Author Archives: Jerry Walls

Jerry Walls ~ Dennis F. Kinlaw: Naming and Showing that Mysterious Quality

Dennis F. Kinlaw finished his course on April 10, 2017 at the age of ninety-four. He was an Old Testament scholar, a former President of Asbury College (now University), and an icon in the Wesleyan-Holiness movement.

Dr. Kinlaw was one of the most popular camp meeting preachers in America, and it is easy to see why.  He was one of the greatest Biblical preachers I have ever heard. When he preached, you often wondered where he was going for the first fifteen minutes or so, but you needed to listen very carefully because he was laying his groundwork. Then several minutes later, as he connected the dots, lights would start flashing in your mind and heart and you would find yourself understanding, and loving, biblical truth in ways you had never appreciated before. It is hardly surprising that several of his students went on to become noted Old Testament scholars themselves.

Dr. Kinlaw had a lifelong passion to learn, to think, and to grow.  Several years ago a former student and I had the privilege one afternoon to talk theology with him at his house and ask him questions (James called him Gandalf, but not to his face!). He was well into his eighties, but his enthusiasm for thinking hard and deep about the most important issues in life was as warm and infectious as ever.  His provocative insights he shared that day ranged over biblical theology, systematic theology and philosophy, and I found myself admiring his octogenarian passion for learning and his ongoing curiosity and delight in discovering ideas he had not considered before.  More, I was inspired to follow the example he so beautifully modeled.  His grandson, Dennis F. Kinlaw III is my colleague at HBU, and he visited him several days ago. Even in Dr. Kinlaw’s weakened condition at age ninety-four, Denny reported that he was exerting his best efforts to discuss the truth he loved and gave his life to understand and articulate.

As a son of the Wesleyan movement, Dr. Kinlaw had a particular passion for the Church at large to recover the message of Christian holiness.  Unfortunately, the word holiness conjures up for many people images of repressive legalism, dour dogma, and joyless judgmentalism.  Much of the holiness movement seems to have forgotten that John Wesley constantly insisted that holiness and happiness are inseparable.  Indeed, one Wesley’s most memorable descriptions of God was “the fountain of happiness, sufficient for all the souls he has made.”

Dennis Kinlaw reminded you of that fountain when you talked to him.  He had a deep resonant voice, and when his eyes sparkled and he broke into laughter as he was sharing his insights on the Trinity or the nature of personhood, you got a picture of what holiness is all about.

I am reminded here that C. S. Lewis was first drawn to Christianity in his teenage years by reading a novel by George McDonald, though he had no idea that was happening at the time.  He was attracted by something mysterious that was conveyed in that book but had no idea what it was.  In his spiritual autobiography, he writes, “I did not know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anados.  I do now. It was holiness.”  In view of this experience, it is not surprising that years later, after he was converted, he wrote the following in a letter: “How little people know who think holiness is dull.  When one meets the real thing (and perhaps, like you, I have met it only once) it is irresistible. If even 10% of the world’s population had it, would not the whole world be converted and happy before a year’s end?”

That is a great question to ponder, and it is fitting way to express gratitude for the life and ministry of Dennis Kinlaw.  Many of us who knew him believe he was the “real thing.”  He was a great holiness preacher and a profound biblical scholar, a respected educational leader and administrator.

And while doing all of this, he showed us that holiness is not dull.

This first appeared at


Featured image courtesy Savvas Kalimeris via Unsplash.

Jerry Walls ~ Wheaton, Allah, & the Trinity: Do Muslims Really Worship the Same God as C.S. Lewis?

There was an exquisitely beautiful house in the woods.   It had obviously been built hundreds of years ago, but its exact origin was controversial.  The identity of the builder was in dispute, and some said no one really knew, and a few even denied the house had a builder.   Two men were discussing the matter, and they happened to agree that a man named Mr Devine was indeed the builder, and they were both admirers of him and his work.   As they continued their conversation, one of them commented that Devine was from Edinburgh, but the other insisted that he had come from Heidelberg.   “No, I assure you, Mr Devine and his family moved here from Edinburgh in 1787, and they built the house that year.”   The other replied: “Family? What family?  Mr Devine was a lifelong bachelor, and he moved here from Heidelberg in 1792, and that is when the house was built.”  “Well,” the first man replied, “while Mr Devine indeed designed the house, his two sons played vital roles alongside him in crafting and constructing it.”

There is an ongoing controversy involving Wheaton College and its decision first to suspend, and then to proceed with plans to terminate Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor, for her statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  For many observers, her statement is obviously true, while for others it is just as obviously false and no Christian teacher should even think it, let alone declare it in public.  Both within the secular media, as well as the Christian community, still others see the debate as a matter of quibbling over words that betrays Wheaton’s true legacy, or that reflects excessive rigidity.

This controversy continues to generate confusion and misunderstanding largely because putting the question in terms of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God conflates a number of questions that need to be kept clearly distinct.  While some of these have a straightforward answer, others do not.  Here are four of the questions that must be distinguished to avoid perpetuating confusion:  1) Do Christians and Muslims believe essentially the same thing about God? 2) If they do not, are these differences of belief about God necessarily reflected in essentially different forms and expressions of worship?  3) Can persons who subscribe to other religions besides Christianity be in a saving relationship with God?  4) Can persons who knowingly and persistently reject Christ be saved?

The answer to the first question is clear, for obvious reasons.  There is only one God, and he cannot possibly have logically incompatible properties or attributes.  While Christians and Muslims share some beliefs about God, such as the belief that he created our world and revealed himself to Abraham, they also have several beliefs that are simply irreconcilable with each other.  Claims that are logically contradictory in this fashion cannot both be true of God.   The hard rock of logical impossibility shatters any claim that the essential beliefs of both Christians and Muslims can be true.  Consider these examples.

Either Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, or he did not.

Either Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, or he was not.

Either Jesus is the Son of God, or He is not.

Either Jesus is God’s final definitive revelation, or He is not.

Either God exists eternally in Three Persons, or He does not.

Christians affirm the first of each of these logically incompatible claims, and Muslims affirm the second.  But more importantly, each of these claims is absolutely essential to Christian belief and theology.   It is disrespectful to both Christians and Muslims to downplay or trivialize these differences. The hard reality that must be faced is that either Christians or Muslims are deeply mistaken in some of their essential beliefs about who God is and the way of salvation.

To put this in terms of our parable, while there is nominal agreement that the house had a builder, and that his name was Devine, that is hardly sufficient to support the claim that the men in our conversation agree in any substantive sense, even about who built the house.

This brings us to the second question, which also has a fairly straightforward answer.  These differing truth claims about God do in fact lead to profoundly different forms and expressions of worship.  Muslims engage in certain patterns of required prayer that are not required of Christians for instance.  And obviously, many aspects and components of Christian worship cannot be shared by Muslims without denying their own theology.

Differences in theology pervade our worship, and it is difficult to find common ground for shared worship.   Consider for instance theses lines from a classic hymn.  At first glance, it might be thought that Muslims could perhaps sing the first three lines of this classic hymn, even if they obviously could not sing the fourth:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty

Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.

Holy, Holy, Holy merciful and mighty

God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.

Does the fact that Muslims might sing the first three lines suggest any sort of agreement with Christians in worship?  It is doubtful since for Christians, the One referred to and worshiped in the first three lines is precisely the “blessed Trinity.”   The Trinity is always the referent when Christians sing about the “Lord God Almighty.”

Moreover, the heart of Christian worship flows out of gratitude for the love and grace of God as expressed in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Again, consider these lines from another classic hymn.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were an offering far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Christian worship, whether expressed in the sacrament of Holy Communion, or in classic hymnody, is premised on gratitude for an act of sacrificial love that Muslims reject by virtue of denying not only the incarnation, but even that Jesus died on the cross.  These distinctively Christian beliefs not only inspire Christian worship and devotion, but also define its content.

The third question, however, is more complicated.  While not all Christians agree, noted thinkers ranging from some of the Church Fathers, to John Wesley, to CS Lewis have contended that the answer is yes.  Consider, for instance, this passage from John Wesley in which he discusses various forms of faith, ranging from materialism and deism to fully formed Christian faith.    Speaking particularly of Muslims, he wrote:

I cannot but prefer this before the faith of the deists; because, though it embraces nearly the same objects, yet they are rather to be pitied than blamed for the narrowness of their faith.  And their not believing the whole truth is not owing to their want of sincerity, but merely to their want of light….It cannot be doubted that this plea will avail for millions of modern ‘heathens.’  Inasmuch as little is given to them, little will be required. (“On Faith”)

In another sermon, he wrote similarly about those who have not heard the gospel and their prospects for salvation.

…we are not required to determine anything touching their final state.  How it will please God, the Judge of all, to deal with them, we may leave to God himself.  But this we know, that he is not the God of the Christians only, but the God of the heathens also; that he is ‘rich in mercy to all who call upon him’[Rom 10:12], ‘according to the light they have’; and that ‘in every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of him.’ [Acts 10:35](“On Charity”)

This is the line of thinking that also appears in the famous scene near the end of C. S. Lewis’s book The Last Battle, where Emeth, the worshiper of Tash, is accepted by Aslan.  Unknowingly he was actually serving Aslan because his worship was motivated by a love for truth and righteousness.  The point is that Christ died for all persons, whether they know it or not, and the Holy Spirit is working to draw them to Christ, whether they know it or not, and they may be responding truly to the “light” they have and consequently be on the way to final salvation.

We come now to the fourth question, which is at the heart of each of these questions.  The answer to this question is straightforward for orthodox Christians, and the reason is clear.  If God is a Trinity, and Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, and salvation is a right relationship with God, then salvation requires accepting Christ and confessing Him as Lord.  Just as it is true that to persistently reject Christ is to reject the only God that exists,  so it is true that to know him is to know the one true God.  Jesus insists that because He and the Father are one that knowledge of God is inseparable from knowing Him, and that to know Him is to know His Father.  “If God were your Father, you would love me,” Jesus says (John 8:42).   This Trinitarian logic runs especially through the Gospel and Epistles of John.  Notice: this implies it is possible to know God before knowing Christ explicitly, but it also means that anyone who truly knows and loves the Father will also love Jesus when they are truly introduced to Him.  Emeth was serving Aslan before he was aware of it, but his final salvation involved an explicit encounter with Aslan and knowledge of who He was.

But this is where our knowledge stops because we are in no place to judge how clearly the “light” of Christ has come to adherents of other religions who know little or nothing of the gospel.  Even those we may think have heard of Christ quite clearly may not have done so because of various factors that may prevent them from fairly or accurately hearing the gospel.  Only God knows who has truly heard and seen, and how they have responded.

So where does this leave us?  With respect to the original controversial claim, there is no unequivocal sense in which it is true that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  To avoid this equivocation, it is crucial not to confuse the first two questions with the latter two.

The first two questions pertain to objective public truth about what Christianity and Islam teach about God, and the inescapable fact that both the beliefs and the worship practices of these religions are mutually incompatible; therefore, both of them cannot be true.  The third question pertains not to straightforward facts about Islam and Christianity, but to individual Muslims (as well as adherents of other religions) and their relationship to God.  Here we are poorly positioned to judge.  We may hope and even have reason to believe that many of them are worshiping God faithfully according to the light they have, as Wesley would put it.  The fourth question pertains to a central, non-negotiable claim of Christianity.  While we can be clear about that claim and what it entails, only judgment day will definitively show who has knowingly and persistently rejected Christ.

In the meantime, let us muster as much clarity as we can while engaging these issues, even as we pray for charity on all sides, starting with ourselves.   However, we should not confuse grace and love for all persons with Christian fellowship, nor should we assume or state that those who do not profess Christ as Lord are our brothers and sisters in a common faith.  That fails to advance genuine respect and understanding just as it does when we presume to know the hearts of others or their eternal destiny.


Reprinted with permission from

Jerry Walls ~ Conversation: Free Will in Brazil

Note from the Editor: Wesleyan Accent is pleased to share this recent interview with Dr. Jerry L. Walls.

Wesleyan Accent: Recently you traveled to South America to speak at an Arminian conference. Maybe my view of Brazil is largely formed by its tourism outreach, but is Jacobus Arminius popular in Rio?

Jerry Walls: Yes, I was invited by the publisher (Editora Reflexão) of the Portuguese translation of the book I co-authored with Joe Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist, to do a speaking tour in Brazil this past August. I spoke nine times in eight days in five cities: Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Cuiaba, Natal and Recife. The week ended with Conference on Arminian Theology, for which I was the speaker. It was the first of what the organizers hope will be an annual event.

And indeed, Arminius has a growing fan club in Brazil, as I discovered a few years ago. There is a Facebook discussion group in Brazil named “Arminianismo” that has over 7,300 members. The Arminian community there is quite well informed as well as vigorous and energetic.

WA: What was your sense of the dynamics that came together to make a conference on Arminius a “go” for Christians in Brazil? One’s perspective of Brazil may be that it’s largely Catholic.

JW: Well, certainly Brazil is traditionally a Roman Catholic country, but that is rapidly changing. Estimates vary, but Brazil is now roughly 25% or more Protestant, the large majority of which are Pentecostals of some variety, especially Assemblies of God. Some 65% are still Roman Catholic, but the large majority of those are nominal. So in reality, among Brazilians who take their faith seriously, there are probably more evangelical Protestants than Roman Catholics.

Pentecostalism, of course, grew out of the Wesleyan and Holiness movements, so Pentecostal theology is naturally Wesleyan/Arminian in terms of its instincts. However, Calvinists have been active in publishing books in Portuguese, so they appear to be making inroads into Brazilian Pentecostalism. One of the places I spoke was an Assemblies of God seminary, and the bookstore there had more serious books by Calvinists than Arminians.

The good news is that the Arminian community in just the past few years has been working hard to get more serious Arminian works translated into Portuguese. Editora Reflexao, particularly with the encouragement of Wellington Mariano, who was one of the translators of our book, has led the way in publishing serious Arminian books. While I was there, they released the Portuguese translation of the biography of Arminius by Carl Bangs. The Works of Arminius were also released while I was there by another publisher.

So in short, I got involved when they published Why I Am Not a Calvinist, and a number of persons in Brazil also discovered my various YouTube videos critiquing Calvinism. Once that happened I started getting a lot of “friend” requests on Facebook from Brazilians! So all those factors led to my being invited to speak in Brazil.

WA: How do you describe the theological climate in Brazil in terms of interest in the intersection of theology and philosophy of religion?

JW: That is hard to say, but one of the places I lectured was at one of the biggest Christian bookstores in Brazil, and a number of people at that event were talking to me about apologetic and philosophical issues. It is also worth noting that Richard Swinburne, the great Oxford philosopher of religion, recently did a speaking tour at a number of Brazilian universities. So there is certainly interest in philosophy and apologetics.

WA: For you as a Methodist, when you travel globally, what do you note about the crossover of the appeal of the notion of free will and the appeal of Wesleyan theology?

JW: I think the deepest appeal of Wesleyan theology is that is heartily affirms a God who is truly good and sincerely loves all persons. God does not determine, he empowers, he enables, encourages. And the message that God loves us and wants to empower us to love him back, as well as each other is a message of great hope. No one has been “passed over” or determined by God for eternal misery and damnation. To the contrary, there is hope for everyone, and the resources of grace are available to transform even those persons who may seem most hopeless in our eyes.

WA: Has the cross-cultural appeal of Why I Am Not a Calvinist authored by you and Dr. Joe Dongell surprised you? Why do you think it has garnered sustained interest? 

JW: Well, the Calvinism issue is not going away anytime soon. As relatively young movements like those in Brazil grow, they will need to define their theological convictions more clearly and explicitly. And as I noted above, Calvinists are attempting to persuade Pentecostals that Calvinism is the theology they should adopt. I was surprised recently, by the way, to see a Barna study that indicated that 31% of Pentecostal pastors in the United States identified themselves as “Reformed” compared to only 27% who self-identified as Wesleyan/Arminian. I doubt that all those 31% are full-blooded Calvinists, but it is still telling that so many own the Reformed label.

WA: What most surprised you about your visit in Brazil?

JW: I would have to say seeing the large number of Calvinist books in the two large bookstores I visited.

WA: Why do you think the Wesleyan-Arminian distinctive is still so potent and flourishing worldwide?

 JW: In addition to what I said above, Wesleyan/Arminian Christianity is flourishing in the form of Pentecostalism. Pentecostal theology represents the dynamism of the earlier Wesleyan and Holiness movements, particularly with its emphasis on the reality of a God who is actively present in our lives, empowering us, leading us, speaking to us, comforting us, healing us and so on.

Certainly life is difficult for many people in places around the world where Pentecostal Christianity is rapidly growing. It is the dynamic reality of a God who cares about us and is actively present with us that provides power for living hopefully regardless of difficult circumstances. Wesleyan Christianity needs to re-capture, or better, be re-captured by that sort of dynamism.

Conversations ~ Jerry Walls on Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

Recently we spoke with Dr. Jerry Walls about his new book “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama.”  While the United Methodist philosopher of religion has published individual academic volumes on all three topics, this new work is specifically written to be accessible to the lay reader, and it certainly hits the mark, offering profound truths in a simple way from a distinctly Wesleyan perspective. More than any other of his publications, “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory” manages to channel C.S. Lewis’ ability to communicate compelling truth in profoundly simple and winsome prose.

Recommended for personal reading, small group studies or Sunday School classes, “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory” reads like a modern-day classic, likely proving to be a pivotal volume for several decades to come.

Wesleyan Accent: There are many areas of faith that many North Americans put in the “unknowable” pile – especially when it comes to something like the afterlife. How can Christians feel confident in discussing the rationality of something that many people believe can only be speculated about by faith? Do people often seem surprised that subjects like the afterlife can be considered logically and not just on a personal, emotional level?

Jerry Walls: Well, the Christian doctrine of the afterlife is simply integral to Christian doctrine, period, and indeed, the faith as a whole makes no sense if the life to come is ignored or trivialized. The heart of the Christian faith is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, which provides salvation and redemption for God’s whole fallen creation. Central to that salvation is the salvation of human persons, the very persons responsible for the fallen condition of the world in the first place. And that salvation defeats not only sin, but death, and restores us to an eternal fellowship with God, which is what God intended from the beginning. You simply cannot take Trinity, incarnation, and resurrection seriously and minimize or trivialize the life to come.

Now I come at these doctrines as a philosopher of religion, and I am particularly interested in answering philosophical challenges to these doctrines, but more positively, I believe these Christian doctrines of the afterlife provide powerful resources to make sense of some of the perennial big questions like the problem of evil, the foundations of morality, and the very meaning of life. And again, insofar as we think Christianity is true because it makes sense of things, we also have reason to think the doctrines of the afterlife are true, since they are integral to Christianity.

And certainly some degree of speculation is inevitable if you are going to have a robust theology of the life to come. But the sort of speculation I mean is not simply arbitrary or up for grabs. Rather, it is disciplined speculation that is constrained by scripture. We cannot propose anything that is ruled out by scripture. But we can engage in disciplined speculation that explores the implications of what is clearly taught in scripture, along with what we may know by empirical evidence and so on. My defense of purgatory is along these lines. I think it is a reasonable inference from some things that are clearly taught in scripture, as well as things we know from empirical observation.

WA: Your basis for belief in a loving, all-powerful God and in the existence of hell hinges on free will: that part of being human is exercising the will to accept or reject the love of God. In terms of the Holy Spirit and intercession, how do you think that praying for other people meshes with their choices? Do you, like C.S. Lewis, pray for the dead? How might we as Christians pray for the sanctification of others?

JW: Well, I would say it meshes with their choices in something like the way any of my other interactions with someone meshes with his choices. Suppose I try to persuade someone to believe something, or propose something to them, or invite them to some event. Or more pertinently, suppose I witness to him and encourage him to accept Christ. In doing so, I am facing him with a choice to which he can freely respond.

Perhaps in prayer, we are in some sense participating with God as his prevenient grace is at work in the lives of people. Perhaps as we pray, we participate in God’s conviction of sin, his drawing them to Christ, and so on. Now in such cases, persons are free to respond, just as they are in the interactions I described before. To be sure, intercessory prayer is somewhat mysterious, but I don’t suppose it poses problems for human freedom any more than other sort of interactions, invitations, attempts to persuade and so on.

As for how we should pray, I would take Jesus’ prayer in John 17:17 as a guide. There he prays: “Sanctify them in truth; thy word is truth.” Notice in verse 14, he says “I have given them your word.” So prayer for sanctification should accompany the giving of God’s word. Our prayer should accordingly be guided by scripture, particularly scripture that the persons for whom we pray have been taught. We should pray that the Holy Spirit would witness to that truth and impress it on their understanding, their hearts and their wills.

And yes, I have no problem with praying for the dead. I do not believe death breaks the communion of the saints, and so prayer is as appropriate for the dead as it is for the living.

WA: Do you think, unlike philosopher Bertrand Russell’s comment about finding truth on “the firm foundation of unyielding despair,” that Wesleyan theology is inherently optimistic?

JW: Indeed, Wesleyan theology is incomparably more optimistic than the naturalism represented by Bertrand Russell in his famous quotation in which he commends “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” By contrast, one of my favorite descriptions of God, which I quote in the book, is Wesley’s when he pictures God as “the fountain of happiness, sufficient for all the souls he has made.” The view that ultimate reality is a fountain of love and joy grounds our hope that history is headed for a glorious end rather than the sort of cosmic death to which Russell was resigned.

But Wesleyan theology is also optimistic that even now we can experience a foretaste of heaven as we anticipate the final redemption of the world. Wesley believed not only that holiness is possible by grace, but also that holiness correlates with happiness. As we grow in holiness, we also grow more deeply and truly happy. So the prospects for human happiness are as large as the resources of that “fountain of happiness, sufficient for all the souls he has made.”

WA: Have you yourself ever had a vision or experience of a supernatural quality? Do you know anyone first-hand who has experienced some kind of near-death experience? What might be some strengths and potential pitfalls of the current preoccupation with firsthand experiences of heaven?

JW: No, I have not had such a vision of heaven, nor do I know anyone personally who has. I think such accounts can provide encouragement insofar as they are compatible with scripture and confirm biblical teaching. The danger of preoccupation with such stories in an experientially oriented age is that many people do not know biblical teaching or know how to exercise discernment concerning them. Such stories are often emotionally appealing and even sentimental, and that makes it even more unlikely that biblical and theological discernment will be exercised when weighing them.

WA: If you could encourage pastors to preach from a rational, philosophically and theologically informed position on the afterlife, what points might you encourage them to hit (and which points might you encourage them to avoid?!)?

JW: Well, for a start, I would encourage more pastors to preach on heaven and hell, period! It is remarkable how seldom we hear thoughtful, theologically substantive sermons on these issues.

Indeed, one of the best compliments I got on my book was from a good friend who is an accomplished biblical scholar and he said reading my account of heaven made him want to preach on heaven, something he had never done.

The key is simply to think these things through seriously as integral components of our faith, as I noted above. When we see this, we will realize just how pertinent they are to those big issues I mentioned, like the problem of evil, the nature of personal identity, and the meaning of life. Serious biblical and theological preaching will inevitably address these issues because the Christian faith is a holistic worldview that is very much concerned with these fundamental questions.

So in short, the Christian doctrines of the afterlife have enormous implications. It’s really just a matter of taking those doctrines seriously as truth claims. When we do, we will inevitably see those explosive implications and that will take us into some pretty serious theological and philosophical territory.

WA: It seems that the Protestant view of purgatory that you suggest – especially given Lewis’ example of the soul that “demands” purgatory – is highly relational: where the Catholic view of satisfaction feels like a ledger of columns, the sanctification view that Lewis helps to frame is all about the love of God with a very personal feel to it. The soul that “demands” purgatory reminds one forcefully of the up’s and down’s of a small child’s bathtime – an intimate moment between parent (inevitably getting wet) and slippery child, crying at getting water in his eyes or ears but loving the connection of bath time nonetheless. The parent almost becomes servant at this point, washing feet. If so, then how might this almost familial take on purgatory connect with a Wesleyan theology of holiness?

JW: Well, that’s a great comparison! When I wrote my book on purgatory, the third of my trilogy on the afterlife, I was trying to come up with a good image for the cover. Most of the images of purgatory that I found pictured it in punitive terms that conveyed the satisfaction model more than the sanctification model. Purgatory looked more like hell where a debt was paid than a place of gracious cleansing by a God of holy love. I shared this with a friend, and he came up with a creative suggestion, namely, that I use a picture of Christ washing the feet of the disciples. That’s what I did, and at the front of the book, I have the verses from John 13:6-9, spelled out in the shape of wash bowl:

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to

wash my feet? Jesus answered, “you do not know now what I am

doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You

will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash

you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said

to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my

hands and my head!”—John 13:6-9


That passage depicts not only our initial resistance to sanctification, like a child sometimes resists his bath, but also our eventual joyful embrace of it. As we come to understand our need of a bath in order to have a “share” with our heavenly Father, in order to be fully at home in the heart of his love, we will welcome the cleansing like a child who comes to love his bath.

Indeed, I am convinced that when Christians take sanctification seriously, they will find the doctrine of purgatory to be a very reasonable implication. The doctrine of purgatory rightly understood underscores the point that sanctification is essential, not merely an optional matter for the super spiritual, and that we must cooperate in our sanctification. We cannot ignore the call to holiness our whole life and expect that God will zap us and perfect us the instant we die. But again, the demand for holiness is the demand of a loving God who wills our true happiness and flourishing, and he insists on cleaning us up not as act of punishment, but as an act of gracious love.

Jerry Walls ~ God’s Love and Predestination

After considering sovereignty and human freedom, we are now in a position to understand the heart of Wesley’s theology, and how profoundly it differs from Calvinism.  I reiterate that the difference is not that Calvin believed in divine sovereignty, predestination, election, but Wesley did not.  No, Wesley heartily affirmed all those great biblical doctrines, just not in the way Calvin understood them.

Here is an argument I have developed to bring the heart of the difference into focus.  I call it the “Calvinist Conundrum.”  It is a simple logical argument that has a conclusion that most orthodox Christians reject.  Now if the argument is valid, if the conclusion does indeed follow from the premises, then to reject the conclusion, you have to reject one or more of the premises unless you simply want to give up logical consistency.  Here is the argument.

  1. God truly loves all persons.
  2. Truly to love someone is to desire their well-being and to promote their true flourishing as much as you properly can.
  3. The well-being and true flourishing of all persons is to be found in a right relationship with God, a saving relationship in which we love and obey him.
  4. God could determine all persons freely to accept a right relationship with himself and be saved.
  5. Therefore, all will be saved.

Now the large majority of Calvinists are not universalists, that is, they do not believe all will be saved.  Indeed, many Calvinists believe God has elected only a small minority to salvation.  Thus they reject the conclusion of the argument.

But here is the question.  Which of the previous four premises can be rejected if the conclusion is rejected?  For Wesleyans, the answer is straightforward.  They will reject premise 4, because they do not believe that we can be truly free if God determines all our choices, including the choice to accept Christ.  But what is a Calvinist to do?  If freedom and determinism are compatible, as Calvinists claim, then it seems that 4 is true.  Furthermore, it is hard to see how any orthodox Christian could reject premise 3.  So the Calvinist must reject either 2 or 1.

Now some Calvinists clearly understand the logic of their position, and do not shrink from this implication.  Classic Calvinist theologian Arthur W. Pink is a good example.  Here is what he wrote: “when we say God is sovereign in the exercise of His love, we mean that He loves whom He chooses.  God does not love everybody.”   Notice: God’s sovereignty means he can love whom he will, but consign those he does not love to eternal damnation.   It is up to God’s sovereign choice who he loves and who he does not.

Consider another example from contemporary Calvinist spokesman John Piper.  In a rather moving passage, Piper related the fact that he prayed for his children in the hope that they would join him in Christian faith and service.   Piper then ended his essay with these words.

“But I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons.  And though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the almighty.  He is God.  I am but a man.  The potter has absolute rights over the clay.   Mine is to bow before his unimpeachable character and believe that the Judge of all the earth has ever and always will do right.”

It is very telling that the title of Piper’s essay here quoted is “How Does a Sovereign God Love?”  However, as Wesley would see it, he has the question exactly backward.  The question we should ask is, “how would a God of perfect love express his sovereignty?”

In his essay “Predestination Calmly Considered” Wesley made the crucial point that we will misconstrue the doctrine of predestination if we frame it primarily in terms of God’s sovereignty, apart from his other attributes.  “For the Scripture nowhere speaks of this single attribute, as separate from the rest.  Much less does it anywhere speak of the sovereignty of God as singly disposing the eternal states of men.”   In the same essay, Wesley underscored the fact that our theology will go off the rails if we do not keep squarely in mind that God’s very nature is love.

“It is not written, ‘God is justice,’ or ‘God is truth.’ [Although he is just and true in all his ways.] But it is written, ‘God is love,’ love in the abstract, without bounds; and ‘there is no end of his goodness.’  His love extends even to those who neither love nor fear him.  He is good, even to the evil and the unthankful; yea, without any exception or limitation, to all the children of men.  For ‘the Lord is loving [or good] to every man, and his mercy is over all his works.’”

Now I think we are in position to clearly see the heart of the difference between Wesleyan theology and Calvinist theology.  The fundamental difference lies in how we understand the character and love of God.  For the Wesleyan, the fact that God’s very nature is love means that he truly loves all persons and desires their salvation.  He does everything he can to save all persons, short of overriding their freedom.  For the Calvinist, by contrast, love is a sovereign choice, which means he gives his grace to some but not to others.  He sovereignly chooses to save some among the mass of fallen sinners, but leaves the rest in their fallen condition, thereby consigning them to eternal damnation.

Given the fact that for the Calvinist, freedom and determinism are compatible, God could determine all persons freely to respond to his grace and be saved.  But in his sovereign choice, he chooses not to do so.  Indeed, some Calvinists even question premise 4 above, but for reasons that have nothing to do with freedom.  They argue that God could save all persons insofar as freedom is concerned (since on their view freedom and determinism are compatible). However, God must damn some people to show his wrath in order for his full glory to be displayed.

Again, the difference between Wesleyan theology and Calvinist theology could hardly be more profound at this point.  The idea that God might need to damn many people, even if they could be saved with their freedom intact (as Calvinists understand freedom) is utterly at odds with the biblical picture of God, who loved us while we were yet sinners, and gave his Son for our salvation.  As Wesleyans see it, God’s extraordinary love demonstrated most fully in Christ, and offered freely and truly to all persons displays his glory most clearly.  God does not need any to be damned for his glory fully to be displayed.  Those who are lost are lost entirely by their free choice to reject God’s glorious love and grace.

Wesleyans and Calvinists radically disagree, then, about the character of God, and how his glory is displayed.  This is the issue we need to keep squarely in focus as we discuss and debate the vital biblical doctrines of sovereignty, predestination and election.


For more detail on all these issues explore Dr. Jerry Walls’ book, co-authored with Joseph R. Dongell, “Why I Am Not a Calvinist.” Dr. Walls also examines this topic in his six-part YouTube series, “What’s Wrong with Calvinism.” A full-length lecture of the same title is also available on YouTube here.

Jerry Walls ~ Divine Predestination and Human Freedom

Like divine sovereignty as we previously discussed here, predestination is not a Calvinist doctrine, it is a biblical doctrine.

And indeed, as a theologian steeped in Scripture, Wesley not only affirmed the doctrine, he affirmed a very strong version of it.  He chose for his sermon “On Predestination” a classic text dealing with this great biblical truth, Romans 8:29-30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

There Paul summarizes God’s action in saving us in terms of his foreknowing us, predestining us, calling us, justifying us, and glorifying us.  As Wesley notes, some have understood this text as a “chain of causes and effects,” but he argues that it simply states “the order in which the several branches of salvation constantly flow from each other.”

But again, it is important to stress that Wesley insists on a very strong doctrine of predestination.  Here are some lines from his sermon that capture the heart of his view:

God decrees from everlasting to everlasting that all who believe in the Son of his love shall be conformed to his image, shall be saved from all inward and outward sin into all inward and outward holiness….and this in virtue of the unchangeable, irreversible, irresistible decree of God: ‘He that believeth shall be saved; he that believeth not shall be damned.’

Notice, God has decreed from all eternity who will be saved: those who believe in Jesus, the Son of his love.  His eternal decree, moreover, is irreversible and irresistible.  God sets the terms of salvation and those terms are unalterable. There is no other way to be saved.  Furthermore, God has decreed that those who believe in Jesus are predestined to be conformed to his image, to become holy, through and through, just like Jesus is.

Think of it this way.  Predestination is like a train that has a pre-determined destination.  All who board the train and remain on it will inevitably arrive at that predetermined destination.  Moreover, there is no other way to reach that destination.  If we want to make it there, we have to get on that train, and remain on it through each of the stops along the way.  The train is firmly on the track, and the engineer is capable and determined to bring all passengers who are aboard to the pre-determined destination.

The predetermined destination is heaven.  It is holiness, it is being like Jesus.   And the only way we can get there is to believe in Jesus.  In fact, we might even say that Jesus is the train.  The call of God invites us to board the train.  If we exercise faith in Christ, we are “in Christ” as Paul puts it.  And all who are “in Christ” are on the way to the predestined end so long as they stay on the train.  Those who are called to believe, to “come aboard,” may choose not to do so, and if they decide they do not want to be made holy like Jesus, they may exit the train at one of its stops along the way.

Here we see a parting of the ways between the Wesleyan view of predestination and the Calvinist view.  We can put the question like this: who can get on the train?  The Wesleyan answer is that everyone is not only invited and called to get on, but that God gives everyone the grace that enables them to do so.  If they do not get on, or if they choose to get off before the train reaches its final destination, it is because of their own free choice to reject God’s love and grace.

By contrast, the Calvinist says only certain persons are chosen to be saved, and while all are called or invited onto the train, only the elect are given the grace to come.  Indeed, those who are elect are called in such a way that they cannot refuse the invitation.  Here is a description of the special call in the Westminster Confession, a classic Calvinist statement of faith.

All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly, to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ, yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace (X.1, emphasis added).

Now, compare this statement from Wesley describing how God extends his grace to fallen sinners.

To reclaim these, God uses all manner of ways; he tries every avenue of their souls.  He applies sometimes to their understanding, showing them the folly of their sins; sometimes to their affections, tenderly expostulating with them for their ingratitude, and even condescending to ask, ‘What could I have done for’ you (consistent with my eternal purpose, not to force you) ‘which I have not done?’

Notice that both passages describe how God influences us by way of our minds, our emotions and our wills.  But here is the crucial difference: as the Calvinist sees it, God determines those he has chosen for salvation to come.  He acts upon them in such a way that he changes their thoughts, gives them a new heart, and renews their will.  As a result, they are determined to come to Christ, and yet they come “most freely”!

Now this might seem like blatant nonsense, but in fact it is not.  The claim here is that freedom and determinism are fully compatible if you define freedom the right way.  In essence, for the Calvinist freedom means that God causes you to have the thoughts, feelings, and desires you have. As a result, you act exactly as God has caused you to act, but you still do what you “want” to do, so you are free.  You cannot will to do otherwise, but you still do what you want to do because God has not determined you to act against your will.  Rather, he determines you to act in accord with the desires he has caused you to have.

Wesley insisted otherwise.  True freedom is not compatible with determinism.  On his view, God calls us, reasons with us, shows us the truth, and so on.  But he will not determine our choices, for what he wants from us is true love, worship and obedience.  And in Wesley’s view, this requires that God cannot determine our choices.

So in short, God predestines the means and the end of salvation.  And he truly wants all persons to get on board, and he has provided grace for all to do so.  But we have the freedom to reject his grace and refuse the ride of our lives.   But if so, it is not because God did not do everything he could, short of overriding our freedom, to get and keep us on the train.

Jerry Walls ~ The Sovereignty of God

The sovereignty of God is a vitally important truth Wesleyans badly need to recover. This is not only because it is crucial for understanding the biblical drama, but also because many Wesleyans have tended to neglect it because Calvinists often give the impression that it is one of their distinctive doctrines. But the sovereignty of God is not a Calvinist doctrine, it is a biblical doctrine, and no one who wants to be faithful to Scripture can afford to ignore or downplay this great truth.

So what is the sovereignty of God? Simply put, it is the truth that God is in control, that he has supreme power. It is the truth that he is the Lord of the Universe and of everyone and everything it contains. The sovereignty of God is not always appealing because it is sharply at odds with the popular illusion that we are in control. It is a common human conceit to think that our lives are our own, that human beings are running the show and answer to no one higher than themselves.

There is a great story in the Old Testament book of Daniel that illustrates this human conceit and shows how the sovereignty of God shattered the illusion. King Nebuchadnezzar was a good king who had achieved stunning power and success. One night, however, he had a troubling dream, and asked Daniel to interpret it. When he did, Daniel predicted that God would punish the king for his pride in order to teach him who is truly in control. In the course of the interpretation, Daniel described the king as follows: “You have grown great and strong. Your greatness has increased and reaches to heaven, and your sovereignty to the ends of the earth.”

Notice that last line: Nebuchadnezzar’s sovereignty reached to the end of the earth. If any man had reason to think he was in control, it was Nebuchadnezzar. But Daniel warned him that his pride would lead to his fall, and urged him to repent and atone for his sins. Apparently he listened in the short term, but his memory was short, for a year later, we are told that Nebuchadnezzar was out walking on the roof of his palace, admiring his kingdom, and he became a little too impressed with himself. “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal citadel by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?”

At this point in the story, God acted in a rather dramatic fashion to bring the truth home to Nebuchadnezzar. While his boastful words were still in his mouth, a voice came from heaven pronouncing the judgment that he would lose his kingdom and be reduced to acting like an animal. He would eat grass with the oxen, his hair would grow as long as eagle feathers and his nails as long as bird claws. Why did this happen? So Nebuchadnezzar would learn who is really in control.

And learn he did. After a period of “seven times” Nebuchadnezzar’s reason returned to him, and he emerged from the experience with a far better grip on reality. Here are his words from Daniel 4:34-35.

I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever. For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does what he wills with the hosts of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can stay his hand or say to him, “What are you doing?”

Notice what Nebuchadnezzar learned from his time eating grass. First, God is the Most High who lives forever. Man, by contrast, is a finite being whose length of life is not up to him or in his power. To vary the classic syllogism that all basic logic students learn: All men are mortal. Nebuchadnezzar is a man. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar is mortal. But God lives forever, and we owe our very existence to him.

Second, Nebuchadnezzar’s “sovereignty,” even if it extends to the ends of the earth, is only a temporary thing. Indeed, in the next chapter of Daniel, we see that Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Belshazzar failed to learn from his father’s example, and his kingdom was lost and given to the Medes and Persians. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, and the kingdom of the Medes and Persians would also fall, to be followed by another, and so on.

By contrast, the sovereignty of God is everlasting, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. Whatever “sovereignty” kings like Nebuchadnezzar have is circumscribed by the sovereignty of God, who is the Lord of all history and is working out his eternal purposes for his creation. God has supreme power, and nothing and no one can “stay his hand” when he decides to act.

Now here is a good place to highlight the difference between the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty and the Wesleyan view. According to classic Calvinism, God’s sovereignty means that he determines literally everything that happens in the sense that he specifically causes everything to happen exactly as it does.

This can sound like a very pious thing to say, and at first it might seem to glorify God. But on closer inspection, it has very troubling implications. On this view, God caused Nebuchadnezzar to be proud, caused him to boast, and then caused his downfall, as well as his subsequent repentance. This is a troubling view because it means God actually caused his sin as well as his punishment.

The Wesleyan strongly disagrees. In the Wesleyan view, God did not cause or will Nebuchadnezzar to be proud. Rather, he became that way by his own free choices, by taking undue pride in his accomplishments. God then punished him to bring the truth home to him in order to move him to repentance. When he acknowledged the truth about God, he was restored to his kingdom.

So again, Wesleyan theology affirms a strong view of God’s sovereignty. God is in control, and our free choices are circumscribed by his sovereign will. That does not mean that God causes our choices, but that he sets the limits within which our free choices are made. And God is always free to demonstrate his sovereign control if we forget that he is God and we are not.

Jerry Walls ~ I Wish More Arminians were More Like Calvinists

A while back, Bill Barnwell posted a blog entitled “Why Do Wesleyan-Arminians Allow Themselves to be Bullied by Calvinists?” Barnwell’s post was inspired by a blog article by Roger Olson in which Olson made some timely comments on Calvinists who infiltrate Arminian denominations, often with little resistance.

Barnwell made several observations on why Calvinists are better at getting their message across: “Calvinism by its nature is triumphalistic; Calvinists are very, very confident; Calvinists pretty much own academia; Calvinists do a better job infiltrating popular culture; Wesleyans are more tolerant than Calvinists; and Wesleyans don’t make as big a deal with their Wesleyanism as Calvinists do their Calvinism.”

I generally agree with all these observations except one, namely, that Calvinists pretty much own the academy. Indeed, Calvinists are a tiny minority in the Church at large, and they hardly own the academy. Among serious scholars, Calvinists are a minority. But they are nevertheless good at conveying the impression that they are the serious scholars, and that they own the academy. This impression is more due to another factor Barnwell notes, that they have been far more successful in infiltrating popular culture. Certainly Calvinists have a lot of popular authors that are widely influential in evangelicalism, but that is hardly the same as owning the academy. In my own field, philosophy, Calvinists are a distinct minority, and indeed it is worth noting that the greatest mind produced by contemporary Calvinism, namely, Alvin Plantinga, is an Arminian.

But back to where Barnwell is right. Calvinists are indeed far more confident, and less tolerant, and make a bigger deal of their theology than Wesleyans do. And I believe these factors are very closely related. Calvinists are intolerant because they are confident that their theology is true, that it is nothing more or less than the gospel, and they are passionate about preaching it and contending for it.

In your average United Methodist Church, by contrast, pastors and leaders take painstaking care not even to use traditional pronouns and language for God, for fear of offending someone, or not being “inclusive” enough. Whereas Calvinists do not shy away from affirming what they take Scripture to teach, even if it offends contemporary sensibilities, Wesleyans walk on eggshells, fearful of offense. To make matters worse, in my experience, there is a tendency in many Wesleyan circles to equate spirituality with milquetoast, passive aggressive personalities.

So here is what I wish were the case. I wish more Arminians were confident, not in themselves, but in the truth of their theology, and had the courage and conviction to teach and preach it more passionately, even aggressively, in the best sense of that word. (I have had more than one Calvinist tell me that I am the first Arminian they had ever met who acted like he really thought his theology was true). I wish Wesleyans were better at distinguishing spirituality and character from personality. I wish more Arminians had a clear grasp of where Calvinism is confused and why it continues to thrive on misleading rhetoric. I wish more Arminian biblical scholars saw what is at stake in the larger culture and church, and would take Calvinism on in a direct, forthright manner

I am not suggesting that Arminians should be arrogant, rude, or narrowly exclusive. We should warmly embrace all who believe orthodox Christian faith and cooperate where we can on mutual concerns. But this does not mean Arminians should passively hand over their churches to Calvinists or give Calvinists free rein to promote Calvinism.

In short, we need more Arminians with an edge. These are Arminians who understand that the claims of Calvinism and Arminianism are mutually exclusive, and they cannot both be right. They understand that there are important issues at stake and that there are large practical implications. Not the least of these is the very character and love of God. Does God truly love all persons, and do we have a gospel of good news for all persons?

We need more, indeed lots more, Wesleyans and Arminians who have thought these issues through carefully enough to understand what is at stake and are prepared to expose Reformed rhetoric for what it is. We need more Arminians who preach about God’s sovereignty, predestination and election, rather than ignoring those doctrines, thereby giving the impression that those are “Calvinist issues.”

I love the recent version of the movie True Grit. I love the fact that hearty, hardy Protestant Christianity runs through the film, the sort of Christianity that was vibrant when America was most vitally Christian. One of the killers, as I recall, had a brother who was a Methodist circuit rider. Circuit riders had an edge. They loved God, they loved people, they were gracious. But they had an edge.

I wish more Arminians had True Grit.