Monday, August 16, 2010

Christ: The Ground of Election

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places IN CHRIST, just as HE CHOSE US IN HIM before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, HAVING PREDESTINATED US to adoption as sons BY JESUS CHRIST to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which HE MADE US ACCEPTED IN THE BELOVED” (Ephesians 1:3-6, New King James Version).

“In the Arminian order of the decrees the election of individuals presupposed the election of Christ. The Dort deputations were anxious to point out that the Arminian designation of Christ as ‘fundamentum electionis’ (foundation of election) was acceptable only if it meant that without Christ the decree of election could not be executed” (G. Michael Thomas, “The Extent of the Atonement: A Dilemma for Reformed Theology from Calvin to the Consensus (1536-1675).” Carlisle & Cumbria: Paternoster, 1997, page 143).

I picked up G. Michael Thomas’s book again, a book that I hadn’t read out of in a while. For those who may have read his book (and those who have not), Thomas has a section devoted to the Synod of Dort (or Dortrecht), the Synod that deposed of Arminius’s followers, the Remonstrants, and removed them for their professorships at the University of Leiden. It was at the Synod of Dort that Arminius’s theology was declared heresy, and that Calvinism was affirmed. It was also at this Synod that the “Five Points of Calvinism” were created, a reactionary response to the “Five Points of Arminianism.” To say the least, the Synod of Dort is quite important in the history of the church and historical theology itself.

There were several topics discussed at this Synod...among them, the issue of election. One of the big questions posed was, “What is the grounds of election? How are certain individuals elected and given to Christ?” For the Calvinists at Dort, the ground of election was God’s will---God picks certain ones and passes over certain others because He wants to.

Franciscus Gomarus, a supralapsarian, had this to say about Christ and election:

“The giving of Christ is A MEANS SUBORDINATE to the election of men to salvation” (“The Extent of the Atonement,” page 143).

The Swiss had responded in this manner:

“We abhor with serious and true detestation that which is said, that God predestined Christ to be mediator before having any will or intention to save anyone by name” (144).

Gomarus, the Swiss, and other parties present intended to make it clear that first, God picks those whom He will save, and then sends Christ to atone for those certain individuals.

But this creates a problem of enormous magnitude, according to Keith Stanglin:

“First, the Reformed position has God loving some sinners and saving them logically BEFORE he had given satisfaction to his own righteousness, thus inverting the twofold love by subordinating his love for righteousness to his love for sinners. Second, God wills to damn some sinners without regard to whether the sinner would continue impenitent, thereby abolishing his love for sinners EVEN WHEN SATISFACTION HAS BEEN MADE” (Keith D. Stanglin, “Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation: The Context, Roots, and Shape of the Leiden Debate, 1603-1609.” Leiden& Boston: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007, page 229).

Two problems are created by the Calvinist placement of the decree of election before the decree of Christ: first, such persons are elected LOGICALLY BEFORE the sin of man is satisfied; secondly, even though satisfaction for sin would be made, God would still punish the sinner for the abolished sin. In short, the sinner would be punished twice without an opportunity to accept or reject the atonement that has been made for his or her sin.

Let’s deal with the first of these problems. If Calvinists place the decree of election before the decree of Christ’s atonement, then this means that certain sinners are elected to Christ BEFORE sin is done away with---which means that people are not elect “in Christ,” but “apart from Christ.” What is the significance of this, you may ask? The significance is that, if people are elect or reprobate before the atonement, then the atonement merely pardons the elect sinners; in other words, the governmental theory of atonement becomes the right one!

What is the governmental theory of the atonement? Roger Olson writes:

“In other words, according to those Arminians who do hold to the governmental theory, God inflicted pain on Christ for the sins of the world in order to uphold his justice and holiness. Christ’s suffering was equivalent to any sinner’s deserved punishment so that God could forgive while at the same time being wholly just and holy. But CHRIST DID NOT TAKE THE ACTUAL PUNISHMENT DESERVED BY EVERY PERSON” (Roger Olson, “Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, page 224).

In the governmental theory, “Christ’s suffering was EQUIVALENT to any sinner’s deserved punishment,” not the punishment that every single son and daughter of Adam deserved. Now someone may say, “Why do you connect the governmental theory with the Calvinist decrees? I do so because, if God picked certain individuals without regard to their specific sins, then all the elect sinners needed was someone to pay “a debt” for sin. Once God picked those He desired to save, He only needed someone to offer up “a debt” for the sins of the elect, and He could proceed with His plans. Jesus then, did not have to “die” for the sins of mankind. In other words, the penalty of death was merely optional for God...God could have dealt with sin in other ways.

Such thought is ABSOLUTELY ABSURD! As a Classical Arminian, I believe that Christ had to die on the cross for the sins of mankind because the penalty was death. The fact that man sinned in the Garden despite the warning (“the day you eat thereof you will die”) warranted the penalty of death. God told them that the suffering for sin was death, and death is what God decreed when they sinned.

Think about it, though: if all sinned in Adam (Romans 5), and the penalty was death, then someone needed to come and die for the entire human race. Every son and daughter of Adam and Eve had the sentence of death hanging over their heads. In this deserved bracket of death for Adamic sin, no one is placed above another. The so-called “elect” of the Calvinist system, then, would have been no more deserving or elite than the rest of humanity. And this is why Calvinists desire to place God’s decree of the atonement AFTER election, and not before. If God were to deal with sin BEFORE choosing the elect, He would then have made atonement for every single individual because all individuals would be made clean by His sacrifice. And then the question becomes, “Why, after making one sacrifice for all persons, would Christ pick a few out of which to grant the atonement to?” And, as you that point, Calvinists would shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know; it’s a mystery, and we can’t comprehend all that lies in the mind of God.” And this is simply no answer at all for such important questions regarding sinners and salvation.

Which did God deal with first in regards to man: the sentence of death or the election of individuals? If we say that election came first, God picks people without regard to their Adamic sin. In other words, God begins to “smile on sin,” something that I shutter to think is true. But, if Scripture is right, then the atonement was not just about love alone, but justice and love working together. Here are the words of James Arminius:

“There remains with God His right entire to impart those benefits---which are His by nature, which He desired from compassion to communicate to sinful men, but, JUSTICE WITHSTANDING, COULD NOT CARRY INTO EFFECT, and which, now that Hus justice is pacified by the blood and death of Christ, He can actually bestow---to whom He thinks fit, and under those conditions which He shall prescribe; because He, as the injured party, could prescribe the mode of reconciliation, which also He did prescribe, consisting in the death and obedience of His own Son; and because He Himself gave to us Him who was to perform the functions of a Mediator for us” (James Arminius, “Works,” III:331).

The same God who abandoned Christ on the cross due to the sins of the world (Matt. 27:46) is the same God who cannot smile on sinners who have yet to receive the atonement of Christ for their sins. If Calvinists are right, God favors electing sinners and not believers...and this is contrary to the nature and character of a holy God, for “He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13, NKJV).


The Seeking Disciple said...

One of the strengths of Arminius' position on election is that he is Christ-centered in his approach. Arminius taught that Christ and not Mankind should be the focus when speaking on election. Ephesians 1:3-14 makes this clear as we see just how often Paul refers to Jesus in this portion. Our focus of our theology must first and foremost be Jesus Himself.

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...


You are exactly right. That's one thing I noticed about Arminius recently, reading his "Works" and Keith Stanglin's book "Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation." Arminius focuses on Christ as the beginning of everything. Christ is the source of all things. When John says in John 1 that "all things were made by Him and without Him nothing was made that was made," he provides the torch for Arminius's theology.

Calvinism cannot say this. Instead, its focus is on the elect, and the elect alone. Btw, how then, can the Calvinist turn around and call the Arminian "man-centered"? Just look at Calvinist theology. They think so little of Christ as to subordinate him to their own election (as if to say they could be chosen "without" Christ). Who, now, is being man-centered? Is it the Arminian or the Calvinist?

When push comes to shove, the Calvinist cannot point fingers at the Arminian and call him man-centered...for, truth be told, he too, is eligible to wear that label.