Predestination and Freedom

By Jerry Walls –

Like divine sovereignty, predestination is not a Calvinist doctrine, it is a biblical doctrine.

As a theologian steeped in Scripture, John Wesley not only affirmed the doctrine, he affirmed a very strong version of it. He chose for his sermon “On Predestination” a classic text dealing with this great biblical truth, Romans 8:29-30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

There Paul summarizes God’s action in saving us in terms of his foreknowing us, predestining us, calling us, justifying us, and glorifying us. As Wesley noted, some have understood this text as a “chain of causes and effects,” but he argues that it simply states “the order in which the several branches of salvation constantly flow from each other.”

Once again, it is important to stress that Wesley insisted on a very strong doctrine of predestination.  Here are some lines from his sermon that capture the heart of his view:

“God decrees from everlasting to everlasting that all who believe in the Son of his love shall be conformed to his image, shall be saved from all inward and outward sin into all inward and outward holiness….and this in virtue of the unchangeable, irreversible, irresistible decree of God: ‘He that believeth shall be saved; he that believeth not shall be damned.’”

Notice, God has decreed from all eternity who will be saved: those who believe in Jesus, the Son of his love. His eternal decree, moreover, is irreversible and irresistible. God sets the terms of salvation and those terms are unalterable. There is no other way to be saved. Furthermore, God has decreed that those who believe in Jesus are predestined to be conformed to his image, to become holy, through and through, just like Jesus is.

Think of it this way. Predestination is like a train that has a pre-determined destination. All who board the train and remain on it will inevitably arrive at that predetermined destination. Moreover, there is no other way to reach that destination. If we want to make it there, we have to get on that train, and remain on it through each of the stops along the way. The train is firmly on the track, and the engineer is capable and determined to bring all passengers who are aboard to the pre-determined destination.

The predetermined destination is heaven. It is holiness, it is being like Jesus. And the only way we can get there is to believe in Jesus. In fact, we might even say that Jesus is the train. The call of God invites us to board the train. If we exercise faith in Christ, we are “in Christ” as Paul puts it. And all who are “in Christ” are on the way to the predestined end so long as they stay on the train. Those who are called to believe, to “come aboard,” may choose not to do so, and if they decide they do not want to be made holy like Jesus, they may exit the train at one of its stops along the way.

Here we see a parting of the ways between the Wesleyan view of predestination and the Calvinist view. We can put the question like this: who can get on the train? The Wesleyan answer is that everyone is not only invited and called to get on, but that God gives everyone the grace that enables them to do so. If they do not get on, or if they choose to get off before the train reaches its final destination, it is because of their own free choice to reject God’s love and grace.

By contrast, the Calvinist says only certain persons are chosen to be saved, and while all are called or invited onto the train, only the elect are given the grace to come. Indeed, those who are elect are called in such a way that they cannot refuse the invitation. Here is a description of the special call in the Westminster Confession, a classic Calvinist statement of faith.

“All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly, to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ, yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace” (X.1, emphasis added).

Now, compare this statement from Wesley describing how God extends his grace to fallen sinners.

“To reclaim these, God uses all manner of ways; he tries every avenue of their souls. He applies sometimes to their understanding, showing them the folly of their sins; sometimes to their affections, tenderly expostulating with them for their ingratitude, and even condescending to ask, ‘What could I have done for’ you (consistent with my eternal purpose, not to force you) ‘which I have not done?’”

Notice that both passages describe how God influences us by way of our minds, our emotions and our wills. But here is the crucial difference: as the Calvinist sees it, God determines those he has chosen for salvation to come. He acts upon them in such a way that he changes their thoughts, gives them a new heart, and renews their will. As a result, they are determined to come to Christ, and yet they come “most freely”!

Now this might seem like blatant nonsense, but in fact it is not. The claim here is that freedom and determinism are fully compatible if you define freedom the right way. In essence, for the Calvinist freedom means that God causes you to have the thoughts, feelings, and desires you have. As a result, you act exactly as God has caused you to act, but you still do what you “want” to do, so you are free. You cannot will to do otherwise, but you still do what you want to do because God has not determined you to act against your will. Rather, he determines you to act in accord with the desires he has caused you to have.

Wesley insisted otherwise. True freedom is not compatible with determinism. On his view, God calls us, reasons with us, shows us the truth, and so on. But he will not determine our choices, for what he wants from us is true love, worship and obedience. And in Wesley’s view, this requires that God cannot determine our choices.

God predestines the means and the end of salvation. And he truly wants all persons to get on board, and he has provided grace for all to do so. But we have the freedom to reject his grace and refuse the ride of our lives. But if so, it is not because God did not do everything he could, short of overriding our freedom, to get and keep us on the train.

Jerry L. Walls is Professor in Philosophy at Houston Baptist University. His primary interests are philosophy of religion, ethics and Christian apologetics. Dr. Walls is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama (Brazos Press). This article is reprinted by permission of Wesleyan Accent (



  1. Great article. I would love for Jerry Walls to do a piece on prevenient (enabling) grace. Is it always the Holy Spirit acting directly and internally on the individual? Or does it include the indirect work of the Spirit? Are we off base to say that the Spirit-inspired Word coming to a person is grace, or at least included in the biblical definition of grace?

  2. What Walls doesn’t deal with here is why some choose to believe and some don’t. Are the ‘believers’ better, smarter, more righteous, and are the ‘unbelievers’ less so? WHY do some respond and some don’t?

    • Steve, I’m sure the answer is very complex, but we do know of some of the reasons people respond differently to the gospel. Jesus, in explaining His reason for speaking in parables, reveals why many of the Jews of His time chose not to believe:

      “You will indeed listen, but never understand [why? Just not smart enough? No! Continue…], and you will indeed look, but never perceive. [Here’s why:] For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them” (Matt 13:14-15).

      Compare this with the parable of the sower in verses 3-9 (with explanation in verses 18-23). Here, Jesus gives several reasons for different responses to the word of truth.

      Another question one might ask is, Why do some gratefully embrace the gospel the day they hear it, while others take weeks or months or even years before coming to faith? Again, the reasons are varied and complex. The good news that emerges from thinking about this question is that many people who do not believe at first eventually do. That gives us a lot of hope for those who, for whatever reason, did not believe or believed only briefly before being offended or overwhelmed with trials. God doesn’t give up on us so easily.

      • Vance,

        In the sense that Jerry takes in saying that “We have the freedom to reject His grace and refuse the ride of our lives”. How does this run with Jesus in John 10:8-29 where Jesus says that of all the Father has given him he should lose none. None should be snatched out of the Fathers hand.

        If we have the free will to be able to thwart what God has given to Son then there is the all likelyhood that this statement is not true and that those given to the Son would most likely walk away as they did in John 6:66. But in all actuality the ones who walked away from Jesus even after seeing his miracles and hearing his teaching, they could not have been given to him by the Father. Or else they would not have been lost to him. And I dont believe this is a reference to prove you can lose your salvation.

        • Hi Eric,

          The question is this: WHY don’t the individuals described in John 10:26 “belong to [Christ’s] sheep”? The answer is simple: because they reject the clear testimony presented to them, as the context shows. They lock themselves out of the sheepfold. Others, however, readily receive Christ’s message. These are the “sheep” who hear His voice. No outside force can snatch them out of the Father’s hand. This, however, does not mean a person in the Father’s hand has no power to remove himself from the Father’s hand. In John 6:39, Jesus says, “This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day.” Indeed, the Father’s will (or desire) is that all be saved, but does this mean that a person the Father has given to Christ cannot walk away from Him? No. In John 17:12, Jesus, in a prayer to His Father, says, “Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” Notice that Judas, like the other apostles, was given to Christ by the Father; yet, he walked away from Jesus. The recalcitrant individuals of John 6 and 10 were not given to Christ because they rejected the powerful witness put before them. Had they put aside their self-serving motives and embraced the truth staring them in the face, the Father would have happily given them to His Son, and they would have believed. This is also the key to understanding John 6:44. No one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him, but the Father does not draw people who reject the powerful witness He provides for them. Go back to the beginning of the chapter and read down to verse 44, and you’ll see this is the context in which John 6:44 is set.

          • They reject the clear testimony presented to them because the Lord has not opened their eyes and ears. If we go with the idea that one can remove himself from the Fathers hand then the will of the creature would be able to usurp the will of the Creator. The reason anyone comes to the Father is because he is drawn and if you look up Strongs definition of the word “draws” it says “to drag”. If the Father only draws those who accept the witness He provides then it is sufficient to say that the Father draws according to merit. I appreciate your conversation the things of the Lord are truly amazing and it is always good to be able to have dialogue in a positive manner. God bless you.

          • Eric, if your first sentence is true, then the Lord’s not opening their eyes and ears is the cause of their rejecting the clear testimony presented to them. Scripture always places the blame on the individuals, not on God. They close their own eyes and ears. Tell me, can a person with open eyes and ears still reject truth? In other words, can people do evil things though they know better? Do you always do the things you know to be right and refuse to do the things you know to be wrong? (See Romans 7.) Further, God’s will is for His children to freely choose to love Him. If they are truly free, then they can remove themselves from the Father’s hand, and if their freedom is the Creator’s will, leaping from the Father’s hand is not usurping the Creator’s will; it is disappointing the Creator. The word “draw” can mean “drag,” but it can also mean to “woo” or “call” or “attract.” The word translated “draw” in John 6:44 is also translated “draw” in 12:32. If the term means “drag,” then it appears 12:32 supports universal salvation. In the LXX, the same Greek word is used in Jeremiah 31:3: “Therefore with lovingkindness I have *drawn* you.” That’s hardly a forceful “dragging.” The term “drag” suggests coercion by the drawing party and resistance on the part of the one being drawn. Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that those who come to Christ come willingly.

      • ***so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn***

        As I understand the above reference, those who turn are those who “look, listen, and understand”. The parable of the sower says those with ‘good hearts’ respond. Are we to assume they are born with good hearts that are willing to ‘look, listen, and understand” and that others are not born with that ability? Those in the trenches need answers to these questions for Calvinists continually remind us that it is not by works and that all of us are innately evil. Are you saying that some are born ‘children of the devil’ (you are of your father the devil) and that some are not? If not, then what activates them to ‘look, listen, and understand” while others do not? Paul says of Lydia that God opened her heart to listen. I think you see the dilemma. It all boils down to God choosing for us or us choosing for us.

        • Most Arminians/Wesleyans agree with Calvinists on total depravity, or total inability. Arminians believe that the grace God supplies is sufficient to enable the depraved heart to say yes to the gospel. Without this grace, the individual is unable to accept the free gift of salvation. The choice is a real one. If the depraved individual, now enabled by grace, persists in a “no” response, he can never claim he could have made no other choice. Those described as “children of the devil” seem to be particularly recalcitrant. They are not that way from birth; they become that way through influences in their lives. Jesus said the Pharisees cross land and sea to make a new convert, and once that convert is made, they make him “twice as much a child of hell” as themselves (Matt 23:15). If God chooses people and converts them regardless what’s in their hearts, then one person cannot possibly be “twice as much a child of hell” as another person. Yes, God opened Lydia’s heart to listen to Paul’s message. She was already a worshiper of God, which indicates she had received instructions from Scripture before she heard Paul’s message. God, through the Scripture He inspired, opened Lyia’s heart to listen to Paul’s message.

  3. Adin Brubaker says

    Thank you, Dr. Walls, from Faith UMC in Hallam, PA! This is a very helpful article. I will have to share it with my Sunday School class sometime.


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