In 1740, John Wesley published a sermon entitled “Free Grace”, in which he attempted to refute the biblical doctrine of Eternal Predestination, and establish the doctrine of Free Will. This sermon is famous in Calvinistic circles because George Whitefield responded to this sermon with A Letter from George Whitefield to the Rev Mr. John Wesley In Answer to Mr. Wesley’s Sermon entitled: “Free Grace”, that has been reprinted many times.
Despite the fact that Whitefield approached Wesley as his brother in Christ, his letter was mostly logical and biblical in refuting Wesley’s arguments against Election. But, there is one important area where Whitefield was not at all logical. The fact is that Wesley’s sermon doesn’t begin with an examination of the doctrine of Election, but with an examination of the doctrine of Reprobation:
But methinks I hear one say, “This [reprobation] is not the predestination which I hold: I hold only the election of grace. What I believe is no more than this …. the rest of mankind God leaves to themselves: So they follow the imaginations of their own hearts, which are only evil continually, and, waxing worse and worse, are at length justly punished with everlasting destruction.” Is this all the predestination which you hold? Consider; perhaps this is not all. Do not you believe God ordained them to this very thing? If so, you believe the whole decree. … I would ask one or two questions: Are any who are not thus elected saved? or were any, from the foundation of the world? Is it possible any man should be saved unless he be thus elected? If you say, “No”, you are but where you was [sic]; you are not got one hair’s breadth farther; you still believe, that, in consequence of an unchangeable, irresistible decree of God, the greater part of mankind abide in death, without any possibility of redemption; inasmuch as none can save them but God and he will not save them. You believe he hath absolutely decreed not to save them; and what is this, but decreeing to damn them? It is, in effect, neither more nor less; it comes to the same thing;Free Grace (Sermon 128), Works of the Rev. John Wesley, vol. 7, p. 374.
Wesley began his sermon with a discussion of Reprobation because he knew very well how strongly the flesh hates this doctrine. It is the one doctrine which is most disagreeable to the carnal mind. It was disagreeable to Wesley’s carnal mind because it most effectively dethroned his idolatrous god — the one who loves everyone equally, and wishes that everyone could be saved. In its place, Reprobation enthrones the Lord God Almighty — the Potter who has every right to do with his creatures as he alone sees fit. It is no coincidence that the Arminians at the Synod of Dordt began with the same tactic, or that many modern Arminians make use of it. To the carnal mind, this is the weak spot in the “armor” of Predestination. Historically, of course, Calvinists have tried to duck around this “nasty implication” of Election, by pleading a Passive Reprobation. Whitefield himself replied to this part of Wesley’s sermon:
I frankly acknowledge: I believe the doctrine of reprobation, in this view, that … the rest of mankind, after the fall of Adam, being justly left of God to continue in sin, will at last suffer that eternal death which is its proper wages.A Letter from George Whitefield to the Rev Mr. John Wesley In Answer to Mr. Wesley’s Sermon entitled: “Free Grace”, December 24, 1740.
But this reply fails to answer Wesley’s accusation, “You believe he hath absolutely decreed not to save them; and what is this, but decreeing to damn them? It is, in effect, neither more nor less; it comes to the same thing;”. If Active Reprobation is rejected because it seems to make God a tyrant, is Passive Reprobation a proper substitute? The answer of course, is that God cannot be a tyrant, no matter what he does. Whatever he does is just, by virtue of the fact that it is God doing it. If he determines to cause a certain people to choose death over life, he is perfectly just in doing so. Active Reprobation should not be so easily dismissed.
Let the following Scripture verses decide if there is such a thing as Active Reprobation:
Exodus 9 : (12) And Jehovah hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not listen to them, as Jehovah had said to Moses.
Psalms 105 : (25) He turned their heart to hate His people, to deal craftily with His servants.
Romans 9 : (18) So, then, to whom He desires, He shows mercy, And to whom He desires He hardens.
Revelation 17 : (17) For God gave into their hearts to do His mind, and to act in one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.
Obviously the Bible does not teach, as Whitefield and other tolerant Calvinists would have it, that men harden themselves. In these verses, the Bible teaches that God actively hardens the hearts of the reprobate, and actively causes them to hate his Gospel, and persecute his people, for the purpose of glorifying his justice in damning their souls to Hell. And this is the teaching of the Christian Confession of Faith:
God actively causes the reprobate to hate His glory, persecute His people, and oppose His gospel, that He may justly punish them. [Exo 7:3; Exo 9:12; Jos 11:20; 1Sa 2:25; Psa 105:25; Rom 9:18; Rev 17:17]Christian Confession of Faith, II.D.2.d.
God does not have any love toward the reprobate or any desire to save them, for God does not show love at the expense of His justice. The good things that God gives to them in this life lead only to their destruction, increasing their guilt for their thanklessness to God. Jesus Christ did not die for the reprobate in any sense, and they do not benefit in any sense from His death. …. [Psa 2:4-5; Psa 5:5-6; Psa 11:5; Psa 73:11-12; Psa 92:7; Pro 3:32-33; Pro 11:20; Pro 12:2; Pro 16:4-5; Pro 17:15; Joh 3:16; Joh 15:22; Joh 17:9; Rom 9:13; 1Ti 2:4; 1Pe 2:8; 1Jn 2:2; 1Jn 4:10]18Christian Confession of Faith, II.D.2.e.
That the doctrine of Reprobation should fill us with fear and trembling is readily granted. It should make us fall before our Maker in the most profound humiliation. That we should not preach on it more often than we preach on Election is also granted. Reprobation must always be subservient to Election; it causes the elect to be thankful that they are not of the number of the reprobate. And, contrary to Wesley’s assertion that we cannot help thinking of any particular man as a reprobate, we can only conclude that someone was reprobate when they have died in unbelief. So long as a person is alive, there is always a possibility that God will regenerate him in the future, no matter how hardened he may be currently. However, by no means should we make attempts to soften the Bible’s testimony about the Sovereignty of God, simply because Arminians don’t like it; no, nor even because our own flesh rebels against it.
We should also notice that the argument Wesley used to attack Passive Reprobation is the very same argument that is used today by those predestinarians who uphold Active Reprobation: Passive Reprobation is inconsistent and illogical. Regrettably, too many Moderate Calvinists rejoice in inconsistency, and delight in “paradox”, apparently in an attempt to make Calvinism more attractive to Arminians. They should take a lesson from Wesley and realize that in pleading “paradox” they succeed in fooling only themselves. Wesley saw right through such equivocation.