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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