Wesley and Calvin

Posted: March 4, 2012 in John Wesley
Tags: , , ,

I think Wesley answers this pretty clearly. For the greater part of his life, Wesley was vehemently opposed to Calvanism. This is the whole reason for the fallout between him and George Whitefield, who was a staunch proponent of Calvanism. “The Wesleys criticized the notions, so dear to Calvinists, of unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the final perseverance of the saints. Naturally, both pieces upset Whitefield, who responded to these publications over a period of a year and a half” (Maddox 52). However, Wesley and Calvin both start at the same point. Both assert the total depravity of humanity: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But, beyond that point, I do not believe Wesley and Calvin’s successors had much in common. Wesley’s view of God’s grace and election are very different from the Calvanist viewpoint of limited atonement and predestination.

“Wesley [in the sermon Free Grace] totally rejected predestination in all its Calvinist versions… Whitefield, an exciting preacher who was Wesley’s junior by ten years, took for granted that the doctrine of justification by faith stood or fell with the presupposition of irresistible grace… In 1765, Wesley claimed that on the point of justification, he had never differed ‘from [Mr. Calvin] a hair’s breadth’” (Outler 49). Wesley, especially in his later years, recanted against such harsh criticisms leveled at Calvinism. This was not done because he felt he was wrong about predestination, but because there had been a number of Calvanists that had shown to be good, faithful Christians. It would seem that Wesley’s anti-Calvinist bent is based upon perceived dangers of such a doctrine.

For instance, in his sermon Free Grace, Wesley writes, “This doctrine not only tends to destroy Christian holiness, happiness, and good works, but hath also a direct and manifest tendency to overthrow the whole Christian revelation” (54). In other words, it is inconsistent with the Scriptural witness to God’s nature and character. Furthermore, if we are to apply the hermeneutical circle, we could say that these, in Wesley’s mind at least, violated Reason, Scripture, and Experience. Free grace, rather than limited grace, reflected a loving God, consistent with Scriptures and consistent with his personal experience. How could a loving God seriously only predestine some to eternal salvation and others to eternal condemnation? “For it cannot be denied that he everywhere speaks as if he was willing that all men should be saved. Therefore, to say he was not willing that all men should be saved is to represent him as a mere hypocrite and dissembler” (56).

Wesleyanism and Calvinism may have some points of reference in which they are similar. However, the vast majority of their doctrine is in juxtaposition. Their view of God is very different and humanity’s role in salvation is very different. Both sides perceive different dangers in emphasizing one position over the other. For Wesley, Calvinism destroyed free will and proper response in the believer. For Calvinism, Wesleyan-Armenian thought compromised God’s power and work by overemphasizing the human component.


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