The Arminian view of election is often caricatured or misunderstood by those adhering to alternate views. Many times, the Arminian is portrayed as insisting on taking the glory that rightfully belongs in God alone and in doing so, is attacking or denying the sovereignty of God. As God’s sovereign will plays such a central role in any discussion of election, the necessary first step in examining the Arminian position is to establish how this term is defined within the framework. Picirilli (Grace) offers this succinct definition:
…if the sovereign God unconditionally established faith as the condition for salvation (and therefore for election), then His sovereignty is not violated when He requires the condition. Neither Calvinist nor Arminian, by “sovereignty,” means that God acts in a way that men call “arbitrary.”
As Arminius states this same idea,
The freedom of the goodness of God is declared…when He communicates it only on the condition, which He has been pleased to impose. (Works III:274)
the requirement that men and women exercise their will to adhere to a condition of their election in no way tampers with the sanctity of God’s sovereign will nor does it lay claim to any of His glory for the human agent who fulfills it.
Jacobus Arminius did not develop the theological system that bears his moniker out of thin air. Rather, his proclamations derived from his initial following of Calvinist doctrine. He studied in Geneva under Beza, fully accepting of Calvin’s Reformed theology until, while studying in preparation to defend these doctrines, he discovered that his understanding of Scripture did not support the same. The general theme of difference that moved Arminius was that he felt that God’s revealed character did not the Supralapsarian predestination of some to destruction as a part of the eternal decrees. This, he felt, made God the author of sin and was contrary to the God of love revealed through Christ. Arminius insisted on a soteriology that was thoroughly Christocentric.
Election in the Arminian framework can be either to service (e.g. Pharaoh in Rom 9:17, Israel corporately) as a vessel or agent through which can bring about this desired end, or to salvation as previously discussed in the Calvinist view. Many disagreements between the Calvinist and the Arminian on Scripture interpretation locate around this critical differentiation. For purposes of brevity, election to salvation is in view in this essay and this election is conditional.
The most pronounced difference between the two systems in view is the belief of Arminians in conditional election that is rooted in the foreknowledge of God. This prescient foreknowledge is God’s eternal view of his creatures and the knowledge of how each of them will respond to the offer of grace by placing their faith in Christ. Thus, their election from eternity past is conditioned upon their free-will acceptance of God’s predetermined conditions for salvation. It is this human effort that is often pictured as a challenge to God’s sovereign will since, being rooted in human free-will, it can be resisted.
Scripture: Romans 8:29, 1 Peter 1:1-2
Classical Arminian theology teaches that all of humanity is born morally and spiritually depraved, that is, they are helpless to do anything good in God’s view without an infusion of God’s grace sufficient to overcome this stillborn nature. Arminius writes:
In this state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. (Works 2:192)
The grace that is visited upon God’s elect is known in Arminian terminology as prevenient grace. This grace is infused by the Holy Spirit and it prepares the soul for entrance into an initial state of salvation. Prevenient grace brings the dead in sin back to life and enables their will such that a man or woman may make the free-will decision to accept or deny the salvific act of the Lord Jesus Christ. Full regeneration is achieved when this decision, empowered by the Spirit, results in repentance and faith.
Scripture: John 6:44, Jeremiah 31:3
Classical Arminian theology is often lumped together with Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian thought leading to mis-characterization of the reality of the framework. The major difference that separates Arminius from Calvin has to do with the conditionality of God’s divine election. Arminius found in Scripture, not a God of imposition, but a God of unbridled love for his creation who, seeing into the eternal future who would respond favorably to His offer of grace, elected those to salvation while allowing others to choose perdition.