The Battle of the Will, Part 4: John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards
The disagreement over the will continued on into the 18th century between figures such as John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards: Wesley held, as an Arminian, that the will was granted a previenient grace that allowed it to choose to follow Christ freely; Edwards, on the other hand, argued that the desires of the heart were, at the bottom level, given to it by God or the sinful nature of man and, therefore, God was sovereign over the choices of man while allowing men to choose according to their desires, which is what human freedom is for Edwards.
The disagreement over the role of the will in salvation continued on into the 18th century and can be seen clearly by juxtaposing the theology of two prominent theologians and pastors: John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. John Wesley held, as an Arminian, that the will was granted a previenient grace that allowed it to choose to follow Christ freely. This meant that every person was able to choose to follow Christ or not freely, but it also meant that they could lose their salvation. In addition to this, Wesley believed in a level of Christian perfection that included the Christian being free from all conscious sin. Jonathan Edwards, on the other hand, as someone in the Calvinist tradition, argued that the desires of the heart were, at the bottom level, given to it by God or determined by the sinful nature of fallen humanity. This protected both God’s sovereignty, human responsibility, and the gracious nature of salvation. While man’s desires, or inclinations, are determined, humans always act freely according to their desires, so the free nature of man’s will is also protected in Edwards’s argument.
John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards were two of the most significant Christian preachers of the eighteenth century. Their respective ministries and writings not only influenced Christians and churches across continents, but their legacy was inherited by the generations that followed. Nevertheless, while both men were committed to preaching and teaching the same gospel, their stories differ, and so do their theologies.
John Wesley’s (1703–91) early interest in godliness and piety can be traced back to his days at Oxford. Wesley exhibited a serious devotion, one marked by strict adherence to moral uprightness. His concern for piety was influenced by Bishop Taylor’s Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying. John’s brother, Charles, started the “Holy Club” which was an opportunity to join with other young men in a resolve to be holy. They were affected deeply by William Law’s book Christian Perfection as well, which advocated self-denial and the performing of good works. Onlookers of the Holy Club laughed, calling its members “Bible Moths” or “Methodists.”
Despite such resolve for moral living, John looked back on this time and concluded that he was not truly converted to the gospel yet. Traveling to the U.S. in 1737 with plans to minister to the Chickasaw Indians as a missionary for the Society of the Preparation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, John and Charles were unexpectedly amazed by German Moravians along the way. As their ship traveled across fierce wind and sea, these Moravians had no fear but exhibited trust in God and inexplicable humility. With little success with the Chickasaw, John returned to England and encountered the Moravians once more. This time John’s attention was arrested by a man named Peter Boehler, who taught that there were two signs that one is converted. First, one is characterized by dominion over sin itself. Second, one has a certain assurance that he has been forgiven, resulting in an unusual peace.
John and Charles believed both to be lacking in their own experience and as a result were filled with anxiety. But on May 24, 1738, John attended a Moravian meeting at Aldersgate Street, London, where he heard Martin Luther’s Preface to his commentary on Romans read aloud. John’s heart was “strangely warmed.” He later said about the experience, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation and an assurance was given to me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” The gospel of Jesus Christ opened his eyes to his dependence on God for forgiveness and eternal life. Wesley realized that external conformity may look like holiness, but it can be deceiving, not necessarily reflecting whether one has truly been born anew. John’s conversion would be fundamental for his later belief that a sinner is not justified by works of the law but by faith alone. In fact, even as early as the Sunday after his Aldersgate experience, John ascended the pulpit to preach sola fide and solus Christus.
This was but the beginning of a long and influential itinerant preaching ministry for John. But John also had administrative gifts, as seen in his ability to organize societies where men gathered to pursue holiness. Since John could not find enough pastors to lead these societies, John inaugurated a circuit system where preachers traveled long distances to oversee societies across the country. These societies were known for their emphasis on evangelism but also, and especially, holy living.
While John Wesley held to the fundamentals of Christian soteriology (the new birth, justification by faith), some of his soteriological emphases proved controversial. For example, Wesley counted himself an Arminian rather than a Calvinist. He argued for a prevenient grace, divinely given to all people and negating the effects of original sin. The will of the unregenerate man is capable, then, of either cooperating with subsequent acts of grace or resisting them, thwarting its intention and saving efforts. Whether or not one is born again depends on the will of man. God may woo the sinner, but his grace cannot be effectual or irresistible, lest man’s freedom of contrary choice be violated. So, while God’s grace is prevenient, his subsequent grace is dependent on man’s decision to believe so that man is then regenerated. In line with Arminianism, Wesley taught that election is conditional, the atonement is universal, and there is a real possibility of losing one’s salvation. Wesley’s Arminianism put him in conflict with Calvinists in his own day, such George Whitefield.
Wesley also taught a form of Christian perfectionism, given his strong emphasis on sanctification and holiness. To be clear, perfection for Wesley means a Christian can achieve a state in which he is free from known sin. In other words, the Christian’s holiness has reached such a level of success that he is no longer characterized by conscious transgressions. Wesley defined sin as a “voluntary transgression of a known law which it is in our power to obey.” If sin is defined as a voluntary, conscious act, then one can reach a state of sinlessness, even if there are unconscious, involuntary acts of wrongdoing in one’s life.
As seen in his 1767 work, Plain Account of Christian Perfection, reaching this state of Christian perfection is a gift of the Spirit yet one the Christian can work towards with great zeal. Nevertheless, lest the Christian become too confident, Wesley also taught that one can lose his salvation. Due to his Arminian views on sanctification and his teaching of perfectionism, some Calvinists believed Wesley had succumbed to a works-righteousness view of salvation, quite out of step with the Reformation’s emphasis on justification by faith alone. Wesley did not take kindly to this accusation. All of salvation, including perfection itself, is only due to divine gratuity, he claimed.
The effect of John Wesley’s preaching is difficult to overstate. Some estimate he preached over 40,000 times in his life. Others believe he traveled over 250,000 miles by horseback to preach his sermons across the world. By his death, around 294 Method preachers in England were under John’s supervision, preachers that oversaw tens of thousands of Methodists, both in England and in America.
Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) was born the same year as Wesley, though he died young, decades before Wesley drew his last breath. With three centuries since the death of Edwards, historians and theologians have concluded that he was one of the most impressive theological and philosophical minds of his day.
Yet Edwards was no ivory tower academic but a pastor in New England, one who devoted most of his week to the study, preparing for the next Sunday’s sermon. Some have labelled him the last Puritan, perhaps because his style of writing and preaching, as well as his theological logic and emphases, have a Puritan flavor. On the one hand, he preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), placing great weight on the wrath of God as the just judgment against rebel sinners, a message designed to move the listener to repentance and conversion. On the other hand, Edwards wrote Heaven, a World of Joy, in which he contemplated not only the hope every believer has in Christ in the afterlife but identified the pleasure and glory that awaited the believer. The reason for such future joy had everything to do with who is in heaven, namely, God himself, who is, said Edwards, an infinite fountain of beauty and love. For Edwards, God’s glory and the Christian’s joy are not opposed but inherently intertwined.
Edwards was also a rigorous philosopher and theologian. Grappling with the ideas of Enlightenment thought, Edwards attempted to wrestle with how one might conceive the Christian faith through the eyes of faith and reason. At the same time, Edwards saw himself as an heir to the Calvinist tradition, defending the doctrines of grace against his Arminian counterparts. Yet he did so in a way that matched the context of his own day. In his 1754 work, Freedom of the Will, Edwards countered the Arminian view of free will by proposing that the will is necessitated by internal and external factors, whether they be sin and the world, or God himself. Man’s inclinations, therefore, are not autonomous but necessitated to choose one thing rather than another. Otherwise one cannot explain motive in the decision-making process. And yet, necessitated as one may be to choose A instead of B, because man always chooses according to his strongest inclination, his choice remains free.
In matters of grace, Edwards distinguished between natural and moral ability, the former being the physical property innate to being human, the latter being a spiritual property affected by original sin. In a post-fall world, man may possess physical faculties, the capability to choose, but he is spiritually enslaved, lacking a spiritual ability to choose God instead of sin and the world.
For that reason, what the unregenerate so desperately need is a regeneration, one in which the Spirit breathes new life into the spiritually dead. In doing so, the Spirit renews and refashions man’s inclinations. Previously he hated Christ, but now he desires Christ more than life itself. His inclinations are necessitated by the Spirit’s effectual grace, and yet due to the Spirit’s work of regeneration, his inclinations are no longer against Christ but for Christ, even trusting in Christ. Edwards, in short, built upon the contributions of those before him to define the freedom of the will in a way he believed was consistent with the Calvinist view of nature and grace. As early as 1733, the seeds of what will become his mature thought can be seen in a sermon like “A Divine and Supernatural Light.”
As much as we might focus on his intellectual achievements, we cannot neglect Edwards’ pastoral contribution. Solomon Stoddard, the grandfather of Edwards (on his mother’s side), was the pastor of the church at Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards served under Stoddard, starting in 1727, but succeeded him at the death of Stoddard in 1729.
From 1734 to 1735, Edwards’ church in Northampton, Massachusetts experienced an awakening. Edwards preached a series of sermons on justification by faith alone (he wrote on the same topic for his master’s thesis at Yale). As a result, many in his congregation and beyond were cut to the heart and moved to repentance and trust in Christ, as well as a greater commitment to holiness and steadfast love for others. In A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, and the Neighbouring Towns and Villages of New [sic] Hampshire in New-England (1737), Edwards wrote of the experience:
There were some things said publicly … concerning justification by faith alone … It proved a word spoken in season here; and was most evidently attended with a very remarkable blessing of heaven to the souls of the people in this town. … And then it was, in the latter part of December [of 1734], that the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in, and wonderfully to work amongst us; and there were very suddenly, one after another, five or six persons, who were to l, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner (p. 149).
Edwards describes what this looked like practically:
Although people did not ordinarily neglect their worldly business, yet religion was with all sorts the great concern, and the world was a thing only by the bye. The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and every one appeared pressing into it. The engagedness of their hearts in this great concern could not be hid, it appeared in their very countenances. It then was a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger every day of dropping into hell; and what persons’ minds were intent upon, was to escape for their lives, and to fly from wrath to come. All would eagerly lay hold of opportunities for their souls, and were wont very often to meet together in private houses, for religious purposes: and such meetings when appointed were greatly thronged (p. 150).
This sudden awakening was nothing short of remarkable. Three hundred were saved in but six months and in a town of only 1,200 people. At its peak, in March and April of 1735, thirty were converted a week. The effect it had on wider society was noticeable as well:
This work of God, as it was carried on, and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious alternation in the town: so that … the town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it never was so full of love, nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then. There were remarkable tokens of God’s presence in almost every house. It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought unto them; parents rejoicing over their children as new born, and husbands over their wives, and wives over their husbands. The goings of God were then seen in his sanctuary, God’s day was a delight, and his tabernacles were amiable. Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive in God’s service, every one earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth; the assembly in general were, from time to time, in tears while the word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbours (p. 151).
Later, Edwards wrote A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, published 1746, where he looked long and hard at the spiritual experiences of a Christian, deciphering between true and false conversion, as well as authentic versus artificial forms of holiness. No work since has rivaled Edwards’ analytic evaluation of what marks true versus false revival and with it, spirituality itself.
Despite such an awakening, Edwards’s pastoral ministry did not end well. In time, it became evident that Edwards disagreed with his predecessor, Solomon Stoddard, who admitted unconverted people to the Lord’s Table. Added to this was a complicated series of events involving personalities, even entire families, disinclined towards Edwards for various reasons. The result? Edwards was fired in 1750. This tragic outcome resulted in an unforeseen course of events. Edwards and his family left for Stockbridge to minister to the Native Americans. This transition also enabled Edwards to write, resulting in a burst of theological publications that Edwards may not have otherwise finished.
By 1757 Princeton College, still in its infancy, asked Edwards to be its president and Edwards accepted. In January of the next year, Edwards moved, and the rest of his family was expected to follow him to Princeton in the months ahead. But on March 22 Edwards unexpectedly died from a smallpox inoculation. His death was as devastating as it was surprising.
Yet as in life, so in death, Edwards spoke of his “uncommon union” with his wife, Sarah, and trusted in the will of God and his fatherly care and faithfulness. Knowing death was imminent, Edwards said to his daughter Lucy,
Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue forever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now like to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a Father, who will never fail you (recorded in a letter to his wife).
Sarah’s response, like her husbands, reflected a trust in divine providence and benevolence even in the midst of overwhelming grief:
My very dear Child, what shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud! …The Lord has done it. He has made me adore His goodness that we had him [Jonathan] so long. But my God lives: and He has my heart. Oh, what a legacy my husband your father has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be (in a letter to her daughter).
A legacy indeed.
- Fred Sanders, Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love
- George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life
- George Marsden, Video lecture on Jonathan Edwards
- Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards
- Ian Murray, Video on the life of Jonathan Edwards
- John Piper, Video conference message on Jonathan Edwards
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley
- Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Specifically see “A True and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul”, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, The Freedom of the Will, Religious Affections, and “Heaven, a world of love”.
- R. C. Sproul, Video lecture on Jonathan Edwards