Grace, and the God of that Grace

A rock-solid agreement on which Christians of all stripes — and I mean all stripes — should agree is that God is gracious and that the whole of our redemption comes from God’s grace. So, humans don’t save themselves, they don’t become loving or holy by themselves, and they don’t stand up from the grave by themselves. They can no more rise from the dead by themselves than be born again by themselves. So, we can all  agree that it is all of grace.

Yet, we differ. Over grace. In ways that get the bristles raised among some. John Calvin, whose viewpoint was “not within the historic mainstream” and whose view was more in line with Augustine, and John Wesley, whose viewpoint was the historic Christian mainstream and who was “Semi-Augustinian” [not semi-Pelagian], differed in some dramatic way — though they stood together on firm ground that it was all of grace. All of this is sketched well in Don Thorsen, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice.

My questions today: What picture of God emerges from Calvin’s view of grace? What picture of God emerges from Wesley’s view of grace?

Thorsen’s sketch of the two views of grace can be seen in these two ways: for Calvin, grace is effectual. God determines, acts, sustains, and accomplishes salvation and humans are “passive.” For Wesley, grace is prevenient in that God showers grace upon all and that grace is triggered into effectiveness by the gracious granting on God’s part of human freedom (“free grace”). To show what Wesley believes, I quote from Thorsen’s summary:

God is thought to limit voluntarily God’s own power over people, which does not represent a genuine limitation in God’s sovereignty, so that people may act responsibly and not irresistibly. By means of God’s prevenient work of grace, which is universally available through the Holy Spirit in the lives of people, people may genuinely respond without God effectually determining their choices. When people do respond, of course, they they are thought to be genuinely responsible for sin and evil that occurs. Sin and evil do not occur irresistibly, because God’s sovereignty and irresistible grace, but through people’s active rebellion or passive indifference to God (49).

Calvin’s emphasis is on the sovereign determinations of God. One of the important elements of Calvin’s theology is that it is all of grace, to be sure, and furthermore it is all in the determinations of God, to be sure, and God’s grace is irresistible from beginning to end, but the reprobates (damned, unsaved, etc) are responsible for their sin and their final judgment. All of this shows the sovereignty of God and is therefore to God’s (sovereign) glory.

Calvin believed in general grace, which is God’s goodness to all of creation in the normal affairs of life, and a special grace, which is the saving grace of God. Wesley’s net in general grace was a bit wider than Calvin’s though he distinguished general grace from prevenient grace — the grace that offers and makes salvation available to all. General grace will later be called “common grace.”  Both also emphasized the “means of grace” (like sacraments, church, preaching, prayer) though their lists do differ on what gets included on the list.

They are both grace-theologians, but they differ substantively when it comes to how that grace of God works.

What view of God does one see?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Rick

    Keith Drury wrote about one important contemporary misunderstanding (by some Wesleyans and others) of Wesley’s view:

    “To contemporary Wesleyans human beings have this power to decide as a result of prevenient grace—a blanket of grace given to all humans everywhere enabling them to move toward God and exercise faith in any given moment.
    Wesley disagrees. This contemporary understanding is a fundamental misappropriation of Wesley’s teaching on prevenient grace. Prevenient grace, to Wesley is primarily a restoration of humanity’s responsiveness to grace not the granting of the power to believe. To Wesley prevenient grace brings to power to respond to grace, not the power to believe. Wesley would say that as a result of prevenient grace human beings are able to cooperate with further offers of grace by God—not that they had the power to believe when they heard the gospel. For Wesley prevenient grace in itself does not restore to people the ability to exercise faith, much less express repentance—these are works of God not men and women. Prevenient grace enables a person to cooperate with God’s grace made available through the means of grace that seeks to convict a person of sin, convince a person of the need for Christ, and create saving faith. Thus, to Wesley all prevenient grace enables a person to do is choose to cooperate with these further works of grace or not. Grace from this perspective is the work of the Holy Spirit in us.”

  • RJS4DQ

    I’ll be provocative. This is where I think Calvin’s approach goes wrong. In fact, I think the only way to get to Calvin’s view of the sovereign determination of God from Scripture is to start with a philosophy about God, cherry pick the few passages of Scripture that “prove” the view, and relegate the language of the vast majority of Scripture to “accommodation.”

  • NateW

    This might sound rather esoteric, but I wonder sometimes if we were able to see God outside the strict western concept of time—to perceive the radical “always-present” essence of the eternal “I am”—if these questions would dramatically cease being relevant. In other words, if we can stop saying “god has chosen” and say instead that at any given present moment that we may be conscious of God IS CHOOSING. In this present moment (which is all that will ever be for each and every one I us) we choose and God chooses simultaneously. Wherever we find ourselvscinceach moment we can say that god has ordained that we be there and in the same breath that we have arrived by our own decision. To the extent that we have faith that we are being chosen for this moment then we will unavoidably choose God in that same moment. To the extent that we consider ourselves a victim of Gods non-choice, the next step we take will be away from God.

    In the present moment, the only time that “I Am” exists, our free choice and Gods sovereign choice are always in perfect alignment. It is only in the abstract and theoretical (and vain-cf. Ecclesiastes) imagination of past and future that this union breaks apart.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    I consider myself a Christian but I don’t agree with that.

    For me, salvation stems from God’s love:

    https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/salvation-by-love-erlosung-durch-die-liebe-unten/

    I would be glad to discuss about this with people disagreeing with this concept.

    Lovely greetings in Christ.

  • Mark Kennedy

    Could you give me a quick and dirty reference? Thanks.

  • Rick
  • Rick

    “For me, salvation stems from God’s love”
    Wesley probably would agree with you. As an earlier edition of this series noted:

    “Wesley…believed in God’s sovereignty. But his approach was not so much through power but through holiness and God’s relationship with humans, a relationship noted by love…Wesley focused more on God’s love”

  • Austin Thomas

    In Calvin’s theology of irresistible grace, is all grace irresistible or only effectual grace? Because if all of God’s grace is irresisitible then those who are regenerate should be living perfect lives because of empowering grace, right? I’m not trying to be facetious, I just wanted to see if someone on here could provide an answer.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Thanks for this information.

    2013/10/9 Disqus

  • RonSimkins

    No question I lean toward the Wesley approach as one who experienced God’s gracious enabling to begin turning toward God and then more and more opportunities to choose to be open to more of God’s grace. If I had to believe in Calvin’s God who pre-chooses who will be destroyed, I could not be a Christian since it makes God into “that hiddeous strength.” I guess Calvin would say that God pre-chose to make me into that kind of person. Sure hope not since I love God and God’s Son Jesus a whole lot and appreciate the fact that they saved me from my self-destruction and so much destructiveness of others – as best I can tell — unless Calvin gets the last word.

  • John Walker

    I completely agree with you. It begins as a presupposition that is read into the text.

    John Walker | freedominorthodoxy.blogspot.com

  • http://neyhart.blogspot.com/ Jennifer

    That’s the way C. S. Lewis thought about it. And while I agree with him on a great many things, I haven’t figured out yet if I agree with him on that point. But it is interesting to think about.

  • labreuer

    Good question. The snarky pseudo-Calvinist in me says that God receives more glory by drawing out the refining and sanctifying process.

    The actual Arminian in me says that we are God’s coworkers (1 Cor 3:9), and that “love does not insist on its own way”.

  • kraz

    I’ll push back. I’m not sure the Wesleyan view (or at least the version if it I was taught as a Methodist for 5 years) does justice to the amount of times the scriptures talk about God pre-planning events, choosing people to fulfil purposes before they were born and so on. If I can believe Paul’s faith and ministry was predetermined in God’s plan of salvation as the route to take the Gospel to the Gentiles I can cope with the idea that God has planned other peoples lives as well.

  • kraz

    I know that single and double predestination is a debate in Reformed circles but my limited knowledge of Calvin was that he himself only really wrote about predestination to salvation rather than to salvation and damnation. So I’m not sure saying “Calvin’s God who pre-chooses who will be destroyed” is really fair.

  • Phil Miller

    Sure it’s fair… If God chooses some to salvation and choose not to save others, that by definition means he is appointing them to be damned. There’s not really any other way around it. At least some Calvinists admit this. It’s why John Piper calls himself a “7-point” Calvinist.

  • RonSimkins

    You are certainly correct that it is debated, and I would think for good reason since there is a desire to avoid the “hideous strength” implications. But, how can you really have one without the other? Again, I too know there are many books attempting to convince that you can, but it just doesn’t work. A “God” who only chooses some cannot get off the hook if others really have no real choice at all in the matter and it could not have come out differently. A sovereign God who sovereignly chooses to honor our responses to God’s love is not less sovereign and is certainly more in line with the big picture of the biblical narrative.


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