Arminian theology teaches that God’s election of individuals to salvation is based on his foreknowledge of their faith. God knows beforehand that they will believe, and on that basis elects, or predestines them, to eternal life. This approach has the apparent advantage of relieving the tension between divine election and human freedom. A key text here is Rom 8:29 –
Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
At first glance, this text appears to settle the question in favour of the Arminian approach. However, I have long thought that this is a particularly weak argument, and here’s why.
Paul writes of God’s foreknowledge (proginsko) here and in Romans 11:2. This has been taken to mean either (1) God’s prior knowledge, or (2) his prior choosing.
1. The first sense is that favoured by Arminians, who thus claim that divine election is based on divine foreknowledge: God foresees who will belief, and on that bases elects them to salvation. However, in texts such as Rom 8:29 and 1 Pet 1:2 Scripture speaks, not of God foreknowing faith, but of foreknowing persons.
Moreover, this view would appear inconsistent with the very clear teaching that salvation is unmerited on our part and is derived entirely from God’s good pleasure. As Packer says: ‘Since all are naturally dead in sin (i.e., cut off from the life of God and unresponsive to him), no one who hears the gospel will ever come to repentance and faith without an inner quickening that only God can impart (Eph. 2:4-10). Jesus said: “No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him” (John 6:65, cf. 44; 10:25-28). Sinners choose Christ only because God chose them for this choice and moved them to it by renewing their hearts.’
2. The second sense – divine knowledge as equivalent to divine election – finds support in the Semitic sense of knowledge as not merely ‘knowing about’, but ‘entering into a personal relationship with’, Am 3:2; Ho 13:5; Jer 1:5. The OT frequently uses the term ‘knowledge’ in this sense for the special relationship between Yahweh and his people, Ex 33:12,17; Gen 18:19; Deut 34:10. In Gen 18:19 “I have known him” means, “I have chosen him.” God is not a passive spectator, waiting to see what people will choose: ‘foreknow’ in Rom 8:29; 11:2 means ‘fore-love’ or ‘fore-appoint. See also Gal 4:9; 1 Cor 8:3. Compare Mt 7:23. Proginsko is used of God’s election or foreordination of Christ in 1 Pet 1:20.
This second sense is also consistent with the biblical view of election. Election does not mean that people choose God, and as a result God chooses them. It means that God chooses people, and as a result they choose him.
Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, art. ‘Foreknowledge, Divine’.
See also Stott’s discussion in The Message of Romans, 248f., and Packer’s, in Concise Theology.