Local News: Matthew Smith and Indelible Grace will be performing at Covenant Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Jackson on Thursday, January 17 at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased via the church office. For more information, click here.
Earlier this summer, Jackson Presbyterian Examiner began examining the 25 Methodist Articles of Religion, highlighting just how much in common the two traditions have in common with each other. With so many common threats and challenges, evangelical Christians of all backgrounds have become more unified in our generation than was the case a few centuries ago. A study of church history, sadly, shows just how uncooperative Christians who believed the gospel have often been with each other.
Both sides of the Calvinism/Arminianism debate have plenty to learn from each other. If nothing else, Wesleyans are there to remind Reformed Christians that if they are not careful, their theological system can easily degenerate into lawlessness. Similarly, Reformed Christians are there to remind Wesleyans that if they are not careful, their theological system can easily morph into legalism. This is why the 25 Methodist Articles of Religion are so impressive. They represent a great body of truth that both traditions can agree on. Presbyterians would be hard-pressed to find any trace of works-righteousness in the articles. God’s grace is affirmed, and the importance of letting the gospel shape how we live day to day is also affirmed. As has been said before, the 25 Methodist Articles were adapted from the 39 Articles of the Church of England, the very same document that was adapted by 17th century Puritans to draft the Westminster Confession of Faith.
This examiner recalls visiting an Independent Methodist church in high school. Friends from the Presbyterian church, well-meaning, no doubt, urged caution regarding the Arminianism of John Wesley. When with Independent Methodist friends, one sometimes heard Calvinism spoken of with horror, as if it were a self-evident heresy of the worst sort. Though there are real, substantial differences between the two churches, the saddest part of all, after getting somewhat acquainted with both traditions, was seeing just how much misinformation exists between both groups.
Due to Wesley’s emphasis on the possibility of true believers falling away from the faith and being lost in the end, many Reformed Christians look at Wesleyan theology as works-righteousness; we may be saved by grace initially, but we’ve got to keep ourselves saved by our own effort. Due to the Calvinist doctrine that all true believers will persevere to the end and be preserved from permanently falling away, many Wesleyan Christians interpret Reformed theology as licentiousness or lawlessness; since we cannot ultimately jeopardize our standing with God if we are true believers, we can do whatever we want and it won’t make any difference to God in the end.
One thing that took this examiner a long time to realize was that works-righteousness, or legalism, is not the essence of Wesleyan theology; rather, it is a distortion. Similarly, licentiousness is not what Calvinism teaches; this is an abuse of Calvinism. The debate between the two systems can be likened to the alleged “discrepancy” between the apostle Paul and the apostle James over faith and works.
When emphasizing that we are justified only by faith “apart from the works of the Law”, Paul is arguing that we are saved by Christ’s blood, not our efforts to keep God’s laws. He is opposing the error that Christ’s sacrifice is not sufficient, that our works are a necessary supplement. When emphasizing that people are justified by what they do, and not by believing only, James is arguing that saving faith is more than intellectual assent. He is opposing the error that saving faith is nothing more than giving mental assent to certain propositions. He is arguing that it by necessity involves a change in our behavior. It’s unconvincing to say one “believes” in Christ if one’s life shows no evidence of it.
Reformed theology is, like Paul, afraid of anything that would imply that our own works are a factor in our being declared forgiven by God; salvation is, from start to finish, God’s pure, unmerited favor. Wesleyan theology is, like James, afraid of anything that implies that faith in Christ is nothing more than mere head knowledge; even the demons believe and tremble, but they do not love God. As Hebrews tells us, without holiness no one will see the Lord. Both systems can find support in Scripture for their positions, but because they are combatting opposite errors, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking they are fundamentally and irreconcilably opposed to each other.
May God continue to grant greater and greater unity to these churches, both of which love the same Messiah and call the same God their Father.