Six Positions on the Doctrine of Election from Church History

Over the course of history, there have been many different theological systems and individuals who have interpreted the doctrine of election. Each has understood the doctrine of election differently. I wanted to offer a brief sketch of the basic definitions of election according to Origen, Augustine, Semi-Pelagianism, Roman Catholicism, Calvin, Arminius, and Wesley.

1. Origen lived during the 200’s and had a great fear that biblical election taught fatalism. Fatalism was prevalent during his time and he feared that this teaching encouraged and kindled this idea. As a result, Origen answered his concerns with universal salvation. He taught that all would eventually choose God and as a result be saved.

2. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, lived during the 300’s and his view of election stemmed from his opposition to Pelagius who taught the heresy that man had the ability to save himself (human monergism). Augustine, in direct contrast to Pelagius, had a very strong doctrine of election which was marked by divine monergism. Augustine held that election was God’s choosing of some individuals to save while passing over others leaving them to be justly condemned. Augustine presented election as being God’s mercy and our only hope to be saved. Some of us get more than what we deserve while no one receives less than what they deserves under Augustine’s definition of election.

3. Semi-Pelagianism, which is a softer presentation of Pelagianism, states that the weakened human being can and does initiate their own salvation and then God responds. Semi-Pelagians taught that once an individual does initiate their salvation, God responds by assisting the weakened human will with divine grace and cooperatively God and man achieve salvation. Therefore, Semi-Pelagianism denies unconditional election because they believed it rendered human freedom and responsibility non-existent and the work of a pastor was viewed as futile. Similarly to Origen, Semi-Pelagianism feared and believed that the teaching of unconditional election led to fatalism.

4. Roman Catholicism begins their understanding of election with the denial of total depravity of man. Similar to Semi-Pelagianism, Roman Catholics traditionally view the human will as being weakened rather than dead. When some begin within themselves to desire grace, God responds by giving grace. Roman Catholicism is eerily similar to Semi-Pelagianism in their affirmation of salvation as a result of divine-human cooperation. Roman Catholic understanding of election can be simply defined as God’s foreseeing of the meritorious works of individuals. These individuals are then elect but can fall from this state of grace even on their deathbed. Likewise, those who are non-elect (those who have not demonstrated meritorious works with the combination of God’s response of providing grace) can rise to salvation even on their deathbed. Roman Catholics view sovereign unconditional election as inconsistent with God’s love and therefore deny Augustinian and Reformed doctrines of election.

5. John Calvin, in contrast to Roman Catholicism, was a major proponent of unconditional election. Calvin lived in the 1500’s and he viewed election to be based on God’s sovereign will and good pleasure. God’s free will is glorified in Calvin’s view of election, rather than man’s. However, Calvin did believe in the free will of man. He simply interprets it differently than those in the Arminian and Wesleyan traditions. Election is therefore based on God’s unconditional choice of individuals rather than being based on any good in individuals. God chose some sinners to save and others to condemn.

While God freely elects out of sheer mercy and grace, he was never under any obligation to do so and therefore God’s election of us is a result of his goodness and sovereign will toward undeserving mankind. Calvin’s view of election included the affirmation that election is a result of God’s foreknowledge of persons and not choices. Calvin taught that election was caused by God’s sovereign will and grounded in Christ’s atoning death.

6. Jacobus Arminius and John Wesley held very similar, if not identical, views concerning the doctrine of election. Their view of election was conditional as they believed unconditional election made God to be arbitrary and unloving. Wesley in particular adamantly opposed unconditional election as he reasoned that belief in predestination inevitably led to double predestination (some are predestined to life and others in the same way are predestined to eternal death), which he viewed as egregious. Arminius before Wesley and Wesley afterwards taught and believed in conditional election which is the sole view of individual election among the Arminian and Wesleyan traditions. They believed in a synergism that taught that God frees the human will by providing every individual with prevenient grace. This prevenient grace frees up the will to positively choose Christ and based on the condition of this faith, God then responds by electing those individuals to eternal life. They each arrived at this conclusion by starting with the truth that God desires all to be saved (2 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pt. 3:9).

They then assert that God desires something more than this, namely the free will of man. In order to preserve free will and uphold God’s love, Arminius and Wesley taught that God decided to save all of mankind and provided the way through prevenient grace in Christ. However, in order to preserve free will, God does not choose any to save without their cooperation. God gives the ability to choose him through prevenient grace and then it is up to the individual to respond in faith. After this response of faith, God then elects those individuals to eternal life. This conditional election held by Arminius and Wesley is rooted in God’s foreknowledge of the free choices of individuals, not individuals themselves. The crux of election in the teachings of Arminius and Wesley is prevenient grace, for without it, their teachings become Semi-Pelagian.


Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.

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