Posts tagged ‘prevenient grace’

Isaiah and Holiness

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the     hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings:   with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they        flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole      earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called,  and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean  lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of  hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the  altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has  touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice  of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send  me!” Isaiah 6:1-8 New Revised Standard Version

When Isaiah glimpsed God in all His holiness, it was as if a light came on in a dark room. All the imperfections, blemishes, sin, uncleanness and crookedness of Isaiah’s life became exposed. He had to discard any pride in his own accomplishments. He knew he was being revealed for what he really was – unclean and unholy.

When we truly understand the holiness of God, our response should be the same as Isaiah’s: our pride unravels  and we stand expose us for the sinful creatures we truly are.  Our utter dependency on God for even our next breath becomes apparent. Our Wesleyan tradition within the Church of the Nazarene maintains that when the Holy Spirit initially brings us to awareness of our sin, we should view it with repugnance.  Spiritual senses which have been dead awaken us to the fact that the Savior is our only hope and only help. The ability to do this, to become aware of our sin even when our spiritual senses are dead, comes through prevenient grace, an act of grace by God that exists without reference to anything good which men or women might have done under their own power. Prevenient grace allows humans to use free will to either accept the salvation God offers through Christ, or to reject it.

Perhaps we don’t often enough consider our own response to God’s holiness. Have we allowed God to expose all of our imperfections, blemishes, sin, and uncleanness? Have we allowed our pride to be ripped from us, and become fully dependent on  God? If we say that we are pursuing lives of holiness, more is required than mere mental assent to Jesus’ atonement for us on the cross. To live a life of holiness – to be different, to be set apart for God – requires intentional commitment, effort, and discipline each day. It doesn’t matter how long ago we were first sanctified – but it matters greatly if we are sanctified right now.

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2011 Reading List

I am astonished to realize that the first month of 2011 is already halfway done. One of the things I hope to accomplish this year is to become more widely read in the area of holiness and Wesleyan theology/history. With that in mind I have some specific books on my reading list.

1. H. Orton Wiley’s Christian Theology, volumes 1-3, which Thomas Jay Oord reviewed here.

2. Lorna Khoo’s Wesleyan Eucharistic Spirituality. I actually picked up a copy of this book last year after reading a post on Rich Wollan’s blog, and simply haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

3. Richard P. Heizenrater’s Wesley and the People Called Methodists

4. J. Gregory Crofford’s Streams of Mercy: Prevenient Grace in the Theology of John and Charles Wesley

5. H. Ray Dunning’s Grace, Faith and Holiness: A Wesleyan Systematic Theology. This has been recommended to me for some time, and I’ve decided I can’t get past 2011 without checking it out.

This is a short list, which I will certainly be adding to as the year progresses. Any one else have a reading list, or want to make some recommendations?

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.

Wesley and Total Depravity, Part 2

The first part of this series discussed the origins of the doctrine of total depravity and the Calvinist perspective on the teaching and concluded that some of Wesley’s own thoughts gave little reason 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.

He denied the idea that fallen men and women had no free will to exercise when it comes to obeying God and accepting salvation of their own volition. His theology in this area bears evidence of the influence of his reading of the Patristics, as he displays more of the Eastern Church’s thought on original sin, focusing on the introduction of corruption and death caused by Adam’s sin; opposed to this is the Western Church’s more Augustinian focus on the transmission of that sin to future generations.

Wesley believed that God had created humanity with the freedom to choose, and that Adam’s sin represented the choice not to follow God.

But why is there sin in the world? Because man was created in the image of God: Because he is not mere matter, a clod of earth, a lump of clay, without sense or understanding; but a spirit like his Creator, a being endued not only with sense and understanding, but also with a will exerting itself in various affections. To crown all the rest, he was endued with liberty; a power of directing his own affections and actions; a capacity of determining himself, or of choosing good or evil. Indeed, had not man been endued with this, all the rest would have been of no use: Had he not been a free as well as an intelligent being, his understanding would have been as incapable of holiness, or any kind of virtue, as a tree or a block of marble. And having this power, a power of choosing good or evil, he chose the latter: He chose evil. Thus “sin entered into the world,” and pain of every kind, preparatory to death. – Sermon 57: On the Fall of Man

Being the advocate of rational thinking that he was, reason would have dictated to Wesley that if free will had allowed for corruption to come in, then free will was also a channel by which God could achieve repairs to His fallen creation. As a result, Wesley taught prevenient or preventing grace, an act of grace by God that exists without reference to anything good which men or women might have done under their own power. Prevenient grace, Wesley argued, allowed humans to use free will to either accept the salvation God offers through Christ, or to reject it.

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

No theology develops in a complete vacuum, so the question is where did Wesley’s theology on total depravity originate? Wesley was influenced by the theology of Jacob Arminius, a 16th-century Dutch professor of theology at the University of Leiden. Posthumously, Arminius’ views became known for being the opposition to what would come to be the five classic points of Calvinism, although Arminius himself only truly disagreed with three of the points, and doubted a fourth. On the subject of total depravity, Arminius held common ground with Calvin, albeit in a modified form; this modified doctrine is what Wesley came to believe.

Methodist scholar Stephen Gunter has observed that until recently, scholars of Wesley had made the assumption that he had no personal knowledge of Arminius’ writings.[1] If this is so, how then would Wesley have had Arminian theology transmitted to him? A possible answer to this is that John Wesley certainly had more than passing knowledge of some of Arminius’ followers and theological heirs. Within the Anglican tradition, he would have been acquainted with Henry Hammond, a 17th-century Anglican cleric. Hammond authored a number of controversial sermons and tracts, and is perhaps best remembered today as the first English intellectual to attempt a scholarly comparison of New Testament manuscripts. Within Wesley’s famous Christian Library is a work by John Fell, The Life of The most Learned, Reverend and Pious Dr H. Hammond, [2] and this represents a link in a chain leading back to Arminius.

Hammond not only represented an Anglican tradition of Arminianism, but was a champion extraordinaire of the writings of Hugo Grotius,[3] one of the followers of Arminius known as the Remonstrants. The Remonstrants declined to name themselves after Arminius, but are so named due to their presentation in January 1610 of Five Articles of Remonstrance, which disputed the doctrines of Calvinism. The response to these was eventually issued in 1618-1619 during the Synod of Dort, which established the five points of Calvinism, known today by the acrostic TULIP.  The third of these articles, which Wesley would have been familiar with, 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.”[4]

Did Wesley have more direct personal knowledge of Arminius’ writings? Wynkoop avows that he did, reporting that he “encountered Arminius’ writings and was deeply impressed by them.”[5] Gunter not only supports this, but goes into specifics regarding what Wesley would have read:

A copy of Thomas Bennet’s, Directions for Studying, was in Wesley’s personal library, which Wesley makes a note of reading in January, 1731. Herein may be found important excerpts from Arminius’ Declaration of Sentiments (delivered in The Hague to the States of Holland in 1608), as well as main points from Arminius’ earlier public disputation “On Predestination,” given at Leiden in February, 1604. The excerpt from Arminius’ Sentiments reproduced by Bennet is not lengthy, but it does reflect the heart of Arminius’ differences with the strict Calvinists.[6]

These excerpts, however incomplete, represent a vital direct transmission to Wesley of Arminius’ theology regarding total depravity. Arminius was quite particular on the subject of the imago Dei, the image of God within man, and how it defined man:

The image and likeness of God, after which man was created, belongs partly to the very nature of man, so that without it man cannot be man; but it partly consists in those things which concern supernatural, heavenly and spiritual things. The former class comprises the understanding, the affections, and the will, which is free; but the latter, the knowledge of God and of things divine, righteousness, true holiness, &c.[7]

Arminius stood against the idea that humankind was helpless to make any choice regarding salvation, or helpless to choose only evil. Adam’s free will before the Fall was a result of him being created in the image of God, and so Arminius insisted was “inclined to good.”[8] For this will to truly be free, it had to be free to choose a lesser good than God had intended, even though choosing it meant conviction of rebellion against God – i.e. sin. Thus, Arminius argues that the free will God granted men and women gives freedom and ability to pursue either good or evil.[9] Arminius did acknowledge that due to original sin’s effects, humanity experienced the loss of  “that primitive righteousness and holiness, which, because they are the effects of the Holy Spirit dwelling in man, ought not to have remained in him after he had fallen from the favor of God . . . .”[10]

The restoration of such holiness and righteousness — and the repair of broken relationship with God — Arminius believed could come only through the action of God’s grace allowing men and woman to become aware of their own corruption and sin.

[There is] a gracious act of God in Christ by which, through [God’s] word and Spirit, He calls forth sinful men, who are liable to condemnation and placed under the dominion of sin, from the condition of the animal life, and from the pollutions and corruptions of this world . . . unto ‘the fellowship of Jesus Christ,’ and of his kingdom and its benefits; that, being united unto Him as their Head, they may derive from him life, sensation, motion, and plentitude of every spiritual blessing, to the glory of God and their own salvation.[11]

This is what Wesley would later call prevenient grace, and Gunter states that Arminius argues that this act of grace on God’s part can be resisted by those who will to do so: “those who resist the operation of the Spirit do so at their own peril and as a result of “malice and hardness of heart,” which is itself formally speaking the “cause” of their rejection of the divine call to salvation.”[12] Here Wesley differs slightly from Arminius, although the end results are the same. Gunter claims that “Wesley would agree that those who persevere in resisting are finally given over to Satan, but he does not make the formal move of declaring that this is because God withdraws the gracious assisting Holy Spirit, but rather because the sinner persists in rejecting the Spirit’s overtures.”[13]

Coming next: Part 3 will conclude this series, beginning by examining whether Wesley’s theology accurately represented Arminan thought, and tracing how an Arminian viewpoint contributed to the construction of a doctrine of Christian perfection.


[1] Gunter, W. Stephen. “John Wesley, A Faithful Representative of Jacob Arminius.” Paper presented at Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies, held at Christ Church, Oxford August 13-22, 2002.  p. 2. http://www.oxford-institute.org/docs/2002papers/2002-2Gunter.pdf [accessed March 30, 2010]

[2] Fell, John. The Life of The most Learned, Reverend and Pious Dr H. Hammond. 2nd edition, 1662.  http://anglicanhistory.org/lact/hammond/fell.html [accessed April 10, 2010]

[3] Grotius, Hugo. The Truth of Christian Religion in Six Books: Corrected, with Illustrations by Mr. Le Clerc. Translated by John Clarke, D.D. Liverpool, England: J. & J. Jackson, Louth. 1829. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/grotius/truth.i.html [accessed April 10, 2010]

[4] Schaff, Phillip. “Five Articles of Remonstrance,” in The Creeds of Christendom, Volume 3, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI: 1996. Pages 545ff.

[5] Wynkoop. p. 68.

[6] Gunter. p. 2.

[7] Arminius, “Certain Articles,” VI.v, in The Writings of James Arminius, Volumes I-III. Translated by James Nichols and W.R. Bagnall.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956. II:486. [Hereafter referred to as Writings.]

[8] Arminius. “Private Disputations,” XXVI.v, in Writings, II:63.

[9] Ibid. “Public Disputations,” XI.vi, in Writings, I:525-26.

[10] Ibid. “Public Disputations,” VII.xv, in Writings, I:485.

[11] Ibid. “Public Disputations,” XVI.ii, in Writings, I:570.

[12] Gunter. p. 7.

[13] Gunter. p. 8.

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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