Wesley’s Three States of Man (from Sermon 9)

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[This post first appeared at GospelEncounter.wordpress.com]

Such is the freedom of his will; free only to evil; free to “drink in iniquity like water;” to wander farther and farther from the living God, and do more “despite to the Spirit of grace!””

-John Wesley, “Sermon 9: The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption”

Reading accounts of the early Methodist revivals, authors frequently use the term “awakened” to describe the experience of one under conviction, and refer to the result of their preaching as “awakening and converting” sinners, a two-step process [1]. The descriptions show a person who, before this moment of awakening, was “always careless about eternal things” [2], but afterward, “awakened to a solemn concern about salvation” or was “suddenly brought to see himself as he in reality is, a rebel against his God, and consequently exposed to wrath and hell!” [3]

The wording was curious; it seemed different that the typical idea of prevenient grace in which the Holy Spirit acts in a similar way to the Calvinist idea of Common Grace, gently moving men to seek out God and drawing them to the gospel. This “awakening” was sudden, even described by one author as an “irresistibly” produced conviction.

Then I came across Wesley’s Sermon 9.

In this sermon, Wesley, like Arminius before him (see Arminius’ exposition of Romans 7), suggests there are three states that man may be in: “First, the state of a ‘natural man:’ Secondly, that of one who is ‘under the law:’ And Thirdly, of one who is ‘under grace.’” You’ll see as you read that these three correspond very closely with the later Methodist descriptions of the unawakened (ie: natural man), the awakened, and the converted.


1. First, the state of a natural man. This the Scripture represents as a state of sleep: The voice of God to him is, “Awake thou that sleepest.” For his soul is in a deep sleep: His spiritual senses are not awake; They discern neither spiritual good nor evil. The eyes of his understanding are closed; They are sealed together, and see not. Clouds and darkness continually rest upon them; for he lies in the valley of the shadow of death. Hence having no inlets for the knowledge of spiritual things, all the avenues of his soul being shut up, he is in gross, stupid ignorance of whatever he is most concerned to know. He is utterly ignorant of God, knowing nothing concerning him as he ought to know. He is totally a stranger to the law of God, as to its true, inward, spiritual meaning. He has no conception of that evangelical holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord; nor of the happiness which they only find whose “life is hid with Christ in God.”


4. But this ignorance never so strongly glares, as in those who are termed, men of learning. If a natural man be one of these, he can talk at large of his rational faculties, of the freedom of his will, and the absolute necessity of such freedom, in order to constitute man a moral agent. He reads, and argues, and proves to a demonstration, that every man may do as he will; may dispose his own heart to evil or good, as it seems best in his own eyes. Thus the god of this world spreads a double veil of blindness over his heart, lest, by any means, “the light of the glorious gospel of Christ should shine” upon it.


7. For all this time he is the servant of sin. He commits sin, more or less, day by day. Yet he is not troubled: He “is in no bondage,” as some speak; he feels no condemnation. He contents himself (even though he should profess to believe that the Christian Revelation is of God) with, “Man is frail. We are all weak. Every man has his infirmity.” Perhaps he quotes Scripture: “Why, does not Solomon say, — The righteous man falls into sin seven times a day! — And, doubtless, they are all hypocrites or enthusiasts who pretend to be better than their neighbours.” If, at any time, a serious thought fix upon him, he stifles it as soon as possible, with, “Why should I fear, since God is merciful, and Christ died for sinners” Thus, he remains a willing servant of sin, content with the bondage of corruption; inwardly and outwardly unholy, and satisfied therewith; not only not conquering sin, but not striving to conquer, particularly that sin which doth so easily beset him.

Then Wesley turns to the awakening:

1. By some awful providence, or by his word applied with the demonstration of his Spirit, God touches the heart of him that lay asleep in darkness and in the shadow of death. He is terribly shaken out of his sleep, and awakes into a consciousness of his danger. Perhaps in a moment, perhaps by degrees, the eyes of his understanding are opened, and now first (the veil being in part removed) discern the real state he is in. Horrid light breaks in upon his soul; such light, as may be conceived to gleam from the bottomless pit, from the lowest deep, from a lake of fire burning with brimstone. He at last sees the loving, the merciful God is also “a consuming fire;” that he is a just God and a terrible, rendering to every man according to his words, entering into judgment with the ungodly for every idle word, yea, and for the imaginations of the heart. He now clearly perceives, that the great and holy God is “of purer eyes than to behold iniquity;” that he is an avenger of every one who rebelleth against him, and repayeth the wicked to his face; and that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”


7. Now he truly desires to break loose from sin, and begins to struggle with it. But though he strive with all his might, he cannot conquer: Sin is mightier than he. He would fain escape; but he is so fast in prison, that he cannot get forth. He resolved against sin, but yet sins on: He sees the snare, and abhors, and runs into it. So much does his boasted reason avail, — only to enhance his guilt, and increase his misery! Such is the freedom of his will; free only to evil; free to “drink in iniquity like water;” to wander farther and farther from the living God, and do more “despite to the Spirit of grace!”

8. The more he strive, wishes, labours to be free, the more does he feel his chains, the grievous chains of sin, wherewith Satan binds and “leads him captive at his will;” his servant he is, though he repine ever so much; though he rebel, he cannot prevail. He is still in bondage and fear, by reason of sin: Generally, of some outward sin, to which he is peculiarly disposed, either, by nature, custom, or outward circumstance; but always, of some inward sin, some evil temper or unholy affection. And the more he frets against it, the more it prevails; he may bite but cannot break his chain. Thus he toils without end, repenting and sinning, and repenting and sinning again, till at length the poor, sinful, helpless wretch is even at his wit’s end and can barely groan, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death”

Wesley continues with the description of the awakened man in Romans 7, following Arminius argument closely:

9. This whole struggle of one who is “under the law,” under the “spirit of fear and bondage,” is beautifully described by the Apostle in the foregoing chapter, speaking in the person of an awakened man. “I,” saith he, “was alive without the law once:” (Verse 9:) I had much life, wisdom, strength, and virtue; so I thought: “But, when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died:” When the commandment, in its spiritual meaning, came to my heart, with the power of God, my inbred sin was stirred up, fretted, inflamed, and all my virtue died away. “And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me:” (Verses 10,11:) It came upon me unaware; slew all my hopes; and plainly showed, in the midst of life I was in death. “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good:” (Verse 12:) I no longer lay the blame on this, but on the corruption of my own heart. I acknowledge that “the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin:” (Verse 14:) I now see both the spiritual nature of the law; and my own carnal, devilish heart “sold under sin,” totally enslaved: (Like slave bought with money, who were absolutely at their master’s disposal:) “For that which I do, I allow not; for what I would, I do not, but what I hate, that I do:” (Verse 15:) Such is the bondage under which I groan; such the tyranny of my hard master. “To will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do:” (Verses 18, 19:) “I find a law,” an inward constraining power, “that when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in “or consent to “the law of God, after the inward man:” (Verses 21, 22:) In my “mind:” (So the Apostle explains himself in the words that immediately follow; and so, o esv anqrvpos, the inward man, is understood in all other Greek writers:) “But I see another law in my members,” another constraining power, “warring against the law of my mind,” or inward man, “and bringing me into captivity to the law” or power “of sin:” (Verse 23:) Dragging me, as it were, at my conqueror’s chariot-wheels, into the very thing which my soul abhors. “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death” (Verse 24.) Who shall deliver me from this helpless, dying life, from this bondage of sin and misery Till this is done, “I myself” (or rather, that I, autos egv, that man I am now personating) “with the mind,” or inward man, “serve the law of God;” my mind, my conscience is on God’s side; “but with my flesh,” with my body, “the law of sin,” (verse 25,) being hurried away by a force I cannot resist.

10. How lively a portraiture is this of one “under the law;” one who feels the burden he cannot shake off; who pants after liberty, power, and love, but is in fear and bondage still! until the time that God answers the wretched man, crying out, “Who shall deliver me” from this bondage of sin, from this body of death — “The grace of God, through Jesus Christ thy Lord.”

Finally, there is the converted sinner, one “no more ‘under the law, but under grace’”:

This state we are, Thirdly, to consider; the state of one who has found grace or favour in the sight of God, even the Father, and who has the grace or power of the Holy Ghost, reigning in his heart; who has received, in the language of the Apostle, the “Spirit of adoption, whereby” he now cries, “Abba, Father!”

2. “He cried unto the Lord in his trouble, and God delivers him out of his distress.” His eyes are opened in quite another manner than before, even to see a loving, gracious God. While he is calling, “I beseech thee, show me thy glory!” — he hears a voice in the inmost soul, “I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord: I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.” And, it is not long before “the Lord” descends in the cloud, and proclaims the name of the Lord.” Then he sees, but not with eyes of flesh and blood, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy for thousands, and forgiving iniquities, and transgressions and sin.”


6. Thus, “having peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ,” “rejoicing in hope of the glory of God,” and having power over all sin, over every evil desire, and temper, and word, and work, he is a living witness of the “glorious liberty of the sons of God;” all of whom, being partakers of like precious faith, bear record with one voice, “We have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father!”

7. It is this spirit which continually, “worketh in them, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” It is he that sheds the love of God abroad in their hears, and the love of all mankind; thereby purifying their hearts from the love of world, from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life. It is by him they are delivered from anger and pride, from all vile and inordinate affections. In consequence, they are delivered from evil words and works, from all unholiness of conversation; doing no evil to any child of man, and being zealous of all good works.

Wesley concludes:

1. From this plain account of the three-fold state of man, the natural, the legal, and the evangelical, it appears that it is not sufficient to divide mankind into sincere and insincere. A man may be sincere in any of these states; not only when he has the “Spirit of adoption,” but while he has the “spirit of bondage unto fear;” yea, while he has neither this fear, nor love. For undoubtedly there may be sincere Heathens, as well as sincere Jews, or Christians. This circumstance, them does by no means prove, that, a man is in a state of acceptance with God.

Wesley’s full sermon is available online here: John Wesley – Sermon 9 The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption

First, note that it is not true as some have claimed, that for Wesley depravity is only “hypothetical”. On the contrary, men in the first state really do exist.

On the other hand, it is true that for both Wesley, and Arminius, this awakening is not the first move of the Holy Spirit on the unconverted. The Holy Spirit is already at work, drawing each person, giving them conscience and conviction through that conscience.

Wesley’s most famous description of this universal grace comes from his Sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” (where he says that there is noone in a state of “mere nature” except someone who “has quenched the Spirit” and thereby “is wholly void of the grace of God”), while Arminius writes of this universal grace drawing natural man, that :

“All men are called by some vocation, namely, by that witness of God, by which they may be led to feel after God that they may find him (Acts xxvii.27); and by that truth, which they hold in unrighteousness, that is, whose effect, in themselves, they hinder; and by that inscription of the law on their hearts, according to which their thoughts accuse one another. But this vocation, although it is not saving in the sense that salvation can be obtained immediately from it, yet it may be said to be antecedently saving, as Christ is offered for them; and salvation will, of the divine mercy, follow that vocation, if it is rightly used.”

– Arminius in “Examination of Perkins


“Sinful man, after the perpetration of sin, has such a knowledge of the law as is sufficient for accusing, convicting, and condemning him; and this knowledge itself is capable of being employed by God when calling him to Christ, that he may, through it, compel man to repent and to flee to Christ. […] Internal vocation is granted even to those who do not comply with the call.”

-Arminius in “On the Vocation of Sinners



[1] For example, from Nathan Bangs, A History of the Methodist Episcopal Church , Vol. 2 (1839):

  • “A society was soon formed, and several sinners awakened and converted to God, and added to the society.” (Page 8)
  • “…he was an instrument in the hand of God of the awakening and conversion of thousands of souls.” (28)
  • “…they received him as a messenger of God , and his labors were blessed to the awakening and conversion of souls.” (82)
  • “In New – Hampshire and Vermont there were signal displays of the grace of God in the awakening and conversion of souls.” (120)
  • “Rev. Joseph Jewell, who traveled extensively … everywhere beholding the displays of the power and grace of God in the awakening and conversion of sinners” (121-22)
  • “His word was blessed to the awakening and conversion of many souls” (122)
  • “the Lord began again to show himself in mercy in the awakening and conversion of souls” (131)
  • “there were remarkable displays of the awakening and converting grace of God” (141)

The list could be continued, but you get the idea.

[2] George Frederick Playter, The History of Methodism in Canada (1862), p 161.

[3] These descriptions from Bangs, note 1, at pages 114 and 117, respectively.