Most Christians who have not been taught specifically Reformed doctrine have little or no comprehension of divine election. The message of the Gospel goes out to all, and people who hear it freely believe or reject it, is the general view. Nonetheless, the Bible discusses election (or predestination), and also discusses human inability to please God on our own or even to take any initiative in receiving the Gospel. Those of us who believe (based on Scripture) that the Gospel is genuinely offered to all and that all who hear it do make a genuine choice either to trust in Christ or reject Him must contend with these two issues, election and inability, if we are to be thoroughly biblical in our thinking.
Critics of Arminianism tend to portray the Arminian view of election in this way: God elects to salvation those whom He knows will believe anyway, therefore election is basically meaningless. God’s election is conditional on what human beings will choose to do: He just elects those who elect themselves–in fact, this view makes Him powerless to save anyone without their cooperation. The sacrifice of Jesus is not sufficient to save; it must be mixed with the individual’s faith in order to be effective. The believer becomes his own co-savior and robs glory for salvation that is due to God. He gives himself a means of boasting, even though the Bible says to “let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
The reason why the Arminian view is seen in this way is because of an exclusive focus on the individual. The Reformed view sees God essentially as electing individuals (say, Peter, Paul, and Mary) who together become corporately the people of God. Those who hold this view incorrectly assume that Arminians also focus on the individual, but merely get around God’s election by basing it on foreknowledge of the individual’s exercise of faith. Arminians, however, do not start with the individual. They start with the plan of salvation, centered on the sacrifice of Christ. The point of the election passages, says the Arminian, is the sovereignly and unconditionally determined criterion of election: faith in Christ for the atonement of one’s sins. That criterion becomes the defining characteristic of the people of God. God’s people are not the wealthy, or the intellectual, or the noble, or the strong, or even those physically descended from Abraham or those who strive the hardest to follow the Law. They are those who trust in Christ for their salvation. Period. Through the power of the Gospel we are enabled to believe; those who choose to do so become a part of that chosen people (which is what ελεκτοι means). But God’s eternal decree is that He has chosen to choose those who believe, as opposed to any other group. That is unconditional and unchangeable.
It is only when considered on the level of the individual that foreknowledge even becomes an issue. Once God has chosen to choose those who believe, then He of course knows who that group will consist of as individuals. “General election” (the choice of a group, as opposed to “particular election,” the choice of specific individuals) is sometimes ridiculed on the basis that if God chooses a group, He must necessarily choose each individual member of that group. But that is only true if one considers a group in a static sense–“My church consists of each individual member in it.” However, a group based on a criterion is a dynamic group: the church may gain some people and lose others and still nonetheless be the church; it is defined by those who choose to worship together. God knows who will respond to the enabling power of the Gospel by choosing to believe (say, Peter, Paul, and Mary) and so in a sense He has elected those individuals for salvation, but it cannot be said that they “elected themselves,” because they didn’t choose the criterion for election.
This is where the objection based on foreknowledge comes in. Robert E. Mason, for example, commenting in Jesus Creed (#16) writes,
“If God foreknows that x is going to occur, then x cannot not occur. If x does not occur, then God’s knowledge was false. I take it that it is a more serious charge against God to say that his knowledge was false than to say he did not know. There is a logical determinism at work here. Divine foreknowledge of x guarantees that x will occur.”
So therefore, the Arminian hasn’t really wiggled out of anything. If God knows that I will respond in faith, then I am not free not to do so, and if He knows that I will not, then I am not free to do so. One may as well take the more straightforward Reformed approach, since we are all predetermined to do one or the other anyway by God’s foreknowledge.
But this objection confuses foreknowledge with foreordination. God may know something in the future because He has determined beforehand that it should happen (most predictive prophecy would work like that). But He may also know something in the future because He sees (from outside time) or foresees (from the past), depending on your point of view, something occur, something that occurs as a result of the actions of one of His creatures whom He has given some measure of autonomy (even if it’s only the autonomy to sin). This doesn’t mean that He caused that action; merely that He knows about it. To say that “God knows I will do x, therefore I don’t have the ability not to do x,” is to conceal a tautology with the phrase, “God knows.” It resolves down to the simple fact that I can’t both do and not do the same thing at the same time. If I do it, then I can’t not do it, and if I don’t do it, then I can’t do it. It only means that I must choose between two alternatives; it certainly doesn’t mean that my choice is determined.
This is where Calvinism and Open Theism become strange bedfellows. Both accept the idea that God’s foreknowledge implies foreordination, and therefore limits human autonomy. Calvinism replies: God has perfect foreknowledge, therefore humans are not autonomous; Open Theism replies: Humans are autonomous, therefore God doesn’t have perfect foreknowledge. But there is no reason why God cannot create beings with the capacity to make free decisions and at the same time know what decisions they will make. To say that He can’t is to diminish His sovereignty simply because we can’t quite grasp how it is possible.
Keith Schooley (the original post appeared on Schooley’s website [editor’s note from 12/4/19: though it no longer seems to be available there])