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 a Latin word that meant ”to come before, to anticipate.” By definition, every theological system that affirms the necessity of God’s grace prior to a sinner’s conversion teaches 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.”
Let’s examine some of the key passages used to support the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace. 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. Calvinists consider this to be 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 of all in the New Testament and is highly significant since the common belief was 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.” The same principle leads to similar interpretations of other key passages such as Romans 11:32 and Titus 2:11.
Calvinists argue that the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace should be rejected on biblical grounds, and they use Philippians 1:6 to prove their point: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ.” The Greek term used for “completion” here means “accomplishment” or “perfection,” 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 is problematic, since we are assured in Philippians 1:6 that God will perfect what He starts in a person. Also, Calvinists point out that there is no grammatical or contextual reason to believe that the two hims in John 6:44 are different groups of people. The verse seems to clearly state that the one who is drawn by the Father is the same one who is raised up on the last day. There is nothing that would support the idea that some who are “drawn” will fail to be “raised up” on the last day. We find a similar promise in Romans 8:30, where all whom God calls will be justified and later glorified.
Lastly, Calvinists refute the idea of prevenient grace with 1 John 5:1, which states that the cause of a person’s believing in Jesus Christ is that he was born again (i.e., regenerated), which John had already said 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 necessary in order to perceive the kingdom of God (John 3:3). Calvinism emphasizes the natural man’s deadness in sin (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13) and his need of a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26), and concludes that man does not need to be made “better” or “partially alive”; rather, he needs to be resurrected!