Spirituality: Calvin vs. Wesley

Spirituality: Calvin vs. Wesley October 23, 2013

It could be argued that Wesleyan theology, with its emphasis on “free grace” or free will (properly understood), leads the sensitive Christian toward fear of final salvation or toward a lack of assurance, just as one could argue that Calvinism, since it assumes God’s sovereign and preserving grace, can lead to too easy of an assurance or to resignation to whatever happens, including sin at some level. But neither is a fair description, and that is why Don Thorsen’s book Calvin vs. Wesley seeks to present how both Calvin and Wesley understand spirituality. (In light of our earlier post this morning, this chapter maps the way to compare one another.)

Do you think optimism vs. pessimism (or realism) is a fair comparison between Wesley and Calvin on the Christian life?

Spirituality in church history has had a variety of emphases, and a good book for this is Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (though I think the sacramental chapter falls a little short), including contemplation, social activism, personal holiness, theology-loving Christian living, sacramentalism, etc.  Both Calvin and Wesley were strong on sanctification, with Calvin coming to the 3d use of the Law (for Christian living). But they also differed.

Thorsen discusses Calvin from the angle of mortification and vivification — putting to death and making anew. These are the works of God and not the works of humans. Calvin’s paradoxical approach comes through: it is the work of God without denying human responsibility. They are not then “totally passive.” Prayer is important, self-mortification too by focusing on the presence of sin, the temptation to sin, and the need for grace. Thus, Calvin embraces the notion of the Christian life as a struggle. This struggle is shaped toward being more loving. Providence is shaped for disciplining the Christian. Thus, the struggling heartbeat is Romans 7:14-25 (below). This struggle in mortification and self-denial ought to lead to humility in the Christian life. Thorsen brings in the concept of union with Christ at this point. And he sketches how astounded Calvin could be by those who were confident in holiness or what would later be a theme in Wesley, the notion of perfection. Put differently, struggle in self-mortification and the discovery of deeper levels of sinfulness are characteristics in Calvin for spirituality. Yet one more way: it’s about praising God for his grace on a sinner.

Wesley differs in emphases, and most especially in hopefulness of sanctification and transformation. By God’s grace, for sure, but God’s grace is transformative. Holiness for Wesley is love. Achievable, through God’s grace in the power of the Spirit. In justification, righteousness in imputed; in sanctification, it is imparted. God conditions this upon faith, conditioned itself upon prevenient grace. God wants his people to grow into Christlikeness. Thus, Wesley’s emphasis is the confident reality of growth in Christlikeness.

All discussions here lead to Wesley’s theory of “entire sanctification” or Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection. It is about “habitual disposition of the soul” and being “cleansed from sin” and “being endued with those virtues which were in Christ Jesus” etc etc. At times in Wesleyan theology justification is about Jesus as Savior and sanctification about Jesus as Lord. It’s about consecration and growth. Often Wesley spoke of a “second crisis.” (Some call this a second work of grace.) He doesn’t accept “complete perfectionism” but “entire sanctification.” A Wesleyan once told me this meant “no longer sinning in intent.” Their will is now consecrated to God alone.

Thorsen sees the tension of hope and realism in Wesley. That tension must be respected. Wesley, though, took God’s Word at his word: be holy means become holy over time by God’s grace through the Spirit. The major difference here is that Wesley sees the Christian in need of partnering with God’s grace at work through us in faith and will.

Romans 7:14-25:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

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  • Ted M. Gossard

    This speaks to something I’ve been struggling over for some time. It seems in our liturgies that we approach the first and great commandment and the second like it in something of the two ways sketched here. When in reality there ought to be some combination of them both. Yes, we will fall short, but some attainment to that sort of practice of love is surely achievable and one in which we are to grow in Christ by the Spirit.

  • Rick

    Do you see Romans 7 as pre-conversion or post-conversion for Paul?

  • scotmcknight

    Neither… it is the Story, or experience, of Israel through the word “I”.

  • Rick

    Interesting. Thanks
    I should have known not to ask you about just 2 options :^)

  • If the goal of sanctification is Christlikeness, then I think death (mortification) and life (growth) are both a part of it. We live out the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus every day. Wesley’s way appeals to me, though, because I also believe that we are God’s partners (so to speak) in His work in the world. We work out our salvation while he works in us. We are the body of Christ, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, etc…. While I agree with Calvin that the Christian life is a struggle, it is not simply a struggle to mortify the flesh; it is also a struggle to partner with God to create a resurrection world.

  • Phil Miller

    Ben Witherington makes a good case that Paul is actually impersonating Adam in the section of Romans. It actually makes the most sense to me. Also, Witherington is pretty much a dyed-in-the-wool Methodist.


  • Ted M. Gossard

    Yes, I have leaned in the same direction, reading Scot and others with reference to Romans 7 and still lean that way. Inundated, though, with those who see it in more of a Lutheran theological context.

  • Luke Breuer

    personal holiness

    Holiness is being ‘set apart’, right? What can ‘personal holiness’ mean, other than being set apart from every other human being? But that denies the call for the body of Christ to be unified! Perhaps I have misinterpreted the phrase? I can see the church being set apart from the way the world does things, but how can individuals be set apart?

  • Luke Breuer

    One way I deal with the two greatest commandments is that the first means to value Truth above all else, and the second means to Love in the aforementioned Truth. God need not privilege truth above love because there is no falsehood in him. We, on the other hand, too easily think we are loving when there is poison in our love; C.S. Lewis explores this in Till We Have Faces.

    An example of loving in falsehood is to try to transform another person into your image of him/her, instead of God’s image of him/her (Eph 2:10). 2 Cor 5:16 is critical here: to the extent that my idea of what a person could be is out of line with God’s idea, I am reasoning out of my flesh.

    Sometimes we forget that we can’t get too far in obeying one of the two greatest commandments without advancing in the other. 1 John makes this very clear: if we do not love our brother, we do not love God. Mark 3:33-35 makes it clear that our brothers and sisters are exactly those people who are doing the will of God. It doesn’t say our hopefully-ever-less-distorted view of the will of God.

    One almost gets the sense that Jesus cares most about true human thriving, and not some degenerate form of it. It’s almost as if the glory of God is abundant life for and unity among all of his created beings—at least all who will have him as their servant-King. But I’m sure some will call me a heretic for this. :-]

  • Phil Miller

    What can ‘personal holiness’ mean, other than being set apart from every other human being?

    Well, many in the Holiness tradition certainly have take it to mean set apart in a literal fashion, but I guess I think it’s more helpful to think of it as being made more like Christ. I prefer the term theosis, personally. I think if we look at Christ as our model, certainly He didn’t withdraw from people, but because of who He was, He was certainly still set apart in a way.

  • Luke Breuer

    I definitely find the concept of theosis the most compelling match to what scripture has to say. But is theosis the same as ‘holiness’? I don’t think so; I don’t think the two are equivalent. We need to be separate from the world and that means connected to Christ, but if two are connected to Christ, they are not separated from each other. (To the extent they are separated from each other, at least one is not very connected to Christ!)

    P.S. I first came across the idea of theosis on Roger Olson’s blog in the last few months; do you have any recommended reading on the topic?

  • Phil Miller

    Michael Gorman is an author I’d recommend. His longer, more academic book is Apostle of the Crucified Lord (http://www.amazon.com/Apostle-Crucified-Lord-Introduction-ebook/dp/B001GCUP2O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382565462&sr=8-1&keywords=michael+gorman).

    He also has a shorter book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative.

  • Aaron Lage

    Yes, holiness means literally “set apart”. However, I think what you put after it builds the context with which to build your theology. The way you phrased it “set apart – from the world – or, other people” can cause the problems you’re suggesting.

    A way that has helped me is to say, “set apart – for God’s use”. It’s not so much set apart from as set apart for. To me, the connotation of that slight change shifts everything. Then, when I read scriptures about even the utensils in the temple being ‘holy’ it makes more sense. What made them holy? Of themselves nothing. The reason they were holy is that they were set apart for God’s use only. There was nothing ultimately different in shape or etching or design that set them apart. It was the fact that they were only used in the temple for God. The distinction was in the usage not the location.

    As Christians, it’s not so much a mentality of setting ourselves apart from the world in the sense of physical separation. It’s that we are set apart for God. There’s still a distinction between the world and me, but now it’s along the lines of the Scripture “in the world, but not of it…” I’m not physically separated as a monk. I’m in it shining a light in the darkness by the distinction I try to live my life to be. Holiness can mean “light in a dark place”. Light is separate or set apart from the dark.

    Anyway, as simple as that may seem it helps me. I think this is the true connotation of theosis mentioned above. Hope it helps you…

  • Luke Breuer

    The way you phrased it “set apart – from the world – or, other people” can cause the problems you’re suggesting.

    I did not mean ‘set apart’ in a monastic way; I think there is a distinct shift from ‘the physical’ in the OT → ‘the spiritual’ in the NT. In particular, I’d say that God was doing his best to get at the latter within the OT (“circumcise your hearts”), but folks largely weren’t getting it. Too much sinful desire and immaturity.

    Now, did we ever see holiness being applied to individuals within Israel? I’m not sure. Man is not created imago dei; man and woman are, collectively, created imago dei. So this begs the question of what it really means for holiness to apply to one individual, then to the next, then to the next. This really digs into the tension between individuality and community. I don’t know the right answer.

    The distinction was in the usage not the location.

    Well, there was also the distinction of purification. The utensils were in good working condition, and that included being ceremonially clean. Of course, what God always wanted was a pure heart—David knew this well before the NT, as Psalm 51 gloriously demonstrates.

    Hope it helps you…

    Thanks! The thought that really got me going on this was the idea that I can make much progress in personal holiness/purity/whatever, without you also making progress, as well as my other brothers and sisters in Christ. To me, the idea that there can be very much differential progress (such that some can be left in the dust) smacks of transgressing against 1 Cor 12, and yet I never see the point I’m arguing for emphasized very much. The Body of Christ just doesn’t seem to have the prominence that is taught in the Bible—not even close to it. But perhaps I am mistargeting when I identify this with ‘personal holiness’.