian pulpit and from all who bear witness to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in every land.
The difficulty with this external, universal, and (in itself) ineffectual call, however, is that if people are left to themselves, no one ever actually responds to it. People hear the gospel and may even understand it up to a point. But the God who issues the invitation is undesirable to them, and so they turn away. Jesus told a story about a man who had prepared a great banquet and invited many guests (Luke 14:15–24). When the feast was prepared he sent servants with the invitation: “Come, for everything is now ready.” But the guests all began to make excuses.
“I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it,” said one.
“I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out,” said another.
A third replied, “I just got married, so I can’t come.”
That is the way it truly is, since Jesus was not making up this story out of thin air. That was the way the people of his day responded to his general call. They would not accept his invitation. They rejected it, preferring to go their own ways and about their own business.
One of the great newspaper organizations in this country is the Howard organization, and if you are acquainted with it, you may also be aware of the Howard Company logo. It is a lighthouse beneath which are the words: “Give the people the light, and they will find their way.” The idea is that people make foolish mistakes and bad decisions because they do not know the right way. Show it to them and they will follow it, is what the motto means. But that is not the way the Bible describes our condition spiritually. When Jesus was in the world he was the world’s light. The light was shining. But the men of his day did not respond to Jesus by walking in the right path. Instead they hated the light and tried to put it out. They crucified the lighthouse.
This is how people still respond to the universal invitation. It is why Jesus said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). It is why Paul wrote, “There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:11). And it is why Jesus declared, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him …” (John 6:44).
But this is where the second kind of call comes in, the kind that is actually spoken of in Romans 8:30. Unlike the first call, which was external, universal, and (in itself) ineffective, this second call is internal, specific, and entirely effective. In other words, it effectively saves those—and all those—to whom it is spoken.
The best discussion of the effectual call I know is in John Murray’s small classic, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, where he begins by making the distinction I have just made, showing that there is such a thing as a general or universal call and that there are examples of it in the Bible. But then he points out rightly that “in the New Testament the terms for calling, when used with reference to salvation, are almost uniformly applied, not to the universal call of the gospel, but to the call that ushers men into a state of salvation and is therefore effectual. There is scarcely an instance where the terms are used to designate the indiscriminate overture of grace in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Here are some examples:
Romans 1:6–7—“And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. … called to be saints.”
Romans 11:29—“For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”
First Corinthians 1:9—“God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”
Ephesians 4:1—“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”
Second Timothy 1:8–9—“So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life. …”
Second Peter 1:10—“Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. …”
In each of these texts and many others, including our text in Romans 8:30, the call of God is one that effectively saves those to whom it is addressed. Putting the above texts together, it is a call that unites us to Jesus Christ, bringing us into fellowship with him, and sets before us a holy life in which we will be sure to walk if we have truly been called. Putting the call into the context of Romans 8, it is the point at which the eternal foreknowledge and predestination of God pass over into time and start the process by which the individual is drawn from sin to faith in Jesus Christ, is justified through that faith, and is then kept in Christ until his or her final glorification.
Effectual calling is the central and key point in this great golden chain of five links.
The Power of God’s Call
Now that we have distinguished between the external and internal calls, we need to ask why it is that the internal or specific call is so effective. Why does it bring those who hear it to salvation? The answer is not at all difficult to find. The reason the effective call is effective is that it is God’s call. It issues from his mouth, and all that issues from the mouth of God accomplishes precisely that for which he sent it.
This is what Isaiah 55:10–11 teaches us, when it records God as saying:
“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return to it without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
God’s words are always effective. They accomplish their purpose. But to be faithful to our text we need to point out that what we are dealing with in Romans 8:30, in terms of God’s calling of sinners, is a call to salvation rather than another purpose. So we need to ask exactly how the effective call of God works in the achieving of this goal.
The chief thing the effective call of God in salvation does is to cause the regeneration, or rebirth, of the one thus summoned. In the study by John Murray that I referred to earlier, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Murray says that it does not make much difference whether we put regeneration before effectual calling, or effectual calling before regeneration, since the critical determining act is God’s in any case. But when the relevant texts are carefully considered, the order nevertheless seems to be as I have indicated. That is, God calls the individual with a specific and effective call, and the call itself produces new spiritual life in the one who hears it, on the basis of which he or she is enabled to respond to the gospel.
In my judgment, the best illustration of how this works is that of the raising of Lazarus from the dead recounted in John 11, the illustration I introduced in the earlier, introductory study of these terms. We are encouraged to take it as an illustration, because it is in the midst of this story and in obvious reference to it that Jesus utters the well-known words, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die …” (vv. 25–26).
What happens in this story? Jesus comes to the tomb of Lazarus and calls out to this dead man, “Lazarus, come out!” and Lazarus does. Clearly the call of Jesus created life in the formerly dead corpse, as a result of which Lazarus responded to Jesus by emerging from the tomb.
That is what happens when God calls us to salvation. His call creates spiritual life in the one called, and the proof that spiritual life is there is that we respond to him. How do we respond? We respond by turning from sin—the theological word is repentance—and by believing on Jesus Christ. In other words, the call of God produces life in the sinner, just as the word of God brought the heavens and earth into existence at the very beginning of creation. The first evidences of that new life are repentance from sin and faith in Jesus.
A moment ago I said that, according to John Murray, it makes little practical difference whether we put regeneration before calling, or calling before regeneration, and that is probably true, though the correct biblical picture seems to be calling first, then regeneration. However, this is not the case in regard to regeneration or calling, on the one hand, and faith and repentance on the other. In this case, the calling of God necessarily comes before the fruit of that calling. It is only after God calls and regenerates that one repents of sin and believes the gospel.
Which comes first, faith or life? The person who knows the Bible answers, “Life.” Otherwise, salvation would depend on ourselves and our own ability, and none of the certainties that Paul is speaking about in Romans 8 would be possible.
Some Important Observations
There are a few important qualifications and observations on what I have been saying, and it would be a mistake to overlook them. Let me list three briefly.
- Two responses. I said earlier that the trouble with the general call is that men and women do not naturally respond to it, meaning that they do not become Christians by this call alone. But I need to balance this by adding that, although they do not respond to the call of God unto salvation, they nevertheless can respond superficially by such outward things as coming forward at a religious meeting, making outward profession of faith, or even joining a church. And not only can they, many do. That is why Peter says in the text quoted earlier, “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure …” (2 Peter 1:10). He means that we must be sure that we really have been called by God and are truly born again, and have not merely been called by the preacher.
Donald Grey Barnhouse, one of my predecessors as minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia (1927–1960), wrote:
If men heed no more than the outward call, they become members of the visible church. If the inward call is heard in our hearts, we become members of the invisible church. The first call unites us merely to a group of professing members; but the inward call unites us to Christ himself, and to all that have been born again.
The outward call may bring with it a certain intellectual knowledge of the truth; the inward call brings us the faith of the heart, the hope which anchors us forever to Christ and the love which must ever draw us back to him who first loved us. The one can end in formalism, the other in true life. The outward call may curb the tendencies of the old nature and keep a soul in outward morality; the inward call will cure the plague that is in us and bring us on to triumph in Christ.
- The importance of the general call. My second qualification concerns the importance of the general call. Everything I have said thus far has stressed the necessity of the special, or internal, call of the individual to salvation by God. I have said that no one naturally responds to God on the basis of the general call alone. But now I need to add that although that is true, it is nevertheless also true that the general call is necessary, since it is through the general, or universal, call that God calls specifically.
Let me say it this way: The effectual or specific call comes through the general call. That is, it is through the preaching of the Word by God’s evangelists and ministers and through the telling of the Good News of the gospel by Christians everywhere that God calls sinners. He does not call everyone we Christians call. We sow the seed broadly; some of it falls on stony or shallow soil, just as some of it also falls on good soil. But when the seed falls on the soil God has previously prepared and when God, the giver of life, blesses the work of sowing—so that the seed takes root in the good soil and grows—the result is a spiritual harvest. People are saved, and they do pass into that great chain of God’s saving acts, including foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification, that is outlined in the eighth chapter of Romans.
Let me put it still another way. If God calls effectively through the general call, it is as necessary that there be a general call if some are to be saved as it is that there be a specific and effectual call. Our call does not regenerate. God alone is the author of the new birth. All must be born “from above.” Nevertheless, the way God does that is through the sowing of the seed of his Word, which is entrusted to us.
Nobody but God could invent this way of saving human beings. If it were left to us, we would say that either (1) God has to do it; we can do nothing, or (2) we have to do it; God can do nothing. As it is, the work of effectively calling people to Christ is of God, yet using human beings.
- Am I elect? There is this last qualification. Sometimes people get bogged down by the subject of God’s foreknowledge and predestination, and they end up saying, “Well, if God is going to elect me to salvation, he will just have to do it. There is nothing I can do.” Or else they get hung up on knowing whether or not they are elect. They say, “How can I know I am elect? If I am not, there is no hope for me,” and they despair. This question bothered John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, for a long time and caused extraordinary despair in him.
But there is no reason for either such passivity or such despair. How do you know whether or not you are elect? The answer lies in another question: Have you responded to the gospel? In other words, have you answered God’s call?
How do we know that the patriarch Abraham was an elect man? It is because, when God called to him to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and go to a land that he would afterward inherit, Abraham “obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:8), and because he persevered in that obedience to the very end of his life.
How do we know that Moses was predestined to be saved? It is because, though raised in the lap of Egyptian luxury, when he had grown up he “refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter,” choosing “to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time” (Heb. 11:24–25). He sided with God’s people.
How do we know that Paul was elected to salvation? It is because, though breathing out hatred against God’s people and trying to kill some of them, when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, calling, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” the future apostle to the Gentiles was transformed. He saw his sin and turned from it. He saw the righteousness of Christ and believed on Jesus. He obeyed and served God from that time on. Moreover, when he wrote about salvation later, as he did in the letter to the Romans, he showed beyond any doubt that it was not he who chose God, but rather God who chose him and called him to be Christ’s follower.
How do you know if you are among the elect?
There is only one way, and it is not by trying to peer into the eternal counsels of God, stripping the cover from the book of his divine foreknowledge and predestination. The only way you will ever know if you are among the elect is if you respond to the gospel. We are told in the Bible: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved …” (Acts 16:31). Do it. Then you can know that God has set his electing love on you and that, having loved you, he will continue to love you and keep you to the end.
Will you believe? It would be a delight if God would use this study of the effectual call to call you effectually.
Justification and Glorification
… those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Anyone who is involved in a business of any size knows the necessity of a long-range plan. There are one-year plans, five-year plans, and even ten-year plans. The longer these plans are the more often they need to be reviewed, revised, and updated. An executive who can create an accurate long-range plan, foreseeing most of the contingencies that will affect the company in future years, and then keep on top of it, is an extremely valuable asset to his or her organization.
We have been studying a long-range plan, in fact, the longest-range plan that has ever been devised or could be devised. It is a plan that has had its origins in eternity past and will find its consummation in eternity future. It is all-embracing. Everything that has ever happened or ever will happen in history is part of it. And it is utterly certain. So detailed is this plan and so wisely is it drafted that nothing will ever arise to upset it or even cause an alternative plan to be necessary. Of course, I am speaking of the plan of God outlined for us in Romans 8:28–30.
This plan begins with God’s foreknowledge and predestination, expresses itself in time in the calling of individuals to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, includes justification, and ends in glorification, when these foreknown and predestined persons are made entirely like Jesus. We are to look at the last two steps of the plan in this study.
Justification by Faith
The first term we need to look at is justification, but we do not need to study it in detail here, since it was the chief focus of our study in volume one and has been mentioned many times since.
Justification is the opposite of condemnation. When a person is in a wrong relationship to the law and is condemned or pronounced guilty by the judge, condemnation does not make the person guilty. The person is only declared to be so. In the same way, in justification a person is declared by God to be in a right relationship to his law, but not made righteous. In a human court a person can be declared righteous or “innocent” on the basis of his or her own righteousness. But in God’s court, since we humans have no righteousness of our own and are therefore not innocent, believers are declared righteous on the ground of Christ’s atonement.
It helps to realize that the full New Testament doctrine is not merely justification alone, though this is the only word Paul uses in his abbreviated listing of it in Romans 8, but justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
That definition has four parts.
- The source of our justification is the grace of God (Rom. 3:24). Since “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10), it is clear that no one can make or declare himself or herself “righteous” (v. 20). How, then, is salvation possible? It is possible only if God does the work for us—which is what “grace” means, since we do not deserve God’s working. Paul frequently emphasizes this by adding the words free or freely to “grace,” which is redundant but nevertheless strong writing.
- The ground of our justification is the work of Christ (Rom 3:25). We saw this in volume one in our discussion of the word propitiation. It is because this work has been done that God has been able to justify us justly.
“Justification,” writes John R. W. Stott, “is not a synonym for amnesty, which strictly is pardon without principle, a forgiveness which overlooks—even forgets (amnēstia is ‘forgetfulness’)—wrongdoing and declines to bring it to justice. No, justification is an act of justice, of gracious justice. … When God justifies sinners, he is not declaring bad people to be good, or saying that they are not sinners after all; he is pronouncing them legally righteous, free from any liability to the broken law, because he himself in his Son has born the penalty of their law-breaking. … In other words, we are ‘justified by his blood.’ ”
- The means of our justification is faith (Rom. 3:25–26). Faith is the channel by which justification becomes ours. This is not mentioned in the chain of God’s saving actions listed in Romans 8:29–30, but it is the fruit of God’s effectual calling and its result, which is regeneration. When we are born again we show it by repenting of sin and turning to Jesus Christ in faith, believing that he is our Savior.
Two things should be said about faith.
First, faith is not a good work. It is necessary, essential. But it is not a good work. In fact, it is not a work at all. Faith is God’s gift, as Paul makes clear in Ephesians 2:8–9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Second, although faith is the means of our justification, it is also the only means. Luther expressed this by the words sola fide (“by faith alone”), thus adding a word not present in the text of Scripture but by it nevertheless catching the essence of the idea. Clearly, if faith is not a good work but only receiving what God has done for us and freely offers to us, then it is by faith alone that we can be justified, all other acts or works being excluded by definition. The only means by which any person can ever be justified is by believing God and receiving what he offers.
- The effect of our justification is union with Christ. This idea was developed fully in Romans 5 and in an earlier section of chapter 8. It is the ground of the benefits of our salvation unfolded in Romans 5:1–11 and of our victory over sin elaborated in Romans 5:12–8:17.
Stott explains it this way:
To say that we are justified “through Christ” points to his historical death; to say that we are justified “in Christ” points to the personal relationship with him which by faith we now enjoy. This simple fact makes it impossible for us to think of justification as a purely external transaction; it cannot be isolated from our union with Christ and all the benefits which this brings. The first is membership of the Messianic community of Jesus. If we are in Christ and therefore justified, we are also the children of God and the true (spiritual) descendants of Abraham. … Secondly, this new community, to create which Christ gave himself on the cross, is to be “eager to do what is good,” and its members are to devote themselves to good works. …
To be sure, we can say with Paul that the law condemned us. But “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Hope of Glory
Glorification, the fifth and final term of Romans 8:29–30, is also a word we have studied earlier. In fact, we met the term as early as Romans 5:2 (which anticipates Rom. 8:28–30), where Paul spoke of Christians as rejoicing “in the hope of the glory of God.”
What does Romans 5:2 mean?
It means that we know that one day we will be glorified and that we rejoice in this certainty. That is, we know that we will be like Jesus. He is God and is therefore like God in all respects; we will be like him. We will not become God, of course. But we will become like him in his communicable attributes: love, joy, peace, mercy, wisdom, faithfulness, grace, goodness, self-control and other such things (see Gal. 5:22–23). In that day sin will no longer trouble us, and we will enjoy the complete fullness and eternal favor of God’s presence.
When does glorification take place?
There is a sense in which much of it takes place when we die, for then we will be freed from sin, which has taken up residence in our bodies, and will be like Christ. As John wrote, “… we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Yet I am sure John Murray is right when he insists in his treatment of this word that, in its fullest sense, glorification awaits the return of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of our bodies. In fact, the text in 1 John, which I have just quoted, says this. It does not say simply that “we shall be like him.” It says, “When he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
Here is how Murray puts it:
- Glorification is associated and bound up with the coming of Christ in glory. … So indispensable is the coming of the Lord to the hope of glory that glorification for the believer has no meaning without the manifestation of Christ’s glory. Glorification is glorification with Christ. Remove the latter and we have robbed the glorification of believers of the one thing that enables them to look forward to this event with confidence. …
- The glorification of believers is associated and bound up with the renewal of creation. [This is the teaching of Romans 8:19–22, which we studied earlier. In those verses the glorification of our bodies, which means their resurrection, and the renewal of creation are placed together.]
When we think of glorification, then, it is no narrow perspective that we entertain. It is a renewed cosmos, new heavens and new earth, that we must think of as the context of the believers’ glory, a cosmos delivered from all the consequences of sin, in which there will be no more curse but in which righteousness will have complete possession and undisturbed habitation. “And there shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21:27). “And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: and they shall see his face; and his name shall be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3, 4).
Past Tense, Future Blessing
The most striking feature of Paul’s mention of glorification in Romans 8:30 is that it is in the past (aorist) tense, a fact noted when I first introduced this chain of words three studies back. Since glorification is clearly future from our perspective, this requires explanation.
Some commentators think that here Paul departs from strict accuracy or logic in order to stress the absolute certainty of this future event. That is, it is so assured that it can be spoken of as if it were past. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says this, writing, “The Apostle’s argument is that, as we know most certainly that we have been called and justified, we can be equally certain of our glorification. Nothing can prevent it because it is a part of God’s purpose for us.” Likewise Leon Morris: “So certain is it that it can be spoken of as already accomplished. It is in the plan of God, and that means that it is as good as here.”
Other scholars call this use of the past tense an aorist of anticipation or a prophetic aorist, which is almost the same thing. Since God has decreed it, it will happen and can be considered as having happened. Charles Hodge inclines to this explanation when he says, “God … sees the end from the beginning … so that in predestinating us, he at the same time, in effect, called, justified and glorified us, as all these were included in his purpose.”
- Godet is also helpful, though to my way of thinking his explanation is probably not quite what Paul has in mind here. He reminds us that there is a sense in which we have been glorified. That is, our federal head Jesus Christ has been glorified, and we are glorified in him. If this is the case, the verse would be matched by Ephesians 2:6, where Paul teaches that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” This does not mean merely that taking our place in heaven is a future certainty but that we have actually already been seated in heaven in the person of Christ. The only reason I say that in my judgment this is not what Paul has in mind here is because in Romans there seems to be a flow from eternity past to eternity future, the middle portion of which dips into time. Paul seems to be describing something that began in the past, has affected us in the present, and will carry us into the future.
If we must make a choice among these three interpretations, I would side with either or both of the first two.
Yet it may be—I think I prefer this—that the chain simply moves back into eternity at this point. We have seen that it begins in eternity and then dips down into time. The flow of the verses would be most satisfying if the chain simply moved back into God’s timeless eternity once again, glorification being spoken of as past because it is indeed past (or eternally present) in the mind of God.
What About Sanctification?
As I close my detailed discussion of these specific terms, I want to ask a question that is also raised by Lloyd-Jones in his exposition—wisely, I think. It concerns the one obvious omission in this list: sanctification. Why is sanctification not included, particularly when it is supposed by many to be the central theme of Romans 5 through 8?
I have already addressed myself to the latter part of this question, namely, whether Paul is discussing sanctification in these chapters. I did that at the beginning of this volume, arguing that it is not Paul’s purpose to discuss sanctification at all, though much of what he says necessarily touches on it. He is arguing the case for perseverance or eternal security, which is why he introduces the phrase “hope of glory” as early as Romans 5:2. That is the central and important theme, and it comes back at the end, in Romans 8, which is what we are studying now.
But that is not a full answer to the question.
Well, Paul has not been discussing foreknowledge, predestination, or effectual calling in these chapters either, yet he mentions those terms here. If they are included, why not sanctification? Again, the apostle is unfolding the flow of salvation from the decrees of God in the past to our glorification in eternity future. Isn’t sanctification an indispensable part of that flow? Isn’t it as necessary and certain as the other items?
Why, then, is sanctification omitted?
Here are the reasons Martyn Lloyd-Jones offers.
- Sanctification is not part of the argument Paul has in mind at this point. Paul is focusing on the acts of God for our salvation, and his point is that our salvation is certain because it is God who is thus acting. Our security depends upon what he has done, not on what we may or may not be able to do. To put it in other words, our security in Christ does not depend upon our sanctification. Eternal security is not the anticipated outcome of some process. Sanctification is a process while these other items are divine acts. From the point of view of Paul’s argument in Romans 8, these are entirely different things.
- Sanctification is an inevitable consequence of justification. Therefore, Paul does not need to mention it. As soon as a person is called by God and is justified, in that same moment sanctification begins. This is because of regeneration or the imparting of a new nature to the saved person. There is no justification without regeneration just as there is no regeneration without justification. So the one who is justified, who now also possesses a new nature, will inevitably show that new nature by beginning to live a new life. That is why we can say that a claim to justification apart from growth in holiness is presumption.
- Sanctification is inevitable also from the standpoint of our glorification. Indeed, it is a preparation for it. To go back to the text I cited toward the beginning of this study, I note that when John, writing of glorification, says “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is,” he immediately adds, “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3). In other words, it is the assurance of our glorification that spurs on our sanctification.
What the great Welsh preacher gets out of this (rightly, in my opinion) is that the proper way to teach sanctification is not by concentrating on “me,” “my feelings,” or certain steps to “personal holiness,” but rather on what God has done for us. That is, the proper approach to sanctification is to fix our eyes on God and our minds on the great biblical doctrines.
How do most people teach sanctification today? Either it is by methods (“These are the steps; do this, and you will become holy”), or it is by experience (“What you need is a special filling of the Holy Spirit [or tongues or whatever]”).
This is not the biblical pattern. As Lloyd-Jones says:
The way to preach holiness is not to preach about “me” and “my feelings” and to propound various theories as to how I can be delivered; it is, rather, to preach justification and glorification. By so doing you will include sanctification. Such is the Apostle’s method—“whom he justified, them he also glorified.” It is because certain people do not know the truth about justification and glorification as they ought that they are defective in their teaching about sanctification. A man who has his eye on his future state of glorification will spend his time in preparing himself for it.
Suppose you are invited to a party by the President of the United States. If you are normal, you would take some time to get ready, choosing a special dress or suit and making whatever other special preparations might be necessary. In the same way, the fact that we are going to be with Jesus Christ and be like him should influence our behavior and life choices.
When I was teaching on Romans 6:2 and 11, explaining how it is that we have “died to sin,” I said that we have died to it in the sense that we have died to the past. And I developed a slogan: You cannot go back; there is no place for you to go but forward.
That is absolutely true, of course. We cannot go back. The eternal purpose of God in saving us, unfolded in the five great acts of God described in Romans 8:29–30, makes that plain. But just as it is important to say that we cannot go back, so is it also important to say that we are going forward. God’s foreknowledge of us is followed by his predestination of us to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. His predestination of us to be made like Jesus is followed by our being called to saving faith. Our calling is followed by our justification. Our justification is followed by our glorification. Therefore, it is as certain that one day we will be with Jesus, and be completely like Jesus, as it is that God exists and that his long-range plan is realistic, effective, and unchangeable.
This is God’s great plan. So let’s get on with our part in it and be thankful that his grace has drawn us in.
The Perseverance of the Saints
… those he justified, he also glorified.
We are all familiar with the saying about people who can’t see the forest for the trees, and you must know people like that. You probably even know Bible teachers like that. I do not want this to be true of our study of Romans 8. So, at this point of our studies, having examined each of the five great terms of verses 28–30 in detail, I want to step back and look at the great doctrine of which they are all only individual parts.
It is not at all hard to recognize what that doctrine is, for we have been mentioning it in one way or another ever since we began the chapter. It is the perseverance of the saints, or eternal security. Or, as some say colloquially, “once saved, always saved.” It is the truth that those who have been truly brought to faith in Jesus Christ—having been foreknown and predestined to faith by God from eternity past, having been called, regenerated, and justified in this life, and having been so set on the road to ultimate glorification that this culminating glorification can even be spoken of in the past tense—that these persons will never and can never be lost. Perseverance is implied in each of the terms we have studied, but this is the place to go back and look at the entire forest.
The Biblical Doctrine
Yet we do not want to distort the doctrine by oversimplification, as some do. We want to understand it as it is taught in Scripture—as Paul teaches it in Romans 8, for instance. Therefore, we need to begin our overview by excluding some common misunderstandings about perseverance.
First, perseverance does not mean that Christians are exempted from all spiritual danger, just because they are Christians. On the contrary, the opposite is true. They are in even greater danger, because now that they are Christians the world and the devil will be doggedly set against them and will try to destroy them—and would, if that were possible. We do not need to go very far in Romans to see this fact, for in the next section of this chapter Paul lists some of the hostile forces believers face. He will speak of trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword, concluding, “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (v. 36, quoting Ps. 44:22).
It is because we really do face many spiritual dangers that the doctrine of perseverance is so important.
Second, the doctrine of perseverance does not mean that Christians are always kept from falling into sin, just because they are Christians. Sadly, Christians do sin. Noah fell into drunkenness. Abraham lied about his wife Sarah, saying she was his sister rather than his wife, thinking to protect his own life. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then arranged for the murder of Uriah, her husband. Peter denied the Lord. Perseverance does not mean that Christians will not fall, only that they will not fall away.
Jesus predicted Peter’s denial. But he added, “I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31).
Third, perseverance does not mean that those who merely profess Christ without actually being born again are secure. This truth explains the many warnings that appear in Scripture to the effect that we should give diligent attention “to make [our] calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). In this area Jesus’ statements are among the most direct. He said, for example, “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22). We are able to stand firm only because God perseveres with us. But it is also true that we must stand firm. In fact, the final perseverance of believers is the only ultimate proof that they have been chosen by God and have truly been born again.
The Christian doctrine of perseverance does not lead to a false assurance or presumption, though some who claim to be saved do presume on God by their sinful lifestyles and willful disobedience.
Perseverance does not make us lazy.
Perseverance does not make us proud.
No, the real doctrine of perseverance is precisely what Paul declares it to be in Romans 8: that those whom God has foreknown and predestinated to be conformed to the likeness of his Son will indeed come to that great consummation. They will be harassed and frequently tempted. Often they will fall. Nevertheless, in the end they will be with Jesus and will be like him, because this is the destiny that God in his sovereign and inexplicable love has predetermined for them.
The Problem Passages
However, it is not possible to present this doctrine, even in the context of an exposition of Romans 8, without dealing with some of the biblical passages that seem to contradict it. These passages trouble some Christians and are often in their minds when they hear the security of the believer mentioned. Perhaps they trouble you.
Consider, for example, Hebrews 6:4–6, which says, “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance. …” Doesn’t that imply that those who are saved can be lost?
Or what about 2 Peter 2:1–2? “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways. …” Doesn’t that say that people who have been redeemed by Christ can later deny him and thus fall away and perish?
Or what about Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:27? “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” Are believers subject to “disqualification”?
Or what about the four kinds of soil in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13? Some of the seed springs up quickly, but later it is scorched by the sun or else is choked by weeds. It perishes.
Or what about the five foolish virgins of Matthew 25? They are waiting for the bridegroom’s coming, but because they went away to get oil and were not actually there when he came they were excluded from the wedding banquet.
I am sure you can add your own “problem” texts to these suggestions.
It is important to wrestle with these passages, of course, and not merely dismiss them with some glib statement of “once saved, always saved.” Otherwise we will indeed be presuming, and we will miss the very important warnings the texts convey. However, a careful examination of these passages will show that although they can be said to put a proper hedge around perseverance, lest we presume upon it or take it lightly, they do not contradict the doctrine.
How do we approach these difficulties? Martyn Lloyd-Jones does it at great length in more than one hundred pages of careful argument in the second of two volumes on Romans 8. I do not want to take that much space to do the identical thing here. Those who want to examine the matter in greater detail can use the Welsh preacher’s work. However, Lloyd-Jones is helpful for us in that he puts the problem texts I have been introducing into a few manageable categories and treats them in that way. In a much briefer manner, I want to follow his procedure.
Category 1: Passages that seem to suggest that we can “fall away” from grace.
This category contains the most difficult and most frequently cited passages. Therefore, it is the one we need to explore at greatest length.
The first passage is the one in which the phrase “fallen away from grace” occurs, Galatians 5:4. An examination of the context shows that what Paul is addressing is the problem of false teaching that had been introduced into the Galatian churches by a party of legalistic Jews who were insisting that circumcision and other Jewish practices had to be followed if the believers in Galatia were truly to be saved. Here the contrast with grace is law, and the apostle is saying that if the believers should allow themselves to be seduced by this false teaching, they will have been led away from grace into legalism. This is not the same thing as saying that they will have lost their salvation, though the doctrine of the legalists was indeed a false doctrine by which nobody could be saved. Paul’s argument is that the Galatian Christians should “stand firm” in the liberty Christ had given them and not become “burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
The parable of the four kinds of soil also falls into this category of problem texts. Does it teach that it is possible for a person to be genuinely born again and then fall away and be lost, either because of the world’s scorching persecutions or its materialistic entanglements? The image we have of young plants suggests this, since the plants in the story obviously do have life. But if we examine Jesus’ own explanation of the story, we will see that he makes a distinction between a person who only “hears” the word and a person who “hears the word and understands it” (Matt. 13:19, 23). The one who merely hears may receive the word he does not actually understand “with joy” and thus seem to be saved. But “he has no root” in him, which he proves by lasting “only a short time.” Those who understand and thus have the root of genuine life in them show it by their endurance and fruit.
Jesus’ point, since the parable concerns the preaching of the gospel in this age, is that not all preaching of the word will be blessed by God to the saving of those who hear it. Only some will be converted.
Another passage that falls in this category of problem texts is the story of the five wise and five foolish virgins. This is a disturbing parable because it teaches that there will be people within the visible church who have been invited to the marriage supper, profess Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and actually seem to be waiting for his promised return, but who are nevertheless lost at the end. It is meant to be disturbing. But if we compare it with the other parables in the same chapter—the parable of the talents and the parable of the sheep and the goats—it is clear that Jesus is saying only that in the church many who are not genuinely born again will pass for believers, until the end. It is only at the final judgment, when the Lord returns, that those who are truly saved and those who only profess to be saved will be differentiated.
The most difficult of the passages that seem to suggest that believers can fall away from grace is 2 Peter 2:1–2, which refers to people “denying the sovereign Lord who bought them.” This sounds as if Peter is describing people who, having been redeemed by Jesus and having believed in him, later deny him and fall away.
We should be warned against this misunderstanding by the way the chapter continues. Then we see that Peter is actually speaking of people who have learned about Jesus Christ and have even escaped a considerable amount of the external pollution of the world by having the high standards of the Christian life taught to them, but who have repudiated this teaching in order to return to the world’s corruption, which they actually love. Peter rather crudely compares them to “a dog” [that] returns to its vomit” and “a sow that is washed” but nevertheless goes back to “her wallowing in the mud” (v. 22). The reason they do this is because their inner nature is unchanged. They may have been cleaned up externally, but like the Pharisees, their insides are still full of corruption. These are the people who deny the Lord who bought them.
But how can Peter say that Jesus “bought” them? As I say, this is a difficult text and has proved so for many commentators. But the answer seems to be that Peter is also thinking of an external purchase or deliverance here. Since he begins by speaking of those who were false prophets among the people of Israel, what he seems to be saying is that just as they were beneficiaries of the deliverance of the nation from Egypt but were nevertheless not true followers of God, so there will be people like this within the churches. They will seem to have been purchased by Christ and will show outward signs of such deliverance, but they will still be false prophets and false professors.
None of these passages teach that salvation can be lost. They are either referring to something else, like falling from grace into legalism, or they are teaching that those who merely make an external profession of faith, however orthodox or holy they may seem, will fall away. As John writes in his first letter, “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19).
Category 2: Passages that seem to suggest that our salvation is uncertain.
There are a large number of verses in this category, but they are much alike and therefore do not each require separate treatment. For example, there is Philippians 2:12: “… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” And 2 Peter 1:10: “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fail.” And also Hebrews 6:4–6, “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance.”
This last passage, which I have already mentioned, is particularly troubling to many. So let me begin with it. One observation is that even if the text does indirectly teach that a Christian can fall away and be lost, its specific teaching would be that such a person could thereafter never be saved a second time “because [they would be] crucifying the Son of God all over again” (v. 6). Few would want to accept that. So even those who do not believe in eternal security need to find another, better interpretation.
In this case, the answer is in the entire thrust of Hebrews, which was written to Jews who had been exposed to Christianity and had even seemed to accept it somewhat, to go on to full faith and not to draw back again into Judaism. Everything in the book points in this direction. So this “problem” passage is actually talking about people who might have had a taste of Christianity but who fall away without ever actually becoming true Christians. If this has happened, they cannot come back, because in a certain sense they have been inoculated against Christianity.
However, the real situation emerges in verse 9, where the author of the book writes, “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation.” In other words, the author considered his readers to be genuine believers, which meant that, in his opinion, they would not draw back but would go on to embrace the fullness of the doctrines of the faith, as he is urging them to do.
The other verses—Philippians 2:12 and 2 Peter 1:10—are not nearly so difficult. They merely remind us of what I said earlier: that the fact of God’s perseverance with us does not suggest that somehow we do not have to persevere, too. We do. In fact, it is because God is persevering with us that we will persevere. Remember that Philippians 2:12, which tells us to “work out” our salvation, is immediately followed by verse 13, which says, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” That is, God gives us the desire and then enables us to achieve what he desires.
Category 3: Warning passages.
The final category of problem passages contains warnings, like Romans 11:20–21: “… Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.” Or Hebrews 2:1–3, which urges us to “pay more careful attention … to what we have heard” and ends with “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” Or 1 Corinthians 9:27, where Paul issues a warning to himself: “… so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
The reason for these passages is that we need warnings from God in order to persevere. Or, to put it in other language, they are one of the ways God has to ensure our perseverance. The proof of this is seen in the different ways unbelievers and believers react to them. Do the problem verses I have cited as “warnings” trouble unbelievers? Not at all. Either they regard them as mere foolishness and something hardly to be noticed, or they take them in a straightforward manner but assume that their lives are all right and that the verses therefore do not concern them. It is only believers who are troubled, because they are concerned about their relationships with God and do not want to presume that all is well with their souls when it may not be.
These passages provoke us to higher levels of commitment and greater godliness, which is what they are given for. And even this should encourage us. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “To be concerned and troubled about the state of our soul when we read passages such as these is in and of itself evidence that we are sensitive to God’s Word and to his Spirit, that we have spiritual life in us.”
God’s Plan and God’s Glory
As I said at the beginning of this study, I have taken a great deal of time to discuss these “problem passages” because I know that they loom large in the minds of Christian people whenever the doctrine of perseverance is discussed. And rightly so. We need to consider them carefully. But there is a danger in such close examination, for then we may give the impression that the related texts are all on the problem side and that there are very few passages that teach eternal security. That is not true, of course, even though in this study I will not balance my treatment of the problems with an equal number of passages on the positive side.
There are many such texts. I am sure you know some of them. There are two in the words of the Lord himself:
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28).
“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39).
There are also the confident words of Paul that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And, of course, Romans 8:31–39, the end of the chapter:
What, then, shall we say in response to this? 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, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Why will we persevere? We will persevere because this is God’s plan for us, and the end of it all will be God’s glory.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 494–500). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The Reign of Grace (Vol. 2, pp. 927–950). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.