Q. Please explain Paul’s statement in Romans: “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Does this mean that not everyone can be saved?
Later in Romans, Paul says that God will cause some people to refuse to listen, such as Pharaoh. (“Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”) I constantly pray for my children, I need to see results, I guess my faith is not strong enough.
In my previous post I began to respond to this question by talking about prayer and faith. Let me now address these two passages from Romans, starting with the one about Pharaoh.
It’s very important to realize that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart did not determine his eternal destiny—that is, it did not cause him to be “lost.” Rather, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart with respect to one specific thing: his response to the order given through Moses, “Let my people go.” (God says to Moses, anticipating in advance the entire sequence I’ll describe in the next paragraph, “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.“)
After some of the earlier plagues, Pharaoh promised to do this, but once he was delivered from these plagues, he “hardened his heart.” Moses even warned him, as the plagues progressed, not to do this again, not to “act deceitfully,” but he continued to break his promises and “harden his heart.” After a while, God began to harden Pharaoh’s heart himself, in order to fulfill a larger purpose: “The Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh.” (Pharaoh had first greeted the order to “let my people go” with scoffing, asking, “Who is Yahweh?” He would find out!)
Not just the Egyptians, but all the surrounding peoples, learned of Yahweh’s reality and supreme power through the plagues that came because Pharaoh first hardened his own heart, and then God hardened it for him. When the Israelites finally entered Canaan, for example, Rahab told the spies Joshua had sent in that everyone there had heard of what God had done to the Egyptians, and “our hearts melted in fear . . . for Yahweh your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”
This awareness helped fulfill God’s promise to Abraham that through him “all people on earth” would be blessed. Rahab herself came over to Yahweh’s side, and according to the gospel of Matthew, she apparently married an Israelite and through her son Boaz—who brought another foreigner, Ruth, “under the wings” of the God of Israel—Rahab became an ancestress of Jesus the Messiah!
So the purpose of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not so that he would be lost, but so that many would be saved, from many nations. (Conceivably Pharaoh himself could have still come to faith in the God of Israel, though we don’t know whether this happened.)
Paul appeals to this episode as an analogy in the course of a long and complex discussion in Romans to argue that something similar is happening in his own day. God is once again hardening the hearts of some people in response to one specific thing, not so that they will be lost, but so that many will be saved. Paul explains that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved.” That is, “salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.” God, Paul says, has been restraining the response of Jesus’ Israelite contemporaries to the proclamation of his Messiahship so that this proclamation will be redirected to the Gentiles. Then, seeing the blessings the Gentiles receive from welcoming Jesus as their Savior will make the Israelites want to do the same.
It is true that permanently rejecting Jesus as Messiah would keep someone from being saved. But Paul says very clearly that this is not God’s purpose here. God wants “all Israel to be saved” and is hardening some of their hearts in order to bring this about. Paul makes the statement “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” in order to argue that hardening hearts is a means God may legitimately use to reach such ends. Hardening is not an end in itself, designed to keep anyone from salvation. I’m not aware of anywhere in the Bible where God is said to harden someone’s heart in order to keep them from being saved.
I believe this includes the other statement in Romans you asked about, which says that God predestined those He foreknew. It’s important to realize that this statement comes not in the first part of the epistle, where Paul is talking about how we are saved, but in the next part, where he is discussing how we are sanctified, “conformed to the image of his Son.” Note what leads immediately into the statement: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Paul is talking here about how God works in the lives of people who have already been restored to relationship with Him.
Amazingly, God has been able to experience that restored relationship with us from before all time—He “foreknew” us in the sense of already knowing relationally those who would ultimately embrace his offered love. And in light of this, He has planned all along to bring us into His family, “that [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” Once again the goal is to bring people in, not to keep them out.
To state the matter as simply as possible, in this other statement in Romans, Paul is discussing predestination to sanctification, not predestination to salvation. Once we become part of God’s family, He then works to bring about a family resemblance between us and Jesus.
So once again I would encourage you to pray with faith and perseverance for the salvation of your children. You cannot be going counter to God’s purposes when you do.