The Eternal Purpose of God

One of the all-time favorite verses of Christians is Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” This great promise provides a foundation for Christian living; namely that believers can know for certain that God loves them and is for them, and is working out every detail of life for their good, whether they can see it or not. But there is also something much deeper here that we often overlook. Paul tells us that this promise is not based on anything in us, but rather based on the fact that we have been “called according to [God’s] purpose.” In other words, God guarantees to do the believer good because of what He has purposed or planned. His benevolence toward His children is not based on whether they love Him enough, or do enough good works. His goodness toward them is based on something much greater, namely His purposes which were determined in eternity past (see Eph 1:4, 1 Cor 2:7).

What is the Purpose of God?
What is Paul referring to when he says that we have been “called according to His purpose?” What actually is “His purpose?” We don’t need to go any further than the following verses to discover that Paul expounds on the great purpose of God in Romans 8:29-30. Paul explains this purpose when he says, “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.” These verses explain every part and detail of our great salvation and God’s glorious intentions in history. Here Paul gives us a complete summary of salvation from beginning to end in order to show that each step is but a part of the outworking of this eternal purpose of God. We are told that God decided, decreed and planned a way of salvation. These verses, unfold for us what God is doing, purposed and planned to do throughout history in His world (see also Eph 1:5, 9, 11, 2 Tim 1:9, 1 Peter 1:20, 2 Cor 2:6-7). These verses also reveal that it is actually God who is acting. There is not one mention of believers doing anything in these verses, but a complete description of what God did before time began, what He is doing currently in history, and what He plans to do in the future. Here is a summary of what the verses say:

  • In order that he (Jesus, his Son) might be the firstborn among many brothers.
  • Those whom God foreknew, He predestined.
  • Those whom God predestined, He also called.
  • Those whom God called, He also justified.
  • Those whom God justified, He also glorified.

That Jesus Might Have Preeminence
Let’s begin with the statement that shows up at the end of v. 29 – “in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” We begin with this statement because it gives us the overarching goal of the Father in his eternal purpose. Paul tells us that all of this has been done “in order that.” In other words, there was a reason for all of the details. And that reason was that Jesus would become the firstborn among many brothers.

The term firstborn has a couple of meanings. First, it means literally the son who was born chronologically first. But second, the term also came to be known as having more significance, namely having rights and authority and rank. This idea of rank is clearly how Paul uses the phrase in Colossians 1:15, when Jesus is called the “first born of creation.” Clearly Jesus was not the first to be born in all of creation! Furthermore, He was not a created being (unlike what the Jehovah Witnesses claim). So, Paul is certainly using this phrase in this second manner. As the “first born,” Jesus has been given rights and authority that come with being the preeminent one. Jesus is the one whom God appointed to have authority over all things. In Psalm 89:27, God said “I will make [Jesus] the firstborn, the highest of the Kings of the earth” (Ps 89:27). So, Paul is revealing to us in this verse God’s overarching purpose in the plan of salvation. God had one glorious goal, namely that Jesus, His Son would be exalted, glorified and have preeminence in the universe for all time (Col 1:18). When the eternal Son of God agreed in the eternal counsel before time began (Eph 1:4, 1 Cor 2:7) to humble himself as a man, to die, and be resurrected, the Father promised to exalt Him and bring Him glory. The goal of that eternal plan was that every being on the earth, and in the heavens would bow before Jesus and declare that Him to be “Lord” (Phil 2:6-11). Furthermore, it was God’s plan, “in the fulness of time, to unite all things in him (Jesus), things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). The exaltation of His Son, was the ultimate goal of the Father.

Many Brothers
But the fulfillment of this preeminence of Christ is wrapped up in bringing many sons to glory (Heb 2:10), or Jesus being the first among “many brothers.” The question is, “What will God do in order to accomplish His eternal purpose of giving Jesus “many brothers?” We must remember that the Father had given Jesus these brothers (and sisters) from eternity past (see Jn 6:37, 39, 10:27-30, 17:3, 6, 9, 11, 24) and Jesus came to earth to save and gather them particularly (Jn 10:14-18).

When we look at what God has done in order to fulfill His eternal purpose in regard to these “brothers,” we see that God did something before time, He does something in time, and He promises to do something in the future. God is able to accomplish His eternal purpose and nothing will frustrate it. In fact, the verb tenses that Paul uses are all past tense, as though these things have already taken place. If we look at the chain of events in verses 29-30, often called the unbreakable golden chain of redemption by theologians, we can see exactly how God has fulfilled His eternal purpose. God’s purpose extended back into eternity past and is guaranteed to continue to eternity future.

Before time: Before time existed, God foreknew those He predestined. Many wrongly interpret this foreknowledge as God’s knowledge of the future actions of believers, that God looked into the future and knew that they would have faith (Arminian position) and predestined them accordingly. It is certainly true that God knows all things including actions. But the word “foreknowledge” is a word that is used many times in Scripture (Acts 2:23, Rom 11:2, 1 Peter 1:2, 20) and implies a knowledge of individuals. This text clearly refers to individuals (“whom”) not actions. And it is these individuals which God foreknew, that He also predestined. Predestined means “designated before.” This is simply a description of the destiny that God has determined and decided upon for the people whom He has foreknown (Eph 1:4-14, 1 Peter 2:9).

In time: In time, God calls these individuals and justifies them. This is His work. The calling is a grabbing of His people (1 Cor 1:2, 9, 24, 26). He grabs them and makes them His own. He calls and teaches them with an irresistible grace (Jn 6:44-45) and they inevitably come to Christ with faith. And as a result of that faith, God justifies them (Rom 3:21-26, 5:1). These individuals are no longer condemned in their sin, but God declares them righteous by faith in His Son. These are now the guiltless ones, who have been added to the family of God.

In the future: And as a result of all of this, God promises to glorify them. Just as Jesus was glorified, so believers will also be glorified (1 Cor 2:7, Rom 5:2, Col 3:4, 1 Pet 5:4, 1 Cor 15:51-57, 1 Jn 3:2) and given new bodies. They will be fully redeemed from sin and death.

God’s Purposes Will Not Fail
What God planned in eternity past, He has the power to bring to pass. Paul assumes that the eternal purpose of God will not be frustrated but fulfilled in order that the Father’s Son will indeed be truly preeminent. The exaltation of Christ and having all things fulfilled in His Son is determined by the faithfulness of God to keep His promises. If God were not able to bring many sons to glory and give Jesus “many brothers” then the whole eternal purpose of God would be in vain. But since God is omnipotent, He is able to accomplish His purposes. This eternal plan and purpose of God gives us as believers great confidence and assurance. Our hope is wrapped up in what God has promised. The “good” that God intends to work out for us, is nothing less than the promised calling, justification and glorification of His people whom He knew and predestined before the world even began!