Sin, Depravity, Calvin and Wesley: Trying to Make Sense of This Stuff

Have you ever noticed that Paul rarely talks about Satan? Jesus, particularly in the Synoptic Gospels, engages Satan directly or indirectly quite often. Paul does not. The role that many Christians assign to Satan, Paul seems to assign to Sin. To be clear, he isn’t so interested in particular sins (though he does address these at times), but especially in Romans he is interested in Sin, with a capital “S.” Sin, for Paul, is not just something we do wrong. It is a cosmic force exercising control over our lives. Everyone stands under the power of Sin. We are unavoidably affected by it.

His clearest statements about Sin are in Romans 1-7. There are a few concepts to keep in mind.

First, everyone commits sin: “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

Second, the origin of Sin is in what later came to be called the “Fall”: “[S]in came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Rom 5:12).

Third, because of Sin, even if we know what is right, we still can’t do it: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Fourth, the only way to come out from under the power of Sin is through Jesus. On the cross, Christ atoned for sin and committed the perfect act of righteousness. We can participate in that act of righteousness through baptism: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life” (Rom 6:4).

I started writing this post because I was looking for material on sin for an online class I’m teaching on Paul, and I couldn’t find anything that fit what I was looking for. There is a great deal of material out there on particular sins, but there is less material that is both helpful and accessible on the power of Sin itself.

Calvinists, of course, are better at talking about Sin than we Wesleyans are. They’re pretty clear that human beings are totally depraved. We are so sinful that we can’t even recognize the fact that we’re sinful. Only by an act of irresistible grace can we awaken to our own sinfulness and need for repentance. Clearly not everyone does repent, which leads to the conclusion that God has chosen some people for salvation and others for damnation. Thus we arrive at a doctrine of individual double predestination. (If any real Calvinists happen to stumble across my blog and I got this wrong, please let me know).

Portrait of John Calvin (1509-64) (oil on canvas)

John Calvin, with apologies to Joel Watts

We Wesleyans, however, should not be so quick to hand over the notion of total depravity to the Calvinists. Mr. Wesley himself may not have been far off from Calvin on this point. In his first discourse on the Sermon on the Mount, Wesley discusses the people who are poor in spirit, people who Jesus says are “blessed” (Matt 5:3). The one who is poor in spirit “has a deep sense of the loathsome leprosy of sin, which he brought with him from his mother’s womb, which overspreads his whole soul, and totally corrupts every power and faculty thereof” (I.4). To those who see themselves as morally superior to other people, Wesley has this advice:

Cast out the beam of impenitence. Know thyself. See and feel thyself a sinner. Feel that thy inward parts are very wickedness, that thou are altogether corrupt and abominable, and that the wrath of God abideth on thee…. Know and feel that thou art a poor, vile, guilty worm, quivering over the great gulf! What art thou? A sinner born to die; a leaf driven before the wind; a vapour ready to vanish away, just appearing, and then scattered into the air, to be no more seen! (“Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Tenth,” 7).

So… Wesley was not exactly on board with the self-esteem movement. More importantly, he was convinced that we humans are utterly unable to save ourselves. The differences from Calvin relate primarily not to the sinful state of humanity, but to how we are saved. Calvin believed in unlimited election. If you were predestined, you would be saved. Wesley believed you had a choice in the matter. Calvin believed in limited atonement–Christ died for the elect. Wesley believed that Christ died for all. Calvin believed in irresistible grace. Wesley believed that everyone received God’s prevenient grace–enough to awaken them to the need for repentance, but that most people stamped it out before it had a chance to grow. Calvin believed in the perseverance of the saints–“once saved always saved.” Wesley believed  you could lose your salvation.


John Wesley, who understood the gospel more clearly than John Calvin

Who got Paul right? Well, I’ll leave that to you. I’m a Wesleyan through and through, so you know where I’ll end up. What is important to note, though, is that both Christian thinkers had a robust notion of Sin, much more so than one often encounters today.

Perhaps the recovery of a strong doctrine of Sin would help us who labor along in the Protestant tradition. Please indulge me while I paint in broad strokes: progressive Christians tend to place heavy emphasis on social sins such as racism, while paying far less attention to personal sins. Evangelicals tend to place heavy emphasis on personal sins, such as sexual sins, with less emphasis upon social sin. I realize that there are exceptions to both of the generalizations I have just made, though I think these generalizations do describe the tendencies among progressives and evangelicals.

But what if our doctrine of Sin was so strong that we realized that Sin affects our minds, our behavior, our interactions with others, and our social systems. What if we took Sin as seriously as Paul did, as seriously as two of his later interpreters, Calvin and Wesley? Perhaps by doing so we would be able to bridge some of the theological gaps that cause us to talk past one another in our so-called “dialogues.”

Sin is real. Sin is powerful. And the cure for sin is the renewing of the mind (Rom 12:2), made possible through the cross of Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Unless we are able to diagnose the illness besetting humankind, we will scuttle our own efforts to find a cure.



17 thoughts on “Sin, Depravity, Calvin and Wesley: Trying to Make Sense of This Stuff

  1. An interesting read on this is ‘chosen by God’ by r.c. Sproul. For me it boils down to God knows himself fully we do not even know ourselves. Share the gospel as if every person on earth has a choice. If it’s predestination then we are simply searching for our siblings through the process. There are verses to support both positions. I wonder if God shakes his head at our trying to dissect things so black and white or if he appreciates the effort. Love reading your posts.

  2. A real Calvinist would have trouble with two things:

    1. In regards to predestination, it seems you’re applying equal ultimacy, which Calvinist reject. The act of saving and the act of judging are not equal.

    2. “Perseverance of the Saints” and “once saved always saved” are not the same thing. While once saved always saved stems from the Reformed doctrine of perseverance, Calvinists reject the comparison of the two.

      • That’s why I said a “Real Calvinist.” I’m a Wesleyan who pretends to be a Calvinist; although, I’ll admit I do appreciate Calvin. The greatest respect you can show someone whom you disagree with is to accurately represent their belief, and that’s what I am to do when I take on my Calvinistic persona.

  3. OK, I can’t resist the temptation to toot my own horn. In Embodying Wesley’s Catholic Spirit (Pickwick, 2017), I have a chapter on Wesley and Calvin on sanctification. A portion of that chapter unpacks their similarities and differences of viewpoint on the nature of sin. I commend it as grist for this mill.

  4. This is a great piece! I think that many Methodists, and even “Arminian” evangelicals do not have a strong enough view of sin. I am an evangelical who landed in the UMC. I can honestly say that I am a “Wesleyan”; at least as it relates to soteriology; at least mostly. I do think that we have to grapple a bit with perseverance and preservation. One must not be a “real Calvinist” to hold a very strong view on preservation and perseverance. I am not convinced that one can “lose” his salvation, yet I am convinced that it is possible to shipwreck your faith and completely “throw away” your faith and ultimately forfeit your salvation. With that said, my own experience causes me to think that it is REALLY DIFFICULT to shipwreck, and forfeit your salvation. I was saved as a young person. I was a fully committed believer. I grew up in classical Pentecostalism; think Church of God/Assemblies of God. I developed a warped sense of grace; saved, lost, saved, lost, saved lost; self-righteousness led me to a place of hopelessness. God pursued me during my years of backsliding. My experience ultimately felt as if I could not resist his wooing love; I found him irresistible. Yet at some point I “chose” to follow him. I am not sure that we will ever have a perfect understanding of grace, calling, election, preservation, perseverance and every aspect of soteriology. I am convinced that sin is a deadly infection, and only the grace of God will awaken us, enable us to respond, and hound us from death to life. More than anything, I am thankful for the saving grace of God; he sought me, found me, kept me (often when I didn’t want to be kept), and his love for me is wonderfully beautiful. With each passing die, I find Jesus to be irresistible, and his grace is always working in me, calling me to keep moving forward… Thanks for the post…. Jdg

  5. Dr. Watson,
    Once again, well done and thank you.
    I’ve been struck by my continuing education at United on the “hair’s breadth” between Calvinism and Wesleyanism, particularly in regard to Sin, especially in Doctrine and Polity I and II. Being in the Recovery community has heightened this for me all the more (Wesley uses the metaphor of disease for Sin). It does lead to some interesting conversations among some of my colleagues who deny Total Depravity (both conservative and more “liberal”).
    One other thought that follows on this is that the Band Meeting (for those seeking to “move on to perfection”) involved the confession of sin.

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