16
Feb
12

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.
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41 Responses to “John Wesley on Predestination”


  1. February 16, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    I have nothing wise to add to this. I just want to say thank you for this very clear and interesting treatment of the topic.

  2. February 16, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Yep, I’m with Craig. Concise and to the point. Great piece!

  3. February 16, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Hi Ken – thanks for the encouragement and thanks for stopping by.

  4. February 16, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    HI James: Can you tell why Wesley chose a parent metaphor over the feudal monarch view of God’s sovereignty? Would you be willing to write about how the feudal monarch view is highly contextual and does not fit the overarching biblical expression of God’s relationship with humanity?

  5. 7 Rob Clements
    February 27, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Nice piece, James. Too bad that TAPGPA doesn’t roll off the tongue like TULIP 🙂

  6. 9 Timbo
    July 23, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Very helpful for me. Thanks so much! God bless you bro!

  7. January 7, 2014 at 10:26 am

    Hi James, this statement is questionable to me: “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.” It’s because according to the scripture, men were enemies of God unless they accept Christ. If Wesley believes that all are children of God, then verses such as John 1:12, 1 John 3:1, even John 8:44 are pointless. But Wesley is just right then, that God, as a loving parent, is inconceivable if He had decreed some of his children to life and others to death because we know that according to the scripture, all His children will be saved.

    • January 7, 2014 at 12:37 pm

      Sorry for the misunderstanding Bernard. What I meant was that Wesley would not accept the idea of God *unconditionally* decreeing some to damnation (that is, without respect to their response of faith). Those who reject Christ reject salvation, in Wesley’s understanding.

  8. 13 Scott Schmitt
    February 2, 2014 at 1:06 am

    Though I largely agree with Wesley, I still don’t understand his interpretation of the scriptures on predestination. Though he ties it to foreknowledge, it is still separate from foreknowledge. What exactly is God determining based on his foreknowledge? Is He sovereignly acting based on this foreknowledge as described by Molina? If so, is He acting for maximum receptivity or is His prevenient grace somewhat unequal in distribution? Is it by God’s design that children born in Iran don’t have the same opportunity to believe as I did or is God just letting sin run its course?

    • February 2, 2014 at 3:28 pm

      Hi Scott,

      The short answer is, no, Wesley is not a Molinist, in my view. I don’t see him saying anywhere that God uses his foreknowledge of all possible scenarios in order to shape history in such a way that people respond in the way that God wants them to respond. I think Wesley might have embraced the idea that God possesses middle knowledge, but not that God uses that to “pre-determine” outcomes. It seems to me that this would basically undermine any real sense of human freedom and responsibility.

      What Wesley does say is that God’s “decree” of predestination is simply to save all who believe, and that he knows who this is, though his knowledge doesn’t determine their belief.

      The most straightforward statement, in my mind, is Sermon 58, “On Predestination.”

      Having said that, I’m not sure if what Wesley says there will satisfy you, because I don’t think he answers some of the questions you’re asking. This isn’t something I’ve looked at in great detail, so others might have more to say.

      Regarding your later question about a child born in Iran – this is something Wesley wrestled with, and I don’t think he had a good answer for it, except to say his belief in the justice of God led him to think that they would not all be condemned, but would be judged according to the way they had responded to whatever measure of grace they had received. He would certainly see prevenient grace operating in such a context. Those who heard the gospel and rejected it would be condemned, but we simply don’t know the fate of those who have never heard the gospel, but we trust them to the just judgment of God. See his comments in par. I.3 of “On Charity.” [http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-91-on-charity]

    • 15 Andy
      February 27, 2014 at 9:38 pm

      Arminians have a lot of trouble reconciling texts like Romans 9, Ephesians 1, etc… While I also agree with Wesley on much of his preaching (enough to name my first born after the man), the Calvinists are right on predestination.

      • February 28, 2014 at 3:10 pm

        Hi Andy,
        Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
        I certainly agree that there are certain texts that *seem* to endorse a Calvinist viewpoint and therefore require more explanation from an Arminian perspective – but I think the opposite is also true. Calvinists have to stretch to explain verses that imply universal atonement, and God’s universal salvific will.
        I would say that a biblical case can be made for either side on this one, so you have to weigh all the evidence and decide for yourself which one you think is more coherent with Scripture’s overall message. If you think the Calvinist view does this better, then it makes sense to endorse that view. I think, on balance, the Arminian view is more faithful to Scripture’s overall message.
        James

      • 17 Scott Schmitt
        March 2, 2014 at 8:57 pm

        I appreciate the positive tone of the comments. Above all, we must stay unified in the Spirit as we seek a deeper understanding of God and His purposes. Based on 1 Tim 2:4 and others, it seems to reason that if the will of man has no bearing on salvation and God’s will is faithfully done as Calvin teaches, then Christian Universalism must be true. However, the teaching of Jesus doesn’t seem to support that.

      • May 21, 2014 at 5:44 am

        I have always read eph 1:5 to be that the predestination is referring to the method , that is, the adoption through Jesus, not the people. At the beginning God had predestined salvation through Christ via adoption.

  9. 19 Andy
    February 27, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    Nice article! Very informative.

  10. 20 Nada van Haeren
    November 17, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    I am mentoring a prisoner/student in the Solomons who is studying under a Calvinist ministry and I wanted to be able to present to him a balance of the love of God and man’s free will, but I was struggling to put it into words that he would understand with the language barrier, so many Thanks for the clarity of thought and aiding my thinking.

  11. 22 Kim Staskus
    February 2, 2015 at 9:58 am

    Wesley was right. It’s God’s character that is the best argument against Calvinism.

  12. 23 Ron Strabley
    February 3, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    If God has a plan for everyone before being born what happens to the babies that are aborted and more importantly what happens to the parents of the aborted child? Is abortion forgivable by God?

  13. 24 Sola Gratia
    February 28, 2015 at 1:05 am

    James,

    First off, I am writing this response to your blog because I am your brother in Christ and since we are united in His death and resurrection we are able, by God’s grace, to discuss and wrestle with God’s Word for His glory and our good. For these reasons, I’d like to respond to your articulation of Wesleyan Arminianism (not the same as 17th Century Arminianism) and in so doing, defend Reformed Theology/Covenant Theology.

    I highly encourage anyone who reads this blog to also read Whitefield’s response (http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/wesley.htm) to Wesley’s sermon titled, “Free Grace”. Whitefield’s response is incredibly loving toward Wesley and incredibly committed to Scripture.

    I was raised in the United Methodist Church and strictly followed and defended Wesleyan Arminianism. Using the same existential arguments as Wesley, I didn’t FEEL like God could be loving and not give everyone a “fair” shot at saving faith. Unconditional election and limited atonement simply did not fit with my definition of God’s character and therefore, my approach to Scripture was clouded by my erroneous understanding of God. To shoot straight, I believe that many Christians simply hold to an Arminian interpretation of Scriptures because of their subjective emotions and not by a systematic and thorough study of Scriptures. I am by no means saying this is true of all Arminian Christians, but it was certainly true of me. You said it perfectly, “Wesley felt”. Dear brother, I don’t really care what Wesley felt or anyone else for that matter, but rather what Scripture clearly states.

    “Wesley agreed with the historic Calvinist position on total depravity.” This statement is simply not true. It is impossible to be true to the doctrine of total depravity, yet defend universal atonement. The two are absolutely inconsistent and incompatible, with or without “prevenient grace” (what the reformers termed “common grace”). This is why 17th Century Arminianism is at least consistent in their argument (“Human Ability” instead of “Total Depravity”), while Wesleyan Arminianism is inconsistent at best. Under Wesley’s argument, all men equally receive a level of common grace that restores a measure of freedom so that all men can respond to God’s grace, yet only some actually respond. What made the difference between the man who believed and the man who chose not to believe? Their parents? Their school? The way the Gospel was packaged and presented by a missionary? If it was something external that made the difference (parents, school, etc.), then how is that “fair”? It’s not the man’s fault for not believing; he didn’t have church-going parents after all! It must have been someone else’s fault that he didn’t come to saving faith. As a Wesleyan Arminian, how is this “fair”? How could “a loving parent decree some of his children to life and others to death”? And by not giving all of “his children” equal external influences to bring about saving faith, isn’t God setting up some to believe and others not to believe? How is this consistent “with God’s justice, as well as His love and goodness”?

    On this point, your response to Scott Schmitt about someone in Iran was grossly unbiblical. “His belief in the justice of God led him to think that they would not all be condemned, but would be judged according to the way they had responded to whatever measure of grace they had received.” Why then did Jesus die on a cross? What was the point of His resurrection? How can you say that people, whether they live in the US or Iran, can be saved without faith in Jesus Christ, in direct opposition to John 14:6, Mark 16:16, Rom 3:21-25, Gal 2:16, Phil. 3:8-9, and countless other texts? James…no one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ, and “no one” truly means “no one”. We must rid ourselves from defining God’s justice and love by what fits our finite/sinful/human definition of “fair”. The reason why Wesley struggled with this question is because his theological construct was not consistent with Scripture.

    If it wasn’t something external, something must have been internally different for the one man to believe and the other man to not believe. Was it different degrees of prevenient grace? No. It was the Holy Spirit’s regenerative work in one man and not the other. “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put in you” (Ezek 36:26-27). “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). This is what the Reformers called effectual grace, the efficacious call of the Spirit, or irresistible grace. If one truly believes that all of man’s nature is corrupt, perverse, and sinful throughout as a result of the Fall (i.e. total depravity), common grace (or prevenient grace) is not sufficient to save. The sinfulness of man extends to EVERY part of man, so that they are “dead in sin” (Gen. 2:16-17; Rom. 5:12; Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 2:13) and “enslaved to his evil nature” (Rom. 6:20; 2 Chron. 6:36; Eccles. 7:20; Jer. 13:23).

    Therefore, if a Wesleyan Arminian claims that prevenient grace is the special workings of the Holy Spirit to draw God’s children to Himself, but yet only some come to saving faith in Christ, then that grace (thus the power of the Holy Spirit) has failed to accomplish God’s purposes. Is God a failure or is He sovereign? If God purposed to save every human, yet only some are saved, then God is a failure and Christ’s death and resurrection meant nothing. For if man is totally depraved, dead in their sin, and enslaved to sin (as Wesley suggests) they are wholly incapable of having saving faith in themselves. But you say, that’s what prevenient grace is for! First off, grace is not an abstract commodity or quality, but the active working principle, manifesting itself in beneficent acts (Gen. 6:8; Gen. 33:15; Ex. 33:12; Esth 2:7). In other words, grace is the active communication of divine blessings by the inner workings of the Holy Spirit! This is why in John 1:16-17 the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of Grace.” Therefore, if all men receive “equal levels” of prevenient grace, yet only some are saved, God is either unjust for not equating the external influences that drive all people to inward faith OR God is not sovereign and His purposes fail. Under this interpretation, when Jesus hung on a cross, He must of had his fingers crossed, hoping that some one at some point would respond to prevenient grace and be saved so that His death would actually accomplish something. But what if all people remained hardened to prevenient grace and no one came to saving faith in Jesus Christ? So much for redemptive history. So much for Old Testament prophecy. So much for the Church.

    You see…Jesus actually accomplished something when he hung on the cross. He certainly didn’t die so that all people could have the option of being saved…HE DIED SO THAT GOD’S CHILDREN WOULD BE SAVED! This is why John 10:14-17 is so amazing!! “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” Who is Jesus speaking of when He says, “I know my own”? Is He speaking of those He foreknew would come to saving faith? This is likely what John Wesley would have argued. However, the word “foreknew” means so much more than what our English translation suggests (i.e. “to know beforehand”). The word “foreknew” is properly translated, “loved with an everlasting love”. This is exactly what the Reformed explanation of predestination states! Those whom God loved with an everlasting love, He predestined to conformity to His Son! It is not that God merely knew beforehand that you would believe; God loved you and chose you before the foundation of the world, not by your own merit, but by His grace and His grace alone! This, my friend, is amazing grace!

    Finally, this brings us to a very stark difference between John Wesley and George Whitefield. One believed that every human was a child of God (Wesley), while the other believed that only God’s elect were and would be adopted as children of God (Whitefield). You wrote, “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 Reformed tradition views God as King, simply put, because He is King! “For God is King of all the earth” (Psalm 47:7). “They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Rev. 17:14). Our Triune God is King and therefore He alone is worthy of worship. God is also the Father of His adopted sons and daughters through the work of Jesus Christ. The Calvinistic tradition does not divorce the Kingship of God from the Fathership of God…to do so would be unbiblical. Back to your quote mentioned above. How could a loving parent, who sent His only Son to die for His children, fail to justify, sanctify, and glorify all of His children? The Reformed answer…He cannot fail to justify, sanctify, and glorify all of His children because Jesus Christ secured their salvation through His life, death, and resurrection. As Jesus said in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”

    This is a very hard point to make, but it is truth and must be known. The unregenerate man is NOT a child of God. “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1-2). “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10). “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). You see…since God is perfectly sovereign, He cannot fail to accomplish His purposes. God set out to save His children (elect) who He chose before the foundation of the world, not by their merit but by His grace. “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4). When Jesus hung on the cross, He knew exactly whom He was dying for and His death and resurrection guaranteed that they would one day confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in their heart that God raised Him from the dead and be saved (Rom. 10:9).

    To bring us back to my original point…John Wesley did not agree with the historic Calvinist position on total depravity. Instead of refuting Wesley with my own words, I will yield to George Whitefield:

    “Says the dear Mr. Wesley, “How uncomfortable a thought is this, that thousands and millions of men, without any preceding offence or fault of theirs, were unchangeably doomed to everlasting burnings?”
    But who ever asserted, that thousands and millions of men, without any preceding offence or fault of theirs, were unchangeably doomed to everlasting burnings? Do not they who believe God’s dooming men to everlasting burnings, also believe, that God looked upon them as men fallen in Adam? And that the decree which ordained the punishment first regarded the crime by which it was deserved? How then are they doomed without any preceding fault? Surely Mr. Wesley will own God’s justice in imputing Adam’s sin to his posterity. And also, after Adam fell, and his posterity in him, God might justly have passed them all by, without sending his own Son to be a saviour for any one. Unless you heartily agree to both these points, you do not believe original sin aright. If you do own them, then you must acknowledge the doctrine of election and reprobation to be highly just and reasonable. For if God might justly impute Adam’s sin to all, and afterwards have passed by all, then he might justly pass by some. Turn on the right hand, or on the left; you are reduced to an inextricable dilemma. And, if you would be consistent, you must either give up the doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin, or receive the amiable doctrine of election, with a holy and righteous reprobation as its consequent. For whether you can believe it or not, the Word of God abides faithful: “The election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded” (Rom. 11:7).”

    Yours affectionate, though unworthy brother and servant in Christ,
    – Jeff Kreisel

  14. November 18, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Both, need faith and any anxious soul can go there. The contribution of faith to the salvation can be equally viewed or maybe more than the two positions.
    “for without faith it is impossible– and is a rewarder of those that earnestly seek him” and all of the Hebrews chapter ( …aware this can fall either way)
    It may be also contributory
    400 years of necessary exegesis has definitivly uncovered enough insights to rest the tension.
    and just maybe some of the historical hyper interpretations and redactionism are not revelation but blur
    So that Mt 11.25, Lk 10. 21 may have a bearing also … you have not revealed to the wise and intellegent–”

    Though a forgiven sinful man always learning to enjoy all that His Spirit has given.

    Oliver

  15. 27 Keith Davis
    January 30, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    Prevenient Grace is like the neighborhood ice cream vendor selling ice cream. All the kids hear the musical tune signifying the arrival. Some come and some do not but all are exposed.Those who come are destined for ice cream. Those who do not are destined for no ice cream. The ice cream vendor knows the names of all the kids, therefore he already knows who will and who will not get ice cream. All the different denominations of Christ centered churches represent the various flavors of ice cream.

    • January 30, 2017 at 4:44 pm

      Interesting analogy, Keith – I’ve never heard that one!

      • 29 oliver
        January 31, 2017 at 3:17 am

        As a child I lived in an out country area in Southren Ireland amongst 98.5 R.C. We did not know that an ice cream van existed. I came to here the Gospel age 25 in mid Europe and when converted I can not say. 45 years later at the age of 70 It has taken that time to prove to myself that I love the things of God …the joy of His Spirit and can say that through that, I am freed from many of the old “dead works”.
        Do you know what it is to describe a persons salvation!
        Some folks need to have reasons and purposes and that can be very good but also we do not have to have reasons or knowledge. Both free grace and predestination are seemiingly in the Word. Can we not exclude one and embrace both.

  16. May 23, 2017 at 8:38 am

    I don’t have the time to respond long to this. I just want to thank you immensely for this article. If I get a chance, I will respond with more description of my gratitude, but thank you again! Oh how I love Jesus!

  17. May 29, 2017 at 8:14 am

    Very helpful for me. Thanks so much!


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