The Uncomfortable Doctrine of Prevenient Grace

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. John Wesley, On Working Out Our Own Salvation

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

The doctrine of prevenient grace is not a quick and easy solution to the problem of divine election. The power of God’s grace is no less mysterious and unfathomable in Wesleyan thought than it is in Calvinist theology.

Arminianism is the name given to a theological framework that diverged from the Calvininst (or Reformed) tradition the late 16th century. John Wesley’s 18th century doctrine of prevenient grace developed out of an Arminian perspective.

In overly simplistic terms, Arminians and Calvinists both understand the scriptures to teach two basic facts: 1) Apart from God, human beings are spiritually blind, enslaved to sin and cannot even come to faith in Christ on their own, and 2) Salvation comes only by faith in Christ. How then can people come to saving faith? That’s where Calvinists and Wesleyans think differently.

The Calvinist / Reformed answer has been that God creates faith. People don’t so much choose to believe as they are driven to believe. God miraculously awakens faith within them. Without the miracle, there can be no faith; with the miracle, there can’t help but be faith. Just as God said, “Let there be light, and there was light,” so God says, “Let there be faith.” God’s will and word are irresistible.

Why, then, do some people believe while others do not? The Calvinist answer is that God has chosen to create faith in those who believe, but he has not chosen to do so in those who do not believe. This leads to a profound question of why God chooses some to believe and not others. It is not a matter of some deserving salvation more than others, say the Reformed theologians. Rather, it is pure grace. God elects whom God elects, and the mysteries of God’s hidden will just aren’t available to mere mortals. Asking “why” poses a question we humans can never answer. All we can do is stand in awe of God’s glorious power and mercy.

Christians in the Wesleyan / Arminian tradition answer the question of how people come to saving faith slightly differently than those who are historically Calvinist. Yes, say the Arminians, all people are hopelessly stuck in sin unless a miracle of God occurs. Without a miracle, there can be no faith. Instead of driving people irresistibly from unbelief to belief, however, Arminians believe that God’s power brings people to the very point of faith, restoring true freedom to believe or not believe. God empowers people and draws them to faith; he doesn’t compel them. Wesley called this inviting and empowering work of God “prevenient” or “preventing” grace – the grace which goes before faith.

Unfortunately, I sometimes hear my fellow Wesleyan Christians talking about prevenient grace as if it somehow made the saving grace of God less mysterious or difficult to understand. I suppose that might be true for Arminianism – as it is for Calvinism – if you consider it in purely theoretical terms – prevenient grace as a theory, a doctrine, a concept, a principle, a link in a theological system, a general truth about the grace of God. I find the doctrine of prevenient grace to be intellectually satisfying, but in the flesh and blood world of human life, I also find it uncomfortable. The unfathomable mystery of how God uses his power remains.

In the Wesleyan scheme, “prevenient grace” is the name given to the work of God which leads people to the point of saving faith. It begins with the first glimmers of conscience, an awareness of God or the desire to please him. God’s prevenient grace might lead individuals through all sorts of twists and turns until it at last brings them to the point of salvation. Or it might take them almost instantaneously from nearly complete spiritual ignorance to the point of faith.

Four little words in Wesley’s writing on this topic hint at the mystery present within his teaching: “greater or less measure“. As Wesley conceived it, God worked the miracle of prevenient grace to a greater or lesser degree in every human soul, and it “waiteth not for the call of man.” In the Wesleyan scheme, at least some of God’s actions in the human soul are just as irresistible as they are for Calvinists – and God works more powerfully in some than he does in others. The wind of God blows where it wills.

God appears to work so powerfully in some that they describe themselves as being overwhelmed by God’s love or overcome with faith. There is very little consideration or choosing on their part. Others seem to lean and stretch toward faith without ever really finding it. God quickly brings some from the furthest realms of ignorance, disbelief and disobedience, while others slowly drift away from a life immersed in the things of God.

It is appropriate, I’m sure, to attribute at least a degree of these different outcomes to an individual’s own response to God’s work of grace. To resist the grace of God is to harden one’s heart. I’m not sure, however, that it’s possible to attribute all of these differences to human choice alone. As Wesley observed, God gives his preventing grace, sometimes in a greater measure, and sometimes in less. God’s grace comes crashing into some like giant waves. Others, he massages with gentle ripples. The sometimes uncomfortable mystery of the divine will remains.

Both the Calvinist concept of “effectual calling” and the Wesleyan idea of “prevenient grace” are essentially backward-looking doctrines. People of faith look at their lives through the lens of the church’s witness and the writings of the Holy Scriptures and ask, “How did I come to believe?” Their answer? “God did it.” We start at different places, arrive at somewhat different destinations and take different journeys along the way. Whatever our path to faith in Christ, we confess that it is God, in his gracious and loving power, who deserves all the glory for our salvation.

As a Wesleyan/Armininan Christian, I stand in awe with my Calvinist brothers and sisters as I watch the mysterious power of God at work in the world around me. With them, I think, I mourn those who are utlimately lost to the kingdom. And wIth them, I can serve as an instrument of God’s saving work in the world as I proclaim the Gospel of the Lord. Perhaps apart from them, I pray that God will work even more powerfully in the lives of those whom God puts on my heart. And I will pray for those in whom God is at work, that in their freedom they will choose the way of life and holiness, so that they might stand with confidence before the throne of God at the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.