I received a question in the comments section and thought I would address it since I received a very similar question in person after church yesterday. Here is the question:
could you/or any Pastor on Staff please tell me (in a language I can understand...or "down to earth")--what is the difference between Calvinists and Wesleyans? I think I understand that one Christian group believes you can never lose your Salvation and the other one believes that you can lose it. I think I know which one is which...but how can Salvation be lost? Wouldn't that mean that the sacrifice Christ made once, and only once, wasn't good enough? Please forgive my ignorance--I'm not a learned individual but this has been a question gnawing at the back of my mind for a long time?
First, let me say that this is not an ignorant question at all, and I appreciate the honesty in asking it.
Secondly, the debate over the differences between Wesleyan and Calvinist understandings of salvation date back to the 16th century to the Synod of Dort where a Dutch pastor and theologian named Jacob Arminius came into conflict with Reformed (Calvinist) theologians. Out of the synod the five points of Calvinism (usually known by the acrostic TULIP) were articulated. If someone would like to read it, I'd be glad to blog about that history and describe the five points that were in question there. However, I don't know very many Calvinists who still hold strictly to those five points (there is some question whether John Calvin himself would have held to all five points) and the theological dialogue has moved forward a great deal since then.
So, to answer the question I'd rather just describe the ways that Wesleyan/Arminians understand salvation and then let you ask a Calvinist what parts (if any) they disagree with. It is my sense that Wesleyans and Calvinists agree on more points today than they disagree on - but I could be wrong about that. It sort of depends on which Calvinist or Reformed person you talk to.
Here are (in my mind) the key points for Wesleyan/Arminian believers:
1. The possibility of universal salvation. Wesleyans believe that grace is prevenient - which means that God is universally at work in the life of every person in the world wooing or drawing them to himself. It is the will of God that all people be saved and he has given to each and every person the grace necessary to respond freely in relationship to him. There are some Calvinist or Reformed believers that would argue for what is called "election" - meaning that God has predestined or chosen some people (perhaps based upon his foreknowledge of their character and choices) for salvation. Wesleyans would reject that understanding of election, believing instead that God desires all people to walk with him as his children and has given every person the ability to accept or reject his love.
2. Salvation as relational. Wesleyans tend (unfortunately imo there are some painful exceptions here) to see salvation primarily as a relationship of covenant between people and God which sort of makes the question of losing one's salvation irrelevant.
Without getting too technical here, the question really hinges upon what one believes was taking place on the cross. If one sees the death of Jesus on the cross (atonement) as the judicial or legal means of buying off or appeasing God's wrath, then certainly the death of Christ was "good enough" to accomplish that task. In this case one couldn't "lose their salvation" because what further appeasing of God's wrath is necessary? One very big problem with understanding the cross in this way (as buying God's mercy) is that logically it should mean that everyone is saved. If what needed to happen was the appeasing of God's wrath through sacrifice, then why isn't God's wrath appeased for all people? Why aren't all people saved? The Reformed answer usually is that because God elected the cross to only be for certain people...
Wesleyans, instead, tend to see the cross as relational rather than judicial (as a transaction of love rather than a transaction of justice). On the cross God in Christ refused to allow our greatest sin (killing his only Son) to separate us from him. In the cross we realize that nothing can separate us from the love and grace of God. This is an invitation to relationship. To receive God's grace is thus to receive the relationship that he is offering to us.
Understanding the cross relationally means that we can't "lose our salvation." If salvation is a relationship like marriage (the metaphor most used in the Bible for salvation) then how does one lose a relationship? Can you imagine me asking someone, "Have you seen my marriage? I think I lost my marriage. I'm not sure where I set it down..." I know right now in this moment whether or not I am living within the faithful relationship of my marriage. If by losing our salvation we mean that God may reject us, we don't have to worry about that - he is always the faithful covenant partner. The question is about our faithfulness back to him.
Because Wesleyan understandings of salvation are relational then certainly the possibility is there for a believer - like the Prodigal Son - to shake their fist at God and walk out of that relationship. But like the Father of the Prodigal, God will always receive us back into his household.
3. Salvation as transformation. The other issue has to do with heaven. When someone asks the question, "Do Wesleyans believe you can lose your salvation?" They are really asking, "Who gets to go to heaven?" This may sound strange but Wesleyans usually will answer the question "who gets to go to heaven?" by saying, "I have no idea, that's up to God."
Salvation for Wesleyans is not first and foremost about getting to heaven, it is first and foremost about experiencing the transformation of our lives here (today) in the body. Jesus came to proclaim the presence of the Kingdom of God and to make all things new. Being "saved" is not so much about getting to heaven as it is about participating in the Spirit-empowered transformation of all things today.
For Wesley, it is our participation in the life of God today that gives us the assurance of eternal life after death. Certainly, we want and believe that all people can live in the assurance of eternal life, but none of us knows who will be in heaven. Given the abundance of God's grace, my guess is that we will be shocked at who got in rather than who got left out...
The main thing is that it is a bad characterization of Wesleyan theology that believes that people constantly fall in and out of salvation - as though God is looking for reasons to take back the salvation he has so freely given. However, we do believe that salvation is a relationship and not just a legal transaction between us and God through Christ.
I hope that helps. Wesleyans believe that God's universal invitation to enter into a loving and eternal relationship with him is the good news that can change the world today and for all time.
Thank you so much for this great question. I'd be glad to answer any questions you might have or that come out of this explanation... blessings. SD