Getting to Know God’s Foreknowledge: A Survey of the New Testament

silhouette of mountain under starry night

To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout
the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,
who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,
through the sanctifying work of the Spirit,
to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood.
— 1 Peter 1:1–2 NIV —

On Sunday, I preached the first message in sermon series on 1 Peter. Considering the opening salutation, we spent most of our time getting to know Peter, his audience (the elect exiles scattered in Asia Minor), and the triune God—Father, Spirit, and Son. As with many of Paul’s letters, Peter packs a robust theology into his greeting. And one phrase in particular is worth noting: “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.”

More fully, we have Peter addressing elect exiles who are “chosen” (see 1 Peter 2:4, 9) “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” In the ESV, the distance between the addressees and the source of their election stands in relative distance, with the five regions of Asia listed in between. This matches the way that Greek reads, but it can miss how Peter is qualifying “elect exiles” with verse 2. For this reason, the NIV supplies a repetition of elect, when it says “those who are chosen.” See above.

Still, the translation of the Greek is not as difficult as understanding what “according to foreknowledge” means. Is this a tacit admission that God chooses his elect based upon their future faith (an Arminian view)? Or is it a case where God chooses his elect based upon his free and sovereign grace without any consideration of what his creatures will later do (a Calvinistic view)? Or is it something else?

However one interprets this phrase, we can acknowledge this is one of those places in the New Testament where Christians do disagree on how to understand the biblical doctrine of election and predestination. I have written on this subject (here and here), preached on it (Ephesians 1 and Titus 1), and you can find an excellent treatment on this topic in Robert Peterson’s biblical theology, Election and Free Will: God’s Gracious Choice and Our Response.  

Still, the particular question of foreknowledge deserves a particular answer, and in what follows here, I will survey the use of the word “foreknowledge” (proginoskō) in the New Testament to see what we can learn. As we go, I will show why the best way to understand this word, and its use in 1 Peter 1:1–2, is to affirm God’s sovereign, eternal, and unconditional election of individuals to salvation. In other words, foreknowledge, as I will show below, should be understood as a word that conveys “loved beforehand” or even “loved by God before the world began.” Thus, 1 Peter 1:1–2 should be read as Peter addressing God’s elect, who were predestined in love before the foundation of the world. That’s the conclusion of the matter, now let’s consider the biblical support. 

Getting to Know God’s Foreknowledge: Surveying the New Testament

In the New Testament, some form of the verb ‘foreknow’ is used seven times (Acts 2:23; 26:5; Romans 8:29; 11:2; 1 Peter 1:2, 20; 3:17), and it can take on different shades of meaning depending on the context and specifically who is the one “foreknowing”—Are they human or divine? Let’s start with the meaning of the word and then see how it is used in each context.

For starters, we should observe how “foreknow” (proginoskō) is a compound word composed of “pro” (before) and “ginoskō” (personal knowledge). This composition suggests knowledge known beforehand. In the New Testament this results in two primary meanings: (1) knowing something ahead of time, as we might know the time a plane will arrive before it lands, or (2) God’s knowledge of events pertaining to salvation, that only God could know and that he knows from before the world was made.

Acts 2:23 and Acts 26:5

In Acts, we can see both of these uses, and by looking at each, we can see a clear difference between the way humans know things ahead of time and the way God knows things ahead of time. For instance, in Acts 2:23 foreknowledge is a proactive determination by God of future events, but in Acts 26:5 foreknowledge is the human awareness of something in advance. That’s the basic contrast. Let’s look at the details.

First, Acts 2:23 reads, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Here the term is used in relation to Jesus’s death. Jesus was delivered up not by accident or mistake, but “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” Thus, God did not simply know in advance that Jesus would be crucified, he planned it. And as Acts 4:27–28 confirms, God predestined this plan before the world began. Accordingly, Jesus’s death was based upon God’s eternal and determinative will.

Next, Acts 26:5 says, They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.” This usage of proginoskō is not translated as foreknowledge but as the more basic, “known for a long time.” Speaking before Agrippa, Paul says of the Jews, “They have known for a long time” how he conducted his life and ministry. He uses the term proginoskō to say that their knowledge was known prior to his arrest and accusation.

When we look at these two uses, we can note a crucial distinction. In the first, it is God’s foreknowledge; in the second, it is man’s. Thus, one way to distinguish the usage of the word is based upon the difference between divine and human natures. For God, who is all-knowing and unchanging (omniscient and immutable), his knowledge is not based upon anything in creation. Rather, he knows all things because he has decreed all things. As Isaiah 46:9 says, he has declared the end from the beginning, and, in fact, he declared the end from before the beginning. He is not like us, who must learn by a series of events what the world is or will be. He is God whose knowledge is eternal and infinite. To say that God learns something from his creatures tampers with who God is. It asserts that God is like us, human beings who are by nature mutable and changed by the world around us.

By contrast, God is the sovereign Lord who is not altered or affected by his creation. While men are by nature “impassioned” and affected by others (see Acts 14:15 KJV), God stands outside of his creation and is, as the Westminster Confession so wonderfully declares, “infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory” (WCF II.1).

Because God’s nature is different than ours, God’s foreknowledge is different. He does not merely know things ahead of time, as the Jews did in the case of Paul; he knows things ahead of time because he has declared these things from eternity past. This is what it means to be immutable (unchanging and unchanged) and all-knowing.

To say it differently, and in respect to his simplicity (i.e., he is without body, parts, or passions), God’s knowledge is one and undivided. He does not learn things, as we do or in the manner we do; neither does he make decisions in response to the free decisions of others. Instead, what he knows, he knows, because he has decreed it ahead of time: he is “working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable . . . will.” This means, mysteriously, he has even decreed the free decisions of all the creatures he has made.

In Acts, God’s immutable and absolute will is revealed as the ultimate cause of Christ’s crucifixion. But as we will see in other passages, God’s foreknowledge extends to all the events leading to Christ’s death and all the effects of Christ’s death and resurrection. In other words, God does not simply decree the death of his Son with any number of outcomes. That would be to make God like us. Instead, he declares the means and the ends, the cause and its intended effect(s). And we can see that in passages like Romans 8:29.

Romans 8:29

In Romans 8, we find a passage much like 1 Peter 1:2 (or maybe it is the reverse). It is a passage that affirms the predestination of God’s people to be conformed to the image of God’s son. And in this context (vv. 29–30), predestination, which is synonymous with election in this context, occurs according to God’s foreknowledge. Here’s what the passage says,

29 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. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

From this verse, we can make a few observations.

First, Romans 8:29 says God knows people, not just their faith.

Without being pedantic, it is important to see what is in focus here. And what Paul is describing in verse 29 are people who are known, loved, and predestined by God. Of course, personal knowledge would include knowledge of faith or its absence, but God knows more than just faith. He knows people. And he doesn’t just know people as we do—little bundles of boundless potential when they are born. God knows who people will be at the end of their lives, even decreeing the number of their days before they take their first breath (see Psalm 139:13–16).

To read faith into Romans 8:29 does more than what the text allows. For neither the word pistos (faith) nor the concept are present in Romans 8:29–30. Faith is a key idea in Romans—read Romans 4—but in this text which speaks of predestination and foreknowledge, it is not describing what men must do to be chosen. It is speaking about what God does for his elect (predestined).

Many interpreters who deny unconditional election want to read faith into the text or assume that the ones God foresees are believers. However, the text just doesn’t say that. Verses 29–30 refer to salvation from God’s point of view. Paul is helping the Christian to understand how God provides and secures salvation for those who are experiencing all kinds of trials (v. 28, 35-39). (A theme related to 1 Peter 1:1–2).

As Romans 9:16 will explain, God’s choice is not based upon the one who wills (e.g. believes, decides, commits, or intends) or who runs (e.g. works, walks the aisle, comes forward, or gets baptized). God has mercy upon whom he will have mercy, and he will harden whom he will harden, which is to say God is ultimate in salvation. Not man. To complete the picture, faith must be considered, but here man’s response is not in view.

Second, God’s (fore)knowledge is personal and proactive, never informational nor passive.

In the Bible, God’s knowledge is far more than informational. It is always intimate, covenantal, and saving. For instance, in Matthew 7:23, Jesus says of those who will be rejected, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of iniquity.” Surely, Jesus is not unaware of the person who stands before him. For, how else could he reject them, if he did not know they were unbelieving and beholden to their sin.

Accordingly, the kind of knowledge Jesus speaks of here is relational, the kind of knowledge that is best understood in terms of covenantal fidelity and love. Indeed, while God knows every person who bears his image, there is a special knowledge reserved for those who are in Christ. This is part of the new covenant promise that God’s elect will know the Lord (cf. Jer. 31:31–34; Heb 8:8–12).

Moreover, this kind of knowledge is what Jesus possesses when he says in John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” Again, this sort of knowledge is far more than informational. As Jesus will go on to say, those who believe and hear his voice, do so because they are sheep. “Sheepiness” does not depend on faith; faith depends on our “sheepiness.”

In other words, no one can make himself a sheep. We can be lost sheep. We can be straying sheep. Jesus goes out to recover these erring sheep. But as he says in John 10, he came into the world to die for his sheep—to recover the lost sheep of Israel and all the sheep in other folds (nations) too (v. 16). In short, God’s knowledge is not a matter of information he has learned from the world; it is always a personal and proactive knowledge that impels him to redeem the sheep whom the Father promised the Son before the world began. (On the nature of the Father’s giving people to the Son, read John 6 and John 17).

Third, “foreknow” is a testimony to God’s love, and specifically his choice to set his love on his people. 

On this point, I. Howard Marshall writes, “It is generally agreed that the ‘knowing’ in this verb (proginiskō) must be understood in the Hebraic sense of fixing one’s loving regard upon a person” (Kept by the Power of God, 1969). Indeed, throughout the Bible we find “know” (yada in Hebrew; ginoskō in Greek) as a word used of personal intimacy.

For instance, in Genesis 4:1, the Bible reads “Adam knew his wife Eve and she conceived and bore Cain.” Clearly, this knowing is more than informational. It is covenantal. The analogy with God is not sexual. Rather, the sexual reference of “knowing” in Genesis 4:1, 17, etc., is covenantal. And that’s the analogy with God. He knows his people covenantally, even before such a covenant is ratified.

Similarly, in Genesis 18:19 God says to Abraham, “I have chosen him” (ESV).  However, the word “choose” is the same word as “to know” (yada). God’s knowing in this context is more than a casual acquaintance. It means that God’s knowledge is a particular and selective knowledge. Likewise, in Exodus 33:17, God’s selection and favor of Moses is complemented by his knowledge. Yahweh says to Moses, “And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” In this context, it is clear that favor and knowledge coincide.

Further evidence for the covenantal love of God’s foreknowledge can be seen in three texts from the prophets Jeremiah, Hosea, and Amos. First, in Jeremiah 1, the prophet receives his call from the Lord, and in verse 5, Scripture records, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…”  While “foreknowledge” is not used, the concept is clear. God had intentions for Jeremiah long before he was created. He did not chose Jeremiah based upon some foreseen in him; he created Jeremiah for a particular mission. The same could be said about John the Baptist and Paul.

Second, Hosea speaks of God’s covenant faithfulness as “knowledge.”  Hosea 13:5 records, “It was I who knew you in the wilderness, in the land of drought.” Such knowledge is not merely factual; it is covenantal. And in the context of Hosea, this covenantal knowledge is expressed in God’s steadfast love to Israel—before, during, and after they broke his covenant.

Third, Amos 3:2 provides the most striking example of covenantal knowledge. Speaking to Israel, it reads, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” Clearly, God knows all the families of the earth, but he has not known them in the way he knows Israel. As he says in Deuteronomy 7:6-9, only Israel was chosen by God to be his covenant partner.

In light of this evidence, the best way to understand foreknowledge in Romans 8:29 is that it is described a situation where God set his covenantal love on his elect before they had done good or bad, before they were born, before the world began. Indeed, this is actually what Romans 9 will go on to describe, as it gives the clearest argument in Scripture for God’s purposes of grace in election.

In the end, it is unlikely Paul has any intention of saying that God chose his elect based upon pre-knowledge of their forthcoming faith. Rather, the faith of God’s elect is the result of God’s election, not the cause. For this reason, it is best to describe election as unconditional, because it is based on God’s free (i.e. unconditional) choice to set his love on whom he wills. This preserves God’s freedom and sovereignty, and when rightly understood, it does not diminish evangelism in any way. As Romans 9–10 attest, the strongest appeals for faith (see Rom. 10:9–17), stand upon the strongest affirmation of God’s sovereign election (see Romans 9:1–23).

Romans 11:29

In Romans, there is one more place where we see the word “foreknowledge,” and it shows up in Romans 11:2. Continuing the theme of God’s sovereign will in election, Paul speaks of God foreknowing the remnant of Israel whom he chosen for salvation. He writes in Rom. 11:2, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”

The foreknowledge here is the foreknowledge of what God is going to do with his people, the ones chosen from within Israel. In other words, and without getting into the whole discussion in Romans 11, Paul is solidifying a point that began in Romans 8:29, namely that within the historically elect nation of Israel, God has a particular chosen people. This is proven by Paul’s appeal to Elijah and the 7,000 who did not bow the knee to Baal. In context, Paul is showing how God is faithful to his promises to Israel, even as not all Israel is going to be saved.

In redemptive history and in Romans, we learn that the old covenant never promised salvation to every Israelite. Instead, there was a remnant within Israel who believed the promises and were saved by grace through faith. With respect to foreknowledge, therefore, Paul is identifying the same kind of people he described in Romans 8:29. All those whom the Father predestined for salvation (i.e., effectual calling, justification, and glorification) will be saved. But not every individual in Israel was so predestined. Those whom the Father foreknew (i.e., those whom he set his love upon) would be saved and not rejected. But not every individual in Israel would receive the faith to believe the promises.

So, the meaning of the word “foreknowledge” in Romans 11 is of a piece with Romans 8. And both verses point to the fact that God’s election is based upon his sovereign grace to set his love on whom he will set his love. This sovereign choice is how God selected Israel as a nation, and Abraham before that. And now, God’s freedom to choose whoever he wills remains. Only, now in the new covenant, all those who are predestined for adoption as sons will be glorified in the end (Romans 8:29–30). This stands in contrast to the election of Israel, according to the flesh. For in the old covenant, with the sacrifices of bulls and goats, there was not an eternal redemption, as there is in the new covenant Christ inaugurated and is now applied by the Holy Spirit.

1 Peter 1:2, 20 and 2 Peter 3:17

With an understanding of proginoskō enlarged by its use in Acts and Romans, we now return to 1–2 Peter. In three places we find Peter using the term: 1 Peter 1:2, 20, and 1 Peter 3:17. Interestingly, he uses the term in two ways, just like in the book of Acts. Let’s take these in reverse order, seeing the human use of the word first.

First, 2 Peter 3:17 reads, “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.” In this verse, Peter describes the way Paul’s letters are distorted by ignorant and unstable hearers (v. 16). Then he says of his recipients, that they knew this beforehand. The usage is much like that of Acts 26:5. It is not a verse that describes God’s foreknowledge, but man’s. And because God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge are fundamentally different, this verse does not directly inform our understanding of the way foreknowledge is found in God. Therefore, in Peter’s two letters we need to focus on 1 Peter 1:2, 20.

Second, 1 Peter 1:19–20 speaks of God foreknowing the crucifixion of Christ. It reads,

18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you

In this verse, we find a reference to Christ’s death that is very similar to Acts 2:23. Rather than being a real-time (read: in redemptive history) response to mankind’s sin, Christ’s death was “foreknown before the foundation of the world.” And clearly, this use of foreknown carries with it the idea of God’s plan, and not simply God’s knowledge of what sinful man would do to his Son. Before the world began, the Father and Son agreed for the Son to redeem a people by means of sacrificial death. Accordingly, the sacrificial death includes the objects of God’s love for whom the Son is dying. This personal knowledge of these redeemed people explains what we have seen in Romans 8, and will now help us understand 1 Peter 1:2,.

Third, 1 Peter 1:2 speaks of elect exiles who were chosen according to foreknowledge of God the Father. Again, based upon what we have seen in Acts and Romans, as well as 1 Peter 1:20, this foreknowledge is a personal and proactive declaration of what God decreed in eternity past. It is not an admission of God responding (passively) to the foreseen faith of his creation. Indeed, as the sovereign and immutable God, he never reacts in response to his creation; creation never forces or entices God to act in a particular way. As James 1:13 says, God cannot be tempted. Just the reverse, God always acts in accordance with his decree. And thus the elect exiles are chosen, not because God’s sees ahead of time their faith, but because God chose them according the free exercise of his sovereign love.

Affirming this high view of God’s sovereignty, often raises the question of man’s freedom. And so, I will take a stab at answering that question briefly. We should happily affirm that creatures always act according to their God-given natures. And thus, men and women have freedom to act according to their nature, but such freedom does not include freedom to change their natures. And it should be remembered that fallen mankind (in Adam) and regenerate man (in Christ) possess two different natures, not just two different confessions.

Only God can change one’s nature—i.e., only God can change the heart of stone into a heart of flesh; only God can deliver someone from sin and death to grace and life. And, significantly, this is what 1 Peter 1:3–5 describes—how God, by means of the new birth, raises his people from the dead. This is what Peter says next, but it is not disconnected from what he says of God’s election according to foreknowledge. Because not all are raised to the life, the deciding factor is God and his sovereign choice.

All in all, Peter begins his letter with this word of election in order to affirm this glorious truth: God has chosen a people for his possession, not based upon anything in them, but based upon his free and sovereign grace. Indeed, “according to the foreknowledge of the God the Father” is a testimony to God’s eternal love. And for exiles scattered and suffering in the world, this is a precious word of comfort. God set his love on his people in eternity past, and there is nothing in creation or history, that can change his love. This is what foreknowledge means, and in a world that hates Christ and the Christian, this is a truth we need to continue to embrace.

Scripture does not teach us that God looks down the corridor of time and reacts. Rather, before the world began, before we did anything good or bad, God predestined a people to be loved and conformed into the image of his Son. And today, those who respond in faith to the gospel, can know that such faith and grace and salvation did not begin when we said “I do” to Christ. Rather, our God has been planning our salvation from eternity. This is good news and when understood as the Bible presents it, it reinforces the gospel of God’s grace. May we embrace that truth and clearly declare it to all who have ears to hear.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo Credit: Sam Kolder on Pexels.com

One thought on “Getting to Know God’s Foreknowledge: A Survey of the New Testament

  1. Pingback: Getting Into God’s Sovereign Grace: From Peter to the Elect Exiles to the Father, Son, and Spirit (1 Peter 1:1–2) | Via Emmaus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s