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The Arminian Concept of Election

Let’s do some review.


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).


On the Arminian 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