Books Soteriology

An Arminian understanding of election

Having spelled out his objections to Calvinism’s doctrine of double predestination (in chapter 5 of Against Calvinism), Roger Olson outlines the Arminian alternative that he deems superior.

An Arminian doctrine of election

As John Wesley stated the classic Arminian doctrine of election, it is God’s foreknowledge of who will freely receive the prevenient enabling grace which God gives in equal measure to everyone. God also foreknows who will resist that grace, and they are the reprobate. Since humans decide who is elect and who is reprobate, both election and reprobation are conditional (129). Jack Cottrell argues that God voluntarily limited himself, to give creatures authentic (that is libertarian) freedom. Olson concurs with this, and he argues that it is the only way to do justice to the biblical texts that declare God’s love for all human beings (e.g., Jn 3:16; 1 Tim 2:4), and to account for the expressions of conditionality in the biblical narrative, such as God’s grief, relenting, and reaction to human behavior (132).

The understanding of election that most appeals to Roger, however, is not the choice of individuals on the condition of foreknown faith, but corporate election, which he dubs “the main alternative to high Calvinism’s view of election and salvation” (130). I find this a common preference among Arminians these days. For a good statement of the position, Roger refers to William Klein, who asserts that “God’s will does not determine the specific individuals who will receive that salvation” (cited on 130). God desires salvation for all, but “he wills (in the stronger sense) to give life to those who believe” (cited on 131). “Christ is God’s Chosen One, and the church is chosen in him” (cited on 130), but it is graciously enabled individuals, responding to God’s drawing in Christ, who decide the membership of the church. God has always known who these people will be, and “he chose them as a body in Christ,” but these people are the ones whose voluntary repentance and faith makes them part of the elect body.

My reflections

I appreciated Klein’s book The New Chosen People when I read it, years ago. It convinced me that Scripture had more to say about the corporate election of Israel and the church than I had previously seen. I also came to see that some of the texts I had interpreted as references to the salvation of individuals were actually about their historical role in God’s covenant program, such as Paul’s discussion regarding God’s choice of Jacob rather than Esau, in Romans 9. Nevertheless, I am unable to ignore many elective texts which do clearly speak of the salvation of individuals, and I can not escape the strong tie between these texts and those which teach us about God’s efficacious calling of those whom he has chosen to save.

The latter issue will arise as the focus of a later chapter in Olson’s book, so I won’t expand on it now. But I’ll take a moment now to identify some biblical references that describe unmistakably God’s choice of particular individuals for salvation.

The unconditional election of individuals to salvation

Arminians sometimes suggest that the idea of unconditional individual election first appeared in Augustine’s later works, but Bruce Demarest has demonstrated that this is not the case. Athanasius (d. 373) sometimes spoke of unconditional divine election. Commenting on Ephesians 1:3-5 and 2 Timothy 1:8-10, he “observed that whereas the Fall was ‘foreseen’ the salvation of some people was predestined or ‘prepared beforehand’” (Discourse Against the Arians, 2.75-76; cited by Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 114). Later, Ambrose (d. 430) wrote: “God calls those whom he deigns to call; he makes him pious whom he wills to make pious, for if he had willed he could have changed the impious into pious” (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 7.27; cited by Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 114).

Augustine rejected the notion later taken over by Arminians that divine foreknowledge is simply prescience. Aptly, he wrote: “Had God chosen us on the ground that he foreknew that we should be good, then would he also have foreknown that we would not be the first to make the choice of him” (On the Gospel of St. Jn, 86.2; cited by Demarest, 115).

I grant that the OT has much to say about God’s unconditional choosing of Israel as his people but, within that people, those who had what Paul later calls “the faith of Abraham,” the kind that justifies, were identified as the faithful remnant. This was a group whose genuine faith was God’s doing. They were the “chosen ones” of God (Is 65:15, 22; cf. v. 9), the called of the Lord (Joel 2:32), and those who are gathered by the Lord (Mic 2:12). It was this  remnant, who would put their trust in the Lord, who were designated God’s people (Is 10:20-24; cf. Jer 31:7; Is 37:32).

Olson often, and rightly, cites Jesus as the supreme revelation of God as love. Since I cannot write a whole treatise on election in the NT, I’ll mention only what I see in the Gospels, particularly in the teaching of Jesus. There, election is primarily in terms of the Kingdom of God, which is inherited by those for whom God has prepared it from the foundations of the world (Mt 25:34; 20:23). God is the author of that choice (Lk 18:7; Mt 24:22,24,31; Mk 13:20-22), and he made his choice before the world was made. The parable of the workers, in Matthew 20:1-16, teaches us that God is not obligated to treat everyone the same way; everyone gets justice, but some get grace. There were many needy widows in Elijah’s time, but he was only sent to the widow of Zarephath (Lk 4:25-26; cf. 1 Kgs 17:8-24); though there were many lepers in Israel, it was only Naaman the Syrian who was healed (Lk 4:27; cf. 2 Kgs 5:1-14).

It is the Father’s sovereign right (his eudokia, the good pleasure of his sovereign will) to reveal or conceal the significance of Jesus’ words and deeds as he pleases (Mt 11:25-26), and only those to whom the Son  chooses to reveal the Father come to know him (Mt 11:27).

I find John’s Gospel particularly explicit about God’s sovereign choice of particular individuals to be saved. “The Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it” (John 5:21), and Jesus knew which of his disciples he had “chosen” (John 13:18). He had chosen the group for ministry, but he chose them individually, except for Judas, for salvation. In John 10, Jesus refers to his elect people as the “sheep;” they are people whom the Father has specifically given to the Son (10:29; cf 17:2, 6, 9, 24; 18:9), and all whom the Father has given to him will come to him (John 6:37).

Jesus chose these people out of the world both for service and for salvation (Jn 15:19; cf. 17:6, 14, 16). As D. A. Carson observes, “They are Christ’s obedient sheep in his salvific purpose before they are his sheep in obedient practice” (Divine Sovereignty, 192; cited by Demarest, 126). The shepherd died to achieve the salvation of the sheep (Jn 10:11, 15), and so Jesus “reveals himself redemptively to those the Father gave him out of the world (John 17:6, 8), and for those he intercedes in heaven” (Demarest, 126). The shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name (10:3, 14, 27); the sheep know the voice of the shepherd and follow him (10:4, 27), but others do not believe because they are not his sheep (10:26). That is, people do not become sheep because they believe, they believe because they are sheep!

The flip side of election

Election is always good news in Scripture, the ground of our assurance that God will eventually glorify us. Election, precisely because it is God’s unconditional choice of undeserving sinners, inspires God’s people to praise and thanksgiving for God’s great mercy to us. I’m keenly aware, however, that Roger is not alone in feeling scandalized by the fact that God has not chosen to save everyone if, as Calvinists insist, he could have done so. Here is certainly a place where I plead mystery. God has not revealed to us his reasons for this. On the other hand, I find grounds to be hopeful that most of the human race has been chosen for salvation. Meanwhile, I accept the consistent witness of Scripture that those who spend eternity apart from God are justly punished for their sin, whether or not our understanding of how this is compatible with God’s meticulous sovereignty is complete.


In response to Arminian concerns about God’s goodness, I doubt that their appeal to simple divine foreknowledge has significant advantages for a theodicy. Are people really going to be much better satisfied with Arminianism than with Calvinism, when they are told that God knew the risk he ran in giving creatures libertarian freedom, but that he still chose to let human beings decide how many people would be saved and how much evil would exist in the world? Personally, I rejoice in the belief that these momentous decisions were kept in the control of the one and only wise and good God who created us all.   

 Earlier posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3,  Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9




By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

3 replies on “An Arminian understanding of election”

A question (rather than argument in any sene), Terry. I gather that you hold that election (indeed the basic Calvinist understanding of Scripture in general) is rooted in the Old and New Testaments, and that you hold the positions you do as an effort to read and accept Scripture. If that is the case, is there an equivalent strand of rabbinic theology in Judaism — whether from the time of Jesus or throughout history — to Calvinism in Christian theology? I do not know anything about Jewish theology, but have an impression that it elevates free will in a way that Calvinism would find repugnant. If there is no “Calvinist-type” strand in rabbinic theologies (given that the rabbis were/are reflecting on at least one part of the same Scripture as Christian theologians), why not?

You ask an excellent question, Daryl. Unfortunately, I know very little about Rabbinic teaching in the first century, so I don’t have a helpful answer.

I looked around in my own library but found nothing adequate to the question, particularly in regard to the individual, e.g. the faithful remnant. E. P. Sanders, in his work on Palestinian Judaism, cites 3 ideas that are all found in Rabbinic thought in regard to the election of Israel: (1) God offered the privilege to all the nations and only Israel accepted; (2) Israel merited it because of some prior obedience to God or because God foresaw that they would be a nation who would keep Torah; (3) God chose Israel gratuitously, for his own name’s sake.

Elsewhere, I came across the observation that there were some in Qumran who viewed Israel’s election as merited, which would fall into Sanders’ second group.

Sanders does note that in Israel the question “why?” was frequently raised.

From Sanders’ work, it sounds as though it would not have been unprecedented within the Judaism of the time if Jesus, Paul and Peter understood election to be a gratuitous and unmerited choice. Given how I hear those NT Jewish figures, I would have expected this, because I don’t get any sense that in this regard their teaching was shockingly innovative. But of course that is also strongly informed by my monergistic reading of the OT.

Post holocaust, I get the sense that Rabbi Kushner’s Jewish version of Open Theism is quite common among Jews of faith. It seems to be much more palatable to many to believe that God lost a battle he was trying to win, when 6 million Jews lost their lives, than that it happened within the meticulous sovereignty of God. The Rabbi in Jerusalem a few years ago who ventured that the holocaust may have been divine judgment by God upon Israelis, akin to the Babylonian exile, was not so kindly received.

I’ll keep my eyes and ears open in regard to the Rabbinic context, Daryl, and perhaps someone else reading your question will have a better informed answer than I.

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