Calvinism and Arminianism – Election

Do we choose God or does God choose us?

Again, it’s another of those classic questions. The typical answer would be that God chooses us. But categorically speaking, one can make a case that it goes both ways.

You see, we often say that Christianity is not a religion; It’s a relationship. And in any kind of relationship, the choosing action has to go both ways. You can’t really have a relationship where only one chooses the other and the other doesn’t reciprocate. In that case, that may be more akin to stalking than a relationship.

However, this question is not without it’s own ambiguity. One might ask: Choosing for what? Or maybe: When we use “we” or “us” in the question, do we refer to man in general or to specific individuals? So perhaps to better deliver the crux of the matter, let’s reconstruct the question this way: Does God choose to save a specific individual or does a specific individual choose to be saved by God?

But let’s some baseline for this issue first. Both Calvinism and Arminianism reject the concept of Universalism. Universalism is the idea that everyone will be saved. Now, both Calvinism and Arminianism agree that only a subset of people will be saved, and not everyone. This is not a concern of intent yet, but just a matter of outcome. As far as the Bible is concerned as depicted in passages like Matthew 25:31-46, God, in his time, will execute his judgment by saving some and condemning the rest.

And this is the concept of the elect. The elect is simply the group of people whom God will save when the world finally ends. Election, in turn, is the process by which God selects this group of people. And this process of election is what Calvinists and Arminians disagree about: How exactly does God choose the elect? Is God’s election based on anything?

What Calvinism teaches on the matter of election is what we call Unconditional Election. Simply put, it’s not based on anything about man.

Unconditional Election teaches that when God chooses whom he will save, it’s wholly based on God. The choice is his prerogative. It is his sovereign choice. One might even say that it’s his arbitrary choice. So when God decides to save a specific individual, it is not based on anything that we can find in that person, but simply because God wants to save that specific individual.

What verses, then, support this doctrine? John 15:16 is a good example where Jesus explicitly mentions that it is God who chooses people. Paul teaches in 2 Timothy 1:8-10 that God’s choice is not based on anything man does but solely based on God’s purpose. Likewise, Ephesians 1:11-12 has Paul saying that Christians have been chosen and predestined according to God’s plan. And Romans 9:10-18 has an entire passage depicting how God exercises his sovereign choice, culminating in a very strong statement that God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy.

However, when we say that God is exercising his sovereign choice in election, we don’t necessarily mean that God is rolling dice to determine the fate of each individual. You see, whenever the Bible mentions God exercising his sovereign choice, it is intentional. He doesn’t leave things to chance. He intentionally decided to save specific individuals.

And here lies the difficulty with Unconditional Election: Wouldn’t God unconditionally electing to save a specific set of individuals mean that God also unconditionally passes over the rest? Wouldn’t this mean that God chooses not to save those specific people whom he excluded?

It is quite a bitter idea, one that Calvinists need to grapple with. And it is because of this difficulty that Arminians have gone another way. With regard to election, Arminianism teach what we call Conditional Election. Simply put,  God selects the people he saves based on their faith.

Now, we have to qualify this statement. When we say it is based on faith, we do not mean that it is based on how much faith a person has. This is not a matter of how big or small is your faith. It is simply a matter of whether or not one has faith. It’s the presence or absence of faith that counts.

Conditional Election teaches that God chooses to save only the people who have faith in him. Faith now becomes the condition for God choosing to save us. After all, Jesus did say in John 3:16 that whoever believes in him, a definite act of faith, will have eternal life. And Hebrews 11:6 tells that faith is needed please God. So the basic idea is that faith is integral to all this.

But how does this work? There are two major views on Conditional Election.

The first view is what classical Arminianism teaches, which is Conditional Election based on foreknowledge of faith. The idea is that before the beginning of time, God already foreknew whether a person will believe in him or not. Based on this knowledge, God then chooses to save this individual. This is what Romans 8:29-30 is depicting with how foreknowledge preceded predestination.

We can think of it this way:  Suppose a guy is considering to ask a girl out. At this point, he has not chosen to ask her out yet. But say, he learns that the girl likes him and that she will definitely say yes if he asks her out. He then proceeds to actually ask her out. So in this way, the guy chooses to ask the girl out, based on his foreknowledge that she will say yes. This is kind of how God elects based on knowledge of the future.

The second view is what we call Corporate Election. The basic idea of Corporate Election is that God doesn’t elect on an individual basis. He doesn’t go through a list of names and decides whether someone is among the elect or not. The idea is that God elects a group, a general umbrella of people, whose members are not quite defined. Individuals can then opt to become members of this group or not. So God basically elects to save the general criteria of “those who have faith in him”, and anyone who wishes to be part of this group must fulfill this criteria and have faith in him.

This is very similar to how God chose the nation of Israel. Israel is basically God’s people, but not all who are born Jew gets to be part of Israel. After all, several passages in the Old Testament mention cutting off a person from the nation as a punishment for certain sins, thereby forfeiting his membership to the nation. Likewise, several Gentiles have been able to become part of Israel by opting in, as evidenced by people like Ruth and Rahab.

Nevertheless, whether one holds to the classical view or the corporate election view, the point that God elects based on faith still remains. But this then begs the question: If faith now becomes the basis for us to be saved, wouldn’t that mean then that salvation is to our credit? Wouldn’t faith make us deserving of salvation then?

But wait. Let’s pause for a while. Conditional Election has greatly stressed the significance of faith in the process of salvation. But it doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere in the idea of Unconditional Election. Does this mean, then, that faith is irrelevant in Calvinism? Not quite. While it is irrelevant in God’s choice to save individuals, in fact it is an impossibility given the Total Depravity of man, faith is not absent in the equation of salvation. In Calvinism, faith is not a prerequisite in election, but rather a byproduct of election. Basically, God grants the chosen faith as mentioned in Ephesians 2:8-9. Faith is a gift from God, and hence generate externally.

Now let’s go back to the original question: Is faith, then, to man’s credit in Arminianism? Again, not quite. While in an Arminian viewpoint, faith does seem to be something internal, it is still not to man’s own credit. After all, Arminians still believe that man is totally depraved. Because of this initial state, man cannot have faith. So in an Arminian understanding, there is a huge gap between the initial state of man being unable to have faith and the moment by which man exercises faith by believing in Jesus. And that gap is where the grace of God steps in. The idea is that faith is not to man’s credit because it was impossible for him to have faith in the first place, and was only made possible because of God’s grace. Hence faith now becomes God’s gift because he provides the possibility for it. We’ll discuss this point more when we go into the Part 4: On the Subject of Grace.

One last thing to note, though, is that Arminians sees predestination in a different light as with Calvinists. Calvinist defines predestination as God actively determining the eternal destiny of individuals based on his sovereign choice: Who are the people who gets to heaven. Arminians on the other hand defines predestination as God actively determining the eternal destiny of the elect: That they get to heaven.

In summary, what Calvinism and Arminianism differ with the subject of election is on the conditionality of it. What is God’s basis in choosing to save individuals? However both still agree that only those who have faith will be saved, and those who do not have faith will be condemned. Arminians just see this faith as a requirement, while Calvinists see this faith as a guaranteed byproduct.

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