God is working to a plan: Part 1
[The following article was originally published in the Banner of Truth Magazine, May 2020]
God is working to a plan (1)
Lots of new houses are being built in the part of town where you live. You pass them every day. And as you do so you see the whole process unfolding – from the digging of the foundations to the finishing touches. Nor is there anything haphazard about it. All the way through – from beginning to end – the builders are working to a carefully drawn-up plan. Whether it’s the square-footage of the site, the height of the walls, the placing of the windows, or the number of the rooms it has all been planned out in advance.
When it comes to our salvation it is exactly the same. God is working to a plan – a plan drawn up before any of his saving work began. There is a reference to it, for example, in Romans 8:28 where Paul describes those who love God as having been ‘called according to his purpose’. God doesn’t just decide on the spur of the moment. Those whom he calls he has previously purposed to call.
In the following verse, verse 29, Paul elaborates: ‘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’. You may never have seen the kind of architect’s plan to which a builder works. Here, however, is a glimpse of something infinitely more important. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit Paul shows us a little of the plan of salvation to which God is working.
The special word that tells us there is a plan
It is this plan that we are exploring in this short series of articles. And we begin with the special word that tells us there is a plan, the word predestined. Those whom God foreknew ‘he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son’. Paul uses the word again in the following verse. Focusing now on the outworking of the plan he speaks about those whom God had thus predestined being called, justified, and glorified.
Think of it as a word in two parts – pre and destined. Destined is a planning word. You say of a certain worn-out piece of furniture that it’s destined for the tip. That’s where you’ve decided it’s going. Then there is the prefix pre. What does that tell us? Simply that it has all been planned beforehand. When you bundle that piece of furniture into the back of the car you’re not acting on a sudden impulse.
So with our salvation. When Paul says that our conformity to the image of God’s Son has been the subject of divine predestination (or foreordination) he means that it has all been planned in advance. And from other passages of Scripture we learn just how far in advance. God’s choice of us in Christ was made before the creation of the world (Eph.1:4). His purpose and grace were given us in Christ before the ages began (2 Tim 1:9). This is a very ancient plan indeed!
What the plan is
This article is one of three. In the second and third we’ll be looking in some detail at the plan itself. For now, the briefest of overviews. It falls into two parts. To begin with, God’s plan is to do something for us, namely, to conform us to the image of his Son. It is a beautiful angle on what salvation is all about. What is God’s goal? It is to make us like Jesus. And later we will see that there two sides to that. God is going to make us like him both inwardly and outwardly. He has predestined us to have hearts that are as free from sin as Jesus’ heart and a body as glorious as his.
The plan, however, goes beyond us: ‘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’. God’s ultimate goal in salvation is not to do something for us but for Jesus. He is making us like him so that one day he might be chief among a vast brotherhood who perfectly resemble him. It’s such an important perspective. We might be tempted to think that since God’s plan is to save us his purpose terminates on us. It doesn’t.
What moved God to make this plan
There is always an explanation for a plan; something that moves the planner to draw it up. So what about this plan? God’s plan to save us? What moved him to make it? The answer lies in a word on which we haven’t yet touched, the word foreknew. Those predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son were those whom God foreknew.
In explanation of this it is often said that what God foreknew was faith – the faith to which we are called in the gospel. He knew in advance who would believe in his Son and in response predestined them to be like him. Two observations are relevant:
Firstly, Paul is thinking about certain people. He speaks of those whom God foreknew. The focus is not on actions; on what these individuals would do. It’s on the people themselves.
Secondly, the people in question are specially loved. Again and again in Scripture the word know is used in a relational sense. It expresses commitment, affection, love, delight. There has been a bonding! Through the prophet Amos, for example, God says to Israel, ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth’ (Ch.3:2). Had the knowing in question been merely to do with things there would have been nothing distinctive about Israel. In that sense of knowing God knows all people equally. What God is saying is that with Israel alone his heart has specially bonded. He has a love for this people that is different from and above his love for all others.
It is this rich, relational sense of knowing that is in Paul’s mind in Romans 8:29. Those foreknown are those whom God has specially loved; loved beforehand; loved from eternity. And it’s the love that explains the plan. It is because God has set his heart on certain people that he has predestined them to become like his Son.
What do we find when we put this love under the microscope? It is, for example, an ancient love. How long have you loved the people whom you love? Ten, twenty, thirty, forty years? If you are a Christian God has loved you from eternity! It is an active love, moving God to plan our salvation. It is an enriching love, impelling God to bless us in extraordinary ways. It is a powerful love. Those who are its objects are afterwards called, justified, and glorified (v.30). It is a mysterious love. We cannot explain it. We can get behind the plan and account for the plan by the love that moved God to make it. But we cannot account for the love itself. It is a humbling love. For on whom is it set? Sinners! And finally, a constraining love. Under its influence we love too – God Himself, our fellow Christians, a lost world, our very enemies – and show it in Christlike service.