“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44). Without God’s prevenient grace, no one could come to Christ and be saved. Here are ten things you need to know about this key doctrine.
1. Prevenient Grace is the Same Thing as Preventing Grace
If you read the writings of John Wesley, you will eventually stumble upon a reference to “preventing grace.” Preventing grace is more commonly called prevenient grace. Despite some popular misconceptions, there is no difference between the two terms (the former is merely antiquated). Prevene (or prevent in the old English) means to go before.
2. All Christians Believe in Some Kind of Prevenient Grace
While Wesley is known for his doctrine of prevenient grace, he only contributed to the church’s understanding of a truth that has been discussed in explicit terms since the fifth century (see especially the conclusion of the 25 Canons of the Council of Orange in 529 AD). Some form of prevenient grace is affirmed by all Christians, including Calvinists.
3. Prevenient Grace Speaks of God’s Initiative In Salvation
Prevenient grace in the consensually recognized sense is the grace of God that goes before salvation. It speaks of God’s initiative in bringing men to a saving knowledge of himself. If a man seeks God, it is only because God has first sought him (Jn. 6:44). Without this pursuing grace, there is no salvation.
4. Without Prevenient Grace, We Are Unable to Respond Positively to the Gospel and Be Saved
Prevenient grace answers the difficult question, “How do sinful men ever receive Christ?” In their fallen condition, men do not have the power to freely choose between right or wrong. While Arminians commonly insist that men have free will, this is only true in a qualified sense. Wesleyan Arminians affirm man’s total depravity (see Wesley, Sermon 44 – On Original Sin), including the bondage of man’s will to sin.
In Declaration of Sentiments, Arminius gladly affirmed the position of the Reformers: “in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good.” In other words, the fall was so serious that man no longer has the power in himself to freely choose what is pleasing to God. Left to his own devices, man would never seek God or embrace the gospel since he cannot do so (Jn. 6:44). He would only plunge deeper into sin and misery.
The fall was so serious that man does not have the power in himself to freely choose what is pleasing to God.
5. Wesleyan Prevenient Grace is Distinct In Several Ways
Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace is distinct at several key points. David Fry, in his paper “God’s Gracious Provision: A Theological and Exegetical Defense of the Wesleyan Doctrine of Prevenient Grace,” compares Wesleyan prevenient grace (WPG) to the Calvinist doctrine of grace:
Prevenient grace, as Wesleyans use the term, is theological shorthand for a complex of theological concepts. At the core of WPG is the unity of three aspects of grace: that is, grace is given to all people (universal), grace enables a person to bear fruit from that grace (enabling), and once grace has been given it may be resisted (resistible). The three points are held together by Wesleyans. Many Calvinists also affirm each of these points, but they do so without holding all three in unity to describe one grace. For instance, the Calvinist concept of “common grace” is universal and even resistible, but has no salvific quality and, therefore, is not enabling. Grace for the elect is enabling but neither universal nor resistible. Therefore, the unity of these three points is essential to WPG. Based on the unity of these three concepts, prevenient grace in the Wesleyan sense usually refers to God’s universal provision whereby people are enabled to exercise the faith necessary for salvation.
6. Wesleyan Prevenient Grace Is A Universal Benefit of the Atonement
The great Methodist theologian William Burt Pope explains that the final ground of prevenient grace is to be found “in the virtue of the universal atonement securing a measure of the Spirit’s influence to every child of Adam” (emphasis mine). Because Jesus died for all men, he now sends his Spirit to act in some measure upon the hearts of all men.
7. Wesleyan Prevenient Grace is the Enabling Power of the Spirit Operating in the Lives of All Men, Leading Them Towards Salvation
Prevenient grace is “salvific in direction.” God intends for his grace to be received and ultimately lead men to faith in Christ. While God does extend some generic benefits to all men (Mt. 5:45), his primary concern is for all men to be saved, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
Without God’s prevenient grace, no one could come to Christ and be saved.
8. Wesleyan Prevenient Grace is Ultimately Resistible
Arminius saw this at the heart of his conflict with the high Calvinists in his day. He explains:
I ascribe to grace the commencement, the continuance and the consummation of all good, and to such an extent do I carry its influence, that a man, though already regenerate, can neither conceive, will, nor do any good at all, nor resist any evil temptation, without this preventing and exciting, this following and co-operating grace. From this statement it will clearly appear, that I by no means do injustice to grace, by attributing, as it is reported of me, too much to man’s free-will. For the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, “is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?” (emphasis mine)
He concludes: “I believe, according to the scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered.” Acts 7:51 is a key text: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.”
Men must cooperate with God’s prevenient grace for it to bring them to salvation: “When man by grace responds to God’s call, God gives him more grace. Salvation is all by grace, but man cooperates with that grace. Man can choose to respond to grace or to reject it.”
9. Prevenient Grace is Assumed Everywhere in Scripture
While prevenient grace is ultimately a theological inference, it is implied in numerous texts and essential to make sense of the biblical data on salvation. “It may not be a biblical term,” explains Roger Olson, “but it is a biblical concept that is assumed everywhere in Scripture.”
Titus 2:11-12 is one of several texts that imply the doctrine of prevenient grace and teach it as universal in scope and salvific in nature: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”
10. Prevenient Grace Has Countless Practical Implications
The theological, practical, and pastoral implications of prevenient grace are innumerable. If you are a Christian, it is because of prevenient grace. Pope notes that prevenient grace “accompanies the first exercises of man’s mind and heart and will.” If you think, will, or do anything that is good, be certain that God has secretly worked upon your heart. If someone responds to an altar call at your church, know that it is only because the power of the Spirit first acted upon him. Pray for grace, “for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).