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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