“Why is it that some people respond to the gospel message and others do not?”
Whilst we come to different conclusions with our answers, there is still unity in the question. There is unity in us both seeking God in prayer, Bible study, and theological reflection to wrestle with this problem. The fact is, this is an eternal mystery, and while I find more satisfaction in the Arminian explanation compared to a Calvinist one, I still do not pretend that I am right and a Calvinist answer is wrong. Like two witnesses standing on opposite sides of a car accident, each side will never be able to give a “complete” account of this, or any, doctrinal statement. Even more so if we refuse to engage in dialogue about it.
For Arminians the problem, as I see it, is this; when we read the two passages (and yes, there’s only two) that use the term “predestined” (Ephesians 1 and Romans 8) we apply what I call an “editorial hermeneutic”. That is, we mentally delete the word “predestined” or “elected” so that it fits with our system of thought. This is wrong. We do not form Scripture, it forms us. We do not apply our system of theology and make the Scriptures fit with it, the Scriptures are the Word of God and we listen to the Spirit speaking through them and our theology is formed through that process. This is why, in The Salvation Army, our first doctrine affirms that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the divine rule of Christian faith and practice. Period. So how do we need to change our system of theology to include predestination within it? Well, in fact we don’t really. We just need to recapture historical Arminianism which has always had a place for predestination.
You see when the “Remonstrants” who presented the five points of contention to the Synod of Dort in the early 1600’s (which incidentally is how the “Five Points of Calvinism” TULIP came about – in response to the “Five Points of Arminianism”) they included an understanding of predestination called "conditional predestination". Conditional predestination suggests that God predestines those who, in grace-enabled faith, respond to the gospel message. This is a “corporate” predestination (the “faithful” are saved, the “unfaithful” are not), compared to the “individual” predestination of Calvinism (this “person” is saved by God's decree, that “person” is not). The “condition” of predestination in Arminianism is a grace-enabled faith response to the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (“how” we are enabled to respond in this way is a discussion for another day). This understanding is a positive understanding of this doctrine. It enables Arminians to read the passages concerned without mentally deleting those words which they do not like. So as an Arminian, I gladly say that “I believe in predestination.”
There is yet a more important point, though. Read both the Ephesians 1:3-6 and Romans 8:29-30. In both instances (and remember these are the only time the term “predestined” is used) it is in reference to being predestined to holiness (“holy and blameless” and “conformed to the likeness of his Son”). Rarely, if ever, when discussions take place in regard to predestination do I hear this mentioned. This is good news. This is why I believe we need to recapture a positive use of “predestination” terminology within Arminian theology, and particularly in the “Wesleyan” tradition because predestination is about holiness, not just salvation/justification. Remember, “it is God’s will that you should be sanctified” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). So if I could summarise a Wesleyan-Arminian understanding of predestination it would be this:
God predestined those who respond by His grace, through faith, to the Gospel message to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, holy and blameless in his sight. It is God’s will that his people be sanctified.