Tag Archives: Calvinism

Carolyn Moore ~ When Calvinism Becomes Dangerous

I have great respect for many colleagues in ministry who espouse a reformed or Calvinist view of the world. That said, it should be no surprise to those who read and listen to me regularly that I am enthusiastically and unapologetically Arminian (really interested? Read this book). I am far too deeply committed to the notion of God’s pure love exercised in his gift of human free will to appreciate most of what reformed theologians teach us. I can manage about two  and a half letters of the TULIP; the rest of it does not convince me.

I suspect that at least some of our theological differences are just a matter of how our brains work but there are concepts that cross a line into dangerous territory. Here are three Calvinist ideas I’ve heard voiced in real conversations that cause real damage when spoken into a secular culture:

Misconception #1: God has my days numbered and nothing I do can change that. This line was shared (verbatim) while someone I love was animatedly sharing his participation in some fun but risky behavior. He said, “Listen, I know where I’m going when I die and God knows exactly when that is going to happen and nothing I do can change that.” His point was that since God has already ordained the day of his death, his choices have no power to change his future.


Calvin not only taught that God’s grace is irresistible but that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. And in fact, he took this idea a step further. He believed every detail happens according to the will of God, that even evil people are operating under God’s power so that no matter what a person does, God has caused it.

Maybe on my weak days, I wish this were true. I sometimes wish God would just override my will. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been with people who struggle to believe; in those moments I’d give anything if God would just save them from themselves.

Make them believe, Jesus! Because they’re killing me!

But that isn’t how it works. People come to Christ every day and every day people resist the grace of God. Not only that, but every day people make horrible choices against the will of God that limit the length or joy of their lives.

Our behavior matters. If I smoke two packs of cigarettes  a day, it will affect the length and joy of my life. To persist in such behavior isn’t God’s will, and our behavior matters to God. As Moses said to the Israelites, we have two choices before us — blessings and curses, life and death. “Choose life, that you might live.”

Misconception #2: Everything happens for a reason and all reasons are ordained by God (even the evil ones). I most recently heard this one at the funeral of a young adult who overdosed. How such a hollow statement could have provided comfort to a family dealing with such a tragedy is beyond me. Is even an overdose ordained by God? I can’t imagine the thought of having to endure such a tragedy believing that God had done this to my loved one … or at least blessed it.

Paul’s word to the Romans was that God can work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. There is a ton of solid theology in that one line; it assures me that God can make good out of even my worst mistakes. What it doesn’t tell me is that God causes my mistakes. He can work redemption into a circumstance without causing it.

The fact of God’s sovereignty does not have to mean that God has made toys to play with. People are not puppets. To the contrary, he has made free humans with heads, hearts and wills, “just a little lower than the angels.” I can have  tremendous trust in who God is, in his great love for us and in his power to redeem anything without having to believe that he causes even my worst mistakes and sins.

Misconception #3: Jesus died for the ones he came to save, but not for everyone.
This is how many people deal with the fact that many in the world have never heard and will never hear the name of Jesus. It is because Jesus didn’t die for them. The “L” in TULIP means God’s atonement is limited. A Calvinist would say, “It is not my salvation to get and it is not my salvation to lose. It is Christ’s salvation of me.”

An Arminian would agree. God’s salvation is his gift to us, and nothing we do can generate it. But everyone is offered the gift. Every person on this earth has both the right and the opportunity to have their chains broken, their guilt removed and their value restored. There is no one beyond the reach of his mercy. To think otherwise is to judge someone before Christ himself has had the opportunity to do so.

Salvation is a free gift for everyone. Not everyone will accept that gift, but everyone is offered it. Otherwise, what was the cross for?

This is the strength of His grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so that we awaken to him, he will be there. Grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days, even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others we feel. God is there through all of it. That is what it means to be sovereign. God has been there the whole time, watching and in his strength, waiting.

And God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once given up on you, not even once.


Rev. Carolyn Moore blogs at www.artofholiness.com. 

Andrew C. Thompson ~ Our Sort-Of Free Will: How Relationship with God Happens

I wake up on a Saturday morning. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is out and flowers are in bloom. Should I go to the zoo and watch the animals, or would I rather work in my garden? Am I even free to decide?

Most people would say, “Yes, of course you are free to decide.” And I am. In fact, I’ve got more freedom than the freedom of choosing between the zoo and the garden. I could choose to do something else entirely. I could even choose to lie in bed all day with the curtains drawn—as wasteful as that might seem.

But what if the choice is on a different level entirely? How about if the choice is whether or not to love God? To believe in Jesus Christ?

Do we have the ability to choose our salvation?

That is a much trickier question. Christian theology has traditionally approached it by considering the character and abilities of the human will. At issue is whether our will is free, and if so, to what degree. You can think about this on a spectrum. On one pole is the view that the will is entirely constrained and unfree. This view is sometimes called predeterminism, and it is akin to the idea that we are all like marionette puppets dangling from a set of strings. Every action we take—even simple ones like whether to go to the zoo or work in the garden—is decided by a power beyond ourselves.

The opposite pole would be the position of radical free will. According to this view, human beings have complete moral autonomy with the ability to choose freely whatever they judge to be right. On the radical free will view, human beings can choose anything—including salvation. This view rests on the larger understanding there is really nothing in the human condition to prevent a person’s moral discernment and action. And that is as true from choosing the zoo on a Saturday morning to choosing salvation for all eternity.

Two primary factors affect how we understand the degree of freedom human beings enjoy. First, how do we understand God’s sovereignty over the world? Does God’s position as Lord of creation mean that his will controls everything? If not, to what extent does God allow freedom to his creatures, and how compatible is that freedom with God’s will?

The second factor has to do with the influence of sin upon the created order—and especially upon mankind. How constrained are we by the corrupting influence of sin? To what extent does sin impede the human ability to choose, to act, or to love?

The Work of Grace in a Calvinist View

In a Christian worldview, the questions about God’s sovereignty and human moral freedom must be engaged with reference to the nature and work of God’s grace.

John Calvin was one of the greatest Christian theologians ever to put pen to paper on the subject of the depravity of the will due to sin and the need for God’s grace. Calvin points to the words of Jesus Christ in John 8:34 (“Truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin”) and concludes, “We are all sinners by nature; therefore we are held under the yoke of sin. But if the whole man lies under the power of sin, surely it is necessary that the will, which is its chief seat, be restrained by the stoutest bonds” (Institutes 2.2.27).

For Calvin we do have some limited freedom of action even in the face of sin’s depravations (e.g., I really can choose between a trip to the zoo or a day in my garden). This is because all human beings are the beneficiaries of common grace, or what Calvin calls “the general grace of God” (Institutes 2.2.17). Common grace is what explains how we manage to build houses and learn Spanish, to train horses and do algebra.

Yet Calvin is unwilling to admit that our will—even regenerated by grace—has any real power to cooperate with the Holy Spirit at work within us. We have no ability (even a grace-enabled ability) to actively love God. Calvin rather insists that “believers act passively…seeing that capacity is supplied from heaven, that they may claim nothing at all for themselves” (Institutes 2.5.11). The technical term for this view is monergism, and it is characteristic of the Calvinist understanding of how God’s grace works.

The view Calvin holds about the powerlessness of the human will is a testament to both his view of God’s sovereignty and his understanding of the depravity of the human condition as a result of sin. He wants to reserve all of the glory of salvation for God alone. In the Reformed tradition, the view that grace works irresistibly and independently of human cooperation is considered to be necessary to preserve the majesty of God. This is part, though not all, of what is meant by predestination as Calvinists use that term. It isn’t the same thing as predeterminism, but it shares some significant characteristics with it.

The Work of Grace in a Wesleyan View

Is it possible, though, that there is a way to understand that God and God alone is the author of all salvation while retaining a role for meaningful human participation in God’s work?

There is, in fact, such a view. It is the view that God’s grace works to heal the human will to the point that a meaningful response to that grace is enabled. On this view, faith is made possible by grace and amounts to the response to that grace by a person whose capacity for relationship with God has been (and is being) restored. One figure who taught this view of a grace-empowered cooperation with grace was John Wesley.

For Wesley, a key passage is Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God that worketh in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” How we understand the regeneration of the will is related to the meaning of the phrase, “it is God that work is in you, both to will and to do…” Those verbs “to will” and “to do” are, for Wesley, references to moral thought (or feeling) and the action that follows subsequently. As he puts it in the sermon, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” “‘to will’ may imply every good desire, ‘to do’ whatever results therefrom” (¶I.2).

Moreover, since it is God “that worketh in you” both for the motivation of the will and the action of the body, this means that God alone is responsible for “that energy which works in us every right disposition, and then furnishes us for every good work and work” (¶I.3) Wesley drives this point home with the language of breath that is so often connected to the work of the Holy Spirit: “God breathes into us every good desire, and brings every good desire to good effect” (¶I.2).

The significance of this dynamic view of God’s grace, as present and active at every stage of the moral life, cannot be overestimated. Whether we are responding in love to our neighbor or whether we are responding in love to God, it is the power of God’s grace that enables the thought, word, or action itself. This is not a free will so much as it is a regenerated will—and, of course, a regeneration that must be continually fueled by fresh infusions of grace.

Yet note the important difference in the way that regeneration is treated by Wesley (as opposed to Calvin). Just because God is at work in us, it does not follow that we are passive instruments of God’s will. God does not love himself through us; rather, God heals our hearts to the point that we can truly respond to God in love through a grace-empowered movement of our own wills. Wesley makes this point with reference to Scripture:

We know indeed that word of his to be absolutely true, ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’ But on the other hand we know, every believer can say, ‘I can do all things through Christ that strengtheneth me’ (¶III.5).

There is thus a certain dynamic always present in the Christian life—the knowledge that we are powerless to work absent God’s grace but powerful indeed to work when animated and guided by that grace.

In addition, Wesley argues that the presence of grace within one’s life multiplies with use. He uses a memorable aphorism to describe this aspect of the work of grace: “Stir up the spark of grace which is now in you, and he will give you more grace” (¶III.6). God’s grace burns like the coals of a campfire that has been tended for hours; it lies at the fire’s heart and is the force for combustion each time fuel is added anew. And when that fuel is added (or when the “spark of grace” is stirred), the power represented by that grace is grown and magnified. Loving God turns out to be a progressive experience whereby our communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gains in depth and breadth over time. The relationship described here is the very essence of sanctification.

Interpreting the Biblical Witness

The Wesleyan view of the interaction of grace and the will offers an insightful interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on how grace works in human life. It also helps us to avoid two extreme positions mentioned earlier—both of which are fraught with problems. On the one hand, there is the position of predeterminism that would treat human beings as puppets on a string. Aside from simply disregarding the clear teaching of Scripture that human moral choices really do have meaning, the predeterministic view suffers from a fundamental flaw: it makes no room for the actual reality of love, which requires a relationship of two parties where one gives and the other receives (and vice versa). Puppeteers may enjoy performing with their puppets, but they don’t have true relationships with them.

While the Calvinist position of predestination does not go nearly so far as predeterminism, it suffers from a version of the same flaw. At its heart, predestination does not conceive of a meaningful part for human beings to play in their own salvation. If God’s grace acts unconditionally and irresistibly, then we are truly passive participants in the experience of salvation. That view of salvation contradicts the plain sense of Scripture at numerous points and also runs counter to lived experience. Where it comes closest to the errors of predeterminism is in its bizarre, one-direction view of love. God loves us, but we only love God in return insofar as God’s grace forces us to love. The problem, of course, is that love can never coerce or manipulate in this way. It must be freely given, freely received, and freely returned.

The other extreme position we charted earlier is the radical free will position, which holds to the view that we are the primary actors in salvation. Here the agency at work is just the opposite of that in predeterminism. We choose to believe, thereby obligating God to scribble our names down in the Book of Life. On this view, it is God that is passive while we bear sole responsibility for getting ourselves saved. It must be said that this view is one to which some Methodists have tended to fall prey throughout history, though it is every bit as out of step with biblical teaching as the Calvinist position. If both predeterminism and predestination fail to understand the character of grace as God’s love for us, then the radical free will position fails to understand the depths of depravity that sin leaves us in (with the corresponding need to be healed before we can grow into relationship with God). Ultimately faith is not a choice we make but rather a response to what God has done for us and in us.

Can I choose to either go to the zoo or stay at home to work in my garden? Sure I can. Can I choose to love God? I can respond in love to God, yes, but only after God has initiated a relationship with me first. “We love because he first loved us,” the Apostle John tells us (1 John 4:19). Grace is given freely to us by God; it heals us and thereby enables us to freely love God in return. Salvation is thus a relationship—a communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit made possible by the triune God’s boundless love for us.


Tom Fuerst ~ The Real Problem with Once Saved, Always Saved

I just finished reading the New York Times article about Robert L. Dear, Jr, the shooter in the recent Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado Springs. In the article, Dear is described as a serial philanderer, gambler, an abusive husband/boyfriend, and a Christian.

A Christian?

Well, yes, of course. Why not?

I mean, once saved always saved*, right? That’s what Dear believed, anyway: “He says that as long as he believes he will be saved, he can do whatever he pleases.”

And herein lies my biggest problem with not only Robert Dear, but all persons who espouse some doctrine of unchecked “Once Saved, Always Saved.” How are you going to tell me that a person can claim to be a follower of the crucified messiah, claim to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and yet live a life that is in complete and utter contradiction with everything that God stands for?

How can you have, as the article contends, “a man of religious conviction who sinned openly, a man who craved solitude and near-constant female company, a man who successfully wooed women but, some of them say, also abused them. [A man who] frequented marijuana websites, then argued with other posters, often through heated religious screeds” who is also a Christian?

This kind of thing, where a man can live in complete contradiction to the character of the gospel and yet still believe himself to be a Christian, is only possible because of a doctrine that is downright false. There is absolutely no point in all of scripture where mere confession of belief warrants a free ticket to heaven no matter what one does in this life. You can ask Jesus into your heart 8 million times, but if you live the kind of life described above, you need to know that you are not a Christian.

This is what I find so problematic about the doctrine of “Once Saved, Always Saved.” It throws the entire gospel under the bus of the human need for security, however false that security may be. It offer certitude where none should be offered. It allows us to live how we want to live without demanding any conformity to the image of Christ, any growth in holiness, any perseverance.

And if you want me to be more exegetical about it, more biblical in my reference, then let me point out that this article about Robert Dear describes a man who lives entirely contrary to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. A man who “constantly criticizes everyone around him and is very hard to please” falls outside the bounds of Jesus’ call to “judge not” in Matthew 7. A man who “spends a lot of time planning revenge” hardly seems like the kind of person who could “turn the other cheek” or fulfill Jesus call to “love your enemies” in reflection of God’s love for his enemies in Matthew 6. A man who “erupts into fury in seconds” could hardly claim to follow the Jesus who warns us sternly in Matthew 6 about the relationship between anger and murder. A man who is divorced multiple times (because of his abuse of women) would also stand in violation of Matthew 6’s injunctions against divorce that is driven by a dehumanization of women. A man who cheats on multiple wives, even likely rapes a woman, can hardly be within the bounds of Jesus’ ethic of refusing lust so as to avoid adultery.

And to tie it all together, let me finally say that it was Jesus, himself, who said that there will be many who say to him, “Lord, Lord” and he will say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” And the difference between those who knew him and those who did not was simply a matter, not of faith or confession or creed, but of fruit and character. Mr. Dear argues in his cannabis forums that, “Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that JESUS IS LORD,” but he uses this as a threat to others instead of facing the truth that such texts ought to first highlight the massive plank in his own eye.

Clearly, I have taken an extreme example to point out what I believe to be an extreme problem with a faulty Christian doctrine. “Once Saved Always Saved” is a danger to the Christian faith because it offers all the greatness of the gospel without any of the discipline, sacrifice, holiness, perseverance, or love required of those who claim to be disciples of Jesus. Mr. Dear may be an extreme example, but his arrogant assurance reveals an extreme problem.

This is why I’m Wesleyan (not that we are always consistent in our application of our theology): because Wesleyan theology teaches that the pursuit of holiness is not an add-on to the gospel, but the very gospel, itself. There can be no gospel without holiness. There can be no salvation from sin in the next life without a desire for and a work toward being saved from sin in this life. We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in us to will and to do according to his good pleasure. When we assume we can have salvation without the fear and trembling, without the word, and without obedience to the will of God, we give ourselves false assurance that ultimately leads to our destruction, and, in the case of Robert Dear, the destruction of others around him. Robert Dear is not just a deranged individual (he is certainly that), but his is also the product of a half-gospel that demands no life-change, no genuine repentance, no social holiness, and no personal holiness.


*I want to be clear here that while I’m a Wesleyan, my issue here is not with people who believe differently than I do regarding merely whether or not it is possible to be a Christian and walk away from it. Wesleyans and (good) Calvinists disagree on this issue. But I can at least respect that the Calvinist calls for perseverance in holiness for any kind of assurance. They do not believe salvation, once received, can be forfeited like we Wesleyans do, but my point is that my argument in this post is not with those who hold to a position that says “holiness matters,” but with those who have a view of Once Saved Always Saved that says, as Robert Dear does, “I can now do whatever I want because I’m saved.”

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.

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.