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JOHN WESLEY’S CONCEPT OF SIN by Leo G. Cox A study of John Wesley's thought is always in order. W. E. Lecky, in his history of England wrote that Wesley has had a wider constructive influence in the sphere of practical religion than any other man who has appeared since the 16th century.”1 He joined the succession of the Reformers when he became convinced of Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone. To Wesley in 1738, at the age of 35, this doctrine of justification was a new doctrine.
   1 J OHN W ESLEY ’ S C ONCEPT OF S IN   by Leo G. Cox A study of John Wesley's thought is always in order. W. E. Lecky, in his history of England wrote that Wesley has had a wider constructive influence in the sphere of practical religion than any other man who has appeared since the 16th century.” 1  He joined the succession of the Reformers when he became convinced of Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone. To Wesley in 1738, at the age of 35, this doctrine of justification was a new doctrine. He remained true to Luther's doctrine of justification by faith during the entirety of his life. While Wesley learned of the doctrine of justification from the Reformers, his doctrine of Christian perfection came to him through the tradition of the Anglican church. He realized as much as anyone else the aroused opposition to his teaching of perfection. He wrote in his sermon on Christian Perfection the following words; There is scarce any expression in holy writ which has given more offence than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them. In his defense of this doctrine of Christian perfection, Wesley did not diminish nor alter his views concerning the doctrine of justification by faith. 2  It is very obvious that Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection would make it necessary for him to make very clear what was his doctrine of sin. He felt it very necessary to draw clear lines of distinction in his definitions. These distinctions especially show up in his discussion of the subject of sin. It is absolutely impossible to get any true concept of Wesley's doctrine of holiness without coming to a clear understanding of what he taught concerning sin. In this paper it is my purpose to clarify as much as possible, Wesley's concept of sin. For the purpose of this discussion, the following topics will be followed: 1. Original Sin or Inherited Depravity 2. The Fallen State of Present Man 3. The Act of Sin in the Unbeliever 4. The State of Sin in the Believer 5. The Sins of the Sanctified 1. Original Sin and Inherited Depravity As far as can be determined, Wesley always painted a dark picture of sin. There is no evidence that he had to alter his view when he came to believe in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. His opinions concerning the sinfulness of man were well established by the time he began his evangelical revival. 1  W. E. H. Lecky,  A History of England in the Eighteenth Century  (London: D. Appliton and Company, 1879), p. 631. 2   The Works of the Rev. John Wesley,  comp. John Emory (8 vol.; 3rd. ed.; New York: The Methodist Concern, 1831), I, 355.   2 For Wesley the Scriptures were always the final authority. 3  He believed that man was placed in the garden of Eden in a primitive state of holiness and perfection. By his own free choice, through the allurement of Satan, man fell into sin. Adam as a representative of the race brought sin upon the entire race. Wesley did not have a speculative mind, and he himself was satisfied with the explanation that the srcin of sin came when man exercised his power of choice and refused to follow the good. Holy man could do this because he was fallible. 4  Wesley summed up the nature of the fall of Adam by pointing out that his sin was unbelief -- he chose to believe Satan rather than God. It was pride. Even after Adam sinned he would not acknowledge his fault, but blamed Eve and Satan. He even blamed God when he said the woman whom thou gavest to be with me . This first sin was revolt and rebellion. 5  Because of his sin, Adam lost his likeness to God. He lost the whole moral image of God —  righteousness and true holiness. In discussing the image of God in man, Wesley saw two kinds, which he called natural and moral. The moral image was the likeness to God which he called holiness. The natural image was the likeness in personality such as intellect, feelings, and will. Man completely in his sin lost the moral likeness to God but retained in part the natural image. 6  Wesley believed that what came to Adam as a result of his sin was passed on to his posterity. Every child is born under the consequences of Adam's sin. He believed that Adam was in some sense federal head or representative of all mankind. In a certain sense, when Adam sinned, all his posterity sinned with him. Adam was on trial for all mankind. He as a single person was on trial for all of us. This does not mean that his posterity cannot also be placed on trial for themselves. 7  It must be made clear, however, that Wesley made a distinction between personal sin and imputed guilt. Actually for Wesley there were two kinds of guilt, —  guilt that is personal and accounted to the person who did the evil, and guilt in the sense of liability to punishment which may be imputed to another. Though Adam's posterity are not accounted guilty of his personal sin, yet they are so constituted sinners by Adam's sinning as to become liable to the punishment threatened to his transgression. 8  Inherited depravity, then, must be defined as that moral condition with which all men are born. This depravity is spiritual death passed on to every child of Adam and includes a deep corruption of his nature. For Wesley, even the sufferings of infants were punishments in such a way that children 3  Works, VII, 140. 4  Ibid.,  –  , 31-32. 5  Ibid., p . 39. 6  Ibid., p . 36. 7  Ibid., V. 588. 8  Ibid., p . 535.   3 cannot be considered innocent before God. They suffer; therefore, they deserve to suffer. Wesley painted a very dark picture of man's fallen nature. 9   2. The Fallen State of Present Man When Wesley spoke of man's natural state, meaning what man is by nature, he always meant what man is in himself apart from any grace of God. When he is thinking in these terms, his picture of fallen man is very dark indeed. In fact, there would be no salvation and no recovery if man had been left to himself. Most people fail to grasp what Wesley meant by prevenient grace. He believed that the grace of God was extended to all men and that man's present state is not one of nature only, but of nature plus grace. This grace that comes to man does not come by way of nature, but directly from God through Christ. Wesley wrote, For allowing that all the souls of men are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly named, preventing grace. Every man has a greater or less measure of this, which waiteth not for the call of man. Everyone has, sooner or later, good desires; although the generality of men stifle them before they can strike deep root, or produce any considerable fruit. Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world . . . So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he has. 10   It is easily seen from this quotation that Wesley did not hold to a grace limited only to those who will be saved. Nor did he believe that God's grace was irresistible. There was a universal remedy for a universal evil. It can thus be seen that all the blessings of mankind are a result of the atonement from which the free grace flows. These blessings are many and come automatically, although in various degrees, to every member of the race. H. Orton Wiley commented concerning this idea, Whatsoever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it. 11  This prevenient grace removes for every man the guilt inherited from Adam for his sin. Wesley wrote By the merits of Christ, all men are cleared from the guilt of Adam's act  ual sin.” 12  Wesley taught that none will ever die eternally merely for the sin of Adam. All the imputed guilt of srcinal sin is removed in Christ for every man as far as eternal condemnation is concerned. No one actually exists with the guilt of Adam's sin hanging over his head, for it is removed in Christ. Wesley believed that all infants who die before accountability will be saved through Christ. Christ is the saviour of our children who die because they are guilty of Adam's sin. It is from that guilt that Christ becomes their saviour. 13   9  Ibid., 579, 647. 10  Ibid., II, 237-238. 11  H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1941), II, 65. 12  Works, V. 196. 13  Ibid., p. 647.   4 It must also be held according to Wesley that in prevenient grace there is an enabling power for man. This is called empowering grace. By nature man is so depraved that he cannot even will what is pleasing to God. By nature his power of choosing right is gone. He cannot perform his duties in this fallen nature apart from grace. But the grace of God enables him to do his duty and to choose the right. 14  Wesley wrote, Natural free will in the present state of mankind I do not understand: I only assert these is a measure of free will supernaturally restored to every man, together with that supernatural light which enlightens every man that cometh into the world. 15   One can see, then, that in Wesley's view, man's present state is what he is by nature plus this prevenient grace. The very beginning of grace in man is in a sense a beginning of life. Though this initial life does not mean eternal life for every man —  and this concept kept Wesley from falling into the error of universalism —  it does mean that man has sufficient grace so that he can choose to go with God, and this choice is a responsible one. Since Wesley ascribed to man a free will which co-operates with grace, can it truly be said then that he believed all is of grace? He thought so. The power to choose comes as a result of divine grace. Therefore, when that choice is made for God, the very act of choosing is of grace, and consequently, when salvation does come, it is totally of grace. Furthermore, since man can resist this grace and quench it in his life, the grace itself is not irresistible. When a man fails to co-operate with the God-given grace, he is fully held responsible for it. This becomes his personal sin, and that which would make him liable to eternal punishment. Are these works accomplished by grace in the sinner meritorious? Wesley definitely considered that they do not gain any merit. In fact, he denied that they can be called good works in the true sense of the word. Even though they may be charitable and have good qualities about them, these works, unless they are wrought in true saving faith, cannot be considered good. 16  This is the reason why Wesley could teach justification by faith alone. Any works wrought by grace prior to saving faith do not bring about justification. Evangelical justification comes only by faith in the merits of Jesus Christ alone. What becomes then of the natural man whose inherited depravity comes from fallen Adam? In reality he does not exist as a natural man only. Umphrey Lee thinks that for Wesley the natural man is a logical abstraction. 17  Wesley wrote, There is no man that is in a mere state of nature. 18  Thus Wesley preserved two important truths. First, he placed proper emphasis upon proneness to evil in man. Second, he safeguarded the initiative of God in the salvation of man. At the same time he 14  Ibid., II, 547. 15  Ibid., VI, 42. 16  Ibid.x I, 49. 17  Umphrey Lee, John Wesley and Modern Religion (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1936), pp. 125-126. 18  Works, II, 238.
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