Over the years I’ve noticed a trend in the narrow alleys which Methodists occupy on social media. Whenever I post an essay or sermon that takes any of the following seriously— the Old Adam in us, the Power of Sin and Death, the cross, justification in Christ alone by grace alone, or the Gospel— I am, in such short order there’s no way the respondent read it at all much less read it closely, accused of being a Calvinist. Nevermind that none of these terms is in any way distinctively Calvinistic, they’re all also explicitly affirmed by the Thiry-Nine Articles of Wesley’s Book of Common Prayer. The term “Calvinist” in these dismissals appears to function as a signifier for an orthodoxy now deemed antiquated by progressive Christianity. Worse, are the dismissals that come from a Methodism that purports to be traditional but is actually sentimentality in Jesus drag. Indeed, a couple of years ago, I started a little game with myself. I’d post on Facebook or Twitter an unattributed quote from John Wesley (usually about sin and our needing saved from it) and wait to see how quickly and how often Wesleyan clergy would rush in, concluding that Calvin was the quote’s whence.
It’s often remarked that the theological distance between Luther’s Protestantism and the medieval Catholic Church was slighter than is the distance today between Luther’s Protestantism and mainline Protestantism; likewise, it would come as an unhappy surprise to John Wesley that cornerstones of the faith that he assumed and affirmed are today discarded as Calvinist. Hearts, Wesley knew, are not strangely warmed by exhorting listeners to have their hearts strangely warmed. Only the Gospel, through the Spirit doing the scripture text to listeners through the preached word, can enliven us and set our hearts afire. We’ve given primacy to Wesley’s experience of having his heart strangely warmed— devising programs and stategies to replicate it— rather than to the means and message by which the Spirit warmed it. After all, it was hearing Luther’s distillation of Paul’s message of the righteousness and justification that comes by faith in Christ and him crucified for you, gratis, that changed Wesley’s life.
If it’s no longer clear to us, as Methodists, that this is our core message, shared by Luther, Calvin, and Wesley alike, then, on the precipice of schism, we really are only fighting over the furniture. And our sixty year decline as a denomination just may be the winnowing fork of God’s judgment upon our unfaithfulness.
On the premise that Wesley is closer to Calvin than United Methodists today are to either, here’s an exchange between Charles Simeon, a young Anglican (evangelical Calvinist, to boot) priest, and an elderly John Wesley.
CS: 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?
JW: Yes, I do indeed.
CS: 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?
JW: Yes, solely through Christ.
CS: But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
JW: No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.
CS: 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?
CS: What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?
JW: Yes, altogether.
CS: And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?
JW: Yes, I have no hope but in Him.
CS: 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. (Moule, 79f)
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