Methodists frequently speak about something they call “prevenient grace,” or grace that “comes before.” Here’s how the United Methodist Book of Discipline defines it.
We acknowledge God’s prevenient grace, the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses toward God. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our “first slight transient conviction” of having sinned against God. This grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, actually had very little to say directly about the doctrine of prevenient grace, especially given the weight the doctrine carries within Wesleyan circles, and the volumes of material that came from the pen of Wesley.
Wesley’s treatise On Working Out Our Own Salvation contains the most comprehensive statement on prevenient grace. Note that Wesley uses the term “prevent” instead of the more modern “prevenient”. The meaning is the same.
Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him. All these imply some tendency toward life; some degree of salvation; the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God and the things of God. Salvation is carried on by convincing grace, usually in Scripture termed repentance; which brings a larger measure of self-knowledge, and a farther deliverance from the heart of stone. Afterwards we experience the proper Christian salvation; whereby, “through grace,” we “are saved by faith;” consisting of those two grand branches, justification and sanctification. By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin, and restored to the favour of God; by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin, and restored to the image of God…
… For allowing that all the souls of men are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly termed preventing grace. Every man has a greater or less measure of this, which waiteth not for the call of man. Every one has, sooner or later, good desires; although the generality of men stifle them before they can strike deep root, or produce any considerable fruit. Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which, sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world. And every one, unless he be one of the small number whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron, feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience. So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.
The Scripture Way of Salvation includes some of these same thoughts:
If we take this in its utmost extent, it will include all that is wrought in the soul by what is frequently termed “natural conscience,” but more properly, “preventing grace”; –all the drawings of the Father; the desires after God, which, if we yield to them, increase more and more; –all that light wherewith the Son of God “enlighteneth every one that cometh into the world;” showing every man “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God”; –all the convictions which His Spirit, from time to time, works in every child of man–although it is true, the generality of men stifle them as soon as possible, and after a while forget, or at least deny, that they ever had them at all.
Wesley’s sermon on The Means of Grace barely touches on preventing grace as it introduces its topic.
By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.
And while the sermon Predestination Calmly Considered does not use the term “preventing grace,” Wesley’s assertion in this short passage is basically the same as one of those in On Working Out Our Own Salvation.
I only assert, that there is a measure of free will supernaturally restored to every man, together with that supernatural light which “enlightens every man that cometh into the world.”
And again in The Original Nature, Property and Use of the Law, Wesley speaks of God re-inscribing the law on the heart of fallen humanity.
But it was not long before man rebelled against God, and, by breaking this glorious law, wellnigh effaced it out of his heart; the eyes of his understanding being darkened in the same measure as his soul was “alienated from the life of God.” And yet God did not despise the work of his own hands; but, being reconciled to man through the Son of his love, he, in some measure, re-inscribed the law on the heart of his dark, sinful creature. “He” again “showed thee, O man, what is good,” although not as in the beginning, “even to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
The eighth Article of Religion (which Wesley adopted verbatim from the Church of England) also speaks about preventing grace which makes faith and good works possible.
The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and works, to faith, and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.
Finally, in The Circumcision of the Heart, Wesley appears to use the term “prevent” with regard to grace more generally:
Our gospel, as it knows no other foundation of good works than faith, or of faith than Christ, so it clearly informs us, we are not his disciples while we either deny him to be the Author, or his Spirit to be the Inspirer and Perfecter, both of our faith and works. “If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” He alone can quicken those Who are dead unto God, can breathe into them the breath of Christian life, and so prevent, accompany, and follow them with his grace, as to bring their good desires to good effect. And, as many as are thus led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” This is God’s short and plain account of true religion and virtue; and “other foundation can no man lay.”
Wesley wrote extensively, but the paragraphs from On Working Out Our Own Salvation is the closest he comes to systematizing his thoughts on prevenient grace. I don’t find the explicit language of prevenient grace in many of Wesley’s sermons where I might expect it to see it, especially those sermons on the order of salvation. At least I can’t find it under the term “preventing grace”.
To summarize, here’s how I understand Wesley’s major points about prevenient grace:
- All human beings in their fallen nature are completely enslaved by sin and blind to spiritual truth, incapable of even coming to faith in Christ on their own. This doctrine is often called “total depravity”.
- While this is formally true, it is equally true that God gives a greater or less measure of grace to all human beings, even prior to faith and apart from their consent, restoring – at least to a degree – the ability to understand and respond to God’s initiative. This is the only point at which grace is irresistible.
- Therefore, no one is purely in a natural state.
- Therefore, the lack of grace is not an excuse for sin.
- The function of prevenient grace is to open the way for people to respond with repentance (convincing grace) and faith (justifying and sanctifying grace). That is, the doctrine of prevenient grace is about God preparing people and leading people to salvation through a living faith in Christ. It’s not merely a statement that God is gracious merciful to all human beings even apart from their faith, or that he sends his rain on the just and the unjust.
- At a minimum, this grace takes the form of a conscience, a sense of right and wrong and the barest glimmer of a desire to please God or do good. Sinful people, however, can seer their consciences and quench their holy desires before they can ever take root.
I’ll offer some personal reflections on prevenient grace later.