Romans 8, Part 5: Called According to His/Our Purpose

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Romans 8:28 is usually translated roughly as follows:

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. (KJV)

An often overlooked fact about this passage is the absence of the word “his” in the Greek. The passage can be read as talking about human free choice, so that we are “called according to our purpose/choice”. As Ben Witherington points out in his Romans commentary (pg 227), the pronoun “his” (referring to God) is inserted by translators and interpreters for various reasons. For one thing, the subject of the sentence is God. For another, because the sentence talks about God’s working and calling, and the next sentence about predestination, it is natural to see this as expressing the same concept (God’s purpose saves us). But the first consideration is not an overriding reason to think that the actor must be God. “Those who love God” are also actors (who perform the activity of love) in the sentence. With respect to the second argument, “working together for good with” could be seen as including human beings’ effort and cooperation in God’s plan, “those who love God” refers to human agency, and “those whom He foreknew” in the next sentence is a reference to God’s knowledge of how creatures will act in the future. Our contextual reasons for thinking that it is God’s purpose are just as good as our reasons for thinking that it is human purposing (free choice). The majority of the Fathers are clear:

To be called according to God’s purpose is to be called according to the will. But is this the will of the one who calls or the will of those who are called? Naturally, every impulse which leads to righteousness comes from God the Father. Christ himself once said: “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him.” Nevertheless it is not wrong to say that some are called according to God’s purpose and according to their own intentions as well.

St. Cyril of Alexandria, Explanation of the Letter to the Romans. Migne PG 74 col. 828 (cited in Oden Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture, Romans, pg. 226)

Wherefore, children, let us hold fast our discipline, and let us not be careless. For in it the Lord is our fellow-worker, as it is written, “to all that choose the good, God worketh with them for good.”

St. Athanasius, Life of Anthony, 19

Now consider, he means, from the calling, for instance, what I have just said. Why then did He not from the first call all? or why not Paul himself as soon as the rest? Does it not seem that the deferring was harmful? But it was still by the event shown to be for the best. The purpose he here mentions, however, that he might not ascribe everything to the calling; since in this way both Greeks and Jews would be sure to cavil. For if the calling alone were sufficient, how came it that all were not saved? Hence he says, that it is not the calling alone, but the purpose of those called too, that works the salvation. For the calling was not forced upon them, nor compulsory. All then were called, but all did not obey the call.

St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Letter to the Romans, Homily 15.

Thus far there has been an inscription of your names, and a call to service, and torches of the bridal train, and a longing for heavenly citizenship, and a good purpose, and hope attendant thereon. For he lieth not who said, that to them that love God all things work together for good. God is lavish in beneficence, yet He waits for each man’s genuine will: therefore the Apostle added and said, to them that are called according to a purpose . The honesty of purpose makes thee called: for if thy body be here but not thy mind, it profiteth thee nothing.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Procatechesis

Though on purely exegetical grounds the text doesn’t demand either interpretation, if we accept the interpretations of the Fathers as normative, we should understand this text as teaching that we are called according to both God’s purpose and our purpose.

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3 Responses to “Romans 8, Part 5: Called According to His/Our Purpose”

  1. Fr. Maximus Says:

    The Greek even favors this interpretation: τοις κατά πρόθεσιν κλητοίς. The “according to intention” is grammatically subordinate to “the called.”

  2. MG Says:

    Fr. Maximus–

    Father bless.

    Pardon my ignorance of Greek, but what does “grammatically subordinate” mean, and what implications does it have in this context? This is very interesting, I haven’t heard anyone make this argument. (does this come from a scholarly source, or your own studies?)

    Thank you for commenting.

  3. Fr. Maximus Says:

    The Lord bless.

    Actually, the correct term is that it is in the attributive position. In Greek you can separate the article from the noun or adjective and insert whole phrases in between. This gives you the option of emphasizing the dependence of the inserted or attributive phrase on the substantiative. Of course, it’s a very slight shift in emphasis.

    I was reading Romans a month or two ago and this passage struck me as very important for my life and worthy of being memorized. Since I usually read the Scriptures in Greek, I was wondering myself about the correct interpretation, whether it referred to our intention or His (my initial reaction was to interpret it as ours, for the above reason). So I looked in the English and found that it was translated as His. But both translations are valid, and I suppose this leads into St. Maximus’ principle of multiple interpretations for each verse, each one best suited for different people in different circumstances.

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