A Calvinist Admires Wesley: Towards Fruitful Theological Discussion

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When I tell people that I am 1) a Baptist, 2) a Calvinist, and 3) a student at Asbury Seminary, they usually respond in intrigue, curiosity, and sometimes cynicism—“why did you chose to attend a Wesleyan seminary?” In fact, one of the reasons I chose to come to Asbury is because I firmly believe that theological dialogue needs to be fostered between denominations in order for the church to live up to Christ’s desire for her to be one, as He and the Father are one (John 17:22-23).

That is why I am particularly thankful for Andrew Dragos’ helpful article “What Wesleyans Can Learn from John Calvin.” In his fantastic article, Andrew points out several implications of John Calvin’s personal ministry, which Wesleyans should seek to emulate, namely his fruitful ministry to the city of Geneva. Articles such as this demonstrate that there is a hunger among Christians to engage in positive, sharpening, and friendly discussion with other Christians who may see things through glasses with a slightly different theological prescription.

In the interest of continuing this rich dialogue between Christ-followers who hold to slightly different theological orientations, I have chosen to write a brief article articulating why I, a Calvinist, have come to admire the work and theology of John Wesley.

I do not need to retell John Wesley’s story for this largely Wesleyan audience, but I must say that I strongly admire his zeal, energy, and pure drive in seeking to spread the good news of Christ to lost people in England and America. Wesley famously quipped in response to an unwelcoming bishop, “the world is my parish.” In this statement, Wesley was not trying to be cute, rebellious, or even prideful. Wesley sought to move the locus of his ministry to the entire world, and did not limit his proclamation to simply the traditional parish. Wesley zealously preached in hospitals, chapels, halls, and even in open fields for about 50 years, as he believed that the proclamation of the gospel was paramount in bringing men and women to a saving knowledge of Christ.

Admittedly, as a Calvinist, I am uncomfortable with the concept of “entire sanctification.” However, as I’ve come to read Wesley’s writings on the matter, I would say that I agree with Wesley 95% on this issue. Loving God and others without selfish motivation should be the intention of every Christian! For Wesley, Christian perfection did not mean that one could become sinless; rather it meant that a Christian could come to such spiritual maturity that he/she would be free from willful sin. We can debate the nuances of this position for years, but the fact remains that Wesley’s doctrine serves as a challenge for us to analyze our spiritual lives and cut out all of the thoughts and activities that would hinder us from loving God and others wholeheartedly. With Wesley, holiness is the name of the game. Truly, a remarkable vision.

One of Wesley’s most astonishing contributions to practical theology has to be his unique system of societies, classes, and bands. This three-pronged approach to Christian discipleship sought to form the believer holistically, and unify the cognitive, emotional, and active sides of Christian faith. The society was a large group meeting devoted to the cognitive aspects of faith and doctrine.The smaller class sought to alter behavior and focused exclusively on spiritual growth, and the even smaller band was devoted to retooling inward motives and orientations. D.M. Henderson’s book John Wesley’s Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples (Evangel Publishing House, 1997) is an excellent resource that explores Wesley’s remarkable discipleship method in greater detail. I believe it was D.L. Moody who noted that the Wesleyan class meeting was the greatest tool ever devised for discipling new believers. I would certainly agree with Moody: Wesley’s discipleship model is pure gold for the Christian educator.

To be honest, my list of praises for Wesley could go on for pages! Many Reformed Christians have a lot to glean from not only Wesley’s life and practices, but also his theology. I am saddened that much of the discourse surrounding “non-essential” theological differences has become laden with inappropriate caricatures and even hateful speech—Wesleyans and Calvinists alike. But there are several glimmers of hope, notably Andrew’s thoughtful and positive article. I remember giving one of our marvelous seminary professors a book written by a Reformed author which I thought would be a wonderful addition to the course. He not only read it, but enjoyed it, and even required it for the same class the next semester. Gestures like this, though small, are a step in the right direction of Christian unity and further interdenominational dialogue.

My prayer is that we would seek to recover the vision that John Wesley sought to convey in his marvelous sermon, “Catholic Spirit” (thanks to Abe Zimmerman for pointing this out to me):

But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.

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Ben Espinoza currently serves as a pastor at Covenant Church in Bowling Green, Ohio. A frequent writer in areas related to Christian formation, ministry, and theology, he currently serves on the board of directors for the Society for Children’s Spirituality: Christian Perspectives.

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