“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.” Romans 8:29 (ESV)
What does “foreknew” mean in Romans 8:29? Does it mean God looked ahead through time and knew in advance who would believe in Christ and thus predestined them to be conformed to the image of Jesus? Perhaps it reveals some kind of “middle knowledge” of God as he weighed various contingencies and possible decisions of his creatures? These options, which stand opposed to the historic reformed understanding of foreknowledge, seek to preserve unrestricted freedom of man’s will.
It’s helpful to ask two questions of the text at this point. First, to get the context, what is the object of God’s foreknowledge? Second, what is the meaning of the word?
The object of God’s foreknowledge in Romans 8:29 is people. God does not say here that he foreknew inclinations, choices, or actions. It is not faith God foreknew; he foreknew people. God did not choose to save based on foreseen human works or decisions; Scripture is clear that we are sovereignly saved by grace through faith (e.g. Romans 9:11-13, Ephesians 2:8-9). Commenting on the parallel passage in Ephesians 1:4, Robert Reymond writes in his A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, “God chose us before the creation of the world that we should be holy, not because he saw that we would be holy.”
What does the word mean? In Scripture, It can mean “prescience” or merely to know in advance (e.g. Acts 26:5, 2 Peter 3:17). The Westminster Larger Catechism Answer 14 uses the English word in that sense: “God executeth his decrees in the works of creation and providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will.”
But especially since the object of God’s foreknowledge in Romans 8:29 is people, we must see the connection to the use of the parallel word for knowing in the Old Testament. To know in the Hebrew Scriptures is to know intimately, as Adam did Eve when they conceived their son (Genesis 4:1). The word is frequently used to describe God’s election of his people. Genesis 18:19 says of Abraham, “For I have chosen [known] him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” The Lord knew of every child before he or she was born, so he must have something more intimate in mind when in speaking to Jeremiah when he said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). Similar uses abound in the Old Testament (c.f. Psalm 1:6, 144:3; Hosea 13:4-5, Amos 3:2).
The theme of God’s intimate, loving knowledge of his people carries into the New Testament, “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity’” (2 Timothy 2:19, c.f. 1 Corinthians 8:3). Certainly, the Lord knows every person on earth from a standpoint of bare knowledge, so the text is clearly speaking of something more personal in these cases.
Love is seen most of all in the Father’s foreknowledge of his own Son, “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake” (1 Peter 1:20).
In contrast to this loving knowledge of souls, God will declare to rebels “‘I never knew you” (Matthew 7:22, c.f. Matthew 25:11-12).
Thus, in his commentary on Romans, John Murray concludes of the word “foreknew”, “It means ‘whom he set regard upon’ or ‘whom he knew from eternity with distinguishing affection and delight’ and is virtually equivalent to ‘whom he foreloved.’”
God also predestines these people to the end described in the next verse. That predestinating act is logically rooted in his intimate foreknowledge of his people.
So, the word “foreknew” means that God foreloved his people. It describes love with which he loved his people his people in eternity past out of his mere good pleasure. The good news for the people of God is that since our assurance of salvation is rooted in God’s eternal love we can trust that he is working all things – even difficult circumstances in our lives at present – for our good (Romans 8:28) and that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39). Praise the Lord!