It is easier to know about someone than to really know them.
One of my heroes is Thomas Watson. I’ve read his works and studied his biography, his time and its culture- but still I don’t know the man. I just know about him. Because my hero and I are separated by time and biology (my body is still functioning while his has been decomposing in the ground for some time) I am kept from the pleasure of sitting down and having a good face to face chat with him (one day, in glory, I hope this situation is remedied!).
However, our God faces no such obstacles. Not only does He know about everyone (and everything) but He also has chosen to know His own and bring them to the delight of knowing Him. This is the wonderful teaching of Romans 8:29-30 (and really much of the entire chapter delights in this truth) but sadly this point has been lost through the confusion over one interesting little word, the word “foreknew.”
Romans 8:29-30 reads like this: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”
Some argue that this text teaches that God looked down the tunnel of time and “foreknew” (or saw) an individual’s faith. In other words, God saw before hand who would believe and these whose faith He “foresaw,” He predestined. This view holds, then, that the work of God’s election to salvation is His response to the faith exercised by the individual.
But this understanding sadly misses the rich truth of this word “foreknew.”
Notice what the text says. It doesn’t say “those whose faith He foreknew” but it says “those whom He foreknew.” You see, the foreknowledge being talked about here is not a prior knowledge of an action but a prior knowledge of a person.
So what’s the difference? Let me explain.
Often this word “knew” is used biblically to refer to a level of intimacy in a relationship. The classic example comes from the opening pages of Scripture: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain…” (Genesis 4:1). Adam didn’t simple know about Eve, but he intimately and affectionately related to her. He loved her and acted in love towards her.
Here are some other examples, revolving around God taking this word “knew” and using it to describe His relationship with His own. Of the nation of Israel, God said “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). Clearly God knew about everybody else on the planet, but He only entered into this special, covenant relationship with His chosen people.
This term is also used of individuals. God says of the prophet Jeremiah, His chosen mouthpiece: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). God had a set purpose for Jeremiah- a purpose marked out by a relationship with Jeremiah.
But probably the most striking uses of this term is found on the lips of Jesus. As he is concluding the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes this startling revelation: “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt. 7:22-23).” Again, Jesus’ own words reveal that he knew about these people- he knew all about their lawlessness- but he didn’t know them!
And so when Paul describes the Elect as those God “foreknew,” Scripturally this is the kind of “knowing” he is describing. God knew His own long before they ever knew Him. He predestined them to conformity with Christ, not because God knew how they would respond, but because He entered into a relationship with them before the World began!
Now, does this mean that back in eternity past you and God were sitting around having face to face conversations? No. It means that He set His affections on you before the world began. From eternity past you were intimately His; He knew you (related to you) in a far different way than He knew the condemned world. Look at the way Scripture describes this beautiful relationship in such places as John 17:6, 9, 23; Rom. 9:13-16;and Eph 1:4-5.
What an amazing truth to realize that God, according to His own Sovereign will, chose to make me an object of His eternal affections. How humbling to understand that His love towards me expressed in His amazing work of my full salvation (“these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified”) was not based on His knowledge of my response, but is founded solely on His own glorious plan. How reassuring then to realize that my salvation is as secure as God is powerful- the One who chose me according to His own Sovereign love will keep me by that same Sovereign love!
How wonderful to be known by Him.