Posts tagged ‘Calvinism’

Wesley and Total Depravity, Part 3

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.

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Wesley and Total Depravity, Part 1

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.

The Breadth of a Hair: Wesley on Total Depravity

“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.”

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