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.
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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 express 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 are 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, predestination is based upon God’s foreknowledge. God has chosen to do something based on what he foreknows.
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 of 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 choice 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 twelve times and as elect ten times. The noun eklogē means “a picking out, selection, that which is chosen” It is translated in the NIV as chosen three times, as election three 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 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 was 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 was one who came who was 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 discusses 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 him because they were chosen? Or were they chosen because they were the ones who would praise him? It is likely that it is the latter. 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 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 regard 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 said 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.
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15 thoughts on “Arminianism: Foreknowledge, Predestination and Election”
I believe salvation is more than a choice; it is a resurrection of our dead spirit. It is only God who can bring about that resurrection. A dead man can not make a choice to live. That resurrection is called being “born again”. By whatever means God determines, to bring life to a dead spirit, it is obvious that only God makes that choice. Being “born again” opens our ears to the gospel, not prevenient grace. Before our salvation, the Word of God is foolishness. God will have mercy on whom He will. We just don’t want to embrace the total sovereignty of God to control His creation according to His will. All that is, belongs to God. I trust that God has a plan and it is a good one.
Salvation is indeed more than a choice. It is a new life that is a gracious gift of God. A gift that is received by faith. But the sovereignty of God is not threatened by allowing us to accept or reject his offer of salvation. The Scripture is filled with examples of those who choose to reject God’s call in their lives. Unless you believe that God told them to do one thing but really wanted them to do the opposite, making God out to be deceitful.
Claiming that God has chosen some to experience his salvation for some seemingly arbitrary reason and thus condemning the rest of humanity to hell makes God out to be a moral monster. And making faith nothing more than window dressing is contrary to the repeated call in the Scripture for us to believe. If we have no choice but to believe, then why emphasize the need for faith? A faith that would seem to have little real value.
The sovereign God does indeed have a plan and purpose for his creation. But it is not as a puppet master.
I think of it as ..”TODAY IS THE DAY OF SALVATION NOW IS THE ACCEPTABLE TIME…. So Lets says if God really elcted someone to salvation…. but they dont get saved today.. but say a week from now.. wait you missed it then.. Sooo obsivilsy God is leaving it up to man to respound… He not over writing there will or they would of been saved last week ! make sence ?
No, I can’t say that I am following your logic. Does God give to us the right to refuse his gift of salvation? I believe he does. And I believe that is the clear teaching of the Scripture. It is not that God needs anything from us. But if the sovereign God chooses to allow us to reject his offer, that does not make him any less sovereign, or me any more significant in the process of salvation.
Interesting article! Also I may be wrong, but the Timothy verse in the “A Challenge in Romans” section might be 1 Timothy 2:4, not 2 Timothy 2:4.
Thanks for pointing that out. You were right and the correction has been made.
Thank you for your post. Could you address the Calvinist definition of Foreknowledge a little more? I have read D.A. Carson and others define Foreknowledge as God “setting his affection” upon a person. This follows from contextual readings in both the Old and New Testament where “Knowledge” clearly means a lot more than simply cognitive awareness. I am sure that you are familiar with the many verses, so I will mention only two: Amos 3:2 and 1 Cor 8:3. Please discuss your views on this “expanded” definition of Foreknowledge.
I do not believe that one could develop a definition of foreknowledge that all Calvinists would agree with. But it seems most see in it some form of foreordination. God knows what will happen because he ordained, or decreed, it. Some side with Calvin and see this foreordination extending to everything that happens. It seems more common today to see them limiting foreordination to election.
God’s foreknowledge is indeed more than simply a cognitive awareness. The passage in Amos 3:2 is one that is clear here. But what is it this passage is saying. God has chosen Israel for a purpose. He is not referring to individual Jews here, but to the nation as a whole. His knowledge of Israel is more than just intellectual. It is also relational. And that is true for his church today. His plan and purpose is being worked out in the church as a body, those who are ‘in Christ’. And I believe that he is ordaining much that is in the context of the church; not just knowing what will happen. My article on the Doctrine of Election may help with this.
An analogy might be helpful. God knows who will get on the train ( become part of the church); they are chosen because of their response to God’s call; they’ve heard the train whistle, and have turned up at the station, but others have heard the whistle, but think they are better off walking to the terminus their own way. The train is God’s train and he’s already set the destination: the terminus where God’s wedding feast will be.
Thanks for your feedback. The problem with this analogy is that those who get on the train had to get themselves to the train station before they could get on the train. I think a better analogy is the one Arminius gave. A wealthy man sees a beggar beside the road and offers him a large sum of money. Enough to more than meet all of his needs. The beggar can either accept or reject the gift. But even if he accepts it he can in no way claim any credit for that gift. He did nothing but accept it.
Truly on point
I guess that’s the point, the sinner can never make the first move in the process of salvation. He has no ability to seek God, all men are hostile towards God. If that’s the case, all are hostile enemies of God, then God must do something first within the man to get him to “choose” the truth. No?
That is correct. And it is a point that both Calvin and Arminius agreed on. Their difference lay in whether or not, after God had enabled them, a person could choose not to choose the truth.
May I save this article to my hard drive?
You certainly may.