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.
- God truly loves all persons.
- Truly to love someone is to desire their well-being and to promote their true flourishing as much as you properly can.
- 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.
- God could determine all persons freely to accept a right relationship with himself and be saved.
- 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.