Did John Wesley Affirm Total Depravity?

In short, yes.

For those of you who are interested in more detail, a few days ago I tweeted the following:

The ways of Twitter are mysterious to me. Sometimes tweets that I think will get a good response just lie there and flop around for a few moments before going the way of all flesh. Sometimes tweets that I think will get two or three likes from only the most committed Methonerds take off. This tweet falls into the latter category.

Methodist types tend to get really uptight about differentiating themselves from Calvinists, though Wesley himself recognized that he was only a “hair’s breadth” from Calvin in matters of salvation. We do have some real differences, and these are important, but it helps us to know the actual fault lines.


Does this look like someone who rejected the doctrine of total depravity?

One area in which Wesley certainly agreed with Calvin was in the understanding of human nature as entirely corrupted by sin. In fact, he used the language of “total corruption” and “entire deprivation” in his sermon entitled “Original Sin.” He insists that all people are “empty of all good,” and “filled with all manner of evil” (III.1).

Because of original sin, Wesley believed, the image of God has become tarnished, and instead we bear the image of Satan. “We bear the image of the devil, and tread in his steps” (II.9). In his sermon, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Tenth,” he again leaves no room for uncertainty: “Know thyself. See and feel thyself a sinner. Feel that thy inward parts are very wickedness, that thou are altogether corrupt and abominable…. Know and feel that thou are 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!” (7).

Okay, then.

(“Tell us how you really feel, Mr. Wesley.”)

To be clear, Wesley didn’t simply mean every action of a non-Christian’s life would be utterly degenerate. He was well aware that non-Christians did good things. What he meant was that our nature has been corrupted by sin. “In his natural state every man born into the world is a rank idolater” (II.7). This is very similar to Calvin’s claim that the human heart is a factory for the making of idols. Put differently, apart from the saving work of Christ, we will desire the wrong things and see the world in the wrong way (i.e., sin has epistemic consequences).

Apart from God, we are powerless to overcome the corruption of our nature. Yet God has given preventing (sometimes called “prevenient”) grace to all humankind, and therefore we might see people who do not know Christ doing things like feeding the poor or caring for the sick. While we cannot know God in our natural, unregenerate state, we can have some sense of right and wrong and the reality of God through God’s universal preventing grace.

To be more precise, Wesley describes preventing grace as:

all the ‘drawings’ of ‘the Father’, the desires after God, which, if we yield to them, increase more and more; all that ‘light’ wherewith the Son of God ‘enlighteneth everyone that cometh into the world’, showing every man ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God; all the convictions which his Spirit from time to time works in every child of man. Although it is true, the generality of men stifle them as soon as possible, and after a while forget, or at least deny, that they ever had them at all (“The Scripture Way of Salvation,” I.2).

Apart from preventing grace, Wesley insisted, we are unable “to think one good thought, or to form one good desire; and much more to speak one word aright, or perform one good action” (“The Scripture Way of Salvation,” III.8).

Preventing grace can’t save you—not even close. It simply restores your will sufficiently so that you may choose to accept or reject God. It is the Arminian answer to the Calvinistic combination of unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.

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

Sixteenth-century hipster John Calvin

Calvinists sometimes accuse those of us in the Arminian/Wesleyan tradition of being weak on sin and divine sovereignty and espousing works righteousness (since we believe one must make a decision whether or not to follow Jesus). Given the ways in which we have often articulated sin, sovereignty, and salvation, there is some truth to this critique. Applied to the theology of Wesley himself, however, I find such criticism utterly unconvincing. The historical foundation of the Arminian/Wesleyan tradition involves a heavy-duty conception of sin and a majestic articulation of God’s saving work through Jesus Christ.

I’m glad that there is this Arminian alternative to the Calvinistic understanding of election. Like Wesley, I can’t reconcile individual double predestination with the character of God revealed to us in the Old and New Testaments.

There is power in our tradition. To unlock that power, however, it’s imperative that we learn what our tradition actually contains. Or perhaps we need to relearn it and leave behind distortions of Wesley’s thinking that underemphasize his view of the sinfulness of unregenerate humanity, a view that makes ever more visible the loving and saving work of God through Jesus Christ.

8 thoughts on “Did John Wesley Affirm Total Depravity?

  1. A splendid word for our Methodist hour when we are about to set fire to all the straw in the house of self-righteous presumptions.

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