Methodist preaching is Arminian

A while back, I started a series of short posts on the nature of Methodist preaching.

My intention was to describe Methodist preaching as orthodox, evangelical, Arminian, and Spirit-filled. Part way through these four short posts, I dropped the ball, so here I am picking it back up again. I’d invite you go back an read those posts about the orthodox and evangelical implications of our preaching as they lay the groundwork for this post.

The third marker of distinctly Methodist preaching is rooted in the theology of Jacob Arminius, a 16th century Dutch theologian who greatly influenced John Wesley. Arminius was a Reformed theologian who came to disagree with some of the tenants of the Calvinism of his day. (W. Stephen Gunter’s Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments is a brief but thorough introduction to Arminius, his times, and his key theological arguments with Dutch Calvinism.)

In following Arminius, Wesley would later write that Methodism is a “hair’s breadth” from Calvinism, but that tiny width has had serious implications for our preaching as Methodists. Wesleyan Methodism agrees with traditional Calvinism that human beings are incapable of willing or doing good, unless the grace of God intervenes and enables us to do so.

A Calvinist of Arminius’ day would say that the saving grace of God is completely irresistible. Once God has determined to save us, there is no room for us to resist. Along side this belief is the doctrine of predestination that says God has determined before the creation of the world who he would save and who he would not save. As such, the atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross was not for everyone, but only those who God had predestined to salvation.

Arminius and Methodists teach that Jesus Christ did indeed die for everyone, not just a predestined elect. We teach that God has determined since before creation that all who believe in Jesus Christ will be saved. The means of salvation was predetermined not the identity of the saved. Grace, consequently, is offered freely to all. We teach that while this grace is necessary for our salvation, God permits us to resist or reject it, and although nothing the devil does can pry us from the hand of God once we are justified, we can ourselves backslide in our faith and fall again into a state of unrighteousness.

Much more can be said than these short paragraphs can convey, but some of the implications of this Arminian preaching are as follows.

First, we do not preach the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” While we do believe in the necessity of conversion and justification by faith in Jesus Christ, we believe it is possible to reject even our salvation. We should be mindful that some of the “best Christians” may be the ones most in need of conversion, and we should always urge people to continue to work out their salvation, never resting on that time long ago when they gave their lives to Christ.

Second, we should never cease to carry the gospel to those who have not heard it. Everyone needs to be saved and everyone can be saved. The church is not for the “frozen chosen” but for everyone, and so Methodist preaching should be aggressively bent toward evangelism and calling sinners to turn to God and believe the good news. God does all the work in salvation. It is by his grace alone that we are saved, but he has called and appointed us to be his witnesses and bearers of that gospel, not merely to a small elite, but to every soul we can possibly reach.

Finally, we should be wary of the impulse to pick quarrels with our theological cousins in Calvinism. Evangelicals have often fallen into disagreement over the same doctrines that caused so much stir in the days of Arminius, but we would be better served to follow the example of John Wesley, who disagreed quite sharply with George Whitefield on the very doctrines discussed in this post. Despite this disagreement, Wesley viewed him as a valuable co-worker in the gospel and preached at Whitefield’s funeral.

Long before Whitefield and Wesley, Arminius ably defended a grace-filled evangelical faith. In addition to the points above, he was challenged by his contemporaries on the nature of sanctification. While many of his colleagues argued strongly that it is not possible for any human being to attain spiritual perfection in this life, Arminius wrote that there was no reason to believe that Holy Spirit was incapable of doing such work in us, even if we must honestly claim we do not know anyone who has been blessed to attain it. In my fourth post in this series, we will see how Wesley went farther than Arminius was willing to go, leading to our fourth Methodist distinctive in preaching: Spirit-filled.

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4 thoughts on “Methodist preaching is Arminian

  1. The difficulty for the would-be Christian is a mind and heart so vitiated by sin nature that no freedom of will exists to make the kind of decision Methodism seems to require. Invariably, the Methodist preacher hurries on to proffer sanctification alongside salvation, and in doing so the preacher doubles the predicament of the would-be Christian. The drowning man may hear shouted instructions to swim for his life but can’t apply the forensics in his weakened and panicked condition.

    1. I agree that offering sanctification prior to justification is likely going to muddle things terribly. Finding the right balance is something I struggle with a lot in my preaching. I struggle on both sides. When am I neglecting sanctification too much? When am I running too fast to it?

  2. One other comment I have is that Methodist preaching (especially of the fervid kind) excites the folk who must distinguish between who’s “got it” and who doesn’t. The Holy Club forms. I wish the accent would fall on the faithfulness of Christ alone for our salvation (and the supervening of the Spirit for our sanctification).

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