The Free Grace Controversy (Wesley vs. Whitefield)

by Katrina King

John Wesley. From the University Library Leipzig.

In the seventeenth century, the doctrinal dispute over predestination came to the forefront in the Netherlands, serving as a means to further divide Protestants and stir up dissension. Originating with the seemingly contradictory theology of John Calvin (1509-1564) and Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), the debate carried over into the eighteenth century and spread all over Protestant Europe and North America. Serving as an instrument of division in a time when fragmentation within Protestantism was at its peak. Once again, the debate was brought to the forefront when it served as a divisive instrument between John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitefield (1714-1770). Sometimes referred to as the co-founders of Methodism, John Wesley and George Whitefield’s disagreements surrounding the issue of predestination led to a split within Methodism and a break in their working relationship for a time. Whitefield held to the more traditional, Calvinist perspective, whereas Wesley aligned more with the theology of Arminius (although his doctrine of predestination had a unique Wesleyan twist to it). The attached link leads to a timeline that provides a record of their disagreement as well as relevant, minimal biographical information. In order to better understand this controversy, a basic explanation of Calvinist and Arminian perspectives is provided below.

The Calvinist position, which places more of an emphasis on the sovereignty of God is oftentimes described using the acronym TULIP.

Total depravity
Also known as the doctrine of original sin, total depravity states that human beings are slaves to sin, incapable of being righteous and choosing the good.

Unconditional election
Since humanity is subject to total depravity, God in His sovereignty has elected some to be counted as righteous without conditions.

Limited atonement
Addressing Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, Calvin believed that the benefits of the cross are only available to the elect.

Irresistible grace
Due to God’s election of some, this tenant holds that the grace of God is irresistible and cannot be rejected.

Perseverance of the saints
This article of faith rejects the possibility of falling from grace. Those who are elected by God cannot lose their righteousness.

The position taken by Jacob Arminius and John Wesley takes a perspective that accentuates the love and grace of God.

Depravity
Sometimes referred to as partial depravity, this doctrine affirms the idea that humans are fallen, but not irredeemably sinful. It holds on to the hope of human transformation through the love and grace of God.

Conditional Election
This article states that election is based on God’s foreknowledge. Typically the central issue in the predestination debate, this difference asks what it means to be the “elect”. The Arminian position allows anyone to be among the elect, as long as they have faith.

Unlimited Atonement
Opposes the Calvinist perspective of limited atonement, unlimited atonement states that Jesus died for all, rather than just the elect. At the very heart of the Free Grace controversy, John Wesley himself said, “Nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of Atonement.”[1]

Resistible Grace
The Arminian position of the resistibility of grace allows the elect free will, and the ability to respond and choose faith, rather than to be irresistibly forced.

Assurance and Security
Lastly, the article regarding Calvin’s claim to perseverance of the saints is met with the Arminian understanding that there is a possibility of falling from grace. However, in The Five Articles of the Remonstrants[2], in which the Arminian position is originally stated, it is noted that on this point there is not enough scriptural evidence to take a hard stance either way.

For a visual representation of these differences, check out: http://www.crivoice.org/tulip.html

Although the predestination controversy between Wesley and Whitefield appears to be the 18th century version of the 17th century debate between the Remonstrants and the followers of Calvin, it is important to note that this debate is different in key ways. Whitefield and Wesley both imposed their context and biases onto their interpretation of Reformed and Arminian understandings, and as such, this debate is distinct in a critical ways. Although theological in nature, the debate was largely practical and often semantic. Wesley, influenced by thinkers such as Jeremy Taylor, believed the Calvinist position would lead to antinomianism. Meaning, “against the law”, Christians who tend towards antinomianism believe the moral law of Scripture to be void due to the grace of God. This conviction often leads to immoral or indifferent behavior, because there is seemingly no punishment for the elect. At the heart of the issue was also semantics. As with many theological debates, the use of biblical terms with ambiguous interpretations often lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Both Whitefield and Wesley used the term “free grace”, but they meant very different things by it. Whitefield believed “free grace meant that God was free to choose the elect, not that humankind was free to choose God’s salvation”[3] whereas Wesley believed free grace to be “free in all, and free for all.”[4]

 

NOTES

[1] Maddox, Randy L., and Vickers, Jason E. The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley. Cambridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pg. 193.
[2] The Five Articles of Remonstrance (1610).
[3] Abraham, William J., and Kirby, James E. The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies. Oxford Handbooks. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pg. 38.
[4] Maddock, Ian J., and Wells, David F. Wesley and Whitefield? Wesley versus Whitfield? Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018. Pg. 132.

 

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