If God predestines someone to be conformed to the image of His Son, has God ever failed at anything? Never! Philippians 1:6 says that God is able to finish what He starts. We may stumble, but nevertheless, God desires to save us. He wants us to be in His Kingdom, and He has arranged for us to be resurrected at the seventh trumpet, at the return of Jesus Christ. He is preparing us to be conformed in the image of His Son so that we can rule under and with Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of God. Do we have that hope? Does it stir us that God has not failed at anything yet and that He desires us to be conformed to the image of His Son?
This will not be easy because to do this He may have to give us some terribly great pain. A great deal depends on whether or not we submit to Him—whether we submit willingly or whether we fight Him all along the way.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Don't Be a Prudent Agnostic
Paul actually left one step out here; he could have added sanctified. Sanctification is the period between justification and glorification during which we become holy, when the growth takes place.
Everything in regard to this issue exposes a process. We are to consider ourselves pilgrims heading toward the Kingdom of God, gradually being transformed into the image of God along the way. The qualities of character, whether human or godly, are not produced instantaneously but through the everyday gathering of information, weighing it, making the necessary choices, setting our wills, and watching to see the results.
Even as Israel had to walk out of Egypt and across the wilderness to the Promised Land—or there never would have been a change in their situation—so must we live this process to grow to become like God and be in His Kingdom. The laws of God are written on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10; Jeremiah 31:33) by life's experiences while we have a relationship with God. Like everything else in life, it is a process that has a beginning and end.
Like every educational system, it moves from simple to complex. It moves from that which is clearly stated in the letter of the law to what is less apparent and depends upon a background of instruction, experience, and results. It depends on faith in and love for God and love for man that have grown in a person to aid him in properly understanding, applying, and practicing the spirit of the law.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 19)
"Firstborn" is a term that appears quite frequently in Scripture. People most frequently think of it in terms of Jesus. He was Mary's firstborn (Matthew 1:25). He is also referred to as being "the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29). In Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 1:5, He is called "the firstborn from the dead." These biblical references are then linked in the minds of some with the belief that the resurrection, as described in I Corinthians 15:50-53, is a Christian's birth into the Kingdom of God, despite the fact that Paul never mentions being born in the context of resurrection (in fact, in I Corinthians 15:8, he uses "born" in terms of his calling!). So is this conclusion correct?
The Bible uses the term "firstborn" in a way that some may not realize, and in this way, "firstborn" may not indicate a literal birth at all! Once again, we are dealing with a term that has a spiritual meaning different from its literal one. Clearly, in the earliest parts of the Bible, "firstborn" indicates the eldest son. Within the Hebrew culture, it indicated a position of strength and the son to whom leadership of the family would pass when the father died. Thus, firstborn was a position of distinction and a fair measure of sanctity.
However, as one continues through the Bible, one begins to find that "firstborn" does not always mean that the person so named is literally the first born. Abraham passed on this right to Isaac, not Ishmael, who was the actual firstborn. Jacob was not Isaac's firstborn ("the older shall serve the younger"), but God certainly esteems him above Esau ("Esau I have hated").
Joseph, son of Jacob from Rachel, was not literally Jacob's firstborn. When the true eldest son, Reuben, disqualified himself, the right of firstborn did not automatically pass on to the second born, Simeon. Instead, Jacob passed that title of prominence and its prerogatives on to Joseph (I Chronicles 5:1-2). Surely, God had a hand in this transference. This clearly shows that God Himself does not necessarily follow the traditions of Israelitish culture but awards this prominence to the one prepared for the responsibility.
A great deal of further evidence of the use of the term "firstborn" flows directly from God Himself. Ephraim was not Joseph's firstborn, as Genesis 48:13-22 clearly shows. Jacob gave him that prominent position and title by God's inspiration. God commanded Moses to say to the Pharaoh of Egypt, "Israel is My son, My firstborn" (Exodus 4:22). Many nations were "born" long before Israel, but God gave the title of preeminence, "firstborn," to Israel. Later, in Jeremiah 31:9, God says, "For I am Father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn."
God uses "firstborn" in ways that we are generally unfamiliar with but that are nonetheless consistent with its use elsewhere in both Scripture and secular writings:
» Job 18:13: "It devours patches of his skin; the firstborn of death devours his limbs." Here, Bildad refers to a disease that he describes as powerful and deadly.
» Isaiah 14:30: "The firstborn of the poor will feed, and the needy will lie down in safety." The phrase indicates the poorest of the poor.
» Psalm 89:27: "I will make Him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth." This refers first to David, who was not himself a literal firstborn son, but also and more importantly, to Jesus Christ.
In these examples, "firstborn" is being used as a superlative, indicating preeminence, special quality, or significance to God. When it refers to Jesus Christ, it implies a preferential status, priority, dignity, sovereignty, and oneness with God. His relationship with God is unique, of the highest and greatest significance and quality. His relationships to creation, man, and especially to His brethren are also unique.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part Three)
Considering that God's chosen were foreknown and predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, yet seeing that many are called but few chosen (Matthew 20:16; 22:14), we are left wondering who was foreknown and who was predestined.
A safe approach to this is to understand that predestination applies to the church as a whole group. In other words, in the beginning God knew that He would raise up the church to do its work in the world and to nurture His called-out ones.
More recently, we have understood this to be far more specific. The Bible indicates that God foreknew several individuals at least from before their births (Isaac, Jacob, Samson, David, Solomon, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, etc.), so His foreknowledge includes specific people. It makes perfect sense that God would want certain individuals to perform in a particular way when He wanted special things done, as that is a pattern God has used in the past.
However, God's foreknowledge and predestination “to adoption as sons, . . . according to the good pleasure of His will” (Ephesians 1:5) is not an absolute guarantee of salvation and eternal life. The Bible is unambiguous in its assertions that a person can lose his salvation (see, for instance, Hebrews 2:1-3; 3:12; 4:1; 6:4-8; 10:26-31). If an individual could not lose his salvation, then why does God provide so many passages warning us of the possibility?
God is not a liar and does not warn without cause. These warnings are given because God has cause to give them! While God is sure of His ability to work out the salvation of every person He calls, each person has his part to play, that is, he must believe and cooperate with God throughout the sanctification process, growing in the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. This is why the apostle Paul urges us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). In other words, though God chooses us, we must also choose Him.
An individual's sins could cause him to lose this awesome opportunity. Yes, God is eager to forgive all our sins and set us back on the path of righteousness, but that act of mercy cannot begin if we do not seek forgiveness and repentance from Him. A sin is unpardonable if one refuses to ask God to pardon it.
A person can also turn away from God so willfully that he becomes a rebel against God, repudiating his former belief and “trampl[ing] the Son of God underfoot” (Hebrews 10:29). Christ's sacrifice does not apply in such a case because it cannot be applied twice to the same person. As the writer of Hebrews says, this is considering the blood of the covenant, Christ's own blood, to be common and an insult to the Spirit of grace.
Further, why would He reveal that there will be a Lake of Fire for the incorrigibly wicked if it would not be needed? Certainly, the Devil and his demons will be cast into it, as well as the Beast and False Prophet (Revelation 20:10), but Hebrews 10:26-27 indicates that this is also the fate of those who “sin willfully after receiv[ing] the knowledge of the truth” (see also Hebrews 6:8). By the way, the Lake of Fire imagery stands behind Jesus' illustrations of Gehenna fire as well as the fate of the man not wearing a wedding garment: “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This is why God warns us so often and so urgently in the pages of the Bible—because He does not want to lose those He has called to salvation!
John O. Reid (1930-2016)
Many Are Called, Few Are Chosen
Think of this in terms of humanity. My wife is from a family into which nine children were born. One died in infancy; eight brothers and sisters grew to adulthood. The firstborn was a son, eight others were born after him. Were those born after the firstborn intrinsically any different from the firstborn? They were all humans, just as the firstborn was!
Transfer this analogy into the spiritual realm, into the Family of which we are already considered to be a part. We are God's children (Romans 8:14; I John 3:1). Our inheritance is to enter that Family by being born again (John 3:3). Jesus Christ is the Firstborn, and He is God (John 1:1; 20:28). We are to be conformed to His image. When we are born into the God Family, will we be any less than He is? No, we are going to be God. We have come later, but we will be just like the Firstborn.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 13)
The purpose for our admittance into God's presence is that "we be conformed to the image of His Son." When first justified by Christ's blood and admitted into God's presence, we stand before Him, but we are not yet in His Son's image. At this point, the work has only begun; Christ's righteousness is only legally imputed to us. That righteousness is indeed real, but it is not yet inscribed or engraved into our character to become part of our very being. We stand free, clear, and accepted, but we do not have the same nature, mind, or character as the Son.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Offerings of Leviticus (Part Eight): Conclusion (Part One)
With such positive statements about our salvation, why should we be hopeless and fearfully doubt that God will supply all our needs? Does He ever fail to succeed in whatever He undertakes? These verses flatly and dogmatically state that, if we want to cooperate in faith to bring God's purpose for us to its intended conclusion, we must, I repeat, must, believe that His watchfulness over us involves every circumstance of our lives.
Verses 31 and 32 put a cap on this issue: "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?"
In verse 30, note that the term "sanctified" is missing from the list of the general stages of God's purpose. Sanctification is the only part of the salvation process in which our cooperation plays a major, consistent, and daily role. Why does Paul exclude it? This was not an oversight; he deliberately leaves "sanctified" out because he wants, for the remainder of this section of this epistle, to focus entirely on the absolute certainty of God's providence, not on any works we may perform in cooperation with Him during the sanctification process.
Paul is not saying that God will always do what we might want Him to do; he is reminding us that He will always do what is right according to His purpose. God has the necessary powers to do as He sees fit for His purpose and us. He is watching, which is even more reason for us to draw on that power.
Nobody can successfully stand in the way of His completing that purpose in each of us, but based on our knowledge of those powers, are we willing to accept His providence? Do we accept what He provides in any given circumstance, even though what He provides might not be what we would like to have?
All of the things Paul writes here are wonderful, but the key to this particular subject is the answer to the question he asks in verse 31: "If God be for us who can be against us?" God has the power and the will, and He does not make mistakes or empty promises. Paul then lists what God has already done for all concerned. Our responsibility is to choose to put these facts to work in our specific circumstances.
The handwriting on the wall for us is this: Terribly difficult times are coming, and they will affect all of us to varying degrees. The only successful way to complete our minute part in God's purpose is to choose to draw on His power. We must begin at once to cultivate the habit of cooperating by faith, accepting whatever He chooses to provide in our circumstances. If this habit is in place through long practice, we will be ready when the pressure really mounts.
Because He is the Source of our deliverance in every circumstance, it is crucial for us to know God as well as we can. Our relationship with Him through Jesus Christ is the key that gives us access to the deliverance He provides. He has the power, and it is His will to meet our every need. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to use our time now to build on our present relationship with Him, making it stronger and more intimate.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Power Belongs to God (Part Two)
No one has been glorified yet but Jesus Christ. God is so confident that He can finish what He has started that He states the promise as though it is already completed.
Verse 29 says, "For whom He foreknew." "Foreknew" applies to that period before His calling of us. Before He caused us to turn to Him, before He actually extended the invitation, He knew us. He was watching over our lives. Who knows how many times He intervened to alter the course of our lives in order to bring something critical about, whether it was our education or saving us from injury or death or disease? Who knows how He may have intervened because He "foreknew" us?
My study Bible comments about the word "foreknew":
This is not simple prescience or advanced knowledge. This knowledge should also not be understood in the sense of being acquainted with, but in the sense of bringing into a special relationship with, as Adam knew Eve his wife.
In other words, foreknew does not merely mean "to be acquainted with" or "to have advanced knowledge" of us. When God foreknew us, He was so close to us that He was sticking right by our side. He had clear insight and attended closely to what was happening in our lives.
God said to Israel, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth" (Amos 3:2). Jesus said, "I know My sheep" (John 10:27). In Matthew 7:23, He said to another group of people, "I never knew you."
Foreknowledge is God's determination to bring certain ones into a special relationship with Himself. Since it is foreknowledge, He determined to bring us to glory long before He called us, long before He caused us to turn to Him. He has been personally involved with us. We were not just personally selected, but also personally sought out. Why? We could say "for glory," that is, to be admitted into His Kingdom. This is certainly true, but it was also so that, first, He could have a relationship with us, that we would seek Him.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Holy Spirit and the Trinity (Part 7)
Here is God's purpose plainly stated. Those He calls are to be conformed to the image of His Son, clearly tied to the theme of creation where God says in Genesis 1:26, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness." We have a small part in this greatest of God's creative works. We must yield to that purpose. We must surrender to it and allow its power to carry us along to perfection. But it requires faith, conviction of its rightness, and devotion to its requirements. This creative process requires sacrificing our former lives with their sinful desires in submission to the details of God's purpose for us. This is our small part in this vast operation ongoing already for about 6,000 years.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Offerings of Leviticus (Part One): Introduction
Christ was born first, and He will be followed by many others, who will be His brothers. If we to be conformed to His image, how can we be anything except what Jesus Christ is—especially when we consider the New Testament emphasis for us to change to be as He is! Does Paul not say that we are to grow to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13)? This more than implies a period of spiritual growth or maturity.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 1)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Romans 8:29:
1 Corinthians 9:19-22
1 John 5:19-20