In an essay entitled "What is an Arminian?" John Wesley raised this question, "How can any man know what Arminius held, who has never read one page of his writings?" Wesley proceeded to offer this advice, "Let no man bawl against Arminians, till he knows what the term means."
Wesley said Arminianism was usually charged with five errors:
- they deny original sin
- they deny justification by faith
- they deny absolute predestination
- they deny the grace of God to be irresistible
- they affirm a believer may fall from grace
Wesley said that Arminians pleaded "not guilty" to the first two charges. In fact Wesley claimed the doctrine of original sin was "the first, grand, distinguishing point between heathenism and Christianity" ["Original Sin," Sermon #44, III.1]. Concerning justification he also wrote that he thought just as Mr. Calvin did. "In this respect I do not differ from him an hair's breadth" [Journal, 14 May, 1765].
Concerning the third charge, though, there is an undeniable difference between Calvinists and Arminians. Calvinists believe absolute predestination; Arminians believe in conditional predestination. Wesley explained that Calvinists hold that God has absolutely decreed, from all eternity to save the elect and no others. Christ died for these and none else. Arminians, on the other hand, hold that God has decreed, from all eternity, "He that believeth shall be saved: He that believeth not shall be condemned." In order to make this possible, "Christ died for all."
Wesley said the last two points are the natural consequence of the third. Calvinists hold that the saving grace of God is absolutely irresistible; that no man is any more able to resist it than to resist the stroke of lightning. But if predestination is conditional, then grace is not irresistible. Most of the popular "Bible teachers" today accept the premise of Arminius, but the conclusion of Calvin.
Finally, Calvinists hold that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. Arminians hold, however, that a true believer may make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience. Not only may he fall into gross sin, but he may fall so as to perish forever.
So, Wesley concluded, in effect the three final questions hinge upon one, Is predestination absolute or conditional? Wesley's objection to Calvinism is based upon his objection to their doctrine of predestination.
John Wesley closed the essay in which he defines an Arminian with a caution against using labels and calling names. He said it was the duty of every Arminian preacher to never in public or private to use the word Calvinist as a term of reproach. And it is equally the duty of every Calvinist preacher to never in public or in private, to use the word Arminian as a term of reproach [Works, 10:359-61].
John Fletcher wrote a tract entitled, "The Reconciliation; or, An Easy Method to Unite the People of God." This tract contains essays on "Bible Calvinism" and "Bible Arminianism." Fletcher concluded the Church needs Bible Calvinism to defeat Pharisaism and she needs Bible Arminianism to defeat antinomianism [Works, 2:283-363]. While Fletcher may have been too optimistic about how "easy" this unity would be to attain, yet he understood the need for balance.
When John Wesley, the Armianian, preached the funeral of George Whitefield, the Calvinist, he said there was a trait Whitefield exemplified which was not common. Wesley said he had a "catholic spirit." He loved all, of whatever opinion, mode of worship, or denomination who believed in the Lord Jesus, loved God and man, delighted in pleasing God and feared offending Him, who was careful to abstain from evil and zealous of good works ["On the Death of George Whitefield," Sermon #53, III.7].
Wesley recorded in his Journal for December 20, 1784 that he had the satisfaction of meeting Charles Simeon. However, it was Simeon who preserved the account of that conversation.
Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions.... Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?
Yes, says the veteran, I do indeed. And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?
Yes, solely through Christ. But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last. Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?
No. What, then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother's arms?
Yes, altogether. And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?
Yes, I have no hope but in Him. Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.
Across their ministry both Arminius and Wesley patiently denied that they were heretics, but confessed agreement with historic Christianity and the great ecumenical church councils. Arminius declared, "If any one will point out an error in this my opinion, I will gladly own it: Because it is possible for me to err, but I am not willing to be a heretic." Wesley also issued this appeal,
"Are you persuaded that you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof of Scripture." ["Preface" to Wesley's Sermons, ¶9].
These men were not heretics, but reformers. Their authority was the Word of God. As we contend for their doctrine, let us also exemplify their spirit with a quiet confidence that the Spirit of Truth is able to convince men. Mildred Wynkoop wrote, "One of Wesley's concerns was that there was something biblically defective about the Calvinism of his day. But his polemic was doctrinal, never personal. It was fearless and forceful, but never bitter. This 'break' with Calvinism was not a break in Christian fellowship but a correction of what he believed to be a false interpretation of Scripture."
Today we still share Wesley's concern that the doctrine of absolute predestination "is not only false, but a very dangerous doctrine, as we have seen a thousand times" [Letter to Lady [Maxwell], 30 Sept, 1788]. Yet we cannot legislate correct doctrine through force. Nor will we win the debate through name-calling and misrepresentation. Our task is to set the standard of consistent biblical interpretation. May God enable us to teach the Scriptures with integrity -- regardless of what pejorative terms we are called. [This is an edited version of an address given on Sept 27, 1998 at the Conference on the Believer's Security. Cassette tapes of this message may be ordered from Dan Corner at evangelicaloutreach