Paul continues his walk along the summit of the Christian mountain range that is Romans 8, which many have regarded as the Alps of Christian experience possible in this world. The apostle is like a guide pointing out to his party several amazing sights that they would not otherwise observe without his direction. At each sight he gives time for them to stop and take in what is before the eyes of their souls. So here he invites us to take in a spiritual vista that stretches from eternity past to eternity future. And we can look today where he points to first.
Paul mentions two details about what God did for his people in the past eternity before time commenced, before the creation appeared. The first detail is that he foreknew his people and the second detail is that he predestined his people for a particular goal.
What does the word ‘foreknow’ mean? There is a common idea connected to the word that suggests it means that God could see ahead and on the basis of looking ahead he knew what people would do with the gospel. It is rather like him having a very powerful telescope through which he can see everything that will ever occur. In response to this interpretation we can say that we agree with the fact that God knows the future, but that we disagree that this is what the word ‘foreknow’ means.
So what does the word mean? We should observe that Paul does not say God foreknew what people would do. Instead he says that God foreknew people, so the word describes those with whom God has a relationship of some kind even although they do not yet exist. This idea of a relationship is strengthened when we recall that the word ‘know’ in the Bible usually refers to intimate knowledge between lovers, which of course means that ‘know’ is another word for love. And when we note that the prefix ‘fore’ points to when he loved them, we will see that Paul is using the word to say that God loved a certain number of people before time began.
This raises other questions, and I only want to mention two. The first is: when did God begin to love them? In answering this question, we step beyond the realms of human understanding because the answer is that he has always loved them. There never was a moment when he did not love them. Throughout the beginning-less eternity God loved and thought about those he regarded as his people.
The second question is: in what way did God fore-love them? We can answer this question by noting that his love was expressed in the form of a covenant. In this covenant known as the covenant of redemption, the triune God agreed to perform distinct activities with regard to the people that they loved in order to deliver them out of the dangerous condition they would be in because of the sins they would commit against God. This means that there has been in existence an eternal covenant in which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit engaged to bring great spiritual blessings to those they eternally loved.