John Wesley on the Character of God

As a follow up to last week, I was asked to expand upon the rationale behind Wesley’s choice of the “loving Parent” model of God, as opposed to the “ruling monarch” model.    I suggested, following Randy Maddox, that the fundamental difference between Calvin and Wesley on predestination is not found in their respective views of the human condition, as is often thought, but in their understandings of the character of God.

Maddox writes,

…the Wesleys sensed their most basic disagreement with their opponents to lie in their respective defining models of God.  For the Calvinists, the defining model was a sovereign monarch…By contrast, Wesley more commonly employed the model of a loving parent (Responsible Grace56).

Why is it that Wesley favours the “loving Parent” model over the “ruling monarch” model?

First of all, Wesley favours the “loving Parent” model because wants to avoid abstracting God’s sovereignty from God’s loving and just character.  This is seen in his rejection of the voluntarist understanding of God’s goodness, which was favoured by the Reformers, and is part of a fundamental and longstanding theological debate concerning the character of God, and how we understand God’s goodness.   To put it in a nutshell, this debate can be summed up in a question: are God’s acts good simply because whatever God wills is good by definition, or are God’s acts good because they conform to “the good”?  In other words, is there a standard of “goodness” to which we can meaningfully expect God to conform, or must we insist on the radical freedom of God, such that he is not bound by any external criteria?

Wesley himself puts the question this way in Sermon 34, “The Original, Nature, Properties and Use of the Law.”

Is his will the original [that is, the origin] of right and wrong? Is a thing therefore right, because God wills it? Or does he will it because it is right? (§III.6)

The voluntarist position argues that things are good because God wills them, and that whatever God does is good by definition.  We are in no place to make judgments about whether or not God’s actions are good.  Roger Olson sums up the crassest version of this position in the phrase “God can do whatever he jolly well pleases.”

The non-voluntarist, or realist (recognizing that these terms can be used in different senses in the context of other debates), says that things are good because they are good, and that God’s actions are good because God’s eternal nature conforms to a real standard of goodness. For a non-voluntarist, God cannot do that which is evil.  God’s eternal nature is good, and even God cannot violate his own nature.

If you want to read more about this debate, check out these two posts by Roger Olson: “A much neglected basic choice in theology” and “More about the basic choice in theology

Wesley’s doesn’t wade into this debate in great depth in his writing, but when he does address it he is clear that he rejects the voluntarist position, because he believes it takes the question of God’s will in abstraction from the question of God’s character.  Continuing in Sermon 34, his comment is,

It seems, then, that the whole difficulty arises from considering God’s will as distinct from God: otherwise it vanishes away (§III.7).

In a later piece entitled “Thoughts upon God’s Sovereignty” he stresses that God’s sovereign work as Creator must not be played off against his work as a just Governor.  While, as a Creator, “he has acted, in all things, according to his own sovereign will,” in his role as Governor, he always acts in accordance with the rules of justice and mercy.  Remarking on the differences of circumstances that are found among people born into different nations around the world and at various points in history, Wesley states,

It is hard to say how far this difference extends; what an amazing difference there is, as to the means of improvement, between one born and brought up in a pious English family, and one born and bred among the Hottentots.  Only we are sure the difference cannot be so great, as to necessitate one to be good, or the other to e evil; to force one into everlasting glory, or the other into everlasting burnings.  This cannot be, because it would suppose to the character of God as a Creator, to interfere with God as a Governor; wherein he does not, cannot possibly, act according to his own mere sovereign will; but, as he has expressly told us, according to the invariable rules both of justice and mercy (in The Works of John Wesley, 3rd Edition, ed. Thomas Jackson, vol. 10, p. 362).

God’s character, in other words, is bound to real universal standards of justice and mercy.  Wesley rejects the Calvinist approach to predestination because he believes that their position violates God’s love and justice.

The “loving Parent” model of God offers a better way to understand God as one who “rules” but can, at the same time, always be trusted to act in a way that is just and loving towards his children.

Secondly, Wesley favours the “loving Parent” model of God because it supports a more robust understanding of grace-enabled human freedom.  The “ruling monarch” model suggests a sovereignty that is defined by the will of the monarch, who is not to be defied by his citizens.  On the other hand, a loving Parent’s authority over their child is not threatened by some degree of freedom in the child.

The Calvinist tradition often stresses that their understanding of predestination furthers the “glory of God,” by affirming a salvation which is unconditionally caused by God’s eternal predestination the elect.   Wesley would argue that leaving room for uncoerced human response does not detract from God’s glory, if the response is grace-enabled.   God’s “glory” is not the pure power of his will, but the glorious way in which he wills that which is just  and loving.

In connection with this point, Maddox helpfully suggests that Wesley views God’s sovereignty “fundamentally in terms of empowerment, rather than control or overpowerment” (p. 55).   He continues,

“While a sovereign monarch might technically be free to dispose of subjects as he or she sees fit, a loving parent would not even consider withholding potential saving aid from any child (i.e., unconditional reprobation or limited atonement).  On the other hand, truly loving parents also respect the integrity of their children.  Ulitmately, they would not impose their assistance against the (mature) child’s will (Resonpsible Grace, 56)

In short, Wesley favours the “loving Parent” model because he views God’s sovereignty primarily through the lens of love, rather than through the lens of the divine will.  The following passage  from Sermon 94, “On Family Religion,” highlighted by Maddox, offers a good conclusion to this discussion.  In this context, Wesley us offering parents an example regarding how they should teach their own children about God’s love, using the analogy of their own parental love and care:

But God (though you cannot see him) is above the sky, and is a deal brighter than the sun!  It is he that makes the grass green and the flowers grow; that makes the trees green, and the fruit to come upon them!  Think what he can do!  He can do whatever He pleases. He can strike me or you dead in a moment.  But he loves you; he loves to do you good.  He loves to make you happy. Should you not then love him!  you love me, because I love you and do you good.   But it is God that makes me love you.  Therefore you should love him (§III.6, emphasis mine).

John Wesley on Predestination

All his life, John Wesley stood within the tradition of English Arminianism, but from the early days of the Methodist revival, his position on predestination became a particularly important and divisive issue.  Of course, his relationship with George Whitefield was the background of the controversy, since Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist.  While they began their conversations about predestination in private, it wasn’t long before “pamphlet warfare” flared up as each side began to publish sermons and open letters advocating for their positions.  Wesley and Whitefield were able to reconcile to a certain extent, but the passionate and fiery debates made their mark on their relationship, and the Methodist movement as a whole.

The history of the controversy, which flared up three times during Wesley’s lifetime, is interesting in and of itself, but in this post I’m not going to go into those details.  Rather, I’m going to talk about two key areas of concern that motivated Wesley in his strident defense of the Arminian position, and then offer a basic summary of Wesley’s position.

The first key concern had to do with the character of God.   It is a mistake to think that Wesley’s rejection of unconditional election was rooted in an optimistic view of human nature, as opposed to a more robust Calvinist understanding of depravity.  Wesley agreed with the historic Calvinist position on total depravity.  As Randy Maddox writes,

“the fundamental difference between Wesley and his Calvinist opponents really lies more in their respective understandings of the nature of God than in their evaluation of the human situation.” (Responsible Grace, p. 55-56).

Wesley felt that the idea of absolute unconditional predestination by divine decree was inconsistent with God’s justice, as well as his love and goodness.

This fundamental difference can also be seen in the respective ways in which the Calvinist and Wesleyan traditions have approached the question of divine sovereignty.

Generally speaking, the Calvinist tradition has seen sovereignty through the model of a ruling monarch, whereas Wesley conceived of sovereignty primarily through the model of a loving parent.

The monarch’s power over his subjects is conceived primarily as an exercise of “will,” and hence the fact that some are saved while others are not is explained by recourse to a decision of the divine will for Calvinists.  On the other hand, the parent’s power over their children is conceived primarily as an exercise of love, and from this Wesleyan perspective it is inconceivable that a loving parent would eternally decree some of his children to life and others to death.

Wesley’s second key concern related to the character of the Christian life. Wesley worried about the pastoral effect of preaching a Calvinist approach to predestination, feeling that it would lead to antinomianism.  If salvation is unconditionally established by an eternal decree, why would any of us concern ourselves with obedience and discipleship?

Wesley felt the Calvinist approach undercut the pursuit of holiness, because the connection between God’s gift and our response is marginalized.  In his 1739 sermon, “Free Grace,” which ignited the first round of public controversy with Whitefield, Wesley wrote,

“So directly does this doctrine tend to shut the very gate of holiness in general, to hinder unholy men from ever approaching thereto, or striving to enter thereat.” Sermon 110 [number 128 in the older Jackson numbering], “Free Grace,” §11.

It was on the basis of these two areas of concern that Wesley advocated for his evangelical Arminian position on predestination, which can be outlined in the following six points:

  • Total depravity is affirmed by Wesley, meaning that the fallen human being is completely helpless and in bondage to sin.  This means, contrary to popular misconception, Wesley does not believe that fallen human beings have an inherent freedom of the will.
  • The atonement is universal in scope.  Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world, not only an elect few, as proposed by five-point Calvinism.
  • Prevenient grace is universally available to all, restoring a measure of freedom so that the human being can respond to God’s grace.  This is how Wesley could affirm that all human persons were free to respond to God’s grace – but note that the freedom which humans possess is a measure of freedom (not libertarian freedom) and is by grace, not an inherent endowment that is retained in fallen humanity.
  • Grace is resistible and can be rejected, to our own destruction.  God is actively drawing all people to himself, but his grace is not coercive.
  • Predestination is therefore based on God’s foreknowledge, not his will.  That is, God corporately predestines all those who respond in faith to salvation, and by foreknowledge he knows who will respond.  His foreknowledge does not cause their response.
  • Assurance of salvation is given by the Holy Spirit, who witnesses directly to our adoption as children of God through Christ, and is also confirmed indirectly by the fruit of the Spirit.

Why heresy matters is running a series of articles I wrote for them on heresies in the early church.  The print version of the series is already completed (it ran from August to January), but they are rolling out the articles online now.

The point of the series was to describe why these heresies were rejected by the early church, but also to show how the process of struggling with each heresy helped to shape the development of orthodox Christian belief.  So I opened the first article by saying,

Believe it or not, Christians owe a lot to heretics. The word “heresy” comes from a Greek word meaning “choice.” A heretic is someone who chooses to believe something that is in contradiction to official church doctrine. But church doctrine has developed gradually over time, and some of the most important doctrinal developments were made precisely in order to exclude particular heresies.

My other agenda in the series was to show the ongoing relevance of ancient heresies, by suggesting ways in which “shadow versions” of each heresy show up repeatedly in the church’s life.

Knowing the history of heresy is important because heresies have a habit of cropping up again and again, sometimes in less obvious forms. Some psychologists argue that otherwise mentally healthy people struggle with so-called “shadow disorders”—mild forms of serious mental illnesses that show up in subtle ways most of us wouldn’t even recognize. Knowing the history of heresy will help us to identify the “shadow heresies” that may crop up in our own thinking and teaching from time to time.

While I think the study of heresy is very important, addressing heresy in the contemporary church can be a tricky issue, particularly in light of the wide diversity that exists within Christian theology today.  On the one hand, as I’ve suggested before, no one wants unlimited diversity of belief in the church, even though it is trendy in our culture to celebrate “diversity” in all its forms.  On the other hand, some people are too paranoid about heresy, and end up finding heretics lurking behind every corner.

For my part, I tried in this series to point out that early church heresies were excluded because they were perceived to pose a threat to the preaching of the gospel.  These were not merely academic debates, but part of the church’s ongoing struggle to remain faithful to Jesus Christ and to proclaim salvation truthfully.

These are very short articles, and I’ll confess that I often found it difficult to do justice to the issues at stake in such a short space.  If you are looking for theological nuance, you won’t find it in this series.  However, if you’re looking for a brief overview of early church heresies along with some comment on their ongoing relevance, I think you’ll find the series worth your time.

Head over to and you can read the introductory article, “Thank God for Heretics,” along with the articles on Pelagianism and Monophysitism.   I’ll add links here to the articles on Gnosticism, Modalism, and Arianism as they are posted.

Why “developing a personal relationship with Jesus” might be a bad idea

One of the most common catchphrases you will hear in evangelical Christian circles is “developing a personal relationship with Jesus.”   It’s a phrase that gets used often as a way to underscore the importance of having a living faith, rather than a faith that is merely based on assent to certain ideas, or participation in certain church practices.   Often it seems, in my experience, that “buidling a personal relationship with Jesus” is the proposed solution to innumerable problems and challenges facing Christians today.

I’m a little bit skeptical of the phrase, because, for starters, I’m skeptical of anything that is proposed as solution for all my problems.   Secondly, I wonder what people mean when they talk about a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  The phrase is so over-used that I think people don’t stop to think about what they are saying.

When most people talk about their “personal relationship” with Jesus, it seems to imply something like a relationship between two best friends.  Often “developing your personal relationship” means “spending time” with Jesus in prayer and personal Bible study.   For most people I think they see this as kind of  like having some “getting to know you” time with God.

If this is a true reflection of what evangelicals mean by “developing a personal relationship with Jesus,” I think it can be problematic.

I worry that evangelicals can let a kind of “works righteousness” in through the back door by placing so much emphasis on personal devotion.   It seems to cast the relationship in a rather one-sided way; it seems it’s up to us to “develop” a relationship with God.  I think the gospel says something quite different: God reaches out and establishes a relationship with us, even while we are rebellious sinners who don’t care at all about him.   If our relationship with God is based on whatever we have “developed,” I think we’re in deep trouble.  That’s far too shaky a foundation.

I think we need to be clear that we do not put our trust in the relationship we have developed with Jesus – our trust is in Jesus himself.  This is another way of saying, we don’t trust our trust, because this comes at the question from the human side, and can end up leaving the impression that our relationship is something we develop and contribute to salvation. Faith is more radically outward-focused than that. We trust in Christ alone. We bring nothing to the table, even if we’ve been a Christian for decades.

So, to have “personal” faith is not so much about being on familiar terms with Jesus, in the way we might conceive of a personal relationship which develops between friends (although trusting in Christ alone will likely lead towards something like that over time); it is personal because we, as persons, trust in the person of Christ.

If our personal relationship with Christ “develops,” it’s not so much that we develop it, but that it develops in us by the Spirit as we put our trust daily in Christ alone – that is, as we continue to trust that Christ will be faithful to us, even as our meagre devotion to him remains tainted by sin.

So, I think, if I was to use this over-used phrase, I would want to be very clear that the personal relationship we have with Jesus is the fruit of our outwardly-focused trust in the person of Christ, rather than the foundation.  This is a subtle distinction, but I think it is an important one.