John Wesley Lays the Smackdown on Predestination


Granted, it is doubtful that Wesley would be a WWE fan, but it seems like an adequate description of the argument I am about to share.

Came across this gem as I began to reread Randy Maddox’s modern classic Responsible Grace in hopes that it will spark ideas as I begin to write my ordination papers.  For Methodists, there is probably no better broad interpretation of Wesley’s whole project than this monograph.  For non-Methodists, it is important for its contributions to practical theology and for its suggestions (via Wesleyan soteriology) toward healing the Orthodox-Catholic rift.

This particular passage comes during a discussion of Wesley’s view of Scripture.  For Papa John, it was important that any text be interpreted within the structure and thrust of the whole Bible.  To defend a devilish doctrine – like predestination – on Scriptural grounds was, for Wesley, an affront to the whole testimony of the Bible.  Predestination, he says,

destroys all His attributes at once.  It overturns both his justice, mercy and truth.  Yea, it represents the most Holy God as worse than the devil…. But you say you will ‘prove it by Scripture’.  Hold!  What will you prove by Scripture?  That God is worse than the devil?  It cannot be.  Whatever that Scripture proves, it never can prove this….There are many Scriptures the true sense whereof neither you or I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory.  But this I know, better it were such say it had no sense at all than to say it had such a sense as this….No Scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all this works. (“Free Grace,” quoted in Maddox, 39.)

Calvinism has been resurgent lately (and not the friendly, graceful Barthian version).  I’m not sure why, except perhaps that in an age of sloganeering and polarization, there are folks attracted to strong convictions of whatever sort, regardless of theological merit.  Of course, hardcore Calvinists will say that we Arminians lean towards works righteousness or universalism.  But, with Wesley, I would affirm that double predestination turns the God of the Bible into an unrecognizable tyrant.



The full text of the above sermon is available here.

18 thoughts on “John Wesley Lays the Smackdown on Predestination”

  1. I bet he dreamt of becoming a wrestler. Maybe he moonlighted as one while circuit riding.

    In any case, I think he makes a good point. As I understand them, Calvinists often hide behind God’s sovereignty. I like Wesley’s extra-biblical response.

  2. I remember reading a Wesley sermon where he went after the Presbies on this. It was pretty painful reading, actually. Not exactly full of charity.

    Dr. Gillespie at Princeton once said that the whole matter really starts when we say faith is a gift of God (which it is), and then begin to wonder why God gives the gift to some but not others.

  3. Haha, yes, Wesley is not the first theologian to get a little crisp when he felt the character of God was at stake. He was also writing in the context of 18th century Anglicanism, which was very much divided on the issue of predestination. He felt it harmed the character of God, undercut human response-ability, and damaged the call to evangelize.

    Of course all Christians would have to affirm that faith is a gift, and wondering why some get it and some don’t is natural. The leap comes when we ask further: does God gift the gift arbitrarily, or because He knows in His gracious omniscience who will reject and who will claim that gift?

    I’ve also found it strange how many hardcore reformed folks are much more interested in preserving God’s glory than insisting on His benevolence. If Jesus is indeed the fullest revelation of who God is, prioritizing God’s moral qualities in this manner seems like poppycock.
    I’m quite open to some of Barth’s reworking of reformed categories, though.

    1. I’m late to the party, but if I may chime in on this important topic…

      “The leap comes when we ask further: does God gift the gift arbitrarily, or because He knows in His gracious omniscience who will reject and who will claim that gift?”

      If God “predestines” based on who will reject and who will accept the gift then why call it predestination? Nothing is being predestined, so why use the term? You might say, “Paul implies that God ‘looks ahead’ at people’s decisions when he uses the term ‘foreknowledge’ in connection with predestination”. The problem is while foreknowledge can be defined simply as, “Knowing what person S will do in the future,” it can also simply mean God’s omniscience that what he desires to take place will come to pass. Yes, God foreknew that I would be a child of God. Consequently, I am considered “elected”. To say that this implies that his foreknowledge was based on my actions is simply a non sequitur.

      Moreover, the Bible is clear that no one chooses their salvation anyway, so exactly what actions would God be looking at, anyway? John 1:12-13 says that we not born of the will of any man but of God’s will. In John 6, the crowd asks Christ what they can do to work the works of God. His response? “This is the work of God: that you believe in Him whom he sent.” Zing! It’s about God’s goodness, not our own. Prevenient grace doesn’t resolve the issue, it dodges it. Even if God “frees us to believe” the question still remains: whence comes the godly propensity in some and not others to believe? Lest Arminians give a nod to works-righteousness, they’re left with helplessly shrugging their shoulders. Or maybe they dress it up as “paradox” and then condemn you for trying to probe the “mysteries of God”.

      God doesn’t do anything arbitrarily. If you’re going to call his sovereign choosing of the elect “arbitrary”, why not call any of his actions arbitrary. Why did he predestine you to be a pastor rather than a plumber? How was that choice of his any more or less arbitrary than any other choice he’s never made? Indeed, what is arbitrary is the claim his sovereign election is arbitrary. Ephesians 1 says plainly that God works all according to the good pleasure of his will. He is writing a great story, and that story involves characters, some whom will justice, some whom will receive mercy. But no one will receive injustice from the hand of God.

      Anyway, I must say that you are the first UMC pastor I have ever known that talks about predestination at all, even if from an Arminian point of view. I spent the first fourteen years of my life in a UMC and heard only wishy-washy, moralistic, inspirational Christianity. That is not to say that every UMC is like that, all I know is that I never heard the gospel or even an expository sermon in the UMC. I am curious, if you are a preacher of the true gospel, why you stay in the UMC. I ask that in love! Please do not mistake my brusqueness for anger. Feel free to write me via email if you wish.

      Blessings in Christ.

      1. Keith, late or not, thanks for joining “the party.” Of course, predestination is not a word I chose, but one that goes back at least to Augustine. I am perfectly comfortable with the notion of God’s foreknowledge, but God’s knowing what will be does not determine what will be. I have never subscribed to the God as “micro-manager” view of God’s character.

        If there is no room to question the justice of God, then we should expunge the entire Psalter from the Bible and Christian worship.

        Of course, the old debate between Arminians and hardcore Calvinists (for Arminius was a Calvinist!) has always meant a perpetual cycled of accusations between works-righteousness and antinomianism.

        Thanks to Barth, I am not as uncomfortable with the category of elected as some Arminians may be. Election is, of course, a concept with deep Biblical and theological pedigree. I think Calvin – and certainly his modern super-fans – goes to far when stressing a “double” predestination. I certainly appreciate the need to give God the initiative in salvation, but I don’t think this necessitates believing he has the initiative in damnation as well: hell, after all, is getting our own way, not God getting what God ultimately wants.

        I am also not so certain that the assumptions behind a hardcore predestination are correct: that God ceases to work for our salvation because we merely happen to die. 1 Peter gives some interesting thoughts in this direction – the “harrowing of hell” as it is traditionally called – it at least gives us a reason to think that death does not stop Jesus from reaching out to his own.

        I suspect we made opposite ecclesiological moves: i came up in a fundamentalist context, constantly beat over the head with “the true gospel,” and later discovered that I was a Wesleyan Christian committed to a holistic view of salvation, a non-individualistic view of Christianity, and a vision of God’s character shaped by most of all by the grace revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

      2. Thanks for your reply!

        There’s three reasons one might ask God a question: 1) to learn something, 2) to raise a point (rhetorical), 3) to challenge his authority. Which of these are you attributing to the psalmists? I would argue that Ps 10:1 is the second, seeing as David is well aware of the answer in Ps 37:1-8. Job 38-42:1-6 tells me whether that was a noble endeavor.

        I have not read much Calvin, but I have read Paul, and Paul says that God chooses some vessels for honor and some for dishonor, so that’s why I subscribe to “double predestination”. (“Single predestination”, if that is what is called, contradicts God’s sovereignty.) Of course, my flesh rails against it, and in my arrogance I question it, but I know that it is I with the perverted sense of justice.

        Hebrews 9:27 says that each man is appointed once to die, then judgment. On that basis I don’t believe that 1 Peter 3:19 refers to a “second chance” for unbelievers. Regardless—why, might I ask, would God wait and save someone after death when he could have saved them while they saved, had he desired?

        My leaving of the UMC is unrelated to ecclesiology, but I’ll save you the details. I do you have two questions, if you don’t mind:

        1. Does a person have to be perfectly righteous (i.e., without any sin on their account) before they can enter Heaven?

        2. If yes to #1, what is the source of this righteousness?

        Thanks for your time!


      3. Sorry, the last sentence of the first large paragraph should read, “Job 38-42:1-6 tells me whether the third type of question is a noble endeavor.”

      4. Keith, for some reason I couldn’t respond below your most recent comments, so I must post up here. I would argue that the Psalmist on occasion – as do the prophets sometimes – raise questions consistently about the goodness of God. Jesus, by one account, quotes Psalm 22:1 on the cross – using the Psalm to pray to God out of a place of deep pain and agony.

        Question 1 assumes a view of salvation I am not overly fond of: that God has some kind of sin ledger held against us. I think that in Christ that ledger was destroyed on the cross. So no, we do not have to be perfectly righteous to “get to heaven” (which is not the goal of the Christian life anyway, but a side-effect of salvation in Christ, and a precursor to the ultimate goal which is the Reign of God); none are righteous, says the Lord. (Eccl. 7:10/Romans 3:10) Being forgiven of sins and being perfectly righteous are not the same thing.

        You know the answer of 2, but it does not follow that the answer to that is predestination. Of course God is the author and provider of all righteousness, but he does not force it upon is. Who can force love? It can always be resisted. We grow in grace by participating in Christ’s life through the Holy Spirit, incorporated into his Body through baptism and grown by the Lord’s Supper and all the means of grace.


      5. Thanks for the reply. These questions aren’t about predestination per se, I just wanted to understand your view of the gospel.

        “we do not have to be perfectly righteous to “get to heaven”

        A holy God can dwell with sinners? If the unrighteous can dwell with God then what is the point of salvation in the first place? All are unrighteous, so all can dwell with God?

        Of course not. We must be righteous to inherit the kingdom of God. The unrighteous will be cut off. Ps 37:28-29

        Deuteronomy 6:25 says, “Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us.'”

        Perfect obedience to God’s commands –> righteousness

        YET… we are sinners. We are law-breakers. We cannot NOT sin. Our hearts our evil. We are stained.

        So the big question is this: if I am hopelessly unrighteous and yet only the righteous get to inherit the kingdom of God, how can I ever possibly be saved?

        The answer is all over scripture, but to summarize: God himself came to earth to live the life that all of us were supposed to live but none of us could live. He obeyed the law perfectly. He vindicated himself as the true king of righteousness. Then, being perfect, he died as a perfect sacrifice for sin. The only and only necessary atonement. God raised him from the dead to prove his dominion over death and his newness of life.

        Paul says that through faith in Christ doing for us what we could never do for ourselves, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. We become clothed in it. The judge sees us on judgment day, and he doesn’t see our sin, which has been forgiven, but he does see a perfect righteousness.

        Adam and Eve tried to create clothes for themselves. The work of their hands was futile. Then God killed an animal (true atonement requires the shedding of blood) and clothed them. Isaiah 61 says,

        “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
        My soul shall be joyful in my God;
        For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
        He has covered me with the robe of righteousness,”

        We do not clothe ourselves. God clothes us, lest any man should boast.

        Paul writes in Romans 1:16 that he is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for in it “the righteousness of God” is revealed. I think Paul is saying that everything about the gospel says, “God alone is righteous. Even when we become saved, its still about his righteousness. It is his righteousness that justifies us.” God alone is savior, that he may receive all the glory.

        Agree / disagree?

  4. Sorry. The reference to divine omniscience seems a little to easy. It’s like trying to tie something into a neat bow, when it is best to leave it open.

    I have read Calvin and Wesley, and I try to take from them what I find valuable (and stay out of the quarrels). For all his faults, Calvin was just trying to follow a trajectory he thought was set in motion by Paul and Augustine.

    I have wondered too about the new Calvinism and its appeal. My sense is that folks are hungry for a robust version of Christianity, and Calvin fits that bill, with his vision of God as King, Father and Lawgiver.

  5. So often we take comfort in certain truths which touch on the sovereignty of God. Think of how as believers “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10) or that for all of mankind God has “determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings…” (Acts 17:26).

    We come in reverent fear before God when we read that “he looks at the earth, and it trembles; he touches the mountains, and they smoke.” (Psalm 104:32). What sweet repose we take, knowing that the hairs on our head are numbered and that we are worth more than many sparrows, after all “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will” (Matthew 10:29).

    In all of these areas God exercises His sovereignty, but when we dare apply God’s pre-determined sovereign will to the salvation of men and women we hear the cry: “devilish doctrine!”

  6. And yet, apart from God’s sovereign election, no one would ever come to Him or experience salvation. Predestination doesn’t destroy God’s attributes, it affirms them in a way that we can truly cry out saying, “God You are altogether merciful and good, there is none like You!” Only through His intervention can any of us receive Christ by faith.

    While we may disagree on this, I think a recent blog post concerning how Calvinist/Arminian brothers and sisters ought to treat one another is worth noting, and a reminder that I often need to preach to myself:

    1. I think – no, actually I’m sure – that one can affirm that salvation is God’s work from first to last, without affirming predestination.

      Wesley spoke of “prevenient grace” – or, “preventing” grace – his term for the notion that before we are born and before we can ever know God, he is working in us and for us, he loves us and is calling to us. Prevenient grace is something given to everyone as partakers of the divine image; God, in the end, wants us all.

      Predestination would mean this is not true. I find that a hard pill to swallow, not least because I find that God difficult to worship, but also because it goes against the portrait of Scripture. Side-by-side pictures of the elect, of sheep and goats and wheat and chaff, are also plentiful images of God wanting the whole: “every knee shall bow, on heaven and on the earth and under the earth;” “Christ has bound all in disobedience so that he might be merciful to all,” and etc.

      I do think more of these discussions are necessary. So often the Reformed camp is so busy shouting “sovereignty!” that we Methodists forget to call out “grace!” Wesley actually wrote that we are not so far apart as we often suppose. His friendship with Whitefield, a Calvinist evangelical, was proof enough of this. Thank you for thoughtful and kind responses.

  7. This was a really interesting blog entry. Especially the reference to Wesley- yup never read that before. Very provocative!

    To be clear, and forthright, I lean calvinist. So I have a quick question:

    1) “Is God worse than the devil” as Wesley said?

    Well, two intellectual thoughts, first if one object supersedes another then it is not actually like the former. That is if God supersedes the Devil, surely, attributes remain but the superseding declares God is something more, and precisely not just “evil” like the Devil. Otherwise God = Devil.

    Secondly, I would really use the comment by Wesley to highlight Calvinism’s emphasis on faith. How Hebrews says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for”. It’s about grace being a promise, not really having much to do with a choice…

    Again, great post and great comments! Thanks for letting me participate.

  8. Interesting! I’m a strong 5-pointer calvinist so my views are a little different. The bible must remain over all systems of thought. I believe predestination is consistent with the bible and not an “affront” to it. This excerpt from Maddox is purely emotional and is sure to negatively stir your thoughts. We must look into scripture on how God truly works (romans 9, Ephesians 1, John 6:44, Acts 13:48, Proverbs 16:4, John 13:18, John 17:9, Exodus 7:3, etc…) and I believe we come to realize God’s true sovereignty. In order to support Wesley’s views you have to consistently worm your way around the text which results in the thoughts of a mere man. Also we can’t confuse predestination with foreknowledge as they have two completely different meanings.

    Many don’t appreciate Romans 9 because it goes against our human inclination to be independent, proud, and self determining. This is how the Lord works and his reasons for doing so are “In order to demonstrate His power, and in order that His name might be proclaimed throughout the entire earth.” How do you propose that we determine the truth about what motivates the heart of God? Will we base our conclusions on our own feelings about what seems right? Or will we base our conclusions on what God Himself says in the Bible to be true about what motivates Him?

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