Ambassador of Reconciliation
6/12/12 at 11:03 AM 7 Comments

Calvinism vs. Arminianism: It's Nothing New

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Reading the comments on George Sarris’s article “No, John Piper…It’s NOT a Sin!” reminded me of a similar debate that was ongoing in the eighteenth century.

George Whitefield, a famous preacher and evangelist in Britain and America, and John and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodist movement, disagreed vigorously about election and predestination. Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist, and the Wesleys were equally committed Arminians. They spoke very strong words defending their own positions and criticizing the opposing views, but those of us on all sides today can learn from their graciousness toward one another.

In 1740 John Wesley preached a sermon entitled “Free Grace,” to which Whitefield responded with a long letter defending the Calvinist doctrine of election. Telling his reasons for writing the letter, Whitefield wrote to his “very dear brother,”

I desire therefore that they who hold election would not triumph, or make a party on one hand (for I detest any such thing)—and that they who are prejudiced against that doctrine be not too much concerned or offended on the other.
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.

Wesley wrote in return:

My dear Brother,
I thank you for yours, May the 24th. The case is quite plain. There are bigots both for predestination and against it. God is sending a message to those on either side. But neither will receive it, unless from one who is of their own opinion. Therefore, for a time you are suffered to be of one opinion, and I of another. But when his time is come, God will do what man cannot, namely, make us both of one mind. Then persecution will flame out, and it will be seen whether we count our lives dear unto ourselves, so that we may finish our course with joy. I am, my dearest brother,
Ever yours,
J. Wesley

Although their differences caused tension in their relationship, they always considered one another brothers and fellow believers in the Lord. In the end they were united in love, and Wesley preached at Whitefield’s memorial service. When asked if he thought he would see Whitefield on the Last Day, Wesley replied, “I fear not.” Then he explained, “for George will be so much nearer the throne of grace.”

John Wesley’s brother Charles, a hymn writer, expressed his views poetically; he wrote the words for nearly 9,000 hymns, many of which are still beloved today. One of his poems, “O Horrible Decree,” speaks against the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. It sparked heated reactions then and still does today. For example, the website “False Teachers Exposed” calls it “a blasphemous hymn by Charles Wesley against God’s particular efficacious atonement.” I will reprint the hymn here so you can make your own assessment:

Ah! Gentle, gracious Dove,
And art thou grieved in me,
That sinners should restrain thy love,
And say, “It is not free:
It is not free for all:
The most thou passest by,
And mockest with a fruitless call
Whom thou hast doomed to die.”

They think thee not sincere
In giving each his day,
Thou only draw’st the sinner near
To cast him quite away,
To aggravate his sin,
His sure damnation seal:
Thou show’st him heaven, and say’st, go in
And thrusts him into hell.

Worthy of whence it came!
Forgive their hellish blasphemy
Who charge it on the Lamb:
Whose pity him inclined
To leave his throne above,
The friend, and Saviour of mankind,
The God of grace, and love.

O gracious, loving Lord,
I feel thy bowels yearn;
For those who slight the gospel word
I share in thy concern:
How art thou grieved to be
By ransomed worms withstood!
How dost thou bleed afresh to see
Them trample on thy blood!

To limit thee they dare,
Blaspheme thee to thy face,
Deny their fellow-worms a share
In thy redeeming grace:
All for their own they take,
Thy righteousness engross,
Of none effect to most they make
The merits of thy cross.

Sinners, abhor the fiend:
His other gospel hear —
The God of truth did not intend
The thing his words declare,
He offers grace to all,
Which most cannot embrace,
Mocked with an ineffectual call
And insufficient grace.

The righteous God consigned
Them over to their doom,
And sent the Saviour of mankind
To damn them from the womb;
To damn for falling short,
“Of what they could not do,
For not believing the report
Of that which was not true.

The God of love pass’d by
The most of those that fell,
Ordained poor reprobates to die,
And forced them into hell.”
“He did not do the deed

(Some have more mildly raved)
He did not damn them — but decreed
They never should be saved.

He did not them bereave
Of life, or stop their breath,
His grace he only would not give,
And starved their souls to death.

Satanic sophistry!
But still, all-gracious God,
They charge the sinner’s death on thee,
Who bought’st him with thy blood.

They think with shrieks and cries
To please the Lord of hosts,
And offer thee, in sacrifice
Millions of slaughtered ghosts:
With newborn babes they fill
The dire infernal shade,
For such,” they say, “was thy great will,
Before the world was made.

How long, O God, how long
Shall Satan’s rage proceed!
Wilt thou not soon avenge the wrong,
And crush the serpent’s head?
Surely thou shalt at last
Bruise him beneath our feet:
The devil and his doctrine cast
Into the burning pit.

Arise, O God, arise,
Thy glorious truth maintain,
Hold forth the bloody sacrifice,
For every sinner slain!
Defend thy mercy’s cause,
Thy grace divinely free,
Lift up the standard of thy cross,
Draw all men unto thee.

O vindicate thy grace,
Which every soul may prove,
Us in thy arms of love embrace,
Of everlasting love.
Give the pure gospel word,
Thy preachers multiply,
Let all confess their common Lord,
And dare for him to die.

My life I here present,
My heart’s last drop of blood,
O let it all be freely spent
In proof that thou art good,
Art good to all that breathe,
Who all may pardon have:
Thou willest not the sinner’s death,
But all the world wouldst save.

O take me at my word,
But arm me with thy power,
Then call me forth to suffer, Lord,
To meet the fiery hour:
In death will I proclaim
That all may hear thy call,
And clap my hands amidst the flame,
And shout, — HE DIED FOR ALL.

Whatever you think of Whitefield and the Wesleys and their ideas, let’s remember that all of us who are in Christ are just foolish, fallible sinners who were bought by His blood. I try to keep in mind the fact that nobody, including myself, is right about everything, and I keep looking for those areas where I’m wrong so I can fix my beliefs. There’s no shame in changing your mind—in fact, it is very honorable to admit you’ve been wrong and take a new course!

One way we can all come together is by singing praises to God. Calvinists sing many of Wesley’s hymns wholeheartedly. And although I thoroughly disagree with Augustus Toplady’s assessment of John Wesley—“the most rancourous hater of the gospel system that ever appeared in England…blind to the doctrines of God”—Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” is one of my favorite hymns:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

And who could argue with Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be”?

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

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