Commentary on Romans 8:28–30

by John Murray

28     And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose.
29     For whom he foreknew, he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren:
30     and whom he foreordained, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
This is the third ground of encouragement for the support of the children of God in the sufferings they are called upon to endure in this life. It consists in the consolation and assurance to be derived from the fact that all things work together for their good.
28 The version is probably correct in introducing these verses by the conjunction “and” rather than by “but”. The thought is not apparently adversative but transitional. When the apostle says “we know”, he is again intimating that the truth asserted is not one to be gainsaid. “To them that love God” is placed in the position of emphasis and characterizes those to whom the assurance belongs. They are described in
terms of their subjective attitude. In such terms no criterion could be more discriminating, for love to God is both the most elementary and the highest mark of being in the favour of God. “All things” may not be restricted, though undoubtedly the things contemplated are particularly those that fall within the compass of believers’ experience, especially suffering and adversity. Some of the ablest expositors maintain that “work together” does not mean that all things work in concert and cooperation with one another but that all things work in concert with the believer or with God.50 But it is unnecessary and perhaps arbitrary to depart from the more natural sense, namely, that in the benign and all-embracing plan of God the discrete elements all work together for good to them that love God. It is not to be supposed that they have any virtue or efficacy in themselves to work in concert for this end. Though not expressed, the ruling thought is that in the sovereign love and wisdom of God they are all made to converge upon and contribute to that goal. Many of the things comprised are evil in themselves and it is the marvel of God’s wisdom and grace that they, when taken in concert with the whole, are made to work for good. Not one detail works ultimately for evil to the people of God; in the end only good will be their lot. “To them that are called according to purpose” is a further definition of those to whom this assurance belongs. But the difference is significant. The former characterized them in terms of their subjective attitude, the latter in terms of God’s action exclusively. In the latter, therefore, there is an intimation of the reason why all things work for good—the action of God involved in their call is the guarantee that such will be the result.51 The call is the effectual call (cf. 1:7; vs. 30) which ushers into the fellowship of Christ (1 Cor. 1:9) and is indissolubly linked with predestination, on the one hand, and glorification, on the other. “According to purpose” refers without question to God’s determinate and eternal purpose (cf. 9:11; Eph. 1:11;3:11; 2 Tim. 1:9). The last cited text is Paul’s own expansion of the thought summed up in the word “purpose”: “who saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before times eternal”. Determinate efficacy characterizes the call because it is given in accordance with eternal purpose.
29 This verse unfolds in greater detail the elements included in the “purpose” of verse 28, and verses 29, 30 are a “continued confirmation”52 of the truth that all things work for good to those who are the called of God. There is no question but the apostle here introduces us to the eternal counsel of God as it pertains to the people of God and delineates for us its various aspects.
“Whom he foreknew”—few questions have provoked more difference of interpretation than that concerned with the meaning of God’s foreknowledge as referred to here. It is, of course, true that the word is used in the sense of “to know beforehand” (cf. Acts 26:5; 2 Pet. 3:17). As applied to God it could, therefore, refer to his eternal prevision, his foresight of all that would come to pass. It has been maintained by many expositors that this sense will have to be adopted here. Since, however, those whom God is said to have foreknown are distinguished from others and identified with those whom God also predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son, and since the expression “whom he foreknew” does not, on this view of its meaning, intimate any distinction by which the people of God could be differentiated, various ways of supplying this distinguishing element have been proposed. The most common is to suppose that what is in view is God’s foresight of faith.53 God foreknew who would believe; he foreknew them as his by faith. On this interpretation predestination is conceived of as conditioned upon this prevision of faith. Frequently, though not necessarily in all instances, this view of foreknowledge is considered to obviate the doctrine of unconditional election, and so dogmatic interest is often apparent in those who espouse it.
It needs to be emphasized that the rejection of this interpretation is not dictated by a predestinarian interest. Even if it were granted that “foreknew” means the foresight of faith, the biblical doctrine of sovereign election is not thereby eliminated or disproven. For it is certainly true that God foresees faith; he foresees all that comes to pass. The question would then simply be: whence proceeds this faith which God foresees? And the only biblical answer is that the faith which God foresees is the faith he himself creates (cf. John 3:3–8; 6:44, 45, 65; Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29; 2 Pet. 1:2). Hence his eternal foresight of faith is preconditioned by his decree to generate this faith in those whom he foresees as believing, and we are thrown back upon the differentiation which proceeds from God’s own eternal and sovereign election to faith and its consequents. The interest, therefore, is simply one of interpretation as it should be applied to this passage. On exegetical grounds we shall have to reject the view that “foreknew” refers to the foresight of faith.
It should be observed that the text says “whom he foreknew”; whom is the object of the verb and there is no qualifying addition. This, of itself, shows that, unless there is some other compelling reason, the expression “whom he foreknew” contains within itself the differentiation which is presupposed. If the apostle had in mind some “qualifying adjunct”54 it would have been simple to supply it. Since he adds none we are forced to inquire if the actual terms he uses can express the differentiation implied. The usage of Scripture provides an affirmative
answer. Although the term “foreknow” is used seldom in the New Testament, it is altogether indefensible to ignore the meaning so frequently given to the word “know” in the usage of Scripture; “foreknow” merely adds the thought of “beforehand” to the word “know”. Many times in Scripture “know” has a pregnant meaning which goes beyond that of mere cognition.55 It is used in a sense practically synonymous with “love”, to set regard upon, to know with peculiar interest, delight, affection, and action (cf. Gen. 18:19; Exod. 2:25; Psalm 1:6; 144:3; Jer. 1:5; Amos 3:2; Hosea 13:5; Matt. 7:23; 1 Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:19; 1 John 3:1). There is no reason why this import of the word “know” should not be applied to “foreknow” in this passage, as also in 11:2 where it also occurs in the same kind of construction and where the thought of election is patently present (cf. 11:5, 6.)56 When this import is appreciated, then there is no reason for adding any qualifying notion and “whom he foreknew” is seen to contain within itself the differentiating element required. 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”. This interpretation, furthermore, is in agreement with the efficient and determining action which is so conspicuous in every other link of the chain—it is God who predestinates, it is God who calls, it is God who justifies, and it is he who glorifies. Foresight of faith would be out of accord with the determinative action which is predicated of God in these other instances and would constitute a weakening of the total emphasis at the point where we should least expect it. Foresight has too little of the active to do justice to the divine monergism upon which so much of the emphasis falls. It is not the foresight of difference but the foreknowledge that makes difference to exist, not a foresight that recognizes existence but the foreknowledge that determines existence. It is sovereign distinguishing love.
“He also foreordained.” One of the main objections urged against the foregoing view of “whom he foreknew” is that it would obliterate the distinction between foreknowledge and predestination.57 There is ostensible progression of thought expressed in “he also foreordained”. But there is no need to suppose that this progression is disturbed if “foreknew” is interpreted in the way propounded. “Foreknew” focuses attention upon the distinguishing love of God whereby the sons of God were elected. But it does not inform us of the destination to which those thus chosen are appointed. It is precisely that information that “he also foreordained” supplies, and it is by no means superfluous. When we consider the high destiny defined, “to be conformed to the image of his Son”, there is exhibited not only the dignity of this ordination but also the greatness of the love from which the appointment flows. God’s love is not passive emotion; it is active volition and it moves determinatively to nothing less than the highest goal conceivable for his adopted children, conformity to the image of the only-begotten Son. To allege that the pregnant force of “foreknew” does not leave room for the distinct enunciation of this high destiny is palpably without warrant or reason.58
“Conformed to the image of his Son” defines the destination to which the elect of God are appointed. The apostle has in view the conformity to Christ that will be realized when they will be glorified with Christ (vs. 17; cf. vss. 18, 19, 21, 23, 30), the final and complete conformity of resurrection glory (cf. 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:2). It is noteworthy that this should be described as conformity to the image of the Son; it enhances the marvel of the destination. The title “Son” has reference to Christ as the only-begotten (cf.vss. 3, 32) and therefore the unique and eternal Sonship is contemplated. The conformity cannot, of course, have in view conformity to him in that relation or capacity; the conformity embraces the transformation of the body of our humiliation to the likeness of the body of Christ’s glory (Phil. 3:21) and must therefore be conceived of as conformity to the image of the incarnate Son as glorified by his exaltation. Nevertheless, the glorified Christ does not cease to be the eternal Son and it is the eternal Son who is the glorified incarnate Son. Conformity to his image as incarnate and glorified, therefore, is conformity to the image of him who is the eternal and only-begotten Son.
“That he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” This specifies the final aim of the conformity just spoken of. We might well ask: What can be more final than the complete conformity of the sons of God to the image of Christ? It is this question that brings to the forefront the significance of this concluding clause. There is a final end that is more ultimate than the glorification of the people of God; it is that which is concerned with the preeminence of Christ. As Meyer correctly notes: “Paul contemplates Christ as the One, to whom the divine decree referred as to its final aim”.59 The term “firstborn” reflects on the priority and the supremacy of Christ (cf. Col. 1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6;Rev. 1:5).60 It is all the more striking that, when the unique and eternal Sonship is contemplated in the title “Son” and the priority and supremacy of Christ in the designation “firstborn”, the people of God should be classified with Christ as “brethren” (cf. Heb. 2:11, 12). His unique sonship and the fact that he is the firstborn guard Christ’s distinctiveness and preeminence, but it is among many brethren that his preeminence appears. This is another example of the intimacy of the relation existing between Christ and the people of God. The union
means also community and this community is here expressed as that of “brethren”. The fraternal relationship is subsumed under the ultimate end of the predestinating decree, and this means that the preeminence of Christ carries with it the eminence that belongs to the children of God. In other words, the unique dignity of the Son in his essential relation to the Father and in his messianic investiture enhances the marvel of the dignity bestowed upon the people of God. The Son is not ashamed to call them brethren (Heb. 2:11).
30 The two preceding verses deal with the eternal and pre-temporal counsel of God; the “purpose” of verse 28 is explicated in verse 29in terms of foreknowledge and predestination, the latter defining the ultimate goal of the counsel of salvation. Verse 30 introduces us to the realm of the temporal and indicates the actions by which the eternal counsel is brought to actual fruition in the children of God. Three actions are mentioned, calling, justification, and glorification. There is an unbreakable bond between these three actions themselves, on the one hand, and the two elements of the eternal counsel, on the other. All five elements are co-extensive. The sustained use of “also” and the repetition of the terms “foreordained”, “called”, “justified” in the three relative clauses in verse 30 signalize the denotative equation. Thus it is made abundantly evident that there cannot be one element without the others and that the three elements which are temporal flow by way of consequence from the eternal counsel, particularly from predestination because it stands in the closest logical relation to calling as the first in the sequence of temporal events.61
It is to be observed that calling, justification, and glorification are set forth as acts of God—“he called”, “he justified”, “he glorified”. The same divine monergism appears as in “he foreknew” and “he foreordained”. It is contrary to this emphasis to define any of these elements of the application of redemption in any other terms than those of divine action. It is true that all three affect us men, they draw our persons within their scope, and are of the deepest practical moment to us in the actual experience of salvation. But God alone is active in those events which are here mentioned and no activity on the part of men supplies any ingredient of their definition or contributes to their efficacy.62 For reasons which are rather obvious but which need not be developed we should infer that the sequence which the apostle follows represents the order in the application of redemption. The apostle enumerates only three elements. These, however, as the pivotal events in our actual salvation, serve the apostle’s purpose in delineating the divine plan of salvation from its fount in the love of God to its consummation in the glorification of the sons of God. Glorification, unlike calling and justification, belongs to the future. It would not be feasible in this context (cf. 5:2; vss. 17, 18, 21, 24, 25, 29) to regard it as other than the completion of the process of salvation and, though “glorified” is in the past tense, this is proleptic, intimating the certainty of its accomplishment.63
In extending encouragement and support to the people of God in their sufferings and adversities, groanings and infirmities, the apostle has reached this triumphant conclusion. He has shown how the present pilgrimage of the people of God falls into its place in that determinate and undefeatable plan of God that is bounded by two foci, the sovereign love of God in his eternal counsel and glorification with Christ in the age to come. It is when they apprehend by faith this panorama that stretches from the love of God before times eternal to the grand finale of the redemptive process that the sufferings of this present time are viewed in their true perspective and are seen, sub specie aeternitatis, to be but the circumstances of pilgrimage to, and preconditions of, a glory to be revealed so great in its weight that the tribulations are not worthy of comparison.
50 Cf. Philippi, Meyer, Godet, ad loc. If after συνεργεῖ we read ὁ θεός with p46 A B and Origen on two or three occasions, this would not establish the view that “work together” refers to concert with God. On that reading συνεργεῖ would have to be understood transitively in the sense of “cause to work together” and πάντα would be accusative. But it would still be true that God makes all things to work together. As indicated above, it is by God’s providence that all things work together for good. This is expressly stated when ὁ θεός is added; it is implied if ὁ θεός is omitted.
51 “Respecting the idea itself, there is causally involved in the relation of being the called according to His purpose (for the emphasis rests upon κλητοῖς), the certainty that to them all things, etc.” (Meyer: op. cit., ad loc.). “Sufferings, of course, can only tend to our benefit upon the assumption that we love God; but the ground of their salutary operation lies not in our love, but in our calling according to the divine purpose” (Philippi: op. cit., ad loc.).
52 The phrase is Meyer’s.
53 “The meaning to which we are brought seems to me to be this: those on whom His eye fixed from all eternity with love; whom He eternally contemplated and discerned as His. In what respect did God thus foreknow them?… There is but one answer: foreknown as sure to fulfil the condition of salvation, viz. faith; so: foreknown as His by faith” (Godet: op. cit., ad loc.). “The right view, since faith is the subjective ground of salvation, is that held by Calovius and our older dogmatists: ‘quos credituros praevidit vel suscepturos vocationem’ ” (Meyer: op. cit., ad loc.; cf. also ad vs. 30). Cf. also Philippi (op. cit., ad loc.) who regards the meaning to know beforehand as the only reasonable one and that the implied qualification is that of faith. However, Philippi regards the faith which God foresees as nothing but his own creation. And so he finds in this passage “a dictum probans for the doctrine of praedestinatio, not absolute, but based upon praevisio”. On John Wesley’s interpretation, as representative of the Arminian view, cf. The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, London, 1878. vol. VI, pp. 226f.
54 The expression is Shedd’s.
55 It is instructive to note how even Daniel Whitby takes account of this import and adopts it in his exposition of this passage; cf. A Paraphrase and Commentary on the New Testament, London, 1744, ad Rom. 8:29; 11:2.
56 It is gratuitous for Meyer to argue that προγινώσκω “never in the N.T. (not even in 11:2, 1 Pet. 1:20) means anything else than to know beforehand” (op. cit., ad loc.). Undoubtedly it has this meaning in Acts 26:5; 2 Pet. 3:17, where it is applied to men. The only other instance in the New Testament besides Rom. 8:29; 11:2 is 1 Pet. 1:20, in all three of which God is the subject (cf. πρόγνωσις in Acts 2:23; 1 Pet. 1:2). In these five instances of the idea as applied to God the one consideration that weighs more than any other in determining the precise import is the frequent use of ידע in Hebrew and γινώσκω in Greek in the pregnant sense defined above. It is likewise significant that in this use of γινώσκω the accusative occurs without any qualifying adjunct to specify the differentiation necessarily involved (cf. Matt. 7:23; 2 Tim. 2:19; 1 John 3:1).
57 Meyer says that this view of προέγνω “would necessarily include the προορισμός, and consequently exclude the latter as a special and accessory act” (idem).
58 In this respect the relation of προέγνω to προώρισε is parallel to that of ἀγάπη to προορίσας in Eph. 1:5. Meyer argues for the readingἐν ἀγάπῃ προορίσας at that point and must therefore recognize the love as causally antecedent—it was out of love that God predestinated the elect unto adoption. Why then should there be any difficulty in discovering the antecedence of electing love in Rom. 8:29 together with the distinction and the progression of thought which the two terms in question express?
59 Op. cit., ad loc. In Philippi’s words also, “Thus not so much to glorify us as to glorify Christ has God ordained for us such glory” (op. cit., ad loc.).
60 On the meaning of πρωτότοκος cf. J. B. Lightfoot: St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon, ad Col. 1:15.
61 On the priority of calling in the ordo salutis cf. Redemption—Accomplished and Applied, pp. 100ff.; 114f., by the writer.
62 It is true that calling elicits the appropriate response, and justification is through the instrumentality of faith. Therefore these acts of God do not occur irrespective of faith, in the former case as result, in the latter as precondition. But these acts of God are not to be defined in terms of human activity. Calling is therefore effectual, and it would be as sensible to speak of resisting the divine act of justification as of resisting this call.
63 Surely a proleptic aorist representing, as Meyer says, “the de facto certainly future glorification as so necessary and certain, that it appears as if already given and completed with the ἐδικαίωσεν” (op. cit., ad loc.).

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links