Wesley Against Calvinism (Part 1)

In 1739, George Whitefield sailed for the American Colonies. He was headed back to the colony of Georgia, having just concluded a great ministry in London, Gloucester, Bristol and points in-between. He had returned to England to raise funds for an orphan home he planned to establish in Georgia. While raising these funds, finding the pulpits of many Church of England congregations closed to him, Whitefield began to preach in the open air.

He didn’t invent the practice, but he certainly implemented it with unparalleled effect. Whitefield regularly drew crowds in the thousands in the fields. As he made ready to return to Georgia, Whitefield handed the reigns of this ministry over to John Wesley, who had recently returned to England in disgrace from a failed missionary post in Georgia. With this new task, Wesley finally came into his own. However, his doctrinal differences with Whitefield accelerated greatly as he took leadership of this ministry and Whitefield sailed over the horizon for the new world.

In 1739, after casting a lot to determine whether he should preach and publish his views on predestination, Wesley received a favorable result and thus preached a message entitled Free Grace. In it, he attacked the doctrines of grace with passion.1 His sermon is below:

How freely does God love the world! While we were yet sinners, “Christ died for the ungodly.” While we were “dead in our sin,” God “spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all.” And how freely with him does he “give us all things!” Verily, FREE GRACE is all in all!

First - It is free in all to whom it is given

It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in anywise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver; not on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions; for all these flow from the free grace of God; they are the streams only, not the fountain.

They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root. They are not the cause, but the effects of it. Whatsoever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it. Thus is his grace free in all; that is, no way depending on any power or merit in man, but on God alone, who freely gave us his own Son, and “with him freely giveth us all things.

But it is free for ALL, as well as IN ALL. To this some have answered:

  • No: It is free only for those whom God hath ordained to life; and they are but a little flock. The greater part of God hath ordained to death; and it is not free for them. Them God hateth; and, therefore, before they were born, decreed they should die eternally. And this he absolutely decreed; because so was his good pleasure; because it was his sovereign will. Accordingly, they are born for this, - to be destroyed body and soul in hell. And they grow up under the irrevocable curse of God, without any possibility of redemption; for what grace God gives. he gives only for this, to increase, not prevent, their damnation.

This is that decree of predestination. But methinks I hear one say:

  • This is not the predestination which I hold: I hold only the election of grace. What I believe is not more than this, - that God„ before the foundation of the world, did elect a certain number of men to be justified, sanctified, and glorified. Now, all these will be saved, and none else; for the rest of mankind God leaves to themselves: So they follow the imaginations of their own hearts, which are only evil continually, and, waxing worse and worse, are at length justly punished with everlasting destruction.

Is this all the predestination which you hold Consider; perhaps this is not all. Do not you believe God ordained them to this very thing. If so, you believe the whole degree; you hold predestination in the full sense which has been above described.

But it may be you think you do not. Do not you then believe, God hardens the hearts of them that perish: Do not you believe, he (literally) hardened Pharaoh’s heart; and that for this end he raised him up, or created him? Why, this amounts to just the same thing.

If you believe Pharaoh, or any one man upon earth, was created for this end, — to be damned, — you hold all that has been said of predestination. And there is no need you should add, that God seconds his degree, which is supposed unchangeable and irresistible, by hardening the hearts of those vessels of wrath whom that decree had before fitted for destruction.

Well, but it may be you do not believe even this; you do not hold any decree of reprobation; you do not think God decrees any man to be damned, not hardens, irresistibly fits him, for damnation; you only say:

God eternally decreed, that all being dead in sin, he would say to some of the dry bones, Live, and to others he would not; that, consequently, these should be made alive, and those abide in death, - these should glorify God by their salvation, and those by their destruction.

Is not this what you mean by the election of grace? If it be, I would ask one or two questions:

  • Are any who are not thus elected saved or were any, from the foundation of the world?
  • Is it possible any man should be saved unless he be thus elected?

If you say, “No,” you are but where you was; you are not got one hair’s breadth farther; you still believe, that, in consequence of an unchangeable, irresistible decree of God, the greater part of mankind abide in death, without any possibility of redemption; inasmuch as none can save them but God, and he will not save them. You believe he hath absolutely decreed not to save them; and what is this but decreeing to damn them.

It is, in effect, neither more not less; it comes to the same thing; for if you are dead, and altogether unable to make yourself alive, then, if God has absolutely decreed he will make only others alive, and not you, he hath absolutely decreed your everlasting death; you are absolutely consigned to damnation. So then, though you use softer words than some, you mean the self-same thing; and God’s decree concerning the election of grace, according to your account of it, amounts to neither more not less than what others call God’s decree of reprobation.

Call it therefore by whatever name you please, election, preterition, predestination, or reprobation, it comes in the end to the same thing. The sense of all is plainly this, — by virtue of an eternal, unchangeable, irresistible decree of God, on part of mankind are infallibly saved, and the rest infallibly damned; it being impossible that any of the former should be damned. or that any of the latter should be saved.

But if this be so, then is all preaching vain. It is needless to them that are elected; for they, whether with preaching or without, will infallibly be saved. Therefore, the end of preaching — to save — is void with regard to them; and it is useless to them that are not elected, for they cannot possibly be saved: They, whether with preaching or without, will infallibly be damned. The end of preaching is therefore void with regard to them likewise; so that in either case our preaching is vain, as you hearing is also vain.

This then, is a plain proof that the doctrine of predestination is not a doctrine of God, because it makes void the ordinance of God; and God is not divided against himself.

Second - It directly tends to destroy that holiness which is the end of all the ordinances of God

I do not say, none who hold it are holy; (for God is of tender mercy to those who are unavoidably entangled in errors of any kind;) but that the doctrine itself, — that every man is either elected or not elected from eternity, and that the one must inevitably be saved, and the other inevitably damned, — has a manifest tendency to destroy holiness in general; for it wholly takes away those first motives to follow after it, so frequently proposed in Scripture, the hope of future reward and fear of punishment, the hope of heaven and fear of hell.

That these shall go away into everlasting punishment, and those into life eternal, is not motive to him to struggle for life who believes his lot is cast already; it is not reasonable for him so to do, if he thinks he is unalterably adjudged either to life or death.

You will say, “But he knows not whether it is life or death.” What then — this helps not the matter; for if a sick man knows that he must unavoidably die, or unavoidably recover, though he knows not which, it is unreasonable for him to take any physic at all. He might justly say, (and so I have heard some speak, both in bodily sickness and in spiritual,) “If I am ordained to life, I shall live; if to death, I shall die; so I need not trouble myself about it.”

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 in thereat. As directly does this doctrine tend to destroy several particular branches of holiness. Such are meekness and love, — love, I mean, of our enemies, — of the evil and unthankful. I say not, that none who hold it have meekness and love; (for as is the power of God, so is his mercy;) but that it naturally tends to inspire, or increase, a sharpness or eagerness of temper, which is quite contrary to the meekness of Christ; as then especially appears, when they are opposed on this head.

And it as naturally inspires contempt or coldness towards those whom we suppose outcast form God. “O, but,” you say. “I suppose no particular man a reprobate.” You mean you would not if you could help it: But you cannot help sometimes applying your general doctrine to particular persons: The enemy of souls will apply it for you. You know how often he has done so. But you rejected the thought with abhorrence. True; as soon as you could; but how did it sour and sharpen your spirit in the mean time! you well know it was not the spirit of love which you then felt towards that poor sinner, whom you supposed or suspected, whether you would or no, to have been hated of God from eternity.

The sermon will continue in the next installment.


1 This story of Whitefield’s ministry, the transition to Wesley’s leadership and their doctrinal differences, is told in Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, 2 vols. (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1970), 1:217 – 320, especially 307-320.

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There are 4 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


Hard to pull the salient points from that... but he is certainly relying heavily on results arguments at this point: It must not be true because he has observed certain negative results. But (1) things that happen in sequence are often not in any kind of causal relationship, (2) truth often has negative consequences when combined with other conditions (people hear bad news and have heart attacks, throw angry fits, grow bitter, etc.) and (3) sometimes both sides of a question can play the results card equally well, and the arguments cancel eachother out.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bruce Rettig's picture

Aaron is right. This reads like an editorial, rather than conclusions produced through study of Scripture.


O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8

TylerR's picture


Whitefield eventually answered Wesley with a printed sermon about two years later, But, it's way, way too long to be posted at SharperIron- it'd take about 8-10 installments. I'll do excerpts once Im done with Wesley; I think I can wrap him up with the next installment with some editing. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Andrew R.'s picture

Wesley's reasoning--"If God elected/did not elect certain people, then they had no choice in the matter"--seems equivalent to asking, "Once Tolkien decided that Sam would go with Frodo, did Sam have any choice in the matter?" From outside the story, it's clear that the author's decision controls everything: it literally makes no sense to pit the character's will against the author's decision. But from a perspective within the story--well, of course Sam had a choice.

The analogy is not perfect (no analogy is), but I think it illustrates the category error of trying to pit God's decree against human choice.

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