Do Wesleyan Arminians Believe in Total Depravity?

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Arminians ought to invent a good acronym. TULIP has served as an effective package for the tightly-woven logic of 5-point Calvinism.1 Most problematic for Arminians has been how the capital “T” implies that Total Depravity belongs to Calvinists.

Some Calvinists like John Piper acknowledge that “the difference between me (and I think I speak for virtually all Calvinists on this point) and Arminians is not that one believes in total depravity and the other doesn’t.” But Piper does not speak for all Calvinists. After calling Wesley a “messed-up Calvinist,” prominent Bible teacher John MacArthur recklessly claims that Arminians deny total depravity and that “the sinner, unaided by the Holy Spirit, must make the first move—that’s essentially Arminian theology.” Since Arminianism is underrepresented in the marketplace of ideas, many have accepted this uncharitable rhetoric.

In fact, the classic Wesleyan-Arminian emphasis is not on man’s free will but on God’s free grace which is necessary for totally depraved sinners to respond to the God who always makes the first move. Man’s helplessness and God’s initiative are nonnegotiable. Any doctrine that denies man’s total depravity is not Arminian (and certainly not Wesleyan Arminian).

Man’s Sinful Condition

Man’s sinful condition is characterized by a variety of theological terms. “Depravity emphasizes the corrupt nature of man’s heart: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Man’s deepest self is morally polluted (Mt. 15:19). Depravity results from the deprivation of the Spirit: when Adam rebelled against God, the Holy Spirit departed from him; Adam collapsed inward, becoming desperately self-centered. This is what Luther described as being incurvatus in se, curved in on oneself.

Human depravity is inherited in that all are sinful from birth: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5); “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21; cf. Ps. 58:3). Inherited depravity is also called original sin because it can be traced back to Adam’s sin.

John Wesley was a herald of this thoroughly Biblical doctrine. In his sermon “On Original Sin,” he argues that men are the same today as they were before the flood, when “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Wesley affirms that man’s depravity is total:

Is man by nature filled with all manner of evil? Is he void of all good? Is he wholly fallen? Is his soul totally corrupted? Or, to come back to the text, is ‘every imagination of the thoughts of his heart only evil continually?’ Admit this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but a Heathen still. (emphasis mine)

The Nature of Total Depravity

Most Reformed formulations of total depravity do not differ a hair’s breadth from the Wesleyan view. Calvinist theologian R. C. Sproul writes:

In the Reformed tradition, total depravity does not mean utter depravity. We often use the term total as a synonym for utter or for completely, so the notion of total depravity conjures up the idea that every human being is as bad as that person could possibly be. You might think of an archfiend of history such as Adolf Hitler and say there was absolutely no redeeming virtue in the man, but I suspect that he had some affection for his mother. As wicked as Hitler was, we can still conceive of ways in which he could have been even more wicked than he actually was. So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person. (emphasis original)

The Moody Handbook of Theology (which is endorsed by MacArthur and also misrepresents Arminians as denying total depravity) cites Charles Ryrie to articulate the doctrine:

Total depravity does not mean that everyone is as thoroughly depraved in his actions as he could possibly be, nor that everyone will indulge in every form of sin, nor that a person cannot appreciate and even do acts of goodness; but it does mean that the corruption of sin extends to all men and to all parts of all men so that there is nothing within the natural man that can give him merit in God’s sight.

There is nothing here that Wesleyan Arminians refute. Total depravity does not mean that we are as bad as we could be, or do all the bad things that we could do. It means that sin defiles the total person: heart, mind, body, and soul.

Wesleyans are utterly pessimistic about human nature and outrageously optimistic about God’s grace. We must never confuse the two.

Wesley held this biblical view of man under sin and freely speaks of “that entire depravity and corruption which by nature spreads itself over the whole man leaving no part uninfected.” The main difference between Christians and heathens, says Wesley, is that the latter do not know about the fall and therefore deny man’s total corruption. They do not realize “that all men [are] empty of all good, and filled with all manner of evil.” Heathen religious are “wholly ignorant of the entire depravation of the whole human nature, of every man born into the world, in every faculty of his soul.”

It is easy to see how this fits with the Wesleyan emphasis on entire sanctification as something essential to God’s redemptive plan. God wants to sanctify our “whole spirit and soul and body” (1 Thess. 5:23) because our whole spirit and soul and body have been corrupted by sin.

Bondage of the Will

What Arminius and Wesley repeatedly affirm is both total depravity and its concomitant, the bondage of the will or total inability. In other words, our will is included in the totality of our corruption so that we are completely unable (apart from grace) to freely will or do anything that is truly good (Rom. 3:10-18). Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44); “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8).  Unbelievers are “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), utterly helpless apart from grace. Since they lack true faith, which is the gift of God, they are unable not to sin (Rom. 14:23).

We are completely unable (apart from grace) to freely will or do anything that is truly good.

In Declaration of Sentiments, Arminius writes: “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.”2 He goes on: “Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true or spiritual good,” since “a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins.”3

Wesley includes total inability in his understanding of total depravity when he says that sin “totally corrupts every power and faculty thereof” and speaks of “the entire depravation of the whole human nature, of every man born into the world, in every faculty of his soul.” Wesleyan-Arminian teaching is thus in line with the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and other Reformed confessions on this crucial point.4

As Strong as Calvin or Luther

In Arminian Theology, Roger Olson corrects the myth that Arminianism is a human-centered theology and affirms that Arminius “believed in total depravity, including a bondage of the will to sin.” Olson quotes Arminius scholar William Witt: “whatever may be true of successors to Arminius’s theology, he himself held to a doctrine of the bondage of the will which is every bit as trenchant as anything in Luther or Calvin” (emphasis mine). Wesleyans share the same negative understanding of man’s fallen condition as their Calvinist friends.

The classic Wesleyan-Arminian emphasis is not on man’s free will but on God’s free grace which is necessary for totally depraved sinners to respond to the God who always makes the first move.

Unfortunately, Arminians have often been accused of being semi-Pelagian5 Olson explains that this is due in part to “Arminian” Philip Lomborch, who “defected from Arminius’s theology” in his view of human sinfulness and “was repudiated (at this point) by all later classical Arminians.” Wesley helped to correct some of these departures from classic Arminianism. Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders explains that Arminianism was “on the road to liberalism” until Wesley “launched a conservative, Biblical, Anglican form of Arminian theology that really understood the gospel.” He adds, “John Wesley is clear on original sin (his longest theological treatise is on original sin) all the way down to the bondage of the will.”

Calvinists do not have a monopoly on the doctrine of depravity. Wesleyans and Calvinists primarily disagree on the nature of the grace that brings men to salvation. To answer the question, “How do totally depraved sinners come to Christ?” Calvinists posit irresistible grace; Wesleyans posit (universal, enabling, resistable) prevenient grace.6 I’m convinced that the latter is more faithful to Scripture (Titus 2:11; Acts 7:51) and consistent with God’s character (2 Pet. 3:9).

Wesleyans are utterly pessimistic about human nature and outrageously optimistic about God’s grace. We must never confuse the two. Optimism about grace is not optimism about man. Without God’s grace, we are helpless to make any move towards God. Any desire or ability to do what is right comes from God as a free gift. From beginning to end, the Wesleyan watchword is grace, grace, grace. Nothing is man-centered. God gets all the glory for our salvation.

 


 

  1. T = Total depravity, which is explained in this article. U = Unconditional election, that God predestined some to be saved (elect) and others to be damned (reprobate), or at least passed over the latter, leaving them in sin and without hope. L = Limited atonement, that Christ died only for the elect. I = Irresistible grace, that God effectually calls the elect with grace that they will not resist. P = Perseverance of the saints, that the truly elect will persevere in holiness once regenerated and thus will not ultimately fall from grace.
  2. He continues: “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, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.”
  3. We can’t do what is “really good” because all of the sinner’s grace-enabled “good” is still as filthy rags to God (Isa. 64:6) and remains tainted by his wickedness, so that even the sacrifice offered by the wicked is an abomination to God (Prov. 15:8).
  4. The WCF states, “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”
  5. Pelagianism is a heresy that, among other things, denies original sin and affirms that man has the ability to come to God apart from God’s grace.
  6. See Fry, “God’s Gracious Provision: A Theological and Exegetical Defense of the Wesleyan Doctrine of Prevenient Grace.”
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.