How to Read John Wesley

Something I’ve appreciated in the limited amount of time I’ve spent reading Fred Sanders is his interaction with John Wesley. Coming out of the PCA and being a fairly convinced Calvinist, I haven’t spent a ton of time interacting with Wesley and the limited amount I’ve read about him is not wholly sympathetic, to say the least. (This has led to me regularly joking with my PCA pastor friends that just once I’d like for one of them to name their sons “Wesley” instead of “Calvin” just to screw with people.) Dr. Sanders has helped me start to correct this major gap in my own reading. And now I’m pleased to say a new volume of Wesley’s sermons is out that should further help address that gap. Dr. Sanders has an interview with the volume’s editor at his blog, which you can read here. If you’re like me, you’ll be particularly interested in this point:

FS: One striking thing about this collection is that Wesley presents a definite anti-Calvinist profile here. When Wesley organized his own sermons for publication as guidelines for the Methodist movement, he did not include the controversial, anti-Calvinist sermon from 1739,  “Free Grace.” But in this collection, you’ve given it the pole position, right up front after two sermons on the human condition and before any of the revival preaching on awakening, repentance, and justification. Wesley only preached this anti-Calvinist sermon twice, as you note in the introduction, and it caused a rift with Whitefield and the Calvinistic Methodists. In this collection, you’ve made the “Free Grace” sermon the gateway to Wesleyan theology. Also, I notice that Wesley’s eulogy on George Whitefield, which he included in his own 1770-1771 collection of 53 sermons, is conspicuously absent.


I probably have a tendency to downplay Wesley’s anti-Calvinist elements, because I see him as doing likewise in his authoritative publications. By promoting the “Free Grace” sermon and omitting the Whitefield eulogy, you’ve made the decision to make sure Wesley’s anti-Calvinist profile cannot be overlooked. Why is that important?

JV: This is another great question, Fred. I suspect that this is one of those moments where something looks one way to an outsider and an entirely different way to an insider. Within Wesleyanism, there is sometimes a hyper-sensitivity to the accusation (less frequent in these days of growing theological illiteracy) that Wesleyans and Methodists are Pelagian in their view of salvation. Over the years, our favorite way of countering this accusation is to say that we believe in free grace rather than free will.

But there is another dimension. Even in the absence of accusations of Pelagianism by non-Wesleyans (again, something that is less and less frequent these days), we Wesleyans inherited from Wesley a certain tendency to try to earn our grace. So free grace is also a way in which we remind ourselves that God is always moving freely towards us and that before we begin moving towards God. And in this broader sense of “prevenient grace,” the theme is everywhere in Wesley. For example, you can see it in his emphasis on the Spirit’s work of rehabilitating the spiritual senses.

None of this is to downplay the explicitly anti-Calvinist dimension of the sermon “Free Grace.” It is rather to say that there are broader intra-Wesleyan dynamics here that probably influenced our thinking on the placement of this sermon.

Having said this, I do think that the doctrine of the unlimited atonement has dogmatic status for Wesleyans. In other words, it is a litmus test of sorts. And both Wesley and Wesleyans therefore frequently go out of our way to reject the doctrine of predestination in its usual or popular form (though often failing to see its function within the arc of Calvin’s theology, namely, to cohere with and support the doctrine of divine sovereignty and freedom).

Circling back to my earlier point, I think what really appalled Wesley was his perception that predestination precludes striving after God, which is to say, that it leads to spiritual apathy. But if you are going to oppose apathy and promote striving (something this collection wants to do), then you are invariably going to open the door to works righteousness, so you put a sermon on free grace near the front.