Wesleyans are often surprised to discover how Reformed John Wesley is in his understanding of original sin and salvation. Conversely, many Calvinists are forced to re-evaluate their simplistic caricatures of Wesley as they examine his theology more closely. For example, John Wesley does not believe people have an inherent power as the result of prevenient grace to exercise saving faith at any given moment, to decide when and where they will commit their lives to Christ, as is implied often in contemporary Wesleyan circles. Likewise, John Wesley is not a Semi-Pelegian—someone who believes human beings retain vestiges of the moral image of God and thus are only partially destitute spiritually (as is often assumed by Calvinists). The fact is there is so much common ground between John Wesley and John Calvin that Wesley himself claimed his position was within a “hair’s breadth” of Calvinism (at least on Justification, though not perhaps on sanctification)[Letter to John Newton, 14 May, 1765].The purpose of our paper is to explore the Calvinism of Wesley, which separates him from many of his heirs in the Wesleyan tradition, and to identify ultimately where he distinguishes himself from the Reformed tradition.
I. THE CALVINISM OF JOHN WESLEY
At the time of John Wesley’s ministry, his church—the Church of England—was thoroughly steeped in Calvinism. A cursory reading of the Anglican Church’s thirty nine Articles of Religion quickly reveals the Church’s doctrine is shaped by the Calvinist tradition with prominent “Reformed Articles” on both free-will and predestination. As an Anglican clergyman the Calvinist influences upon Wesley should be no surprise. The two most visible places of Reformed influence in Wesley’s theology are in his doctrines of original sin and saving faith.
A. The Doctrine of Original Sin
John Wesley was in complete agreement with John Calvin and Martin Luther in his understanding of original sin. Wesley taught that as a result of the Fall the moral image of God (holiness, righteousness, love, and connection or relationship to God) is completely destroyed in humanity. Human beings in their natural state are spiritually dead to God, thoroughly sinful, helpless to change themselves, and incapable of even being aware of their state. If human beings are going to be saved God is the One who must take the initiative. If human beings are to be awakened, convicted of their sin, exercise faith to appropriate the new birth, then God must do the work, because humanity has no internal resources from which to draw to move themselves toward God and progress in the way of salvation.
Furthermore, just as Calvin and Luther believed, Wesley agreed that some vestiges of the “image and likeness of God” remained in humanity after the Fall, allowing for some degree of rationality and understanding to continue to exist in human beings, Wesley taught there are small remnants of the natural image and political image of God remaining, enabling humanity to retain some degree of rationality. However, none of these “vestiges” for Luther, Calvin and Wesley can offer any resources in the work of salvation. On this Luther, Calvin and Wesley agree.
B. Saving Faith a Gift of Divine Grace
With the Reformed tradition of Luther and Calvin, Wesley believed that human beings are saved by grace through faith. However, “faith” from the perspective of all three men is itself a creation of divine grace. Wesley, Calvin and Luther each forcefully contend that “saving faith” is not achieved by trying to believe or even choosing to believe, but it is a gift of God. As a result of original sin, human beings can not work up faith on their own. The best people can do in their sinful state is exercise unbelief, they cannot exercise faith. To “believe” is a gift given to human beings by God—on this Luther, Calvin and Wesley agree.
Like Calvin and Luther, Wesley taught that “saving faith” is a “divine conviction.” Specifically, he believed a person cannot be saved unless the Holy Spirit in a given moment is in that moment drawing, convicting, and convincing a person of salvation in Christ and God’s desire for that individual to be saved (which is, in fact, saving “faith”). A person cannot be saved at any given moment, but only in those moments when God’s grace, the work of the Spirit drawing, convicting, convincing, is happening. If the Spirit is not doing this work, a person cannot come to Christ.
For example, John Wesley describes his Aldersgate experience as having his heart “strangely warmed.” As a result he testifies, “I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins. He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Wesley’s “faith” here was not so much an action he took, rather it was something happening inside of him, a divine work creating an internal conviction that Christ loved him. It is his heart being acted upon by an outside force that created personal faith in Christ. This understanding of Wesley’s experience is substantiated further by the fact that before Aldersgate, John Wesley had already been convinced by Peter Bohler that salvation was “by grace through faith,” and he had begun to preach this message before Aldersgate. In a sense, Wesley was intellectually convinced of the truth, but he still struggled with belief until his Aldersgate experience. For Wesley, it is grace, or the work of the Spirit, that convinces human hearts. It is grace that creates faith in human hearts. ON this he agrees with Luther and Calvin.
If human beings are totally dependent upon God’s grace for “saving faith” the question must be asked, “How does God communicate His grace to people?” Again, Wesley answers with Calvin and Luther that God communicates his grace through the “means of grace.” Primarily the means of grace are delineated in the Protestant marks of the Church – the preaching of the “pure word of God, the due administration of the sacraments, and the community rightly ordered.” While Wesley did not believe these were the only means of grace, these were the primary means by which God communicates grace to individuals and communities. As people are exposed to the means of grace or as they place themselves in the flow of the means of grace (as they hear the Gospel, partake in baptism and Holy Communion, and participate in the Body of Christ), grace capable of creating saving faith is made available.
However, in contrast to the Roman Catholic tradition (which teaches that grace is always communicated to the recipients of the means of grace) John Wesley along with the Reformers did not believe that participation in the means of grace always guarantees the transmission of grace to each participant. More specifically, the means of grace were seen as the most likely places for God to transmit His grace but there is no assurance that grace will be given. Therefore, not every time the Gospel is preached, the sacraments duly administered, and the community rightly ordered is grace communicated. There are times when the Gospel is preached, when “little” or “nothing” happens, while there are other times when God is working to draw, convict, and convince a person or people through the means of grace. John Wesley agrees essentially with Luther and Calvin on the means of grace.
II. JOHN WESLEY’S DIFFERENCES WITH CONTEMPORARY WESLEYANISM AND CALVINISM
While John Wesley is a “hair’s breadth” from Calvinism he does have some differences. And one might note that he may be considerably more than a hair’s breadth different from contemporary Wesleyans. The “Calvinism of John Wesley” becomes readily apparent as Wesley’s theology is compared with contemporary Wesleyan evangelicalism. However, as closely aligned as Wesley is to both Calvinism, and modern evangelical Wesleyans there are areas of major disagreement with both.
A. Wesley’s Differences with Calvinism
Predestination. Calvin and Luther argue that God takes the initiative to save by arbitrarily selecting certain people for salvation, and relegating the rest to damnation. Only those who have been elected for salvation can be converted. Salvation is not available or possible to all. Here John Wesley goes in a fundamentally different direction than Calvin and Luther. First, Wesley states that God takes the initiative in saving human beings through the gift of prevenient grace given to every person, enabling the possibility for anyone to be saved. Thus Wesley displaces predestination with prevenient grace which enables a person to respond when God’s saving grace comes.
Irresistible grace. Calvin and Luther argue that God’s electing grace is “irresistible.” Human beings to Luther and Calvin do not have a say in their election to either salvation or damnation. There is no cooperation between human beings and God and human beings cannot resist the sovereign God’s grace when it comes. Wesley parts company with Calvin and Luther here. Wesley understands grace as “resistible”—a person can either receive or resist the grace that creates conviction, repentance, and faith. As moments of opportunity to “believe” happen as people are placed (or place themselves) in the means of grace, and the Spirit of God brings conviction, repentance, and is creating faith—people can choose to cooperate with what God is doing or not. However, if they choose not to cooperate in that given moment, there is no guarantee another moment—the moment in which God is drawing, convicting and convincing—will happen again. To Wesley people can not have saving faith without divine grace from God, but Wesley argues that people can reject or resist this grace from God. Though Wesley claimed he was a “hair’s breadth” from Calvinism these two points of disagreements are the width of that hair.
B. Wesley’s Differences with Contemporary Wesleyanism
However John Wesley does not just have differences with Calvinism, a hair’s breadth though it may be. He also has considerable differences from contemporary Wesleyans. John Wesley agrees with contemporary Wesleyans that God gives to every person the gift of prevenient grace and that prevenient grace makes possible the potential for every person to be saved. However, Wesley disagrees with contemporary Wesleyans on two intertwined and important matters as well: the basic nature of prevenient grace and when a person can be saved.
Contemporary Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicalism either implies or explicitly teaches that faith is an inherent power within human beings as a result of the prevenient grace given to all of humanity. As such, human beings have the ability in any given moment to exercise their will to believe the Gospel and be saved. From this perspective, people at any time may hear the Gospel, weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the argument offered and chose to follow Christ. Thus, faith and a personal response to the Gospel, is primarily something a person does. They believe. They decide. They receive. To contemporary Wesleyans human beings have this power to decide as a result of prevenient grace—a blanket of grace given to all humans everywhere enabling them to move toward God and exercise faith in any given moment.
Wesley disagrees. This contemporary understanding is a fundamental misappropriation of Wesley’s teaching on prevenient grace. Prevenient grace, to Wesley is primarily a restoration of humanity’s responsiveness to grace not the granting of the power to believe. To Wesley prevenient grace brings to power to respond to grace, not the power to believe. Wesley would say that as a result of prevenient grace human beings are able to cooperate with further offers of grace by God—not that they had the power to believe when they heard the gospel. For Wesley prevenient grace in itself does not restore to people the ability to exercise faith, much less express repentance—these are works of God not men and women. Prevenient grace enables a person to cooperate with God’s grace made available through the means of grace that seeks to convict a person of sin, convince a person of the need for Christ, and create saving faith. Thus, to Wesley all prevenient grace enables a person to do is choose to cooperate with these further works of grace or not. Grace from this perspective is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. As the Gospel is being shared, grace is at work inside people, a work that is not humanly generated but of God and it is drawing people, convincing people of the truth that Christ died for them, and compelling them to give their lives to Christ. As such, faith is not a human act so much as a result of cooperating with the “grace” of God at work in people. All people have done in the moment of conversion is cooperate with what is being wrought in them. To Wesley the choice is not to believe or not, it is to resist or submit to God’s grace. Unless the Spirit is working, true saving faith is not possible. As such, only in moments when the Holy Spirit is enabling saving faith in an individual can a person be converted. This is why Wesley can state, “any man may come (to be saved), but not whenever he wants.”
In summary, John Wesley is often misunderstood by those who are his most severe critics and by those who claim to be his theological heirs. However, in today’s theological world Wesley can seem to be closer to the Reformed tradition than the very theological tradition that bears his name!
Again, while Wesley agrees with Luther and Calvin and contemporary Wesleyans on many matters, he differs on some from both: Wesley’s position is:
– Because of the extent of original sin, human beings are completely dependent upon God for the work of salvation – in conviction, repentance, and faith.
– A person can not be saved at any moment the person chooses, but only in those moments in which grace is being offered capable of creating saving faith.
– The only part a person plays in the work of salvation is to place themselves in the means of grace and then when that grace that can create saving faith comes choose to cooperate with it.
– However, even this work of human cooperation is in itself a gift of prevenient grace.
“faith is the work of God; and yet it is the duty of man to believe. And every man may believe if he will, though not when he will. If he seeks faith in the appointed ways, sooner or later the power of the Lord will be present, whereby (1) God works, and by his power (2) man believes.” Letter to Isaac Andrews, January 4, 1784 Letters of John Wesley 7:202
This post was written bt Chris Bounds & Keith Drury
Chris Bounds is Assistant Professor in Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University where he teaches theology courses.
Keith Drury is Associate Professor of Religion at Indiana Wesleyan University where he teaches practical ministry.
You can find this post on the Society of Evangelical Arminians website: here
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