Wednesday, February 18, 2015

An Introduction to Prevenient Grace

Understanding the doctrine of prevenient grace was one of the most valuable studies for me after leaving Calvinism.  It provided an answer to one of the simplest arguments I used to make for Calvinism: I would point to Romans 3 and ask “If ‘no one understands, no one seeks for God?’ then how is anyone saved?”  My Calvinistic answer, of course, was irresistible grace given to the elect only.  Otherwise, I reasoned, either no one would believe, or everyone would believe.

The doctrine of prevenient grace allows us to escape these conclusions [1].  It fully affirms that man is dead in sin and unable to respond to the Gospel apart from the Holy Spirit’s conviction (John 16:8) and the Father’s drawing and enabling (John 6:44, 65, 12:32, cf Romans 10:20).  However it also makes better sense of passages like Luke 7:30 (“the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves”), Luke 18:24-25 (“How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God”) and Acts 7:51 (“You are always resisting the Holy Spirit”).

So what is prevenient grace?  

Robert E. Picirilli suggests that it is better called “enabling grace” or “pre-regenerating grace”, and explains:
Pre-regenerating grace simply means that the Spirit of God overcomes that inability by a direct work on the heart, a work that is adequate to enable the unregenerate person to understand the truth of the gospel, to desire God, and to exercise saving faith.
Scripturally, this concept is intended to express the truth found in passages like John 6:44: “No man can come to me, except the father which hath sent me draw him.”  In this light, pre-regenerating grace may be called drawing. Or Acts 16:14: “Lydia...whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul”: pre-regenerating grace may therefore be called opening the heart.  Or John 16:8: “When [the Spirit] is come, he will reprove [or, convict] the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” In this sense, pre-regenerating grace may be called conviction--which is simply another form of the word “convincement.”[2]

Robert L Hamilton explains (Link):
Arminians argue that not all who are drawn/enabled by the Father to exercise faith and repentance do in fact ultimately choose to do so (i.e., prevenient grace is resistible), though it is equally true that without such drawing/enabling no person would of himself have the desire or ability to come to Christ in faith. Arminians are able to adopt this position precisely because the drawing and enabling of the Father are presented in the Gospel of John as necessary, not sufficient, conditions for coming to faith in Christ.
(This distinction between necessary and sufficient is an important one which I missed as a Calvinist.)

And in his excellent book The Pursuit of God, A W Tozer describes prevenient grace this way (Free ebook: Link):
Christian theology teaches the doctrine of prevenient grace, which briefly stated means this, that before a man can seek God, God must first have sought the man.
Before a sinful man can think a right thought of God, there must have been a work of enlightenment done within him; imperfect it may be, but a true work nonetheless, and the secret cause of all desiring and seeking and praying which may follow.
We pursue God because, and only because, He has first put an urge within us that spurs us to the pursuit. “No man can come to me,” said our Lord, “except the Father which hath sent me draw him,” and it is by this very prevenient drawing that God takes from us every vestige of credit for the act of coming. The impulse to pursue God originates with God, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him; and all the time we are pursuing Him we are already in His hand: “Thy right hand upholdeth me.”
In this divine “upholding” and human “following” there is no contradiction. All is of God, for as von Hegel teaches, God is always previous. In practice, however, (that is, where God’s previous working meets man’s present response) man must pursue God. On our part there must be positive reciprocation if this secret drawing of God is to eventuate in identifiable experience of the Divine. In the warm language of personal feeling this is stated in the Forty-second Psalm: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?” This is deep calling unto deep, and the longing heart will understand it.[3]

When does prevenient grace happen?

On this question there is a spectrum of belief among Arminians.  The Classical/Reformed Arminian view, common especially among baptists[4], holds that it is "tied to the gospel message and its proclamation" (Roger Olson, Link).  Robert E Picirilli represents this view when he writes:
It requires the hearing of the gospel. [...T]he Word is the instrument, the means used by the Spirit as a basis for the conviction, the persuasion, the enabling.  This observation accords with the concept of the power of the Word of God spoken of everywhere in the Scriptures, as in Hebrews 4:12 for example.  Arminius’ view on this is clear when, speaking of the persuasion involved in this pre-regenerating grace, he says, "This is effected by the word of God. But persuasion is effected, externally by the preaching of the word, internally by the operation, or rather the co-operation, of the Holy Spirit, tending to this result, that the word may be understood and apprehended by true faith".[5]

On the other side are Wesleyan Arminians who often see prevenient grace more broadly than the Classical position.  Robert E Coleman, for example, explains:
Differing from Calvinism, those of the Arminian persuasion hold that grace extends to everyone the ability to believe. Just as no support is found to limit the atonement of Christ, so there is no reason to limit saving grace. As Wesley put it, “There is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is devoid of the grace of God.... it is more properly called preventing grace.”

The term prevenient comes from two Latin words that mean “to come before.” Used theologically, it refers to the operation of God’s grace in the heart before one comes to Christ. This preparatory grace is comprehensive, including any movement of man toward God, and involves illuminating divide truth, conviction of sin, call to repentance, and the exercise of saving faith. Yielded to, these gracious impulses increase; when stifled, they tend to diminish. All these promptings of the Spirit imply some awakening of spiritual life, some beginning of deliverance from a heart of stone. [6]

This spectrum is important to note because many in New Calvinist circles have the impression that the view furthest from their own, that of “universal enablement”, is the only understanding of prevenient grace and conclude that the Arminian view amounts to “hypothetical depravity”[7].  As you can see, this is not the view of all Arminians, nor even of Arminius himself.  This misunderstanding makes it much easier for Calvinists to dismiss prevenient grace without serious consideration, rather than realizing it is "within a hair's breadth" of Calvinism (but with very important implications, particularly to the way we treat warnings like Hebrews 3:5 when we share the Gospel with unbelievers).

Why doesn’t everyone who hears the gospel respond with faith?

While this is a difficult question and does involve mystery, here are some of the texts that I have come across which seem to provide some answers:

Jesus makes it clear in Luke 14:26-33 that some will find the terms of discipleship too costly, and therefore reject the invitation (notice that this account follows the parable of the wedding banquet, which in turn follows Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem at the end of chapter 13).

Similarly in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) we see that sometimes those who hear/receive the word do not ultimately believe or persevere because “when tribulation or persecution arises... he falls away” or “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (yet, how can anyone receive the word with joy [v20] unless the Lord has done a work in his or her heart?).  Contrast these with the parable of the hidden treasure a few verses later where “in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (v 44), or the parable of the pearl where he “went and sold all that he had and bought it” (v 45).

Even John 6:44 comes after the Lord’s statement, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).

We also have Jesus’ statement after His interaction with the rich young ruler,  “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:24-25, cf Matt 19, Mark 10).  Steve Lemke writes:
Of course, if Jesus were a Calvinist, He never would have suggested that it was harder for rich persons to be saved by God’s irresistible grace than poor persons. Their wills would be changed immediately and invincibly upon hearing God’s effectual call.  It would be no harder for a rich person to be saved by God’s monergistic and irresistible calling than it would be for any other sinner.  But the real Jesus was suggesting that their salvation was tied in some measure to their response and commitment to His calling. (Link, p 121).

And finally:
The book of Hebrews repeatedly warns people who have heard the gospel not to harden their hearts. "Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts" (Hebrews 3:7, 15; 4:7). When a person who has been convicted by the Spirit of God hears the gospel, he may choose to resist (Acts 7:51). He thereby insults the Spirit of grace in rejecting Christ (Hebrews 10:29).
(Richard Trader, Link)

More resources on prevenient grace:

Introductions/Blog posts:

I have generally not added an endnote where there are in-text links.

[1] See Seven Minute Seminary (YouTube), What Is Prevenient Grace? above.  In his article Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense? even Tom Schreiner acknowledges, “Prevenient grace is attractive because it solves so many problems...”, but concludes with Millard Erickson that "there is no clear and adequate basis in Scripture for this concept of universal enablement” (underline mine). Note that he is dealing only with "Wesley’s later theology of prevenient grace" (see note 7).
[2] Robert Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, page 154-55 [Picirilli].
[3] A W Tozer, The Pursuit of God, Chapter 1.
[4] Picirilli is himself a Free Will Baptist.  Although not uncontroversial, this also seems to be the view of those in the Southern Baptist Convention who subscribe to the Traditional Statement.  For example, in his article, Is the Traditional Statement Semi-Pelagian? (JBTM, Link), Adam Harwood writes:
It is true that the TS does not use this Arminian phrase “prevenience of supernatural grace.” But any concern that Article 2 neglects an emphasis on God’s grace should be assuaged by the following declarations in the Statement:
“ sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” - Article 2, sentence 4 [...]

[5] Picirilli supra note 2, page 158.
[6] Robert E Coleman, The Heart of the Gospel, p 145.  Dr Coleman continues (pages 145-46):
Paul reminds us: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” But he added, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his great pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). Too easily we miss the point that it is God who enables us to work out our salvation.

Our responsibility is to respond to the workings of grace in our heart. Some speak of it as cooperation between man and the Spirit. Though God always works for the welfare of the world, and “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim, 2:4), he respects the freedom given to every person to choose his or her own destiny.

Prevenient grace prepares one to believe the Gospel, but it cannot make the decision for us.  Contrary to Reformed teaching, grace sufficient to believe on the Lord for salvation is not irresistible. Though salvation has been procured for mankind through the blood of Christ, that does not assure human concurrence with God’s will.

The ministry of the Spirit lifting up the claims of Christ can be ignored.  Grace can be resisted.  Paul appealed to the Corinthians “not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1).  He did not want, he said, to “nullify the grace of God” (Gal. 2:21).


Persons who do not come to Christ are those who do not utilize their privilege of grace. They have prevenient grace sufficient to believe the Gospel but do not take advantage of that opportunity  Those who do respond to the Gospel call, of course, recognize that God has done it all.  The fact that they receive the invitation is no indication of special merit, for even the acceptance by faith in the finished work of Christ is of grace (Eph. 2:8).

Earlier he also states (page 32):
The words of scripture must be correctly interpreted, of course. So God gives illumination to understand his revelation.  The Spirit who inspired the writings continues to “guide... into all the truth” (John 16:13; cf. Neh. 9:20; Isa. 30:21; Luke 12:12; John 16:14, 26; 1 Cor. 2:13; 1 John 2:27). He so quickens the spiritual and mental powers of man that we can comprehend sacred truth. As such, this is an expression of God’s prevenient grace.

[7] For my friends and I (when I was a Calvinist), this understanding of prevenient grace came from Tom Schreiner’s article Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?  Dr Schreiner states in footnote 21(!) that, “For the purposes of this chapter only Wesley's later theology of prevenient grace is in view” and points to resources which show “three different understandings of prevenient grace in the Wesleyan tradition” and “two strands of prevenient grace among Wesleyans”, but this is practically hidden from the text of his article where he states only, “In Wesleyan theology there are various conceptions of prevenient grace that we do not need to specify here since, as we shall see, there is common ground within the various positions on the issue that concerns us.”  I wish he was clearer to distinguish between the spectrum of Arminian views, as this would have helped to prevent much of the misunderstanding which is so common. (Thomas R Schreiner, Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense? in Still Sovereign, edited by Thomas R Schreiner and Bruce A Ware)

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