Arminius vs. Calvin on Unconditional Election

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That the doctrine of election (or, as some would have it, predestination) is taught in Scripture is rarely denied. There are those who teach that election or predestination is only related to salvation via means of Christian service. For example, Jack Cottrell writes:

      Among those predestined to fill specific roles in the accomplishment of redemption, the primary character is the Redeemer himself, Jesus of Nazareth. The election of Jesus is the central and primary act of predestination. . . . At times other individuals were chosen for special roles in order to facilitate God’s purposes. . . . As instruments for establishing the church another group of individuals were chosen, namely, the apostles. . . . That such election was for service and not salvation is seen from the fact that even Judas is among the chosen twelve (Luke 6:13; John 6:70), though his predetermined role was that of the betrayer of Jesus (John 6:71).


Cottrell is not denying a certain type of individual predestination, however. He states:

      We must say, then, that God predestines specific individuals to salvation. Is this the same as Calvinism? Far from it. As mentioned above, Calvinism teaches not just a predestination to salvation, but a predestination to faith itself: God determines which unbelievers will become believers. The biblical teaching is that certain individuals are predestined to salvation as such. Which individuals? The ones whom God foreknows (Rom. 8:29) will become believers of their own free choice.


This is the view that Arminius advocates, as will be demonstrated. God does not merely foreknow the faith of certain individuals, He foreknows believers. There is another view of election, championed by Robert Shank and others, including myself, that views God’s election as primarily corporate in nature. God elected, among other things, 1) the nation Israel to fulfill His purposes (Deut. 7:7-8); 2) the nation of Jacob and not Esau to fulfill His purposes (Gen. 25:23; Rom. 9:10-14); 3) the Church in the New Testament (1 Peter 2:9); through 4) Jesus Christ, God’s elect (Isa. 42:1), to fulfill His purposes. The elect, then, in the New Testament, are made up of individuals who have been united by the Holy Spirit into the one body of Christ to fulfill the purposes of God the Father who is working out everything in conformity with His will (Ephesians 1:11). Only as one comes to union with Christ is he or she considered the elect, chosen, or choice of God.

Calvin views the biblical data slightly different. The apostle Paul writes: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4 NIV). Calvin interprets: “The foundation and first cause, both of our calling and of all the benefits which we receive from God, is here declared to be His eternal election. If the reason is asked, why God has called us to enjoy the gospel, why He daily bestows upon us so many blessings, why He opens to us the gate of heaven, the answer will be constantly found in this principle, that He hath chosen us before the foundation of the world.”3

The question of who God has elected is not here addressed. But the reader is alerted to the time of the election: before the creation of the world. Calvin comments: “The very time when the election took place proves it to be free; for what could we have deserved, or what merit did we possess, before the world was made?”4 Considering that no human being had yet been created or done any action or motion whatsoever before the creation of the world renders Calvin’s question moot. He continues: “How childish is the attempt to meet this argument by the following sophism! ‘We were chosen because we were worthy.’ We were all lost in Adam; and therefore, had not God, through His own election, rescued us from perishing, there was nothing to be foreseen.”5

One could also argue, however, that if God had not predetermined or foreordained for human beings to fall, then what need would He have had of electing or reprobating those whom He decreed to create? Calvin continues:

      The same argument is used in the Epistle to the Romans, where, speaking of Jacob and Esau, he says, “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him that calleth” (Rom. 9:11). But though they had not yet acted, might a sophist of the Sorbonne [the historic University of Paris] reply, God foresaw that they would act. This objection has no force when applied to the depraved natures of men, in whom nothing can be seen but materials for destruction.


Calvin is assuming that God’s election of Jacob was unto salvation, and His rejection of Esau was a reprobation unto damnation or hell, even though God had told Rebekah, mother to Jacob and Esau, that two nations were in her womb, and two peoples from within her would be separated (Gen. 25:23). God’s election of Jacob was His choice of Israel to serve Him (i.e. carry the Messianic line); not a single, particular, irresistible, unconditional election unto heaven. Hence God’s rejection of Esau was his choice to not allow Esau’s descendants to serve Him (i.e. carry the Messianic line); not a single, particular, irresistible, unconditional reprobation unto hell. The reason why God made this choice before either boy had done anything good or bad was to demonstrate that His blessings do not come as a result of anyone’s good works.

What we know of Ephesians 1:3-4, where election is concerned, is that 1) God is the One who bestows all blessings (“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms,” Ephesians 1:3a); 2) all blessings come to those who are in Christ Jesus (“who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ,” Ephesians 1:3b); 3) before He created the world, God chose something about those who are in Christ (“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world,” Ephesians 1:4a); and 4) God chose for those in Christ “to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4b). Hence the text does not read that God chose us “to be in Him,” but that He chose us in Him “to be holy and blameless in His sight.” The phrase “us in Him” should be interpreted to mean “us who are in Him.”

Those who defend a foreknowledge view of God’s election appeal to such scriptures as Romans 8:29 and 1 Peter 1:1-2, where God is said to predestine those whom He foreknew (Rom. 8:29), and elect according to His foreknowledge (1 Peter 1:1-2). However, at Romans 8:29, Paul said that God’s predestination (or better, predetermination) was to conform the believer into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ, not unconditionally elect him or her unto heaven. Respectively, Peter was writing to believers who had been scattered throughout various provinces. They were said to be God’s elect or chosen exiles. And this election or choice was said to be according to the foreknowledge of God the Father (1 Peter 1:2).

Is there anything outside of God’s knowledge or foreknowledge? Unless one is an Open Theist, he or she will be obliged to answer no. For Arminius, God’s foreknowledge of all people included His knowledge of them as either believers or unbelievers. Thus it is in no wise careless to believe the authors of Scripture when they confess that believers were predestined to be conformed into the image of Jesus, or that believers were elect according to the foreknowledge of God. Concerning God’s knowledge of all things, Arminius writes:

      Hence, since foreknowledge is of future things, strictly speaking, there is no indefinite foreknowledge: for it is knowledge that is indefinite, not foreknowledge: for the particle “fore” restricts the knowledge of possible things to the foreknowledge of


      things, things that shall be. This is apparent from a comparison of the object, and of the action employed about it. For the possible is from eternity, and the foreknowledge of God is from eternity. It was not known before it was possible: for being known is to be possible.


Arminius is specifically attacking Francis Gomarus’s supralapsarian theory, and through it we get a glimpse of his thoughts on God’s exhaustive knowledge. This is important as it pertains to God’s foreknowledge of believers. Concerning unconditional election, Arminius writes:

      With respect to the article of Predestination, my sentiments upon it are the following: It is an eternal and gracious decree of God in Christ, by which He determines to justify and adopt believers, and to endow them with life eternal, but to condemn unbelievers, and impenitent persons . . . But such a decree as I have there described is not that by which God resolves to save some particular persons, and, that He may do this, resolves to endow them with faith, but to condemn others and not to endow them with faith. Yet many people declare that this is the kind of predestination on which the apostle treats . . . But I deny what they assert.

I grant that there is a certain eternal decree of God, according to which He administers the means necessary to faith and salvation, and this He does in such a manner as He knows to be suited to righteousness, that is, to His mercy and His severity. But about this decree I think nothing more is necessary to be known than that faith is the mere gift of the gracious mercy of God; and that unbelief is partly to the just vengeance of God, which deserts, blinds and hardens sinners.

But concerning that predestination by which God has decreed to save and to endow with faith some particular persons, but to damn others and not endow them with faith, so various are the sentiments entertained even by the divines of our profession that this very diversity of opinion easily declares the difficulty with which it is possible to determine any thing respecting it.8

And how does God know or foreknow His elect people? Arminius affirms: “God foreknows future things through the infinity of His essence, and through the pre-eminent perfection of His understanding and prescience, not as He willed or decreed that they should necessarily be done; though He would not foreknow them except as they were future, and they would not be future unless God had decreed either to perform or to permit them.”9

If God is said to elect those who, having been freed from their bondage to sin, believe savingly in Jesus Christ, is that not a reversal of the biblical data? Is that not a person electing God rather than God electing a person? The problem with such a question is its presupposition that God unconditionally elects some unto salvation and others unto reprobation. The question is invalid. Arminius writes, concerning “the salvation of these particular persons, and the damnation of those: This rests or depends on the prescience and foresight of God, by which He foreknew, from all eternity what men would, through such administration, believe by the aid of preventing or preceding grace, and would persevere by the aid of subsequent or following grace; and who would not believe and persevere.”10

God is still the One choosing or electing to save; He has just done so according to one particular condition: faith in Jesus Christ. Since election is directly tied to salvation, and since God has not decreed to unconditionally save anyone, neither has He unconditionally elected anyone unto salvation. The apostle Paul affirms as much: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21 NIV). God has elected to save those who believe.

1 Jack Cottrell, The Faith Once for All: Bible Doctrine for Today (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 2002), 389.

2 Ibid., 392.

3 John Calvin, “Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians,” in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XXI, trans. Rev. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), 197-98.

4 Ibid., 198.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 James Arminius, “Examination of the Theses of Dr. F. Gomarus respecting Predestination,” in The Works of Arminius, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 3:535.

8 Arminius, “A Letter to Hippolytus A Collubus: III. Divine Predestination,” 2:698-99.

9 Ibid., 707.

10 Ibid., 719.