The question of election isn’t whether or not God chooses who to save, but whether or not He does so unconditionally. The question is whether or not our differences on this question are grounded in a causal vs. social dynamic.
The Calvinist thrust on the question of election is the fact that it is entirely unconditional. This means that there is no quality or action which distinguishes the elect from the non-elect save election itself. So why is this so important to the Calvinists?
The answer has to do with who causes election. The Calvinist feels that if there is a condition for election, than obtaining that condition causes God to elect the person. This would mean that the human causes God’s election. Therefore, since God’s glory should be grounded on Him having power over things, this would certainly apply to His own choices.
Arminians of course don’t see it that way. First of all, I don’t see why obtaining a condition for election would cause election if A)God still has to actually make the choice and isn’t forced to, and B)God is sovereign over what conditions He cares about. My preference of sausage over pepperoni doesn’t mean that sausage pizza has control over me. However, notice the social dynamic of my point. The Calvinist view sees conditionality as a cause; I see it as a reason. Causes are physical concepts, while reasons are personal concepts. Saul was the cause of the spear being thrown, but jealousy was the reason. If faith caused God to choose us, then the Calvinist would have a point. Rather faith is the reason why God chooses us, and that is an entirely different matter.
Second of all, the principle issue that we have with unconditionality is that it makes God’s choice arbitrary. Now most Calvinists object to this, but to me unconditional and arbitrary are synonyms. The second simply sounds worse. I don’t mind the idea of God having no particular reason to save me, but I do have issue with God having no particular reason to not save someone else. Yes, He doesn’t have to save anyone, but then I’m not claiming He has to. That’s a causal concern. My issue is one of character. If He loves them, why would He abandon them without a reason? That simply isn’t love, which is a social issue.
Arminians believe that God chooses who to save based on faith. He does this because He wants to establish relationship with us, and faith is something that He values in His friends. It is also important to note that Arminians tend to be very insistent that faith is not intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. Rather faith is trust in Jesus Christ saving us. Faith is a social rather than epistemic term.1 This is why faith prevents one from boasting; if you trust in your faith then you aren’t trusting in Jesus Himself. To boast about it is to prove that you don’t have it.2
The Calvinist concern here is basically what I said above about why they believe unconditional election. However, let me run their most common argument here so I can give them some space. They often argue that if you have faith, and someone else doesn’t, then there must be some cause for you having faith that the other person doesn’t have. Either you are smarter, or nicer, or something else. Therefore there is something making you superior, and that is what is really causing God to choose you.
Well… This ignores the social aspect of faith. The idea behind this is that faith requires a cause, but while it is true that there may have been some reason why a person comes to faith, that reason may vary dramatically. Sure John may have faith in Christ because he is simply a trusting sort, but Paul believes in Him because of an over-whelming experience, and Peter by intellectual reasoning. It doesn’t matter how faith came about; merely its presence matters. Because of this, the reason for one’s faith isn’t actually a factor in God’s election at all. Just faith is.
And so what if God chooses the faithful? He chooses them because He wants us to be faithful. He didn’t have to choose the faithful. Nothing is forcing His hand here. Indeed, if I have all the faith I have right now, and God still chooses to condemn me, He would do me no wrong. Ultimately my assurance isn’t grounded in my faith, but in God’s promises. I struggle to even appreciate the concern here. But then, I don’t think like a Calvinist does.
1I have not provided a causal-centered definition of faith here because, to be honest, I’m not sure how to. Ultimately, I don’t think that Calvinism needs to be committed to a particular definition of faith since their concern would remain for any condition.