This is part one in a series regarding John Wesley’s views on the doctrine of total depravity, and how these contributed to the development of his doctrine of Christian perfection. Full disclosure: this series is the result of research done in pursuit of my studies at Trevecca Nazarene University.

In a letter to John Newton, dated May 14, 1765, John Wesley made an astonishing statement (at least in modern eyes) to the ex-slave ship captain turned clergyman. In the midst of defending his disagreements with the Calvinist positions on the doctrine of election and the perseverance of the saints, Wesley remarked, “I think on Justification just as I have done any time these seven-and-twenty years, and just as Mr. Calvin does. In this respect I do not differ from him an hair’s breadth.”[1] This is notable because few debates within Protestantism seem as starkly divided as do disputes between the Calvinist and Wesleyan-Arminian positions. Spross notes on the subject,

Historically, the differences between Reformed-Calvinistic theology and Wesleyan-Arminian theology have been sharp and pronounced. From the traditional five points of ‘Tulip’ Calvinism, the Wesleyan-Arminian response has provided a distinct alternative at every point. Radically diverse emphases have been placed on the sovereignty of God and the freedom of human will.[2]

Despite this, on the issue of justification Wesley was prepared to say that he was within a hair’s breadth of Calvinism; such a claim rested on his understanding of – and congruence with Calvin upon – the doctrine of total depravity.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius exhorted readers to “examine the matter from first principles.”[3] Any examination of Wesley’s views on total depravity must therefore begin with an understanding of the doctrine. Total depravity is a concept which arises from Augustinian understanding of original sin. Original sin is in turn derived from Scriptural teaching regarding the penalty which Adam’s sin brought upon himself and his progeny.

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Genesis 2:15-17 KJV)[4]

Therefore, the Scriptural teaching is that beginning with the fall of Adam – the original model of Man – all future models (Adam’s descendants) are guilty of the sins which they commit personally and individually, but they carry the guilt and consequences of Adam’s original sin. They are considered sinners by nature.[5] In the view of Augustine, after Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Garden – resulting in the Fall – the whole of Creation exists in a debased or corrupted state from what God originally intended. Alister McGrath summarizes Augustine’s thoughts, noting,

According to Augustine, it follows that all human beings are now contaminated by sin from the moment of their birth … Augustine portrays sin as inherent to human nature. It is an integral, not optional aspect of our being … For Augustine, humanity, left to its own devices and resources, could never enter into a relationship with God. Nothing that a man or woman could do was sufficient to break the stranglehold of sin.”[6]

If humanity was not capable on its own of re-forging a relationship with God that had been broken in the Fall, then Augustine reasoned that it was only the grace of God which could do so. Augustine therefore emphasized that “the resources of salvation are located in God, outside of humanity. It is God who initiates salvation, not men or women.”[7] The concept of total depravity, then, is that due to humanity’s corruption by sin, men and woman are morally incapable under their own power of choosing to love and follow God or accept the salvation He offers in the person of Jesus Christ.

It is from this classical Augustinian formulation of total depravity that the Calvinist view is based. Steele and Thomas state the Calvinist position thusly:

Because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel. The sinner is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free, it is in bondage to his evil nature, therefore, he will not–indeed he cannot–choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently, it takes much more than the Spirit’s assistance to bring a sinner to Christ–it takes regeneration by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature. Faith is not something man contributes to salvation, but is itself a part of God’s gift of salvation–it is God’s gift to the sinner, not the sinner’s gift to God.[8]

A summary of this Calvinist teaching might read as: first, that fallen humanity lacks the ability to believe. Second, humans are spiritually dead and senseless, and cannot converse with God as a result. Third, since fallen men and women are in bondage to sin, they cannot choose morally good things over morally evil things; by extension, since faith which leads to salvation is a good thing, it cannot be chosen. Fourth, the Holy Spirit must regenerate fallen humans so that they can believe. Lastly, faith must be given as a gift by God to a spiritually regenerated person. In the Calvinist position, faith is the result of such spiritual regeneration, not the means by which it is accomplished.

It is important to note that in laying out the standard teaching of Calvinism, Steele and Thomas have been careful to emphasize a lack of free will in humanity; this will represent an important distinction which differentiates Wesleyan theology from Calvinism as concerns total depravity. This distinction centers on the determination which Calvinism makes from its definition of total depravity. Since mankind has no will to exercise when it comes to salvation, Calvin concluded that God therefore has predestined some for salvation, a deduction which had profound consequences. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop gives a masterful explanation of the result of Calvin’s chain of reasoning:

Calvin built on Augustine’s philosophy. But Calvin’s premise was Augustine’s conclusion. Augustine’s reasoning led him to the conclusion that God predestines some men to salvation. Augustine would carry his logic no further. Calvin carried Augustine’s reasoning one step further. If God is absolutely sovereign and He predestines some men to salvation, it is only reasonable to suppose that He also predestines all other men to damnation.[9]

On the face of things, a cursory reading of some of Wesley’s sermons and writings might make it appear that rather than being a hairsbreadth from Calvin on total depravity, that there is no hair at all. Examples abound of Wesley writing on the subject of sin and justification in which he affirms the doctrine of total depravity.

“Is man by nature filled with all manner of evil? Is he void of all good? Is he wholly fallen? Is his soul totally corrupted? Or, to come back to the text, is “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart only evil continually?” Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but an Heathen still.” [Sermon 44: On Original Sin][10]

Also:

“Adam violated the precept, and, as the nervous original expresses it, ‘died the death.’ He before possessed a life incomparably more excellent than that which the beasts enjoy. He possessed a divine life, consisting, according to the Apostle, ‘in knowledge, in righteousness, and true holiness.’ This, which was the distinguishing glory of his nature, in the day that he ate the forbidden fruit was extinct. His understanding, originally enlightened with wisdom, was clouded with ignorance. His heart, once warmed with heavenly love, became alienated from God his Maker … In a word, the whole moral frame was unhinged, disjointed, broken.” – The Doctrine of Original Sin According to Scripture, Reason, and Experience[11]

As a lifelong Anglican Wesley relied much on the Book of Common Prayer, an Anglican source which would also have confirmed for him that even from birth, fallen humanity was corrupt and sinful and that it was God’s grace which removed sin.

Agreeably to this, our Church prays in the baptismal office, that the person to be baptized may be “washed and sanctified by the Holy Ghost, and, being delivered from God’s wrath, receive remission of sins, and enjoy the everlasting benediction of his heavenly washing;” and declares in the Rubric at the end of the office, “It is certain, by God’s word, that children who are baptized, dying before they commit actual sin are saved.” And this is agreeable to the unanimous judgment of all the ancient Fathers. – A Treatise on Baptism, 1756[12]

Excerpts such as these give little cause to suppose that Wesley was at variance in any great respect from Calvin in regards to the doctrine.  Nevertheless, Wesley did depart from the Calvinist stance, over a not insignificant point, which will be discussed in Part 2.


[1] Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley. 1872. 3rd edition. Reprint. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2007. III:169. [Hereafter cited as Works.]

[2] Spross, Daniel B. “The Doctrine of Sanctification in Karl Barth,” in Wesleyan Theological Journal 20, no. 2 (Fall 1985): 54.

[3] Aurelius, Marcus. The Meditations. Translated by George Long. Mineola, New York: Dover Press, 1997. p. 89.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture citations are taken from The Holy Bible. King James Version. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992.

[5] Badger, Anthony A. “TULIP: A Free Grace Perspective. Part One: Total Depravity,” in Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society (Spring 2003): 46.   http://www.faithalone.org/journal/2003i/badger.pdf [accessed March 30, 2010]

[6] McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 4th Edition. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. p. 19.

[7] Ibid. p. 19.

[8] Steele, David N. and Thomas, Curtis C. Romans: An Interpretive Outline. Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1963. p. 144.

[9] Wynkoop, Mildred Bangs. Foundations of Wesleyan-Arminian Theology. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1967.  p. 39.

[10] Wesley. Works. VI:63.

[11] Wesley. Works. IX: 242.

[12] Ibid. X:191.