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The Plan and Foreknowledge of God

This is a follow-up article to the sermon I preached on Sunday, September 25. One of the verses we looked at was Acts 2:23 where Peter mentions how God was at work behind the crucifixion of Christ: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23) Peter uses two terms: God’s “definite plan” and “foreknowledge.” What is the difference between these two aspects of God? And how do they relate? That is what I am going to try to answer in this article. 

What is the difference between God’s “definite plan” and “foreknowledge”?

First, let’s look at the meaning of God’s “foreknowledge.”
The original word Luke uses is prognosei, which comes from the word prognosis. We use that word when a doctor is predicting the probable disease someone might have. Al Roker from the Today Show uses his prognosis to tell you what the weather will probably be, not what it will actually be. Why? Because Al Roker is not God (whew!). He can’t see every single variable in the atmosphere to have certain knowledge of when it will rain. My cousin got his Ph.D. in mathematics and engineering to do work in “chaos theory.” Basically, guys like him, using their brilliant intellect and mind-boggling equations, determine the outcome of something to its highest probability. But he said no matter how good their work is, they can't predict anything with absolute certainty because of unknown variables. Humans are finite and limited in their perspective, but God is infinite and unlimited in his perspective. God sees and knows everything, which means the future is known by him with absolute certainty. So, the foreknowledge of God is his perfect and absolute knowledge of all that will happen in the future. He does not know what will most likely happen; he knows what will most certainly happen.
Now, what about God’s “definite plan”? The phrase Peter uses in Acts 2:23 in the original language is harismenei boulei. Harismenei means “determine, appoint, fix, set." Boulei means “plan, purpose, intention.” That is, a plan or a purpose is something you want to see happen in the future. But I want to go a little deeper into the term harismenei. Other verses where this word is used about God in the New Testament are below:
  • “For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined (harismenei), but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:2) So, Jesus' pathway to the cross was a determined plan by God. 
  • “And [God] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that [Jesus] is the one appointed (harismenei) by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:42) So, God has chosen for his Son to be the one to judge the world in the future. 
  • “[God] has fixed (harismenei) a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.” (Acts 17:31) So, God has a predetermined day that can't change where Jesus will judge the world. 
All these examples show that when God determines his plan it can’t change. It will most certainly happen. To "determine, appoint, or fix a plan" is to make sure your plan happens the way you want it. So, the meaning of God’s “definite plan” is his unchanging resolve of what will happen in the future. 

But what is the difference between God’s “definite plan” and his “foreknowledge”?
 God’s foreknowledge is simply his perfect awareness of what will happen in the future. But God's “definite plan” is his predetermined and unchanging purpose unfolding into the future. Foreknowledge is like a woman who clearly sees the destination her car will end up on a road trip. The definite plan is the exact route she intends to take to get there and then actually driving the car to ensure it gets to the desired destination. So, in Acts 2:23 God’s foreknowledge of the crucifixion of Christ is his perfect knowledge of what will happen to Christ at the end of his life. God’s definite plan is when he orders events to ensure that the crucifixion happens exactly the way he planned. You can see the same thing in Acts 4:27-28, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Notice what the verse says, “your hand and your plan (boulei) had predestined to take place.” So, God’s definite plan is when is hand and plan predetermine what happens in the future. 


How does God’s definite plan relate to his foreknowledge?

God’s definite plan and his foreknowledge relate in one of two ways: either God’s foreknowledge is based upon his plan, or God’s plan is based upon his foreknowledge. Let's ask it this way: Does God know everything that is going to happen because that it is what he predetermined to happen? Or, does God make plans of what he wants to accomplish based upon what he first sees in the future? I will ask it one more way! Does God's plan determine the future, or does the future determine God's plan? To answer this, let’s start with the verse itself. One thing to note about what Peter says in Acts 2:23 is that he puts God’s definite plan before his foreknowledge. The verse does not say, “according to the foreknowledge (first) and definite plan (second) of God.” Now, you might say, “But that was just the way Peter happened to say it.” That may be true, but there are two responses to this. First, if we believe the Bible is inspired, then we take every word seriously, even grammar. Was it random, or was it intentional? An inspired Bible is intentional, not random. Secondly, the way we determine if Peter was intentional in his order of words is to see if other verses in the Bible teach that God’s definite plan is prior to his foreknowledge, or vice versa.

One of the clearest verses in the Bible which mentions the foreknowledge of God and the predetermined plan of God is Romans 8:29, “For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” In this verse, Paul puts God's foreknowledge first and predestined second. Does this teach the very opposite of Paul’s order of words in Acts 2:23? I don’t think so. Let me explain. First, even though the word “foreknew” comes before “predestined” in Romans 8:29, the verse doesn’t say “those whom he foreknew he then predestined.” It only says, “whom he foreknew he also predestined.” But, secondly, and more significantly, Romans 8:29 does not help answer the question because of the meaning of “foreknew.” It comes from the word pro-ginosko. This is different from "foreknowledge" in Acts 2:23, which comes from the word pro-gnosis. “Gnosis” is the word for knowledge as it relates to your general understanding or intellect. But “ginosko” is to know someone in a personal and intimate way. This is why many theologians interpret Romans 8:29 as, “For those whom God chose/loved beforehand he also predestined.” In fact, the most authoritative Greek dictionary ("BDAG") interprets "foreknew" as "choose beforehand." When God foreknows someone, it means he sets his heart on them before they exist. One example of this kind of God’s intimate knowledge of someone beforehand is Amos 3:1-2, “Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel... You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” Notice, even though God knows all people, he knew Israel in a special and unique way. So, Romans 8:29 does not help clarify the relationship between God’s foreknowledge and definite plan, because the meaning of "foreknew" is different from God's "foreknowledge."
But there is another verse in the Old Testament which may help answer the question. It is from Isaiah 46:9-10, "9 Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose." We are going to look at verse 10. There are two things stated,

1) God declares the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done

2) Saying, "My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’”

The first point is God’s foreknowledge. God declares what is going to happen in the end from the very beginning of time, and things that are not yet done from the past. But the second point is God’s definite plan. God says his counsel and his purpose and plan will surely happen in the future. Now, right here you might say, “See, Isaiah says God's foreknowledge comes first, then his definite plan.” Grammatically that is true, but logically it says something different. The first point says that God declares what is going to happen in the future, but the second line is a literal quote of what God actually says when he declares the future. And what does God say? He says, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” How, then, does God know the future? The future is whatever God has planned and purposed to happen. That is why he knows the future, because the future is what he plans to happen. Let’s use a similar example with a mom and dad who talk to their kids about planning a road trip. If Isaiah 46:10 were quoted by a mom and dad it would look like this, “We are your parents, and thare is no others; We are your parents, and there are non like us, declaring the destination from the start and from a while back things that will happen soon, And here’s how we say it, “Our wisdom is final in this family, and we will see to it that our plans for this family always happen." So, the reason they can say what’s going to happen in any future road trip is because they are the ones in charge and make the plans in the family. They know the future because they plan the future. And so it is with God. God knows what will happen because he planned it to happen. So, why did God know Christ would be crucified by the hands of lawless men? Because his “hand and his plan predetermined it to take place.” (Acts 4:28)
Now, someone might say, "Well, if God determines the future, then how are we responsible for what we do, since he determined it?" That's not what Acts 2:23 says. Even though the crucifixion was planned and pretermined by the hand of God (Acts 4:27-28), Peter says that Christ was "crucified by the hands of lawless men." (Acts 2:23) Their sin against Jesus, even though it was planned, is still their responsibility. This is part of the great mystery of God's providence. He is able to determine all things, while at the same time we are still fully culpable and responsible for all our choices. 
Finally, this is why God says at the beginning of Isaiah 46:9, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.” All other gods might be able to predict the future, but they cannot determine the future. All other gods might be able see events that will happen , but the God of the Bible—God of gods and Lord of history—determines the future according to the pleasure of his will. If God merely sees the future, he is not God of gods. Let's go one step further, if God could only "adjust" or "tweak" the future as it moves along by itself, he would be not be God of gods, because something else would be running history alongside of his will (impersonal fate?). God is not the co-author of human history, writing the future together with us. As Shakespeare is the sole author of Romeo & Juliet, so God is the sole author of human history. We worship a very BIG, STRONG, and SOVEREIGN God. Amen.