Book Review: “Wesley and Men Who Followed” – By Iain Murray
A recent book by Iain H. Murray on John Wesley, famed father of the Methodist Church and grandfather of the charismatic movement, is of extraordinary significance for Calvinistic Christians and churches today, especially in Great Britain.
The book is “Wesley and Men Who Followed” (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2003).
Although two of the four sections of Wesley and Men Who Followed are devoted to Wesley’s successors and to the further fortunes of Methodism, the book is a new study of the life, theology, and labors of John Wesley, on the 300th anniversary of Wesley’s birth.
Foe of Grace
In spite of its intentions, the work makes plain that Wesley, eighteenth century English preacher, revivalist, and founder of the Methodist Church, was a gross heretic. Within a year of his supposed conversion in 1738, Wesley publicly blasphemed the biblical doctrine of predestination both in a sermon and in a pamphlet, “Free Grace.” Iain H. Murray must, of course, refer to this notorious assault on the biblical gospel of grace. But, shrewdly, in keeping with his purpose of rendering Wesley and his theology acceptable to professing Calvinists, Murray neither quotes from the sermon and pamphlet, nor describes Wesley’s diatribe as an attack on God’s predestination. Rather, Murray informs us that Wesley merely preached “against the Calvinistic understanding of predestination” (p. 38). Note the description of the object of Wesley’s hatred: not predestination, but merely “the Calvinistic understanding of predestination.”
Another recent work on Wesley, Stephen Tomkins’ John Wesley: A Biography (Eerdmans, 2003), is honest in its evaluation of the sermon and pamphlet of Wesley assailing predestination. Tomkins includes quotations from the pamphlet that show the ferocity of Wesley’s attack on predestination.
It [Wesley’s pamphlet] was an extremely powerful piece of writing, a violent excoriation of “the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination.” It destroys our comfort, holiness and zeal for preaching, he insisted, or if it does not, it logically should do. “It represents the most holy God as worse than the Devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust.” …It is a monstrous doctrine
(Tompkins, Wesley, p. 78).
For exactly such blasphemous slander of God’s predestination, the Synod of Dordt warned such “calumniators” as John Wesley “to consider the terrible judgment of God which awaits them for bearing false witness against the confessions of so many churches, for distressing the consciences of the weak, and for laboring to render suspected the society of the truly faithful” (Canons of Dordt, Conclusion).
Throughout his long life and ministry, Wesley remained an inveterate foe of sovereign grace and an ardent lover of the free will of the natural man and its decisiveness in salvation.
Wesley denied justification by faith alone, and opposed it vigorously. His doctrine of justification was Rome’s: the infusing of grace so that the sinner performs good works, which are then part of his righteousness with God. “The righteousness which is of God by faith is both imputed and inherent,” Wesley taught, so that the justification of the sinner is a continual process. Wesley rejected justification as God’s imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner:
“We do not find it affirmed expressly in Scripture that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to any.”
(Murray, Wesley, pp. 222, 219)
Wesley’s attack on the doctrine of justification by faith alone was the same as Rome’s: The doctrine hinders the Christian life of sanctification and good works, that is, the grace of justification by faith alone makes men careless and profane. Wrote Wesley against justification by faith alone, “For if the very personal obedience of Christ … be mine the moment I believe, can anything be added thereto? Does my obeying add any value to the perfect obedience of Christ?” (Murray, Wesley, p. 220) The answer of the gospel, and of every Christian man, to these ungodly questions is an emphatic “no.” Our obedience adds absolutely nothing to the perfect obedience of Christ for our righteousness with God. But for Wesley, this negative answer doomed the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The sinner’s works must add something for righteousness to the obedience of Christ.
Necessarily implied in Wesley’s denial of the biblical and Reformation truth of justification was a heretical doctrine of Christ’s death. John Fletcher, Wesley’s colleague and best disciple, “could see that the question of general over against particular redemption was closely tied to the nature of justification… [R]ather than believe in particular redemption, Fletcher held a ‘general justification’ of all men, which was not, of itself, a saving justification at all” (Murray, Wesley, p. 224).
A Second Blessing
As if all this corruption of the gospel of grace were not enough, Wesley taught perfectionism. Christians — all Christians — can and should be sinless in this life. This “entire sanctification” happens in a momentary experience. According to Wesley, all Christians should desire and expect this second blessing after conversion (Murray, Wesley, pp. 232-246). The doctrine of perfectionism, of course, either drives men to despair, or makes hypocrites of them.
Basic to Wesley’s perfectionist teaching was his radical weakening of the biblical doctrine of sin. Sin for Wesley, as for Rome, was merely “voluntary transgression of a known law.” It was not corruption of nature. It was not the thought, desire, and passion. Such a doctrine of sin as that of Wesley and Rome makes men Pelagians and Pharisees, who assert their own goodness and have no need of the grace of God. Lacking the knowledge of the greatness of his sin and misery, which the Heidelberg Catechism says is necessary for the enjoyment of the comfort of the gospel, it is no wonder that Wesley despised justification by faith alone. The man who is ignorant of the publican’s “God be merciful to me the sinner” must be a stranger to justification as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
Adding to the enormity of this grievous heresy was Wesley’s toleration, if not encouragement, of bizarre physical acts accompanying the supposed second blessing of perfection and, indeed, Wesley’s revivalistic preaching generally. Under the ministry of Wesley and his cohorts, Wesley’s converts laughed insanely, roared, jerked, and fell down as slain. Murray only hints at these charismatic phenomena.
Tomkins is frank:
“The image of Wesley wading through the fallen as in a battlefield, praying over the shaking, hyper-ventilating bodies, will sound oddly familiar to any who witnessed the ‘Toronto blessing’ in 1994”
(Tomkins, Wesley, pp. 71-74).
In his revivalism, his teaching of the experience of an instantaneous perfection as a second blessing, his acceptance, if not encouragement, of bizarre bodily expressions of salvation, and especially his free-will gospel, Wesley was the grandfather of the charismatic movement of today.
With good reason, Augustus M. Toplady, Wesley’s great, orthodox, and honorable antagonist, said of Wesley, “I believe him to be the most rancourous hater of the gospel system that ever appeared in England” (cited in Tomkins, Wesley, p, 173).
“Dead to the Feelings of Shame”
Wesley was as wicked in his behavior as he was in his doctrine. He behaved abominably toward his nearest neighbor, his wife, virtually abandoning her. Murray very briefly notes the fact of Wesley’s disobedience, all his married life, to the command of the apostle, that the husband love his wife and dwell with her as a man of understanding, although Murray is careful not to describe Wesley’s behavior as sin.
“With some justification Molly Wesley came to think that her husband did not need a wife. They were too often apart and were finally to be so alienated and separated that it was to be days after her funeral that he even heard of her death.”
(Murray, Wesley, p. 46)
What Murray neglects to mention is that in the meantime Wesley formed and enjoyed close relationships with other women, which, even if they were not adulterous, were illegitimate for a married man and devastating to Mrs. Wesley. On the basis of her husband’s letters to these women, and his warm, close fellowship with them, Molly Wesley charged John Wesley with adultery. Tomkins concludes that, although he was “surely not—with all due respect to Molly Wesley—an adulterer,”
Wesley’s “personal relationships with women were, even according to admirers, an ‘inexcusable weakness'” (Tomkins, Wesley, p. 197). A married man need not commit adultery to sin grievously against his wife, marriage, and God, by his relations with other women, or another woman.
It was Wesley’s habitual practice in carrying on his war against Calvinism to change and elide passages in the writings of others that supported Calvinism and opposed his own gospel of free will.
“[Wesley] usually ‘corrected’ and edited out of the Puritan reprints that he supervised those passages which conflicted with his position.”
(Murray, Wesley, p. 68)
This was habitual transgression of the ninth commandment in the course of breaking the first, second, and third commandments.
In controversy, Wesley studied ambiguity, and lied, in order to defend himself and in order to promote his false teachings. “At times,” Murray allows, “it is hard to avoid the impression that he was being devious” (Murray, Wesley, p. 224). His contemporaries recognized his deceit. One said, “I know him of old. He is an eel; take him where you will, he will slip through your fingers” (cited in Murray, Wesley, pp. 224, 225).
The godly Toplady was not too strong when he warned the deceitful heretic that he stood in mortal danger of damnation:
Whom do I condemn? Whom do I impiously consign to future punishment? I condemn no man. I dare not pronounce concerning any man’s eternal state. Herein I judge not even Mr. Wesley himself: though I must tell him that if it be (as I most sincerely wish it may) the divine will to save him, he has an exceeding strait gate to pass through before he gets to heaven.
(Augustus M. Toplady, “More Work for Mr. John Wesley,” in The Works of Augustus Toplady, London: J. Cornish, 1853, p. 732).
The reason for the warning was that Wesley “is still as dead to the feelings of shame as he is blind to the doctrines of God” (Toplady, Works, p. 732).
Murray and the Murraymen
What makes Wesley’s sins appear brightest crimson in Wesley and Men Who Followed is that they are acknowledged by an author who tries desperately to whitewash them all. Iain Murray wrote the book as glowing praise of the Methodist preacher and his revival. Every one of Wesley’s iniquities, doctrinal as well as practical, is minimized, excused, or explained away. If we are to believe Murray, Wesley opposed Calvinism because he feared the danger of “Hyper-Calvinism,” a far worse evil than the free-will heresy of Arminianism, if free-will Arminianism is a heresy for Murray at all.
“There is however something to be said in defence of Wesley’s misconception [of Calvinism]. The Reformers and Puritans had never had to deal with Hyper-Calvinism.”
(Murray, Wesley, p. 61)
In addition, according to Murray, Wesley misunderstood Calvinism. He supposed that Calvinism’s doctrine of predestination teaches that God, in love, has elected only some persons, whereas He has reprobated the others in hatred. In fact, according to Murray, Calvinism teaches no such thing. Calvinism teaches the love of God for all men without exception. Calvinism teaches the love of God in Jesus Christ for all men without exception.
“The issue between Calvinism and Arminianism is not whether God loves all men, it is whether God loves all men equally.”
(Murray, Wesley, pp. 60-63)
Had Wesley understood that Calvinism teaches universal (ineffectual) grace, rather than particular, sovereign grace, he would not have opposed Calvinism as he did.
Similarly, Wesley denied justification by faith alone because of his aversion to the antinomianism rampant in the church at that time:
“Part of Wesley’s problem was his obsessive concern with Antinomianism.”
(Murray, Wesley, p. 227)
As for Wesley’s moral iniquities, Murray assures us that Wesley gutted the old Puritan writings of their Calvinistic statements (presumably, since the Puritans had not learned their Calvinism from Iain Murray, statements of particular, sovereign grace), misquoted his opponents, revised the confessions, and lied when he felt the heat in controversy, because he was a busy man, who wrote much and had no time for accuracy.
“A part of the explanation is that he [Wesley] worked too fast and with too much indifference to strict consistency.”
(Murray, Wesley, pp. 225, 226)
Wesley and His Followers is as important for its exposure of a modern follower of Wesley as it is for its unintended exposure of John Wesley. The modern follower of Wesley is the author of the book.
Iain Murray claims to be a Calvinist. He is a Presbyterian minister in Scotland. Heading the influential Banner of Truth Trust, he has the name of a leading champion of Calvinism, not only in Great Britain, but also throughout the world.
Of Wesley’s gospel, or theology, which consisted of universal grace conditioned by the sinner’s supposed free-will, justification by faith and works, universal atonement, the falling away of saints, a second blessing of instantaneous sinless-ness, and a blasphemous attack on predestination, Murray judges that “the foundation of Wesley’s theology was sound” (Murray, Wesley, p. 77).
Wesley’s theology was merely “confused” (Murray, Wesley, p. 79). Murray praises Wesley for his “commitment to the Bible” (Murray, Wesley, p. 80).
It is the thrust of Murray’s book that Wesley preached the gospel and that his revival was a glorious work of the Spirit of Christ by the gospel.
It is now evident what Iain Murray and the Banner of Truth under his command are doing to the Reformed faith in Great Britain and, as they have opportunity, across the world. They are destroying Calvinism from within.
The foes without openly assail Calvinism for teaching sovereign, particular grace grounded in eternal election, which election is one decree with the eternal reprobation of the others.
Murray and the Murraymen insidiously corrupt Calvinism from within. They portray Calvinism as a doctrine of God’s universal love for sinners. They are perfectly silent as regards reprobation, except that the doctrine of a universal love for sinners necessarily implies the rejection of reprobation. They carry on a noisy, relentless warfare against the doctrine that God’s grace in the gospel is particular — for the elect only — condemning it as the worst enemy Calvinism ever had — “Hyper-Calvinism.” And they praise to the skies the “gospel” of a John Wesley, which the world knows was the message of universal grace suspended on the free will of the sinner—the “gospel” that the Synod of Dordt judged to be a form of Pelagianism.
Lo, according to Murray and the Murraymen, universal (ineffectual) grace, rooted in a loving will of God devoid of reprobation, is … Calvinism!
And the message of sovereign grace for the elect alone, accomplishing the salvation of every one to whom God gives it in the preaching of the gospel, is … Hyper-Calvinism.
It comes as no surprise then that at the end of the book, Murray, having defended Wesley’s teaching as the gospel and having recast Calvinism as universal (ineffectual) grace, proposes that we henceforth regard Arminianism and Calvinism as two, friendly, cooperating forms of the gospel. Something “good” came out of the controversy between Wesley and the Calvinists.
“Men on both sides of the divide re-assessed how much they had in common…. This led to a determination that henceforth Calvinist and Arminian evangelicals, without minimizing their differences, should respect and aid one another wherever possible.” (Murray, Wesley, p. 230)
“Calvinist and Arminian evangelicals”!
Two forms of one and the same gospel!
So that the Reformed faith should respect, and do all in its power to aid the spreading of, the message that salvation depends on the free will of the sinner, that Christ died for multitudes who nevertheless perish in hell, that the grace of God is resistible, that one can lose his salvation, and that the glory of salvation is the sinner’s own. For this message, according to Murray, is a form of God’s own gospel.
Murray quotes an old preacher approvingly:
“Arminius, Calvin, Baxter, all excellent men in their own way, yet how divided in their notions! But Jesus, that eternal source of love, will, I would charitably hope, bless all who sincerely desire to magnify his holy name, notwithstanding their different apprehensions on these points.”
(Murray, Wesley, p. 231)
Much of nominal Calvinist Christianity, especially in Great Britain, nods its approval. Read the favorable reviews of Murray’s book on Wesley in the Reformed press. Note the popularity of Murray and the Banner with professing Calvinists.
But there remain at least two witnesses, that Murray and the Murraymen are corrupting the Reformed faith at its very heart and that the grace of God is sovereign (irresistible).
The Protestant Reformed Churches.
By Prof. David J. Engelsma