Wesley and Murray Who Followed Him
(Slightly modified from an article first published in
the British Reformed Journal)
Wesley and Men Who Followed
Author: Iain Murray
Banner of Truth, 2003, 263 pp.
Perhaps no figure since Jacobus Arminius has polarized
the church as much as the subject of Iain Murray’s recent portrait: John
Wesley (1703-1791). Murray introduces Wesley in the spiritually
impoverished landscape of 18th century British Anglicanism. Starting from
his early days of study at Oxford University, Wesley is portrayed as
navigating a hostile terrain of contemporary religious indifference.
Towards the end, the book spends more time defending Wesley and his
followers, than of clearly explaining the message of Methodism. Indeed,
the book from beginning to end in seeking to preserve Wesley for
evangelical Christianity turns a blind eye to much of his heretical
doctrine and apostasy. The emotionally charged portrait of Wesley and his
preachers is so captivating, that the reader is tempted time and again to
overlook the historical reality and embrace the fictitious man of piety
who is horribly confused and misunderstood.
In addition to the life and ministry of John Wesley the
book provides an overview of the lives of three of his preachers, William
Bramwell, Gideon Ousely and Thomas Collins. Regretfully in attempting to
capture the heartfelt dedication of these men, Murray all but ignores what
they were saying in favour of what they were doing. He even attempts to
excuse their opposition to the sovereignty of God by pointing to their
spiritual sincerity. Murray writes "In theory, Methodists denied divine
sovereignty … yet the prayerfulness which characterized their lives gives
the clearest practical proof of their dependence on God" (p. 171). The
sacrifices and hardships faced by these men fill many pages within the
book and provide a useful deterrent to those who would seek to question
their theology and doctrine. The book therefore attempts to seduce the
reader with the satanic lie that sincerity and zeal are suitable
replacements for truth and orthodoxy.
In the chapter entitled "The Collision with Calvinism,"
Murray provides a revisionist escape route by suggesting that Wesley, the
great apostle of Arminianism who was intimately acquainted with Calvin and
the Puritans, misunderstood what Calvinism really is (p. 74). Yet
Wesley himself expresses his own understanding of Calvinism as teaching
that "the salvation of every man" is dependent "wholly and solely upon an
absolute, irresistible, unchangeable decree of God, without any regard to
faith or works foreseen."1 Wesley clearly
understood Calvinistic theology and yet he continued to attribute it to
Satan and refer to it as "deadly poison" (p. 74). He also warned his
Methodist society members to stay away from Reformed churches that taught
a particular atonement. Even Murray is forced to admit that over time,
Wesley’s "opposition to Calvinism stiffened rather than weakened" (p. 68).
How else could one honestly explain the vindictive barrage of attacks on
the sovereignty of God in Wesley’s The Arminian Magazine?
With all this in mind, it is important to view Murray’s
book as an apologetic work, not solely of John Wesley or his preachers,
but of Evangelical Arminianism. Why else would so much ink be employed in
the defense of one who said that Calvinism was his enemy?2
Towards that goal, Murray excuses Wesley time and again as a sincere
victim of his environment. When Wesley calls predestination "a doctrine
full of blasphemy" and the God of predestination "as worse than the devil;
more false, more cruel, more unjust" this is excused as a well-meaning
response to the hyper-calvinism of his day.3
In similar fashion his erroneous view of Christian "perfectionism" is
practically excused by Murray as a heartfelt attempt to counterbalance the
false teaching of antinomianism.4
Indeed Wesley and Men who Followed does much to promote the lie
that the church today needs a little bit of both Wesley and Whitefield in
order to achieve proper "balance." The book, therefore, misses a good
opportunity to mark one whose writings have continued to plague the church
with division and false doctrine (Rom. 16:17).
Murray’s revisionist portrait also extends to Wesley’s
blasphemous view of justification. Wesley held to a theory of
justification that is virtually indistinguishable to that of
sanctification. He openly taught that justification is not only forensic
(a legal declaration), but that it depends on the "moment to moment"
obedience of the believer. Murray trivializes the issue and defends Wesley
from criticism by suggesting that his inconsistencies on the subject were
due to working "too fast and with too much indifference to strict
consistency" (p. 225). Yet Wesley himself noted that his own position on
the subject was "a hair’s breadth" from "salvation by works." His doctrine
can perhaps be best summarized by his favourite writer, William Law who
wrote, "We can not have security of our salvation but by doing our utmost
to deserve it."5 This concept of "deserving
it" is a major theme within Wesley’s sermons and one could hardly be
blamed for mistaking them as a by-product of Rome’s Council of Trent.
Wesley clearly affiliated himself with a conditional gospel of works when
he insisted that election is based on the future works and faith of men.
This decree, whereby whom God did foreknow, he did
predestinate, was indeed from everlasting; this, whereby all who
suffer (allow) Christ to make them alive are elect according to the
foreknowledge of God.
Another fatal weakness within the book is the omission
of so much incriminating evidence against Wesley. For example, while
Murray does briefly touch upon Wesley’s belief in baptismal regeneration,
he completely overlooks his advocacy of prayers for the dead. Wesley
writes "Prayer for the dead, the faithful departed, in the advocacy of
which I conceive myself clearly justified." The book also ignores Wesley’s
belief that there will be unconverted Moslems and other heathen who will
be accepted on the basis of their good works. The words of our Lord in
John 3:7, "Ye must be born again," contrast sharply with Wesley’s own view
that "the merciful God" sees Moslems and "regards the lives and tempers of
men more than their ideas."6 Also neglected is
Wesley’s very strange belief in ghosts and fondness for drawing lots.
Wesley’s ecumenical approach toward Romanism is also
overlooked and can best be appreciated by Wesley’s own correspondence to a
Roman Catholic, "Let the points wherein we differ stand aside; here are
enough wherein we agree, enough to be the ground of every Christian
temper, and of every Christian action. O brethren, let us not still fall
out by the way."7 In addition, while Murray
hints at Wesley’s favourable disposition toward women preachers, he does
not provide us with the clarity that we find in Wesley’s own writings.
Wesley wrote the Manchester Conference in 1787 that we should "give the
right hand of fellowship to Sarah Mallet, and have no objection of her
being a Preacher in our connexion …"8
In light of all these omissions one can only imagine what other skeletons
Murray uncovered from the closet of one who was arguably the greatest
enemy of evangelical Christianity in the eighteenth century.
In conclusion the target of Wesley and Men Who
Followed could hardly be more clear. Murray offers far more critical
fire on the Reformed detractors of Wesley than of a man who taught
baptismal regeneration, promoted women preachers, maligned the saints of
his day and fought against Calvinism his entire life. The target in the
cross hair is the uncompromising Calvinist who will not accept Arminianism
as a legitimate expression of God’s truth. How else could one explain why
Wesley’s well-documented campaign of lies against Augustus Toplady, the
defender of sovereign grace, is hardly even mentioned in the book?
Murray’s book is all about tolerance and acceptance of the Arminian lie of
human sovereignty and diminishes the antithesis between grace and works.
Murray has failed to offer anything other than a revisionist history that
places the blame on everyone and everything surrounding John Wesley in
order to preserve him for the modern day evangelical church. One wonders
if the book would have been more appropriately entitled Wesley and
Murray Who Followed.
1 The Works of John Wesley
(Baker, 1996), vol. 11, p. 494.
2 Wesley declares, "Is not
Calvinism the most deadly and successful enemy?" (p. 74).
3 Murray writes, "There is
however something to be said in defence of Wesley’s misconception. The
Reformers and Puritans had never had to deal with Hyper-Calvinism … the
Dissenting churches had to be brought from Hyper-Calvinism, and no doubt
at times the Wesleyan Methodists helped in that deliverance" (pp. 61, 63).
4 Murray states, "... in his
fear that Calvinism was allied to Antinomianism, Wesley committed himself
to the beliefs of his earlier years on Christian perfection, as already
noted" (p. 66).
5 William Law, Christian
Perfection (Creation House, 1975), pp. 137-138.
6 The Works of John Wesley
(Baker, 1996), vol. 7, pp. 353-354.
7 The Works of John Wesley
(Baker, 1996), vol. 10, pp. 80-86.
8 Zechariah Taft, Biographical Sketches of
Holy Women (Methodist Publishing, 1992), vol. 1, p. 84.