by Johnathan Arnold
We often hear pastors and evangelists assert that people in our community are seeking God and want the message that we have. But how do we reconcile that Romans says "no one seeks God"? Are people seeking God or not?
Calvinists answer with a definite "no" by the doctrine of total depravity, teaching that man is so thoroughly corrupted that he cannot seek God; therefore, God chooses who will be saved (unconditional election).
Wesleyan-Arminians are not always clear in their answer. We certainly do not believe that God unconditionally chooses who is saved and who is damned, but what is our answer to total depravity? If the Bible does indeed teach this doctrine, why don't we hear about it and why is our view of mankind so positive?
A Starting Place: Original Sin
Both Calvinists and Wesleyans affirm original sin, that man’s moral nature is corrupted and he is inclined towards sin. This moral corruption resulted from Adam’s sin and is inherited by every man since Adam; thus, it is also called “inherited depravity.”
This moral depravity did not come after birth as a result of choices made by the individual. Rather, “I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5), so that “the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).
When Scripture describes man in his sinful condition, it often uses the strongest possible terms. Man is a rebellious, murderous, self-seeking, egocentric, God-defier capable of unimaginable evil. While the world says, "follow your heart," Jesus says that "out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (Matthew 15:19). This raises the question, how thorough is man’s corruption? What is the depth of man’s depravity? What is the reach of original sin?
The Depth of Depravity
In his sermon on “Original Sin,” John Wesley argues that man is “totally corrupted” and “void of all good.” He asks the reader, “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 added).
The text to which Wesley refers is Genesis 6:5: “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.” His sermon concludes that man is totally depraved and his nature is thoroughly corrupted. Wesley affirms this again in his notes on Romans 6:6. Wesley writes that the “old man” is "that entire depravity and corruption which by nature spreads itself over the whole man, leaving no part uninfected" (emphasis added).
Wesleyan scholar Adam Clarke, commentating on Genesis 6:5, gives a vivid description of fallen man as “wholly sensual, the desires of the mind overwhelmed and lost in the desires of the flesh.... All was corrupt within, and all unrighteous without…the very first embryo of every idea, the figment of every thought, the very materials out of which perception, conception, and ideas were formed, were all evil; the fountain which produced them, with every thought, purpose, wish, desire, and motive, was incurably poisoned. All these were evil without any mixture of good… They were evil continually — there was no interval of good, no moment allowed for serious reflection, no holy purpose, no righteous act. What a finished picture of a fallen soul!” (emphasis added).
Jeremiah 17:9 warns that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” There is nothing that compares to man’s sinful heart. His moral nature is evil through and through.
Ecclesiastes 9:3 confirms that man’s moral corruption is total: “The heart of the sons of men is full of evil.” His heart is full of evil; there is no room for anything righteous.
Psalm 5:9 says, “there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue” (cf. Romans 3:13). Nothing true or good can proceed from them because there is nothing true or good on the inside.
Titus 1:15-16 affirms that “unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled...being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.” They can do nothing that pleases God.
Scripture uses words and phrases like “full of evil,” “every imagination,” “dead,” “no truth,” and “worthless” to communicate the unmistakable message that man’s corruption is thorough. In the words of Wesley, man is filled with all manner of evil, void of all good, wholly fallen, and totally corrupted; “Admit this, and you are so far a Christian.”
The Reach of Depravity
Wesley argues that men are in the same condition as they were before the flood. Total depravity reaches to every image-bearing man in creation. “They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3, emphasis added). Without God, no one is more righteous than another. There is no scale of total depravity in which one man is less totally depraved than another. The Psalmist says to God, “no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2, ESV).
Micah declares, “there is none upright among men: they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net. That they may do evil with both hands earnestly…. The best of them is as a brier: the most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge: the day of thy watchmen and thy visitation cometh; now shall be their perplexity” (Micah 7:2-4).
A Paradigm-Shifting Truth
When Wesleyans — or anyone for that matter — temper this doctrine of total depravity, they are in danger of becoming Pelagian. The heresy of Pelagianism teaches that because man is not inherently sinful, man’s will is still able to choose good or evil without the special enabling of God’s Spirit. The way in which we commonly speak suggests that we are more Pelagian than we would like to admit.
We often speak about unbelievers as if they are seeking God. Rather, “No one seeks God” (Romans 3:11); if it was possible for men to seek God, is it not reasonable to think that at least one person would do so? On their own initiative, people in our community are seeking something, but it is definitely not God. It is pleasure, freedom, satisfaction, and relief from guilt. Sure, these things are only found in God and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Him. But these things are not God. Dead men seek these things, but they do not seek the Holy One who inhabits eternity.
People in our community are seeking things that are only found in God, but they are not actually seeking God.
We often speak about unbelievers as if they are deadened, merely numb or dull of hearing. The Scripture is clear that they are without spiritual ears. “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” (2 Corinthians 2:14). We are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). No one is partially dead; dead means dead, as surely as Christ was dead and buried. People need resurrected with miraculous power as surely as God raised Christ from the dead.
We often speak about unbelievers as if they deserve to be saved. All people are worth something to God, but not because of what is in them. God sees our potential, in that He created us good and can glorify Himself by restoring our goodness; but in our depravity, the image of God is totally corrupted, and we deserve to be punished. According to Romans 3:12, “They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable.”
We have a far too positive view of human beings. One of the first things we should do with new converts is help them to cease from calling anyone “good.”God’s amazing grace is evident in that while we were yet totally corrupt, He died for us. This is incredible love, that God loves us in spite of our sin.
Our Picture of the World and Prevenient Grace
When we look around in the world, the picture of mankind given in the Scriptures does not always appear to match our experience. Are there not unbelievers who do the very things that God commends in Scripture, such as feeding the poor or visiting the widows and orphans? (In fact, unbelievers sometimes do a better job at these things than believers.)
We must not forget that man’s “good” works are all ultimately motivated by something less than the glory of God; therefore, they are not righteous in God’s eyes. Since Romans 14:23 says that "Whatever is not from faith is sin," we know that everything an unbeliever does is sin.
The Holy Spirit is active in the world, restraining man’s evil nature and stirring up in us a desire and ability to respond to God.
We must also keep in mind that man’s depravity alone is an incomplete picture.
Man could not possibly be allowed to abide on the earth in his totally corrupt condition without God’s divine intervention. Man would utterly destroy himself. The earth would overflow with violence. Men and women would never come to God on their own.
This is why Wesleyan-Arminians also recognize the Biblical doctrine of prevenient grace. The Holy Spirit is active in the world, restraining man’s evil nature and making it possible for them to be saved. God's prevenient grace is a free gift that stirs up in us a desire and ability to respond to God. When someone seeks God, it is only because God divinely enables him or her to first recognize the drawing and then respond to the drawing. John 6:44 says it this way: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him."
Paul exults, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16). Whenever the gospel is preached, God’s power comes with the gospel, enabling dead men to recognize that it is true and giving them power to respond accordingly.
We must be careful that we do not confuse our optimism about grace with our pessimism about man. In a world of self-help books and humanistic psychology, the church must stand firm in its Biblical conviction that the natural man is powerless to live a life pleasing to God.
Clarke, Adam. "Clarke's Commentary." Bible Hub.
Wesley, John. "Notes on St Paul's Epistle to the Romans.” Wesley Center Online.
Wesley, John. "The Sermons of John Wesley - Sermon 44: Original Sin.” Wesley Center Online.
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