Grace and election are at the root of many disagreements among Christians. One of the key question is this: what is the relationship of grace and election to Christ?
What is Grace?
Grace is a relationship with God, specifically a relationship of God's good favor or God's favorable disposition towards a person. According to the Scriptures, grace comes through Christ.
What is Election?
Election is the state of being a member of God's chosen people, which is a state of grace. As an action, election is becoming a member of God's chosen people and entering a state of grace. Election is a spiritual blessing received in Christ. Historically, God's "elect", or God's chosen people, have been those who carry the hope and promise of the redeemer.
Grace, Election, and Ordered Lists of Salvation
The Calvinist school of theology proposes an ordered list of salvation in which election is first and Christ is received second as a result of election. This view supposes that, in election, a sinner has found favor with God prior to Christ. This is important enough that it bears repeating: Calvinists maintain that a sinner has been given God's grace of election logically prior to being given Christ. This is necessary because they maintain that Christ is given only to the elect and died only for the elect; it is necessary to maintain their theological foundation of God's sovereignty. The problem is that this teaches grace apart from Christ.
When it is pointed out that Calvinists teach grace apart from Christ, Calvinists quickly object that Christ is the second step, and that Christ is added to God's election inseparably. But that does not change the fact that Christ is the second step added to some kind of grace already found elsewhere. The grace to receive Christ was not given through Christ, on the Calvinist view, and could not be given through Christ because a person would have to have Christ already to receive blessings through him. If election comes logically before Christ, then this election is a spiritual blessing which did not come through Christ, a state of grace which did not come through Christ. A Calvinist would say God elects people to have Christ. This choosing of people is a grace, and it comes logically before Christ and therefore logically was not contingent upon Christ. Instead Christ is said to be contingent upon this prior grace or favor of God which did not come through Christ. To be sure Christ was added to this previous grace, but was not the cause of this previous grace. In Calvinism, Christ himself accomplishes nothing for the sinner apart from a separate grace of election which brings people to Christ.
This is no minor teaching of the Calvinist school, but the one they proclaim most loudly, this grace prior to Christ, this "sovereign grace." It is often presented as the foundation of that theological worldview: grace prior to Christ, grace which leads to Christ but does not come through Christ. This grace of election cannot come through Christ because a person does not yet have Christ unless this other grace gives him Christ.
But if, as the Scriptures say, grace comes through Christ, then the supposed grace prior to Christ is an illusion. It is a logical construct without reality. The foundation of Calvinist theology is God's sovereignty, particularly an election which does not depend on Christ. It supposes a separate grace of election which comes to a sinner prior to Christ, a separate grace of election without which Christ is of no avail. This is a false foundation, since no other foundation can be laid apart from Christ.
A Word about the Arminians
Arminians are traditional rivals of the Calvinists. But, strangely enough, they stumble at the same point, though in the opposite direction. Where a Calvinist supposes that grace comes prior to Christ based on God's will, the Arminian supposes that grace comes apart from Christ based on man's will. Likewise, Arminians do not allow that it is Christ himself who brings the grace sufficient to receive him. The Arminians around the internet do not present themselves as such a target as the Calvinists, being short on ordered lists and catchy acronyms, and also in popular forums are relatively slow to deny the salvation, education, or reasoning ability of those who spot flaws with their theories. Yet they over-estimate man, or under-estimate the depth of our problems in our current state. And they, too, under-estimate Christ.
Without Calvinism and Arminianism, what is left?
I have met a number of people who are so conditioned by the Calvinist/Arminian debates that they really have no idea that there are other views out there, views that have at least as strong a claim to mainstream status as those two. One camp wonders: If it is not God's eternal decree, a sovereign grace of election that brings people irresistibly to Christ, then what does? Some wonder: If it is not man's will that effects our salvation, then what does? The answer is Christ. If that answer bewilders someone, if someone thinks that Christ is not a sufficient answer for grace and salvation, I would encourage them to think a little longer about Christ. Consider that grace comes through Christ, that Christ is God's Word made flesh, that Christ is the mediator between God and man, that God has chosen Christ and his weakness and foolishness to effect our salvation. When John the Apostle expressed his own "equation" of salvation, he said that God has given us life, and the life is in his Son, so that he who has the son has life, and he who does not have the son does not have life. Someone who looks at Christ but then runs to look elsewhere for his answers about the cause of salvation -- this person has already missed the point by looking for these answers somewhere other than Christ. The answer will not be found elsewhere.
For those already familiar with the ideas here, I'm aware the repetition must be tedious. But because the ideas here are unfamiliar to some, I'll let the reptition stand, even at the risk of being tedious.