In 1740, John Wesley preached a sermon called Free Grace. Wesley debated whether or not to preach the sermon because he knew that it would lead to controversy. He decided to go ahead after casting lots.
Wesley was not irenic in his words. He spoke against predestination, a view held and taught by his friend and mentor George Whitefield. “It is a doctrine full of blasphemy,” he said. “This doctrine represents our blessed Lord…as an hypocrite, a deceiver of the people, a man void of common sincerity…You represent God as worse than the devil!”
Whitefield responded in writing a few days later:
I hear, Honoured Sir, that you are about to print a sermon against predestination. It shocks me to think of it! What will be the consequences but controversy? If people ask my opinion, what shall I do? I have a critical part to act. God enable me to behave aright! Silence on both sides will be best. It is noised abroad already that there is a division between you and me, and my heart within me is grieved.
Later Whitefield wrote again to Wesley, noting that the last part of Martin Luther’s life was spent in controversy with Zwingli and others. He encouraged Wesley to focus on preaching Christ and to avoid needless controversy.
Let this, dear Sir, be a caution to us, I hope it will to me; for by the blessing of God, provoke me to it as much as you please, I do not think ever to enter the lists of controversy with you on the points wherein we differ. Only I pray to God, that the more you judge me, the more I may love you, and learn to desire no one’s approbation, but that of my Lord and Master, Jesus Christ…I wish you as much success as your own heart can wish.
A few reflections:
Controversy is damaging. I can understand why many avoid controversy over theological issues. Doctrinal debate is sometimes viewed as destructive, and sometimes it can be. It’s sad to see debates like this one divide friends and entire movements. This controversy caused a rift that continues today, hundreds of years later. Controversy may sometimes be necessary, but it should be avoided whenever possible.
Tone matters. I know that tone is subjective, but I wonder if things would have turned out differently if Wesley had chosen less a less confrontational approach.
It’s hard to know what’s worth fighting over. Wesley believed that predestination was a fighting matter. Whitefield wanted to focus on the message on the gospel and evangelism. The same happens today. We often disagree over what’s worth fighting about.
More to come.