Wednesday with Wesley: On Original Sin and Total Depravity


This post has been updated since it was originally posted on November 18 ,2009

John Wesley (1703-1791) was an Arminian theologian and Anglican preacher credited with founding the Methodist movement.

In Wesley’s days (as in ours) the term Arminian was considered an “ambiguous term” and “something very bad”. In Wesley’s treatise What is an Arminian, he lists 5 errors that the Arminians are accused of holding. These are:

  1. the denial of original sin.
  2. the denial of justification by faith alone.
  3. the denial of absolute predestination (unconditional election).
  4. the denial of irresistible grace.
  5. the affirmation of the possibility that a believer may fall from grace.

Wesley writes making it clear that the first two charges are invalid while agreeing with the other three.

With regard to the two first of these charges, they plead, Not Guilty. They are entirely false. No man that ever lived, not John Calvin himself, ever asserted either original sin, or justification by faith, in more strong, more clear and express terms, than Arminius has done. These two points, therefore, are to be set out of the question: In these both parties agree. In this respect, there is not a hair’s breadth difference between Mr. Wesley and Mr. Whitefield.

Mr. Whitefield, is George Whitefield (1714-1770) a Calvinist theologian, Anglican preacher, and a dear friend to Wesley. He defined original sin in his Sermon 58, The Method of Grace as the corruption of man and the guilt of Adam’s sin that we are born with and which makes us ‘liable to God’s wrath’.

Despite their friendship they disagreed on many areas of theology. Whitefield in a letter to Wesley wrote the following asserting that if Wesley held to “original sin” then he should agree with him regarding election:

Do not they who believe God’s dooming men to everlasting burnings, also believe, that God looked upon them as men fallen in Adam? And that the decree which ordained the punishment first regarded the crime by which it was deserved? How then are they doomed without any preceding fault?

Surely Mr. Wesley will own God’s justice in imputing Adam’s sin to his posterity. And also, after Adam fell, and his posterity in him, God might justly have passed them all by, without sending his own Son to be a saviour for any one.

Unless you heartily agree to both these points, you do not believe original sin aright. If you do own them, then you must acknowledge the doctrine of election and reprobation to be highly just and reasonable. For if God might justly impute Adam’s sin to all, and afterwards have passed by all, then he might justly pass by some.

In Sermon 44, entitled Original Sin, Wesley explains what is called “total depravity” and his acceptance of it. In the sermon he starts off refuting the idea that man is basically good saying…

But, in the mean time, what must we do with our Bibles? — for they will never agree with this. These accounts, however pleasing to flesh and blood, are utterly irreconcilable with the scriptural.

Wesley, then compares the heart of man prior to the flood – using Gen 6:5 as the basis – with that of man after the flood coming to the conclusion that they are no different. Here is how Wesley describes the heart of man:

“God saw all the imaginations of the thoughts of his heart;” — of his soul, his inward man, the spirit within him, the principle of all his inward and outward motions. He “saw all the imaginations:” It is not possible to find a word of a more extensive signification. It includes whatever is formed, made, fabricated within; all that is or passes in the soul; every inclination, affection, passion, appetite; every temper, design, thought. It must of consequence include every word and action, as naturally flowing from these fountains, and being either good or evil according to the fountain from which they severally flow.

Later he defines “original sin” as follows:

[Christianity] declares that all men are conceived in sin,” and “shapen in wickedness;” — that hence there is in every man a “carnal mind, which is enmity against God, which is not, cannot be, subject to” his “law;” and which so infects the whole soul, that “there dwelleth in” him, “in his flesh,” in his natural state, “no good thing;” but “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is evil,” only evil, and that “continually.”

He will explain that “by nature” we do not 1) know God, 2) love God, or 3) fear God and concludes that all men are “Atheists in the world”. Unassisted by the grace of God, man cannot be anything else.

But as soon as God opens the eyes of their understanding, they see the state they were in before; they are then deeply convinced, that “every man living,” themselves especially, are, by nature, “altogether vanity;” that is, folly and ignorance, sin and wickedness.

Only God can help the natural man understand spiritual things including the very fact that he is a sinner.

Keep to the plain, old faith, “once delivered to the saints,” and delivered by the Spirit of God to our hearts. Know your disease! Know your cure! Ye were born in sin: Therefore, “ye must be born again,” born of God. By nature ye are wholly corrupted. By grace ye shall be wholly renewed. In Adam ye all died: In the second Adam, in Christ, ye all are made alive.

In this sermon Wesley makes it clear that Arminian theology affirms the doctrine of “original sin” (or “total depravity”) and is not Semi-Pelagian. The primary disagreement between the Calvinist and the Arminan is in the area of predestination and election.

Wesley lays out our need for Jesus as total – we are totally unable to come to Him, until God open our eyes and helps us understand that we are sinners and that we need Him to cure our otherwise incurable disease!

Quotes (unless otherwise noted) taken from “Sermons on Several Occasions John Wesley” available online @ Christian Classics Ethereal Library

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