Question: "What is prevenient grace?"

“Prevenient grace” is a phrase used to describe the grace given by God that precedes the act of a sinner exercising saving faith in Jesus Christ. The term “prevenient” comes from the Latin and means ”to come before.” By definition, every theological system which affirms the necessity of God’s grace prior to a sinner’s conversion has a type of prevenient grace. The Reformed doctrine of irresistible grace is a type of prevenient grace, as is common grace.

However, when the phrase “prevenient grace” is used in theological discussions, it is used in a specific way. In the context of the on-going Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate, prevenient grace is referred to in order to object to the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace. This is the reason why, in both modern and historic times, it has also been called “resistible grace” or “pre-regenerating grace.” Since denying the necessity of God’s grace prior to a sinner’s conversion is clearly against biblical teaching, the non-Calvinist theological systems have to affirm a doctrine of grace that precedes a person’s exercising of saving faith. Since non-Calvinists do not believe the saving grace of God always results in the sinner coming to Christ, Christians down through the ages have referred to a type of grace they call prevenient. Simply put, prevenient grace is the grace of God given to individuals that releases them from their bondage to sin and enables them to come to Christ in faith but does not guarantee that the sinner will actually do so. Thus, the efficacy of the enabling grace of God is determined not by God but by man.

Historically, within the Arminian theological system, there have been three prominent positions concerning the doctrine of prevenient grace. Within classical Arminianism, there are two positions. Within Wesleyanism, there is one prominent position. Though all three positions have similarities, they are by no means identical. In fact, correctly defining prevenient grace has led to in-house debates within the Arminian tradition.

The first of the two prominent positions on the doctrine of prevenient grace in classical Arminianism is that until the Gospel, the instrument by which God draws sinners to Himself, is presented to a sinner, the sinner is in complete bondage to sin. The Holy Spirit works with the presentation of the Gospel through teaching (John 6:45) and convicting (John 16:8) the sinner, enabling the sinner to respond in the exercising of saving faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit opens the heart (Acts 16:14) and mind (Luke 24:45) of the sinner, thus drawing the sinner to Christ (John 6:44, 12:32), and the sinner is then enabled to exercise his newly freed will in placing his faith in Christ for salvation. This falls in line with the biblical teaching that the natural man is unable to understand spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:14; Romans 8:7-8), which would include the message of the Gospel. However, Arminians teach that, although the sinner is now enabled to place his faith in Christ, this enablement by no means guarantees that the sinner will actually do so. This contradicts the proclamation by Jesus that all those the Father gives to Him will come to Him (John 6:37).

The second position is a bit more complicated than the first. In this position there is, essentially, a lesser and greater drawing via prevenient grace, which comes through the proclamation of the Gospel and the internal calling of God, sometimes referred to as the “full intensity” of prevenient grace. That is, God is drawing all men in a lesser sense and then drawing those who have the Gospel presented to them in another, greater sense. Some have called this latter drawing the dispensing of “particular prevenient grace.” In this position, God has given all men a prevenient grace that results in a universal healing of total depravity by the grace of God through the atoning work of Christ. This, in turn, has alleviated, though not fully, the corruption of inherited depravity. This position resembles what is sometimes called the “partial depravity” of Arminianism, since total depravity no longer describes what people are but rather what people were. That is, because of the atoning work of Christ, all people are no longer completely incapable of hearing and responding to the Gospel (John 6:44, 8:43); rather, all people have some ability. However, similar to the other position in classical Arminianism, people are not completely freed from their bondage of sin until the Gospel is presented to them and God calls them internally through its presentation. Arminius might have referred to this concept when he spoke of the “intermediate stage between being unregenerate and regenerate” while others have referred to people in this stage as “partially regenerated.” Since Arminians believe that regeneration logically comes after faith, when a person repents of his sin and exercises saving faith in Christ, then that person is “fully regenerated.”

The last position on the doctrine of prevenient grace is that of the Wesleyans (also known as Wesleyan-Arminians). In this position, because of the first coming and atoning work of Christ, God has dispensed a universal prevenient grace that fully negates the depravity of man. Thus, man is now in a neutral state. Those who adhere to this position assert that because of Christ’s promises that speak of “all men” being drawn (John 12:32) and the “world” being convicted (John 16:8) after His sacrifice, it means that the prevenient grace we experience today was something purchased by Christ’s work on the cross. Since Wesleyans believe in unlimited atonement as opposed to limited atonement, Wesleyans then further state that when Paul speaks of God giving those whom Christ died for “all things” (Romans 8:32), this universal prevenient grace is one of those “all things.”

Before examining and refuting the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace, let’s examine some of the key passages used to support the doctrine. In John 12:32, Jesus said that when He is lifted from the earth, He will “draw all men” to Himself. This verse is frequently used to object to the Reformed position of irresistible grace found in Jesus’ words in John 6:44, since John 12:32 states that “all men” are drawn and, as such, John 6:44 cannot be saying that all who are drawn will be raised up on the last day. However, this is a misunderstanding of how “all” is being used in John 12:32. That is, when Jesus says He “will draw all men” to Himself, He is using “all” in the sense of “not just Jews but Gentiles, too.” This is the typical use “all” in the New Testament and is highly significant since it was believed that the Messiah would come to save the Jews and the Jews alone. The same principle applies to John 16:8 when Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit coming to “convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” after His ascension. The “world” here likewise refers to “Jews and Gentiles” or, as the creatures and elders sing in Revelation 5:9, men “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” When we keep this principle in mind, we can see that the other key passages such as Romans 11:32 and Titus 2:11 do not teach what those who adhere to the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace say they do.

The Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace should be rejected on biblical grounds. First and foremost, it turns Paul’s words “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:6) on their head. The Greek term used here means to “accomplish” or “perfect,” similar to how the writer of Hebrews says Jesus is the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). The doctrine of prevenient grace affirms that a work is done in the sinner but it denies that the efficacy of the grace is guaranteed. This makes no sense if we are assured that God will perfect what He starts in a person. Second, there is no reason to believe that the two “him’s” in John 6:44 are different groups of people. Two Greek words separate the first “him” who is drawn by the Father from the second “him” who is raised up on the last day. Grammatically and contextually, there is nothing that would begin to support the idea that the verse means not all who are drawn will be raised up on the last day. We find a similar idea in Romans 8:30, where we read that all whom God calls, referring to the inward calling, will be justified and later glorified.

Lastly, 1 John 5:1 states clearly that the cause of a person’s believing in Jesus Christ is that he was born again (i.e., regenerated), which John had already told us is “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13) and is something necessary in order to even perceive the kingdom of God (John 3:3), let alone enter into it. As long as we recognize the biblical truth of the natural man’s deadness in sin (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13), his need of a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26), and that man is a pile of bones needing to be breathed on by God to be brought to life (Ezekiel 37:3-7), we can see that man does not need to be made “better” or “partially alive” but that man needs to be resurrected! Therefore, the doctrine of prevenient grace is without biblical support.