Download a PDF chart: “Predestination: Three Schemes of the Order of Divine Decrees.”
Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, “Calvinists believe in predestination while Arminians believe in free will,” or “I’m a Wesleyan/Arminian; I don’t believe in predestination.” The problem with these remarks is that predestination is a biblical concept (Rom. 8:29, 30; Eph. 1:5, 11; Acts 4:28). It is in fact a myth that Arminians don’t believe in predestination, and someone who doesn’t believe in predestination is neither Arminian nor Wesleyan. Jacob Arminius and John Wesley both believed in predestination, including the predestination of individuals to salvation. As Keith Stanglin and Tom McCall point out, “The doctrine that God predestines individuals to either eternal life or death was a shared belief among Protestants.”
Predestination in General
Predestination simply refers to deciding or determining something in advance, from the Latin “to make firm beforehand.” For example, Acts 4:28 teaches that the death of Christ was what “your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” God determined in advance that his Son would die for sinful humanity, so that Christ may be properly called “the lamb slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8 KJV).
God’s predestined purposes are commonly viewed as decrees, a term for the orders of a king or governor (e.g., Rom. 1:32; Ps. 2:7; 93:5; 122:4; 148:6; Isa. 10:23; 28:22; Jer. 11:17; Dan. 4:24). The whole Christ-centered plan of salvation is “a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed [or predestined, proorizō] before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7). God the Creator is also the providential Sustainer and Governor of his creation: his actions are not random or reactionary; they are the outworking in time of his eternal plan and purpose for his creatures, especially those made in his image to share his love and beatitude.
Debate over the scriptural teaching on predestination centers on how to understand God’s choice or election of individuals or groups of people to salvation. For example, Ephesians 1:4–5 teaches that “he chose [or elected, eklegō] us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined [proorizō] us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (cf. Eph. 1:11; Rom. 8:29–30; 1 Thess. 5:9).
Jacob Arminius and John Wesley both believed in predestination, including the predestination of individuals to salvation.
Predestination to salvation or damnation is usually associated with John Calvin (1509–1564), Calvinism, and the doctrine of unconditional election (the “U” in the popular acronym TULIP), which was largely drawn from Augustine (354–430). Calvin wrote,
By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death. (Institutes, III.21.5).
Jacob Arminius (1559–1609) and evangelical Arminians such as John Wesley (1703–1791), however, taught a different doctrine of predestination which had its roots in the ancient church predating Augustine.
The Arminian Doctrine of Predestination
The Arminian doctrine of predestination is that God decreed before the foundation of the world to save sinful humanity through his Son Jesus Christ, and to elect in him all who repent and believe, providing them with the means necessary to this end, while leaving under wrath and condemnation those who stubbornly and persistently resist his grace. In this context, the predestination of individuals to salvation or damnation is conditioned on divine foreknowledge of their faith and perseverance or unbelief and impenitence.
First, Arminian predestination begins with Christ as the chosen or elect savior of sinners. Arminius proposed an order of God’s decrees (ordo decretorum Dei) which differed from the Calvinistic schemes of his day (see PDF comparison). Most significantly, God’s decree to appoint Christ as the savior of humanity is viewed as logically prior to his decree to save or reprobate individuals: “The first specific and absolute divine decree regarding the salvation of sinful humanity: God decreed to appoint his Son, Jesus Christ, as Mediator, Redeemer, Savior, Priest, and King.” The first of the five Arminian Articles (1610) likewise confesses predestination as God’s “eternal, unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ his Son … to save in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ.” Arminius reasons,
Since God can love to salvation no one who is a sinner, unless he be reconciled to Himself in Christ, hence it follows that predestination cannot have place except in Christ. And since Christ was ordained and given for sinners, it is certain that predestination and its opposite, reprobation, could not have had place before the sin of man,—I mean, foreseen by God,—and before the appointment of Christ as Mediator, and moreover before His discharging, in the foreknowledge of God, the office of Mediator, which appertains to reconciliation.
Roger Olson concludes that Arminius “conceived predestination as primarily the predestination of Jesus Christ to be the Savior of sinners. Arminius considers the Calvinist doctrine insufficiently Christocentric. Jesus Christ seems to arrive as an afterthought to God’s primary decree to save some and damn others.” Stanglin and McCall agree: “Perhaps most important, Arminius is convinced that his view of predestination rightly exalts Jesus Christ. Arminius refers to Christ as the foundation of election, not merely a means for election.” Arminianism gives pride of place to “the Christ of God, his Chosen [or Elect, eklektos] One” (Lk. 23:35).
Second, Arminian predestination prioritizes the corporate election of the class of believers by virtue of their union with Christ. God’s “second precise and absolute decree,” according to Arminius, is that “God decided graciously to accept those who repent and believe in Christ, and for Christ’s sake and through him to effect the final salvation of penitents and believers who persevere to the end in their faith,” while “simultaneously” decreeing to condemn unbelievers “as alienated from Christ.” Stanglin and McCall explain that “Arminius has in mind a class of people—either penitent believers or impenitent unbelievers—not individuals”; “it is a decree of corporate salvation and condemnation with reference to their properties of belief and unbelief in general.” They conclude, “being in Christ … is the conditional basis for election and salvation.”
God decreed before the foundation of the world to save sinful humanity through his Son Jesus Christ, and to elect in him all who repent and believe.
The point of Ephesians 1 is that all God’s blessings to believers come through their union with Christ. Paul addresses those “who were the first to hope in Christ” (Eph. 1:12), who “heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him” (Eph. 1:14). He reminds believers in Christ that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3). To say that God has “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5; cf. 1 Thess. 5:9) simply means that sonship through Christ is God’s predetermined plan for believers. As Wesley explains, God “foreordained that all who afterwards believed should enjoy the dignity of being sons of God.” Christ is the “cornerstone chosen and precious”; by being built up in him, believers are “a chosen race” (2 Pet. 2:9). Anyone may be in Christ and among the elect if they do not resist God’s grace and willfully “disobey the word” (1 Pet. 2:8; cf. Acts 7:51). The scriptural focus is not on the election or reprobation of certain individuals, but on Christ as the Savior in whom and through whom believers enjoy the blessings of the covenant of grace, especially sonship, sanctification, and glorification, according to God’s foreordained purpose.
God-Centered and Grace-Centered (Not Man-Centered!)
Third, Arminian predestination is God-centered and grace-centered, not man-centered and freedom-centered. According to Arminius, the third decree of God is to provide the means—that is, the grace of the Holy Spirit—to repent and believe. This is crucial: no one can repent or believe in their own power. The Arminian focus is on God’s free grace, not man’s free will. Stanglin and McCall note
the consistent theological—rather than ‘anthropocentric’—orientation of Arminius’s account of providence and predestination. Rather than elevate ‘free will,’ which he only mentions to retain human responsibility for sin and to preserve grace as a genuine gift, he stresses God’s concurrence in all things, elevates God’s character and love, and emphatically insists upon the necessity and primacy of divine grace.
The Arminian Confession (1621) is clear that since man is unable to perform the commandments of God, God “determined to confer such grace to sinful man by which he might be suitable and apt to render everything which is required of him in the gospel” (17.1). The Confession emphasizes that “man … does not have saving faith from himself, nor is he regenerated or converted by the powers of his own free will, seeing that in the state of sin he cannot of himself or by himself either think or will or do anything that is good enough to be saved (of which first of all is conversion and saving faith)” (17.5).
Fourth, Arminian predestination of individuals is conditioned by God’s foreknowledge. The fourth decree in Arminius’s fourfold doctrine of predestination concerns the salvation and damnation of particular persons according to divine foreknowledge:
From these decrees the fourth proceeds, by which God decreed to save and to damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in divine foreknowledge, through which God has known from all eternity those individuals who through the established means of his prevenient grace would come to faith and believe, and through his subsequent sustaining grace would persevere in the faith. Likewise, in divine foreknowledge, God knew those who would not believe and persevere.
Paul writes that “those whom he foreknew [proginōskō] he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29), while Peter addresses “those who are elect … according to the foreknowledge [proginōskō] of God the Father” (1 Peter 1:2). In both Romans 8:29 and 1 Peter 1:2, the lexical data favors the Arminian view that proginōskō refers simply to precognition (as in Acts 26:5 and 2 Peter 3:17), without the connotation of choosing or loving in advance. In his sermon “On Predestination,” Wesley explains what it means for God to predestine those whom he foreknew: “He knew, he saw them as believers, and as such predestinated them to salvation, according to his eternal decree, ‘He that believeth shall be saved.’”
An Orthodox and Reformed View
The Arminian doctrine of predestination is an orthodox view. In fact, Arminius insisted that church tradition was on his side. Stanglin and McCall explain,
Arminius’s doctrine of predestination is named “Arminian” only in the sense that he taught it—not in the sense that it originated with him. Arminius’s affirmation of conditional election is in line with the great majority of the early Christian tradition, in which many theologians have affirmed that divine predestination is based on what God foreknows about a person.
McCall and Stanglin cite Irenaeus, Origen, and Chrysostom as examples of consonant voices. On the other hand, the Calvinistic view struggles to find early patristic support. Roger Olson contends, “No Christian before Augustine believed in unconditional individual election to hell or irresistible grace.” While some militant Calvinists have tried to spin a narrative that Arminians are unorthodox or even Pelagian heretics, history is not on their side.
The Arminian doctrine of predestination is an orthodox and Reformed view.
The Arminian doctrine of predestination is, moreover, a Reformed view. While the “Reformed” label has become nearly synonymous with “Calvinism” since the Synod of Dort (1618–1619), Jacob Arminius died in good standing with the Dutch Reformed Church and affirmed every word of the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. He insisted, “I have never made doctrinal pronouncements that were contrary to God’s Word or to the Confession and Catechism of the Belgic Churches.”
Arminians can join Arminius in affirming Article 16 of the Belgic Confession, “The Doctrine of Election,” which says that God saves those who are “elected and chosen in Jesus Christ,” and does not exclude conditional predestination:
God is merciful in withdrawing and saving from this perdition those who, in the eternal and unchangeable divine counsel, have been elected and chosen in Jesus Christ our Lord by his pure goodness, without any consideration of their works.
God is just in leaving the others in their ruin and fall into which they plunged themselves.
Arminians and Wesleyans would do well to stop using “Reformed” when they mean “Calvinist,” and insist that we share a Reformed heritage. It’s Calvinists from Dort to the present day who have tried to push us out.
The Eternal Purpose of God the Triune
Finally, I love that the Arminian doctrine of predestination is not just “anti-Calvinism.” It’s a robustly Christ-centered and Trinitarian doctrine that can bring hope, comfort, and conviction to every believer in the Arminian tradition and beyond. As I recently explained to a young child, “Predestination means that before you were ever born, God wanted you to be part of his family through Jesus.” God decreed to save in Christ all who believe through the grace of the Holy Spirit; God decreed to leave under wrath those who are alienated from Christ because they always resist the Holy Spirit. In the words of William Burt Pope, “the redemption of mankind sprang from the eternal purpose of God the Triune: Let Us redeem man! was silently one with Let Us make man!”
For Further Study
- Jacob Arminius, Declaration of Sentiments. Read the translation by Stephen Gunter.
- Five Arminian Articles of 1610. See also “Five-Point Arminianism: The Five Arminian Articles of 1610.”
- Arminian Confession of 1621. Read the translation by Mark A. Ellis.
- Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas. H McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, “Chapter 3: Providence and Predestination.”
- Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley’s Teachings, Volume 2: Christ and Salvation, “Chapter Six: Predestination.”
- Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, “Myth 8: Arminians Do Not Believe in Predestination.”