Prevenient Grace—As defined from the Beacon Dictionary of Theology

This has to do with the many ways in which God favors us prior to our conversion. It means that God takes the initiative in the matter of our conversion, inclining us to turn to Him, wooing us, breaking down the barriers to our repenting and believing. It includes also, as taught by Arminius, Wesley, Wiley, and others, the alleviation of guilt for Adam's sin (but not, of course, of the depravity stemming from Adam). It is different from the common grace as taught by Calvinists, which consists of restraining the wickedness of the nonelect.

Due to original sin, which resulted from Adam's bad representation of the whole human race, we are born with a condition that inclines us toward a life of sin acts. Scripture thus speaks of our being enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:16-17). It shows that in ourselves we are incapable of doing what we know we ought to do (7:15, 18). Jesus says, "You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?" (Matt. 12:34, NIV). He also said that "a bad tree cannot bear good fruit" (7:18, NIV); also, that "apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5, NIV). All these passages of scripture suggest fallen man's inability to do any good thing unless he recieves God's special help—i.e., prevenient grace.

Yet Scripture also shows us that God, in His graciousness, strikes out after us, to help us towards himself. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19, NIV), it reads. Also, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44, NIV). This is why it was said of Cornelius and his household that"God granted repentance unto life (Acts 11:18, ASV)—where the word for "granted" (used also in KJV, RSV, NEB, NIV) is from the usual Greek word for "to give, bestow, present." The rebel must respond to God's offer of salvation; but still, his repentance is called a gift that is bestowed upon him. This, because he cannot repent unless he is added by prevenient grace.

In the OT, also, it is clear that God initiates our salvation. While some passages, there, simply urge people to turn to God, as in Ezek. 18:32: "Turn yourselves, and live" (ASV); others make it clear that we must be helped, if we do turn. Thus we read in Ps. 80:3, "Turn us again, O God... and we shall be saved" (ASV). And in Ps. 85:4 we read, "Turn us, O God of our salvation" (ASV). The most vivid OT passage, on this need for prevenient grace to help us turn, is in Jer. 31:18-19: "Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art Jehovah my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented" (ASV).

While both Pelagians and the semi-Pelagians denied prevenient grace, the need of it has usually been recognized. It was a particular emphasis of both James Arminius and John Wesley. Arminius said that "the free will of man towards the true good is... maimed,... destroyed, and lost" (Works, 1:526-27). Wesley said, "We [he and John Fletcher] both steadily assert that the will of fallen man is by nature free only to evil" (Burtner and Chiles, Compend of Wesley's Theology, 132-33).

Christian hymn writers have often extrolled prevenient grace. One of them, Lewis Hartsough, has us singing:

I hear Thy welcome Voice,
That calls me, Lord, to Thee.

Charles Wesley has us singing:

Saviour, Prince of Israel's race...
Give me sweet, relenting grace.

Charlotte Elliot's great invitation hymn also points up the place of prevenient grace:

Just as I am! Thy love unknown
Hath broken every barrier down.

One thing this doctrine means is that God does not meet us halfway, but instead comes all the way to where we are and initiates in us the first desires to be saved. Thus the importance of intercessory prayer for unsaved persons.

J. Kenneth Grider, "Prevenient Grace," Beacon Dictionary of Theology, Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1983, pp. 415-16.

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