It is important to first affirm that both Arminianism and Calvinism teach the doctrine of election. Since both of these theological systems are evangelical, they affirm the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. Because of this, both systems teach the Scriptural doctrine of election, as they should. Now, after this brief agreement, the two systems differ completely in their interpretation and understanding of election in Scripture. They are so opposite in fact that there is no hope to combine the two or even to find any middle ground to stand on. I applaud the intention of any attempt to bring these two highly debated sides together under the doctrine of election, but I must say that these attempts are futile.
I will begin with Arminianism today and move to Calvinism tomororw. An Arminian understanding of election can be described briefly as follows: Before the foundation of the world, God looked into time and saw all of mankind. Having mercy and showering them all with prevenient grace, he foreknew the free choices of those who would wisely put their faith in Jesus Christ for their salvation. Based on this condition of faith, God then elects those individuals unto eternal life. This teaching is called “conditional election.” Obviously, the name easily defines the teaching, as God elects in response to the condition of faith of individuals. The primary point of election according to Arminians is that individuals are saved based on the condition of faith. Without this condition, Arminians would claim that it makes God arbitrary, leading some to call “the God of Calvinism” an “arbitrary moral monster.”
However, Arminianism is not Pelagianism or any other heresy. Arminians do not claim that they are saved by their works. This teaching of conditional election does not assert that individuals save themselves and as a result, God elects them. The crux of Arminianism is what they call “prevenient grace.” This is a preventing grace which is showered upon all of humanity by God freeing up our wills to positively choose him or negatively resist him. Those who do make that wise and free decision to have faith in Christ are those who God elected on the condition of their faith. It is worth repeating and being very clear at this point: Arminianism does not teach that they save themselves. The provision of prevenient grace saves this view from being a heresy.
Arminianism’s view of election is rooted in their view of God’s foreknowledge. While Scripture appears to clearly speak of God foreknowing persons, Arminians teach that God foreknows the free choices of persons. I must say that Romans 8:29-30 is difficult to interpret as God foreknowing the choices or actions of persons rather than persons themselves. Nevertheless, Arminians deny that election is God’s unconditional choice of some sinners to life, but is instead God’s conditional choice of those individuals who first have faith in Christ to life.
This view is the result of a few major tenants of Arminian thought regarding election in particular that should be expounded here.
First, Arminianism teaches that God desires to save everyone without exception (2 Tim. 2:4; cf. 1 Pt. 3:9). Since obviously not everyone is saved, Arminians (and all Christians) must believe that God desires something more than he desires for all to be saved or else all would be saved.
The Preservation of Free Will
This leads to the second main tenant of the Arminian view of election. Arminianism holds that what God desires to uphold more than universal salvation is the free will of man. Therefore, God gives every individual the ability to respond to prevenient grace. If God did not freely offer salvation to every individual while also providing every individual with the ability to choose him, then the offer would not be sincere, according to Arminians. Thus far, God has willed to save all, provided the way for all to be saved, and given the ability for all to choose this way.
Election Based on Choice
The third major tenant would be God’s actual choice of certain individuals and passing over of others based on their free response to his offer of salvation. God is moved to elect on the basis of the choices of individuals. In Arminian thought, this preserves the free will of man and saves the character of God.
The final tenant refers to God’s foreknowledge. According to Arminianism, the foreknowledge of Romans 8:29 does not refer to God’s foreknowledge of certain persons unto salvation, but rather the choices of those individuals, namely faith, which leads to their salvation. In short, election according to Arminians presents salvation as synergistic. God initiates salvation through prevenient grace while individuals respond in faith and as a result, God elects them into his covenant people.
But how do Arminians reconcile the many passages referring to election and predestination without referring to the condition of faith as the basis? The answer is found in the doctrine of corporate election.
Arminianism teaches that before the foundation of the world, God chose a group for himself, but the people who make up that group decided to be in it. God only chose the group or the entity, but he did not choose the people who would be in that group until they chose to be in it. Therefore, Arminians would hold that corporate election is unconditional because it is merely a group that is elected and not persons within that group.
The argument given by Arminians in support of corporate election over against individual election, is found in the Old Testament choosing of Israel. Arminians argue that the group or people Israel was chosen, but individuals within the group were not (Deut. 7:6-8; Ps. 135:4). When the New Testament uses language like “predestines” or “foreknew” such as Romans 8:29-30, Arminianism teaches that this is the predestination and foreknowledge of a group. Therefore, anytime Scripture mentions God’s election from before the foundation of the earth without regard to the condition of faith, Arminians interpret that to be referring to God’s corporate election.
The logical and philosophical problem with this notion is that it is theoretically possible for God to have elected a group of people without actually having any people in it. God would therefore have a people without any people. While this seems ludicrous, it is worth stating here that we all know that practically this is not the case as, even under Arminian thought, there are individuals in God’s elected people.
In summary, Arminianism’s view of election is conditional as it pertains to individuals and unconditional as it pertains to the corporate body. I hope this has been a fair presentation of Arminianism’s basic understanding of the doctrine of election. I humbly disagree with their interpretation, but it is worth repeating that Arminians believe they are being faithful to the Scriptures and I gladly applaud their desire to understand God as he has revealed himself in his word. My desire is to hold the interpretation that I believe best adheres to the overall message of the Bible. I believe Calvinism’s interpretation of election better makes sense of Scripture’s teaching. In tomorrow’s post I will expose this doctrine from a Calvinistic perspective.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.