One of the most longstanding debates in the history of theology concerns the relationship between predestination and human freedom. On one side of this dispute, the most famous name is John Calvin, and on the other the most noted name is probably John Wesley. Although Wesley was primarily concerned with evangelism and church renewal, the very nature of his work required him to take positions on certain controversial issues. Perhaps the most significant of these involved his disputes with Calvinism; indeed, his work on these issues represents one of his most important contributions to historical theology.
I hasten to add that this dispute is far from being merely a relic of history that contemporary Christians can ignore. A few years ago I was coauthoring a book on Calvinism with a colleague and other academic friend asked if we were not simply beating a dead horse. The answer is decidedly, No! Anyone who is paying attention is well aware that Calvinism is not only alive, it is also flourishing. And what may come as a surprise to some is that it is particularly flourishing among young believers of college and even high school age. This resurgence of Calvinism was documented in a recent cover story in Christianity Today entitled “Young, Restless, and Reformed.”
While debates about Calvinism are typically vigorous and highly energetic, often the disputants miss the real issues that divide the two sides. This is not surprising, for understanding the issues requires grasping some subtle distinctions, particularly with respect to how human freedom is defined by the different sides. It is sometimes thought that differing views of freedom represent the deepest divide between Calvinists and Wesleyans. This is certainly not the case, but one does need to be clear on the different accounts of freedom truly to see the deeper issues.
Before stating the differences, it is important to be clear on the important ground that Wesley shared with his Calvinist opponents. In the first place, they agreed on the doctrine of total depravity, the doctrine that sin has affected all aspects of human nature and has disabled us from obeying God and doing his will. Moreover, Wesley and his opponents agreed that not all will be saved at the end of the day. So the first big issue between the two sides had to do with explaining why not all are saved. The Calvinist answer is that God unconditionally chooses to save some from the mass of fallen sinners, but passes over the rest, who are consequently damned. The elect who are chosen for salvation are given the gift of irresistible grace; that is, God moves upon their hearts and wills in such a way that they cannot but respond favorably to the invitation of the gospel.
And yet, Calvinists insist, the response to grace is nevertheless a free one. Consider this passage from the “Westminster Confession” describing God’s work in the lives of the elect. That work has the effect of “enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly, to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving 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). Notice particularly the last line, which says that “they come most freely, being made willing by grace.” This line is very revealing to help us understand the Calvinist view of freedom.
The essence of the view—sometimes called “soft determinism” and sometimes “compatibilism”—is that freedom is compatible with determinism. That is to say, a choice can be free even though it is completely determined by prior causes. In particular, Calvinists hold that God determines everything that happens, including our choices.
It is sometimes thought that Calvinism teaches that God forces us to do things against our will or compels us against our wishes. However, this is a serious misunderstanding of Calvinism. Look again at the passage above. It says that God enlightens the minds of the elect, that he renews their wills, changes their hearts, and so on. Consequently, God does not cause the elect to act against their wills, rather, he changes their wills so that when they come to Christ, they do so quite willingly. To be sure, they could not do otherwise—that is what makes it irresistible grace—but given how God has changed them internally, they do not want to do otherwise. They do exactly what God has determined them to do, and they do exactly what they want to do. They are both determined and free, in the sense that they do what they want to do. God causes them to have the beliefs and desires they do, and they act in accordance with those desires.
Now let us turn to Wesley to see how he explained why some are not saved. Here is how he stated the issue between himself and his Calvinist opponents. “You may drive me, on the one hand, unless I will contradict myself, or retract my principles, to own a measure of free will in every man; …and, on the other hand, I can drive you, and every other assertor of unconditional election, unless you will contradict yourself, or retract your principles, to own unconditional reprobation.” Notice: Wesley says that his principles drive him “to own a measure of free will in every man.” And this is his answer to the question of why some are not saved.
In Wesley’s view, God restores to fallen sinners a measure of freedom that allows them to accept the gospel and be saved, or to reject it. This is an essential part of his famous doctrine of “prevenient grace,” a doctrine that is the counterpart in his theological system to the doctrine of unconditional election in Calvinism. Prevenient grace enables all persons to respond to the gospel and be saved, so none are unconditionally elect as in Calvinism. Rather, election is conditional upon a positive response to God’s prevenient grace. Those who accept that grace and persevere in it will be saved, whereas those who persist in rejecting it will be lost. So Wesley’s account of why some are lost is profoundly different than the Calvinist answer. They are not lost because they are not elect; rather, they are not elect because they freely choose to remain lost.
Wesley’s view of freedom is very different from the Calvinist view. For him it is a contradiction in terms to say that a choice can be both determined and free. A truly free choice is one in which the person involved could have chosen otherwise. Again, all persons are enabled or empowered to accept the gospel and be saved but none are determined to do so.
It is important to emphasize the place that this view of freedom has in the structure of Wesley’s thought. Notice that it is something he must own, on pain of inconsistency, if he is to remain true to his principles. So his view of freedom is an implication of deeper principles he holds. And the Calvinists, he insists, must own unconditional reprobation, the doctrine that some are damned by God’s choice not to save them, if they are to be consistent.
Now this is what for Wesley is simply unthinkable and utterly at odds with the biblical picture of God. And here we begin to approach the deepest differences between Wesley and Calvinism. To bring these into focus, we need to reflect on a crucial implication of the Calvinist view of freedom, namely: if freedom and determinism were compatible, then God could save all persons with their freedom intact. This is why Wesley finds the Calvinist notion of reprobation abhorrent. According to it, God chooses to consign to damnation persons he could just as easily save, without overriding their freedom.
If the issue is considered solely from the standpoint of God’s power, Wesley would agree that God could have created a world in which he determined all things. But if he had chosen to determine all things, the world would be a very different place than it is. If God determined all things, the world would not be full of sin and misery. And certainly, God would not determine any to be lost if he could save them without overriding their freedom.
So now it becomes clear that the most fundamental difference between Calvinist and Wesleyan theology is ultimately a profoundly different view of the character of God. It is not a question of what God could do (power), but of what he would do (character). If he could save all without destroying their freedom, he certainly would do so. If he can but will not, he cannot be perfectly good or loving.
This is why Wesley’s view of human freedom is an implication of more fundamental principles having to do with God’s love and goodness. If there is great evil in the world, and some, perhaps many, are ultimately lost, this must be explained in terms of human freedom. Again, if God determined choices in the way Calvinists teach, he would not determine evil, and, ultimately damnation.
A practical implication of this profound difference is how we understand and preach the gospel. In particular, do we believe and preach that God genuinely loves all persons? While Wesleyans can sincerely affirm this, it is hard for Calvinists to do so without being disingenuous. For there is no intelligible sense in which it can be claimed that God loves persons he has chosen not to save, persons he could save without overriding their freedom (as Calvinists define it) but has chosen not to save. It is because the very heart of the gospel is involved in this classic controversy that Wesley felt so strongly about it, and also why contemporary Christians must continue to engage this issue with intelligent concern.
To do so requires serious effort to gain a clear grasp not only of the philosophical and theological concepts I have touched upon in this essay, but also a deep understanding of the biblical narrative. Proof texts will not settle the issue for either side. Only an honest grappling with Scripture, along with rigorous clarity about the theological truth claims advanced by each side will allow an accurate assessment of the two traditions, show how they diverge, and articulate what is at stake when they do.