Election and the martyr church

Romans 8:29-30

For those whom he knew beforehand he also appointed beforehand conformed to the image of his son, in order for him to be firstborn among many brothers; and those whom he appointed beforehand, these also he called; and those whom he called, these also he justified; and those whom he justified, these also he glorified.

Context is everything. Take Paul’s highly rhetorical statement out of context, separate it from friends and family, subject it to solitary confinement throughout long periods of cultural change, beat it about the head a bit, interrogate it mercilessly from behind the blinding light of a rationalist individualism, and you could probably get it to sign a confession that it is a longstanding supporter of the Calvinist doctrine of the election of a limited number of predetermined individuals to salvation. But before it was so dreadfully abused by the theological mukhabarat, it was a happily law-abiding member of an argument, and I suggest that our humanitarian task now is to rehabilitate it.

The argument, very briefly, is—I should say was—that nothing would prevent the persecuted churches of the Greek-Roman world from eventually being vindicated historically for their radical trust in the creator God. For the expanded version see my book The Future of the People.

It is usually assumed by pretty much everyone, whichever side of the great Arminian-Calvinist divide they live on, that in Romans 8:18-39 Paul describes the condition of any Christian, at any time, so that it is any Christian, at any time, who is foreknown, predestined, called, justified and glorified.

This is not the case; it is a misreading, skewed by the post-eschatological perspective of the successful European church. What Paul describes is the condition of that exceptional community of believers which would suffer persecution in the period leading up to the eventual public vindication of the Jesus movement in the pagan world. I have made this point elsewhere on more than one occasion (see further links below). The argument sets out from the statement in 8:17 that, while all who possess the Spirit of God are “heirs of God”, it is the more exclusive category of those who “suffer with him” who are “fellow heirs” with Christ. Everything that follows in the chapter is determined by the conditional clause: “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him”.

To be conformed to the image of God’s son, therefore, is not a general or universal Christian outcome. It is what happens—I should say happened—to those believers who concretely re-enacted in their own lives the suffering and death of Jesus in order that they “may also be glorified with him”.

We find the same argument in Philippians. Paul urges the persecuted Philippian “saints” not to fear their opponents. The fact of their affliction is a sign of their opponents’ eventual destruction and of their salvation. “For,” he says, “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). Since they have that exceptional calling, it is essential that the internal relations of the community should reflect the mind of Christ, who is then presented as a model or pattern for their behaviour: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who…” (2:5). Jesus individually humbled himself, suffered, died, and was vindicated. The Philippians corporately must have the same mind as they imitate him, being humiliated, persecuted, perhaps killed, in the hope of being vindicated with him. In other words, they are to be conformed to his image; he will be the “firstborn” from the dead, followed by many other “brothers”, who will also suffer and be vindicated.

The churches now make up “God’s elect” (Romans 8:33); they are foreknown in the same way that national Israel was foreknown by God (11:2). It is the prior relationship of a people with God that is at issue here, not the abstract foreknowledge of the salvation of individuals.

But these churches—this reconfigured elect—have been called to suffer; they will be a martyr community for the sake of the future of the people of God. Romans 8:18-39 addresses the fears that will inevitably attend this sense of vocation. The theological rhetoric of verses 29-30 is intended to reinforce the particular point that there is nothing accidental about their situation. They are not less a chosen servant community than Jesus was the chosen servant through whom God would restore his sinful people. Their suffering is not less predetermined (proōrisen) than Jesus’ suffering was predetermined (proōrisen: Acts 4:28).

The verb proorizō has the same sense of determination or appointment for an eschatological purpose that tetagmenoi has in Acts 13:48. The Son of Man goes “according to what has been been determined (hōrismenon)” (Lk. 22:22); Jesus is the one “appointed (hōrismenos) by God to be judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42; cf. 17:31); he is “appointed” (horisthentos) Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4). The prefix pro- adds very little to this sense. The emphasis, as I suggested with respect to Acts 13:48, is on the purpose or outcome for which this group has been appointed.

This chosen, servant community, finally, will be glorified. This reflects an underlying narrative of the Son of Man community which suffers but is vindicated before the thrown of God, receiving “dominion and glory and kingdom” (Dan. 7:14). It is the glory that will accompany the Son of Man when he “comes” to establish his kingdom (cf. Matt. 24:30-31) and judge the enemies of his people (cf. Matt. 25:31).


"It is the prior relationship of a people with God that is at issue here, not the abstract foreknowledge of the salvation of individuals."

I truly believe God separated me from mother's womb, and even knitted me in the womb. The word know is a very intimate word. God foreknew His loved ones. It's a personal knowledge from an Eternal Creator and Savior. Isa. 43

I understand why some reject God persanlly chose me before the foundations of the world, but I'm so glad the Holy Word is clear to me that I was saved in Christ, and in fact Isa. 53 is written in the past tense. He was wounded for my transgressions. Those God called He [past tense} glorified.

God's eternal love was set upon Jesus Christ before the foundations of the world. He is the Lamb slain before the foundations. And yet he is the Lamb slain on that first Good Friday as well. God's heart has all His chosen ones dearly embedded in His love and care. Why He would love such a sinner as I, I'll never, never know. Yet he has loved me, and bought me, and washed me in His blood.

Have a good day in the truth and grace of Christ.

You must stop teasing the Calvinists, Andrew. Bear-baiting was banned a long time ago in civilised parts of the world.

I'm a bit puzzled by your conclusions in Romans 8. Yes, the context is persecution and suffering, which Paul knew about from personal experience. He was after all on his way to Jerusalem, where suffering was prophesied akin to the suffering of Jesus - Acts 21:11, and which he willingly embraced - Acts 21:13. Paul's concept of apostolic ministry was always that it should embody the narrative of Jesus himself, including his sufferings.

Likewise the experience of the early church was one of persecution - the Roman church being no exception. Thousands were to meet their death under Nero. So it's entirely appropriate that Paul should couch his letter in tems of a message to a church which was about to suffer, if it had not already done so.

But that's not to say that Paul's message has nothing to say to people and times beyond the context of 1st century Rome, and for all times. Within these later and broader contexts, believers who suffer and those who don't find that Romans 8:29-30 applies to them also. A poignant application will be to those who suffer persecution, just as Paul and the Roman Christians did, or were about to. But why assume that these verses have no application to believers in later times, or to those who do not suffer persecution in the same way? If the verses had no further application beyond the early centuries, they would have ceased to be regarded as having relevance long ago. How do you account for the fact that they continue to have relevance and application?

The word studies here make little difference to the time frame. You emphasise your point by translating proorizō with the same word, 'appointed', as tetagmenoi in Acts 13:48, although the object of the verb in each case, to use the exegetical precision which advocate, is different. 

Interestingly, the verb which follows 'predestined' in verse 29, 'to be conformed', is the same as in Philippians 3:10, where Paul speaks of "being conformable unto the the likeness of his death" - (KJV). But this need not mean a great deal, as the root word, morphē,  is also used in Philippians 2:6, to describe Jesus being "in the form of God", and in 2:7 "took upon him the form of a servant". Likewise we find the word in Mark 16:12, and variant forms ni Romans 2:20 and 2 Timothy 3:5, none of which have anything to do with the point you are making (just to cover myself!). Believers in Jesus have found at all times find that they are  "being conformed to the likness of (God's) son".

The issue of Romans 8:29-30, (as well in a sense of Acts 13:48), therefore remains, as it does with your own particular interpretation. In what sense were believers predestined or appointed - in the one case to be "conformed to the likness" of Jesus, and in the other "for eternal life"? Added to this, in what sense were believers 'foreknown', "those God foreknew", in addition to being predestined?

I think the problem may be that interpreters have attached too much importance to an individual significance of the words, when Paul is looking at their corporated significance. God's commitment to the covenant was such that there always would in God's plans be a group who would fulfil the covenant purposes through making Jesus "the firstborn among many brothers". The precise identities of who those brothers would be is, in my mind, more open to question, and presses covenant into areas of philosophical enquiry which are outside scripture.

This is a beginning of an answer to your post, presenting a different point of view, I was a little distracted along the way by the verb conform, and I may need to return to add more to my response. I am being called away at the moment.

But that’s not to say that Paul’s message has nothing to say to people and times beyond the context of 1st century Rome, and for all times.

That’s true. “Paul’s message” certainly has something to say to people beyond the second horizon of the defeat of Greek-Roman paganism—provided that we recognize that it is a message about persecution and not about general Christian experience. But I think that Paul himself was addressing communities that had to make a particular eschatological journey through to the point where they would be publicly and politically vindicated for their radical trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

What I want to stress is that Romans is not general-purpose theologizing; it is historically contextualized argumentation. As long as we make the generic mistake of reading it as general-purpose theologizing, we will miss the real force of it—and we will find ourselves constantly struggling to make a bent theology work.

Paul’s argument here, which is not the same as his “message”, is framed eschatologically—by the prediction of coming wrath in Romans 1-4, by the statement about the approaching day of salvation in Romans 13:11-14, by a whole load of other stuff in Romans, by Paul’s apocalypticism generally, and by the whole New Testament narrative from John the Baptist through to the judgment on Rome in Revelation 18-19.

I don’t understand your point about morphē. It is not the word that matters, it is the argument constructed around it; it is words in context. In two key places the argument is that certain believers are pre-appointed to be conformed to the experience of the suffering Jesus. That is a martyr theology, not a general Christian theology, and it has in view a specific eschatological outcome. The other passages you cite are irrelevant because the argument is different.

I don't think there was a horizon of the defeat of Greek-Roman paganism, in the historically limited sense, but that's another issue. (Your arguments rest entirely on  implication, for which you provide accumulated support, but no explicit evidence, either in scripture or history).  

Paul's argument can have something to say about general Christian experience, as well as about Christians experiencing persecution, as well as about Christians living in the 1st century under the conditions in which Romans was written. The alternatives are not quite as limited as you say.

For instance, Romans 8:29 was written to a church which was not directly experiencing persecution at the time the letter was written, as far as we know. If you argue that the context of the passage as a whole is Christians experiencing persecution, it still does not exclude the applicability of the verse to Christians who were not experiencing persecution, either then, or at all times. Why should it? Encouragements to Christians who face persecution may also be encouragements to all Christians. In the light of the passage as a whole, the verse is outstandingly encouraging to those facing persecution, but it is not irrelevant to those who weren't.

I don't think the issue in Romans as a whole ever was seriously about reading it as general theologising as opposed to reading it as contextually specific. But specific contexts can have a way of producing ideas which transcend their original context - which is what Romans has always done. Nevertheless, the way into Romans has to be on the basis of an understanding of what Paul was trying to say at that time to those people in the light of the circumstances prevailing at that time. You have particular reasons for limiting Romans in this way, which I don't fully share, though I do share some of your views, and I think all that you have to say is valuable. I simply don't think that's where it largely finishes.

Good comments.

For instance, Romans 8:29 was written to a church which was not directly experiencing persecution at the time the letter was written, as far as we know.

No, but it was written for a church which Paul believed was about to face persecution—a church which would soon have to put on the “armour of light” if it was to be victorious in the fast approaching day of battle (Rom. 13:12).

But specific contexts can have a way of producing ideas which transcend their original context - which is what Romans has always done.

That is undoubtedly true, but it has no bearing on what Paul was trying to communicate to his readers in Rome. I think that the eschatological narrative that underlies Romans does put some important constraints on how we understand his thought. It doesn’t mean that we cannot subsequently use his argument to give meaning in our own context.

But before we do that, we need to make sure we have understood what he was saying in his own context. I think we are still very much at the “before we do that” stage. The reason I am so insistent about this is that the old paradigm is so prevalent and so powerful that we are under pressure at every turn to accommodate exegesis to it.

Andrew, I am so glad I have come across your work. You continually stir and inspire me to probe these issues more deeply. Please do continue to tease the Calvinists, it is a pleasant enough sport. One of my closest friends just now is a Calvinist and we lovingly tease each other frequently in a shared search for deeper understanding of our faith.

I have no problem with applications of this or any other text beyond the second horizon, provided that application is not making nonsense of the meaning to the original context of author and audience. I absolutely concur with your view. Election is surely always to purpose, not an end in itself? A correct reading of similar expressions in Ephesians 1 must IMHO take into account who is being predestined, when and to what. For example, is there a movement in Paul's thinking between verse 12 and verse 13? Is there an important distinction between 'we who were the first to hope in Christ' and 'you also' - referencing NIV rendering - you may have a more sound translation?

Daniel, what exactly do you have in mind regarding Ephesians 1:12-13? My assumption would be, in the light of Ephesians 2:11-22, that “we” are either Jews or the apostles and “you” are Gentiles. But they have the same “election”, which is to share in the inheritance of the coming kingdom through their participation in the story of Jesus.