On John Wesley and Total Depravity

On John Wesley and Total Depravity

I’ve drawn some questions and produced some amusement (from Calivinist friends) by using the term “total depravity.” Listeners were surprised to hear a Wesleyan use that particular term. “Sinners,” “sinful,” and similar terms, OK, but total depravity? I have previously heard people remark that total depravity isn’t Wesleyan, so as United Methodists we don’t believe that. (Oh, the many things we modern Methodists don’t believe that Wesley did!)

The question first came up as I used the term right after reading Romans 3:9-18, which is a somewhat depressing passage, largely made up of snippets from the Old Testament. Paul is completing his dissertation on all being sinful, Jew and Gentile alike, and in need of God’s grace. That need is total, In verse 20, he will ask: “What room then is left for human pride?” and answer, “It is excluded.”

The doctrine of total depravity does not maintain that we have all committed some list of specific sins. Rather, it claims that we are all, without God, completely and utterly lost. I find this easy to believe, because as a theist I believe that without God, I am not. Period. The specifically Wesleyan difference on this, however, is that everyone has access to God’s grace. That’s the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace. It provides the universal answer (potential) to a universal problem. The differences thus arise in the doctrine of election.

I think it’s important to note also that this same passage suggests that those who don’t know the message that Israel and then the church has carried may, in fact, be doing God’s will. One might perhaps do better to let God do the judging of persons, and realize that where good is done, God is present, even if not in ways we understand.

Here’s John Wesley on this topic, from Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions, Sermon #74, “Of the Church.”

“21. We are called to walk, First, “with all lowliness:” to have that mind in us which was also in Christ Jesus; not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think; to be little, and poor, and mean, and vile in our own eyes; to know ourselves as also we are known by Him to whom all hearts are open; to be deeply sensible of our own unworthiness, of the universal depravity of our nature, (in which dwelleth no good thing,) — prone to all evil, averse to all good; insomuch that we are not only sick, but dead in trespasses and sins, till God breathes upon the dry bones, and creates life by the fruit of his lips. And suppose this is done, — suppose he has now quickened us, infusing life into our dead souls; yet how much of the carnal mind remains! How prone is our heart still to depart from the living God! What a tendency to sin remains in our heart, although we know our past sins are forgiven!

“And how much sin, in spite of all our endeavours, cleaves both to our words and actions! Who can be duly sensible how much remains in him of his natural enmity to God, or how far he is still alienated from God by the ignorance that is in him?

“22. Yea, suppose God has now thoroughly cleansed our heart, and scattered the last remains of sin; yet how can we be sensible enough of our own helplessness, our utter inability to all good, unless we are every hour, yea, every moment, endued with power from on high? Who is able to think one good thought, or to form one good desire, unless by that Almighty power which worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure? We have need even in this state of grace, to be thoroughly and continually penetrated with a sense of this. Otherwise we shall be in perpetual danger of robbing God of his honour, by glorying in something we have received, as though we had not received it.”

Wesley is often calumniated by descendants (spiritually) who do not actually know what he taught.

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