When you consider the vast array of Christian denominations that have come into existence over the past 400 years, one thing becomes clear: just about any issue can be perceived as sufficient justification for creating yet another faction within the Church. Every doctrine is a potential source of discord, and rather than clinging to the essential truths of our faith that should unite us, all too often we have allowed nuance to divide us. That being said, there are clearly some doctrinal matters where the issues at stake are fundamental, transcending both subtlety and opinion. And of all the doctrines that separate us, predestination is arguably the most controversial and divisive of all.
Two views of predestination have historically been offered, the first associated most closely with the teachings of John Calvin in the 1500s, and the other with those of Jacobus Arminius, a monk whose ideas subsequently repudiated those of Calvin. Referred to as “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” respectively, they differ on the basic question of how someone comes to be “saved”. For although both would agree that you cannot be “saved” apart from God’s work of regeneration (whereby He changes your heart and you are “born again”), the question is whether or not our choices have any part to play in this process. Arminians would say “yes!”, while Calvinists say “absolutely not!”
Essentially, the Calvinist stance on salvation is that all those who come to saving faith in Jesus Christ do so because God has chosen to supernaturally change their hearts, at which point their eyes are opened to His majesty and they willingly embrace the Lord and Savior whom they previously held only in contempt. Arminians, on the other hand, contend that God supernaturally changes a person’s heart at the moment they admit their need for Christ…and not before. In short, Calvinists believe that regeneration precedes faith, whereas Arminians believe that regeneration is what happens once someone acknowledges their need for Christ. For Calvinists, regeneration happens because of God’s choice…and no one else’s, while Arminians maintain that being “born again” is what happens at the moment we choose to fall upon Christ as our Savior and Lord.
So with regards to the doctrine of predestination, also known as election, the Calvinist position is that since our sovereign God chooses those whom He intends to save, He is the one responsible for predestining all who will be saved. The point is that God decides whom He is going to save – apart from anything that we do or decide – moreover, not all are chosen. Regeneration happens by God’s choice…and His alone…and since we all stand before Him as condemned sinners who deserve only judgment, the fact that He chooses to regenerate anyone (a.k.a. “save” them) is a demonstration of His mercy and His grace.
Alternatively, the Arminian understanding of predestination focuses on the fact that since God is all-knowing, He has known from all eternity those of us who will cry out to Him to be saved. As such, these are the ones whom God has predestined to regenerate and save. This is commonly referred to as the “foreknowledge” or “prescient” view of election, whereby our status as one of the “elect” comes down to our choice to embrace Christ…or not.
If you’ve never wrestled with this doctrine before, you can probably see why this question of predestination / election is so contentious. On the other hand, if you have spent any time considering the question of election, chances are good that you are already firmly entrenched on one side or the other of this debate. Regardless of where you stand, though, I am persuaded that Calvinists and Arminians alike have essentially missed the point when it comes to this perplexing, enigmatic doctrine. There is a better answer to what predestination / election is really all about, one that neither destroys the doctrine of human free-will (as Calvinism is often accused of) nor undermines or otherwise diminishes the sovereignty of God (as Arminianism is typically accused of). And in the next installment of this series, we’ll consider the fundamental question that sits at the heart of the debate: are we capable of choosing to embrace Christ?