Methodists believe in the doctrine of election, too

January 9, 2013

I recently referred to Francis Chan’s “nearly Pelagian”—what I could rightly call semi-Pelagian—”disregard of the role of God’s grace in sanctification.” As if on cue, Arminian Baptist theologian Roger Olson has an evenhanded article about different evangelical perspectives on election (full article behind subscription firewall) in the most recent Christianity Today, which includes a discussion of semi-Pelagianism.

He helpfully describes it with an illustration:

Semi-Pelagianism is the idea that human beings take the initiative in their salvation and service to God. We decide whether to be saved or enter into God’s service completely by ourselves, without prevenient (or necessary) grace. (Prevenient grace is grace that convicts, calls, illumines, and enables. Christian theologians disagree about whether it is resistible or irresistible, but all evangelical theologians agree it is necessary for the first exercise of a good will toward God.) Some years ago, a popular television series featured angels in human disguise helping people in distress turn to God. In one episode, a beautiful young angel with a Scottish accent counseled a man to “reach up to God as far as you can, and then he’ll reach down and take you the rest of the way.” I call that “Touched by an Angel theology.” By itself, without careful biblical and theological clarification, it expresses semi-Pelagianism.

Moreover, he calls semi-Pelagianism “arguably the default view of both salvation and service among American Christians, especially younger Christians. But all branches of Christianity have condemned it as heresy, because it completely contradicts Scripture.”

Did you read that? All branches of Christianity condemn semi-Pelagianism, including us Methodists. I emphasize this because, as Arminians, Methodists are sometimes accused of being semi-Pelagian by our Reformed brothers and sisters because we affirm a limited but (we believe) necessary role for free will in the process of salvation. As Olson writes,

According to Wesley’s essay “On Predestination,” faithfully following Arminius, election (predestination) means that “God foreknew those in every nation, who would believe, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things.” He based this on Romans 8, especially verses 29 and 30. Like all Arminians (and many who do not use that label but agree with its essential doctrine of election), Wesley affirmed free will, enabled by grace, because otherwise, “[I]f man were not free, he could not be accountable either for his thoughts, words, or actions.”

Free will, enabled by grace. Olson goes on to emphasize a point that can hardly be made loudly enough: “[W]hatever role humans play in their salvation, salvation is God’s work. Even Arminians, at their best and truest, believe sinners receive saving grace only because God enables them to receive it with the free response of faith.”

6 Responses to “Methodists believe in the doctrine of election, too”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I just want to make sure of a point here. Certainly God (a) creates us in the first place, (b) provided a way of salvation in the second place, (c) “stands at the door and knocks,” and (d) knows from the foundation of the world who will “open the door” so that he can come in. Beyond that, however, are we agreed that it is up to us to “open the door”? Without that, as I think Wesley would agree (given the quote above), we could not be accountable for our acceptance or rejection of salvation. It would be as though God were “judging himself” for whoever does or does not enter Heaven’s gates.

    Specifically, I am uncomfortable with the notion of God’s “enabling” the choice to say “Yes,” if that means anything more than giving us the capacity to do so (which he gives to everyone). The bridegroom certainly woos, but it is up to the bride to say “Yes” so as to consummate the marriage (an apt biblical analogy).


    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree. “Enabling the choice” does not mean determining the choice. The choice is ours, by all means. The Holy Spirit gives us the grace so that we can choose. Apart from this prior work of the Spirit—which is “prevenient grace”—we are incapable of making the choice.

      I heard the president of Asbury seminary distinguish the Arminian understanding of this prior grace from the Calvinist understanding in the following way: In Calvinism, prevenient grace is like a guided missile that targets one individual (while, sadly, bypassing others); in Arminianism, it’s like the radiation from a nuclear explosion—it permeates everyone in its vicinity. If you’ll forgive the violent imagery, I think you can see the difference. As you suggest above, no one’s life is unaffected by this grace even if he or she has resisted it by saying no.

  2. Junly Says:

    “Did you read that? All branches of Christianity condemn semi-Pelagianism,” — Branches, not individual denominations. He means only that Catholicism and Protestantism as a whole condemn it, not that each and every denomination does. Besides, Catholicism and Protestantism may be the only branches in this guy’s mind, but there is another branch. Its convenient to just lump it in with Protestantism, but it is in reality a Protestantism against Protestantism. I refer to the churches that came out of the Restoration Movement in America. Almost all of them condemn anything that is not semi-Pelagian. They hold that in our lifetime man takes the initiative in salvation although God took the initiative overall (i.e. by sending Jesus to the cross). This is, by the way, an important point. When you argue Augustinianism vs semi-Pelagianism you aren’t really arguing about whether or not God takes the initiative in salvation; even full-Pelagians say God takes the initiative in salvation! The argument is really over whether God takes the initiative in our lifetime in the life of each individual individually or whether he only took the initiative once and for all when he decided to send Jesus to the cross.

    • brentwhite Says:

      The other “branch” should probably be Eastern Orthodoxy, but I’m not sure what your point is. Olson was talking about the initiative in an individual’s life, obviously—although he’s well aware of the Restorationist churches. They’re not evangelical, and they’re relatively small, so he’s not very interested in them.

      I’m sure there are many Protestant churches or denominations that fall outside the realm of orthodox Christian thought on any number of doctrines, but we can still speak, in general, about what Protestants believe.

      • Junly Says:

        My point ultimately was that the inference from “all branches agree” to “all denominations agree, ergo, the Methodists clearly agree and no further argument or proof is needed to establish this” is not strictly true.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Sorry for the confusion. I’ve said often enough over the past several years of this blog that boring old Methodists reside at the very center of mainstream, orthodox Protestant thought. As such, they obviously do reject Pelagianism. It’s not because they’re a Protestant denomination but because of where they reside on the theological spectrum. Nevertheless, the exception of the “Christian Churches” in America proves the rule. They are far outside the norm when it comes Pelagianism.

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