I’m not going to use any quotes from John Wesley in this post, but I am going to try to explain as best I understand it the Wesleyan doctrine of Original Sin.
The doctrine is important if we seek to maintain contact with the theological tradition that John and Charles Wesley inhabited and became the bearers of in the English-speaking world. For them, Original Sin was the first great doctrine of the connected series of doctrines that form the heart of Christianity: Original sin, justification by faith, new birth, inward and outward holiness.
Humanity was created in the image of God. We were alive to God and good. Our natural and spiritual faculties were tuned to God and God’s purposes. But we were created free as well, and there cannot be any freedom if there is no freedom to fail, so God gave us a test. And we failed.
In that moment, humanity was alienated from God. Adam and Eve died spiritually and came under the power of physical death. They became blind to God and the things of God. And their spiritual death corrupted every other aspect of their nature. They were no longer happy in God but natural creatures living in a purely natural world of blood and tooth and claw.
A few important details of Wesley’s doctrine are worth our attention. First, although we are left totally depraved in the state of nature, because of God’s preventing grace no actual human being we encounter, including you and me, is left in this state of nature. We have the first inkling of God restored and the faculty we call our conscience is the sign of God’s grace working to restore to us some of our created character.
Second, although we all bear the marks of Original Sin, Wesley taught that no person was condemned to hell because of Original Sin alone. It was only for actual sins that a person would be damned. Given our corrupted nature it happens that everyone sooner or later does sin, but it is for sins a person commits not a corrupt nature that we inherit that we are under the wrath of God.
For 21st century United Methodists, of course, Wesley’s doctrines present all kinds of trouble. Wesley held a strong belief in the accuracy of the Bible. He had no problem with the creation story. He believed in miracles and the present work of the Holy Spirit. He thought being rich was virtually impossible for a Christian.
Rather than paper over our problems with Welsey, however, United Methodist theologians, clergy, and laity should deal with these issues because you cannot have a Wesleyan understanding of grace or salvation without the foundation of Original Sin.
We can have a theology that has a Wesleyan flavor or sounds like it uses the same words. We can quote him and sing his brother’s hymns by translated terms and giving them new meaning, but if we do that we should be honest with ourselves about it. As the movies say, we can say we have a theology inspired by Wesleyan theology, but admit that we no longer hold to Wesleyan theology as he understood it.
For my part, I tend to take a GK Chesterton approach. I see the world around me today, and I have no doubt about the doctrine that says humanity is corrupted and fallen. I can see glimmers of God’s preventing grace at work in myself and others, but the alienation of humanity from God and our blindness to God and the things of God is as true as gravity.
The Bible tells this great truth. Being an English major and a bad poet, I have no problem reading Genesis as truthful and yet not as literal history of the creation of the world. I believe John Wesley would rebuke me on that point were he here today, although he’d be about 300 years old, so maybe he would not have that much gusto.
So, I am left with a mystery, similar to the mystery I confront when asked about the end of all things. I know that we were created in the image of God. I know that we are fallen. I know that we will be restored. Genesis and Revelation tell me these truths. And so, I share the conviction of John Wesley that our condition is in need to repair and restoration in ways that are beyond our power.
I’m not certain if that means my theology is Wesleyan or based on Wesley or inspired by Wesley. Perhaps one day the Board of Ordained Ministry will help me figure that out.