To Be Conformed to the Image of His Son (Romans 8:29-30)
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. —Romans 8:29-30
Tragedy. Curse. Suffering. These are words attached to the diagnosis of severe cognitive disability (in days past referred to as severe mental retardation). Thankfully, this passage from Romans 8 gives us an additional way to think about cognitive disability, or any disability, in light of Christ.
First, disability is part of God’s plan. The foreknowledge of election in verse 29 is one evidence of God’s extraordinary, infinite knowledge and active engagement with his creation. In Psalm 139:13 we learn that all children—of every ability—are intimately knit together by God. Further, those with disabilities have the additional covering of God’s intentionality in Exodus 4:11—“Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?"
Second, we see many of those with severe cognitive disabilities “conformed to the image of Christ” in ways that are far less evident in people without such disabilities. For example, my son with severe cognitive disabilities lives an entirely authentic life; he does not lie and he does not cover up his feelings out of fear of what others will think or to curry their favor. He is also forgiving and has never held a grudge. He lives out Colossians 3:13—as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive—better than anyone I know.
But he is not just conforming to Christ in simple, meek ways. Cognitively, my 19-year-old son operates at about the level of a one-year-old child. Just as Christ is both gentle and a great King and warrior, boys and girls like my son are effective warriors against God’s enemies, by God’s design: Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger (Psalm 8:2).
Wealthy, well-educated, ‘independent’ Americans have a difficult time seeing children like my son in positive ways like this. But we must recognize that, until God acted on our behalf, we were ‘dead in our trespasses’ (Ephesians 2:5)—dead people can’t do anything to save themselves! Only God can conform spiritually dead people into the image of a perfect Christ.
And that leads to one of the most joyous truths of all! Someday, those he has called will also be glorified with him (verse 30). Some people kindly suggest this meaning that my son will have eyes that see, a mind that can think rationally, and a body that isn’t subjected to seizures. These are most certainly good things. But the greater thing for him and for all of us is NOT that he will have super-intelligence like an Einstein or a Stephen Hawking (which is really as nothing compared to God; see 1 Corinthians 1:25), but that it will be a pure, undefiled intelligence entirely conformed to the image of Christ. In that day we all, of every ability, will be prepared and equipped to worship and enjoy God forever because of the saving work of Christ.