A Plug for My Current Article on “Election” in Christianity Today

A Plug for My Current Article on “Election” in Christianity Today January 8, 2013

If you are able to, please read my article “Election Is for Everyone” in the current issue of Christianity Today and post your feedback here. There I call for Christians to emphasize more our common ground and less our differences. We all agree that salvation is solely God’s doing and not of works. We all believe in election and predestination. Reformed theology does not have a monopoly on these good biblical concepts. Obviously, we interpret them differently, but both Calvinists and Arminians (and Lutherans and Anabaptists) believe that God elects people. We do not elect ourselves. Please don’t respond to this abstract; read the article and respond to it (if you are able).

Coming soon–An excellent guest post by Austin Fischer about “Passion” (conferences). Alert the neighborhood! Stand by and read it.

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  • Received my copy of CT yesterday and read your article. As an evangelical in the United Methodist denomination (and Wesleyan tradition), I’m with you. Thank you for a thoughtful explanation of the positions. I hope many take it to heart.

    I do have one qualifying suggestion about John Wesley’s view of free will, which, you say that he affirmed it. I’m not sure this is the case, though it is a logical inference from his view of free grace. The Wesley’s strongly advocated free grace, but off the top of my head I cannot think of a time (I’ve read widely in Wesley, but am no expert) that John Wesley expressly affirmed free will. The quote you use in the article would seem to imply that he affirmed free will, but saying that a person is free (on the basis of grace) is not the same as saying that humans have free will. It is slight, subtle, but very important distinction, I think. It’s the difference between locating the freedom within soteriology or within anthropology.

    • rogereolson

      I have coined the phrase “freed will” to describe the Arminian (and I would say Wesleyan) view of the will enabled by grace to choose to accept Christ. I’m afraid in such a brief article it isn’t possible to nuance everything in the ways I’d like to.

  • Roger, I appreciate your article in the recent CT–I think it offers a helpful overview. My only concern is that in positing “Evangelical Calvinism” as the third dominant theological grid, you narrowed the field of that alternative too much. I think referring to this alternative as Trinitarian, incarnational theology is more broad and thus accurate.

    Not all those who embrace this theology have a Calvinistic background. Indeed, among those embracing a Trinitarian, incarnational theology are Methodists, Baptists (general and particular), Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed (of various stripes).

    Those who embrace a Trinitarian, incarnational theology tend to see classic five-point Calvinism and Arminianism as less than adequate for conveying the fullness of Christ–a fullness which all Christians embrace, even if we struggle and sometimes disagree in “working out” the details.

    • rogereolson

      I’m not sure how to respond. “Evangelical Calvinism,” as I used it in the article, refers to those Reformed theologians who are influenced especially Barth and Torrance. I’ve discussed them here before. As then, I’m still puzzled about how exactly they differ from Arminianism although they insist they do. The article is about soteriology, not holistic systems of theology. I don’t see either classical Calvinism or classical Arminianism as whole systems. They are differing soteriologies. And both can be (and hopefully usually are) thoroughly trinitarian and incarnational.

  • Chad

    I didn’t see a link and am having a hard time finding your article…

    • rogereolson

      Just the first few paragraphs are available at the Christianity Today web site. In order to read the whole article you have to subscribe to CT. Later (I’m not sure how much later) the whole article will be available in CT’s on line archives.

  • Is the article online?

    • rogereolson

      Only the first few paragraphs–at CT’s web site. Hopefully, eventually, the whole article will be available on line in CT’s archives. But subscribers (either to the paper or electronic versions) can read the whole article.

  • Dan Johnson Sr.

    “God, call out your elect. And then elect some more.” The unanswerable bottom line.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Excellent article Roger. Should be very helpful to many – certainly is to me.

    (1) I do need some help in understanding the inconsistency in election for all while having free will to say no…”How, they ask, can one affirm the universality of electing grace and deny free will with regard to being elected, while also affirming free will to reject the truth of one’s election?” I agree it’s asymmetrical but it does not seem contradictory. Someone can elect me to a position (eg. chair of a committee, while I was out to the bathroom) without denying my free will. Upon return, I have the freedom to say no. Something changed while I was out (organizationally) that placed me in a new position, now making it necessary for me to make a choice. But it only changed my environment, not my freedom. Strict Calvinism would say that I must chair the committee because the majority rules – that would deny free will. But, most people, and Arminians, would say that even God will respect my decision to say “no” (even while “twisting” my arm through the work of the Holy Spirit).

    It’s sort of related to the scientific term “hysteresis”. You can go from A to B but cannot return by retracing exactly the same route (because something has changed in going from A to B). Wiki has a better description at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hysteresis.
    But then, I think many should pay more attention to the Torrances – even people like me who lean strongly toward Relational Theology.

    (2) “More attention needs to be given to areas of broad and profound agreement, and less to areas of diversity.” I still think you and Michael Horton could make a great contribution with a joint volume emphasizing the similarities.

    (3) My biological roots rebel a bit at this one: “As a famous line from Jurassic Park says, “Life finds a way.” Evangelical faith of all types and tribes agrees that “God will find a way” to have a people for his name.” It doesn’t do the job you appear to want done (or I miss your point). Life does find a way, to more life – and a believer could say, because God is agreeing that there should be life and, in some manner, making it possible in the face of spiritual opposition. The screenwriter is not saying that life will find a way to God.

    • rogereolson

      First, for now (I don’t have time to respond more fully to your excellent questions and points), I didn’t mean that “life will find a way to God.” I only meant that, just as “life will find a way [to reproduce]”) (the Jurassic Park meaning) so God will find a way to have a people.

      • Bev Mitchell

        Thanks for the clarification, I assumed as much. Just wanted to show that biologists can be touchy too 🙂 Imagine what we are like right after viewing a movie like Jurassic Park!

        • rogereolson

          Probably like I am (apoplectic) after viewing a Left Behind movie! 🙂

  • James Petticrew

    What I appreciated about your piece is that it does two things that are rarely done when it comes to writing on election. Firstly you clear up misconceptions in a charitable way, namely that Arminians are not semi pelagian. In addition you emphasise commonality, that we all believe in election, we all believe the initiative in salvation comes from God. It’s so rare to read something on this subject that is not polemic in nature that it is like a breath of fresh air. Thank you.

    • rogereolson

      You’re welcome. If only my tribe would increase! 🙂

      • James Petticrew


        • James Petticrew

          Should have said when Dr Tom Noble taught dogmatics at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester, as an Edinburgh New College grad and friend of the Torrances he taught a combination of 2&3. As far as I know he is now writing a new theology for the Church of the Nazarene so it will be interesting to see how he approaches the subject of election

  • Craig Wright

    I think you did a very good job, in a popular magazine, to present the different views of election (especially the two main ones). I don’t see the difference between Arminianism and Evangelical Calvinism, because in both systems one can resist grace.
    As to your concern that Calvinists often misrepresent Arminians by not recognizing that they present the need for prevenient grace (thus they cannot be semi-Pelagian), you have clarified that very well, and hopefully having clarified that , you would not see that problem any more, except for stubborn resistance and ignorance.
    I also appreciate your recognizing the difficulty in using the Scriptures to come to a definitive system of election, and that the character of God is at issue in the presentation of this issue. My favorite answer from you, a few years ago, in asking what then causes someone to receive or reject God’s grace, is that we’ll never know until we get to glory.

  • gingoro

    Well said Roger but I expect than many high Calvinists will have apoplexy when they read your article and continue to make mountains out of mole hills.

  • I read and enjoyed the article very much. I was curious, the whole concept of simple foreknowledge seems a little static to me. I was wondering if God’s foreknowledge ever changes in regard to a persons salvation. For example, If I pray for God to move on someone’s heart and influence him to salvation, does that change what God foreknew? If God already knows every person who will come to Christ, does that number ever change based on current circumstances?

    • rogereolson

      Read the dialogue book by John Sanders and Christopher Hall on divine foreknowledge. They are both friends of mine and friendly with each other but they disagree about this question. For now I remain with simple foreknowledge while being open to open theism.

  • CRF

    Many thanks to you for this article (I found it a couple of days ago, but didn’t get to read it until this morning). I felt it was an excellent summary of the positions (I honestly didn’t know much about the ‘3rd way’, if you will, before reading). I especially like the way that you maintained your focus on the positive sides of the debate, both God’s love and sovereignty, and noted the way the other side sees the “flaws” in each other’s arguments. Overall, an article that I would highly recommend, and one that I hope makes for good ongoing discussion between brothers and sisters in Christ. Wonderful!

  • Alan Steele

    Read and enjoyed the article and have recommended it to others. As I understand it, the Arminian soteriological position hinges on the question of love. I agree. We must choose Christ as a necessary condition of our salvation. Love is never forced nor coerced. I submit, however, that the love demonstrated by God for his creation and, in return, commanded of us, doesn’t leave us with options that we would seriously consider.
    By way of illustration, I offer for consideration the analogy of falling in love and getting married. Paul uses a marriage analogy to describe the union between Christ and his church. Marriage is an oft used theme in scripture and is used by OT prophets in describing God’s covenantal relationship with his people. To my mind, it is a good analogy of how we savingly choose Jesus Christ.
    Let’s say a man loves a woman and pursues her. She is aware of him. Her friends say good things about him. He does indeed offer what she most desires. Yet, she doesn’t love him. Aware of him and his intentions toward her, her response can best be described as casual indifference. Under these circumstances she neither chooses to love him nor chooses to accept what he offers – marriage. She simply does not see him in a way that compels her to commit to him in this fashion.
    Then, over time as he continues to pursue her, something mysterious happens. She falls in love with him. She now sees him in a way she never could before.
    Now, when he proposes marriage, she joyfully accepts because spending the rest of her life with him is now what she most desires above all other considerations. She could say no to his proposal at this point, but being madly in love with him she would not consider doing so. She loves him because he first loved her.
    In this way her will is free, yet bound by love. She is indeed free, in a sense, to reject his offer. He does not compel her to accept. Yet, she is compelled to accept nonetheless – by love.
    Does she choose to love him? I suppose someone might say that, but that is not love as I understand it. Falling in love is not something we choose, it is something mysterious and powerful and beyond our control that happens. That is why the transition from casual indifference to being in love is described as “falling”. Love is compelling if it is anything.
    As captives, our will is free, yet bound by sin which blinds us to the truth of who God is causing a casual indifference toward God. Sure, we know of him, but blinded by sin we just don’t see him in a way that compels us to love him to the degree that causes us to choose to commit our lives to him.
    When we are enabled to “see” God in truth, we are overwhelmed by love and adoration for him – to the degree that we cannot imagine a life apart from him. When he invites us to commit our lives to him at this point, we could say no, but to do so is now inconceivable.
    First bound by sin and later bound by love, our will is never truly unfettered.
    We love him because he first loved us. We choose him because he first chose us. Why do we love him now yet did not before? I can only answer that by stating that love is something that is beyond our choosing and beyond our control. Love is a thing as mysterious as the God from whom it flows.
    A good example of this dynamic is Isaiah’s vision in Chap. 6 of his book.

    • rogereolson

      But I’ve never defended “unfettered free will.” Go back and read my October article on freedom in Christianity Today. On the other hand, I disagree that love takes away choice. I have known many people in my lifetime who fell in love with someone but chose not to continue in that love instead walking away. And I’ve known people whose will played a role in falling in love. I have a very close friend who describes to me convincingly that when he was considering entering into a relationship that could lead to marriage he felt a certain point, on a certain day, when he chose to fall in love. At that point, he says, he could have gone either way. She was pursuing him and he was attracted to her, but he had qualms about falling in love with her. He knew that falling in love with her would probably lead to marriage and he wasn’t sure he was ready for that. But in the midst of much thought and prayer, he decided to let himself fall in love and has now been happily married forty years. So I disagree with your analysis of that.

  • Alan Steele

    Interesting view of love, but perceptions do vary on life matters and their attendant feelings and emotions. I would argue that your friend fell in love and his perception, for whatever reason, led him to conclude that he chose to love her. We do have an interesting tendency to want to be in control. To my mind, it is unfathomable that someone after prayerful consideration chose to love someone and remain married for 40 years. I don’t doubt their story, only the interesting thought process that led them to that conclusion. I’m sorry, but this makes love sound terribly calculated to my way of thinking. You state that the God revealed by Calvinism is not the God you want to know – or, something to that effect. I say that the love you describe here is not the love I want to know. I would also argue that your friends who chose to walk away from love – for whatever reason – were experiencing something they called love, but was not love – not the truly transforming love we are discussing here. But, neither of us can say these things regarding the experiences of others with any degree of certainty, can we? It has been said that no one knows any story but his own. I also submit that when considering any life analogy of theological concepts we must allow for the imperfection of life and therefore the analogy. I acknowledge the imperfections inherent in our worldly experiences with love and marriage and the emotions and feelings they create. God’s love and his proposal to us, however, is perfect.

    • rogereolson

      It seems to me that you are captivated by modern, romantic idea of love as a feeling that overwhelms a person and about which they have no say. I don’t see it that way. If that were the case, it would be meaningless to command love which Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount.

      • Alan Steele

        Certainly our views of what I agree to call romantic love appear to be different – which is why we are having this interesting dialogue! I am enjoying the dialogue, by the way, and I appreciate your willingness to engage and the manner in which you engage. I hope your followers find our dialogue enriching. If not, I certainly will cease.
        Romantic love is hardly modern. I would say that the calculated love you espouse is the modern view and more’s the pity. I would have no problem, however, agreeing that history is no stranger to both definitions of love as expressed in our dialogue.
        I can’t help but wonder, though, how many of your female bloggers would feel cherished knowing that their intended is carefully weighing them on a list of pro’s and con’s before graciously choosing to love them. Perhaps she would come to believe that if at some point in the future he decided that the list had tipped against her that he would simply choose then to stop loving her. And, why not by this definition?
        In any event, I certainly prefer the mysterious and transforming power of love that I believe is demonstrated by God to the calculated and carefully considered love you express here. By your definition, love is sacrificed on the altar of self-determinism. If love is merely a calculated consideration, then our lot here is bitter indeed.
        Scripture teaches us about love by way of example, God’s love for his creation and Jesus’ love for his church. We are given these examples so that we know the goal toward which we are to strive.
        But, I agree that it is within our power to carefully calculate love on a balance sheet as you suggest your friend did. This is certainly something we are capable of accomplishing. No, I am talking about love that transforms, love that is a game changer, love that is a life changer. Love like this cannot be comprehended unless one has been truly transformed by it. Neither can it be apprehended on a balance sheet.

        • rogereolson

          Well, I think you have caricatured my view. I never said anything about deciding to love or not based on a carefully calculated balance sheet. I talked about being loved and deciding to accept another’s love and give oneself into it when one does not have to. I think that’s a common human experience. Women do it as much as men, by the way.

  • Alan Steele

    Well, as you state in your book “Against Calvinism”, we can spin our beliefs any way that makes them more comfortable for us and more appealing to others if we choose. However, I think your statements on choosing to love and choosing not to love speak for themselves. You say I am misrepresenting your statements. I say I have given them a fair and accurate assessment. You made these same points in your book when assessing the views and statements of others.
    I’ll conclude by saying that I find your view of love troubling. It’s where these beliefs lead, however, that is most troubling. I leave it to your readers to decide for themselves which view of love is the more compelling. We’ve probably beat this horse enough. I’ll retire and let you have the last word. It is your blog after all. 😉
    Thank you for the consideration and effort made in engaging in this dialogue.