As we might imagine, someone who preached for as many years as John Wesley did managed to stir up controversy on the religious scene. His own church didn’t think much of his message that wealth and privilege weren’t necessary to church participation. Especially when he went around saying that to the wealthy and privileged, whose contributions to churches tended to waver when preachers told them they were sinners just like all the rabble they disliked.
But he was also caught up in the theological arguments of his day. One of them wrapped around the idea of something folks called “rigid double predestination.” It went like this: From the very beginning of time, God had picked who he would save. That’s the predestination part. He’d also picked who he wouldn’t save, which is the double predestination part. And no one could do anything about it and he’d never change his mind, which is the rigid part.
The most common way of saying this was: “The elect will be saved, do what they will; the non-elect will be damned, do what they can.”
Predestination came from one of the earlier Protestant reformers, a man named John Calvin. His ideas were best known in Wesley’s day through the Presbyterian church, an ancestor of the Presbyterian church we know today. Calvin hadn’t been quite as enthusiastic about the damnation part as the predestinarians of Wesley’s day, but apparently there are always people who enjoy the idea of other people going to hell.
Calvin originally taught this doctrine because he believed God had absolute power and because people couldn’t do anything to make themselves worthy of salvation. If they could accept or reject salvation, Calvin said, that meant that they had power to defeat God’s purposes or to make themselves acceptable to God.
Wesley sympathized with Calvin’s concerns, but he drew the line at predestination. He had many concerns, such as the idea that predestination meant that God made some people for the purpose of damnation. It’d be like, say, cloning people only so they could be killed later, for parts or something. He also wondered why Christ would come and die for people’s sins if God had already foreordained some people to save and some to get it in the neck.
But as usual, the pastoral concern was Wesley’s strongest objection. People had no way of knowing whether or not they would be saved. The worst person in the world might have an “up” ticket, and the baby who fell victim to fever might spend eternity in torment. Predestination was a doctrine of uncertainty and fear.
Scripture, though, taught that Jesus said he left his peace with his followers. And it taught that perfect love cast out fear. So, Wesley said, people could have assurance of their salvation – they could have some experience that let them know God had indeed accepted them and that Christ’s death meant their sins were forgiven. He saw his “strangely warmed heart” at Aldersgate as such an experience.
People could also accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. God would not require them to be something they did not want to be, and if they didn’t want to be saved, God wouldn’t force salvation on them.
Wesley still had to reconcile his ideas with the fact that people couldn’t earn their own salvation, though. Although he rejected predestination, he didn’t reject humanity’s sinful nature. The name Jeremiah gave to the coming Messiah – “The Lord our righteousness” – was the key.
Yes, we could accept or reject God’s offer of salvation, Wesley said. But God’s grace gives us that ability, and without that grace, we couldn’t even make the choice. Our very choice to accept or reject God depends on God’s power.
Think about it in these terms: We’ve all had relationships that have been broken or damaged somehow. And maybe after a time, we’ve wanted to heal that break. Or maybe the other person does. One of us brings the olive branch – symbolically speaking, of course, unless it seems wise to use a real one. But that won’t make any difference if the other person doesn’t accept the peace offering.
God can offer his forgiveness to us, and does constantly. Unless we accept it, though, the relationship between us stays broken. Wesley, as I noted, said God’s grace alone allows us to accept the offer, meaning that everything about our salvation still depends on God, rather than us. Which is probably for the best, if you think about it.