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The Doctrine of Election and Predestination: Where Christians Agree and Disagree

R. C. Sproul rightly said, “The word predestination provokes more theological discussion than perhaps any word in the Bible.” Unfortunately, these conversations can get prickly, even between the most warm-hearted Christians. Maybe that makes a blog post the ideal venue to discuss this issue! In the small amount of space a post like this provides, I’d like to bring some clarity and unity to the doctrines of predestination and election.

First of all, a couple of definitions. Predestination is the doctrine that states how God determines what will happen in human history according to his eternal will and pleasure. Election is a subset of predestination, focusing specifically on God’s sovereign choice of who will be included among his people.

General Agreement on Predestination

The debate on these doctrines is generally split between two camps: Calvinists and Arminians. Before getting into how these two differ on this issue, allow me to list some points of agreement (although, as you will see below, how each scheme works out these concepts is different). Both sides agree that:

  1. Humans are fallen creatures because of Adam’s sin, and therefore are unable to earn their salvation (Rom. 3:23).
  2. The human sinful condition renders people incapable of seeking God purely on their own, so God must be the initiator of reconciliation and salvation (Rom. 3:10-18). We can only love God because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
  3. Therefore, only through faith in Christ is anyone able to be saved (Eph. 2:8-9).
  4. Predestination and election are undeniable biblical doctrines, since both themes appear in the inspired, infallible Scriptures (e.g., Mark 13:20-22, 27; Rom. 8-9; Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:4-5).

The differences that exist between Arminianism and Calvinism stem from the question of how human choice factors into predestination and election. If God chooses who is included in His people, does the individual therefore not choose? Arminians answer this question by stating that people do in fact choose for themselves to believe in Jesus – free will is a value in Arminianism.

The Arminian View of Predestination

The Arminian’s emphasis on man’s free choice to accept Christ results in the following beliefs:

  1. God’s predestination is based on the foreknown free choice of the individual to accept or reject the gospel. So God’s foreknowledge, for the Arminian, does not mean that God causes the person to believe. It means God can see into the future that a person will put their faith in Jesus. So God, in the past, as it were, elects an individual as a response to the foreseeing the free choice the person will make in the future.
  2. God initiates a renewed relationship with sinful people through prevenient grace, a grace that “comes before”. This is a general grace that God bestows on all fallen humans by which they are able to accept Christ.

The Calvinist View of Predestination

Calvinists, on the other hand, do not believe that people have the capacity to respond to the gospel in and of themselves, because people are “dead in their sins and transgressions” (Eph. 2:1). A dead person cannot come back to life – a dead person needs to be raised. This results in working out predestination and election in the following ways:

  1. Predestination/election is God’s eternal will concerning the soul of a human being, determining beforehand whether he or she will repent and believe. God does not respond to a foreknown choice of the person. God’s foreknowledge is a part of the fore-choosing of election (Rom. 8:29).
  2. Therefore, the Calvinist states that it is not a general, prevenient grace that enables someone to choose Christ. Rather, God calls individuals by His particular and efficacious grace, by which the individual necessarily responds with faith in Christ.

As opposed to free will, Calvinists emphasize “bound will,” that is, since we are in bondage to sin, our will is incapable of choosing Christ.

Many people make the mistake of concluding that in the Calvinist scheme, the person has no choice in salvation. This is where the defeaters come in, like, “That just makes people into robots,” or the “frozen chosen.” I would say this is a description of hyper-Calvinism, and does not reflect the fullness of what Scripture teaches. Calvinists do not believe that God makes anyone a Christian against their will. So how should we understand the way personal choice factors into election for a Calvinist? Allow me to illustrate.

An Illustration

Imagine you are a child on Christmas morning, and your father has just placed a gift in your lap to open. In the back of your mind, you are thinking of all the things you wrote on your wish list, and you’re wondering which of them could fit in a box this shape. As you open it, you quickly realize it is not anything you asked for – yet it is the most interesting and delightful toy you have ever seen. In fact, after all the gifts have been opened, it is your favorite present of all.

father son gift

Did your father force you to like the gift, as if you were a robot? Did he make you enjoy that gift against your will? No. But in his wisdom, as he planned for Christmas day, he predetermined to give you that gift out of his gracious love for you, his child. And it was precisely in the giving of the gift that he also gave you the desire for, love of, and joy over the gift. After all, if he had never surprised you with this present that you didn’t ask for, you still would not have the desire for it. 

This is how Calvinists make sense of Ephesians 2:8, which talks about faith being a gift from God, not something that originates inside us. God gives us faith in Jesus, but when God gives us that gift it is genuinely our faith – we are doing the believing, out a will that has been renewed by the transforming power of the Spirit. But if God did not give us the gift of faith, we would never believe from hearts.

Conclusion

By now, you can probably guess which side of the debate I fall on! But I do think it is important for Calvinists to be charitable towards our Arminian brothers and sisters, and vice versa. Because of their emphasis on free will, many Calvinists say that Arminians are necessarily man-centered, not God-centered. But I’ve met too many Arminians who love God more than I do to accept that.

The most important thing is that all are constantly going to the Scriptures to gain our understanding on this and every doctrine. We need to Scripture to inform and reform our framework, and not force Bible verses into our own framework.