Why Wesley, and Not Calvin

Don Thorsen

Although John Calvin is often cited as one of the most prominent theologians of Protestant Christianity, I argue that John Wesley represents a better spokesperson for how Protestant Christians live in practice. Calvin’s theology profoundly influenced Protestant Christianity for centuries, but I don’t think that most Protestant Christians live in practice (Greek, praxis) the way Calvin describes it in theory (Greek, theoria). Wesley’s theology is not as systematic as is Calvin’s theology, which is why — in part — Calvin’s theology does not sync with Christian living. Christian living isn’t all that systematic. Nor is the Bible all that systematic, for that matter. Consequently, I maintain that Wesley’s practical theology better captures the dynamic of Holy Spirit-led living, found both in the Bible and in the day-to-day lives of Protestant Christians.

In 2013, I published a book entitled Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice (Abingdon). In writing the book, I wanted to lift up the religious contributions of Wesley, rather than put down Calvin. However, I came to realize that in promoting Wesley vis-à-vis Calvin, it would be impossible not to sound critical of Calvin. Although Calvin and Wesley agree about most of Christianity, there exist key differences between the two — differences that contributed to subsequent Reformed and Methodist church traditions. If for no other reason than to understand some of the differences between the Reformed and Methodist churches, it is important to study how Calvin and Wesley agree and disagree.

A challenge in comparing Calvin and Wesley was that they lived in very different times. Calvin lived during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, when the Protestants were desperately trying to extricate themselves from the domination of the Holy Roman Empire as well as the Roman Catholic Church. By contrast, Wesley lived in the 18th century, and endeavored to revive the Church of England as well as evangelize a growing secular population. Despite differences in their historical contexts, it is possible to discern key differences in their Christian beliefs, values, and practices.

Theological Comparisons

Thorsen CalvinWesley13

In Calvin vs. Wesley, I focus on eight areas of theological comparison. In each chapter, I talk about how Calvin and Wesley agree, and then how they disagree. For this article, I will focus more on the differences than on the similarities, for the sake of brevity. In talking about Calvin, neither Wesley nor I consider the differences to be matters of Christian orthodoxy or salvific requirement. Calvin had his understanding of biblical Christianity, and Wesley has his understanding; they just disagreed. But for Wesley, his views were thought to be crucial both for fidelity to the Bible and for Holy Spirit-led Christianity.

Chapter 1 is entitled “God: More Love Than Sovereignty.” In Calvin’s theology, God is thought about predominantly in terms of sovereignty. As such, Calvin focused on the power and control of God over all of creation. In contrast, Wesley focused more on the love and personal dynamic of God’s relationship with creation, especially God’s relationship with people. Both Calvin and Wesley talked about the sovereignty and love of God; it is more a matter of emphasis than of excluding one attribute or the other. Although it is important to affirm the sovereignty of God, I argue that Protestant Christians in life focus more on the loving and personal dynamics of their relationship with God than on the power and control God has over their daily living. Believers view God as sovereign, but it is a sovereignty of steadfast love for people, individually and collectively.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Bible: More Primary Than Sole Authority.” Calvin and Wesley agreed on much about the Bible. However, Calvin tended to affirm Martin Luther’s emphasis on the sole authority of the Bible, epitomized in the Reformation slogan sola Scriptura (Latin, “scripture alone”). Wesley’s context reflected more the British Reformation development of Anglicanism as a via media (Latin, “middle way”) between the Continental Reformers — including Luther and Calvin — and Roman Catholicism. With regard to religious authority, Anglicans talked about a threefold view of religious authority, including the primacy of the Bible, coupled with the secondary, albeit legitimate, religious authority of church tradition and reason. With Wesley’s emphasis on revivalism, experiential evidence of conversion and of Holy Spirit-led living became increasingly important. So, he build on the threefold view of Anglicanism, adding experience as a religious authority. Sometimes this fourfold view of religious authority is referred to as the “Wesleyan quadrilateral.” Like Calvin, Wesley affirmed the Bible as Protestant Christians’ primary religious authority. Realistically speaking, though, he thought that more than the Bible factors into how theological, ethical, and church-oriented decisions are and should be made.

Chapter 3 is entitled “Humanity: More Freedom Than Predestination.” Calvin’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God emphasized God’s role, rather than people’s role, for salvation as well as for other aspects of their lives. Wesley also believed in God’s sovereignty and predestination. But Wesley thought that God’s predestination was based on God’s foreknowledge, rather than on the eternal decrees of God, which existed before the world was created. As such, God graciously enabled people to have enough freedom to decide for themselves, for example, with regard to whether they would receive (or reject) God’s gift of salvation, and how they live a faithful Christian life. Although there exist definite limitations on the extent of human choice (which Wesley preferred to call “free grace,” rather than “free will”), most Protestant Christians live as if their day-to-day decision-making has significance, including eternal significance.

Chapter 4 is entitled “Grace: More Prevenient Than Irresistible.” Calvin talked about the effectual grace of God, that is, that people cannot resist God’s plans for their lives. Later followers of Calvin referred to effectual grace as “irresistible.” Wesley, on the other hand, used the language of prevenient grace, which he learned through his Anglo-Catholic background. According to Wesley, grace is more than unmerited favor; it includes empowerment through the Holy Spirit. Grace that works preveniently (or beforehand) empowers people to have genuine — though not unlimited — freedom. Such freedom is as much God’s gift as is salvation, even if it means that some may reject God and God’s salvation. Of course, from Wesley’s perspective, the reality of sin, damnation, and salvation only make sense if people have a grace-aided measure of freedom. Otherwise, God must be viewed as responsible for sin, evil, and damnation as much as for salvation, goodness, and eternal life.

Chapter 5 is entitled “Salvation: More Unlimited Than Limited.” Although Calvin did not explicitly say that the salvation (or atonement) of Jesus Christ is limited to only certain people, his followers clearly talked about the atonement as limited. Before the world was created, God decreed who would be saved (i.e., elect) and who would be damned (i.e., reprobate). Wesley, on the other hand, believed in an unlimited atonement. If people didn’t repent and believe for salvation, then it was because of their choice, and not because of God’s deterministic decrees with regard to who is saved or not saved. Protestant Christians generally believe that people are damned by their own sinful decisions, and not by God determining who would be damned before the world was created.

Chapter 6 is entitled “Spirituality: More Holiness Than Mortification.” Calvin emphasized spirituality (or sanctification) more than Luther. But Calvin thought that believers’ sanctification, or growth in spirituality, came by God’s will and timing for their spiritual vivification, more than by any role on behalf of people. Believers could mortify their lives, that is, live obedient and austere lifestyles, since it would help them to live more decent and orderly lives. However, Wesley believed that God’s grace aided people to become more Christ-like. The Bible repeatedly calls believers to be holy, and the Holy Spirit gives them grace in becoming entirely sanctified. As such, people may choose to participate in spiritual disciplines described in the Bible and utilized throughout church history to become more like Christ. Although Protestant Christians are realistic about the obstacles to holy living due to sin and finite human existence, most have hope that their decisions make a difference — by God’s grace — and that they may contribute, rather than not contribute, to their spiritual maturation.

Chapter 7 is entitled “Church: More Catholic Than Magisterial.” Calvin had a well-developed theology of the church, which involved proclamation of the gospel message of Jesus, coupled with the right administration of the sacraments, vis-à-vis, Roman Catholic sacramentalism. He also believed in church discipline, and how the magistrates (or officials) of governments should partner with churches in order to administer discipline, including civil punishments for missing church or failure to obey the Bible. Heresy was punishable by death, administered by governmental magistrates. Wesley lived much later than Calvin, and the extreme context of the Reformation was no longer as life threatening. Still, Wesley experienced religious persecution, but thought that church relations should be more “catholic,” that is, inclusive of those who believe in Jesus as their savior, but who may differ in theological and ecclesiastical matters. Thus, Wesley exhorted believers’ to err on the side of welcome and hospitality, rather than heresy-hunting and civil exclusion.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Ministry: More Empowering Than Triumphal.” Just as Calvin had a clear idea of the church, he had a clear idea of ministry. It should include preaching, sacraments, and teaching — especially by pastors and teachers. Calvin believed that other roles in the church, for example, prophets, apostles, and evangelists, had ceased (this is sometimes called cessationism). From Calvin’s perspective, ministry should be heavily invested in preaching and teaching ministries. Wesley lived in a different historical context, to be sure, and his emphasis was more on reviving the church than reforming it. As such, Wesley emphasized evangelization — inside and outside church buildings, and the establishment of an elaborate network of midweek services. These midweek services (i.e., forms of Christian conferencing) included Methodist Societies, which functioned like mini-churches, and class meetings that also met midweek for the sake of small group accountability. For those committed to holy living, even smaller same-gender groups called bands were established in support of more spiritual accountability. In order to give leadership to this Christian conference network, Wesley appointed lay ministers, including women as well as men, which was empowering for laity of all sorts in creatively ministering to the needs of the world.


The appendix of my book is entitled “More ACURA than TULIP.” The acrostic TULIP comes from the historic work of Calvin’s followers in the Netherlands at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19. It is a shorthand reference to the so-called five points of Calvinism, which summarize the Canons of Dort. The five points have been summarized in English with the acrostic TULIP, which stands for the following doctrines: (1) Total depravity, (2) Unconditional election, (3) Limited atonement, (4) Irresistible grace, and (5) Perseverance of the saints. Together, the first letters of the five points spell TULIP. For many Reformed Christians, who follow Calvin, these five points have been influential in identifying Calvinism vis-à-vis other Christian traditions.

In contrast to the five points of Calvinism, I propose the acrostic ACURA as a Wesleyan alternative view. In my book, I talk about how the acrostic developed over time in my thinking and teaching. But I argue that ACURA gives a good counterpoint to TULIP. ACURA stands for the following doctrines: (1) All are sinful, (2) Conditional election, (3) Unlimited atonement, (4) Resistible grace, and (5) Assurance of salvation. The acrostic provides a catchy alternative to TULIP, and it highlights key points of difference between Calvinism and Wesleyanism.

I argue further that the acrostic ACURA represents a longstanding tradition of Christianity that precedes Calvin by centuries. ACURA reflects beliefs and values that extend back to the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican views, including the Arminian views that incited the Synod of Dort. As such, Wesley’s views were not new so much as they reestablished views of prevenient grace and human choice, which the theological tradition of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin denigrated. By contrast, Wesley stands with the majority of Christians in church history — past and present — who affirm the conditionality of salvation by grace, dependent on the choices people make to accept (or reject) God’s gift of eternal life. Like the Anglo-Catholic tradition Wesley inherited, he believed in the unlimited availability of Jesus’ atonement, and in the resistibility of grace. Of course, God’s grace is always available for believers, which gives them assurance of salvation. But because of the conditionality of salvation, believers must remain faithful in their reconciled relationship with God.


Regardless of the theology Christians claim to have, I argue that Protestants live more like the practical way Wesley theologically envisioned salvation and the Christian life, rather than the systematic way Calvin envisioned them. Although Calvin and Wesley believed in the sinfulness of the humanity and the need for God to save them through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Wesley placed more emphasis on how God provides sufficient grace for people to respond genuinely and faithfully to the gospel message of salvation. As such, Wesley placed a great deal more emphasis on the person and work of the Holy Spirit in graciously aiding people day-to-day to grow in faith, hope, and love.

Posted Feb 18, 2015