John Wesley on Freedom

May 3rd, 2011 / 7 Comments

I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between God’s love and creaturely freedom. Some people say we are free to do just about anything. Others don’t think we’re free in any genuine sense.

Those who emphasize our near total freedom rightly build upon our commonsense notion that we make choices that seem, at least to some degree, free. And they rightly argue that moral responsibility seems to make little sense if freedom is illusory.

But the kind of radical freedom some profess does not account for what it means to be embodied and relational beings. For good reason, scientists of various sorts point to constraints to our freedom. And those who explore human behavior point to predictable patterns that suggest our freedom is not as great as we might sometime think. Christians rightly point to the habits of sin as denying us the capacity to do some things.

Others read the scientific literature or have theological reasons for saying we have no freedom whatsoever. They believe we are entirely controlled by the atoms or genes below. Or a sovereign God entirely controls all creation and us.

John Wesley

John Wesley offers a helpful middle ground between these two views. Wesley emphasizes creaturely freedom – what he typically called “liberty” – and its relation to love.

Wesley rejects views of divine sovereignty and doctrines of predestination that undermine the logic of give and recieve love. They imply that Christians cannot freely participate in the work of salvation. “The God of love is willing to save all the souls that he has made,” argues Wesley. “But he will not force them to accept of it; he leaves them in the hands of their own counsel.”

Wesley considered God persuasive not coercive. God “strongly and sweetly influences all,” says Wesley, “and yet without destroying the liberty of his rational creatures.” God empowers others rather than overpowering them.

Creaturely freedom is not entirely self-derived, however. God gives freedom to creatures. In one of his most important sermons, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” Wesley argues from a portion of an Apostle Paul’s letter (Phil. 2:12-13). In light of this passage, Wesley says, “the very first motion of good is from above, as well as the power which conducts it to the end.” In other words, we rely upon God.

Prevenient Grace

This initial work of divine love empowers free creaturely response. Wesley called this “preventing” grace; we now call it “prevenient grace.” This is God’s grace that precedes and empowers creaturely response. “Through the grace of God assisting me,” says Wesley, “I have a power to choose and do good as well as evil.”

Because God first acts on our behalf, says Wesley, we can and must respond to work out our salvation. God offers all people “some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world.” For this reason, “no man sins because he has not grace,” says Wesley. He sins, “because he does not use the grace which he hath.”

Many of the most perplexing questions Christians face are at least partially answered by affirming the idea that God empowers creatures by granting freedom to respond. If Christians follow Wesley’s lead on this issue, they will discover conceptual resources for making sense of God’s call in their lives.


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James Pedlar

Thanks for bringing JW’s views in on this topic, and for pointing out that he occupied somewhat of a “middle ground” between determinism and total freedom. 

For this reason, I tend to shy away from the term “free will”; not because I don’t believe there is a real creaturely freedom, but because I find people in our individualistic culture conceive of “freedom” as complete absence of any kind of restraint.  I don’t think that kind of modern individualist freedom is either possible or desirable!

I’d be interested in your perspective on the term “free will.”

Jay McDaniel

Tom…I have always hoped that a Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace might be of assistance in helping Christians recognize and appreciate “the measure of light, the glimmering ray” which we find in people of other religions and no religions.  I know that, for many Wesleyans, this measure of light is not equivalent to the light received in God’s love through Christ, and that many would say that it is not sufficient for salvation.  Wesley would say the same, I suspect.  But that is not my concern here.  I am wondering if this idea might enable Christians to welcome forms of wisdom—including practices—found in other religions, which might enrich their own walk with Christ.  For example, might Buddhist meditation enrich a Christian’s capacity to have a quieted heart, so that she is capable of listening and responding to others in loving and non-judgmental ways.  Could Buddhism help her become a better Christian, thanks to the prevenient grace which has engraced the Buddhist path.  Thanks in advance for your thoughts.  Jay McDaniel


Great insight!  Romans 1:20 came to mind as I was reading this.

David P Polk

Tom, please email me your email address so I can get back to you about The Nature of Love: a Theology. Thanks.

Vaughn Baker

I know this is random, but I’m using Tom Oord’s “the whole kitchen sink standard,” here.  Just watched the movie, “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”  It came out a year or two ago.  Time travel, a fairly popular concept, presupposes a fixed and closed or predetermined future.  In other words you cannot travel to a point of time, in time travel, which does not yet exist. In this scenario all future events are already taking place, simultaneously and eternally,  (does this smack of Anselm?). Time travel is presumably where one goes outside of time, itself being comprised of eternally fixed past, present, and future events.  This is non-sense, yet many persons accept time travel as a real possibility.  Being outside of time, Plantinga notes, is incoherent.  Food for thought: timelessness, being outside of time, etc., all conspire against us living fully in this reality, with genuine God-given freedom, causing us to deny the genuine and real “time travel” of living one moment to the next in an open future.  We end up trading reality for an illusion.

Brad Strawn

I think one of the problems we have is when we think of freedom as a static thing. Neuroscience and psychoanalytic theory can help us understand that freedom is dynamic. Wesley suggested that liberty is somewhat limited (if I am remembering correctly). It is a limited capacity not to enact unholy tempers. What neuroscience and psychoanalysis suggests (one of many things) is that freedom can increase. I am not as free as I suspect but I can become more free as I exercise liberty.

Daniel Fruh

It is always helpful to hear John Wesley’s thoughts on this issue. As a believer in Reformed Theology, I think people often forget that Calvinists believer every human is free so far as their nature permits or allows. Unfortunately since our nature is depraved and sinful we cannot have the freedom to choose God. I really enjoy this debate. I have not really heard how an Arminian might object to this lesser known aspect of Calvinism.

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