“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.”

Thus wrote John Wesley in a letter to John Newton on May 14 1765. What Wesley referred to was the doctrine of total depravity, derived from the concept of original sin as expressed by Augustine. Total depravity teaches that as a result of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, humanity is corrupt and is either does not naturally tend to (or is unable to) love and serve God. Without the grace of God, Man cannot accept salvation through Jesus Christ.

It’s interesting that Wesley should say that he was within a hair’s breadth of John Calvin, whose theology has come to be expressed in five famous points using the acrostic TULIP. Wesley did not agree with four of these points, but on the doctrine of total depravity some might say he was in fact less than a hair’s breadth from Calvin. Classic Calvinist thought on total depravity says that Man is in a fallen, corrupted state due to the original sin. Due to this, people are morally incapable of fully obeying or loving God because they are inclined to serve their own interests over God. Even acts that seem altruistic are simply disguised acts of ego. In order for anyone to be saved, God has to predestine them for salvation, because they cannot choose salvation for themselves.

Here is where Wesley departs from Calvin. He affirmed the doctrine of total depravity, but subscribed to amodified view, believing that humans are capable of some choice in the matter of their salvation. Wesley talked about prevenient or preventing grace, an act of grace by God that exists without reference to anything we have done. Prevenient grace, said Wesley, allows humans to use free will to either accept the salvation God offers through Christ, or to reject it.  People can choose to follow God or not, and have the imago Dei within them restored. This point of deviation from Calvin would lead Wesley down paths that led him to formulate his doctrine of Christian perfection.

Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him. – Sermon 85, “On Working Out our Own Salvation”

From where did Wesley form this modified view of total depravity? 

His understanding was strongly influenced by Jacob Arminius, a 16th century Dutch theologian. Arminius has a mostly posthumous reputation for opposing the five points of Calvinism,  although truly he only opposed three of them.  Arminius believed that Man is in a fallen state and therefore no longer naturally inclined to obey or love God fully. He can only be rescued from this state by the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit.  According to Arminius, while Man is not able to do good, he does have the free will to choose to follow God – just as Adam exercised free will to disobey – and allow Christ to regenerate Him.

“In his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections, or will, and in all his powers by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, conceive, will, and perform whatever is truly good.”

Following Arminius’ death his followers, known as the Remonstrants, issued in January 1610 five articles in opposition to the five points of Calvinism. The third of these articles addressed the issue of total depravity.

That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free-will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John xv. 5: “Without me ye can do nothing.”

As a life-long Anglican, Wesley was familiar with some voices within the Anglican Church which had espoused the Arminian theology which formed his view of total depravity. Foremost of these would have been Henry Hammond, a 17th century Anglican cleric, known the first English scholar to do a comparison of New Testament manuscripts. Hammond was a champion of Arminianism, particularly as a defender of the works of Hugo Grotius, a follower of Arminius. Grotius writings as an Arminian theologian culminated in a work of systematic theology entitled On the Truth of Christian Religion. Wesley has works about Hammond and excerpts from Grotius in his Christian Library. It’s likely that his reading of Grotius was his introduction to Arminius’ own work. What’s certain is that he embraced the modified Arminian view on total depravity, expounding it in numerous sermons, letters, and essays.

“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

Wesley took all this theology on total depravity that hadbeen transmitted by Arminius and his followers. He refined this idea of prevenient grace, forming the notion that people must choose to follow Christ. Where does this take him? It takes him to the idea that once the grace of God has been accepted, individuals must choose to keep giving all of themselves to God.

In his Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he starts to list some of the sources that help craft this: Taylor in 1725, Á Kempis in 1726, Law in 1727 or 1728. Wesley takes these additional sources and he begins to craft a doctrine of Christian perfection, written about previously on this blog. Once prevenient grace has allowed the individual to choose to be regenerated by the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit, Wesley realized, Christians must also choose being set apart to a life of personal piety and holiness. By doing so, they are empowered by the Holy Spirit  and continue to be transformed and made more like Christ, to grow in God’s graces and love until, as Wesley put it, there is “love governing the heart and life, running through all our tempers, words, and actions.”