Prevenient Grace as a Reappraised Doctrine

W. Brian Shelton

When John Wesley penned “Predestination Calmly Considered,” he did not imagine that he was presenting the story of salvation in a renewed way. After all, he wrote from the ageless books of Scripture, restoring its description of salvation as homo unius libri, “a man of one book.” Yet, on the landscape of the Protestant church in the late eighteenth century, his work confronted the stalwart, predestinarian forces of the Reformed tradition. Thus emerged his notion of prevenient grace: the grace of God to fallen humanity for salvation, free and available to all.

Meanwhile, Wesley could not imagine that centuries later anything related to “Predestination Calmly Considered” could be a renewed way for a church divided over soteriology to dialog. In the age of the Calvinist-Arminian debate, not enough grace characterizes blogs and disputes that battle exegetically and systematically in defense of a God of love. In some camps, overtures are made to grace before free will is championed, as if human ability were the focus of salvation and sanctification. In other camps, grace is triumphed unconditionally before free will becomes the practical, modus operandi explanation for personal circumstances. Every generation must discover for themselves the significance of such debates in a renewed way. Wesley has immense instruction on salvation for the contemporary evangelical church that warrants a reappraisal of its debates.

Meanwhile, the doctrine of prevenient grace offers more than an explanation of divine love to all humankind and not merely the elect, although it does so with unprecedented biblical explanation of universal opportunity for salvation. It also offers a catalyst in general revelation that can explain why unbelievers think about their Creator without a copy of the Scriptures or a sermon within shouting distance. It offers elucidation on the nature of baptism as more than just a dedication by parents or an outward act of an already inward faith. It offers insight into the power of the Word when heard or read by a heart torn between faith and continued sin. Finally, it offers a source of dialog about all of these matters, especially in light of its limited attention in generations since Wesley. All these topics participate in a potentially renewed approach to prevenient grace.

This article presents briefly the qualities of prevenient grace that stem from the writings of Wesley but are not fully appreciated in larger evangelical debates. The doctrine is a part of a crucial systematic theology for explaining from Scripture how the love of God extends to salvation to all people and how God relates to both his creation and the church. The article lands briefly on the role of prevenient grace on renewed frontiers of soteriology, natural revelation, sacramentology, and homiletics.

Grace/Free Will Debate

Prevenient grace is a topic that offers fresh perspective on the age-old debate of divine agency in salvation. Since Augustine first brought Paul’s language of grace to bear on the Pelagian controversy in the early fifth century, the characterization of divine election has continued in many Christian circles to refer to an individual selected for salvation, with either a consequential or intentional divine selection of the reprobate. Ensuing generations of medieval monks, Reformed theologians, Dutch church leaders, and Southern Baptist seminarians have comfortably and polemically insisted that any definition of divine sovereignty include a particular and limited saving grace, provided only to the elect rather than all humankind. In such circles, free will has become a moniker for libertarianism, American individualism, and self-sufficiency, or humanistic theology. “Rather than affirm a boot-strap doctrine of merit, the Calvinist insists upon the effectiveness of divine grace,” one Reformed author has posited (Robert Peterson and Michael Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian [IVP Academic, 2004], 18). And yet, Wesley championed free grace, insisting that any notion of salvation must not only be centered on grace but should recognize an original cause of grace that leads sinners to believe: “The author of faith and salvation is God alone” (“A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” in Works, 8:49). Particularly for contemporary Wesleyans, it is a topic acquainted with all but not very well-known by many. Barry Callen recently remarked, “How ironic that a doctrine central to the heart of the Wesleyan theological tradition is now in danger of being lost in obscurity. Prevenient grace has escaped the notice many believers today, even those in the Wesleyan tradition” (cover commendation for W. Brian Shelton, Prevenient Grace: God’s Provision for Fallen Humanity [Francis Asbury, 2014]).

Prevenient grace helps to alleviate the notion that humankind is so sinful that it must encounter a divine predestination in order to be saved. Yes, depravity extends to all people in a way that prevents them from recognizing their need for a savior or to muster the power for repentance. That recognition and power comes from God, not only to some elect but as opportunity to all people everywhere. Wesley writes, “There is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored to every man, together with that supernatural light which lightens every man that cometh in the world. But indeed whether this be natural or no … it matters not” (“Predestination Calmly Considered,” in Works, 10:229-30; he also wrote, “We both steadily assert that the will of man is by nature free only to evil. We both believe that every man has a measure of free-will restored to him by grace” [“Some Remarks on Mr. Hill’s ‘Review,’” in Works, 10:392]). How can one maintain depravity from the fall while also maintain human ability to repent as an act of goodness? The answer is prevenient grace. H. Ray Dunning has called the paradox of both depravity (inability to repent) and free will (ability to repent) a “logical abstraction” (Grace, Faith and Holiness [Beacon Hill, 1988], 432), a condition that immediately existed when God showed grace to Adam at the fall. Prevenient grace functions much like Calvin’s common grace, as it extends God’s goodness to all sectors of society to allow unbelieving people the ability to do good acts. Yet, for Wesley, this grace extends beyond mere civilization to bear on the heart for repentance. It is a precursor to saving grace, but not as a fragmented process. It also is the same Spirit and grace that perpetuates our sanctification after conversion.

Organic Revelation

An important intersection of prevenient grace lies with natural theology, as universal enablement to believe finds complementation with universal revelation in nature. Prevenient grace can explain the mechanism of recognition that occurs when a person encounters the handiwork of God in nature and natural reason. Romans 1 describes how the gentiles recognized God in creation but failed to honor him: “For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (v. 20). This presentation of natural revelation in vv. 18-32 elaborates and extends how prevenient grace can be seen as the singular, explanatory divine means at work in the human comprehension of natural revelation, theologia naturalis. This complements Ps 19, in which “the heavens declare the glory of God and the earth proclaims his handiwork.”

Borrowing terms from the field of chemistry, this theory posits that such grace “activates” and “catalyzes” every person’s ability to believe and repent. Although one may not have the gospel formally presented, one can still see and fathom God through creation. One can contemplate a creator, a designer, and even a providential figure that perpetuates his care of the creatures made in his image. The ability to recognize this is by grace — prevenient grace — that comes by the aid of the Holy Spirit to redirect people to God.

Correlating this phenomenon with Rom 1, Don Richardson’s popular Eternity in Their Hearts attempts to gather historical episodes in which individuals from all spheres of revelation — particularly various pagan cultures — sought God and eventually encountered an opportunity to hear the gospel. He proposes a “Melchizedek factor” in which general revelation directs people to find and accept the true God. He posits that the world is in a condition “prepared for the gospel” while the Lord provides a “gospel prepared for the world” ([Regal, 1981], 5-10). By using universal enabling in the context of natural revelation, the doctrine confronts anew the perennial problem of the fate of the unevangelized and informs our doctrine of eternal destinies.

The form of this grace has been coined as “objective” because it comes indiscriminately to all people. It stresses how a prior initiative of God comes to all as a general call to repent and believe that was not available before. At the same time, a “subjective” aspect stresses how grace precedes an individual’s salvation, a unique invitation of the Spirit to the heart of an individual. This is the attention of the next two mechanisms in the sacramental acts of baptism and preaching. Together objective and subjective aspects of prevenient grace make salvation an organic phenomenon in which God’s love comes both generally and uniquely, working together towards our salvation and continuing in our sanctification.

Baptism and Preaching as Mysteries of God

Water baptism and the preaching of the Word constitute subjective and individual effects of the gospel on the heart of a believer. People receive baptism or hear a sermon so that their heart is changed. For any believer recognizing the sacramental aspects of the church’s ordinances, the sacraments and the preaching of the Word are not mere practices but actual means of grace, partnering with faith for salvation. Yet, the sources are gracious. The dynamics of that grace at work in these ordinances are mysterious, but have a genuine effect on the heart of the recipient. The “Thirty-Nine Articles” remark that by baptism, “Faith is confirmed and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God” (XXVII). The “Westminster Confession of Faith” remarks, “The grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost” (XXVII.VI).

In his sermon on Phil 2:12-13, Wesley recognized this phenomenon of baptism: “The Spirit of God in baptism draws us from the power of death into the liberty of the children of God” (unpublished sermon, cited in Charles A. Rogers, “The Concept of Prevenient Grace in the Theology of John Wesley” [PhD diss., Duke University, 1967], 120n2). Anglican scholar George Hodges remarks that “baptism is the bringing of a human soul into the midst of spiritual influences,” on a level of influence that might look like a means of prevenient grace (The Episcopal Church: Its Doctrines, Ministry, Discipline, Worship, and Sacraments [Morehouse-Groham, 1938], 85). Both theologians promote the idea that baptism is a means by which the Spirit blesses and deepens a spiritual sensitivity. For those so maintaining this activity on infants, prevenient grace becomes the worthy form of the identification of enabling grace.

Likewise, the preaching of the Word can impact the human heart in a subjective and individual fashion. When Paul speaks of his ministry of evangelism to the Corinthian church, he declares, “My message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4). Terrance Tiessan explains, “At the same time that this word is spoken, God speaks his truth in our hearts so that men receive it not only externally but also internally and believe it” (Who Can Be Saved? Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions [IVP Academic, 2004], 237). The “Westminster Shorter Catechism” remarks, “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (89). The Holy Spirit works on the hearts of individuals, seeking to arrest the heart for the Lord. In both of these cases of objective and subjective prevenient grace, the power of grace permeates the darkness and perpetuates Wesley’s point of John 1:9, “Jesus is the light that enlightens all the world.”

Promotion of Wesleyan Doctrine

The overlooked topic of prevenient grace can serve as a reminder that components of Wesley’s writings are often missing in evangelical circles. As author of the book Prevenient Grace, my motivation for writing stemmed in part from the oversight or the disengagement of the Wesleyan tradition in larger debates of salvation. In the mid-1990s, scholar Thomas Schreiner set out to challenge the doctrine, only to discover the dearth of attention on the topic for himself: “What was most striking to me in my research was how little scriptural exegesis has been done by Wesleyans in defense of prevenient grace. It is vital to their system of theology … nonetheless, not much exegetical work has been done in support of the doctrine” (“Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?” in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, vol. 2, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware [Baker, 1995], 382). In 2005, William Combs declared similarly, “Arminians offer very little actual hard exegetical support for prevenient grace, whether of the universal or individualistic variety, and what they give is hardly convincing” (“Does the Bible Teach Prevenient Grace?” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 10 [2005]: 16). As author of a book on prevenient grace that is exegetical, historical, systematic and practical in its theology, I hope that such claims are now mitigated. Whether disengaged or overlooked, Wesleyan-Arminian voices must more loudly pronounce the prominence of biblical and theological intellectual properties concerning grace and free will in larger evangelical debates. Prevenient grace can help that cause.

Posted Oct 14, 2015