One of the challenges when studying theology is the terminology. For instance, the three words in the title of this post. Foreknowledge, election, and predestination are all biblical words, but not everyone interprets them the same way. This is particularly true in the debate between Arminianism and Calvinism. Both sides believe in foreknowledge, election, and predestination, but they mean something quite different when they use the terms. This post is written primarily to describe how an Arminian would use them. But it will also contrast that usage with Calvinism.
Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
Table of contents
- Scripture References
- Arminian Post List
- Post History
The word translated as foreknowledge has both noun and verb forms. According to Bullinger’s Critical Greek Lexicon, the verb foreknow means “to know, perceive, learn or understand beforehand, to take note of.” This word is used in Romans 8:29, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Also in Romans 11:2, “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. ”
And, according to Bullinger, the noun foreknowledge means: ‘a perceiving beforehand’. This word is used in Acts 2:23 where Jesus “was handed over to you [the Jews] by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge” and in 1 Peter 1:2 where we find that we “have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.“
As you can see from the definitions, both variations of the word are expressing that something is known or perceived before it happens, and in the Scripture, it is applied to God; that God knows beforehand what will happen in the future. Furthermore, God does not just know it shortly before it happens. His foreknowledge of the universe extends to eternity past. God has always known what will happen during the course of our history.
Foreknowledge in Calvinism
How does God know the future? How can he have foreknowledge? Many Calvinists would say that God knows the future because he decreed it. That the universe and everything in it is operating according to God’s deterministic plan. For the Calvinist foreknowledge is based on foreordination.
In the above four verses that deal with foreknowledge, the Calvinist assumes foreordination because of their deterministic outlook; an example of interpreting Scripture to support your theology. But if you are not bound to determinism, then these passages simply read that God knew beforehand. He knew what we would do. And he knew who would come to him in faith. That is after all what foreknowledge means: a perceiving beforehand.
Foreknowledge in Arminianism
Arminianism agrees that God has a plan for the universe that he is working out, but denies determinism. The biggest flaw seen with determinism is that it logically makes God the author of evil. If everything is happening just the way that God planned it, then it is hard for us not to see him as being responsible for sin and evil. Many Calvinists deny that God is the author of evil. But it seems hard to avoid that conclusion in a deterministic universe.
Arminians believe that God knows the future without causing it, or at least all of it. There have been several explanations developed to express how God knows the future. Determinism is one of these. Molinism is another one that some, but by no means all, Arminians accept. It is currently beyond me to adequately describe Molinism. But if you are interested you can find a description of it here.
For myself, it is enough to recognize that the omnipresent, omniscient God is everywhere in time; our past, present, and future are all now for him. I wrote more extensively on this in an earlier post if you are interested in my musings on the subject.
Another similar word is proorizō. This is translated in the NIV four times as predestined; once as ‘decided beforehand’; and once as destined. Bullinger defines this word as “to set bounds, decree or ordain beforehand.” This word could easily be thought of as foreordain; expressing that God has predetermined something that will happen in the future.
The first two uses of this word are in Romans 8:29-30; “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” and “those he predestined, he also called.” In both of these usages, the predestination is based upon God’s foreknowledge. God has chosen to do something based on what he sees in the future.
In Ephesians 1:5 Paul says that “in love he [God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ.” This is similar to the usage in Romans with this passage describing God as foreordaining some to be adopted as sons. In Ephesians, the reason given for his foreordination to sonship was his love. This is in contrast to the passage in Romans where it was his foreknowledge.
According to God’s Plan
This word is used again in Ephesians 1:11 where Paul says that “In him [Christ] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” In this passage, the foreordination is based on the plan of God. While this passage can easily be used to support determinism, the question must be asked; how detailed is the plan of God? Has God laid everything out in exquisite detail? Or is his plan to save all who will believe? Or somewhere in between?
If you accept that the plan is in great detail, then you need to be willing to credit God with all of the evil that happens in the world; something that most Arminians are unwilling to do. We believe Scripture would indicate that God’s will is more permissive. He allows humanity some autonomy, to make choices and be responsible for them. And God’s plan is to save all who will believe.
The Crucifixion of Jesus
In Acts 4:28 Peter, talking about the crucifixion of Jesus, tells the other believers that “They [the Jews] did what your [God] power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” The Jewish religious leaders, as well as Pilate and Herod, had operated to accomplish God’s purpose in having Jesus crucified. What was it that God had decided should happen? That Jesus would be crucified? Or that specific Jews would have Jesus crucified with Pilate and Herod as accomplices?
I understand this to mean that what God had decided beforehand to accomplish was Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross. And that God, in his foreknowledge, knew that Pilate, Herod, and the Jews would choose to accomplish God’s purpose.
The Mystery of Redemption
In 1 Corinthians 2:7 Paul, speaking of the mystery of God, tells the Corinthian church, “No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” Paul does not explicitly define what the mystery is that God had hidden. But it does include Jesus’ crucifixion and its significance for us.
This fits with what Peter says in 1 Peter 1:18-20, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” Christ was chosen before the creation to redeem us; a choosing that was hidden, or a mystery. God had foreordained that Christ would be crucified to redeem us from sin, prior to the creation of the world.
Election is a word that is frequently used with predestination, but it does have a distinct meaning. The adjective eklektos means ‘chosen out, preferred, selected’. It is translated in the NIV as chosen 12 times and as elect 10 times. The noun eklogē means ‘a picking out, selection, that which is chosen’. It is translated in the NIV as chosen 3 times, as election 3 times, and once as elect. Generally, the words are used to refer to those that God has chosen to be his people; God elects the elect. For both Arminians and Calvinists, God does the electing, and those he has elected become the elect.
Contrasting Views of Election
The big difference in how Arminians and Calvinists understand election lies in what the elector, God, and the elect, humans, contribute to the election. Calvinists are monergistic, believing that the Holy Spirit is entirely responsible for regeneration, including choosing who will be regenerated. There is no human effort involved in regeneration. Nor is the selection for regeneration based on anything the person might do or choose. This is generally known as unconditional election; God does everything.
Arminians, on the other hand, are synergistic, holding that regeneration is a cooperative effort between the elector and the elect. Arminians acknowledge the total inability of humanity to participate in regeneration. But that God’s prevenient grace enables us to be able to submit to the work of God; or to refuse it. The human part in this synergy is to submit to the working of the Holy Spirit. It does not contribute anything to the effort. The synergistic approach to election is generally called conditional election; election is conditional on our submission to the working of the Holy Spirit.
The Wedding Banquet
So what does the Scripture say about election? For the most part, the passages referring to election do not really shed any light on this question. They simply refer to those who are God’s elect. But there are two passages that I find helpful in understanding election. The first is in Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the wedding banquet. In this parable, everyone that can be found gets invited to the banquet. Many who were invited first refused to come. While many who were invited later do attend the wedding banquet. And there is one who comes who is incorrectly garbed and thrown out. At the end of the parable, Jesus said that “many are invited, but few are chosen.” The call went out to the whole population, but only those who responded appropriately were chosen, or elected. This parable would support the Arminian view of election. But the next one is much more challenging.
A Challenge in Romans
In the ninth chapter of Romans, Paul is discussing God’s sovereignty in election. Here Paul is focused on Israel, God’s chosen people in the Old Testament. In verses 6-9 he points out that just being a descendant of Abraham does not make you a part of God’s elect. And he makes that even more clear in verses 10-13 using Esau and Jacob.
Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”Romans 9:10-13 NIV
This passage would seem to support the Calvinist view of election, especially if taken alone. But if God loves the whole world (John 3:16); does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), and wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4); then this passage cannot simply mean that God arbitrarily chooses some to salvation and some to reprobation. So how can this passage be understood in light of the rest of the Bible?
God’s Purpose in Election
What was/is God’s purpose in election? What is his purpose for choosing people? 1 Peter 2:9-10 gives at least a partial answer to that.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.1 Peter 2:9-10 NIV
Chosen to Praise
We are a chosen, or elect, people so that we can declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness and into his light. In the parable of the wedding banquet, who was it that would be praising the king who had invited them? It was those who were chosen. But would they praise because they were chosen? Or were they chosen because they were the ones who would praise him? It is likely that it is the later. The ones not chosen couldn’t be bothered to come and were likely not inclined to praise the king.
So God’s purpose in election would seem to be to select for himself a people who would be responsive to him. Romans 9:11-12 makes clear that election is not based on works, I can do nothing to be chosen, and an orthodox Arminian would agree with that. In fact, the only disagreement an Arminian would have with a Calvinist over this passage is that we disagree that the election is arbitrary.
Answering the Romans’ Challenge
God wants everyone to be saved, even though in ourselves we are incapable of responding to his offer of salvation. But God enables us to respond, and all who do are chosen according to God’s purpose for us; the purpose of becoming God’s special possession who will declare his praises. I would argue here that Jacob was chosen over Esau, not because Jacob had done anything good or was better than Esau; but because God knew that Jacob would be responsive to God’s purpose and Esau would not.
The Global Call to Repentance
One last thing in regards to election concerns God’s invitation to salvation. The New Testament is filled with passages that call on people to repent and to have faith in Jesus. And as believers, we are called to share the good news with all people. But if only some are elected, and that is independent of anything they do, then the global call to repent and believe would seem to be a sham. Why should God entice people with something he is unwilling to give to them?
Among the many passages that call on all to repent is Romans 10:9-13, just a few verses after the passage discussed above. Verse 13 very clearly expresses that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Of course, we cannot call on his name without the aid of God’s grace. But if that grace is not extended to all, then you have to ignore the clear meaning of what Paul is saying here. ‘Everyone’ would indicate that the offer is open to all, not just to the few. And, if unconditional election was true, why are people told to call on the name of the Lord? Wouldn’t that happen automatically when the Spirit irresistibly calls them?
Foreknowledge refers to God’s knowledge of the future, although it does not imply that God ordains or decrees the future. He can see it because he is omniscient. Predestination refers to God’s ordaining something to occur. Sometimes God only sees the future, and at other times God determines, or predestines, the future. And election refers to God’s choosing of certain individuals to be his special possession. God’s people are the elect.
What is the relationship between these three terms, all of which are used in connection with our salvation? I believe that foreknowledge logically comes first. In Romans 8:29 Pauls says that those God foreknew he also predestined, implying that predestination is based on God’s foreknowledge. I also believe that election fits between these two, that God elects those he foreknows and then predestines them. God, in his foreknowledge, knows who will respond to prevenient grace and his offer of salvation; he chooses those to be his special people; and then predestines them to be conformed to the image of Christ.
Each of the occurrences of these three words in the Bible is listed below.
proginōskō – verb: to know, perceive, learn or understand beforehand, to take note of.
prognōsis – noun: a perceiving beforehand.
proorizō, – verb: “to set bound, decree or ordain beforehand.”
eklektos – adjective: “chosen out, preferred, selected”
- Matthew 22:14
- Luke 18:7
- Luke 23:35
- Romans 8:33
- Romans 16:13
- Colossians 3:12
- 1 Peter 2:4, 6, 9
- 2 John 1:1
- 2 John 1:13
- Revelation 17:14
- Matthew 24: 22, 24, 31
- Mark 13:20, 22, 27
- 1 Timothy 5:21
- 2 Timothy 2:10
- Titus 1:1
- 1 Peter 1:1
eklogē – noun: “a picking out, selection, that which is chosen”
Arminian Post List
- The Doctrine of Total Depravity
- Arminianism: Atonement for All
- Arminianism: Sovereignty and Free Will
- Arminianism: It’s All About Grace
- Arminianism: Foreknowledge, Predestination and Election
- Arminianism: The Persistence of Salvation
- Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart: Who Was Responsible?
- God, Israel, and the Nature of Free Will
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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- October 4, 2017 – Original post
- January 27, 2020 – Formatting update