Theology Corner

Addressing commonly asked questions about Christianity from the perspective of a non-theologian

17. WHAT IS PREVENIENT GRACE?

To begin, grace itself must be defined and explored.  Consider the following definition of grace and the related concepts of justice and mercy.

  • Justice is getting what you deserve.
  • Mercy is not getting what you deserve.
  • Grace is getting what you do not deserve.

When you receive the grace of God, you are the recipient of unmerited favor beyond your imagination.

The great gift of salvation is an example of God’s amazing grace.

Traditional Southern Baptist, Wesleyan/Arminian Position on Salvation

Christians in the Wesleyan/Arminian tradition believe that each person who engages in: 

  • Confession of sin (Ps 32:3-5; 1 John 1:8-10),
  • Remorse (Ps 66:18; Luke 18:13),
  • Repentance (Mat 3:8; Rom 12:2, 13:14; Eph 4:23-24; Rev 2:5, 16, 3:3, 19),
  • Faith (John 6:29, 3:16-17; Acts 16:31; Eph 2:8-10) and
  • Obedience (Mat 28:20; Luke 11:28; John 14:15; Rom 1:5, 6:16; Heb 5:9)

receives the great gift of salvation (Acts 4:12; Rom 1:16; 2 Cor 7:10; 1 Thes 5:9; Heb 5:9; 1 Pet 1:9, 18-19).  This gift of salvation includes but is not limited to the following:

  • Redemption (Rom 3:24; 8:23) - You are freed from the bondage of sin for the first time in your life.
  • Forgiveness (Mat 6:9-15; 1 John 1:8-10) - You are forgiven your sins by God.
  • Justification (Rom 3:21-26) - You are declared righteous by God; this legal declaration is valid because Christ died to pay the penalty for your sin and lived a life of perfect righteousness that can in turn be imputed to you.
  • Adoption (Rom 3:23; Gal 3:26; 1 John 3:2) - You are a joint heir with Jesus to the Kingdom of God.
  • Regeneration (John 3:1-21) - The Holy Spirit makes known to you the will of God and helps you discern truth from lie. He occupies and purifies all the rooms of your heart into which He is invited. For the first time in your life you are not a prisoner of sin. You are free to pursue the path of righteousness. This is the first day of your Christian life and you are a new creature in Christ. This is the mechanism of your redemption.
  • Sanctification (Heb 6:1; 1 Pet 1:13-16) - You are led by the Holy Spirit along the path toward holiness; this is a lifetime journey.
  • Reconciliation ( Eph 2:11-22) - You are reconciled with all other believers.
  • Unification (Eph 3:1-11) - You are united with all believers in the Church of Jesus Christ.
  • Glorification (Rom 8:30) - You will complete the journey along the path of sanctification when your mission in this life is done.

Salvation is an astounding, unmerited gift of God and is, therefore, an example of grace.  But how do you get to that point in time when you are ready to receive this great gift of salvation?  What would cause you to engage in confession, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience?  The answer is the grace of God that comes before salvation.

God is the overwhelmingly dominant player in the synergistic effort to save your soul.  He tosses a life preserver into the raging waters of life, pushes you to within arm’s length and urges you to stretch out your hand and take hold.  God’s part is called Prevenient Grace which means the grace that brings salvation.  The word prevenient derives from pre (before) and venio (come).  God attempts to call, awaken, draw near, convict, save and empower every person who will ever live including you.  He initiates, advances and perfects every good thing in your heart, intellect and will.  He leads you from one step to another as he finds response in your heart and disposition to obedience.  Some men allow God to quicken, assist and nudge their free will to facilitate confession of sin, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience so they may receive the great gift of salvation (1 Pet 1:9). Other men choose to resist and reject the grace of God (2 Thes 1:8-9). 

The Prevenient Grace of God has many faces but the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all persons (Titus 2:11):

  • The requirements of the law are written by God on every heart (Rom. 2:15),
  • Jesus Christ knocks at the door of every heart (Rev. 3:20),
  • The Holy Spirit calls and convicts each person (John 16:8) and
  • God's eternal power and divine nature are evident in the world around us (Rom 1:20).

But nevertheless, many resist the grace of God (Mat 25:46; 2 Thes 1:8-9).  Only by the Prevenient Grace of God is it possible for you to receive the great gift of salvation.

Reformed Position on Salvation

Christians in the Reformed tradition reject Prevenient Grace as the action of God that makes salvation accessible to men.  First, the possibility that you might resist the grace of God, by rejecting His gift, would make God a potential failure.  It would mean God’s will could be thwarted.  God says, “I want to give you this gift” and you say, “I’m not accepting it!”  In truth, God’s will is thwarted every day of our lives.  See Section 2 of Theology Corner under the title, “Can God’s Will be Thwarted?”  Second, the fact that you must respond to the gift of Prevenient Grace by confession, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience means you are saved by a work in conflict with the clear teaching of Scripture (Eph 2:8-10).  In truth, Scripture never describes the acceptance of a gift from God as a work.

To fix these non-existent problems, Calvinists tinker with the order of salvation.  Christians in the Reformed tradition believe God first causes you to receive the gift of salvation and then you subsequently experience confession, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience.  In other words, the Calvinist reverses the order from that of the Traditional Southern Baptist, Wesleyan/Arminian.  Salvation simply appears one day like an unexpected, mysterious package delivered to your door by UPS, a package that causes you to suddenly confess your sins with remorse in your heart, repent, believe in Jesus Christ and seek obedience to his guidance?  Reformed theology teaches that because of the corrupt moral bondage of the un-regenerated sinner, man cannot have faith until he is changed internally by the monergistic work of the Holy Spirit.  Faith is regeneration’s fruit, not its cause.

Another perspective is that, before the creation of the universe, God placed you in one of two mathematical sets: elect or reprobate.  If you happened to end up in the reprobate set, you will live out your life in abject futility.  You might participate faithfully in church activities or even dedicate your life to Christian service.  It doesn’t matter!  You will never receive the gift of salvation. You were doomed to eternal damnation before you were born.  Conversely, if God placed you in the elect set, then, at some point in your life, God will simply regenerate you by the power of the Holy Spirit and you will subsequently demonstrate repentance, faith and obedience.  You will be saved with no requirement from you whatsoever!  The insidious doctrine of Calvinism is more fully addressed in Section 2 of Theology Corner under the title, "Can God's Will be Thwarted?"

Pelagian Position on Salvation

This view was popularized by the British monk Pelagius (354 – 420 AD) who taught that you were not born with original sin and could, with some effort, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps to meet any requirement God might place on you.  A bumper sticker, seen occasionally in the USA, concisely expresses this belief.  It says, “I was born OK the first time” implying, “I need not be born again.”  Pelagianism has been uniformly condemned as Christian heresy for more than 1500 years; however, some Christian affiliated and Christian opposition groups seem to view it with favor even today.

Prevenient grace is the most logical explanation for what God is doing in your life prior to your salvation.