Part 2 of this series traced the formation of John Wesley’s theology regarding total depravity, and the transmission of the thought of Jacob Arminius. This concluding post begins with a question: is the theology Wesley embraced 200 years after Jacob Arminius an accurate model of Arminian belief?

Wesley preached,

[Adam] was a creature capable of God, capable of knowing, loving and obeying his Creator. And in fact he did know God, did unfeignedly love and uniformly obey Him . . . . From this right state, and the right use of all his faculties, his happiness naturally flowed.”[1]

Randy Maddox, a master Wesleyan scholar, has pointed out Wesley’s belief that “humans were originally created capable of participating in God, and when they do so participate, they embody God’s moral character and find fulfillment.”[2] The renewing of such participation in God is salvation through Christ, and Wesley did not view the acceptance of this salvation as possible at all without the action of prevenient grace. In the narrowest Arminian sense, prevenient grace meant the work of God in an individual which awakened them spiritually prior to their being justified. Yet Wesley also used prevenient grace in a much wider sense, teaching that every good action or quality (whether the first expression of faith or entire sanctification) had its foundation in a previous empowerment made possible by God’s grace.

Wesley’s expression of this was an answer to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and Wesley was quite careful to set free will in the context of human freedom to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation being the outcome of that will having been freed by the work of the Holy Spirit.

But I do not carry free will so far (I mean, not in moral things). “Natural free-will,” in the present state of mankind, I do not understand. I only assert that there is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored to every man, together with that supernatural light which “enlightens every man that cometh into the world” [cf. Jn 1:9].[3]

In all of this, Wesley falls solidly in line with Arminian belief. Arminius himself had labeled free will as unable to effect any action without God’s grace.

“Free Will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good without grace . . . . I affirm, therefore, that this grace is simply and absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good.[4]

What is the link between the transmission of Arminian theology of total depravity, and Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection? Wesley gives precious insight into his personal spiritual formation and his theology in  “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” published in 1777. Several of the works he cites as reading early in his life are pivotal to making this connection between his views on total depravity and Christian perfection.

In the year 1725, being in the twenty-third year of my age, I met with Bishop Taylor’s “Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying.” In reading several parts of this book, I was exceedingly affected; that part in particular which relates to purity of intention. Instantly I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts, and words, and actions; being thoroughly convinced, there was no medium; but that every part of my life (not some only) must either be a sacrifice to God, or myself, that is, in effect, to the devil.[5]

The Reverend Jeremy Taylor’s exposition of rules for living affected the formation of Wesley’s theology, as they pointed Wesley to the need to methodically seek to live a holy life. Wesley’s reference to “purity of intention” is the key factor that keeps this from edging into legalism. Following Taylor’s rules for living was in no way meant to lead to salvation; rather, the rules represented a spiritual discipline meant to focus Christians on living completely for God.

In the year 1726, I met with Kempis’s “Christian’s Pattern.” The nature and extent of inward religion, the religion of the heart, now appeared to me in a stronger light than ever it had done before. I saw, that giving even all my life to God (supposing it possible to do this, and go no farther) would profit me nothing, unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart, to him.[6]

Á Kempis’ devotional work, The Imitation of Christ, would further reinforce for Wesley the concept of purity of intention. From Kempis, Wesley would absorb the idea that purity of mind might be used to achieve a unity of purpose. Kempis believed that while simplicity of life would guide one to God, only those whose lifestyle was holy and pure might truly take hold of Christ.

A year or two after, Mr. Law’s “Christian Perfection” and “Serious Call” were put into my hands. These convinced me, more than ever, of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian; and I determined, through his grace, (the absolute necessity of which I was deeply sensible of;) to be all-devoted to God, to give him all my soul, my body, and my substance.[7]

Much as with Taylor, the works of William Law – which Wesley first read in 1727 or 1728 – would prove vital to the development of Wesley’s theology. Law proposed that even as God forgives disobedience, he continues to call people to obedience and a life centered on Him. Once Wesley begins to grapple with an Arminian understanding that people could choose to follow God despite their total depravity, Law’s work helped him to see that individuals participated in Christ’s work in them through personal piety and holiness.

As Wesley began to craft a doctrine of Christian perfection, these sources allowed him to cast a vision for the progress of a maturing Christian. Once prevenient grace has allowed the individual to see the need to choose to be regenerated by the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit, Christians must make a further choice: to set themselves 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.”[8]

[1] Wesley. Works. VI: 243.

[2] Maddox, Randy. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994. p. 10-11.

[3] Outler, Albert C. editor. John Wesley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964. p. 447.

[4] Arminius. ‘Grace and Free Will’ in “Letter to Hippolytus,” in Writings, II:472.

[5] Wesley. Works. XI: 366.

[6] Ibid. XI: 366.

[7] Ibid. XI:367.

[8] Ibid. XI: 397.