John Calvin and James Arminius on the Nature of Election

Calvinism teaches that the elect are chosen by God apart from works; while the language says “works,” it includes “faith,” which happens to be the one “work” Jesus told the crowds to do. John 6, one of Calvinism’s favorite proof texts of all time, shows as much:

26 Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. 27 Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”

28 Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”

29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:26-29, NKJV)

As one can see in John 6:26-29 above, believing on the Lord is “the work of God”; if this is the case, then Calvinism’s view of faith as a “work” is flawed.

In any case, Calvinism also teaches that the Lord “elects” those who picks from among men without any consideration of their faith or unbelief, and that God reprobates those He “passes over.” While Calvinists use the phrase “passing over” to soften the blow of Calvinism, we all know it’s an ugly, false doctrine that lacks Scriptural support in many places.

When it comes to Calvinist doctrine on Election, though, the question comes about: “If you’re a Calvinist, and you believe you’re elect by the mere whim of God, then how can you know if you’re elect or not?” How can a Calvinist, or anyone, have assurance of his or her salvation by grace through faith if the individual cannot know with certainty that he or she is elected?

Fortunately, we get to see John Calvin respond to this question. First, though, he says that we shouldn’t peer into the private counsels of God to figure out if we’re elect or not. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, when writing about Election, he says that peering into the secret counsels of God is a sin:

Therefore as those are in error, who make the power of election dependent on the faith by which we perceive that we are elected, so we shall follow the best order, if, in seeking the certainty of our election, we cleave to those posterior signs which are sure attestations to it. Among the temptations with which Satan assaults believers, none is greater or more perilous, than when disquieting them with doubts as to their election, he at the same time stimulates them with a depraved desire of inquiring after it out of the proper way. (See Luther in Genes. cap. 26). By inquiring out of the proper way, I mean when puny man endeavors to penetrate to the hidden recesses of the divine wisdom, and goes back even to the remotest eternity, in order that he may understand what final determination God has made with regard to him. In this way he plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness. For it is right that the stupidity of the human mind should be punished with fearful destruction, whenever it attempts to rise in its own strength to the height of divine wisdom. And this temptation is the more fatal, that it is the temptation to which of all others almost all of us are the most prone. For there is scarcely a mind in which the thought does not sometimes rise, Whence your salvation but from the election of God? But what proof have you of your election? When once this thought has taken possession of any individual, it keeps him perpetually miserable, subjects him to dire torment, or throws him into a state of complete stupor. I cannot wish a stronger proof of the depraved ideas, which men of this description form of predestination, than experience itself furnishes, since the mind cannot be infected by a more pestilential error than that which disturbs the conscience, and deprives it of peace and tranquility in regard to God. Therefore, as we dread shipwreck, we must avoid this rock, which is fatal to every one who strikes upon it. And though the discussion of predestination is regarded as a perilous sea, yet in sailing over it the navigation is calm and safe, nay pleasant, provided we do not voluntarily court danger. For as a fatal abyss engulfs those who, to be assured of their election, pry into the eternal counsel of God without the word, yet those who investigate it rightly, and in the order in which it is exhibited in the word, reap from it rich fruits of consolation (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Kindle Locations 18018-18035).

First, Calvin says that those who make election dependent upon faith are in error, but that the elect can have assurance if they cling to the visible signs of their election. Well, we will see later on in this post that Calvin has a funny way of talking about election and faith because he’ll tell the elect to hold on to what Scripture says about being elect “in Christ,” by virtue of our union in Christ. Apparently for John Calvin, election is something that “goes beyond Scripture” in that one cannot reason why he or she is elect. That’s the equivalent of saying, “We can’t know that Israel is elect” when clearly, Scripture tells us how Israel was chosen by God. It just seems as if Calvin’s philosophical contemplations about God often took him beyond the text of Scripture. No Particular Baptist today, for example, would believe in going beyond Scripture instead of making Scripture the authority on all spiritual matters; and yet, many Particular Baptists do when they hold to Calvinism because Calvin himself did.

Next, Calvin says that the question asked, “how can you know you’re elect?,” produces psychologically tormenting results: “When once this thought has taken possession of any individual, it keeps him perpetually miserable, subjects him to dire torment, or throws him into a state of complete stupor.” It produces torment for the Calvinist, I’m afraid, because Scripture talks about how we can “know” that we belong to the Lord, assurance of salvation, “full assurance of faith,” and so on. For Calvin to say that asking about evidences for one’s election produces psychological torment is problematic. After all, if faith doesn’t separate the elect from the non-elect, then none of the elect can know they’re saved. THAT, the idea that Calvinists can’t know if they’re truly elect, should be the more psychologically tormenting position, don’t you think?

Now, Calvin dives into how the elect of God can know they’re elect:

First, if we seek for the paternal mercy and favor of God, we must turn our eyes to Christ, in whom alone the Father is well pleased (Mt. 3:17). When we seek for salvation, life, and a blessed immortality, to him also must we retake ourselves, since he alone is the fountain of life and the anchor of salvation, and the heir of the kingdom of heaven. Then what is the end of election, but just that, being adopted as sons by the heavenly Father, we may by his favor obtain salvation and immortality? How much soever you may speculate and discuss you will perceive that in its ultimate object it goes no farther. Hence, those whom God has adopted as sons, he is said to have elected, not in themselves, but in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:4); because he could love them only in him, and only as being previously made partakers with him, honor them with the inheritance of his kingdom. But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life (Calvin, Institutes, Kindle Locations 18044-18062).

What is most interesting about Calvin is that he says that we shouldn’t peer into the secret counsels of God to know God’s “final determination” over us; he then goes into a surefire way to know we’re elect. What is that way? Our connection with Christ by faith. In other words, Calvin argues for a Christocentric nature of divine election.

We can see this Christocentric nature to Election when Calvin says “we must turn our eyes to Christ, in whom alone the Father is well pleased (Matt. 3:17).” This is an interesting statement, for it says that there is no such thing as “elect sinners,” a statement used by some Calvinists who take unconditional election to its logical conclusion (though the conclusion is as erroneous as the doctrine of unconditional election is).

The next statement is so excellent it deserves a repeat:

“Hence, those whom God has adopted as sons, he is said to have elected, not in themselves, but in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:4); because he could love them only in him, and only as being previously made partakers with him, honor them with the inheritance of his kingdom. But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election.”

What is this telling us? Those who are elect “God has adopted as sons,” “he could love them only in him,” “we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves,” and that “Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election.” These statements tell us that the Doctrine of Election is Christocentric in nature: that is, it is tied to Christ, not apart from Him. “He could love them only in him” is another statement that bears witness to Christocentric Election. In other words, God can’t elect sinners because they aren’t saved and are apart from Christ, without Christ. God, then, can only elect believers to salvation. And John Calvin says that we can contemplate our election without deception in Christ – which means that, if we are joined to Christ, we can know we are elect and one of His. Is this not the Doctrine of Conditional Election, a doctrine proclaimed by James Arminius and most of, if not all, Arminians today?

Here are the words of James Arminius on the Christocentric nature of the Doctrine of Election:

For Christ according to the Apostle is not only the means by which the salvation, already prepared by election, but, so to speak, the meritorious cause, in respect to which the election was made, and on whose account that grace was prepared. For the apostle says that we are chosen in Christ (Ephes. i. 4), as in a mediator, in whose blood salvation and life is obtained for us, and as in our ‘head,’ (Ephes. i.22) from whom those blessings flow to us. For God chooses no one unto eternal life except in Christ, who prepared it by his own blood for them who should believe on his name. From this it seems to follow that, since God regards no one in Christ unless they are engrafted in him by faith, election is peculiar to believers, and the phrase “certain men”, in the definition, refers to believers. For Christ is a means of salvation to no one, unless he is apprehended by faith. Therefore, that phrase “in Christ” marks the meritorious cause by which grace and glory are prepared, and the existence of the elect in him, without which they could not be elected in him [James Arminius, The Works of Jacobus Arminius: The Orations, The Apology, Public Disputations, Predestination and More (8 Books With Active Table of Contents) Kindle Locations 17026-17037].

Despite John Calvin’s claim that one shouldn’t peer into the secret counsels of God, he believed that Scripture could tell someone if he or she were elect – and his answer, in the end, affirms Christocentric election, just as James Arminius himself did. Classical Arminians are Reformed in their theology, though many would say otherwise. At least Classical/Reformation/Reformed Arminians can’t be deemed disagreeable, humanistic, or “man-centered” on the nature of election. Calvinists will still find fault, but doctrines are either biblical or not (and in this case, Reformed Arminianism, Classical Arminianism, is biblical).

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