Understanding the Christian message begins with a robust doctrine of human sinfulness. But just how pessimistic should we be about our neighbors in the world? Do Wesleyans believe in total depravity? There are major theological and practical implications for how we answer this question.
Last time, we talked about original sin, the teaching of Jesus and the Bible that people’s hearts are sinful by nature. We’re born desperately self-centered and with potential for unimaginable evil. Original sin does not refer only to the “first” or “original” sin of Adam, but to the sinful nature that can be traced back to his sin. Since we’ve all inherited this sinful nature from Adam, we also call it inherited depravity. But sometimes we hear a different adjective use to describe human depravity—total depravity.
The T in TULIP
You’ve likely heard of the 5 Points of Calvinism, abbreviated TULIP. The “U,” for example, stands for unconditional election or predestination. Wesley said that he abhorred this doctrine, and Wesleyan-Arminians are quick to reject most of the other points as well. The “L” of limited atonement, that Christ did not die for everyone, but only for the chosen, is the main reason that I am not a Calvinist. But we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because these five points are called the five points of Calvinism, we should not assume complete disagreement. Christians of all tribes have a tendency to claim ownership of doctrines that are not uniquely theirs. We have to look at each point in light of Scripture.
You don’t have to read Wesley for very long to find that although he rejected the —ULIP in TULIP, he did, in fact, agree with the “T” of total depravity. Wesley said that man is “by nature filled with all manner of evil…void of all good…wholly fallen…totally corrupted.” He said that “sin…overspreads [the] whole soul, and totally corrupts every power and faculty thereof.” That “By nature you are wholly corrupted.” He writes of “”that entire depravity and corruption which by nature spreads itself over the whole man leaving no part uninfected.” He even observes that the main difference between Christianity and Heathenism is that heathen systems do not know of “the fall of man” and therefore deny “his total corruption” That they do not realize “that all men [are] empty of all good, and filled with all manner of evil.” That heathens 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.”
What We Do and Do Not Mean
Before we go any further, we need to understand what we do and do not mean by total depravity. And I’m going to primarily quote from popular Reformed theologians, to show that there’s nothing really objectionable to Wesleyans:
R. C. Sproul, a great Calvinist, explained,
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)
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.
At this point, we don’t disagree (to use Wesley’s words) a hair’s breadth. 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: body, mind, and spirit. In fact, we can see how this fits nicely with the Wesleyan emphasis on entire sanctification as something basic to God’s redemptive plan. God is interested in making us holy through and through—addressing sin at every level. God wants to sanctify our “whole spirit and soul and body” because our whole spirit and soul and body have been corrupted by sin. The image of God is distorted in every way that it manifests itself in our lives, so sanctification must also be total in its scope.
Bondage of the Will
When we read the Westminster Confession of Faith on this issue, the major implication for salvation comes to the surface.
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.
Now, here is something very important. Our will is included in the totality of our corruption. We are by nature in bondage to sin. Romans 8:7-8 says that “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.” Apart from God’s grace, the sinner cannot submit to God’s law. In 1 Corinthians 2:14, Paul says that “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
The Danger of Semi-Pelagianism
We have to do something with this. If man in his sinful condition cannot and will not accept Christ, we must answer the question, “how then is anyone saved”? This is where Wesleyans and Calvinists go separate directions. And we need to be very careful that we understand this, because the third option is heresy.
The third option is to undermine or deny the corruption of man’s nature—to make allowance for man seeking God in his own power. This third option is the heresy known as Pelagianism. In the early fifth century, Pelagius taught that sin corrupted Adam only, and that we are born with an equal capacity for good or evil. He wrote, “I am accustomed first to display the power and quality of human nature and show what it is able to accomplish, and then from this to incite the mind of the hearer to (some) forms of virtue.”
Wesleyans strongly emphasize the carnal nature that we are born with and, along with all other true Christians, wholeheartedly reject the heresy of Pelagianism. But as Wesleyan-Arminians we need to be aware that Arminians have held the reputation of being semi-Pelagian at times in their history. Scholar (and Wesleyan) Fred Sanders notes that Arminianism was on the road to liberalism “until John Wesley…launched a conservative, Biblical, Anglican form of Arminian theology that really understood the gospel”—that “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.”
The Trouble with Irresistible Grace
True Christians agree that men are dead in their sins apart from God’s grace. That no one apart from grace has either the desire or the power to receive Christ. That salvation is something that God alone can do. So that brings us back to the big question: how then is anyone saved?
The Calvinist answer is the “I” in TULIP, irresistible grace.
The Wesleyan answer is prevenient grace.
Calvinists say that men must be regenerated before they can have faith in Christ, so the irresistible grace of God regenerates certain people without their cooperation. They read the story of Paul on Damascus road as the story of a totally depraved person being seized upon by the power of the Almighty without any possibility of resisting, and being radically transformed by God’s power without his consent so that he is able to have faith in Christ. Regeneration (the new birth by the Holy Spirit) actually comes before faith in this view, because only a born again person can have faith at all.
Now, at first, there is something attractive about reading Scripture this way. But then we see that it has some very serious and troubling implications. If you aren’t one of the few who receives this irresistible grace, then you literally cannot be saved. It makes sense to say, then, that you are unconditionally predestined to hell. And if it is not possible for you to be saved, it makes sense that God would not send his son to die for you (i.e. limited atonement). So you have to embrace the whole system of Calvinism, and I believe that the Bible leads us to believe that all men can be saved because Jesus died for all and makes it possible for all to know him.
But there are other issues with irresistible grace. In The Screwtape Letters, C S Lewis writes, “the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of [God’s] scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves.”
In other words, irresistible grace is something like (to use the crass words of some) the divine rape of the soul. God’s desire for us from the beginning has been to be in a love relationship with him. And we know that choice is basic to love. Forcing someone into marriage destroys the very thing which marriage is supposed to accomplish. The glory of love is that one lover woos and the other freely responds to that wooing.
Prevenient Grace as Drawing Power
This is what John Wesley described as “the strong and sweet, yet resistible motions of God’s grace.” This is prevenient grace, the grace which “prevenes” or “goes before” salvation. Grace is not just “unmerited favor” (that’s a very incomplete definition)…it is also power. The drawing grace of God is a powerful drawing. It has an effect on man’s soul, making it possible for him to cooperate and receive Christ.
“No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44). Clarke explains, “Unless God thus draw, no man will ever come to Christ; because none could [because they are totally depraved], without this drawing, ever feel the need of a Savior.” Wesley notes, “No man can believe in Christ [because they are totally depraved], unless God give him power: he draws us first, by good desires. Not by compulsion, not by laying the will under any necessity; but by the strong and sweet, yet still resistible, motions of his heavenly grace.”
The Bible speaks of people resisting the Holy Spirit. Stephen told the Jews, “you always resist the Holy Spirit!” And so we insist that grace is not irresistible but that God goes before us to enable us to respond to the gospel and cooperate with his Spirit. In this way, we can still say that God chooses us in salvation, but that we have the choice to say “no.”
A. W. Tozer writes that “God has always indeed lent to every man the power to lock his heart and stalk away darkly into his self-chosen night, as he has lent to every man the ability to respond to His overtures of grace, but while the ‘no’ choice may be ours, the ‘yes’ choice is always God’s. He is the Author of our faith as He must be its Finisher. Only by grace can we continue to believe; we can persist in willing God’s will only as we are seized upon by a benign power that will overcome our natural bent to unbelief.”
And this is really key: “Salvation is from our side a choice, from the divine side it is a seizing upon, an apprehending, a conquest of the Most High God. Our ‘accepting’ and ‘willing’ are reactions rather than actions. The right of determination must always remain with God” (emphasis original). This is why it’s important to affirm total depravity. When we say that we believe in free will, we do not mean that we can wake up and will our way to God. We mean that God comes to where we are, and we can cooperate because the Spirit has made it possible.
Glorifying God’s Grace, Not Man’s Choice
We are far too unlovely and clumsy (and just plain wicked) to conceive of initiating a romance with the Beloved. We need Him to condescend in overtures of grace. The testimony of Christ’s bride is, “We love him, because he first loved us.” The lover comes to woo us with the gracious power of his gospel, and unless we throw up our first, he sweeps us off our feet—we’re swept up in the gospel of the blessed God—for “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Prince Charming comes, and we would be completely stupid to resist (the Spirit makes this plain to us) but we can. We can be proud, and God will withdraw the grace he has given. Or we can be humble, and fall at the feet of Jesus, and God will give us more grace—saving grace.
When God knocks on the door of our heart, we must welcome Him in. We have the power to turn the lock, draw the blinds, and remain alone. But what we need to understand when we walk away is that we do not have the power (in our unbelieving condition) to rise up, go out, and knock on the door of heaven. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one because the one who would never move back in the direction of the flock if he was left to his own devices. And yet, when the shepherd comes, the stupid sheep must agree to go with him and rejoin the flock. In both examples, God initiates salvation by coming to us, and provides both the desire and power to cooperate through his grace.
Wesleyans are extremely pessimistic about human nature, and extremely optimistic about God’s grace. And we must never confuse the two. We must repudiate any semi-Pelagian leanings. Optimism about grace is not optimism about man. Without God’s grace, we are unable to choose what is right. Any desire or ability to do what is right has come 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.