Predestination and God's Sovereignty

Predestination and God's Sovereignty

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Beginning in the early days of the Methodist Revival, John Wesley’s position on predestination became a controversial issue.  His friend and partner in ministry George Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist, which meant that he believed that salvation was only available to those who had been elected by God, and that the elect would certainly be saved.  Wesley was an Arminian, meaning he believed God’s gracious gift of salvation was available to all, though it could be rejected.

While Wesley and Whitefield began their conversations about predestination in private, it wasn’t long before “pamphlet warfare” flared up as each side began to publish sermons and open letters advocating for their positions.  Wesley and Whitefield were able to reconcile to a certain extent, but the passionate and fiery debates left a mark on their relationship, and the Methodist movement as a whole. To this day, many see the predestination debate as an important dividing line in evangelicalism.

Why was John Wesley so resolute in his rejection of the Calvinist approach to predestination?  There were two key concerns motivating his thinking on this question.

Two Key Concerns

The first key concern had to do with the character of God.  Sometimes people mistakenly think that Wesley’s rejection of unconditional predestination was based on an overly optimistic view of human nature, as opposed to a more robust Calvinist understanding of depravity.  In fact, Wesley agreed with the historic Calvinist position on total depravity.  The real issue at stake was God’s character, rather than innate human abilities.  Wesley felt that the idea of absolute unconditional predestination by divine decree was inconsistent with God’s justice, as well as his love and goodness.

This fundamental difference can be seen in the respective ways in which the Calvinist and Wesleyan traditions have approached the question of divine sovereignty. Generally speaking, the Calvinist tradition has seen sovereignty through the model of a ruling monarch, whereas Wesley conceived of sovereignty primarily through the model of a loving parent. The monarch’s power over his subjects is conceived primarily as an exercise of “will,” and hence, for Calvinists, the fact that some are saved while others are not is explained as a decision of the divine will.  On the other hand, a parent’s power over their children is conceived primarily as an exercise of love.  From this Wesleyan perspective, it is inconceivable that God, as a loving parent, would eternally decree some of his children to life and others to death.

Wesley’s second key concern related to the character of the Christian life. He worried that preaching a Calvinist approach to predestination would lead to antinomianism – living without any concern for the law of God.  If salvation is unconditionally established by an eternal decree, why would any of us concern ourselves with obedience and discipleship?

Wesley felt the Calvinist approach therefore undercut the pursuit of holiness, because the connection between God’s gift and our response is marginalized.  In his 1739 sermon, “Free Grace,” which ignited the first round of public controversy with Whitefield, Wesley wrote, “So directly does this doctrine tend to shut the very gate of holiness in general, to hinder unholy men from ever approaching thereto, or striving to enter thereat.”

The Wesleyan Position

It was on the basis of these two areas of concern that Wesley advocated for his evangelical Arminian position on predestination, which can be outlined in the following six points:

  • Total depravity is affirmed by Wesley, meaning that the fallen human being is completely helpless and in bondage to sin. Contrary to popular misconception, Wesley does not believe that fallen human beings have an inherent freedom of the will.
  • The atonement is universal in scope.  Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world, not only an elect few, as proposed by five-point Calvinism.
  • Prevenient (or preceding) grace is universally available. God’s grace is present in our lives before we turn to Christ in faith, and this grace restores a measure of freedom so that we can respond to his gracious gift.  This is how Wesley could affirm that all human persons were free to respond to the gospel in spite of total depravity—but note that the freedom which humans possess is a measure of freedom (not absolute freedom in all respects), and it is freedom-by-grace, not an inherent endowment of fallen humanity.
  • Grace is resistible and can be rejected, to our own destruction.  God is actively drawing all people to himself, but his grace is not coercive.
  • Predestination is therefore based on God’s foreknowledge, not his will.  That is, God corporately predestines all those who respond in faith to salvation, and by foreknowledge he knows who will respond.  Yet the response of each person is truly theirs, because God’s foreknowledge does not cause their response.
  • Assurance of salvation is given by the Holy Spirit, who witnesses directly to our adoption as children of God through Christ, and whose fruit in our lives also provides confirmation that we are God’s children.


6 Responses

  1. great explanation James. I have a question (Ken Collins sinks his head in sadness) about depravity, universal atonement and how prevenient grace comes into play (according to Wesley). I assume that preveneient grace was released in response to universal atonement. Is that correct? if so, was predestination (as whitefiled or calvinists define it) the way salvation occurred in the OT and before the atonement (again, according to Wesley)? I have always wondered that and I am sure i found an answer at one point, but dad gummit, if i dont remember.

  2. My understanding is that prevenient grace has been present from the Fall onward, in anticipation of the universal atonement and general redemption made at the cross.

    1. Yes, James, that is how most Wesleyans would think about grace operating before Christ. Sorry if I gave a different impression.

  3. My question as to the second point. Is the question really on the “sufficiency” of the atonement?
    I think that Calvinists would say that yes the atonement because of the Infinite Dignity of the glorious person of Christ is indeed sufficient for the salvation of the souls of a million worlds. The point they make is that the atonement is effectual not for the whole world but for the elect, “the Shepherd laying his life down for his sheep”, the “Son giving eternal life to as many as the Father has given him. ”
    Am I right in saying that Calvinists do affirm the sufficiency of the atonement for the whole world? So that a Calvinist can say amen to the line “Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” This is why a Whitefield could make the free offer of the gospel and cross the worlds to urge all men to repent and believe the gospel.
    They would limit it only in the intent and also in the final outcome-not all will be saved in the end and yet the Lamb of God will have received the full reward of his suffering.

    I would want to hear you on John Wesley’s teaching on Christian Perfection. I wonder if this is not another point where those of us who are more Calvinistic perhaps misunderstand him. (I am intending to read his On Christian Perfection soon. I read a few portions today and felt I would want to read the whole thing.)

  4. Thank you James. This is very helpful. We have just begun a new believers bible study in Ephesians and I’m sure there will be questions on this topic – so in anticipation I read your article which is very helpful in its clarity and depth.

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