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.
Re: 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,