Why Romans 8 should not make you a Calvinist

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I despair sometimes of the Christian captivity to dogmatic tradition. Here’s someone, for example, excitedly celebrating the fact that he has relocated from the prison of Arminianism (a relaxed, easy-going prison, but a prison nevertheless) to the stronger, more secure, and safer prison of Calvinism. Now he looks out on the sweeping landscape of Paul’s letter to the Romans through the small window of his cell, through the rigid bars of Calvinist doctrine.

What persuaded Justin Dillehay to make the move was listening to the beguiling voice of John Piper. As an Arminian he had believed that there is no one-to-one correspondence between those who are foreknown and those who are glorified. There is no guarantee that those who are called will be saved.

But after listening to Piper he has been persuaded that in Romans 8:28-30 Paul constructs a “golden chain” that binds together the five clauses:

Paul is affirming that precisely the same number of people—indeed, the exact same group of people—are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified.

So exactly that number of people who are called will be justified and glorified. The call guarantees faith, which precedes justification; and “if all the justified get glorified, then justification must be a permanent status—a verdict God never revokes”. God predestines people for salvation and membership of Christ’s family, which is why “all things will work together for the good of the called, and Christ will be the firstborn among many brothers”.

Terms and conditions apply

The first thing to note, in response, is that the passage is about suffering. What the apostles are suffering in the present time, Paul says, is trivial compared to the “glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). Why does he say this? Because he has just added an important provision to the preceding statement about being “heirs”.

All people who have the Spirit of God are children of God, and if they are children, they can expect to inherit the coming kingdom of God—they are “heirs of God” (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-10). But they are “heirs-together (synklēronomoi) of Christ” only under certain conditions: “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).

This, quite simply, is a statement about persecution and martyrdom. If any child of God suffers as Christ suffered, he or she will be a fellow heir with Christ in the specific sense that he or she will be glorified as Christ was glorified—that is, through resurrection and elevation to the right hand of the Father in heaven.

So this whole argument from Romans 8:18 through to the end of the chapter did not apply to everyone who believed that Jesus was the Son of God who would judge and rule over the nations. It applied to those who would suffer because of their belief.

This is what Paul as a suffering apostle hopes for: the redemption of his body (Rom. 8:23). We have the same argument in 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10, where he speaks explicitly of the apostles’ experience of suffering—again, not of general Christian experience—and of their desire to clothe their old, frail, afflicted bodies with new resurrection bodies. The outer self is wasting away, the inner self is being renewed. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). There we have it: the end of suffering for the sake of Christ is to be glorified.

Theology and personal experience, eschatology and history are tightly meshed together here and cannot be disentangled.

In the midst of the hardships of his missionary activity Paul relies on the Spirit of God, who helps him in his weakness, who searches his heart and translates his inarticulate groaning (Rom. 8:26-27). He knows that all things work together for good for those who have been called to fulfil the apostolic purpose. Indeed, it is precisely through his afflictions that Christ is glorified (cf. 2 Cor. 4:8-10; 12:9-10; Phil. 1:20-21).

What the “golden chain” is actually linked to

Now we get to the “golden chain”. I don’t think there’s any real doubt that Paul is speaking about the same “group” of people all the way through. The Calvinists are right in this respect. The question is who comprises the group. Through the small barred window of Calvinist doctrine, with the context obscured from view, it looks like a statement about all Christians. But in the literary-historical setting of Paul’s complex argument in this letter about what God was doing in history, it appears that the scope of the passage is much more limited.

What makes this certain is the purpose attached to predestination: “to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). This directly links the chain to the argument about suffering in the second part of the chapter. Dillehay has a five link chain that is not connected to anything. It is just a piece of free-floating dogma. That is not how Paul writes. He writes joined up arguments.

The “image” that Christ presents—this should really be obvious—is that of one who suffers, who is disgraced, and who is executed. To be conformed to that image is likewise to suffer, be disgraced, and be executed; and many of the recipients of this letter endured just that during Nero’s pogrom against the Christians in Rome. If, then, there are many who become Christ-like in this specific sense, he becomes the “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:30).

So Paul’s message to the believers in Rome was that their suffering would not be arbitrary or pointless. Like the suffering of Christ, like the suffering of the apostles, it was profoundly purposeful: it was the means by which the one true living God would bring about the transformation of the Greek-Roman world.

They were chosen or called specifically for this eschatological purpose—much as Jeremiah was foreknown, consecrated, and appointed as a prophet to the nations before he was formed in his mother’s womb (Jer. 1:5; cf. Is. 44:2). And if they were called for such a purpose by God, then they were “in the right”, they were justified; and if they were in the right, they would be be glorified—at the parousia, at the revelation of Jesus as God’s Son to the nations, when they would also be revealed to the onlooking world—indeed, to the whole of creation—as true “sons of God” (cf. Rom. 8:19).

So this little five link golden chain is not a piece of isolated soteriological dogma. It is an inalienable part of a prophetically inspired exhortation to the believers in Rome to persevere in their witness to the coming rule of Christ, whatever the cost, confident that nothing, not even death, could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. They have been called to this (cf. Phil. 1:29-30), and if they have been called by God, they can be certain of overcoming.

Out of the prison of dogma into the bright light of history

If you want to understand scripture, you have to get out of the prison. Try it, the door’s not locked. You can’t hope to read things correctly through that narrow window, through the grid of those iron bars, from that cramped and limited perspective. It may take a while for your eyes to adjust to the brightness of day, but you will be free to see the text for what it is. Walk round it, look at it from different angles, touch it, see how it lies in the heaving topography of the biblical narrative. You may find it a liberating experience.

I was raised in the exact same tiny denomination as the article author, and the Dr. Forlines he quotes was one of my professors. I also “converted” to Calvinism. It was a real trip down memory lane to read.

I also don’t agree with the exegesis presented in his article, but the nostalgia value was pretty high.

Samuel Conner | Wed, 02/19/2020 - 21:46 | Permalink

Thank you for this; it is helpful (troubling to great numbers of the theological tribe I used to inhabit, but IMO very helpful).

Question: can one find in this view a coherent interpretation of Romans 4:25? I have not yet seen one that IMO makes good sense of the parallel structure of the statement (OTOH, I am still very ignorant).

Perhaps Christ’s resurrection (which justified him from the charge of being a false messiah) is in some way a necessary precursor to the resurrection of the faithful martyrs, which is their justification from the charge of worshipping a false god?

@Samuel Conner:

The controlling idea in chapter 4 is that justification or vindication comes not through works of the Law but through faith or belief in a promised future. Abraham believed that God would give him descendants, etc., and it was counted as righteousness. The saints in Rome believe that Jesus will be judge and ruler of the nations, and this faith is counted to them as righteousness, they are reckoned to be in the right, they have peace with God, and will therefore not be subject to the future wrath of God (cf. Rom. 5:1, 9).

Romans 4:25 is just a final brief summary: Jesus was handed over to the Jewish authorities, and then to Rome, for the sins of Israel; and he was raised from the dead “for our justification”. That final phrase is difficult to parse. Presumably the point is simply that Jews (and now increasingly Gentiles) are justified by their faith in the risen Lord.

Since Paul goes on to say, “Having been justified by faith…”, I think it’s unlikely that dikaiōsin is a reference to the future vindication of the martyrs by resurrection—though we are certainly heading in that direction. Paul is thinking about the present reconciliation of unrighteous Jews and Gentiles with the living God.

As in chapter 8, though, Paul then goes on to narrow the focus. The apostles rejoice in their sufferings, because the experience strengthens their hope in the future outcome, which is that the God of Israel will be glorified when Jesus is confessed as Lord by the nations (Rom. 5:2-5; cf. Phil. 2:9-11).

@Andrew Perriman:

Do you think there may be a sense that the resurrection of Jesus provides a certain amount of present vindication of the faith of the early believers? In other words, the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead demonstrates that the believers are right. Perhaps even alluding to the fact that Jesus’ resurrection was a vindication of the faith of his disciples who followed him.

I’m also thinking of Paul’s whole spiel about, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” It’s not so much a metaphysical statement about the relationship of the resurrection to forgiveness of sins, but rather that, if Jesus hadn’t been raised, then obviously he was wrong and so is Paul and everyone who believes.

@Phil L.:

That seems to be putting the cart before the horse. The faith of the early believers was in the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God, with all the political-eschatological implications that went with that. They had some guarantee or assurance of this in the experience of the Spirit poured out by Jesus, and many had visions of the exalted Jesus. But is this the same as vindication? I think we should probably keep “vindication” for the future moment when the world would see that these proclaimers of the risen Christ had been right all along.

Of course, if Christ had not actually been raised from the dead, then their hope for a radically new future, etc., was hollow; they were deceived.

There is perhaps more to be said for the idea that those who followed Jesus while he was alive were vindicated by his resurrection. But 1) Jesus puts the emphasis not on his resurrection but on the parousia of the Son of Man as the moment when the disciples will be rewarded for their faithfulness; and 2) the resurrection was not a public event; he appeared to his followers, not to those who accused the disciples of association with a false messiah.

@Andrew Perriman:

Ok, that makes sense. Thanks.

I guess I was thinking of an early believer’s faith that God would produce the political outcome of the kingdom. Jesus preached the arrival of this kingdom and consequent need for repentance, coming judgement, etc. And although executed by the powers of the day, God raised him from the dead which, among other things, validated that what he proclaimed was correct, and his exaltation demonstrated that God’s intent was proceeding along despite appearances.

But, yes, the way I put it, it would pretty much require an emphasis on believers putting their faith in the -outcome- and Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation being reasons to have faith in the outcome as opposed to having faith in the fact of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus and, as a result, understanding the outcome of that. Maybe the categories aren’t as clear cut as that, but I see what you mean.

toddh | Thu, 02/20/2020 - 04:32 | Permalink

I think this is a pretty brilliant analysis, which seems like it should be more obvious in retrospect. It’s really hard to see beyond the hermeneutical prisons we live in though.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 02/20/2020 - 11:56 | Permalink

Do you think Paul was saying that, granted the eschatological framework you have provided, all persecuted believers were guaranteed ‘salvation’ (ie none would fall away)? Isn’t this creating another kind of dogmatic prison?

@peter wilkinson:

I don’t think that Paul is addressing the question of the perseverance of the persecuted saints. The emphasis is on God: God has chosen, God justifies, the Spirit intercedes, Christ intercedes with God on their behalf, God is for them, nothing can separate them from the love of God, etc. The chain in verses 28-30 is a series of statements about what God does. We probably have to go to Hebrews to ask about what happens when believers start giving up, where a different picture is presented:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Heb. 10:26–27)

Or 2 Peter:

For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” (2 Pet. 2:21–22)

So Paul is not saying that persecuted believers are guaranteed salvation. He is saying that God will not abandon them; they will be vindicated for their faith in the exalted Son of God. I suppose you could say that he is being “dogmatic” about this, but not in the same sense as the Calvinist line of interpretation. We are not talking about a hermeneutic method that is applied to the text; we are talking about historically contingent argumentation that emerges from the text.

@Andrew Perriman:

Yes, I agree that verses 28-30 are a series of statements about what God does. The question of whether they are declaring a guarantee of the believers’ final perseverance depends on the kind of logic that holds the statements together, and the meaning of words like “”foreknew and “predestine”. This is what led to the author of the post you were criticising to become a Calvinist, for the reasons he gave, which might also be applied to a strictly historical understanding of the verses.

For what it’s worth, I disagree with him, but words like “foreknowledge” are difficult to define precisely, not least because they are so seldom used. The efforts of interpreters do call for consideration, regardless of the eschatological framework they are using. Likewise the precise force of “predestine”. I’m in no danger of falling into the hands of John Piper, however, who thinks that even disasters are all “predestined” by God, so we can all sleep peacefully, as he once explained to his little daughter. (I’d be lying awake even more terrified).