John Wesley: a “hairs breadth” from Calvinism, a mile away from modern Wesleyanism?

Posted: August 25, 2009 by Rick Hogaboam in Calvinism, The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism

John Wesley

For those who don’t know, I pastor a Church located in a strong Nazarene community. Nampa, Idaho houses Northwest Nazarene University and several large Nazarene Churches. The Nazarene church roots itself in the Wesleyan tradition. As I have gotten to know the lay of the land, many people have expressed to me their griefs with the Nazarene Church, concerned about what faculty is teaching at the universities, the seeming doctrinal indifference among new clergy, the embrace of the “emergent” ethos, and an abandoning of traditionally core Evangelical doctrines like Inerrancy, Foreknowledge, and the Substitutionary Atonement. I have tried to stay out of the debates until my discourse with an anonymous faculty member revealed to me their disdain for what he called “Sunday School Theology” and their need to deconstruct what students have learned from their churches. From that moment on, I now had a dog in the race of this issue.

I also lead a Bible study with several NNU students and we as a Church help support the tuition for a couple of NNU students. I am concerned with what they are taught. I feel a pastoral responsibility to speak on the record about some of the things I have encountered.

While we are a “Calvinistic” Church, I have the up-most respect for John Wesley and his brother Charles. I am not the greatest Wesley scholar, but I did spend my freshman year of college at Central Christian College, which is  Free Methodist school. I was surrounded by Godly faculty who made a lasting impact on my life. One such faculty member, Dr. Casey Davis, served as my academic advisor and taught several of my courses. He is now on faculty at Roberts Wesleyan College. I esteem highly and consider him a mentor for my own Biblical, Theological, and Spiritual growth. I say all this to simply qualify myself as somewhat aware of Wesleyan higher academia and not a complete outsider.

I want to make a simple plea to modern Wesleyan devotees to embrace the very theological convictions that John Wesley himself embraced. He was an Anglican to his dying breath and in his own words to John Newton considered himself a “hair’s breadth” away from John Calvin. The 39 articles in Anglicanism is “Calvinistic” in its bent and Wesley never repudiated nor sought to renounce his Anglican identity in the favor of something new. I am not an Anglican, but cherish its heritage and history. I seek to emulate the “charitable Calvinism” that Charles Simeon was known for. Regrading Simeon, here is a discourse he had with an elderly John Wesley regarding the doctrines of grace:

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, 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?


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.

Indiana Wesleyan professors Chris Bounds and Keith Drury both contend in an article that John Wesley is closer to Calvinism than to modern Wesleyanism in an article titled, “John Wesley- The Calvinist” (here). Though there are admitted distinctions in Wesley and Calvin, especially on Predestination and Sanctification, they note that their familiarities were seemingly closer than where Wesleyans have gone and are now headed. I think John Wesley would reject the modern nuances of Process Theology (God doesn’t know future, etc), and the seeming de-emphasis on the centrality of Word and Sacrament in Wesleyan pulpits. Wesley was a man of action and would applaud social engagement, but he is also the same man who said that all clergy should be schooled in the original Biblical languages. He is the same man who traveled thousands of miles to bring the Lord’s Table to hungry believers.

I have been told that our Church, Sovereign Grace Fellowship, is closer to the liturgy and piety that Wesley himself embraced than some of the local “Wesleyan” Churches. I do NOT celebrate this, but find it ironic. I can’t say that Wesley would prefer to attend our Church over a local “Wesleyan” Church, but that it has been suggested to me from someone who understands Wesley better than I makes me wonder…would he?

Whitfield was once asked this question, “Do you expect to see John Wesley in Heaven?”

“No,” was his reply.

But then Whitfield continued, “John Wesley will be so close to the Throne of Glory, and I will be so far away, I will hardly get a glimpse of him.”

I concur with Whitfield in his estimation of Wesley. I, in many ways, seek to be Wesleyan…to have but a small portion of his administrative genius, the same hunger for the Lord’s Supper, a zeal for lost souls, an understanding of our lostness in sin and foundness in Christ, a grounded understanding of the Atonement. I love these things as Wesley loved them and think that he would hardly disdain our Church’s place in a “Wesleyan” community, but would graciously write me, saying, “Rick, I am but a ‘hair’s breadth’ from you”.  I would not ask his opinion of the local “Wesleyan” Churches, but simply rejoice that he is ohhhhh so close to who we are….and that we definitely hold in common the same Lord we love and adore!!!

  1. Scott Kistler says:

    This was really interesting, Rick. Mark Noll’s explanation of American Methodism in America’s God talked about the changes that took place in the 19th century. Wesley agreed with Calvinists that all men were incapable of choosing God, but also said that the atonement made available in the Cross enabled all men to choose. Later Methodist theologians tended to argue that man’s will was free, based on commonsense moral reasoning that came from Scottish Enlightenment thought. I wonder if there is any kind of causal link between that and modern Methodist liberal theology.

  2. Ken Sarber says:

    I heard a few people say that it was actually John Wesley speaking about George Whitfield – not George Whitfield talking about John Wesley. Could you verify that? Could you tell me the original source where this conversation was printed?

    • everything I have read points to Calvin.

      • Ken Sarber says:

        I’m not sure I understand your response. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my question. I was referring to to the conversation where George Whitfield stated that John Wesley would be closer to the throne of grace. I heard from some people that it was actually John Wesley saying that about George Whitfield. I was just wondering if someone could validate for me which way it was.

        Thank you very much for this post – how we as Christians should strive for unity on what we agree and no one disunity on terms we don’t agree on. I have always been an admirer of John Wesley.

      • Ken, I thought you were asking if the “hairs breadth from Calvin” quote should be Whitefield instead of Calvin. As for what you mentioned, it was actually Whitefield who was asked if he thought he would see Wesley in heaven. Whitefield responded, “No”, and then proceeded to say that Wesley would be so far in the front that Whitefield would be unable to see him.

  3. Ken Sarber says:

    Thank you for your clarification. I just discovered this website, and I can tell you: God is using your work to do amazing things! Thank you for standing for truth.

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