On Prevenient Grace
By: Gregory S. Neal
THE DIVINE INITIATIVE
Prior to our awareness of God, God prepares us to turn to him. Jesus said, "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me." (John 6:44; see also Jeremiah 31:3; 1 John 4:10) These, and other scriptures, are clear in demonstrating that God cultivates our hearts long before we have any inclination to turn to God. Even amidst the tattered shreds of our sinful existence, as fallen creatures totally incapable of even desiring to turn to God, the Holy Spirit creates within us a desire for a relationship with God. This gracious activity takes place well ahead of our consciousness of it; indeed, we often believe that our returning to God is something that we cook up within our own souls. Quite the contrary, scripture makes it plain that it is God's gift of grace which, initially, sparks are thought, interest, and desire to come to God.
Wesleyan-Arminian Systematic Theology refers to this gracious activity of God as being an expression of God's prevenient grace. The word "prevenient" (or, as it is sometimes written, "preventing") means "coming before, preceding, or antecedent." God's grace is prevenient in our lives when it creates within us, and then prompts, our spiritual desire to return to God. God's grace acts preveniently, drawing us to faith in Jesus Christ. Through this experience of God's prevenient grace we, in our unregenerate state, find our thoughts being turned to God and our souls enabled to experience the Divine, personal Real Presence of Jesus Christ our Lord. This is an experience of God's unmerited favor which goes before any act of our own, sparking any interest which we might have for things eternal, and enabling any response of faith which we might subsequently desire to make.
There are many Christian denominations which have this understanding of prevenient grace. Churches which are Anglican in theology and practice are among those that find statements about the nature of prevenient grace in their doctrinal confessions. The United Methodist Church is one of these Churches (and the one with which the author is most familiar). Article VIII of United Methodism Articles of Religion (also found in the Anglican Articles) speaks about the doctrine of prevenient grace:
When United Methodists or other Arminians speak of prevenient grace, they are affirming the biblical truth that we cannot save ourselves, or even desire to come to God, without God's prior intervention into our lives. In "Our Doctrinal Heritage," The United Methodist Book of Discipline offers the following definition of Prevenient Grace:
The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and works, to faith, and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will. (UM Discipline 63)
Conversion to Jesus Christ takes place only after the prior work of the Holy Spirit, who prepares us and turns our hearts toward God. We love God because God first loved us (1 John 4:19), and we respond to God through the grace which we are given from the cross.
We acknowledge God's prevenient grace, the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses toward God. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God's will, and our "first slight transient conviction" of having sinned against God. This grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith. (Discipline 46)
The United Methodist Hymnal contains a rich section of hymns under the theme of Prevenient Grace (UMH, 337-356). The following stanza typifies the focus of these hymns:
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of thee. (see UMH, 341)
Prevenient grace manifests itself in many ways. God protects us, providentially guides us, convicts us of sin, and imparts to us not only the desire but also the ability to repent and to exercise faith in Jesus Christ. As such, every step of faith is as an active response to God's prevenient action within the "elect." No person can wish to come to God, or even actually respond to the offered gift of salvation, without God's grace first enabling the response. This prior action on the part of God in Jesus Christ is grace's prevenience.
THE ENLIGHTENED CONSCIENCE
One of the most obvious ways we sense the operation of prevenient grace is through the empowering of our conscience. An important function of our conscience is our self-awareness with respect to our relationship (or lack thereof) with God. Often theology refers to this self-awareness as the "awakening" of the soul. When we speak of such an "awakening," we are actually specifying the work of the Holy Spirit that arouses our awareness of sin, our accountability before God, and our need for forgiveness, salvation, and sanctification.
Wesleyan theology holds the view that without God's enablement we would not be conscious of our sin or of our need for divine grace. Nor do we have any ability to turn to God by our own initiative. In one of his sermons, John Wesley gave particular attention to the work of prevenient grace in our consciences:
Wesleyan-Arminian theology holds that human conscience is not a natural attribute of humankind; such a self-conscience awareness of our inadequacy is actually created within us by the prevenient working of God's grace. This realization affirms the total destructive nature of the "Fall." As fallen creatures, totally destitute of spiritual awareness, we lack even the ability to be aware of what we lack. Only through grace, preveniently functioning to enlighten our awareness, can we come to a realization that we need 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. Every man has a greater or less measure of this, which waiteth not for the call of man. (VI: 512)
Furthermore, unempowered, unaided human insight cannot comprehend the truth of God. Our finitude is an insurmountable barrier between us and any knowledge of an infinite God; our fallen, sinful nature renders us unworthy to come into his presence. Unassisted by grace, we can only plunge into greater and greater confusion regarding spiritual reality. Unempowered by grace, we only have the choice of which sins to commit, never the option of "a more excellent way" -- a life of faith. Only through the prior work of God can we ever come to know him (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:18). As Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth:
God enables those who respond to God's prevenient application of divine favor (aka, "grace") to grasp the truth of the gospel and the deep "mysteries of the Spirit."
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)
"FREE WILL" AND HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY
Although our salvation is completely a work of grace, it is nevertheless clear in scripture and human experience that our salvation involves our cooperation with God -- namely, it requires our response of faith. Our appropriate response to God's call, which we know through prevenient grace, includes confessing that we are sinners who need God's justifying grace to pardon us and to transform our hearts. Theology in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition holds that a conviction of sin comprises an important, indispensable first step toward salvation. And, Wesleyan-Arminian theology affirms that God gives to each the ability to make this first step of faith and actually respond to his offer of grace. With respect to conversion, we may say: "Without God we cannot, without us God will not."
Please note, Wesleyan-Arminians do not say "without us God cannot" but that God only "will not." Why won't God, seeing as how God could if God would only will so to do? Because God only desires those who want to live in a relationship of faith, not automatons who have no alternative in the matter. Grace, in our understanding, is not an overwhelming and entirely irresistible gift. While elements of it are irresistible—it is irresistible in its prevenience— our response to Grace is not irresistible; in other words, Grace enables, it does not compel, our faith. Were saving grace irresistible, it would not be a gift but a commandment. In other words, irresistible grace would not be at all gracious.
This outlook on the universal application of prevenient grace, enabling but not compelling the human response of faith, finds full Biblical support especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul.
This clearly indicates that Christ died for the sins of all. Calvinist arguments which attempt to limit the "all" here are, on the whole, unconvincing and actually beg the question of how "all" can meaning something other than "all." Additionally, for "all" to be less than the "all" of humankind, we would have to add to the scriptures here the absent concept of "the elect." To put this simply, there is nothing in 1 Timothy, or in other related passages, about Christ dying only for the sins of "all the elect," but rather for the sins of "all" ... as in, "all people." The context of this passage makes this observation irrefutable.
For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.... (1 Timothy 2:5-6a)
Prevenient grace flows from the universal atonement. When Christ died for the sins of the whole world, the universal gift entailed this initial grant of grace which enables the sinner to turn to God. This gift does not, however, involve "entire regeneration" -- i.e., this gift doesn't save. It is a first step in the regenerative process, but it is not justification; it is not saving grace. The universal atonement does not mean or even imply any kind of universal salvation because, according to scripture, the effects of the cross pertaining to salvation -- i.e., the application of the blood of Jesus for the sins of any particular, individual sinner -- does not occur automatically but, rather, functions within a continuum of human response. In this respect, it is important to differentiate between grace in prevenience and grace in justification: prevenient grace is the stage of grace which enables our response, but which does not forgive sin and does not save: it leads to conviction of sin and enables faith, but it does not compel our faith-response. Saving grace, however, is the stage of grace which actually forgives sin and does save: it is justification in its ontological sense. Prevenient grace suspends the affect of the Fall upon the human will, enabling us to conform sufficiently to God's Will that we can turn to God. Saving grace, on the other hand, eradicates the guilt and affects of the fall by placing within the believer God's regenerating presence. The difference between the two stages of grace is wholly in the recipient. They look different and have different effects because they impact the believer at different points in the believers journey: one prior to faith, the other following faith.
When we combine the universal atonement — that Christ died for all — with the following verse, we find that prevenient grace, flowing from the universal atonement, enables our response of faith; following our response, the full effects of the atonement are applied to the repentant sinner. Regarding this, Paul said:
Notice how the "atonement by his blood" is applied: "through faith." In other words, the atonement is indeed for all, and Christ truly died for the sins of the whole world, but the effects of the atonement are not universally or automatically applied; rather, they are applied through and for faith. When we respond to the gift of grace — prevenient grace — with faith (which comes as a part of that prevenient gift), the effects of the atonement are applied to us: namely, the imputation of guiltlessness and the regeneration to new life in Christ. How is this possible for one who is "dead in trespasses and sins," you may ask? For humans it is impossible, but for God -- who gives us the enabling grace before our response -- it is not impossible to so enable (or "quicken") us so that we can respond to the gift without also wholly regenerating us. By saying this is impossible for God, Calvinists often violate the Scriptural mandate that: "for God, all things are possible."
Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood effective through faith. (Romans 3:23-25)
Hence, we see that the Atonement is universally offered and, in one aspect, universally applied through prevenient grace in as much as all are enabled to respond to God's gift with faith. To those who respond to the gift of grace with faith, the full effects of the atonement -- including the forgiveness of sins and the regeneration of our mortal souls -- are applied to the salvation of the believer. There is no universal salvation because the directive and enabling presence of prevenient grace is not irresistible in terms of outcome, and neither is the application of the effects of the atonement. While Christ truly did die for all, the benefit of His atoning death doesn't apply to all; and this is why we are called, as our Lord's disciples, proclaim the gospel: by so-proclaiming it, we participate as a means of grace in the gospel mandate that all those alive might hear and have an opportunity to respond to the offered gift of forgiveness, proclaim Christ as Lord, and receive the atonement which Christ offers (and which he paid for) upon the cross.
© 1997, 2006 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
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As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.