A Crash Course in Wesleyan-Arminian Theology

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Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) was a post-Reformation pastor and theologian who supported the broader Reformed faith but departed from Calvinism at several key points. John Wesley (1703-1791) embraced Arminius’s theology, with a few contributions (most notably, that entire sanctification is possible in this life.) Wesley’s followers became known as Methodists because of their methodic approach to spiritual formation.

Some of the greatest Methodist theologians include Richard Watson (the first to systematize Wesley’s teachings in his Theological Institutes), William Burt Pope (Compendium of Christian Theology), and Thomas Summers (Systematic Theology). In addition to the writings of Arminius and Wesley, Watson, Pope, and Summers are helpful for understanding orthodox Wesleyan-Arminian theology.

In what follows, I will organize several key points of Wesleyan Arminian theology under the “Four ‘Alls’ of Methodism.”

All Men Need to Be Saved

TOTAL DEPRAVITY AND BONDAGE OF THE WILL

While God created man in his image, the human race was plunged into corruption through Adam’s sin. This resulted in man’s total depravity. Wesleyan Arminians agree with Calvinists that sinners, apart from God’s grace, are totally depraved: no part of man is untouched by sin.

Wesleyans also affirm the bondage of the will: no one can respond positively to the gospel without God’s grace. Arminians are not Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian; apart from grace, men do not have free will in the sense that they cannot freely choose to think, will, or do anything that is right.

Wesley’s doctrine of original sin is every bit as strong as Calvin’s. Wesley asked, “Is man by nature filled with all manner of evil? Is he void of all good? Is he wholly fallen? Is his soul totally corrupted? Or, to come back to the text, is ‘every imagination of the thoughts of his heart only evil continually?’ Admit this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but a Heathen still.”

All Men Can Be Saved

UNLIMITED ATONEMENT

While all men are lost in sin, God is not willing that any should perish (2 Pet. 3:9). God sent his son to atone for the sins of all men without exception: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2).

Wesley and Arminius held to penal substitution, the Reformation doctrine of the atonement. That is, Christ paid the penalty for our sins by dying as our substitute to satisfy the justice and wrath of God. Some later Methodists (e.g., John Miley) departed from this view, embracing the governmental theory commonly attributed to the 17th-century Arminian theologian Hugo Grotius.

JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH

While Christ died for all men, his atonement is only applied to those who repent and believe the gospel. Salvation is offered in the gospel as a free gift and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all who believe.

Wesleyan Arminians uphold the solas of the Reformation, including sola fide. Wesley said, “I think on Justification just as I have done any time these seven-and-twenty years, and just as Mr. Calvin does. In this respect I do not differ from him an hair’s breadth.” 

PREVENIENT GRACE

Since no one is able to respond positively to the gospel in his totally depraved condition, Wesleyan Arminians believe that God’s grace goes before (prevenes) men, leading them to salvation and enabling them to respond. This grace is strong but resistible (Acts 7:51); as long as men cooperate and do not resist, they will be saved. Arminians emphasize free grace, not free will.

Wesley wrote, “Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing [prevenient] grace; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him.”

CONDITIONAL PREDESTINATION

In Arminianism, the focus of predestination is on God’s decree that Christ is to be the Savior of sinners: “he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5). A person becomes part of the elect people of God when he is united with Christ by faith.

Arminians agree with Calvinists that God has predestined to save and damn particular persons; however, they contend that this predestination is not random or arbitrary. Rather, it is conditioned on God’s foreknowledge of who will cooperate with his prevenient grace: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29; cf. 1 Pet. 1:1-2). This was the opinion of the church before Augustine.

All Men Can Know They Are Saved

ASSURANCE AND CONDITIONAL ETERNAL SECURITY

Those who receive Christ by faith are secure in him and can be confident in their relationship with God. Those who obey God’s commandments, love the brothers, and keep a clear conscience can know that they are in Christ (1 Jn. 2). Wesley especially emphasized the witness of the Spirit (Rom. 8:16).

While Arminius generally affirmed perseverance of the saints, his later writings suggest that it is possible to fall away from grace through apostasy (renouncing one’s faith). Wesley held that both apostasy and persistent, willful sin would result in a broken relationship with God. Just as one must cooperate with God’s prevenient grace (by faith) to be saved, he must continue to cooperate with God’s grace (by faith) to stay saved.

All Men Can Be Saved to the Uttermost

ENTIRE SANCTIFICATION

Wesleyans interpret 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 as God’s will for believers in this life. The Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification, which Wesley called Christian perfection or perfect love, is that believers can be cleansed from all sin and have their hearts renewed in love. Wesleyans have an optimism about God’s grace and its power for holiness of heart and life.

Since Arminius did not teach that men can be entirely sanctified in this life, Wesleyans are considered a subgroup of Arminians.

Wesleyan Arminians do not believe in perfectionism. Christians grow in grace before and after their hearts are purified by faith. But all who are counted as righteous are also called to cleanse themselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit.

Summary

While Arminianism differs from Calvinism at key points, it is not the opposite of Calvinism. Both systems emphasize the key tenets of Reformation faith. Arminianism, however, emphasizes God’s free grace and universal love. God does not arbitrarily damn some without giving them any real chance to be saved. Rather, he supplies the grace to be saved and to be holy. Wesleyan Arminianism is especially warm and equitable at the points where Calvinism is cold and imbalanced. It is a theology of grace upon grace. As Arminius said, “I ascribe to grace the commencement, the continuance and the consummation of all good.”

Resources on key Wesleyan-Arminian doctrines:

Submit your questions about Wesleyan Arminian theology to questions@holyjoys.org.

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Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.