Can sinners make the first move towards God? Can they respond to an altar call by their own natural free will? Can they wake up one day and just decide to seek God or become a Christian? Jacob Arminius and John Wesley answered these questions with a resounding “no!” Yet a common accusation against Arminians, including Wesleyan-Arminians, is that they are Pelagians or semi-Pelagians. The popular perception is that Arminians are optimistic about human ability and thereby undermine the seriousness of Adam’s fall and God’s glory in salvation, much like the fifth-century heretic Pelagius (354–418) and his sympathizers.
It’s true that some contemporary Arminians function as pragmatic semi-Pelagians, and tend to be careless when speaking of the human response to grace. However, Arminians should not be charged with everything that’s carried out in their name, just as Calvinists would not want to be held responsible for every dangerous oversimplification of their teaching that’s floated around by folk theologians. Even a cursory look at the writings of Arminius or Wesley show that they affirmed the key teachings of the Second Council of Orange (529), which condemned Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism without embracing every idea of Augustine, the primary opponent of Pelagius.
The following seven beliefs are not Wesleyan distinctives, but they are affirmed by all classical Wesleyan-Arminians.
1. Every person is born corrupt because of Adam’s sin (inherited depravity or original sin).
The Second Council of Orange (SCO hereafter) teaches that Adam’s sin affected “his descendants also … sin, which is the death of the soul, passed through one man to the whole human race” (Canon 2).
In his sermon “Original Sin,” Wesley cites a litany of verses to prove “that ‘by one man’s disobedience all men were constituted sinners;’ that ‘in Adam all died,’ spiritually died, lost the life and the image of God; that fallen, sinful Adam then ‘begat a son in his own likeness;’ — nor was it possible he should beget him in any other; for ‘who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean.’” In fact, Wesley’s longest treatise is on original sin. The Methodist Twenty-Five Articles of Religion, adapted by Wesley from the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, affirm original sin and explicitly reject Pelagianism:
Original sin stands not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk,) but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.
2. Man’s nature is corrupted in all parts, body and soul (total depravity).
According to the SCO, inherited depravity or original sin is total in its scope: it affects every part of human nature. “It is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was ‘changed for the worse’ through the offense of Adam’s sin” (Canon 1). If anyone “believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius” (Canon 1).
Wesley was a forceful defender of total depravity. He spoke of “that entire depravity and corruption which by nature spreads itself over the whole man leaving no part uninfected,” and even taught that this doctrine separates Christians from heathens, who 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.” See the article “Do Wesleyan Arminians Believe in Total Depravity?” For how this relates to total or entire sanctification, see “Entire Sanctification: the Whole Christ for the Whole Man.”
3. In his corrupt state, man is unable to choose good or initiate faith in God (total inability and bondage of the will).
According to the SCO, the corollary of total depravity is total inability (e.g., Rom. 8:7, Eph. 2:1, Jn. 6:44, 1 Cor. 12:3). Man does not have “the ability to seek the mystery of eternal salvation by themselves without the revelation of God” (Canon 8). “Free will … has manifestly been corrupted in all those who have been born after the transgression of the first man” (Canon 8).
Wesley insisted that his doctrine of sin was not even a “hairs-breadth” different from Calvin, and this is seen in his shared affirmation of total inability: “To love God! it is far above, out of our sight. We cannot, naturally, attain unto it.” In the 1745 Methodist Conference at Bristol, Wesley and the early Methodists asked, “Wherein may we come to the very edge of Calvinism?” and answered, “1. In ascribing all good to the free grace of God; 2. In denying all natural free will, and all power, antecedent to grace; and, 3. In excluding all merit from man, even for what he has or does by the grace of God.” Wesley’s Methodist Articles of Religion affirm, “The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and works, to faith, and calling upon God.”
Sinners cannot make the first move towards God or respond to an altar call by their own natural free will.
Jacob Arminius shared this belief. In his Declaration of Sentiments, Arminius affirmed full-blown inherited total depravity and inability: “In a lapsed [fallen] and sinful state without divine assistance, humanity is not able to think, will or do that which is truly good.”
This is crucial: Wesleyans deny all natural free will. Due to the fall, our wills are bound by sin; without God’s grace, our wills are not free. The common mantra that Calvinists believe in predestination while Arminians/Wesleyans believe in free will is, at best, a dangerous oversimplification. Wesleyans are preoccupied with free grace, not free will.
4. God’s grace must go before us (prevenient grace).
The SCO concludes that because of inherited total depravity and inability, we can do nothing without God’s grace going before us. “The sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God’s sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him” (Conclusion). It is “grace itself which makes us pray to God” (Canon 3), and “even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit” (Canon 4). “No mean wretch is freed from his sorrowful state, however great it may be, save the one who is anticipated by the mercy of God” (Canon 14). “Grace is not preceded by merit. … grace, to which we have no claim, precedes them, to enable them to be done” (Canon 18).
Wesley, of course, is known for his doctrine of prevenient grace, which he carried forward from the Anglican Church in his Methodist Articles of Religion: “we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.”
Wesleyans deny all natural free will.
Arminius could not be clearer: “I ascribe to grace the beginning, the continuance, and the consummation of all good.” Stanglin and McCall were right to subtitle their excellent book on Arminius, “Theologian of Grace.” Arminius’s words are reminiscent of Canon 22 of the Second Council of Orange: “No man has anything of his own but untruth and sin. But if a man has any truth or righteousness, it from that fountain for which we must thirst in this desert, so that we may be refreshed from it as by drops of water and not faint on the way.”
Key Scriptures (especially for Wesleyans, with their doctrine of universal, salvific prevenient grace) include John 6:44, John 12:32, John 1:9, Titus 2:11. See the essay “God’s Gracious Provision: A Theological and Exegetical Defense of the Wesleyan Doctrine of Prevenient Grace” by David Fry, who wrote his PhD dissertation on Wesleyan prevenient grace.
5. God initiates faith (initium fidei).
The SCO emphasizes that prevenient grace means that God always takes the initiative in salvation, including the initiation of faith: “in every good work it is not we who take the initiative and are then assisted through the mercy of God, but God himself first inspires in us both faith in him and love for him without any previous good works of our own that deserve reward, so that we may both faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism” (Conclusion). “Not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith … [is] a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness” (Canon 5). A person’s natural will is unable to begin or initiate faith. A person cannot wake up and just decide to believe in Jesus. He or she is incapable of such faith apart from God’s gracious intervention.
A person’s natural will is unable to begin or initiate faith.
“Anyone [who] says that this belongs to us by nature … is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles” (Canon 5), since “it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought … it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble” (Canon 6). We cannot “form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life,” or “assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth” (Canon 7). If someone denies this, “he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God” (Canon 7).
The conclusion of the canons makes this personal by referring to the glorious faith of Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the saints of old, as well as to the thief on the cross, Cornelius the centurion, and Zacchaeus. “The glorious faith which was given to [them] … was not given through natural goodness as it was before to Adam, but was bestowed by the grace of God” (Conclusion); “the praiseworthy faith … was not a natural endowment but a gift of God’s kindness” (Conclusion).
Chris Bounds explains that Wesley is “the epitome of the Semi-Augustinian view,” particularly in his belief that faith is the gift of God:
A cursory look at John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience provides an excellent case study. John Wesley described his Aldersgate experience as having his heart “strangely warmed.” As a result he testified, “I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins. He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Wesley’s “faith” here was not so much an action he took, rather it was something happening inside of him, a divine work creating an internal conviction that Christ loved him and had forgiven him. His heart was being acted upon by a power other than himself, creating personal faith in Christ. Wesley’s Aldersgate experience was a gift of grace.
Key Scriptures include Philippians 1:6, Philippians 2:3, Ephesians 2:8 (where “the gift” includes “faith” itself), 1 Corinthians 4:7, 1 Corinthians 15:10, John 15:5, and 2 Corinthians 3:5. See the article “A Wesleyan Understanding of Faith and Repentance.”
6. Grace is always necessary, even after regeneration.
The SCO affirms that grace does not just initiate salvation, but also enables the believer to live the Christian life: “As often as we do good, God is at work in us and with us, in order that we may do so” (Canon 9). “The succor of God is to be ever sought by the regenerate and converted also” (Canon 10). “Even after the coming of our Lord this grace is not to be found in the free will of all who desire to be baptized, but is bestowed by the kindness of Christ” (Conclusion).
Arminius is crystal clear on this point:
I would go so far as to assert that the creature, although regenerated, can neither conceive, will, nor do any good at all, nor resist any evil temptation, apart from this preventing and awakening, this continuing and cooperating grace. Surely, despite my often being accused of such, it is clear that I do no injustice to grace by attributing too much to human freedom.
Arminus’s next statement is critical: “This entire controversy can be reduced to answering this question, ‘Is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?’” It is the certain irresistiblity, not the absolute necessity of grace, that Arminius and Wesley denied (along with most of the church throughout history, especially before Augustine).
“There are innumerable passages of holy scripture which can be quoted to prove the case for grace” (Conclusion). Key scriptures include Philippians 1:29, Philippians 1:6, 1 Corinthians 7:25 (cf. 1 Tim. 1:13, James 1:17, and John 3:27.
7. Human responsibility is not negated by attributing every good thing to grace.
The SCO concludes that “the freedom of will that was destroyed in the first man can be restored only by the grace of baptism, for what is lost can be returned only by the one who was able to give it” (Canon 13). “After grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul” (Conclusion).
Wesleyans likewise emphasize the importance of human responsibility, even while stressing man’s natural inability. Wesleyans are outrageously optimistic about grace, but this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) overshadow our utter pessimism about man in his natural fallen state.
The Wesleyan doctrines of sin, free will, and God’s grace have countless ministry implications. Since we are helpless without God’s grace, Wesleyans should prioritize the means of grace, preach the gospel constantly, recenter the Lord’s Supper, and pray, pray, pray! Ultimately, we should trust God to give the increase.
When making our appeals for men to be saved, we should avoid saying things like: “If you will take the first step/make the first move, God will do the rest/come running to you”; “God’s done his part, now he’s waiting for you to do your part”; “It’s all up to you”; and “The decision is all yours.” Instead, we should emphasize: “Don’t resist God’s grace”; “Yield to God’s grace”; “Surrender to God’s work”; “Let God have his way with you.” See the article “Ways of Speaking About the Human Response to Grace.”
Grace! Free grace! God’s grace! That is the watchword of Wesleyans. May our song ever be,
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!