Election or Predestination: What does the Bible say?

Straight Talk

The Question

Do you believe in irresistible grace or do we have free will? I understand that our salvation comes from God through Christ (nothing we’ve done on our own) but don’t we have to do our part through acceptance of the gift offered to us?

I know a young man who is a very devout Calvinist. He believes we play no role in anything. He says to believe otherwise takes God’s sovereignty away and places our salvation on ourselves and takes away from the work of the cross. He says that only the elect can receive salvation.

If you were not predestined you have no hope. How do you reach someone who believes this way?

– PT from Azle, Texas

The Answer
Part 1: Calvinism explored
Part 2: Arminianism explored
Part 3: Perspective and worth a fight?

Calvinism explored (Part 1)

This question came in at a particularly interesting time for me. I was recently catching up with a young Christian woman I have known for several years but haven’t seen in quite awhile. She is now seriously dating a strong Christian and they seem headed for marriage. But for a time their relationship was stalled because of what she considered an essential doctrinal difference between them.

Her boyfriend belongs to a church that believes in salvation by election—or what you mention as Calvinism. Her church background is from the other side (free will with us playing a part) and she told him she could never marry someone who believed his way. In Part 3, I will tell you how her story turned out and why I’m mentioning it. For now, let’s define the different doctrines.

Calvinism, after the teaching of John Calvin, believes that God has predestined or elected some people to receive salvation and others to be lost. His sovereignty—his choice. Those who are selected by God to receive the gift of salvation cannot resist his grace. Therefore, Christ’s death is not for everybody, only those he has chosen in advance. Accompanying this doctrine is usually also the belief that salvation cannot be lost: once saved, always saved. (If you are interested in my opinion on that issue please read: Once saved, always saved?

Volumes have been written to both support and refute this teaching so those interested in scholarly debate must look elsewhere. But in a nutshell: what is the main scriptural basis for those who adhere to salvation by election? I will give just two examples.

“For those whom He foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, he also called; and these whom He called, he also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30)

“Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’ What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.’”(Romans 9:13-16)

In fairness there are actually five original points to Calvinism and there is a mix of beliefs depending on the group or denomination. I have not covered everything but let’s move on.

Arminianism explored (Part 2)

Arminianism, after the teaching of James Arminius, refutes the doctrine of Calvinism and believes that Christ’s atoning work is for ALL and is dependent on each person making a free will choice to accept the gift. Those who believe this theological system say that God’s grace is resistible; God calls everyone but many people resist and reject his call.

Additionally, those who lean toward the Arminian view usually believe that salvation can be lost if one rejects Christ or does not continue in the faith they started with. Again, it is possible to hold a mixture of beliefs, picking some from column A and some from column B so to speak. What scriptures support this teaching?

“And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

Maybe my favoritism is showing; I gave three scriptures in support of the free will option and only two for the irresistible grace one. My own personal view is that we definitely have free will and God will not violate it–not because he isn’t sovereign but because he chooses to limit himself in favor of a mankind who will serve him out of love. I do believe grace is resistible.

When we come down to it, don’t both systems try to discover the balance between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility and don’t both come up short in explaining what is really a mystery? Our minds are too small to grasp it. How can we understand fully when God makes clear to us: “’For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord.”(Isaiah 55:8) Maybe those who are rigidly dogmatic either way are being a little arrogant?

Perspective and worth a fight? (Part 3)

Now back to your final question. You asked how you could reach someone who believes this way. My answer is: why do you need to reach them? In my opinion the debate of Calvinism versus Arminianism is not an essential doctrine. Both groups are still considered genuine Christians. John Calvin lived 1509-1564 and Jacobus Arminius from 1560-1609. This argument has been raging for half a millennium and will only be solved in eternity.

Even though I have my own position as mentioned above, I do not object to people taking one side or the other as they try to grapple with unsolvable concepts about how God operates. I do object to people making an issue of the issue. We are not called to argue but to peace and grace for each other and to love.

Back to my young friend. How did she solve her problem? She ended up finally going to her boyfriend’s church and listening to all the scriptural reasons why they believe in Calvinism and it sounds to me like she is being won over to that side. She is doing in-depth Bible study for the first time in her life and feels she is growing in the Lord.

My question for her is one I didn’t think to ask while she was with me. Why did she feel she could never marry anyone who believed in the Calvinist theory? Why was that a deal breaker for her? It is similar to you needing to reach this young man whom you feel is in error.

Let’s deal in doctrine that is genuinely essential like who Christ is and the fact that salvation comes through him alone. Let the Calvinists and the Arminianists humble themselves and admit that they probably both hold some elements of truth and some elements of falsehood. Who on this earth holds perfect doctrine? I’m sure I’m wrong in some of my interpretations of scripture but so is everyone else.

Rather than try to convince this young man he is off base, just pray for him to have the mind of Christ. That should clear up any error any of us are locked onto.


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