Monday, June 5, 2006

Forgiveness

Anyone familiar with the history of England's Great Awakening knows that all wasn't smooth sailing. Three of the most visible leaders of the "Methodist" movement--John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield--were friends touched by the power of the Holy Spirit. All were preachers. However, they all didn't preach the same things.

The Wesley brothers were Arminian in theology. Whitefield was a Calvinist. Their theological differences caused division, an all too common problem in modern Evangelicalism today. Let me include some extracts from John Wesley's Journal:

"1741. Sunday, February 1.—A private letter, written to me by Mr. Whitefield, was printed without either his leave or mine, and a great numbers of copies were given to our people, both at the door and in the Foundry itself. Having procured one of them, I related (after preaching) the naked fact to the congregation and told them, 'I will do just what I believe Mr. Whitefield would, were he here himself.' Upon which I tore it in pieces before them all. Everyone who had received it, did the same. So that in two minutes there was not a whole copy left."

Their private disagreement concerning Arminianism vs. Calvinism became public knowledge through the wrong printing of a private letter. Wesley continues:

"Saturday, March 28.—Having heard much of Mr. Whitefield’s unkind behavior, since his return from Georgia, I went to him to hear him speak for himself that I might know how to judge. I much approved of his plainness of speech. He told me that he and I preached two different gospels; and therefore he not only would not join with or give me the right hand of fellowship, but was resolved publicly to preach against me and my brother, wheresoever he preached at all. Mr. Hall (who went with me) put him in mind of the promise he had made but a few days before, that, whatever his private opinion was, he would never publicly preach against us. He said that promise was only an effect of human weakness, and he was now of another mind."

It would hurt me terribly if an old friend decided that he couldn't keep company anymore and that he believed he must preach against me. I can only imagine the sting when learning that my friend believed we "preached two different gospels" because, in my friend's judgment, mine would be the wrong one.

There is a period of several months in which Wesley says nothing of Whitefield, at least as my edition of his Journal records. He did, however, during this time take exception with a previously respected book. Read his reaction to a work by Martin Luther:

"Monday, 15.—I set out for London, and read over in the way that celebrated book, Martin Luther’s comment on the Epistle to the Galatians. I was utterly ashamed. How have I esteemed this book, only because I heard it so commended by others; or, at best, because I had read some excellent sentences occasionally quoted from it! But what shall I say, now I judge for myself?now I see with my own eyes? Why, not only that the author makes nothing out, clears up not one considerable difficulty; that he is quite shallow in his remarks on many passages, and muddy and confused almost on all; but that he is deeply tinctured with mysticism throughout and hence often dangerously wrong."

This re-evaluation took place in June of 1741, a few months after Whitefield gave the Wesleys the theological boot. Of course, this is rank speculation so take this question with skepticism, but I wonder if John viscerally reacted to the Calvinistic Luther's work in part due to the stinging rebuke of his theology by his friend, Whitefield?

Wesley's next reference to Whitefield was recorded in May 1742:

"Wednesday, 12.—I waited on the Archbishop of Canterbury with Mr. Whitefield, and again on Friday; as also on the Bishop of London. I trust if we should be called to appear before princes, we should not be ashamed."

Nothing in my edition of Wesley's Journal explains why the two preachers were together. However, it does give hope that they could put aside some differences for the common good.

In 1755 Wesley adds this note:

"Wednesday, November 5.—Mr. Whitefield called upon me. Disputings are now no more; we love one another and join hand in hand to promote the cause of our common Master."

Reconciiliation! Two brothers in Christ (and neither recanted his position) could find common ground in the cross. There is one more entry to read:

"1766. Friday, January 31.--Mr- Whitefield called upon me. He breathes nothing but peace and love. Bigotry cannot stand before him but hides its head wherever he comes."

Wesley here again affirms his friend's good character. What is further comforting is that Wesley preached Whitefield's funeral on November 18, 1770. In his sermon Wesley is gracious and complimentary.

Make no mistake--Whitefield died a Calvinist and Wesley died an Arminian. But they affirmed that both could be acceptable to God. I'm not saying that doctrine is unimportant, because it is extremely so. However, if God only accepted Christians who had perfect theology, I'm afraid heaven's streets would be rather vacant of saints!

Since I call myself a Wesleyan it is obvious what side of the doctrinal divide on which I fall. However, as the late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones proved, one can be a Calvinistic Methodist, too.

We just have to forgive each other on occasion.