Why I Am A Wesleyan! A Response to Michael Bird

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Evangelical theologian Michael F. Bird recently published a blog post, “Why I am a Calvinist!” I knew it was coming and was eagerly anticipating the post since Bird is a good theologian and a winsome writer with an appreciation for the Wesleys (as reflected in his Evangelical Theology, especially the second edition). He is, simply put, one of my favorite Calvinists.

Unfortunately, Bird’s post was disappointing for one simple reason: there was nothing distinctly Calvinistic about it. The post is short. Bird writes,

Yes, I am a Calvinist, though perhaps a naughty one.

Now Calvinism can mean different things to different people.

For some Calvinism is …

A stale and cold Protestant orthodoxy devoid of joy.
A neo-Puritan enterprise excited by prohibiting dissent and expelling explorers.
A Protestant civic arrangement about how to operate a city or state.
A system of salvation stemming from the Synod of Dort which codified its theology as TULIPs: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.

But that’s not my Calvinism!

To explain “his” Calvinism, Bird then links to an old video about his Calvinistic perspective in Evangelical Theology. In the video, Bird says,

I am a happy card-carrying Calvinist … For me, Calvinism or being Reformed is based on this premise: basically, people suck. They suck in their sin. They are suckness unto death. And the God who is rich in mercy reaches down to save them based on nothing more than his pure gracious decision to be the God who saves. That’s my Calvinism; the rest is commentary.

But the rest is not just commentary. It’s the stuff that actually divides Calvinists and other Christians.

Since at least the Second Council of Orange in 529 AD, the whole church has been clear in its shared belief that “sin, which is the death of the soul, passed through one man to the whole human race,” that “the whole man, that is, both body and soul” is corrupted by sin, and that even the “beginning and the very desire for faith” is “​​a gift of grace”: “it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought.” In other words, what Bird identifies as “Calvinist” is affirmed by all orthodox Christians.

What Bird identifies as “Calvinist” is affirmed by all orthodox Christians.

Wesleyans wholeheartedly affirm total depravity and total inability. Wesley and Arminius both taught these doctrines in the strongest possible terms. Saying that people are “suckness unto death” is mild compared to the forceful language that Wesley used in his sermon on original sin. Arminius confessed “that the mind of a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins.” He affirmed every word of the Belgic Confession until the day that he died, including Articles 14–16. How could anyone read Wesley or Arminius and walk away with any other conclusion than that Christianity is about a God who is rich in mercy reaching down to save people based on nothing more than his pure gracious decision to be the God who saves?

When Calvinists claim as their own what is not distinctly Calvinistic, it perpetuates the false notion that only Calvinism is really serious about human helplessness and divine grace. By reading Bird’s post, an uninformed reader is likely to assume that theological traditions such as Wesleyan-Arminianism must be about something else such as free will and self-determination. But as Roger Olson once said in response to John Piper, “True Arminianism is not obsessed with humanistic belief in free will; it is obsessed with God as revealed in Jesus Christ as loving and good and wanting all people to be saved.”

When Calvinists claim as their own what is not distinctly Calvinistic, it perpetuates the false notion that only Calvinism is really serious about human helplessness and divine grace.

In response to this point, Bird did raise one important question on Twitter: “But is Wesleyan grace efficacious?” To this, we can also give a resounding “Yes!”—unless you define “efficacious” in a way that absolutely excludes resistibility. As Arminius said,“the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, ‘is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?’” (see Acts 7:51). William Burt Pope explains,

… the Spirit’s calling is efficacious, inasmuch as through the Word He renders all men who hear that Word conscious of their responsibility, and capable of obedience; but it is not irresistible.

This is my question for Michael Bird: If your Calvinism is really just about a God who reaches down in pure grace to help sucky sinners, and not about “a system of salvation stemming from the Synod of Dort,” then why not a God who reaches down to save all sucky sinners, as in Wesleyanism (and of course, I believe, in Scripture)? If God loves sucky sinners, why does he leave so many of them in the condition in which they were born, and give them absolutely no possibility to be saved? As Wesley preached in his sermon “Free Grace,”

The sense of all is plainly this, — by virtue of an eternal, unchangeable, irresistible decree of God, one part of mankind are infallibly saved, and the rest infallibly damned; it being impossible that any of the former should be damned, or that any of the latter should be saved.

I’m a Wesleyan because God’s grace is “free for all, as well as in all.” God so loves the world that he made. He sent his Son to be “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). And he is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

I would enjoy another article by Michael Bird on why he is actually a Calvinist; or, better yet, I’d like for him to exchange his Calvinist card for a Wesleyan one!

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.