Saturday, March 31, 2007

Arminian vs Reformed Theology (Conditional Election vs. Unconditional Election)

Lot escapes Sodom with his two daughters

In this series, we have been contrasting five major points of Arminian theology with the five points of Reformed/Calvinistic theology known as "TULIP". The series now continues with an examination of the contrasting views of Arminian and Reformed theology regarding the topic of election.

Conditional Election vs. Unconditional Election

The prominent Arminian view holds that election is conditional, that is, God elects those whom He foresees responding positively to the gospel. Fred Olson, an expert in Arminian theology writes, "Arminians believe that election is corporate, that God has chosen to have a people and that predestination is God’s foreknowledge of who will freely choose to be among God’s people".

In contrast, the Reformed view says that election is of individuals, and that it is unconditional, because God's choice of particular individuals is not conditioned upon man's response, but is independent of it. The Reformed view would agree with the statement “God has chosen to have a people”, but more specifically would say that He has, independent of constraints or influence from anyone or anything, chosen particular individuals. This is against the Arminian view that God has made a corporate choice of all people in Christ, and that people then choose themselves for inclusion "among God's people".

How the Arminian view of election plays out

The Arminian view on election is connected with its teaching that man has restored ability to say yes to the gospel offer, as one of the benefits of "prevenient" grace. With the freedom of the will that was lost in the Fall now restored by prevenient grace, a person can say yes to the gospel. God, foreseeing those who will respond positively, elects such persons for salvation.

Flaws in the Arminian argument: Prevenient Grace not Scriptural

There are a number of problems with the Arminian depiction of election. Both classic Arminians and Calvinists agree that man's spiritual condition as the result of the Fall is a total depravity/inability that renders him unable to choose God. So for people to be able to choose God, they must somehow rise above this state. For the Arminian this has been accomplished through prevenient grace, by which the effects of the fall have been negated and people have restored ability to respond to the gospel. This grace grants us light enough to see the gospel, yet it is a grace that may not be ultimately effective, since Arminians say we may still reject it. This Arminian concept of prevenient grace is neither supported nor proven by Scripture, as we have argued in previous posts in this series.

Flaws in the Arminian argument: Either God is sovereign in election, or we are

An election which is made according to God's foreknowledge of what the human being will do with their restored freedom redefines the term "election"—- it makes election to mean that God merely ratifies the action of the person. If God's “election” of us is based on our choosing Him, who is acting as the sovereign?

God is sovereign in election, rather than man. This is shown by the fact that election is a decision made by God alone in eternity, before we were born or were able to make any choices. We will look at this more closely later, when we examine the Reformed/Calvinistic picture of election.

Flaws in the Arminian argument: God's fairness based on His character, not inferred by His method of election

As we have said in previous posts, the Arminian position apparently wants to ensure that man is "free" to decide for Christ, operating under an extra-biblical assumption that such freedom is necessary in order to preserve fairness or justice on God's part. With its notion that God foresees actions of certain people and elects them on that basis, it means also to show that election is not "arbitrary", but based upon God looking ahead and seeing something that makes particular people apt candidates for election.

The Fairness of God

Again, the Arminian view of election here is at odds with Scripture, for a number of reasons. First, Scripture does not defend the fairness of God by telling us that God has chosen people based on foreseen responses to Him. The foreknowledge of God spoken of in Romans 8:29, for example, is a foreknowing of people, not just their future actions. In declaring that God has "mercy on whom He will have mercy and compassion on whom he will have compassion (Romans 9:15, cf Exodus 33:19)" Scripture tells us that no actions of men form the basis for His choices. When Moses asked God to show him His glory, God graciously answered the request in this way:

..."I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.(Exodus 33:19)

We see here that God reveals His glory in two ways: first, by proclaiming His name as "The Lord". And second, by acting as Lord-- it is His divine prerogative to alone determine who will receive His grace and who will receive His mercy- in this way God reveals His glory, and His Lordship over all.

The Arminian reasons that in providing people choice as to whether or not to respond to His gospel, and electing those who freely choose Him, God acts lovingly and fairly. But this is only partly true. While God indeed calls on people everywhere to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 17:30), and holds people accountable for their response to His call (John 3:18,36), nevertheless, God knows that none will come to Him unless He draws them (John 6:44,65). Therefore, God does not elect people on the basis of their response to Him. Rather He elects, according to His sovereign good pleasure, certain people, irrespective of anything good or bad they have done (Romans 9:11-18). Those He elects are enabled to respond to the gospel and be saved (John 6:37,44,65; Acts 13:48). Yet in so choosing, God acts fairly and justly, because He is a God of righteousness and holy justice (Psalm 7:1, Psalm 9:8, Psalm 33:4-5, Psalm 45:7, Psalm 50:6, Deut 10:18, Deut 32:4, Psalm 37:28, Psalm 89:14, etc.) and because, as we have said, it is His prerogative as God to make such determinations (Romans 9:21-24).

Through the substitutionary atonement of Christ Jesus, God Himself removed the barrier –sin- that separated us from His holy presence. At the Cross He fully satisfied His wrath against man's sin. What would have been just or fair is for God to have condemned all, since all sinned and the wages of sin is death (Romans 3:9-26). Instead, He has preserved for Himself a remnant (Romans 11:5). Those who do not avail themselves of the offer of Christ remain in their sins, and are condemned by their own choice (John 8:24, John 3:18). This teaching I believe is an example of biblical antinomy— when two truths that seem contrary to one another (from the standpoint of limited human reason), co-exist in the Scriptures. The two truths are that God gives efficacious grace only to His own people and not to all (John 6:37-39, John 10:1-4), yet at the same time, holds man responsible for his choice regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ (John 3:18). This tension cannot be resolved by the finite human mind, yet I believe Scripture presents both of these truths.

The Bible does not tell us why one person is elected and another is not, yet it affirms that a good, holy, omniscient and all-powerful God makes these decisions. Therefore, we can trust that His decisions are both fair and right.

Flaws in the Arminian argument: Merit-based election?

If God omnisciently sees those who will choose Him and others who won't, the question remains: why do some respond positively to grace while others do not? In the Arminian scheme the one who exercises faith to believe does so of their own accord- that is, he or she freely chooses God in a faith response to grace, while another sinner, who received the same offer of gospel grace, refuses it. Logically, this view forces the conclusion that some --by nature-- are better than others. Yet Scripture teaches that no one may boast of having come to the Lord, because without His drawing no one can come to Him and because the faith that brings salvation is His gift. God has purposely designed His system to exclude human boasting (John 6:44,65; Romans 9:16; Eph 2:8-9; 1Corinthians 1:29-31; 1Corinthians 4:7).

Flaws in the Arminian argument: God's sovereignty must entail both foreknowledge and fore-ordination

If God sees every person's future actions, then those actions must be foreordained in some sense, their outcome sure. For if God has nothing to do with foreordaining these human actions, how does He reign over them? Is God truly sovereign over all things if He is merely reacting to future actions/choices of His creatures?

And if He elects someone on the basis of knowing that the person will believe, does that person remain always elect, or does that person stop being "elect" if they then decide not to believe (as they may, according to the Arminian view)? It seems in the Arminian view election is ultimately not God's working but man's.

I believe the Arminian view robs us of much of the comfort and assurance about our salvation that Scripture means to give believers, in such passages as Romans 8:29-30 or 1John 5:10-13. This comfort comes as a witness of the Spirit, in knowing we belong to God. It also comes from recognizing the spiritual poverty (Matthew 5:3) and absolute dependence on God (John 15:5) that thrusts us into the arms of God's all-powerful grace as we walk out our faith. We are confident, not of ourselves (Phil 3:3), but of God's faithfulness (Phil 1:6).

The Reformed Picture of Election

The Reformed/Calvinistic picture of election is quite different from the Arminian one. God's election is not a response to our choosing of Him (as if!), since left to our sinful ways, no one would choose God. As discussed in the previous two articles, total depravity leads to an inability to choose God, since in our sin we do not seek God, want nothing to do with Him, and are on a natural course of rebellion and separation from God. Apart from the sovereign mercy of God, all human beings would continue on this self-destructive path that would ultimately lead to eternal separation from God. However, God the Father in His mercy has reached out to us, sending His Son Jesus to take the penalty for our sins upon Himself. Christ Jesus is the bridge by which we may be reconciled to the Father. And yet our state as fallen people is such that we are blind and deaf to the gospel. The natural man-- all of us, before the miracle of regeneration-- cannot comprehend the importance and the value of the gospel, so as to embrace it. God mercifully grabs hold of us, and through supernatural, spiritual rebirth grants us eyes that may see and ears that can hear. Therefore He rescues us from destruction, just as the angels grabbed hold of Lot and his family and mercifully dragged them out of Sodom. Certainly we all would have perished, if left to our own choice.

And yet a great mystery in saving election is that God does not choose on the basis of merit in people, any good or bad we have done, any anticipated works of good or bad. As we have noted, God simply has compassion on whom He will have compassion and shows mercy to whom He shows mercy (Romans 9:15). Election is not a reward for faith, nor for works we have done or might do in the future. Rather God sets His affection upon certain people by His own eternal counsel:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:3-6).

"Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began... (2 Tim 1:8-9)"

And those whom He "foreknows" in this way he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he (Jesus) might be the firstborn among many brothers. 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).

We see how the tenets within each of the two ancient theological systems connect and build upon one another. In Arminianism, prevenient grace makes it possible for people to choose God of their own accord, thus an election in which God foresees this free choice and elects people on that basis seems both logical and fair. In Reformed teaching, man's condition of total depravity/inability means that God must sovereignly act to elect unto salvation those who otherwise (because of their sinful hearts and inclinations) would not turn to Him.

Final Comments
I have been finding completion of this series to be very challenging, in that I am wrestling with the arguments on both sides as I do my research, and trying to make my conclusions my own, rather than reiterating the conclusions of others. Of course, one can't be very original really, in writing on these themes. I plan to continue with the series, but will probably also take some breaks from it, as a way of refreshing my creative energies (and hopefully keeping readers from utter boredom).

I leave you now with this quote from Martin Luther:

As man, before he is created man, does nothing and endeavors nothing towards his being made a creature; and as, after he is made and created, he does nothing and endeavors nothing towards his preservation, or towards his continuing in his creature existence, but each takes place alone by the will of the omnipotent power and goodness of God, creating us and preserving us, without ourselves; but as God, nevertheless, does not work in us without us, seeing we are for that purpose created and preserved, that He might work in us and that we might cooperate with Him, whether it be out of His kingdom under His general omnipotence, or in His kingdom under the peculiar power of His Spirit; — so, man, before he is regenerated into the new creation of the kingdom of the Spirit, does nothing and endeavors nothing towards his new creation into that kingdom, and after he is re-created does nothing and endeavors nothing towards his perseverance in that kingdom; but the Spirit alone effects both in us, regenerating us and preserving us when regenerated, without ourselves; Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Sect. CXXXI

Other Posts in this Series:
Reformed or Arminian- What Difference Does Theology Make?(Introductory Post)
Reformed or Arminian- Theological Definitions
Contrasting Reformed/Calvinistic Theology with Arminianism (Related Views)
Arminianism vs Reformed Theology (Universal Prevenient Grace vs Total Inability, Pt I)
Arminianism vs Reformed Theology (Universal Prevenient Grace vs Total Inability, Pt II)

Arminian vs Reformed Theology (entire series)

For further study:

Are There Two Wills in God? John Piper
An Examination of the Five Points of Calvinism - Part II: Unconditional Election by Brian Schwertly
The Doctrine of Election by John Reisinger: Part I and Part II
Sovereign Grace and Man's Responsibility by Charles Spurgeon
God's Purpose According to Election: Paul's Argument in Rom 9
More links on election at

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