Have I betrayed the Reformation?

From J.I. Packer’s introduction to a 1957 edition of Luther’s The Bondage of the Will:

Is our salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter (as the Arminians later did) thereby deny man’s utter helplessness in sin, and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder, then, that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being in principle a return to Rome (because in effect it turned faith in to a meritorious work) and a betrayal of the Reformation (because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the Reformers’ thought.)

The quote helps me understand why John Wesley was always being accused by Calvinists of being a secret Catholic.

John Wesley’s work “The Question ‘What is an Arminian?’ Answered by a Lover of Free Grace” has made little dent in such criticisms over the years. In that short work, Wesley asserts that Arminians embrace the doctrines of original sin and justification by faith (alone) just as zealously as John Calvin himself or any of his followers.

Where they differ is on the question of predestination, but not in the way many people think.

Wesley did not deny predestination. He denied what he called “absolute” predestination in favor of “conditional” predestination. Here are Wesley’s words:

The Calvinists hold, (1.) God has absolutely decreed, from all eternity, to save such and such persons, and no others; and that Christ died for these, and none else. The Arminians hold, God has decreed, from all eternity, touching all that have the written word, “He that believeth shall be saved: He that believeth not, shall be condemned:”* And in order to this, “Christ died for all, all that were dead in trespasses and sins;” that is, for every child of Adam, since “in Adam all died.”

For Wesley, then, God predestined the means of salvation from the creation of cosmos. God did not decree before time began that Sally would be saved and Bill would not. Or so Wesley and other Arminians have taught.

But even in teaching this, Wesley argued that without grace, no one could have the faith that saves. In our fallen state, our wills do bend only to evil and away from God. But by God’s preventing grace, the light has flickered in our darkness and we are enabled to receive and respond to that light. That preventing grace is not sufficient to save, but it does mean that the people we meet are not destitute of grace, no matter how far they seem to be from God.

In the pastoral setting, where I run into the “so what?” part of these conversations nearly always revolves around friends and loved ones.

A member of the church wonders why it is that some members of the family are Christians and others are not. There are many ways to talk about this, but one pair of options looks something like this:

A) God’s eternal will has determined who will be saved and who will not. It has nothing to do with us. So, pray for your children who don’t go to church, but know that God will bring them to Christ if that is his will. Do not be anxious for them. God is in control.

B) God has opened the way of salvation to all people everywhere. He wants everyone to be saved. But he will not force us to come to him. Instead, he gives us his grace and invites us to respond to it with repentance. That grace is in your children’s lives. Encourage them to see it for what it is, God’s loving grace. Let them know that the Father is always seeking and longing for them. He does not want them to be condemned. The door is open.

Neither answer calms the anxieties of those who fear their children or relative might be condemned to hell. But I don’t think Calvinists or Arminians are in the business of removing anxiety about hell. That is a whole different theological project.

Calvinists and Arminians are wrestling with most of the same theological and pastoral questions. They stand on the same ground in many ways. When it gets down to it, though, they do part ways on some important questions.

As I ponder all this — and apologize to you for my more rambling style than normal — I recall the final words of Wesley’s tract on Arminianism:

One word more: Is it not the duty of every Arminian Preacher, First, never, in public or in private, to use the word Calvinist as a term of reproach; seeing it is neither better nor worse than calling names? — a practice no more consistent with good sense or good manners, than it is with Christianity. Secondly. To do all that in him lies to prevent his hearers from doing it, by showing them the sin and folly of it? And is it not equally the duty of every Calvinist Preacher, First, never in public or in private, in preaching or in conversation, to use the word Arminian as a term of reproach? Secondly. To do all that in him lies to prevent his hearers from doing it, by showing them the sin and folly thereof; and that the more earnestly and diligently, if they have been accustomed so to do? perhaps encouraged therein by his own example!


*Wesley here edits Mark 16:16, removing reference to baptism. According to his note on this verse, baptism is a token of the saving faith, not a requirement for salvation.

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10 thoughts on “Have I betrayed the Reformation?

  1. “One word more: Is it not the duty of every Arminian Preacher, First, never, in public or in private, to use the word Calvinist as a term of reproach; seeing it is neither better nor worse than calling names?”

    Sellout. But the problem is, ultimately, there is no difference between Arminianism and Calvinism. Both teach that we are damned for someone else’ sin, not our own. And both, as a result, teach that salvation is wholly dependent on predestination. The reason the peddlers of these two false doctrines are always so buddy buddy is because all heretics are in it together. They all are in the business of leading souls to hell, so little matter which heresy you choose. So why should they have any animosity towards each other?

  2. So how do you explain John the Baptist, the life of Moses, Abraham. Paul or Peter?
    Where they not predestined and don’t their lives from beginning to end tell a story of persons predestined?
    Was it not Jesus that said “you have not chosen me, I have chosen you”?
    Maybe they are both right.

    1. What specifically are you arguing was predestined about them? That it was predestined for Moses to strike the rock rather than speaking to it? for John the Baptist to doubt Christ and ask “are you he or do we look for another”? As for “you have not chosen me, I have chosen you,” of course, since Jesus hand picked the apostles. He also says “Have I not chosen you twelve? and yet one of you is a devil.” These things are in John. But in Matthew, we find that when those originally chosen to come to the wedding feat refused, he sent the servants out to compel random people on the street to come in, and one came in to the wedding not wearing a wedding garment and was thrown out, and the parable is closed with the statement “many are called, but few are chosen.” Yet clearly the choosing took place at the end. Everyone was called in, even compelled to come in, and afterwards when one was found improperly dressed, he was thrown out. Not thrown out because he was not chosen beforehand, but thrown out because the choice was made after he arrived, and it was made on the basis of what he was then wearing. So then, per Matthew’s theology (the most solid theology in the New Testament) the choice is made on the day of judgement. The same is found in the parable of the net, also in Matthew, where the fisherman thrown the net into the sea and it brings in fish of all kinds, and the choice is made when the net is brought to shore, for the fisherman then sifts through the fish keeping the good and tossing the bad, and Jesus says so it shall be at the end of time when the angels shall separate the righteous from among the wicked.

      1. John the Baptist in the womb is not predestined?
        John the Baptist is not from the beginning?
        The account given in Luke, the birth and life lived are not predestined?
        Moses rolling down the river, retrieved, nursed by his mother and raised as Moses was is not predestination?
        Paul perfectly suited for his call is not predestination?
        I would contend an invite is far from chosen.
        Matthew 22:14
        For many are called, but few are chosen
        Ever hear the term “relative freedom”?
        Can predestination and free choice co-exist?
        You would be hard pressed to explain why not.

        1. John the Baptist is a unique person because he was filled with the Holy Ghost from inside the womb. Its not predestination but full equipping. You can’t make an argument from him and apply it to anyone else.

          Paul was made an apostle after a period of persecuting the church. And its questionable whether or not he was really perfectly suited for the call, considering how overcomplicated he made things as even Peter himself says (2 Peter 3:16). If you are referencing the passage where Paul says “God who separated me from my mother’s womb,” etc. I don’t think he means there that he was chosen from or before birth to be an apostle. If he does, its just his incredible ego speaking. But I think he is simply referring to the idea of God preserving him through the birth process, and this fits in line with a similar Psalm. But again, here, you can’t apply an argument from Paul to everyone else. Predestining special individuals to be apostles ain’t the same as predestining everyone to heaven or hell. Epic fail for your Calvinist heresy.

  3. I say these things as someone opposed to predestination. I take John 3:16 at its word, but there are, of course, deeper verses one can use against it as well.
    I think a different sort of “predestination” might be at work. Remember, God knows the paths each of us will take. He knows that some will reject Him. For instance, the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens of the world. As far as I know, Hitchens never repented of his apostasy on his deathbed. Dawkins is still an atheist last I checked. God knew this from the beginning. Of course, Jesus died for them, though their rejection of His gift still damns them.
    I reject predestination because God is faithful to save anybody who repents of their sin and follows Jesus. But for whatever reason, there are some who will not follow Him from the beginning and that is apparently the will of God. Is that predestination? I don’t know. As far as I know, it’s not the way Calvin defined it.

    1. The idea of an absolute foreknowledge of the future is questionable at best. For one, it makes the creation of the world pointless. To know the outcome of the world before creating it makes it altogether the same to create it or not to. The physical creation of the universe accomplishes nothing if the outcome is all already known. So I don’t think God does know the future exhaustively, as he clearly created the world to accomplish something. Now, I’m not denying that he is omniscient, but omniscient doesn’t mean knowing things that can’t possibly be known, it means knowing all things that can be known. The future cannot be known exhaustively because it doesn’t exist yet. Now all know the exhaustivists will throw out against this that passage from Isaiah about God declaring the end from the beginning, but in context that is about him having warned the Israelites that if they disobey him as a nation he will send them into captivity. It has nothing to do with foreseeing the future exhaustively and everything to do with warning them of the consequences that will follow if they decide to disobey. Or again, I can foresee someone throwing out the passage at the end of the gospel of John where Peter says to Jesus “Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you,” as if Peter had the exhaustive foreknowledge of the future in mind, when clearly he didn’t. God’s omni attributes obviously are relative to us: he is omnipotent in comparison to all create beings, omniscient in comparison to all created beings. He is not absolutely omnipotent for he cannot create a boulder so heavy he cannot lift it, nor can he create another god more powerful than himself. Nor is he absolutely omniscient since he can’t know what its impossible to know. People want to ascribe absolute omnis to God because they fear if God is not absolutely omniscient maybe the devil will outsmart him, but that’s impossible: relative omniscience to all created beings is good enough to ensue he can’t be outsmarted, and nobody should be ashamed to believe in relative omniscience. Let not the Calvinists cow you down.

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