We’ve finished our series on Daniel’s vision of the four beasts, so now it’s time for a palette cleanser to get ready for the next series.
This is the last post in a five-part series on America’s First Great Awakening. I’ve been enjoying studying the Church’s history in America. As I studied the Church through the decades, I began to get a big picture overview of what was happening. I saw how God was working as a Master Potter, molding and shaping the Church into something powerful to be used for His glory. Down through the centuries, He has been preparing the Church to be used as a powerful tool for a great end time harvest. But the Church in the 1700s was not powerful or effective. There was much work that needed to be done if the Church was going to fulfill her destiny.
In the last post, we looked at how the Lord began to prune away culture and traditions that hindered the Gospel from spreading. In this post, we’re going to look at how the Lord used John Wesley and others to purge the Church of erroneous doctrine that was detrimental to Christianity. I’m talking about the doctrine of Calvinism. In “John Wesley’s Journal,” the introductory comments about Wesley say, “He gave a death blow to the destructive dogma of limited salvation with which the names of Augustine and Calvin will be forever associated.” God entrusted John Wesley and others with the most urgent task of helping to rid the Church of the destructive dogma of Calvinism. THE PURGE OF DESTRUCTIVE DOCTRINE
The Doctrine of Calvinism
By Karen Thompson
Fifth in a Five-Part Series
John Calvin (1509 –1564), one of the Reformation leaders, was the originator of the doctrine of Calvinism (also called “the doctrine of election”). Calvinism promulgated the following doctrines: “the supreme sovereignty of God, predestination, the total depravity of man, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.” The most controversial Calvinistic doctrine had to do with Christ’s atonement with regard to salvation. Calvinist doctrine asserts that Christ’s atonement is limited, meaning Christ did not die for everyone, only for the “elect,” those whom the Father predestined to be saved. That is the doctrine of predestination.
This doctrine comes from a misinterpretation of Ephesians 1:4–5: “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.” The doctrine of predestination says that God knew from the foundation of the world which people would be saved and which people would not. Predestination says that because God is sovereign, He alone decides who will be saved. If you were not predestined to be saved, there is nothing you could do to change your outcome.
The Correct Interpretation
Incredibly, there are people today who still believe in predestination. Then there are those who don’t necessarily believe in predestination, but they don’t understand what this verse in Ephesians means. Does this verse really mean that God knew before the foundation of the world those people He would choose to be saved! In Calvinism, the chosen are referred to as “the elect.” To be among the elect was not determined by anything the individual would or could do. The election of some and not others was solely based on God’s sovereignty, so says Calvinism.
But that is not what this verse in Ephesians is talking about. The correct interpretation is that God decided at the foundation of the world that He would save all of mankind. What exactly was decided at the foundation of the world? Revelation 13:8 tells us Jesus is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Before the world was formed, it was decided that Christ would be the Lamb slain for the whole world. He was “predestined” to be the Savior of mankind. We, meaning all of mankind, were predestined from the foundation of the world to be adopted as His children through Jesus Christ.
The doctrine of predestination does not harmonize with other scriptures that say it’s God’s will for every person to be saved. Take, for instance, 2nd Peter 3:9 which says, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” He’s not willing that any should perish. His will is that all should come to repentance. Now look at 1st Timothy 2:1: “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” God would have all men to be saved and come into the knowledge of His truth. A passage in Matthew shows us just how passionately the Father desires that every last one be saved.
For the Son of man came to save [from the penalty of eternal death] that which was lost. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray and gets lost, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go in search of the one that is lost? And if it should be that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not get lost. Just so it is not the will of My Father Who is in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost and perish. (Matt. 18:11–14 Amp.)
It is not the will of God that even one person should perish. He would leave the 99 just to look for and save the one lost sheep. These scriptures alone prove there is no such thing as the doctrine of predestination. In no way does the Bible say that salvation is only for some and not all. There is no limitation on who can be saved. It is a free gift offered to every person. A person has the choice to receive the free gift of salvation or reject it.
Whitefield and Wesley Were Divided by Calvinism
Calvinism became a wedge between good friends George Whitefield and John Wesley. In the beginning, both men were Calvinists. But Wesley came to see predestination, or limited salvation, was wrong. He agreed with the doctrine of salvation supported by Jacobus Arminius which said Christ died for all. The Savior’s death atoned for the entire human race. When Whitefield heard Wesley had aligned himself with the doctrine of Arminianism, he became highly critical of him.
In his journal, Wesley said he began to get wind of how Whitefield was badmouthing him wherever he preached. So Wesley went to see Whitefield to confront him in person. Whitefield didn’t deny his badmouthing. In fact, he was very honest about how strongly he disagreed with Wesley. He said they were preaching two different gospels. He felt so strongly about the issue that he told Wesley wherever he preached, he was resolved to preach against him. Their friendship came to an end.
Later on in his journal, it was evident they were still at odds. After hearing Whitefield preach, Wesley commented on Whitefield’s preaching saying how wise God was in giving different talents to different preachers. Then he gave Whitefield a backhanded compliment: “Even the little improprieties both of his language and manner were a means of profiting many who would not have been touched by a more correct discourse or a more calm and regular manner of speaking.” Ouch!
In later years, Whitefield came to Wesley and the two men mended their differences. They decided to no longer argue and to “join hand in hand to promote the cause of our common master.” In the end, neither could persuade the other to their point of view regarding Calvinism. It was at that meeting that Wesley uttered what would become Christendom’s most famous adage for irreconcilable disagreements: “We shall agree to disagree.”
The Calvinist doctrine of predestination permeated all of Christendom. Those wanting to be born again were never sure if they were one of the elect. In their comments, you can pick up on the insecurity regarding their salvation. In Nathan Cole’s, “The Spiritual Travels of Nathan Cole,” he made a comment that reflects the insecurity of his salvation after hearing Whitefield preach. “And my hearing him [Whitefield] preach gave me a heart wound; by God’s blessing my old foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me; then I was convinced of the doctrine of election and went right to quarrelling with God about it, because all that I could do would not save me; and he had decreed from eternity who should be saved and who not.” Whitefield believed and preached that a person had to be born again, but it was wrapped up in the doctrine of predestination. Cole wasn’t sure that he was one of the elect. That’s insecurity.
Benjamin Franklin professed himself to be a deist, someone who believes there is a God but He is not involved in our personal lives. The doctrine of Calvinism greatly influenced him in this decision. In a book written by Edmund S. Morgan entitled, “Benjamin Franklin,” Morgan described what Franklin learned about God from the Calvinist sermons he heard preached. He learned that God divided human beings into two groups. One group was made up of people that He intended to bring to His side in heaven. And the other group was made up of people that He decided to condemn to eternal punishment in hell. They all deserved hell because of the sin of their ancient ancestor, Adam. Franklin learned that Christ died to save those who had faith in Him. He further understood the Calvinist view that faith only came to those who God arbitrarily visited with the “inward experience known as conversion.” When Franklin traveled to England, he read books by deists who rejected a God that would condemn most of mankind to eternal torment just because of some sin a “supposed ancestor had supposedly done.” Like other deists, Franklin was turned off by a God who chose to save a few and condemned all the rest to hell—a Calvinist doctrine.
Calvinist doctrine says God only gives the ability to have faith to believe for salvation to those He had already predestined to bring to heaven. The elect are drawn to God by His “irresistible grace.” This irresistible grace makes a person willing to respond. They believe that nothing could obstruct this grace and that it could not be resisted. What they were saying is that if God chose you to go to heaven, you had no say in the decision. The Arminians strongly disagreed. They believed that grace to believe was given to all people, and that this grace enabled them to accept the free gift of salvation which God offered to every person. But because man has “free will,” he has the ability to resist God’s grace. Arminians strongly rejected the idea of “irresistible grace.”
John Wesley’s Mother, Susanna
Wesley recorded in his journal a conversation he had with his mother about her own salvation. Wesley’s mother, Susanna, was married to a clergyman and her father was a minister. She lived a godly life and taught her children to live godly lives as well, yet she did not have the assurance that she would go to heaven when she died. Wesley said his mother shared with him that she had just recently received the witness that she had eternal life. She said until a short time ago, she had barely heard of such a thing mentioned as having the forgiveness of sins now in this life. In all of her life, she didn’t know that God’s Spirit would bear witness with our spirit that we have eternal life. She didn’t know that this was a common privilege that all believers could have. For that reason, she never dared ask for it herself. She said her father, a minister, had the blessed assurance that heaven was his home, but he never preached “salvation for all,” because he believed it was a special blessing for only a few, that not all people could receive the promise of salvation.
Do you see the destructiveness of the doctrine of predestination, how it was an impediment to people seeking God’s salvation?
Predestination Doctrine Left Destruction in Its Wake
The most illustrative example of how harmful the doctrine of predestination was comes from Jonathan Edwards’ “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God.” Edwards wrote “A Faithful Narrative” for the ministers who were alarmed and critical of the revival that was happening in his church. Writing about what was happening was a way for him to assure the other ministers that this was, indeed, a genuine move of God. In “The Faithful Narrative,” he described in great detail how the revival started and how it progressed.
In Section II, Edwards described how people obtained salvation. He described it as a process where the individual was “awakened” to “their miserable condition by nature,” that they were in “danger of perishing eternally.” He described this awakening as “their consciences are smitten, as if their hearts were pierced through with a dart.” The goal of this awakening was for the individual to obtain an increased sense of misery because of their sin. The more miserable a person was about his sinful condition, the better.
This part of the process is referred to a person’s “legal troubles” with God. They did whatever they could to intensify their feelings of conviction, their awakening. They quickened the process by meditating on things that would have the “most awakening tendency” to “obtain convictions.” They believed the more miserable they felt, the closer they were to deliverance. Some, however, had trouble maintaining this miserable state of mind and, as a result, thought the Spirit of God had left them, which meant they were not one of the elect. Alarmed, they sought in “great earnest to obtain convictions again.” In addition, it was believed that those who had a “slack and dull way of seeking” would never obtain salvation.
Dwelling on One’s Sinful State Produced Negative Consequences
This process of groveling in one’s sinful state began to have great negative consequences. Some people claimed to feel God’s great displeasure with them, so much so that they found it hard to sleep at night. Some were awakened in the middle of the night with “fear, heaviness, and distress abiding on their spirits.”
Some people were brought to the “borders of despair.” Edwards noted, “Some few instances there have been of persons who have had such a sense of God’s wrath for sin, that they have been overborne; and made to cry out under an astonishing sense of their guilt, wondering that God suffers such guilty wretches to live upon earth, and that He doth not immediately send them to hell. Sometimes their guilt doth so stare them in the face, that they are in exceeding terror for fear that God will instantly do it.”
For many, their time of “legal troubles” seem to drag on, and they began to feel envy toward those that had already obtained the salvation that seemed to have escaped them. Some felt anger toward God and complained “at His way of dealing with mankind.” Edwards cautioned that they “should have the utmost dread of such envious thoughts, which if allowed tend exceedingly to quench the Spirit of God, if not to provoke Him finally to forsake them.”
Edwards believed the aim of the Spirit of God in His legal strivings with people was to bring them to a conviction of their “absolute dependence on His sovereign power and grace and a universal necessity of a mediator.” His purpose was to bring them to a sense of their “exceeding wickedness and guiltiness in His sight: their pollution, and insufficiency of their own righteousness.” They were to come to the understanding that God would be just and righteous in rejecting them and casting them off forever.
Some become angry at God: why did He extend mercy toward others and not them? Then they become fearful, thinking that their anger might have caused them to commit the unpardonable sin. They thought they were not yet fit to come to Christ; “they are so wicked that Christ will never accept them.”
The length of time it took for people to go through their “legal troubles” differed from person to person. For some, it took but a few days or weeks. For others, however, it took months and still others—years! Think of that. There were people who sought salvation for years!
The Second Step in the Process
Edwards goes on to describe the second step in receiving salvation. After their “legal troubles” had concluded, the next thing they meditated on was God’s justice in His condemnation of them. God being sovereign meant He might receive others but reject them. They were to come to an understanding that even if God saved every person in the world but rejected them, He would be just in doing so. They had to accept the fact that their time of seeking Him, no matter how long it might have taken, would be of no benefit to them. If He so decided, God could justly condemn them to hell. Edwards wrote, “Some have declared themselves to be in the hands of God that He may dispose of them just as He pleases; some, that God may glorify Himself in their damnation, and they wonder that God has suffered them to live so long, and has not cast them into hell long ago.”
The Last Step in the Process
Finally, the last step for the seekers was to focus their meditations off of themselves and onto Christ, “His all-sufficiency and willingness to save sinners.” They meditate on God’s goodness. Edwards wrote, “This begets in them a strong resolution to devote themselves and their whole lives to God and His Son, and patiently to wait till God shall see fit to make all effectual; and they very often entertain a strong persuasion that He will in His own time do it for them.”
Those that sought salvation for a long time were convinced they were not yet converted. There were a number of them that lived in this condition for years, never finding salvation. Some retained hope, plugging along hoping upon hope, waiting upon God.
But there were some who felt “a withdrawment of divine influences,” meaning the conviction of the Holy Spirit left them. They got discouraged and sometimes bitter and were plunged into “greater distress than ever.” Edwards said, “They are sometimes swallowed up with darkness.” They were susceptible to Satan’s temptations, says Edwards.
Satan Gained a Foothold
Toward the latter part of the revival, Satan gained a foothold in their midst. Edwards said, “It began to be very sensible that the Spirit of God was gradually withdrawing from us, and after this time Satan seemed to be more let loose, and raged in a dreadful manner.” There was a “gentleman of more than common understanding, of strict morals, religious in his behavior and a useful and honorable person in the town.” At the beginning of the revival, this man had been concerned about “the state of his soul,” and he was hopeful he would obtain salvation but he grew discouraged and depressed. He was “overpowered” by depression, so much so that he came to a place where he was no longer open to receiving instruction or help. He couldn’t sleep at night and became so overwrought that he could no longer manage himself or his business. He killed himself by cutting his throat!
Edwards said, “After this, multitudes in this and other towns seemed to have it strongly suggested to them, and pressed upon them, to do as this person had done. And many who seemed to be under no melancholy, some pious persons who had no special darkness or doubts about the goodness of their state—nor were under any special trouble or concern of mind about anything spiritual or temporal—had it urged upon them as if somebody had spoke to them, ‘Cut your throat, now is a good opportunity. Now! Now!’ So that they were obliged to fight with all their might to resist it, and yet no reason suggested to them why they should do it.” Sadly, Jonathan’s own uncle, Joseph Hawley, one of his parishioners, also committed suicide during this time.
Jonathan Edwards failed to make the connection between the doctrine of predestination and Satan gaining a suicidal foothold in their midst. People wallowing in condemnation, deliberately plunging themselves into despair was detrimental to their state of being. Agonizing whether or not they would be among the elect brought torment. It was a torment and despair of which many never recovered.
Edward’s “A Faithful Narrative…” was sent to all the ministers. Tragically, Edwards’ fellow ministers used it as a guide on how to get people saved. It is evident for all to see how detrimental the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination was to the spread of Christianity. It most definitely had to be purged from the Church, as well as Edward’s devastating three-step process for seeking salvation.
This agonizing process of salvation would continue until they eventually received the revelation of truth that salvation is a free gift offered to all and it is received by faith, not through groveling in their sins.
If you would like to see a compilation of the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, click here.