John Wesley, Budding Calvinist, Naughty Arminian

When Calvinism is contrasted with Arminianism, what first comes to mind is God’s role and man’s role in coming to faith. The Calvinist says that man plays no role in coming to faith, while the Arminian says that man cooperates with God in that man turns his heart to God, that is, exercises his will to come to faith. In Calvinism, God first regenerates the sinner and then gives the sinner the gift of faith, while in Arminianism, regeneration follows the sinner’s acceptance of God’s offer of faith.

John Owen compares various scriptures with their Arminian interpretation, for example:


Else were your children unclean; but now are they holy,” 1 Corinthians 7:14.
“Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one,” Job 14:4.
“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” John 3:3.
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” John 3:6.

Arminian interpretation of the above scriptures

Neither is it considerable whether they be the children of believers or of heathens; for all infants have the same innocency,” Rem. Apol. “That which we have by birth can be no evil of sin, because to be born is plainly involuntary.”

John Wesley is a famous Arminian. George Whitefield, his Calvinist friend and colleague wrote a letter to Wesley “In answer to Mr. Wesley’s sermon entitled ‘Free Grace’” in which Whitefield rebukes Wesley:

“Dear, dear Sir, O be not offended! For Christ’s sake be not rash! Give yourself to reading. Study the covenant of grace. Down with your carnal reasoning. Be a little child; and then, instead of pawning your salvation, as you have done in a late hymn book, if the doctrine of universal redemption be not true; instead of talking of sinless perfection, as you have done in the preface to that hymn book, and making man’s salvation to depend on his own free will, as you have in this sermon; you will compose a hymn in praise of sovereign distinguishing love. You will caution believers against striving to work a perfection out of their own hearts, and print another sermon the reverse of this, and entitle it “Free Grace Indeed.” Free, not because free to all; but free, because God may withhold or give it to whom and when he pleases.”

Iain Murray writes: “These doctrines of “free grace” were the essential theology of his (Wesley’s) ministry from the very first and consequently the theology of the movement which began under his preaching in 1737.”

When I read Wesley’s commentary on John 3:3, I think that he might have taken Whitefield’s advice. Let’s examine Wesley commentary on John 3:3. Here are two translations of John 3:3:

“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Verily, verily, I say to thee, If any one may not be born from above, he is not able to see the reign of God;'” (John 3:3 Young’s literal translation). And the ESV translation:

“Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  (John 3:3 ESV)

Here is John Wesley’s commentary on John 3:3:

“Jesus answered – That knowledge will not avail thee unless thou be born again – Otherwise thou canst not see, that is, experience and enjoy, either the inward or the glorious kingdom of God.”

Spoken like a good Calvinist – regeneration first; see God, second. The Arminian might very well say that “Kingdom of God” does not refer to the “inward” Kingdom (Wesley) but only to (a future) Heaven. But, as any good Bible student knows, “Kingdom of God” refers to the “reign of God, not only in Heaven but – in our hearts – on earth, that is, in the “inward Kingdom of God.” What is very interesting, and very“Whitefieldian,” is that Wesley – naughty Arminian! – says, no one can see (the reign of) God unless they are first born of God, that is, unless God “quickens” him – Ephesians 2:

[4] But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, [5] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive (quickened us) together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— [6] and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus… (Ephesians 2:4-6 ESV).

The Arminian position, as I mentioned in the introduction, is that the sinner first has to accept God’s offer to be regenerated before God can regenerate him. Unless by “quicken” the Arminian means a prodding of his will. A Calvinist understands “quicken” as “Dead, dead, see I am dead, and there is a flower growing out of my belly button. My blood is ice cold. Now, look, there is Christ standing over me . ‘Come! get up!’

Wesley continues (my italics and bold):

“In this solemn discourse our Lord shows, that no external profession, no ceremonial ordinances or privileges of birth, could entitle any to the blessings of the Messiah’s kingdom: that an entire change of heart as well as of life was necessary for that purpose: that this could only be wrought in man by the almighty power of God: that every man born into the world was by nature in a state of sin, condemnation, and misery: that the free mercy of God had given his Son to deliver them from it, and to raise them to a blessed immortality: that all mankind, Gentiles as well as Jews (all = “all kinds of men”seems  to be Wesley’s meaning) might share in these benefits, procured by his being lifted up on the cross, and to be received by faith in him.”

Well, that’s the Calvinist view. John Wesley continues:

“but that if they rejected him, their eternal, aggravated condemnation, would be the certain consequence.”

Wesley is supposed to be commenting on John 3:3, but I don’t see anything about rejection of Christ in John 3:3. We do, however, read in John 3:18 “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18 ESV). But to get to John 3:18. Wesley has to somersault over John 3:8 “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 ESV).

John 3:8 is enough to disarm any Arminian, for it’s all about being born of the Spirit (born again, born from above). It’s not at all about playing a part in one’s regeneration; indeed John 3:8 is about (one’s will) being totally blown way by the process of being born again, and into the arms of God? If this is true, what does Jesus mean later in verse 18 by “whoever does not believe is condemned already?” If the “Spirit blows where it wills,” means regeneration, how, protests the Arminian, can someone who is not blown on by the Spirit (born again, born of the Spirit) be blamed if the Spirit does not blow on him? Because, for those who believe in the biblical doctrine of Original Sin, every human being is guilty and deserves damnation; except – as the Bible says in Romans 9 – Jews and Gentiles of the “promise.”

Romans 9:

8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion,2 but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”

“19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its milder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:19-24 ESV, my italics).”

(See Whitefield’s comments – in his letter – on Welsey’s Arminian interpretation of the above passage).

Wesley ends his commentary of John 3:3 with these words:

Except a man be born again – If our Lord by being born again means only reformation of life, instead of making any new discovery, he has only thrown a great deal of obscurity on what was before plain and obvious.”

All good Arminians as well as all good Calvinists will agree.

Finally, Whitefield, in his introduction to his letter to Wesley (cited above) says:

Known unto God are all his ways from the beginning of the world. The great day will discover why the Lord permits dear Mr. Wesley and me to be of a different way of thinking.”

Now they know. And soon will – willy nilly – we all.

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