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.