For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. —Romans 8:29-30
How does God love us? Sometimes we feel unloved. But when I feel unloved by God, it’s because I don’t love God. The problem is the darkness in my own heart. Back in the Old Testament God said to his people, “I have loved you.” And they replied, “How have you loved us?” (Malachi 1:2). In other words, “Okay, God, you say you love us. Give us a for-instance.” That’s our own darkness and arrogance. If we want to find the love of God, we have to look where he has located his love. So here’s what we need to think about. How would someone like God love someone like me or you? We can’t define for him how he should love us. We would make it way too small. So, how would someone like God love someone like me, someone like you? God is not going to love us with health and wealth and prosperity. God is not going to love us with cultural and political dominance. God is not going to love us with perfect designer lives. Let’s find out how God loves us, and let’s embrace him wholeheartedly today.
In Romans 8:29-30 Paul steps back and looks at the whole sweep of the purpose of God stretching from eternity past, through time, into eternity future, and he sees the love of God that will never let us go. There is at the heart of the universe a love too great to be limited to what we deserve. There is in the deepest regions of the being of God a determination not to settle the score with us but to free us from everything that condemns us and binds us. God knows how to love. His purpose is to love. Paul has just told us, in verse 28, that God has a purpose for us: “. . . those who are called according to his purpose.” Now, in verses 29-30, he tells us what God’s purpose is, so that we can see ourselves there, personally caught up in a love such as only God can love. We see five verbs describing the purpose of God – foreknew, predestined, called, justified, glorified. That’s how God loves. Let’s get inside it.
For those whom God foreknew…
What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that, before time began, God looked down through the corridor of history and foresaw who would love him, and it was those people he decided to love. Paul can’t mean that. You can see here that those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to Christ. Back in eternity past, God could foresee everyone throughout history, but not everyone ends up like Christ. So God’s foreknowledge has to be more than mere foresight, mere awareness.
What then does it mean that God foreknew us? The Bible is saying that in eternity past God chose you. And the cool thing is, he didn’t choose you the way a computer chooses you, the way you get chosen for a mass-mailing catalog. God chose you by knowing you, by setting his heart on you. He made the first move toward you. He foreknew you, he set his love on you in advance. He could see that you would not love him first. But your hard heart didn’t stop God. He started loving you a long time ago, before you even knew it.
In the Old Testament God says to his people, “You only have I known out of all the nations” (Amos 3:2). Obviously, God is aware of every nation. But God knew his people with loving choice, the way a man loves his wife. In fact, one English version translates that verse in Amos, “You only have I chosen . . . .” That’s how God foreknew us. He didn’t wait for us to feel any warmth toward him. He didn’t even wait for history to get going. The Bible says, “He chose us in Christ before the creation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). He wasn’t stuck with us. He chose us. That’s how God loves.
Nobody gets through this life without being rejected, and it is so painful. Human love lets us down. But if you’ve given your heart to Jesus, he wants you to know you have not been rejected, not by anyone whose opinion matters. You have been chosen and known and loved as only God can choose and know and love. Your story had its deepest beginning in the love of God, and nobody can change that.
…he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Do you see how Paul is linking one act of God’s love with the next? Those whom God foreknew he also predestined. It’s a package. If you’re in on one part of it, you have everything. And do you see the pre- prefix in “pre-destined,” like the fore- prefix in “fore-knew”? We’re still back in eternity past. So, God loved us way back then in still another way. How did God love us? God predetermined our final destiny – “pre + destine.” When he chose us, he also decided for us how it’ll all turn out – that we will be with Christ, like Christ, to the glory of Christ, forever. And Jesus will not be ashamed to be our brother. That’s how God loved us – he redefined our destiny as one with the glorious destiny of his own Son.
I know that some people have a problem with predestination. But it is in the Bible. And we can glad it is. Why? Because we have the spirituality of hamsters. If God had left our destiny up to us alone, what would we do with it? Look at us. Look at the way we live, look at what we do to our bodies, look at the way we use our time, our money, our opportunity in life. I don’t think historians will look back on us and say, “They lived with a sense of destiny, they lived with a sense of greatness.” Our culture trivializes us, and we accept it. God doesn’t. God dignifies us. He paints a new picture of our eternal destiny, and it’s glorious. You’re not a piece of trash. God has a purpose for you, and his purpose for you is magnificence, like his own Son. You can and must live with a sense of the grandeur of your life because God loved you enough to unite your destiny with the glory of his own Son. It’s already decided. Now you can live in expectancy. God is making you into someone great. That’s how God loves.
And those whom he predestined he also called.
Now we move from eternity past into our actual experience in the here and now. How does God love us? He gets involved in our subjectivity. He didn’t hold out until we called to him. He called us. It happened for you at your conversion. Maybe it was a blinding flash all in a moment, or maybe it was a slow process of growing realization. There is no one-size-fits-all conversion experience. But everyone whom God foreknew and predestined he also called. He gave you the gift of faith. He gave you the gift of repentance. Were you really engaging with him yourself? Of course. But only because he loved you enough to wake you up. A hymn-writer put it this way:
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
it was not I that found, O Savior true;
no, I was found by thee.
Once you come into Christ, you look back and realize how you got there. You called on him, because he called you first. How else do we explain the fact that we change? How else do we find ourselves thinking, “Everything in my whole life has been wrong. I have sinned a lot. But that isn’t even the worst of it. My righteousness, my morality, is wrong. I hereby, officially, reject myself. I’m on God’s side now, against myself. I turn to Christ alone as all the okayness I need. I’m finally free” – how on earth did we get there? God gave it. There we were, just ordinary, well-meaning sinners, filled with self-pity and pride and victimhood and self-righteousness, and we changed. Our inflated view of ourselves collapsed, and Jesus stood forth as all we want. God did that. He arranged a meeting. He drew near. He walked into our lives. He revealed himself to our hearts through the gospel, everything started changing. That’s how God loves.
Now, if you’re thinking, “This is a drag. God hasn’t done that for me. And if he started back in eternity past, I’m too late already. I don’t have a chance” – if you’re thinking that, good. It may be God stirring your heart. Here’s what you need to do today. You need to face your own spiritual inertia. You need to see behind that inertia your own anger toward God, your own demandingness toward God. Your problem is not that God has left you out. Your problem is that you have left God out. And here’s what you’ve got to know. He loves you still. Here’s what God is saying to you at this very moment:
“Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life freely.” Revelation 22:17
“Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” John 6:37
And if you feel in your heart so much caution toward God, if your heart is taking evasive action right now, and yet there’s a spark of yearning as well, tell him. It can go like this, “I don’t have a heart to call out to you. I need you to come speak into my heart and get me past the barrier that I am. Please help me.” If you say that to God, how do you think he’ll respond? Will he smack you down? Or will he help you? God is able to get us past our spiritual inertia. He calls us. That’s how God loves.
And those whom he called he also justified.
Why did God do that? Because he can’t get involved with us without forgiving us. The people God loves are sinners. But God loves us too much to take our failure as the final word. There are two mistakes we can make at this point. One mistake is to think our sins are small enough that we can offset them with our own goodness and niceness and social conscience. The other mistake is to think that our sins are so massive that not even Christ can save us. Both are wrong, because our goodness is pathetic and our sins are massive. But Christ is greater. Here is how God loves sinners.
God repositions us from under his wrath to under his smile through the cross of Jesus. What happened at the cross? The Bible says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). The curse of the law is the accusing voice of everything that’s right and true and fair and honest and just and beautiful, everything we’ve failed to live up to, every true accusation looking at you and me and saying, “I expose you, I shame you, I damn you.” The law intensifies our anxiety and denial. But God loves frightened sinners hiding behind their own made-up righteousness. At the cross Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. The sinless One took our place, and the Father said to him, “You be Peter the denier, you be David the adulterer, you be Paul the persecutor, you be the person who has committed every sin. Now, take it all to hell!” And Jesus did. That’s how God loved us at the cross. That’s how God justified us in his sight. And now we can run and skip and play, because we, though still sinners, are righteous in the judgment of the all-holy God. If you belong to Jesus, the cross is why God isn’t glaring at you and saying, “If you ever . . . .” Our own thoughts say that to us. But God doesn’t. So we fight against our own consciences the way Martin Luther did. Here’s what Luther urged us to do:
When the devil tells us we are sinners and therefore damned, we may answer, “Because you say I am a sinner, I will be righteous and saved.” Then the devil will say, “No, you will be damned.” And I will reply, “No, for I fly to Christ, who has given himself for my sins. Satan, you will not prevail against me when you try to terrify me by telling me how great my sins are and try to reduce me to heaviness and despair. On the contrary, when you say I am a sinner, you give me armor and weapons against yourself, so that I can cut your throat with your own sword and tread you under my feet, for Christ died for sinners. My sin is on his shoulders, not mine. So when you say I am a sinner, you do not terrify me but comfort me immeasurably.
God gives us, through Christ, a weapon against that accusing voice within, because God himself is no longer our accuser. He will never drag your sins out to embarrass you. He forever settled it at the cross. You’re in a safe place with God now. That’s how God loves.
And those whom he justified he also glorified.
Here’s our future, forever. Not shame. Not haunting memories of our past. Only glory. God is not out to make you nice. God is out to make you magnificent. In that instant we fly away from this world into his presence, he will rinse out of us all the ugliness, and he will perfect us with the glory of Jesus. We’ve never experienced one nanosecond of sinless freedom. But we will. Forever. And Paul is so confident that God will do this, he even puts this verb in the past tense: “glorified,” not “will glorify.” It’s as if Paul is spreading out a blueprint of God’s plan, from eternity past through time to eternity future and putting his finger on one outpouring of divine love after another in the plan, and it’s all so connected, so unbreakable, he puts the future in the past tense. That’s how committed God is to his people. No one falls through the cracks along the way. Everyone he foreknew he also glorifies. The people God starts out with he ends up with. The love of God is not just good intentions but power. That’s how God loves. It’s how God loves you.
But if you’re thinking, “But I’m not in on that,” God is inviting you to come on in. God is ready today to make all of this yours forever, no matter what you’ve done, because God loves sinners. Here’s how you can get inside the love of God. Empty your hands of all your righteousness and what you think you have coming to you, and hold out those empty hands before him, and he promises to fill your empty hands with every way God can love a sinner. Will you receive Christ today?