John Wesley’s View of Man: A Study in Free Grace Versus Free Will

, posted by Kevin Jackson


From the Wesleyan Theological Journal
Irwin W. Reist, Th. M., S. T. D. (candidate)
Associate Professor, Bible and Theology, Houghton College


The role one gives to man will in no small measure determine the nature of the theology he confesses. The variations range from that of Feuerbach with his teaching that theology is anthropology (“God is man’s highest feeling of self. . . So much as a man can feel so much is his God”) 1 to Karl Barth who, even with his emphasis upon the transcendence of God and the discontinuity between God and man, still agrees that to believe in Christianity is to believe in man since Jesus Christ is the God-man and God’ s revelation to man. “Barth and those who think as he does. . . are humanists though the affirmation of man is not something they make, but only accept as it is made in Jesus Christ. “2

John Wesley has been interpreted a forerunner of modern religious liberalism because of his extensive concern for man’s salvation and his ability in the salvation relationship. Wesley believed in experiential religion as “the inmost nature of things, the nature of God and man and the immutable relations between them. “3 However, the position of this paper is that soteriology is prior to anthropology in Wesley. The Holy Spirit is central and takes the initiative at every point in the Christian life. Wesley is concerned with man, but with man as sinner in need of God’s grace which he cannot earn.

It may well be that in Wesley’s emphasis on the fact that God gives us the freedom to respond in grace, and in his ‘optimism of grace, ‘ we are given the theological basis for a greater emphasis on transformation without running into the danger of collapsing the Christian hope into a moralistic concern for human achievement 4

Wesley’s fundamental truth was the possible salvation of all men, who are totally depraved sinners, by the all-embracing grace of God in Christ. The classical interpretation of him at this point as summarized by H. O. Wiley from Richard Watson, seems then to miss this emphasis.

The Spirit of God leads the sinner from one step to another, in proportion as he finds response in the heart of the sinner and a disposition to obedience. . . there is a human cooperation with the divine Spirit working with the free-will of man. 5

For Wesley there is no neutrality or natural ability to respond to God’s grace, but this response is created by God himself in grace. Man then as object of God’s grace is at the center of Wesley’s theology of Grace.


When Wesley argues for God’s grace upon man enabling a gracious response, he does not do so at the expense of God’s aseity. The God who is gracious to all men is the sovereign Creator .

The eternal, almighty, all-gracious God is the Creator of heaven and earth. He called out of nothing, by his all-powerful word, the whole universe, all that is. 6

As a Creator, He has acted, in all things, according to His own sovereign will. Justice has not, cannot have, any place here; for nothing is due to what has no being.

Here, therefore, he may, in the most absolute sense, do what he will with his own. 7

Wesley teaches then that there is one Supreme Creator of all that is, who at one time was the only self-existent one. There is no necessity with Him; God in a free act calls created being into existence. Man, as a part of this creation, is made in the image and likeness of God.


A. The Image of God in Man

The image of God in man, who is freely created by God, is three-fold: The natural, political, and moral. The natural image consists of immortality, spirituality, understanding, freedom of the will, and the affections. The principle of self-motion is equated with will which governs the affections. Liberty is not a property of the will, but of the soul; liberty includes the will in its province, God produces the power to do sinful acts and the nature which becomes sinful, but the sin is not His. “Yet am I conscious my understanding can no more fathom this deep. . . ” 8

The political image is the dominion given to Adam as God’s governor of the world. It is a function of the natural image since it is an exercise of the free will existing within the limits of a soul possessing liberty. 9

The chief part of the image however is the moral, which is composed of righteousness and true holiness.

God created man, not only in his natural, but like- wise in his moral image. He created him not only in knowledge, but also in righteousness and true holiness. As His understanding was without blemish, perfect in its kind; so were all his affections. They were all set right and duly exercised in their proper objects, and as a free agent, he steadily chose whatever was good… 10

Adam, as he came forth from the hand of his Creator, then, was a free, rational, holy, righteous, steward, but not immutable.

B. The Covenant of Works

In order to assert Adam’s moral rectitude God instituted the covenant of works as a testing ground whereby Adam’s entrance into an eternal state of holiness would be solidified. 11

This law or covenant (usually called the covenant of works), given by God to man in paradise, required an obedience, perfect in all its parts, en- tire and wanting nothing, as the condition of his eternal continuance in the holiness and happiness wherein he was created. 12

The covenant demanded an uninterrupted obedience and Adam was able to keep the covenant. He was free either to chose good or evil. The will of God was that Adam obey the command; but He permitted the fall so that man would be a creature of virtue. 13 Adam chose to sin and broke the covenant of works. Wesley never pursues to any great length a solution to the problem of how a man who is holy and free can chose to perform evil. He simply asserts ,

I can account for one man’s sinning, or a hundred, or even half mankind, supposing that they were evenly poised between vice and virtue from their own choice which might turn one way or the other… 14

If later, in the economy of redemptive grace, Wesley asserts the givenness of God’s grace to fallen man bound in sin, here he simply declares that man did so choose and so act. Yet God is still sovereign and man holy and free.


When Adam fell, his body became mortal, subject to death. “Since he sinned, he is not only dust, but mortal, corrupt dust. “15 He also lost the purity of the natural image, but it was not totally destroyed. Man remains man.

May not men have some reason left, which in some measure discerns good from evil and yet be deeply fallen, even as to their understanding, as well as their will and affections ? 16

Also, since the political image is a function of the natural image he also lost to some degree the former, i.e., his function as God’s ruler on earth. “Since man rebelled against his Maker, in what a state is all animated nature!” 17 The instrumentality of man as steward of God’s creation offering it up to God is distorted and perverted.

More basic is the fact that Adam and all men in him have lost the moral image of God, the whole moral image of righteousness and true holiness. Original sin or inbred sin is “the proneness to evil which is found in every child of man. “18 This evil is a depravity which is total.

Know that corruption of thy inmost nature Know that thou art corrupted in every power, in every faculty of thy soul; that thou art totally corrupted in every one of these, all the other foundations being out of course. The eyes of thine understanding are darkened clouds of ignorance and error rest upon thee. Thy will is no longer the will of God, but is utterly perverse …. Thy affections are alienated from God …. All thy passions… are out of frame, are either undue in their degree, or placed on undue objects. So that there is no soundness in thy soul… 19

The classical Calvinist systematic theologian, Charles Hodge, recognizes this when he writes that Wesley admits

that man since the fall is in a state of absolute or entire pollution and depravity. Original sin is not a mere physical deterioration of our nature, but entire moral depravity. 20

Wesley’s distinctive contribution to evangelical anthropology is, then, not his view of man’s depravity, but his view of the prevenient grace of God to all men as totally depraved sinners.


The controlling factor in Wesley’s theology is a soteriological, anthropological emphasis upon God’s grace to all men as dead sinners. The first element involved here is conscience. When Adam fell his reason became corrupt. The grace of God enlightens the mind and enables a man to think morally and be conscious of good or evil. This enlightened element Wesley calls conscience.

Can it be denied that something of this is found in every man born into the world? And does it not appear as soon as the understanding opens, as soon as the reason begins to dawn?… This faculty seems to be what is usually meant by those who speak of natural conscience…though in one sense it may be natural, because it is found in all men; yet,…it is not natural, but a supernatural gift of God above all His natural endowments. No; it is not natural, but the Son of God that is the true light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world. 21

The light which lightens every man is capable of increase if man does not hinder it and is incapable of functioning without the Holy Spirit. 22 If graciously responded to, it leads to the moment of salvation under the gospel.

This quality of prevenient grace is not a meritorious element in man which deserves God’ s grace, but is a capacity for spiritual life received through Christ’s death. 23 Because of the atonement of Christ, God grants prevenient grace, which goes before man’s response, to all men. Hence Wesley’s black description of man in his fallen state above, while true in theory, is not true in fact because of the grace of God which immediately moved upon man after the fall. No man, who is alive, is without prevenient grace and every degree of grace is a degree of spiritual life. The purely natural man does not exist. 24

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 termed preventing grace. Everyone has sooner or later good desires; although the generality of men stifle them before they can strike deep root. . . So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath. 25

All of God’s blessings that he gives to men are of his own grace, bounty, mercy, and favor. 26 All of man’s abilities are gifts of grace and are powerful only by the Spirit. Man’s use of these gifts are possible only with the Holy Spirit. “All our natural faculties are God’s gifts, nor can the meanest be executed with- out the assistance of His Spirit. ” 27

The second element in Wesley’s concept of prevenient grace is the graciously enabled will of man. Free will is not natural to man as a remnant of the pre-fall state. “Natural free-will

in the present state of mankind I do not understand. ~28 Free- will and liberty are matters of grace bestowed on all men.

And although I have not an absolute power over my own mind, because of the corruption of my own nature; yet through the grace of God assisting me, I have a power to choose and do good, as well as evil. 29

I only assert, that there is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored to every man, together with that supernatural light which ‘lightens every man that cometh into the world’. 30

The third element in Wesley’s view of prevenient grace is the three stages of man. The first stage is that of the natural man. He is without the Spirit of God. He does not fear God or serve Him. The natural man is every man who hath not the ‘Spirit, ‘ who has no other way of obtaining knowledge, but by his senses and natural understanding. 31

We have seen above that this distinction is only theoretical for Wesley. The second stage is that of the legal man who has been awakened to his sins but not released from them in pardon and the new birth

Now he truly desires to break loose from sin and begins to struggle with it. But though he strives with all his might, he cannot conquer… 32

The legal man is in an intermediate stage between being a child of God and a child of the devil. The third stage is the evangelical man who has his eyes opened to a loving God. He believes personally in the love of God for him in Christ and is freed from the guilt and power of sin. This man is a Christian. 33

Wesley is not a systematic theologian at this point, rather he sees the three stages as often mixed and portraying the existential relation between God and the soul in prevenient grace.

These several states of soul are often mingled together, and in some measure meet in one and the same person. . . 34

His purpose is to show how the grace of God leads men by degrees and steps to embrace His full salvation in Jesus Christ. He summarizes this as follows:

The natural man neither fears nor loves God, one under the law fears, one under grace loves Him. The first has no light in the things of God; the second sees the painful light of hell; the third, the joyous light of heaven. 35

The fourth element in Wesley’s view of man is repentance which is not a natural work of man as a ground for merit, but is a gift of grace to the graciously freed man. The first steps of prevenient grace are for Wesley a sort of repentance. “The very first motion of the soul towards God is a kind of repentance. “36 Yet because repentance is a gift of grace, it is a condition the graciously freed man must meet. “It is true repentance and faith are privileges and free gifts. But this does not hinder their being conditions too. “37 Repentance is the gift of God’s grace as a condition of justification by faith. Man’s grace-given free will :an either respond to it or avoid it.

The fifth element in Wesley’s view of prevenient grace is faith. Faith is involved in prevenient grace because of the degrees of faith

To believe the being and attributes of God is the faith of an heathen. To believe the Old Testament and trust in Him that was to come is the faith of a Jew. To believe Christ gave Himself for me is the faith of a Christian. 38

“All faith is the gift of God. “39 Saving faith is a gift and work of God’s omnipotence, but this excludes no man; every man may believe if he will because of prevenient grace, Faith is the work of God and the duty of man. 40 It is not

the effort of any or all of our natural faculties, but is wrought in us (be it swiftly or slowly) by the Spirit of God. 4

And because of this, salvation or forgiveness or deliverance is based on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

We do assuredly hold. . . that there is no justification in your sense either by faith or works or both together-that is, that we are not pardoned and accepted with God for the merit of either or both but only by the grace of the free love of God. 42


The import of the preceding is that the deciding factor in the order of Christian salvation is the decision of God to before men in Jesus Christ, i. e., in the incarnation, An implied question of Paul in Romans 8:31 “If God before us, who can be against us?” is answered in the event of the cross of Christ. “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” (Rom 8:32 RSV. ). How do we know God is for us and for all men? We know so because of God’s giving himself to us through His crucified Son. The question of election or God’s decision for men is not to be decided apart from the incarnate, crucified, Son of God- Election must be understood Christologically and Christocentrically. To attempt to get around, over, under, or by Christ crucified to an abstract decree is a-biblical. If men will look at Jesus Christ they will find the essential focus of election displayed; more than that, they shall find themselves forgiven and pardoned because they have already been graciously freed and enabled to come to Christ but not saved except by personal appropriating faith.

Wesley knew this and proclaimed the prevenient grace of God in and through Jesus Christ. Conscience, will, repentance, the act of justification, faith-all spring from the grace of God as their source. They are always, everywhere preceded by and surrounded by God’s grace, giving, enabling, empowering. Man is a free creature, but only because he is a sinful creature under the grace of God which enables him to respond within the sphere of grace. The psychology, the anthropology, the theology of grace is never completely and systematically spelled out. To do so is inevitably and finally to lose some facet of the revealed mystery of God’s grace in Christ and man’s reflexive response. The grace of God is free; the will of man is bound. God’s mercy comes upon all, freeing and liberating their wills from slavery to sin to freedom unto righteousnesss within grace. At what better place can we end the study then than where Wesley begins his sermons.

All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man, are of his mere grace, bounty, or favour; his free, undeserved favour; favour altogether undeserved; man having no claim to the least of his mercies. . . For there is nothing we are, or have, or do, which can deserve the least thing at God’s hand…And whatever righteousness maybe found in man, this is also the gift of God.4


1. L. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, Trans. G. Eliot (N. Y.: Harper and Bros., 1957), p. 284.

Z. H. R. Niebuhr, “Foreword, ” Ibid., p. VIII.

3. J. Wesley, The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A. M., ed. J. Telford (London: The Epworth Press, 1931), II, 38. Here- after referred to as: Letters, Vol., No., p. No.

4. C. Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today (New York: Abingdon Press, 1960), p. 73.

5. H. O. Wiley, Christian Theology (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press, 1953), II, 352. Cp. like statements such as “in the power of contrary choice is a necessary endowment of man as free, responsible being. ” H. Sheldon, System of Christian Doctrine.; “. . . for the question of moral freedom, it is indifferent whether this capacity be native or gracious. ” J. Miley, Systematic Theology, II, 304; “. . . in the act of willing the case is very different. Here the mind is perfectly free, because it possesses a power of acting over which there is no controlling power either within or without itself. This is what we understand by the free moral agency of man. ” S. Wakefield, A Complete System of Christian Theology, p. 316.

6. J. Wesley, Sermon-“On Divine Providence, ” The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n. d. ), VI, 315. Hereafter referred to as Works, Vol. No., p. No.

7. “Thoughts Upon God’s Sovereignty, ” Works, 10, p. 361.

8. J. Wesley, Wesley’s Standard Sermons, ed. E, H. Sugden (London: The Epworth Press, 1951), Sermon XXXIX, I, 228. Hereafter referred to as Sermon No., Bol. No., p. No.

9. Ibid., p. 228. 10. Works, VI, 270-71.

11. Sermon, VI, I, 133. 12. Ibid., p. 134.

13. Works, VI, 240. 14. Ibid., p. 30. 15. Ibid., p. 219.

16. Ibid., IX, 293. 17. Ibid., VI, 245.

18. Letters, VI, 73. 19. Works, V, 82.

20. C. Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1940), II, 329.

21. Works, VII, 187-88. 22. Ibid., p. 190.

23. Ibid., VIII, 278. 24. Letters, VI, 239.

25. Works, VI, 512. 26. Sermon XXXVII, I, 37.

27. Letters, II, 71. 28. Works, X, 229-30.

29. Letters, I, 328. 30. Works, X, 230.

31. J. Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (London: The Epworth Press, 1954j, p. 814. Hereafter referred to as Notes, p. No.

32. Sermon, IX, I, 196. 33. Ibid., pp. 192-93.

34. Ibid., p. 196. 35. Ibid., p. 195. 36. Sermon XVI, I, 425.

37. Letters, III, 246. 38. Works, VIII, 361.

39. J. Wesley, The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, M. A., ed. N. Curnock (London: The Epworth Press, 1938), II, 338. Hereafter referred to as Journal, Vol. No., page No.

40. Letters, IV, 202. 41. Ibid., II, 61. 42. Ibid., II, 39,

43. Works, V, 7.