Summary: A brief look at free will from a Wesleyan prospective.
So today I would like to take a few moments to examine one of John Wesley’s most important observations of the faith and a cornerstone of the doctrinal standard of the United Methodist Church: free will. Hopefully, after today, you will be fully prepared to go toe-to-toe in a debate with your Baptist friends (only kidding). But it is a major theological difference between the denominations. Limited atonement, perseverance of the saints, irresistible grace, and total depravity are all Calvinist beliefs that we do not share in the United Methodist Church, but today I am specifically going to address predestination, traditionally known as unconditional election as we continue our study of Paul’s works in Ephesians 1:3-14. Listen for the word of God as I read.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
The Apostle Peter once regarded Paul’s writings as ‘hard to understand.’ He was right. But if these writings of Paul were easy to understand, the Baptist church, or the United Methodist church might not exist today. It is likely that most of us, if not all of us, at some point have believed in predestination. However, this is not a United Methodist belief. John and Charles Wesley spent years study on this very piece of scripture, and yet when John Wesley preached sermons on free will he was careful to tread lightly. We as Christians generally have comfort in the notion that God is in control of all things. But we should examine our interpretation of this. Wesleyan theology, which is the backbone of Methodism, rejects the idea of unconditional election and explains a misinterpretation by Calvin of the scripture regarding the subject. Rather than God pre-selecting those who would become believers in Christ, Wesley declares that God knows who will become believers on their own, before they even know, and prepares a place for them with Christ. Wesley also identified several other supporting facts for free will, which we’re going to cover some of here today. Many people have a misinterpreted understanding of what predestination actually is. I admit that I was once one of those of people. I believed that I was meant to become a cop and a father because God had ordained it. Although God certainly had a hand in these things, it was my own free will that was required to understand what the Lord wanted me to do and ultimately answer my calling. What I thought I had understood about predestination, unconditional election, had been a bit off the mark. Now, I understand that there are a number of Methodists who believe in predestination, just as there are a number of Baptists that believe in free will. Don’t worry, we’re not going to send you away. This is actually fairly common. But to clear up what Calvinist theology defines as predestination, I’m going to give you the abridged version. Calvin’s interpretation of the scripture suggests that believers are preselected by God, before they are even born, and every thought and action are the work of God. God picks who He wants to be saved, marks them as believers, and as they make their profession of faith they are fulfilling what God has predestined. This leads to other Calvinist beliefs, such as perseverance of the saints, but we’re not getting into that today. Predestination doesn’t sound that bad, right? Well, here’s the other side of it. Those whom God has not preselected remain in total depravity, do not receive God’s grace, and are not blessed with eternal life. So what is the Methodist argument? It comes straight from John Wesley himself. Other qualified scholars and members of the clergy, such as Adam Hamilton (Sr. Pastor at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in St. Louis) have written numerous books and sermons supporting and expanding on Wesley’s interpretation. So why free will?