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The Arminian Concept of Election

            Although I am unapologetically a Calvinist, I think it only fair that the Arminian perspective be defined in detail. All too often in controversies such as this, people tend to portray their opponents in less than glowing terms. After all, it’s always easier to dismantle and refute a caricature of what your opponent believes. Here I want to present as objectively and accurately as possible what the Arminians have to say about divine election. Whether or not what they say is true and biblical will be left for the reader to decide.


            Before I do so, however, I want to say that most of the Arminians I know personally are fervent in their trust in Christ and passionate in their zeal for the glory of God. The unfortunate caricature of Arminians, as people who deliberately elevate man and his works above God and his grace, needs to be buried once and for all. I work and pray with Arminians on a consistent daily basis and have found them to be thoroughly committed to the authority of Scripture and the primacy of grace in salvation.


I am saying this in order to draw a critical distinction between the conscious intent of an individual and the logical implications of one’s system of belief. As a Calvinist, I believe that Arminianism, as a system of theology, as a way of reading the Bible, ultimately undermines the grace of God in salvation. But I do not believe this is the conscious intent of most Arminians themselves. It certainly wasn’t the intent of Arminius, nor of John Wesley, nor is it of Billy Graham. Of course, this sword cuts both ways. I would appeal to my Arminian brethren not to conclude that my intent is to undermine evangelistic zeal or diminish the power of prayer simply because they believe that Calvinism as a system of theology ultimately leads there.


            I am not so naïve to suggest that there are no Arminians at all whose intent is to exalt human effort and accomplishment. And surely there are also some Calvinists, or at least some who insist on using the label, who are only too happy to embrace a system of theology that releases their conscience from the burden of evangelistic outreach and who have used this theology to justify a prayerless life. But I hope all of us will agree that such individuals, on whichever side of this debate they might land, are few and far between and must not be allowed to dictate the terms on which our discussion proceeds.


            So, what, then, do Arminians believe?

As indicated in a previous lesson, the issue before us is why and on what grounds some are elected to salvation and eternal life and others are not. The question, then, is this: Does God elect people because they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, or does God elect people in order that they shall believe in Christ? Jack W. Cottrell, an Arminian, agrees that this is in fact the issue separating Calvinists and Arminians. Says Cottrell:

“The Calvinistic mind sees election as bringing about the transition from unbelief to belief, hence making unbelievers the object of election. The Arminian says that this transition is made by a free act of will; election then is an act of God directed toward the believer after the transition has been made” (“Conditional Election,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock [Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975], p. 72. Perhaps the most cogent recent exposition of Arminianism, particularly in its view of God, providence, and predestination, is Cottrell’s work, What the Bible Says About God the Ruler (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1984). The article cited, “Conditional Election,” has been revised and included in this more recent work in the chapter “Predestination,” pp. 331-52).

·        The Calvinist says that God elects unbelievers and predestines them to become believers.


·        The Arminian says that God elects believers and predestines them to become his children.

The issue is not whether there is a cause or basis of God’s choice of people, but whether that cause is some condition (faith) fulfilled by an individual acting from free will or the sovereign good pleasure of God. We are not disputing whether faith and repentance are necessary for salvation. The question, rather, is this: Are faith and repentance produced by free will and thus the cause of election, or are they produced by the Holy Spirit and thus the effect of election?

According to Arminianism, election is that act of God whereby he foreordains to eternal life those whom he foresees will respond in faith to the gospel. According to Calvinism, election is that act of God whereby he foreordains to eternal life those who, because of sin, cannot and will not respond in faith to the gospel. Which of these two views is the one the Bible teaches? Or is there a third, mediating option?


There are two primary ways in which Arminians conceive of divine election.

1.         Corporate or class election. Roger T. Forster and V. Paul Marston argue that “there is no such thing in the New Testament as personal (individual) election of believers. Christ is the chosen One, and believers are elect because they are in him” (God’s Strategy in Human History [Wheaton: Tyndale, 1973], p. 145). Forster and Marston explain:


“The prime point is that the election of the church is a corporate rather than an individual thing. It is not that individuals are in the church because they are elect, it is rather that they are elect because they are in the church, which is the body of the elect One [i.e., Jesus Christ]. . . . A Christian is not chosen to become part of Christ’s body, but in becoming part of that body [by free will, exercising faith] he partakes of Christ’s election. Although God, in his foreknowledge, doubtless knew which individuals would repent and so be joined by him to Christ’s body, this is not at all the same thing as picking them out to make them repent. God’s choice is not an individual one of who should repent; it is a corporate choice of the church in Christ” (p. 136).


Bruce Demarest, although not himself an advocate of this view, defines it this way: “[These] interpreters view election passively as God’s purpose to save the class of people who trust Christ. In other words, election is a statement about the divine plan of salvation; it concerns God’s appointment of the believing community to everlasting glory” (The Cross and Salvation, p. 104). A more recent advocate of this view is William Klein who contends that “God has chosen the church as a body rather than the specific individuals who populate that body” (The New People of God: A Corporate View of Election [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], p. 259).The concern of the New Testament regarding predestination, says Klein, “is not how people become Christians nor who become Christians” but “what God has foreordained on behalf of those who are (or will be) Christians” (185).










2.         Individual or personal election. While not denying corporate or class election, other Arminians affirm that God also chooses individuals to eternal life.


Election, says Cottrell, is “the idea that God predestines to salvation those individuals who meet the gracious conditions which he has set forth” (“Conditional Election,” p. 57). When a person by free will meets these conditions (faith and repentance), we must not think of him as performing meritorious works of righteousness, because the conditions are sovereignly and graciously imposed by God. Since man did not deserve to have these conditions made available to him whereby he might be saved, the election which results from his meeting those conditions remains wholly of grace. “Thus,” Cottrell concludes, “having set forth these conditions for being in Christ, God foreknows from the beginning who will and who will not meet them. Those whom he foresees as meeting them are predestined to salvation” (61). The crucial point in this Arminian concept of election is this: If and when a person fulfills the condition of faith and repentance, it is he or she alone who does so. It is not God but the individual himself who is the ultimate cause of the decision.


The Arminian, contrary to the Calvinist, insists that this approach to election does not undermine the sovereignty of God. An arrangement in which God reacts to man’s decision would violate his sovereignty, says Cottrell,


only if God were forced into such an arrangement, only if it were a necessity imposed upon God from without. But this is not the case. It was God’s sovereign choice to bring into existence a universe inhabited by free-willed creatures whose decisions would to some extent determine the total picture. When God established the system of conditional election, it was God alone who sovereignly imposed the conditions” (64).


Furthermore, only with the doctrine of conditional election does God’s justice remain unimpeached. God’s justice, explains Cottrell, “leads him to treat all persons alike, and to bestow no special favors with respect to salvation” (67). He concludes that


“the very thing that would violate this principle of justice would be deciding on an individual’s eternal destiny without taking account of anything in him. But this is exactly what the [Calvinistic] doctrine of unconditional election asserts. Only the doctrine of conditional election, where God elects to salvation those who comply with his graciously given and announced terms of pardon, can preserve the justice and the impartiality of God” (67).


Henry C. Thiessen elaborates on this theme:


“But it is difficult to see how God can choose some from the mass of guilty and condemned men, provide salvation for them and efficiently secure their salvation, and do nothing about all the others, if, as we read, righteousness is the foundation of His throne. God would not be partial if he permitted all men to go to their deserved doom; but how can He be other than partial if He selects some from this multitude of men and does things for them and in them that He refuses to do for the others, if there is not something about the two classes that makes the difference? We hold that common grace is extended to all, and that every one has the ability restored to him to ‘will and to do His will.’ The salvation-bearing grace of God has appeared to all men; but some receive the grace of God in vain. It seems to us that only if God makes the same provisions for all and makes the same offers to all, is He truly just” (Lectures in Systematic Theology, 346-47).



            I have quoted these Arminian authors at length that there might be no mistake about what they believe. In their view, God’s justice makes it absolutely necessary that he do for one lost and undeserving sinner what he does for all. God was obligated by his own righteous character, argues Thiessen in particular, to provide as much help, opportunity, and inducement unto salvation for Judas Iscariot as he did for the apostle Paul. Or, to put it in other terms, God is not sovereignly free to do for one sinner what he declines to do for another. He must do the same for both, or he is not just and righteous.

            This concept of election also has implications for one’s doctrine of man, or human nature. Cottrell acknowledges that the doctrine of total depravity or total inability “is truly the keystone in the Calvinistic system. This is what makes unconditional election logically and doctrinally necessary.”[i] Consequently, Cottrell simply denies the doctrine of man’s total depravity and asserts that man “believes before he is regenerated.”[ii]

            Thiessen, on the other hand, affirms total depravity and inability but then posits what he calls prevenient or enabling grace:

“Since mankind is hopelessly dead in trespasses and sins and can do nothing to obtain salvation, God graciously restores all men sufficient ability to make a choice in the matter of submission to Him. . . . In His foreknowledge He perceives what each one will do with this restored ability, and elects men to salvation in harmony with His knowledge of their choice of Him.”[iii]


It is important to point out that Calvinists and Arminians share a considerable amount of common theological ground, even when it comes to the issue of salvation. Perhaps the most important issue on which they agree is anthropology, or the doctrine of man or human nature. Both camps acknowledge that fallen human beings are born with a corrupt and depraved nature, in bondage to sin, utterly unable to do anything pleasing to God. Both camps agree that unregenerate human beings are willingly enslaved to their fallen natures. John Wesley affirmed this truth:


"I believe that Adam, before his fall, had such freedom of will, that he might choose either good or evil; but that, since the fall, no child of man has a natural power to choose anything that is truly good. Yet I know (and who does not?) that man has still freedom of will in things of indifferent nature.”[iv]


Wesleyan Arminianism differs significantly on this point with the version of Arminianism espoused by Charles Finney. Finney believed that all people possess the ability, apart from divine grace, to choose what is good no less than they possess the ability to choose what is evil. Contrary to Wesley, Finney rejected the idea that people are born morally depraved because of Adam's sin. In fact, when it came to the doctrine of sin, Finney was more semi-Pelagian than Arminian.


Thus we see that Arminians either deny man’s total depravity and inability to believe the gospel or affirm it but insist that God has graciously restored free will in all those created in his image. On either view, God’s election of people to eternal life is conditioned ultimately on what individual men and women do, not on what God does. Election is conditioned or suspended upon what God foresees or foreknows that each person will do when confronted with the gospel. At the very most, God has made possible the salvation of all people, but has actually guaranteed and secured the salvation of no one.


            There seems, then, to be a point beyond which the God of Arminianism cannot go in saving a person without violating his free will or impinging upon the responsibility that is his alone. According to Cottrell, once God has established the condition for election, he can do no more. According to Thiessen, once God has restored ability in all people, he can do no more. God’s justice will not permit him to provide any additional advantages, opportunities, or inducements for one person to be saved that he does not provide equally for all. According to Calvinism, as we shall see in due course, there is never a point beyond which God cannot go in saving a soul. However far he must go, not simply to make an offer of eternal life but actually to secure a response to it, he will go. It is to this Calvinistic concept of election and salvation that we now turn our attention.


[i] Cottrell, “Conditional Election,” p. 68.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, pp. 344-45. The best treatment of the notion of prevenient or enabling grace from an Arminian perspective is provided by H. Orton Wiley in his Christian Theology, 3 vols. (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1952), 2:344-57.

[iv] Works of Wesley, 10:350 (emphasis mine).