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).