Tag Archives: John Wesley

Worse than Pelagians? Why We Need A Savior

Throughout the history of the church, there have been many times and many people who have disparaged and denied the doctrine of original sin. Most famously an ascetic British monk called Pelagius insisted, in a nutshell, that human descendants of Adam do not share in the guilt of Adam’s sin, nor was humanity left morally debilitated through any corruption of its nature. According to Pelagius humans were only negatively affected by the bad example of Adam. With the better example of Jesus and proper instruction in the law of God, Pelagius believed that humans after the fall of Adam are capable of living morally upright lives apart from any special grace from God.

We know of Pelagius’ teachings through the writings of St. Augustine, who challenged him, and by way of Pelagius’ commentary on St. Paul. In countering Pelagius and his followers, Augustine insisted that the fall of Adam had indeed corrupted the nature of all of humanity rendering every individual completely dependent upon the mercy and grace of God to be redeemed. Augustine spent much time exegeting and expounding on Romans 5, among many other passages of scripture, in countering the teachings of Pelagius. Augustine defended and elaborated on the doctrine of original sin, which makes the grace of justification and regeneration necessary.

Pelagius and St. Augustine

There are some who act as if Augustine just made up the doctrine of original sin whole cloth. Pelagianism, the idea that human nature is still basically good and unaffected by original sin, continues to be a challenge for the Church. I was amazed to see that during the last United Methodist General Conference, one seminary professor explicitly stated on social media that he hoped the Pelagian United Methodists (i.e. progressives) would win out over the Augustinians (conservatives). Others have denounced the doctrine of original sin as harmful. Danielle Shroyer says, “As a pastor and now a writer, I want to help people grow into a mature relationship with God. I just don’t think original sin is helpful in doing that; in fact I think it’s very often harmful.”

I do think it is important to understand, as Augustine would agree, that humans were created good in the image of God. When Augustine said humans were sinners by nature he clarified that he meant human nature was corrupted by sin not by God’s design. But human nature corrupted by sin leads to immorality and misery. Throughout history periods of excessive optimism about human goodness have been punctuated by exclamation marks of tremendous human evil. As Proverbs 16:18 says: “Pride goes before destruction,and a haughty spirit before a fall” (ESV). Yet the excessive optimism continues to resurface; the denials of the doctrine of original sin persist.

At a conference last month—a conference sponsored by Duke Divinity school and attended by both bishops in the state of NC with many district superintendents present— another seminary professor gave her spin on the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3. For one, she insisted that Adam and Eve and the terms translated man and woman (Hebrew: ish and isha) in the latter half of Gen 2:23 don’t just mean male and female, those terms refer to unity in diversity in all of life’s generic variety. It’s not really a story of God’s design for marriage (pay not attention to Gen 2:24-25 or what Jesus said in Matt 19:4-6 and Mark 10:5-9). The professor went on to say, supposedly on the authority of St. Irenaeus, that these two humanoid units of generic diversity were not mature adults; they were immature and innocent children. Therefore, she said the story in Genesis 3 is not a story about original sin; rather it is a story about “original wounding” as Adam and Eve were children who were abused by the serpent. WOW! Adam and Eve were the original victims not perpetrators of sin!

Irenaeus, a second century Church Father, did say that Adam and Eve were created as children and had to mature into adulthood, but in that same context he also clearly acknowledged the sin of Adam and Eve. In comparing the disobedience of Eve and with the obedience of Mary that led to the virgin conception and birth of Jesus the Messiah and Savior, Irenaeus said:

. . . [Eve] having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race.  ~ Against Heresies 3:22:4

Irenaeus also argued against the claim that Adam was not saved by Christ. He said it is absurd to believe that Adam would not have also been saved by Christ along with his descendants who had been begotten by him in the same captivity (Against Heresies 3:23:2). He is talking about the entire human race who was born into the spiritual captivity of the devil. Ephesians 2:1-4, a key text for Augustine in the 5th century, generations after Irenaeus, puts it this way:

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—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. Eph 2:1-4

In comparing and contrasting the tree of life in the garden with the new tree of life, the cross of Calvary, and in arguing that Jesus was the Word of the same God the Father who had given the commandment to Adam in the garden, Irenaeus also expressed the complicity of the entire human race in the sin of Adam.

by which things He clearly shows forth God Himself, whom indeed we had offended in the first Adam, when he did not perform His commandment. In the second Adam, however, we are reconciled, being made obedient even unto death. For we were debtors to none other but to Him whose commandment we had transgressed at the beginning. ~ Against Heresies 5:16:3 (emphasis mine)

The professor reads Irenaeus the same way she reads the Bible, selectively and out of context. To buy the assertion that the story in Genesis 2-3 is a story about “original wounding” and not “original sin” (which many have, hook, line, and sinker) you have to ignore so much of what the text actually says. You have to ignore the fact that God gave Adam a commandment with a serious warning of judgment (Gen 2:16-17). Adam and Eve disobeyed the command at the temptation of the serpent (Gen 3:6). As a result of their disobedience they were judged by God as was the serpent, and they were exiled from the garden of Eden to a life of suffering in a world under a curse (Gen 3:14-24). We should also note that this is a pattern that Israel would  fall into also. Israel was adopted into God’s covenant family and given commandments. They were promised blessing in the promised land if they obeyed; they were warned about the cursing that disobedience would bring. Eventually, disobedience led to Israel being exiled from the promised land. Why? Because of sin. Israel along with the rest of the world was still under the power of sin in Adam as Paul argues in Romans (Rom 3:9; Romans 5).

The professor’s spin on Gen 2-3 is far worse than the false teaching of the Pelagians, which the United Methodist Articles of Religion condemn. Article VII says:

Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.

Although Wesley did speculate that Augustine may have overstated the actual views of Pelagius in the heat of debate, he insisted that to deny the doctrine of original sin is to deny biblical Christianity and to remain in paganism (See Sermon 44 “Original Sin” and Wesley’s treatise “On Original Sin”). Pelagius’ view was apparently more influenced by Stoic philosophy than the Bible. The professor mentioned above seems to be more influenced by what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called moralistic therapeutic deism, as well as postmodern progressive gender ideology. In both cases the Biblical data is forced into pagan paradigms. The interpretation of the professor, who is also a United Methodist elder, is far worse because she not only denies that Adam’s descendants share in the guilt of Adam’s sin and inherit a corrupted human nature as a result; she denies that Adam and Eve themselves were guilty of any sin at all!

Whereas some apparently feel free to read into scripture just about anything they want, Augustine and Wesley both sought to make their case from and under the authority of scripture. Wesley knew that original sin is the reason we need justification and new birth. The doctrines of justification by faith, the new birth, entire sanctification, and glorification in resurrection all assume the doctrine of original sin.

The Bible reveals our great need for help. We need much more than a good example and sound instruction. A central promise of the new covenant reveals just how serious our need is, namely the promise of a new heart. Around the time of Israel’s exile Jeremiah and Ezekiel both pick up on the promise of God in Deut 30:6. The promise is that after the time of Israel’s exile God would circumcise his people’s heart so they would love him with all their heart and soul. Jeremiah calls this the new covenant when God would write his laws on his people’s heart (Jer 31:31ff). Ezekiel describes it like a heart transplant when God would remove the calloused, hardened hearts of his people and give them a new heart and a new spirit of obedient love along with his very own Spirit  (Ezk 35:26-27). As Christians we believe this promise is fulfilled by Jesus the Messiah and received by faith in him. As Isaiah 53:5 puts it, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”

We need a new heart in Christ because there is something wrong with the one we have in Adam. We need healing because we are sick, sin sick because of a hardened heart and the corrupted desires that go with it. As Jeremiah 17:9 puts it, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” The human heart is deceitful enough to convince us that we are fine just the way we are. As Jesus implied, no one is as spiritually blind as the one who thinks they can see just fine without his healing touch! (John 9:39-40)

Thankfully by the grace of God in Christ Jesus through faith we have hope “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).

We need more than a good example and instruction. We need more than a great teacher; we need the Great Physician because we need healing! We need more than forgiveness for following bad examples; we need new birth! We need more than a life coach; we need a savior! Thankfully we have one. His name is Jesus, the Son of God, the risen Lord.

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His Wings.
Now He lays His Glory by,
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth. . . . .

Charles Wesley “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”



The End of the Wesleyan Way of Salvation

The following is a very slightly modified excerpt from a paper I recently completed. This is why God the Father sent his Son into the world.

John Wesley’s refined soteriology is marked by very subtle nuances and distinctions along his via salutis (Way of Salvation); as a result it is also holistic in that he does not emphasize justification at the expense of sanctification, what God does for us and what God does in us.[1] Yet in his sermon on “The Way of Salvation” he alludes to the concept that sums up greater still what is the end of the way of salvation, namely to be renewed in the image of God, which he describes Christologically by alluding to Phil 2:5 as “the mind which was in Christ Jesus.”[2]

We should not underestimate how important renewal in the image of God was for John Wesley’s soteriology. In his sermon on “Original Sin” Wesley did not mince words:

Ye know that all religion which does not answer this end, all that stops short of this, the renewal of our soul in the image of God after the likeness of him that created it, is no other than a poor farce, and a mere mockery of God, to the destruction of our own soul.[3]

John Wesley preachingTherefore, it is vital that we grasp Wesley’s understanding of the image of God in order to appreciate the full scope of his vision of salvation. We will also see how it is the nexus between human renewal and the renewal of the entire creation.

As Edgardo Colón-Emeric says, “the doctrine of the image of God lies at the heart of Wesley’s theological anthropology and soteriology.”[4] It is central to his teaching on original sin, foundational to his understanding of justification by faith, and essential for his doctrine of the new birth. These three scriptural doctrines, original sin, justification by faith, and the new birth, Wesley considered of utmost importance for Christians to understand. He considered justification by faith and the new birth to be fundamental Christian doctrines above all. Moreover, he says, the foundation of the doctrine of the new birth is the doctrine of humanity created in the image of the Triune God and the disastrous effects of original sin on our nature. “This then is the foundation of the new birth—the corruption of our entire nature. Hence it is that being ‘born in sin’ we ‘must be born again.’”[5]

The Three Dimensions of the Image of God

Whereas Deists identified reason with the image of God, and Immanuel Kant with conscience, Wesley saw it in a more relational sense.[6] He also thought of it in a tri-dimensional way. First there is the natural image. Like God, humans are also spiritual beings, albeit embodied spiritual beings, which possess an immortal soul. The natural image also includes a principle of self-motion, an agency driven by understanding, will, and liberty. Understanding involves the ability to discern truth from falsehood; the will is made up of a constellation of affections, passions, and tempers, which would have been completely filled with love before the fall; and liberty is the ability of choice that made humans capable of “holy love” in the first place.[7]

The second dimension is the political image. This dimension captures the fact that God not only created humans to be in relationship with God and other humans, but also nature itself, especially other creatures.[8] “Man was God’s vice-regent upon earth, the prince and governor of this lower world, and all the blessings of God flowed through him to the inferior creatures.”[9] From biblical passages like Gen 1-3 and Psalm 8, Wesley understood that God created humanity to be conduits and mediators of God’s blessing to the rest of creation, including other humans and other creatures. Humans were created with a responsibility for their relationship with God; they were also created with a responsibility for the welfare of their fellow humans. God does generally choose to bless humans through other humans (see Gen 12:1-3). Moreover, humans were created with a responsibility for the welfare of the other creatures.[10] This is how Wesley understood the dominion of humans over creation under the reign of God.

The third and, according to Wesley, the chief dimension of the image of God in humanity is the moral image.[11] It is this dimension that especially distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation. But, for Wesley, it was not reason that made the difference. Wesley granted that animals also have some reasoning capabilities in terms of a measure of understanding. He speculated that before the fall those capabilities would have far exceeded what they are now.[12] For sure, he believed humans capable of reasoning powers far in excess of all other creatures except angels. Nevertheless, what really made humans unique is the capacity to know, love, and glorify God. Speaking of the moral image, Wesley quotes part of 1 John 4:16, “God is love” to say that so too “man at his creation was full of love, which was the sole principle of all his tempers, thoughts, words, and actions.” But lest we misconstrue this as a mere sentimental love, Wesley is also careful to highlight other moral attributes that humanity originally shared with God, “justice, mercy, and truth.” In fact, based on Eph 4:24, Wesley primarily identified the moral image with “righteousness and true holiness.”[13] Wesley says, “Gospel holiness is no less than the image of God stamped upon the heart; it is no other than the whole mind which was in Christ Jesus; it consists of all heavenly affections and tempers mingled together in one.”[14] Again Wesley considered love to be the sole principle of those affections and tempers before the fall, but not understood apart from righteousness and holiness. The moral image “highlights the crucial truth that it was not just any love in which humanity was created but it was holy love.”[15]

The moral image in humanity was in perfect harmony with the nature of God and, therefore, with the will and law of God. The righteousness in which humanity was originally created “was the conformity of all the faculties and powers of his soul to the moral law.”[16] Wesley considered the moral law to be the universal standard of righteousness that is “a copy of the eternal mind, a transcript of the divine nature.”[17] According to Wesley it was written on the hearts of angels and humans when they were created.[18] As a copy the moral law is not to be identified as the actual mind of God or the image of God itself in humanity. Neither is it the basis of the humanity’s fellowship with God. But it is “a standard that is expressive of the integrity of that relationship and that reveals both grace and righteousness (and sin as well) for what they are.”[19]


The Effects of the Fall on the Image of God

As we have seen, the doctrine of original sin is foundational for Wesley, especially as it concerns the new birth, the beginning of human renewal. Thus, it is essential that we consider the deleterious effects of the fall. First, understanding the image of God as a “capacity for relationships,” we see that humanity’s rebellion in Adam severed humanity’s primary and most significant relationship, our relationship with God.[21] This brought spiritual death wherein the soul was cut off from the life of God. The cause according to Wesley was first and foremost unbelief. In unbelief Adam and Eve rejected the word of God and believed the word of the devil. Unbelief led to pride and self-will and love of the world above God. This left humanity plagued with evil affections and tempers and its liberty therein bound. Those created for virtue became slaves to vice. The moral image was completely lost, while the natural image was left marred and confused, hopelessly (apart from grace) prone to error and ignorance; the political image was greatly distorted, thus disrupting the flow of the blessing of God through humanity to the rest of creation.[22] For the rest of creation, rather than being a conduit of God’s blessing, humanity brought “disorder, misery, and death.”[23]

Although as a whole the entirety of the image of God was not totally effaced; it was overshadowed and despoiled by what Wesley called “the image of the devil” marked by “pride and self-will.” Humanity also fell partly into “the image of the beast” being dominated by “sensual appetites and desires.”[24] Actually humanity became worse than the devil in that “we run into an idolatry whereof he is not guilty: I mean love of the world,” which is “to seek happiness in the creature rather than the Creator.”[25] With 1 John 2:15-17 as his guide, Wesley further explained love of the world as living for the insatiable desires for pleasure, novelty, and praise of people rather than the will of God.[26] It is from this sad and hopeless (apart from grace) state that humanity needs to be saved. By the blood of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God reverses and heals the effects of the fall, thereby renewing humanity in the image of God.


Although John Wesley did believe in the conscious existence of the soul after death, he saw that as only an intermediate state. The renewal of all creation through human renewal in the image of God was always his greater hope. This greater hope is inherent to his vision of the image of God in which humanity was created, especially in what he called the political image. When humanity is in proper relationship with God in terms of the moral image, blessing flows from God through humanity into the rest of creation. What is implicit in Wesley’s understanding of the image of God, especially the political dimension, he makes explicit in his sermon on Romans 8, “The General Deliverance” (Sermon 60). With humanity fully redeemed in the resurrection of the body, harmony and full blessing will be restored to the rest of creation in the new heaven and earth.

It is also important to note that holiness and righteousness in terms of the moral image, and its relationship with the moral law, are absolutely essential for a genuinely Wesleyan vision of salvation. Holiness and the moral law are essential doctrines. Wesley would often quote Hebrews 12:14 as a reminder of that fact.

Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: (KJV)

It is true that we are not saved BY holiness, but we are saved BY grace THROUGH faith FOR holiness, which is renewal in the image of God. This is the end-goal of grace, justification, sanctification, and all of the means of grace. Remembering this ultimate goal can keep us from losing sight of the forest for the trees and settling for truncated visions of salvation that would leave us with far less than God intends. Truncated visions of salvation include those that emphasize individual salvation at the expense of social and cosmic salvation, those that emphasize justification at the expense of sanctification, or those that promote so-called social justice to the neglect of individual salvation. It is foolish to expect to bring about a virtuous society without virtuous people. Only the grace of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit can renew people in the image of God. To settle for anything less, in the words of Wesley, would be a “poor farce, and a mere mockery of God, to the destruction of our own soul.” But to accept the grace of God in Christ through faith is to have our souls saved and renewed “in the image of God after the likeness of him that created it.”  This is the end of the Wesleyan way of salvation!

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Charles Wesley ~ “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”


[1] Wesley, “Sermon 45: The New Birth,,” in Works, Outler, 2:187.

[2] Wesley, “Sermon 43,” in Works, Outler, 2:164.

[3] Wesley, “Sermon 44: On Original Sin,” in Works, Outler, 2:185.

[4] Edgardo Colón-Emeric, Wesley, Aquinas, and Christian Perfection: An Ecumenical Dialogue (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 18.

[5] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:190.

[6] Theodore Runyon, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 13.

[7] Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 52-53.

[8] Collins, Holy Love, 53-54.

[9] Wesley, “Sermon 60,” in Works, Outler, 2:440.

[10] Collins, Holy Love, 54-55.

[11] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler 2:188.

[12] Wesley, “Sermon 60,” in Works, Outler, 2:441.

[13] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:188.

[14] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:194.

[15] Collins, Holy Love, 55.

[16] John Wesley, “The Doctrine of Original Sin,” in The Works of John Wesley, ed. Thomas Jackson (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 9:434.

[17] Wesley, “Sermon 34: The Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law,” in Works, Outler, 2:10.

[18] Wesley, “Sermon 34,” in Works, Outler, 2:7.

[19] Collins, Holy Love, 56.

[21] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 68.

[22] Collins, Holy Love, 58-63.

[23] Wesley, “Sermon 56: God’s Approbation of His Works,” in Works, Outler, 2:399.

[24]Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:190.

[25] Wesley, “Sermon 44,” in Works, Outler, 2:179-180.

[26] Wesley, “Sermon 44,” in Works, Outler, 2:181-182.

On Not Getting Lost in the Calvinism-Arminianism Debates

I’ve been seriously contemplating the relationship between the sovereignty of God and free will off and on since my freshman philosophy class in 1994. Is everything that happens in the universe determined in a strict cause and effect relationship where free choice is a mere illusion, or do humans have a genuine capacity for making choices between competing desires? This issue not only involves theology, but it also comes up in philosophy and science apart from questions concerning God. I had a professor in divinity school who was committed to theological and philosophical determinism. She had us read literature in neuroscience that came to the same deterministic conclusion from a scientific viewpoint. This particular professor’s determinism, however, led her to conclude that God would have to save everyone eventually, because it just wouldn’t be right to condemn people who have no real choice, ironically, even though she considered such a choice to be logically impossible.

In theological circles, nonetheless, the debate is sometimes framed strictly in terms of exegesis—that is, faithful interpretation of Scripture. Calvinists see certain passages as teaching a strict determinism. One such passage is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, which they concealed from their father through outright deceit. After Joseph and his brothers are reconciled and after his brothers express contrition for their sinful actions, Joseph forgives them and says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20 ESV). The typical Calvinist sees in this passage a specific statement regarding God’s sovereign direction over all of the events in this story, including the sinful actions of the brothers. Ultimately they did what they did because of God’s decree.

Arminians, on the other hand, believe that God’s grace gives all humans a measure of freedom to freely choose between competing desires. They point to passages like Deuteronomy 30:19-20, which they see as clearly implying such a libertarian freedom, albeit by God’s grace and not by fallen human nature.

 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” Dt 30:19-20 

The number of texts that both sides muster in their defense is immense. Both sides claim that Scripture is the ultimate standard for their position. There are texts that seem to support both positions. But there clearly are others issues at work as well. There are also philosophical issues and logic involved in interpreting those texts and deciding which set of texts should take precedence in terms of interpretation of the other set. And the issue of interpretation of language in general is not a simple one. The following are also some of the things that are helpful to know when trying to understand this incredibly complex theological and philosophical issue.

How does God know what will happen in the future?

  1. The strict determinist says God knows what will happen in the future because he has already predetermined everything that happens ahead of time by his eternal decree. The action and reaction of every human and every molecule (John Piper by way of Charles Spurgeon uses the example of every dust particle) in the universe has been planned in minute detail ahead of time. According to John Calvin, God not only foresaw the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, he decreed it. Not all who would claim the label Calvinist would agree with this entirely, but this is the basic, consistent traditional Calvinist position. God decreed the fall of Adam and the salvation and damnation of every individual thereafter.
  2. The basic Arminian position is that God knows the future because he clearly foresees it ahead of time, but without predetermining every human decision. Being outside of time, in a way mysterious to us, God sees the past, present, and future simultaneously. In his omniscience, he foresees the faith of individuals and elects this class of believers to salvation. This is not based on works righteousness, which Paul clearly distinguishes from faith (i.e. Rom 3:21-31). Election and salvation are by faith. In the case of the former, it is faith foreseen by, but not predetermined by, God. It is not true as is sometimes supposed—often in Arminian circles— that Arminians don’t believe in predestination and election. They do, but have a different understanding of those terms.

Another issue to understand is the different notions of freedom.

  1. It is not true that Calvinists do not believe in free will. They do, but they understand freedom differently. For the strict Calvinist, humans freely choose to do what they want to do. But all humans are ultimately slaves to their desires. The type of freedom envisioned by Calvinists is called “compatibilist freedom.” According to this notion of freedom, humans are free to choose according to their desires. But fallen humans only desire sin and rejection of God. Without God intervening to change their hearts and with the corresponding desires, fallen humans are doomed to damnation. But according to his eternal decree, God chose before the foundation of the world to regenerate some humans unconditionally but chose to leave others unregenerate. Although they could not do otherwise, the non-elect, those doomed to eternal damnation, are justly condemned because they freely choose sin and continued rejection of God’s grace. But again, they freely choose to do what they want to do – but – according to this definition of freedom, they cannot choose otherwise.
  2. Arminians have a libertarian view of freedom. This is the notion that God’s grace enables humans to choose between competing demands to accept or reject God’s grace. For traditional Arminians, this would involve only the limited ability, restored to all by God’s prevenient grace, to accept or reject God’s grace in terms of justification, new birth, and sanctification. As to how exactly the future is clearly present to God without it being predetermined, ultimately this type of freedom is much  more mysterious than the more straightforward compatibilist notion of freedom. That doesn’t make it right. It’s just an acknowledgment that in terms of our ability to comprehend, it is more mysterious to fathom how we would choose between competing desires, if some of those desires are stronger than others. But Scripture does seem to warn and encourage believers to choose between competing desires, as with the passage from Deuteronomy above. But the choice does seem to be limited to receiving God’s gracious help to overcome sinful desires though his power and not our own.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. ~ Gal 5:16-17

Of course, there are many other things to consider. This is one of the most complex and ultimately mysterious issues in all of theology and philosophy. Calvinism and Arminianism are not the only options to consider in terms of Christian theology, and neither of these traditions are monoliths. There’s also Molinism and Open Theism to name two more. The relationship between the knowledge of a sovereign God and human freedom is impossible for us to fully comprehend. Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright argues that both sides of the Calvinist-Arminian debate have probably tried to explain too much. In these debates, it’s also easy to get lost, and not just intellectually.

Faithful Christians committed to the authority of Scripture have come down on different sides of this debate. In my own Methodist tradition, we have the relationship between John Wesley, an Arminian, and George Whitefield, a Calvinist. While their differences did cause some tension between them and interfered with them being able to fully cooperate together in ministry, they both maintained admiration and respect for each other as brothers in Christ. By request of Whitefield himself, John Wesley preached at his funeral service. Today we can see a staunch Calvinist like James White and a committed wesley and whitefieldArminian like Michael Brown debate those issues vigorously while recognizing each other as brothers in Christ and partnering in ministry together in other areas where they share agreement. Whitefield and Wesley did the same, and providentially, in spite of some hindrances, their respective ministries and gifts complemented each other for fruit for the kingdom and the glory of God (Read interview of J.D. Walsh).

This is not to dismiss the need for further dialogue and debate. It’s also not to dismiss the seriousness of the implications over the disagreements. Both sides want to preserve something they see as vital in the way we talk about these things. Calvinists want to preserve 100% of the glory for God in the salvation of souls. Arminians like me don’t see that allowing for a graciously God-given ability just to receive or reject God’s gift for every person detracts from God’s glory, but I  think we can understand the concern. Arminians are also concerned that genuine human responsibility for sin should involve a real possibility for acceptance or rejection of God’s grace. But this is not primarily over a concern about human freedom, but a concern over the character of God. It should be understandable why we would have such concerns.

What does it say about the character of God if he condemns people for sin that he himself predetermined, especially when the Bible says God calls all to repentance and that God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:8-10; cf Ezk 18:23, & 33:11)? We believe that when Paul in Romans 11:32 says, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all,” the last “all” includes every individual just like the first “all” does. Just as Rom 3:9 says “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,” is qualified by the, “no not one” that follows in verse 10, which is a quote from Psalms, so also, no one is excluded from the mercy of God available in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, we believe truly all are enabled to accept or reject the mercy of God and thus to be judged accordingly.

I’ve revealed my leanings. At times, however, I’ve leaned in the other direction. I believe Wesley was right to say he was within a hair’s breadth of Calvinism. I believe God has graciously created space for a limited libertarian freedom. Nevertheless, I realize the difficulty of speaking of freedom within a specific set of limited predetermined parameters. It is easy to get lost intellectually in terms of the paradoxes and mystery involved in all of this.

But the worst way to get lost is to think that having the correct theory of how someone gets saved is more important than preaching the Gospel that Jesus saves. As Whitefield put it by employing a quote from John Bradford, “Let a man go to the grammar school of faith and repentance, before he goes to the university of election and predestination.” Calvinists and Arminians, alike, can agree that the call to repentance and the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God available through faith in Jesus Christ is the means God has ordained that will lead to souls being saved. On Calvinist or Arminian terms, God already knows the elect – those who will be saved – and the non-elect, who will not; but we do not know either. And either way, God has called us to preach the Gospel to the world, elect or not. On that, we should be able to agree and work together for the salvation of souls to the glory of God!

For Further Study:


For Calvinsim (2010) by Michael Horton

Against Calvinsism (2011) by Roger Olson

Why I am Not a Calvinist (2004) by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell

Youtube Debates:

Debate between two Calvinist professors , Bruce Ware and Tom Schreiner, and two Wesleyan scholars, Joe Dongell and Jerry Walls

Michael Brown vs. James White

When Christian-ish is Just Not Enough

“The Almost Christian” (Sermon II) is a sermon that John Wesley delivered before the university at Oxford in 1741. In it he argues that a person can assent to all the right beliefs, participate in all the rituals of the church, make use of all the means of grace, and live according to the highest of moral standards, and yet not truly be a Christian. The “almost Christian” may by all outward appearances look like a Christian, but not truly be a Christian, what Wesley calls an “altogether Christian.”

What is required for someone to be an altogether Christian, a true Christian, according to Wesley, is an inward transformation of the heart to go along with the outward profession of the lips and behavior. Even the most orthodox professions of faith, and the most meticulously religious of lifestyles, may not necessarily spring from a pure and godly heart. Wesley himself admitted that he was but an altogether Christian for a long time, even as a minister in the Church of England who labored diligently to live a holy life.

To be an “altogether Christian” more is required than assent to Biblical truths, religious practices, and even a moral lifestyle. And this more that is needed is not something we can do for ourselves; it is something that only God can do for us through Jesus Christ and in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The more that we need is not just conformity to Biblical standards. According to Wesley we need an inward transformation of the heart. To be an altogether Christian, we need the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5), which will consequently lead us into genuine love of our neighbors, including enemies. We may say and do all the right things, but if we do so with the wrong motive of heart, namely love of self, then we are still far from the kingdom of God. In other words, we need to be born again (John 3:3-7).

In addition to love, Wesley said, to be an altogether Christian, we need a true and living faith. Indeed, genuine faith inspired by the love of God for us activates genuine godly love in us. But Wesley was quick to point out that the faith of which he spoke should not be confused with mere assent to a certain set of beliefs and practices, no matter how right and true they may be. Indeed, he said, “the faith which bringeth not forth repentance, and love, and all good works, is not that right living faith, but a dead and devilish one” (II:4).

In fact, Wesley was so bold to say that even the demons believe in the virgin birth, miracles, the divinity of Christ, that he died for the sins of humanity and rose again on the third day, that he ascended into heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead. He said they, the demons, even believe the articles of religion (of the Church of England at that time) and “all that is written in the Old and New Testament” (II:4 emphasis mine). Wesley went on to say, “And yet for all this faith, they be but devils. They remain still in their damnable estate, lacking the very true Christian faith.”

So the faith that Wesley was talking about involved much more than intellectual assent to a set of beliefs, important as that is. The faith of which Wesley spoke, is an genuine trust and absolute commitment to the person of God the Father through Jesus Christ. This is the faith that issues in repentance, love, and all good works. According to Wesley:

“The right and true Christian faith is” (to go on in the words of our own Church), “not only to believe that Holy Scripture and the Articles of our Faith are true, but also to have a sure trust and confidence to be saved from everlasting damnation by Christ. It is a sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that, by the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God; whereof doth follow a loving heart, to obey his commandments.” (II:5)

As John Wesley righty discerned, the word of God calls us into a true and living relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. We enter this living relationship only through a true and living faith. Of course Wesley wasn’t pitting an experience of faith against the content, the specific beliefs, of the Christian faith. He was simply calling people to receive the inward transforming power of God by faith in addition to the outward conformity to the content of the Christian faith. In other words, he wasn’t suggesting, as some do, that the content of the faith is not that important.

What is really astonishing is that many of the things that Wesley listed as things that even demons know and believe to be true, are not accepted by a lot of people who consider themselves Christian today, even ministers. There are plenty who do not believe that all of the Bible is true. Sure, there are those who say they have a high view of Scripture, but, as with many things, it’s not the words that are used, but the meaning attached to those words that really matters. Often those who say they have a high view of Scripture, but reject orthodox doctrines (as I used to), insist on new interpretations to bring Scripture in line with their reason, desires, and/or sensibilities. Some will cling to their novel interpretations and their claim to a high view of Scripture, but others when pressed and unable to substantiate their views from Scripture will resort to questioning it’s trustworthiness in favor of their own views. Indeed, one of the surest ways to draw the ire of many a Mainline minister today, is to insist that Scripture is without error or infallible, which is a belief that can easily be traced back through the early church fathers to the apostles and Jesus himself.

Others will claim to believe in the orthodox doctrines concerning the nature of God, but, again, radically redefine them. How for instance can one really believe in the Triune God in light of the First Commandment and yet claim that other gods are just as valid? Some will speak of the Triune God and perhaps belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ, but what does that mean when it comes from someone with a pluralistic, syncretistic worldview that insists all religions lead to the same place? I think the meaning of those orthodox terms would be radically different than within a worldview that whole-heartedly believes the First Commandment understood in its historical, biblical context. As the United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden said he used to do before he experienced the change of heart that Wesley preached, some use the language of orthodoxy while all along undermining its true meaning.

In contrast to Wesley, some today seem to insist that even what Wesley called almost Christian may be too much to expect. Despite the attempts of some to narrow the range of what he considered to be essential doctrines that one must believe in order to be considered Christian, John Wesley included obedience to the moral law to be among the essentials and part of the ground for genuine Christian fellowship within the church universal. In his sermon “Catholic Spirit” he writes:

Does the love of God constrain thee to serve him with fear, to “rejoice unto him with reverence?” Art thou more afraid of displeasing God, than either of death or hell? Is nothing so terrible to thee as the thought of offending the eyes of his glory? Upon this ground, dost thou “hate all evil ways,” every transgression of his holy and perfect law; and herein “exercise thyself, to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man?”  Sermon 39: Section 1:16

While Wesley made abundant room for varying opinions regarding modes of worship, baptism, and the particulars of church government, there is absolutely no reason to believe that he would allow for differing opinions regarding basic Christian morality. Indeed, I have no doubt that he would have no patience whatsoever for anyone who would insist on rejecting any of the clear moral commands of Scripture, which he, along with David (Psalm 19:7-11), Jesus (Matthew 5:17-20), and Paul (Romans 7:12), believed to be holy and perfect.

Yet some still want to insist that we don’t even need the faith of what Wesley called an “almost Christian”, really even what Wesley described as the faith of demons. Instead for many Christian-ish is plenty. Some want to insist that theology, or beliefs about God are all that really matter, and that issues of holiness are secondary matters. Some want to boil it all down to the least they have to believe to still be considered Christian. But if someone’s faith falls short of what Wesley said even the demons believe, can they possibly have a living faith that leads to “a loving heart, to obey [God’s] commandments”? (‘The Almost Christian” II:5)

Maybe Wesley was too extreme. Maybe being “almost Christian” is enough. Maybe even less than that, just being kind of sort of Christian-ish is enough. Then again, maybe Wesley was right, and being either of those is to still be totally lost.

Maybe settling for the minimum set of theological beliefs about God apart from the particulars of a holy life is foolish when the God we say we believe in says he created us in his image and says to us, “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16 quoting Leviticus 11:44 – KJV).

Assenting to a particular set of beliefs is not enough. Living according to a particular set of standards is not enough. But God’s grace to forgive us and cleanse us by the blood of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out is more than enough. What would Wesley tell us to do?John Wesley preaching

Awake, then, thou that sleepest, and call upon thy God: call in the day when he may be found. Let him not rest, till he make his “goodness to pass before thee;” till he proclaim unto thee the name of the Lord, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin.” Let no man persuade thee, by vain words, to rest short of this prize of thy high calling. (emphasis mine). But cry unto him day and night, who, “while we were without strength, died for the ungodly,” until thou knowest in whom thou hast believed, and canst say, “My Lord, and my God!” Remember, “always to pray, and not to faint,” till thou also canst lift up thy hand unto heaven, and declare to him that liveth for ever and ever, “Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee.”

May we all thus experience what it is to be, not almost only; but altogether Christians; being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus; knowing we have peace with God through Jesus Christ; rejoicing in hope of the glory of God; and having the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost given unto us!  (“The Almost Christian” Section II:10-11)



The Scripture Way of Salvation According to John Wesley as Illustrated by the Conversion of Fredrick Douglass


“I was for weeks, a poor, brokenhearted mourner, traveling through the darkness and misery of doubts and fears. I finally found that change of heart which comes by ‘casting all one’s care’ upon God, and by having faith in Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek Him. After this, I saw the world in a new light. I seemed to live in a new world, surrounded by new objects, and to be animated by new hopes and desires. I loved all mankind – slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever. My great concern was, now, to have the world converted. The desire for knowledge increased, and especially did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible…”

That was part of Fredrick Douglass’ description of his conversion under the preaching of a Methodist preacher (Fredrick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, (Public Domain, 1855), 68 (Kindle Edition).


The first step in conversion according to John Wesley is repentance after one is brought under conviction by the Spirit through the prevenient grace, which prepares and enables one to receive the gift of salvation by faith. In repentance we grieve and mourn over our sins and turn from sin and reliance upon ourselves, and we turn to Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4ESV). Could it be that one problem in the church today is that there is too little mourning? Are we too often today hearing preaching that makes us more comfortable with sin than we are with Jesus as he is revealed in scripture? Blessed are those who grieve over sin! It is they who shall rejoice in the comfort of the Saviors’ forgiveness and transforming grace.

Through faith, trusting in Christ alone, not just mental assent to a set of propositions, but trusting in the person of Christ and his atoning work on the cross, brings justification, a relative change in our standing before God, which Wesley often described simply as the forgiveness of sins. At the moment of justification we also receive the gift of the new birth (regeneration), the beginning of sanctification and the renewed mind, whereby a real change is wrought within our hearts and God’s love begins to reign giving us, as Douglass said, “new hopes and new desires.”

This inward change sets our hearts ablaze with love for God and all humanity, including, as in the case of Douglass, even those who oppress us, and makes us zealous for good works (see Titus 2:11-14), what Wesley called works of piety, representative of love for God, and works of mercy, love for our neighbors. Works of mercy would also include, again, as in the case of Douglass, an abhorrence of sin and evil and corrupt evil institutions, and the passion to fight to see the oppressed and oppressors set free from bondage to the evil one. Works of piety and mercy spring from a renewed heart upon which the Spirit writes God’s essential and nonnegotiable moral law. The moral law, which Wesley clearly viewed as an essential doctrine and an absolutely vital part of the genuine Christian life provides the content of the holy love that God pours into our hearts (Rom 5:5) as well as the renewed image of God in which humanity was created.

That Wesley viewed the moral law as essential is evident even in his oft misused sermon on the “Catholic Spirit” (Sermon 39). There you find that Wesley describing the love of God as including a hatred of all evil ways, which he defines as “every transgression of his holy and perfect law” (I:16). Moreover, Wesley, there, also describes love of neighbor as a love for “all mankind without exception” including enemies 0f God and one’s self (I:17). This kind of love is clearly evident in Douglass’ description of his own conversion. Works of piety and mercy spring from this holy love of God and neighbor summed up in the two tables of the Ten Commandments, the first dealing with love of God, the second with love of neighbor.

These good works FOR which we are saved (see Eph 2:8-10), are the fruit of genuine faith, which become the fuel for continued growth in holy love and in the mind of Christ (i.e. the means of grace for sanctification). Diligently and hungrily searching and digesting the scriptures will be a major component of this growth. As fruit that can be inspected, these good works are the marks of a genuine Christian life in the kingdom of God, which was the new world that Fredrick Douglass was, and all believers are, reborn to live into (see John 3:1-8). In a word this is Christian salvation, which, according to Wesley, is a present tense reality to be consummated in glory in the resurrection of the body and in the New Creation.

(See John Wesley, Sermon 43 “The Scripture Way of Salvation”)

(For Further Study see Kenneth Collins “The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the shape of Grace)