A response to a Calvinist brother on predestination

NOTE: this post is in response to a lengthy comment from Jeff Kreisel on my previous post, “John Wesley on Predestination.”  See Jeff’s comment here.



Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my post. I apologize for my slow reply.  I have been swamped the past few weeks with work, and didn’t want to reply too hastily to your comment.

I would also encourage others to read Whitefield’s response, and if they are serious about the debate, to study it in context.  Wesley’s Sermon, “Free Grace” is not one of his better theological writings.  It is very polemical and not as organized as it might have been.  A calmer and clearer statement of his views is found in the Sermon 58, “On Predestination.” A longer treatment of the subject is found in Predestination Calmly Considered. I don’t expect these writings will change your mind, but it is always good to engage with an opposing argument on its best terms.

I can’t respond to all that you’ve said, but let me offer a few thoughts and clarifications.

First, Wesley’s position was certainly not based on mere emotion; perhaps some Wesleyans base their theology on emotion, but I suspect that the same is true of people in every theological camp. Wesley’s view was based on scripture first and foremost, interpreting scripture by scripture in light of the whole “analogy of faith” (the overall biblical message).  It’s not that Wesley simply “felt” Calvinism presented God as unfair; rather, he believed the central message of Scripture is that God is love, as revealed in the gospel of Christ. You may disagree with his interpretations of scripture, but you can’t accuse him of not taking scripture seriously.

5952670-MRe: Calvinism and total depravity – there are some differences, to be sure. Some Wesleyans don’t use the term “total depravity,” though I think it can be applied to Wesley’s view.  My main point is that Wesley agrees with the Reformed tradition that unregenerate humanity is completely helpless and unable to save themselves. Without the grace of God we can only “add sin to sin.”  In our own power, we are not capable of not sinning. Wesley is quite clear on these matters.

One area of difference, however, relates to Wesley’s view of original sin and imputed guilt.  Wesley wholeheartedly affirms that all people are born totally corrupted at birth, and inclined to sin, such that they are not able to turn to God in their own power, as just noted above. He does not support, however, the idea that infants are counted guilty for Adam’s sin.  We are counted guilty for our own sins, which we will inevitably commit because of our inherited corruption. Therefore all are guilty, with the exception of infants and small children who have not reached an age at which they can be held accountable for their actions (though they are still totally corrupted).

Now, in relation to your charge that Wesley is inconsistent, and the question of those who do not have access to the gospel (these two issues are related): Wesley acknowledges that some people (such as himself) have significant advantages in that they have been raised in a Christian environment and have many opportunities to respond to the gospel. That is why he leaves such cases (those who have never heard the gospel) up to the judgment and mercy of God, and believes God will judge them according to the light they have received. And he would make such a case precisely on the basis of God’s justice and love for all. Those who have never heard the gospel would not be damned for rejecting the gospel, since they have never had opportunity to do so; therefore we are not sure how they might be judged, but we leave it in God’s hands. This is not grossly unbiblical, as you charge.  First, he is not saying that they will be saved apart from Christ or Christ’s work on the cross; Wesley was well aware of John 14:6. Rather he is saying that they will be saved by Christ, though they have not known Christ by name in this life (but have responded to the grace that was available to them). Second, in the sermon I noted, he explicitly appeals to Acts 10:34-35 as a scriptural example. We might also note the “holy pagans” or “pagan saints” of the OT as examples of God being mysteriously at work outside the visible bounds of the church (Rahab, Jethro, etc.).

Calvinists such as yourself say that it would be a “failure” of God’s grace if he was to draw someone to himself and yet leave them with the ability to resist God’s grace. We simply have a different understanding of divine and human action; it does not “take away” from God’s agency if human persons are able to resist grace. We cannot compete with God’s agency; this isn’t a tug-of-war.  We can only respond to God because he is at work within us; that means our response is not “work” on our part; and yet because God is at work within us we can respond.  Grace is enabling and transformative by its very nature. In much of this we agree; however, Wesleyans believe that God’s grace enables a genuine human response, which would not be possible if such grace were irresistible. This is the heart of the matter I referred to in my previous point: a sovereignty understood in a monarchist sense, or a sovereignty understood in terms of a loving Parent. It’s not a “failure” because this is God’s purpose – to save those who yield to his gracious work in their lives. God has freely chosen to work in this way with his human creatures, because it accords with his loving and just nature.

Finally, you say that Wesley asserts that every human is a child of God. Perhaps I was sloppy in my own language explaining Wesley’s position. Normally, he only uses the term “child of God” for believers. Indeed, it is a hallmark of his teaching that all Christians should have the assurance of salvation through the Spirit’s witness to their adoption as sons.  He is quite clear that this is the privilege of believers – to know that they are in fact God’s children.  I do not recall, off-hand, if he refers to all people as children of God; there is a sense in which this is the case, since God is the Father of all that lives. And if Wesley ever says something along those lines, I’m sure that is what he meant (simply that God is creator of all and therefore “Father” to all in that sense).  Do you have a reference to Wesley calling all humans children of God?

Perhaps your point is simply that if only believers are properly called children of God, then God’s loving character as Father does not apply to non-believers?  My point in stressing the “Parental” character of God is not to say that therefore all are in God’s Parental favour; it is, rather, simply a point about God’s own character and the way he exercises his sovereignty. The distinction between the “sovereignty of a king” and “sovereignty of a parent” should not be stressed too far, however. I’m not talking about absolute distinctions but differing emphases; Calvinists certainly draw upon parental analogies for God, and Wesleyans certainly draw on monarchist analogies.  But each tends to favour one or the other.

I’m sure I haven’t changed your mind, Jeff; you certainly haven’t changed mine. But I hope these comments clarify some of Wesley’s ideas.

Yours in Christ,


Jerry Walls on “What’s Wrong With Calvinism”

Jerry Walls, well known Wesleyan philosopher, formerly of Asbury Seminary, and now at Houston Baptist University, has put out a useful two-part video on “What’s Wrong with Calvinism.”

This isn’t a full-fledged positive account of the Wesleyan-Arminian position, but rather a philosophical critique of Calvinism.

The take-away point is Walls’s claim that the heart of the difference between Calvinists and Wesleyan-Arminians has to do with the character of God, not the issues of sovereignty and biblical authority as people sometimes assume.   I’ve made a similar point in a previous post here.

Thanks to Kevin Jackson for spreading the word about these videos.

These are well worth a listen.  Both parts together total about 35 minutes.

Updated – he’s added a third part (below) – 23 more minutes on why this debate matters

Here is part 1:

And part 2:

Part 3:

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.