(image courtesy Dave Barnhart)
By Spencer D Gear PhD
I have not heard the term, ‘prevenient grace’, preached from many pulpits today in my part of Australia. In fact, in my many years as an evangelical believer, I can’t recall ever hearing it expounded, even though I have attended Wesleyan churches. The problem is probably associated with the fact that not much evangelical theology is expounded from the pulpit.
However, I dared to use it as a passing example in a post I made on a Christian Forum online. I was responding to a person who wrote about….
She said, ‘We hear the word a lot, but are we quite sure we know what it really means?’ Then she gave a down-home example with an emphasis on freedom.
1. Does grace mean freedom?
My response was: In the story you have given, you have indicated the grace of one person to another. What does that ‘grace’ mean in a Christian context? Are you saying that this grace means freedom?
Or, are you considering this grace to be like that of God towards the undeserving? In fact, the sinful undeserving attitude and behaviour towards God deserved something worse. An example could be that of Australia’s mass media mogul, the late Kerry Packer, who had this said about him at the beginning of his obituary in The Age newspaper, ‘The last time Kerry Packer died, 15 years ago, he quickly took the opportunity to denounce the existence of an afterlife. “I’ve been on the other side and let me tell you son, there’s f—ing nothing there,” he was fond of saying’. Dorothy Rowe reported of Packer:
When the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer had recovered from a massive heart attack during which he virtually died, he told his friend Phillip Adams, “I’ve been to the other side, and let me tell you, son, there’s f—ing nothing there. There’s no one waiting for you. There’s no one to judge you, so you can do what you bloody well like (in Rowe 2009:205).
What seems to be missing in that Packer example is that the near-death experience 15 years before his actual death, where he stopped breathing for 8 minutes (other reports say 6 minutes), was just that – a near-death experience. When he was air-lifted from the Warwick Farm racecourse, Sydney, where he was playing polo after a massive heart attack, it was not permanent death but a near-death experience. If it were permanent death, Packer would not have been alive to make that kind of blasphemous statement about what happens at death. A much more reliable indicator is that provided by almighty God who stated that ‘each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment’ (Heb 9:27 NLT). Kerry Packer knows about it now. ‘Kerry Packer died of kidney failure on Boxing Day [26 December], 2005, aged 68’ (Phillips 2013).
However, God, in knowing that all human beings are sinful and guilty before Him, extended his goodness to them, those who did not deserve it. This is His grace in action. Thanks to God’s revelation in Scripture, we know that the grace of God manifested to sinful human beings, is what God does:
(2) In regard to salvation, God provides the proclamation of the Word of God, conviction of the Holy Spirit and prevenient grace (1 Jn 2:2; Hos 8:12; Jn 16:8-11; Matt 5:13-14; Tit 2:11). This is most often called the ‘common grace of God’.
But God’s special grace is seen in election and predestination (Eph 1:4-6); redemption (Eph 1:7-8); salvation (Acts 18:27); sanctification (Rom 5:21); continuing in the faith (2 Cor 12:9); receiving an unshakable kingdom (Heb 12:28); and continuing until the final revelation of Jesus Christ at his second coming (1 Pet 1:13).
2. Clumsy and not elegant
How would a person respond to the above?
She came back with, ‘The term “prevenient grace” always seemed kinda clumsy to me. The idea seems to be that God was ready with His grace before I ever thought about sinning. I’m grateful to Him for that, of course…but there should be a more elegant way to express it. Ahh, well. Who am I to try to rewrite the language?’
While the word ‘prevenient grace’ does not appear in Scripture, to my knowledge, the teaching does. Let’s investigate the evidence.
B. Biblical evidence for prevenient grace
Prevenient grace (or common grace) is not that difficult to explain. Titus 2:11 (ESV) does it very well, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people’. The issue relates to the fact that human beings can’t initiate salvation. If we are to be saved to inherit eternal life, God must take the initiative. Titus 2:11 makes it clear that when God takes this initiative, through his grace (common or prevenient), it frees the human will in relation to salvation. To further explain the meaning of ‘appeared’ in this verse, see my article:
That God has freed the will is inferred from the number of exhortations in Scripture to turn to God (see Prov 1:23; Isa 31:6; Ezek 14:6; 18:32; Joel 2:13-14; Matt 18:3; Acts 3:19). We also see it in the exhortations to repent (1 Kings 8:47; Matt 3:2; Mk 1:15; Lk 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38; 17:30. Then there are verses that exhort people to believe (2 Chron 20:20; Isa 43:10; Jn 6:29; 14:1; Acts 16:31; Phil 1:29; 1 Jn 3:23). It would be impossible to turn to God, repent or believe if God had not in some way made it possible for such to happen for rebel sinners. He does this by sending grace before. Prevenient is based on the Latin verb, praevenio, i.e. prae = before; venio = come.
This does not mean that this prevenient/common grace enables a person to change the permanent bent of his/her will towards God (that would be Pelagianism). It does mean that a person can make that initial response to God so that God can then give repentance and faith. It is like what the author wrote in Lamentations 5:21 (NIV), ‘Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return’. The KJV translated it as, ‘Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned’. We can see this message also affirmed in Jer 31:18-19; Ps 80:3; 85:4).
Since Scripture tells us this much, then God’s prevenient grace has given human beings a measure of freedom to be restored to him. We can see some of this expressed in a verse such as Rom 1:20 (ESV), ‘For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse‘ (emphasis added).
A simple definition of prevenient or common grace is: It is the grace of God that restores to the sinner the opportunity to make a favourable response to God. My view is that it is God’s grace that makes it possible for all people to be saved. God must take the initiative if human beings are to be saved. Titus 2:11 summarises prevenient grace.
Be warned! This discussion has caused theological heartache between Calvinists and Arminians, the latter supporting prevenient grace and the former opposing it. I’m a Reformed Arminian supporter of prevenient grace.
See these other articles,
1. Prevenient cookies for the kids
How do you think the person would reply to the above evidence? Here goes: ‘There really ought to be a more elegant term for it. But I can’t think of one, either. On the other hand, I can’t think of any other use for the term “prevenient”. She had gone to the store to provide prevenient cookies for the kids? Nope…doesn’t work’.
How do I respond to the concept of ‘prevenient cookies’? I did give another term for prevenient grace, i.e. common grace. Or could we say that prevenient grace is synonymous with grace that God extends to all people that enables them to come to Christ. That’s enabling grace.
A little while back I wrote an article that attempts to address some of these issues: Is prevenient grace still amazing grace?
Perhaps it would be better to call it enabling, amazing grace before salvation (Titus 2:11 ESV).
In the Statement of Faith of the Society of Evangelical Arminians, part of it reads (in relation to prevenient grace):
We believe that humanity was created in the image of God but fell from its original sinless state through willful disobedience and Satan’s deception, resulting in eternal condemnation and separation from God. In and of themselves and apart from the grace of God human beings can neither think, will, nor do anything good, including believe. But the prevenient grace of God prepares and enables sinners to receive the free gift of salvation offered in Christ and his gospel. Only through the grace of God can sinners believe and so be regenerated by the Holy Spirit unto salvation and spiritual life. It is also the grace of God that enables believers to continue in faith as well as good in thought, will, and deed, so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God.
‘Prevenient cookies for the kids’ could be ‘getting cookies so that the kids can gorge’ at the appropriate time – New Year’s Eve. Imagine having a theology of ‘grace in preparation for the gorge’. I’m not being sacrilegious. I’m using that analogy – with an extension. ‘Assisting grace’ that comes before salvation is the idea. It is contrary to irresistible grace.
See my article, How a Calvinist can distort the meaning of 2 Peter 3:9.
How about antecedent grace or grace that comes before salvation?
C. The counter of irresistible grace
The most common resistance to the biblical view of prevenient grace comes from the Calvinistic exponents of irresistible grace.
This is the kind of argument from a Calvinist in support of irresistible grace and against prevenient grace:
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 (‘What is prevenient grace?’ Got Questions Ministries).
The counter to this is from James Arminius himself:
Concerning grace and free will, this is what I teach according to the Scriptures and orthodox consent: Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace. That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word “grace,” I mean by it that which is the grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration. I affirm, therefore, that this grace is simply and absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good. It is this grace which operates on the mind, the affections, and the will; which infuses good thoughts into the mind, inspires good desires into the actions, and bends the will to carry into execution good thoughts and good desires. This grace goes before, accompanies, and follows; it excites, assists, operates that we will, and co-operates lest we will in vain. It averts temptations, assists and grants succour in the midst of temptations, sustains man against the flesh, the world and Satan, and in this great contest grants to man the enjoyment of the victory. It raises up again those who are conquered and have fallen, establishes and supplies them with new strength, and renders them more cautious. This grace commences salvation, promotes it, and perfects and consummates it.
I confess that the mind of a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins. And I add to this — that teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to divine grace, provided he so pleads the cause of grace, as not to inflict an injury on the justice of God, and not to take away the free will to that which is evil (Works of James Arminius, vol 2. ‘Grace and Free will’)
The teaching of Arminius was that the will was so bound with sin that it is ‘dead in sins’ and that it needed God’s grace through Christ for regeneration. That grace is needed to illuminate the mind towards God. ‘This grace goes before, accompanies and follows’ regeneration.
1. What is irresistible grace?
(image courtesy ChristArt)
R. C. Sproul, a Calvinist, describes irresistible grace as ‘effectual calling’. For Sproul,
the effectual call of God is an inward call. It is the secret work of quickening or regeneration accomplished in the souls of the elect by the immediate supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit…. Effectual calling is irresistible in the sense that God sovereignly brings about its desired result…. irresistible in the sense that God’s grace prevails over our natural resistance to it (Sproul 1992:169-170).
We need to understand that the language of ‘effectual calling’ is a way to soften the language of ‘irresistible grace’, with the latter coming with overtones of God forcing a person to receive salvation. Lemke (2010:112) considers that ‘some contemporary Calvinists seem to be a little embarrassed by the term “irresistible grace” and have sought to soften it or to replace it with a term like “effectual calling”‘.
While Sproul (1992), Spurgeon (1856) and J. I. Packer (1993:152-153) use the language of ‘effectual calling’, other Calvinists are more up front in emphasising that grace that brings about salvation cannot be refused – people are unable to resist. Packer’s language is that ‘in effectual calling God quickens the dead’, people understand the gospel through the Holy Spirit enlightening and renewing the hearts of elect sinners. They embrace this ‘truth from God, and God in Christ becomes to them an object of desire and affection’ as they are now regenerate and have been enabled ‘by the use of their freed will to choose God and the good’ and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour (Packer 1993:153). Spurgeon (1856) said, ‘If he shall but say, “To-day I must abide at thy house,” there will be no resistance in you…. If God says “I must,” there is no standing against it. Let him say “must,” and it must be’.
Steele, Thomas and Quinn (2004:52-54), as Calvinists, are more to the point, using the language that ‘the special inward call of the Spirit never fails to result in the conversion of those to whom it is made’. It is issued ‘only to the elect’ and the Spirit does not depend on ‘their help or cooperation’. In fact, ‘for the grace which the Holy Spirit extends to the elect cannot be thwarted or refused, it never fails to bring them to true faith in Christ’. That sounds awfully like God forcing the elect to come to Christ and by implication, leaving the non-elect to damnation, or God’s choice to irresistibly damn the non-elect.
John Piper and the staff at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN, do not use the softly, softly language. They state that irresistible grace
does not mean that every influence of the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted. It means that the Holy Spirit can overcome all resistance and make his influence irresistible…. The doctrine of irresistible grace means that God is sovereign and can overcome all resistance when he wills.
However, there is a paradoxical statement in the Bethlehem Baptist statement in that only a few paragraphs after making the above declaration, it stated:
Irresistible grace never implies that God forces us to believe against our will. That would even be a contradiction in terms. On the contrary, irresistible grace is compatible with preaching and witnessing that tries to persuade people to do what is reasonable and what will accord with their best interests.
It sure is a contradiction in terms and the Bethlehem Baptist Church has given that contradiction by affirming that ‘the Holy Spirit can overcome all resistance’, yet God never ‘forces us to believe against our will’. They state that irresistible grace has been described this way:
When God calls his elect into salvation, they cannot resist. God offers to all people the gospel message. This is called the external call. But to the elect, God extends an internal call and it cannot be resisted. This call is by the Holy Spirit who works in the hearts and minds of the elect to bring them to repentance and regeneration whereby they willingly and freely come to God. Some of the verses used in support of this teaching are Romans 9:16 where it says that “it is not of him who wills nor of him who runs, but of God who has mercy“; Philippians 2:12-13 where God is said to be the one working salvation in the individual; John 6:28-29 where faith is declared to be the work of God; Acts 13:48 where God appoints people to believe; and John 1:12-13 where being born again is not by man’s will, but by God’s.
A Calvinist continued his opposition to prevenient grace: ‘Why don’t you consider prevenient grace a violation of free will?’
This was my response: It is not a violation of free will. It is common grace. It is no more a violation of free will than a person receiving a soul/spirit is a violation of free will.
God takes the initiative in all salvation. We know that prevenient grace is not a violation of free will because God has stated it clearly. This is what He has done: ‘For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people’ (Titus 2:11 ESV).
This means that the human will is freed in relation to salvation. It is not a violation of free will. We know that the will has been freed in relation to salvation because it is implied in the exhortations given above:
- to turn to God.
- to repent, and
- to believe.
Prevenient or common grace is no more a violation of a person’s will than their receiving a beating heart before birth and breath after birth. See, ‘How your baby begins to breathe’ (Dr Amy).
2. Why irresistible grace is unbiblical
(image courtesy ChristArt)
See the William Birch article, on the Society of Evangelical Arminians’ website, ‘Arminius vs Calvin on Irresistible Grace’. Some of the chief theological issues, as I understand them, with irresistible grace, are:
It violates the fundamental principle that God gave to our first parents (Adam & Eve) in the Garden at the beginning of the human race, ‘ And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”’ (Gen 2:16-17 ESV). The man, Adam was given the freedom to choose to eat or not to eat from the tree. What did Adam do? He and his wife exercised their God-given free wills and they ate, thus bringing sin to the entire human race (Gen 3:1-7).
When it comes to salvation, this principle of free will choice is violated by Calvinistic irresistible grace. The Calvinistic view is God forcing the salvation of grace on human beings. The obvious response is that that is for the eternal benefit of the saved. My response is that this is for the eternal damnation of the lost as well. Double predestination (i.e. both the lost and saved are predestined eternally by God) makes God into a monster, in my view, who demands that a large section of humanity will be eternally perishing – according to His irresistible grace. It is demanded by God that it should be that way. What kind of God would do that when he has declared he is a God of love for the whole world (John 3:16)?
Is this a libertine view of free will? Not at all! See my article,
This leads to some further, but related, problems with irresistible grace:
loving the world and Jesus’ dying for the whole world of sinners. This is explained in my articles,
It makes God into a Being of partiality who plays the favourites. This especially violates the biblical teaching, ‘for God does not show favoritism’ (Rom 2:11 NIV). In Romans 2, the context is no favouritism between Jews and Greeks (Gentiles). Then in Acts 10:34-35 (NIV), Peter preached the good news to the Gentiles, ‘Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right’.
Caleb Colley explained:
Exactly what does it mean that God is impartial? God offers salvation to every man, no matter what external circumstances, such as socioeconomic status or nationality, might apply to him. God does not offer salvation only to the Jew, just because he is a Jew, or only to the Gentile because he is a Gentile. The Greek word translated “respecter of persons” in the King James Version of Acts 10:34 (“God is no respecter of persons”) is prosopolemptes, a word that refers to a judge who looks at a man’s face instead of at the facts of the case, and makes a decision based on whether or not he likes the man (Lenski, 1961, p. 418). Under Roman law, for example, a defendant’s societal status was weighed heavily along with evidence. Any human judge might show undue favor to a plaintiff or a defendant because of private friendship, bribery, rank, power, or political affiliation, but God, the perfect Judge, cannot be tempted by any of the things that might tempt a human judge to show unfair partiality.
This is not an article where I provide a refutation of every verse the Calvinists use to try to counter prevenient grace. It is an overview of some of the issues. I write as a Reformed, classical Arminian who is convinced from Scripture of the doctrine of prevenient grace as taught in Titus 2:11 (ESV).
For a refutation of one of the primary Calvinistic verses against prevenient grace, see Craig L. Adams, “Calvinism and John 6:44?. John 6:44 (ESV) reads, ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day’.
I am convinced that the biblical evidence points to prevenient grace that is an antecedent to salvation, but it is grace that is available to all but can be resisted.
Lemke, S W 2010. A biblical and theological critique of irresistible grace. David L. Allen & Steve W. Lemke (eds). Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, 109-162. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic.
Packer, J I 1993. Concise Theology. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers Inc.
Phillips, N 2013. Packer’s last words to his son. The Sydney Morning Herald (online), February 11. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/packers-last-words-to-his-son-20130210-2e6jw.html (Accessed 2 February 2016).
Rowe, D 2009. What Should I Believe? Why Our Beliefs about the Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life Dominate Our Lives. London and New York: Routledge.
Sproul, R C 1992. Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers Inc.
Spurgeon, C H 1856. Effectual calling, sermon 73, 30 March. Available at: http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0073.htm (Accessed 5 October 2011).
Steele, D N, Thomas C C, & Quinn S L 2004. The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed.
Thiessen, H C 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Christianity Board, Grace, The Barrd#1. Available at: http://www.christianityboard.com/topic/22258-grace/#entry268559 (Accessed 31 December 2015).
 Ibid., OzSpen#4.
 The Age, Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer 1937-2005: Obituary (online), 28 December 2005. Available at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2005/12/27/1135445572500.html?page=fullpage (Accessed 1 January 2016).
 This report stated that Packer was ‘without a pulse for six minutes’, Emma Alberici, Kerry Packer dies, The 7.30 Report (online), 27 December 2005. Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2005/s1538560.htm (Accessed 1 January 2016).
 See the photograph of Kerry Packer on his hospital bed, who had been ‘admitted to Saint Vincent’s Hospital after suffering a heart attack while playing polo at Warwick Farm, 7 October 1990’. Available from gettyimages at: http://www.gettyimages.com.au/detail/news-photo/kerry-packer-is-admitted-to-saint-vincents-hospital-after-news-photo/539703913 (Accessed 1 January 2016). See other details of this Packer experience in ‘Kerry Packer and a plea for privacy’ (Oxford University Press 2015), available at: http://www.oup.com.au/orc/extra_pages/higher_education/hirst__and__patching/kerry_packer (Accessed 1 January 2016).
 For an example of research into near-death experiences, see the interview with Dr Peter Fenwick, one of Britain’s leading neuropsychiatrists, on a year-old research project in the cardiac unit, Southampton General Hospital on Australia’s Lateline, 30 October 2000. Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/stories/s206217.htm (Accessed 1 January 2016).
 With help from Thiessen (1949:155-156).
 Christianity Board, loc cit., The Barrd#5.
 With considerable help from Thiessen (1949:155-156).
 Christianity Board, loc cit., The Barrd#7.
 Ibid., OzSpen#8.
 Desiring God, ‘What we believe about the five points of Calvinism’ (rev. March 1998). Available at: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/what-we-believe-about-the-five-points-of-calvinism#Grace (Accessed 5 October 2011). I was alerted to this reference from Piper in Lemke (2010)..
 This contradiction was pointed out in Lemke (2010:112).
 Christian Forums.com, The ‘Free Will’ Dilemma, Hammster #517, June 23, 2013. Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/threads/the-free-will-dilemma.7746203/page-26 (Accessed 31 December 2015).
 Ibid., OzSpen#519.
 This was posted, July 5, 2010.
 Apologetics Press 2004. God is no respecter of persons (online). Available at: http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=12&article=1440 (Accessed 31 December 2015).
Copyright © 2016 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 4 June 2016.