by Fred Sanders on June 21, 2011
Calvinists sometimes behave as if their Reformed credentials give them a free pass to forget there ever was a John Wesley, or that he is to be reckoned one of the good guys, or that he, being dead, yet speaks. They keep their distance as if Wesley were the carrier of a theological disease, to be given a wide berth. It’s one thing to say (as any good Calvinist must) that Wesley was wrong about a few important doctrines. But it’s another thing, a little tragic, to consign him to oblivion and imagine there is nothing to learn from him. Here are some Calvinists who know better. Their essentially pro-Wesley tone is striking, possibly because it’s becoming rarer than it once was.
John Newton (1725-1807) was as young, restless, and Reformed as anybody, but he could testify of John Wesley, “I know of no one to whom I owe more as an instrument of divine grace.” This line is quoted in Iain H. Murray’s book, Wesley and Men Who Followed (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), p. 71. Murray himself (b. 1931) is a great example of a Calvinist who unflinchingly opposes Arminianism, but is fully aware of how much spiritual blessing he has received through Wesley and the Methodists. Murray knows what the main things are, and knows that Wesley was sound on them, even though he was off the ranch on the beloved “doctrines of grace” as the Reformed see them: “the foundation of Wesley’s theology was sound. On the objective facts of the salvation revealed in Scripture –Paul’s ‘first of all’ of 1 Corinthians 15:3—Wesley was clear.”
Never to be outdone by anybody, Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) ventured that “if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley.” (C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Vol. 1, p. 173.) Spurgeon may have been indulging in a characteristic dramatic flourish, but I don’t recall hearing that he surrendered his Calvinist card either before or after thus lumping together Whitefield and Wesley, respectively the great Calvinist and the great Arminian promoters of the eighteenth-century awakening. Witnesses like Newton and Spurgeon seem to prove that even Calvinists can learn from Wesley; in fact some of these Reformed witnesses seem to think that it is especially Calvinists who, while remaining as Reformed as they want to be, should labor to hear what this evangelical brother has to say to them.
Reformed people who read widely in Wesley (as opposed to reading a selected string of his anti-Calvinist zingers –like the time in 1765 when he said the revival was going great until “Satan threw Calvinism in our way.” Zing!) are always surprised, and usually delighted, to find that they find in him the same things they love in their favorite Reformed authors: A Scripture-saturated defense of original sin, justification by faith alone, a clear presentation of the gospel, a humble submission to God’s sovereignty, and a radical dependence on God’s grace.
Scottish pastor John Duncan (1796-1870), a decided Calvinist, read the Methodist hymnal and remarked, “I wonder how Charles Wesley could write that, and be an Arminian.” (Cited in John Brown, Life of the Late John Duncan (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1872), p. 428) Somewhat more snarkily, Duncan remarked (p. 401), “I have a great liking for many of Wesley’s Hymns; but when I read some of them, I ask, ‘What’s become of your Free-will now, friend?”
Any Reformed readers who take up and reads John Wesley will find themselves asking on most pages, “How could John Wesley write that, and be an Arminian?” There are many reasons for how satisfying Wesley is doctrinally, but one of them is that he was trying hard to be a good Protestant. Whatever the word “Arminian” meant to most people before Wesley, there is at least the chance after John Wesley that it could refer to a Christian who is doctrinally conservative and committed to the gospel.
Another reason is that Wesley did a great deal of good. “Mr. Wesley, and others, with whom we do not agree in all things, will shine bright in glory,” said George Whitefield (Murray, p. 71). More on what Whitefield thought about Wesley and glory in a moment.
The great (but mostly forgotten) Henry Venn wrote to Wesley for encouragement in 1754 in this touching letter:
As I have often experienced your words to be as thunder to my drowsy soul, I presume, though a stranger, to become a petitioner, begging you would send me a personal charge to take heed to feed the flock committed unto me. If you consider the various snares to which a curate is exposed, either to palliate the doctrines of the gospel or to make treacherous allowances to the rich and great, or at least to sit down, satisfied with doing the least more than the best, among the idle shepherds, you will not, I hope, condemn this letter as impertinently interrupting you in your noble employment, or think one hour lost in complying with its request.
It is the request of one who, though he differs from you, and possibly ever may, in some points, yet must ever acknowledge the benefit and light he has received from your works and preaching, and therefore is bound to thank the Lord of the harvest for sending a labourer among us so much endued with the spirit and power of Elias, and to pray for your long continuance among us, to encourage me and my brethren by your example, while you edify us by your writings.
I am sir your feeble brother in Christ. Henry Venn.
C. H. Spurgeon turned his pro-Wesley reflections into a warning to Calvinists, or to ultra-Calvinists, not to be such bigots:
To ultra-Calvinists his name is as abhorrent as the name of the Pope to a Protestant: you have only to speak of Wesley, and every imaginable evil is conjured up before their eyes, and no doom is thought to be sufficiently horrible for such an arch-heretic as he was. I verily believe that there are some who would be glad to rake up his bones from the tomb and burn them, as they did the bones of Wycliffe of old—men who go so high in doctrine, and withal add so much bitterness and uncharitableness to it, that they cannot imagine that a man can fear God at all unless he believes precisely as they do.
This is from a lecture entitled ‘The Two Wesleys,’ delivered on Spurgeon’s home turf, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Dec 6, 1861. Spurgeon went on to say that on the other hand, Wesley fans can get pretty annnoying: “Unless you can give him constant adulation, unless you are prepared to affirm that he had no faults, and that he had every virtue, even impossible virtues, you cannot possibly satisfy his admirers.”
Bishop J.C. Ryle, in his book on Evangelical leaders of the eighteenth century, gets the warnings out of the way right up front: “He was an Arminian in doctrine. I fully admit the seriousness of the objection. I do not pretend either to explain the charge away, or to defend his objectionable opinions.” But he goes on to his main point, saying, “we must beware that we do not condemn men too strongly for not seeing all things in our point of view, or excommunicate and anathematize them because they do not pronounce our shibboleth.”
What is to be found in Wesley, according to Ryle? For all Wesley’s deviations from the Calvinist line, Ryle says
But if the same man strongly and boldly exposes and denounces sin, clearly and fully lifts up Christ, distinctly and openly invites men to believe and repent, shall we dare to say that the man does not preach the gospel at all? Shall we dare to say that he will do no good? I, for one, cannot say so, at any rate. If I am asked whether I prefer Whitefield’s gospel or Wesley’s, I answer at once that I prefer Whitefield’s: I am a Calvinist, and not an Arminian. That Wesley would have done better if he could have thrown off his Arminianism, I have not the least doubt; but that he preached the gospel, honored Christ, and did extensive good, I no more doubt than I doubt my own existence.
And like so many other Calvinistic Wesley-fans, Ryle goes on to caution against bigotry:
Finally, has any one been accustomed to regard Wesley with dislike on account of his Arminian opinions? Is any one in the habit of turning away from his name with prejudice, and refusing to believe that such an imperfect preacher of the gospel could do any good? I ask such a one to remould his opinion, to take a more kindly view of the old soldier of the cross, and to give him the honour he deserves. …Whether we like it or not, John Wesley was a mighty instrument in God’s hand for good; and, next to George Whitefield, was the first and foremost evangelist of England a hundred years ago.
There is a famous story about one of Whitefield’s followers, after a discussion about just how not Calvinist Wesley was, asking Whitefield what he took to be a hard question: Will we see John Wesley in heaven? Whitefield’s answer was that the Calvinists of his generation were unlikely to see John Wesley in heaven.
“I fear not;” said Whitefield. And then the punchline: “He will be so near the throne, and we shall be at such a distance, that we shall hardly get a sight of him.”
Spurgeon tells this Whitefield story, and comments, “In studying the life of Wesley, I believe Whitefield’s opinion is abundantly confirmed –that Wesley is near the eternal throne, having served his Master, albeit with many mistakes and errors, yet from a pure heart, fervently desiring to glorify God upon the earth.”
An earlier generation of Reformed thinkers and ministers were revived and awakened by Wesley’s teaching. Spurgeon knew that an awakener was not something to take lightly, that God didn’t often send people with that ability to revive and stir up the church. We always have to keep an eye on the main danger, and Spurgeon was quite sure that Wesleyanism wasn’t the main danger of his, or any, age. The main danger is Christians failing to be wide awake, failing to be fully Christian. Wesley was a strong stimulant, and Spurgeon wanted more, not less, of that from Wesley:
I am afraid that most of us are half asleep, and those that are a little awake have not begun to feel. It will be time for us to find fault with John and Charles Wesley, not when we discover their mistakes, but when we have cured our own. When we shall have more piety than they, more fire, more grace, more burning love, more intense unselfishness, then, and not till then, may we begin to find fault and criticize.
Taking a moment to compare his own ministry to that of Wesley’s, he thought the comparison was like a little candle held up in the sun: “For my part, I am as one who can see the spots in the sun, but know it to be the sun still, and only weep for my farthing candle by the side of such a luminary.” If you think your own ministry is like a little candle held up against the light of Spurgeon’s accomplishment, take a moment to imagine an even greater light of conservative, evangelical, Protestant witness in the English language. And then go read something, anything, by or about Wesley.