Individual Election, Corporate Election, and Arminianism

by Matthew Pinson

There is a flurry of activity at present from quarters in the Arminian theological community on the doctrine of corporate election. The exponents of this view are able and must be reckoned with, both by Calvinists and Arminians who emphasize the individual, personal nature of election to salvation.

However, to hear some Arminians talk, it is almost as though corporate election is the Arminian view. So I am offering this post not so much to make an argument for the individual, personal nature of election from an Arminian vantage point, but to remind my readers that there is another view among Arminians in opposition to the corporate election view. It may be a minority view, but there is a perspective with a long and distinguished history among Arminians and other non-Calvinists: that election to salvation is personal and individual. And this is not just a Reformed Arminian view. Many biblical interpreters outside Calvinism have interpreted the election passages in a more personal-individual manner.

As food for thought, I have cut and pasted some brief statements from a few modern-day Arminian authors who espouse this perspective. First is a short summary statement by Robert Picirilli, followed by a more direct statement of the doctrine by Jack Cottrell. Lastly, I have presented some brief comments Leroy Forlines makes about individual, personal election in the context of his interpretation of Romans 9.

 From Robert Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will [1]:

A word of caution is in order [about the christocentricity of election]. Some Arminians have taken this point to mean something Arminius never meant. Shank, for example, insists that election is “primarily corporate and only secondarily particular: one becomes elect only by coming to be in Christ” [2]. If this idea is consistently pressed, it finally denies personal election and substitutes only a corporate election, the election of the body of Christ, the church. Arminius never suggested such a restriction. . . .

Election is personal and individual. This is not to deny that there is such a thing, in the Bible, as national election or election to particular roles of service. But these are not election to salvation and so are not directly involved in the subject of this work.

Some Arminians, as already noted, err in making election entirely corporate, even when referring to election to salvation. Thus Wiley speaks of “class predestination” [3], and Wynkoop observes that “the way of salvation is predestined” [4]. As already noted, Shank gets much too close to this when he speaks of election as primarily corporate and only secondarily personal. As Jewett observes, “In the Bible the elect are generally spoken of as a class. . . . Yet the implication is plain . . . that each member . . . shares, as an individual, in the election of that people” [5].

Thus Arminius, as we have seen above, defined predestination as the election of men to salvation and the reprobation of them to destruction. And, in the order of the decrees, his fourth included the salvation and damnation of “certain particular persons.” Watson also indicates that election is “of individuals to be the children of God, and the heirs of eternal life” [6]. Thus Wood is incorrect in saying that Arminius proposed “the election or reprobation of specific classes rather than of individuals as such” [7]. What Arminius taught was election of individuals as believers, but individuals nevertheless.

Cottrell correctly expresses the classical Arminian position when he emphasizes that election is of persons, not merely the plan. He cites passages like Romans 8:29, 30; 16:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Ephesians 1:4, 5, 11; and 1 Peter 1:1, 2, pointing out that in some cases specific persons are spoken of as among the elect. He also notes that the names of the elect are written in the book of life (Rev. 17:8; Lk. 10:20; etc.) [8]

From Jack Cottrell, “Conditional Election” [9]:

A major part of Christendom has never been able to accept unconditional election of individuals as biblical. They declare that Scripture just does not teach such an idea, which appears to be unjust and arbitrary on God’s part and seems to lead to pessimism and quietism on man’s part. Many who oppose this concept assert instead that election is based on certain conditions which anyone may meet; and it is the election of a certain class or group, not the election of specific individuals.

This view is held by many Arminians and is sometimes thought to be the Arminian view on the subject. Emphasizing the corporate character of election, Dr. H. Orton Wiley, the eminent Nazarene theologian, has stated, “I hold, of course, to class predestination” [10]. He finds it objectionable to say that “God has determined beforehand whether some should be saved or not, applied to individuals” [11].

Another Nazarene theologian, Mildred B. Wynkoop, states that theories about predestination are the watershed between Calvinism and Wesleyan Arminianism [12]. She traces the origin of the idea of personal, particular, individual predestination to Augustine [13] Arminius’s theory of predestination, she says, is just the opposite: “Individual persons are not chosen to salvation, but it is Christ who has been appointed as the only Saviour of men. The way of salvation is predestined” [14].

Robert Shank, in his book, Elect in the Son, presents a similar view. Election, he says, is primarily corporate and only secondarily particular [15]. Individuals become elect only when they identify with or associate themselves with the elect body [16]. He summarizes his view of election as “potentially universal, corporate rather than particular, and conditional rather than unconditional” [17]. . . .

The views just discussed are deliberate efforts to present a biblical alternative to the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional, particular election. Such an alternative is necessary, for the Calvinistic view as a whole is definitely contrary to Scripture. However, election is not limited to a “way” or class election. Biblical election to salvation is indeed conditional, but it is also individual or personal.

The distinctive element in Calvinistic election is its unconditional nature, not its particularity. Only the former must be rejected; to reject the latter also is an overreaction and a distortion of the Bible’s own teaching. What is the biblical doctrine of election? As understood here, it is the idea that God predestines to salvation those individuals who meet the gracious conditions which he has set forth. In other words, election to salvation is conditional and particular [18]. . . .

A popular belief among non-Calvinists is that “God predestined the plan, not the man.” The Scriptures, however, show that it is always persons who are predestined and not just a plan [19]. This is so obvious that it hardly seems necessary to mention it. In Rom 8:29, 30 Paul is speaking of persons. The same persons who are predestined are also called, justified and glorified. In 2 Thess 2:13 he says that “God has chosen you,” the Christian people of Thessalonica, “for salvation.” Eph 1: 4, 5, 11 speaks of God’s predestination in relation to his plan, but it is specifically stated that God predestined us (persons) to adoption as sons in accordance with his purpose and plan.

Election, then, is not limited to a divine plan but applies to persons as well. But does it apply to particular persons? Are specific individuals predestined to salvation? The answer is yes. No other view can do justice to biblical teaching in several respects.

First, it should be noted that the Bible often speaks of predestination in terms that specify particular individuals. Many passages do refer to the elect in general, but other references focus upon specific persons. In Rom 16:13, Rufus is identified as an elect person. In 1 Pet 1:1, 2 the apostle greets the elect Christians in certain specific geographical locations. A very clear statement of the predestination of individuals to salvation is 2 Thess 2:13.

Here Paul says to the Thessalonian brethren that “God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation.” This statement cannot be generalized and depersonalized. Another point that should be noted is that Rev 17:8 speaks of those “whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.” This is a negative statement; but it would be meaningless to say that some persons’ names have not been written in the book of life since the beginning unless there are others whose names have been written there from the beginning.

There is some question as to whether names can be blotted out of the book of life (see Exod 32:32, 33; Ps. 69:28; Rev 3:5). If so, these would not be the names written there from the foundation of the world, but those having the status, perhaps, of the seeds that sprouted in rocky or weedy soil (Matt 13:20–22). Those who overcome are specifically promised that their names will not be blotted out (Rev 3:5), and these are in all probability the ones written from the foundation of the world.

In any case, there are certain individuals whose names have been in the book of life since the foundation of the world, and whose names will not be blotted out. Who can these be except those whom God has predestined individually to salvation? And the point here is that their very names have been known to God from the beginning. What can this be but individual predestination? “Rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven”! (Luke 10:20).

How is it possible that God could determine even before the creation which individuals will be saved, and could even write their names in the book of life? The answer is found in the fact and nature of God’s foreknowledge. The Bible explicitly relates predestination to God’s foreknowledge, and a correct understanding of this relationship is the key to the whole question of election to salvation. Rom. 8:29 says, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren.” Peter addresses his first epistle to those “who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Pet 1:1, 2). In other words, God’s foreknowledge is the means by which he has determined which individuals shall be conformed to the image of his Son (in his glorified resurrection body).

To say that God has foreknowledge means that he has real knowledge or cognition of something before it actually happens or exists in history. This is the irreducible core of the concept, which must be neither eliminated nor attenuated. Nothing else is consistent with the nature of God [20]. One of the basic truths of Scripture is that God is eternal. This means two things. One, it means that when time is considered as a linear succession of moments with a before and a now and an after, God is infinite in both directions. He has existed before now into infinite past time (i.e., eternity) without ever having begun, and he will exist after now into infinite future time (again, eternity) without ever ending.

“Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Ps 90:2). But to say that God is eternal means more than this. God’s eternity is not just a quantitative distinction between him and his creation. Eternity is also qualitatively different from time. That God is eternal means that he is not bound by the restrictions of time; he is above time. At any given moment, what is both past and future to a finite creature is present to God’s knowledge. It is all now to God, in a kind of panorama of time; he is the great “I AM” (Exod 3:14).

To get some idea of the majesty of the infinite and eternal Creator, as contrasted with the finiteness of all creatures, one must read the Lord’s challenges to the false gods and idols in Isa 41–46. The very thing that distinguishes God as God is that he transcends time, and sees it from beginning to end at one and the same moment. Therefore, God’s “foreknowledge” is really his sovereign eternal knowledge. . . .

In light of the biblical teaching concerning God’s eternity and foreknowledge, and the relation between this foreknowledge and predestination, it should be evident that predestination must be of individuals. Surely God foreknows everything about the life of every individual. He cannot help but foreknow, because he is God. He sees the entire scope of every individual’s destiny—even before the foundation of the world [21]. . . .

Many Arminians affirm God’s foreknowledge while at the same time denying individual predestination. Some just ignore the inconsistency involved, while others dismiss it with a kind of embarrassed mumbling [22]. The reason why they are so determined to reject individual election is that they believe it to be inseparable from the Calvinistic doctrine of election. This is not the case, however. Calvinism does teach individual predestination, but this is not what makes it Calvinism. The essence of the Calvinistic doctrine, as noted earlier, is that election is unconditional. The watershed is not between particular and general, but between conditional and unconditional election. The Calvinistic error is avoided by affirming conditional election.

The foreknowledge of God has been emphasized. God elects individuals according to his foreknowledge. But the question may well be asked, foreknowledge of what? The answer is that he foreknows whether an individual will meet the conditions for salvation which he has sovereignly imposed. What are these conditions? The basic and all-encompassing condition is whether a person is in Christ, namely, whether one has entered into a saving union with Christ by means of which he shares in all the benefits of Christ’s redeeming work. Whom God foreknew to be in Christ (“until death”—Rev 2:10), he predestined to be glorified like Jesus himself.

This is the import of Eph 1:4, which says that “He chose us in Him”—in Christ—“before the foundation of the world.” The elect are chosen in (Greek: hen) Christ, that is, because they are in Christ; they are not chosen into (eis) Christ, that is, in order that they may be in Christ. They are in Christ before the foundation of the world not in reality but in the foreknowledge of God.

From Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism [23]:

Paul’s Appeal to the Jews to See That Election Is Individual, Not Corporate

I do not think that verses 6-13 deal with individual election; neither do they settle the question of whether election is conditional or unconditional. The way had been prepared for the focus to change beginning in verse 15. Before Paul finishes this chapter, he will deal with both the question of individual election and the question of whether election is conditional or unconditional. He will show that election is of  individuals and that it is conditional. Again, it is important to keep in mind that Paul is dealing with a question of Jewish concern, not a Calvinist-Arminian debate. Since he deals with universal truth, we will find that what he says is helpful in dealing with the questions raised by Calvinists and Arminians.

Romans 9:15 and Individual Election

Since verse 15 is introduced by “for,” we naturally expect a reason or proof to follow. However, such is not the case here. It is obvious that what follows does not take on the form of an argument defending the righteousness (or justice) of God in not saving all Jews. As Lenski explains, “The gar is not to prove the statement that there is no justice [The author obviously meant “injustice.”] on the part of God in these promises; for what follows is not proof . . . . Gar is at times used simply to confirm; it does so here: ‘yea’” [24].

The question of whether God could be unrighteous (or unjust) was not debatable between Paul and the Jew. One would reject such an implication as quickly as the other. The difference came in applying the truth of the righteousness of God to the question of whether all Jews were saved. What follows in verse 15 is not evidence that God is not unrighteous. That was settled by an emphatic denial. What follows is an illustration from Scripture of how the action of God, who can do no wrong, supports the principle that some, but not all, from among Israel are chosen for salvation. That Paul is appealing to the authority of Scripture rather than building an argument in verse 15 finds broad agreement [25].

In the quotation from Exodus 33:19, God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” My first observation is that the Greek for “whom” (hon an) is singular. This places the emphasis on the choice of the individual rather than on corporate election, as the case would be if God had chosen to save all of the Covenant Seed of Abraham. As Picirilli explains, “Even in the wilderness, when we might think all the nation was automatically entitled to His favor, He said: ‘I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’” God wanted to establish clearly that “neither Moses nor Israel had any special claims on Him that took away His sovereign right to act as He chose. Nor will He show mercy to all of them just because they were Israelites in the flesh” [26].

As it relates to Paul’s treatment of individuals in Romans 9:15-21, Thomas R. Schreiner calls attention to the use of the singular in these verses. He explains that hon, the word for whom, is singular. Thus, the passage is speaking of “specific individuals upon whom God has mercy.” Schreiner also notes that the singular occurs “in the reference that Paul draws from Romans 9:15, in 9:16. God’s mercy does not depend on ‘the one who wills, nor the one who runs.’ The conclusion to all of 9:14-17 in 9:18 utilizes the singular once again: ‘God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.’” Paul continues this thought in Romans 9:19 and 21: “‘Who (tis) resists his will?’ [9:19.] And Paul uses the singular when he speaks of one vessel being made for honor and another for dishonor (9:21)” [27]. This militates against exegetes who argue that Paul is using corporate rather than individual language to speak about election in Romans 9.

I strongly agree with Schreiner that the election in these verses is speaking of individual election. I agree with all that he says in the above quotation, yet I do not join him on unconditional election. However, I do not think that that question is settled up to this point in the chapter. It will not be settled until we get to verses 30-33.


[1] Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation, Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002).

[2] Robert W. Shank, Elect in the Son (Springfield, Mo.: Westcott, 1970), 45.

[3] H. Orton Wiley et al., “The Debate over Divine Election,” Christianity Today (Oct. 12, 1959), 3.

[4] Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, Foundations of Wesleyan-Arminian Theology (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1967), 53.

[5] Paul K. Jewett, Election and Predestination (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 47.

[6] Richard Watson, Theological Institutes (New York: Nelson and Phillips, 1850), 2:337.

[7] A. Skevington Wood, “The Declaration of Sentiments: The Theological Testament of Arminius,” Evangelical Quarterly 65:2 (1993), 121.

[8] Jack Cottrell, “Conditional Election,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1975), 57-58.

[9] Jack Cottrell, “Conditional Election,” in Grace for All: The Arminian Dynamics of Salvation, ed. John Wagner and Clark Pinnock (Eugene, OR: Resource, 2015), 77-81.

[10] H. Orton Wiley et al., 3.

[11] Ibid., 5.

[12] Wynkoop, 14.

[13] Ibid., 30,31.

[14] Ibid.,53.

 [15] Shank, 45.

[16] Ibid., 50, 55.

[17] Ibid., 122. See also William Klein, The New Chosen People (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2001)

[18] See Jack Cottrell, “Conditional Election,” The Seminary Review, XII (Summer 1966), 57–63; also, Cottrell, “The Predestination of Individuals,” Christian Standard, CV (Oct. 4, 1970), 13-14.

[19] The plan, of course, is predetermined by God. This applies both to the redemptive work of Christ (Acts 4:28) and to the establishment of the church. But this is not the point of predestination to salvation.

[20] Most Calvinists try to avoid the clear implications of God’s foreknowledge by changing the meaning of it from “foreknow” to “forelove” or something similar. The idea of cognition is made subordinate to some other concept. For instance, Roger Nicole says, “The passages dealing with foreknowledge are not at all difficult to integrate, inasmuch as the term foreknowledge in Scripture does not have merely the connotation of advance information (which the term commonly has in nontheological language), but indicates God’s special choice coupled with affection” (H. Orton Wiley and others, “Debate Over Divine Election,” 16). This is an arbitrary definition, however, and is not consistent with the use of the term in Acts 2:23, where it can mean no more than prescience. See Samuel Fisk, Election & Predestination: Keys to a Clearer Understanding (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 71–82.

[21] Calvin acknowledged that this was the view of the early church fathers, and even of Augustine for a time. But he suggests that we “imagine that these fathers are silent” (Institutes, 3.22.8). Berkouwer notes that “Bavinck goes so far as to call this solution ‘general,’ for it is accepted by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Remonstrant, Baptist, and Methodist churches.” (Berkouwer, Divine Election, 37).

[22] For instance, Wiley objects to applying predestination to individuals, yet grants that God has foreknowledge of who will believe in Christ (Wiley and others, “Debate Over Divine Election,” 5, 15) . Shank’s treatment of foreknowledge is puzzling: “Thus it is evident that the passages positing foreknowledge and predestination must be understood as having as a frame of reference primarily the corporate body of the Israel of God and secondarily individuals, not unconditionally, but only in association and identification with the elect body. . . .” (Shank, 154). It is as if corporate election were the opposite of unconditional election. Further, Shank says that “whether God has actively foreknown each individual—both the elect and the reprobate—may remain a moot question. The Biblical doctrine of election does not require such efficient particular foreknowledge, for the election is primarily corporate and objective and only secondarily particular. The passages positing  foreknowledge and predestination of the elect may be understood quite as well one way as the other” (Ibid., 155).

[23] F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 129-31.

[24] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 606-607. In the book, the word is justice rather than injustice, but it is obvious that Lenski meant injustice.

[25] See H. P. Liddon, Explanatory Analysis of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (1892; reprinted, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961) 162-63. See also Shedd, Commentary on Romans, 288.

[26] Robert Picirilli, The Book of Romans (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 1975), 183.

[27] Thomas R. Schreiner, “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election unto Salvation?” in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, vol. 1, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 99.


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