The “U” of the Calvinistic acronym “TULIP” stands for unconditional election. This is the idea that for those that God chose to be his own, there was no conditional reason in them that caused him to choose them and not others. No merit, no inherent value, no perceived future action on their part. Just God, for his own good pleasure and his own sovereign purpose, choosing an elect people made up of those he set his heart upon.
This is not to say that God’s choice of his people is arbitrary. Rather, the reasons are unknown to us but are hidden in the eternal counsel of his will.
On the other hand, those of a more Arminian viewpoint take a different tack when it comes to God’s election.
First of all, no biblical Christian denies that God has chosen and predestined his people. After all, these are biblical terms that cannot be denied (Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:4, 5, 11; 1 Peter 1:1-2). The difference comes in how God elected people to be saved.
Based on Romans 8:29-30 (“For whom he did foreknow he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified”) and 1 Peter 1:1-2 (“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect…according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”), the Arminian builds his understanding on the idea that election is based on foreknowledge. This is biblical and true, but it is how he defines “foreknowledge” that is the key to his understanding.
As we have said, God’s sovereignty commonly conceived may consist only in affirming that God knows what will happen before it does. This is the Arminian understanding of foreknowledge when it comes to God’s election being based on it. Foreknowledge is foreseeing, and God elects based on that kind of knowledge.
It is often expressed this way – In eternity past, having decided that he would offer salvation to fallen humanity, God looked down through the corridors of time to see which individuals would respond positively to the gospel message. He “foresees” Joe and Mary and Steve and Chloe and countless others freely placing their trust in Jesus. Based on that “foreknowledge,” he then elects them unto salvation and predestines them to conformity with Jesus (Rom. 8:29) and to adoption (Eph. 1:5). This is “elect according to the foreknowledge of God” according to the Arminian understanding.
This solves the problem of election and free will in the mind of these theologians, because God’s election does not violate the free choice of those chosen. In fact, his election is based on the free will choice of those who will believe. The problem, they believe, with a sovereign grace understanding is that in unconditional election, God chooses people first, rendering it certain that they come to faith, and this is without regard to their free will and choice. Choice and free will become meaningless, because in sovereign grace teaching, humans necessarily become puppets.
I will address in a later post the issue of whether this is the proper understanding of the term “foreknowledge” as applied to God. But for now, let’s grant the assumption that foreknowledge is merely foreseeing what will happen, and ask the question, does this really solve the problem for the Arminian line of thought?
I believe it does not. It simply moves the problem to a different spot in the “equation.”
If God chooses people based solely on what he foresees they will autonomously do, doesn’t that still render it certain? Anything that God foresees will happen, will happen, and this is just as certain and locked in as if he directly foreordains that it will come to pass. And if it is certain, wouldn’t that render void the “free choice” of the person? For when the time comes, the person responds positively to the gospel in faith, as God has foreseen, and since it was foreseen, does he really have any choice?
As John MacArthur has somewhere said, “There is really no difference between what God foresees, what God allows, and what God ordains.” Even foreseeing is foreordaining. So the Arminian still has a problem in his mind with the certainty of God’s sovereign will and what he thinks about man’s free will.
In reality, there is no problem to be solved. We must simply affirm those things that the Bible affirms and hold them in tension if necessary without trying to explain or reconcile the irreconcilable. I have said before that nowhere does the Bible treat us like machines, like puppets. We are implored, commanded, and invited to believe the gospel. This is how God has ordained to call his elect to faith and repentance. We can hold in tandem God’s sovereign choice and our responsibility to respond.
And so we return to the affirmations we have made before (which the confessions have declared), that God decrees or ordains whatever comes to pass, but that God is not thereby the author of sin, nor is violence done to the agency or responsibility of humanity. We affirm these without trying to reconcile them, for they are only reconciled in the mind of eternal God, to him be all glory!