is a Christian theological
concept rooted in Augustinian theology
and embraced primarily by Arminian
Christians who are influenced by the theology of John Wesley
and who are part of the Methodist movement
. Wesley typically referred to it in 18th century language as preventing grace
. In modern English, the phrase preceding grace
would have a similar meaning.
Prevenient grace is divine grace which precedes human decision. It exists prior to and without reference to anything humans may have done. As humans are corrupted by the effects of sin, prevenient grace allows persons to engage their God-given free will to choose the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ or to reject that salvific offer.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline
(2004) defines prevenient grace as, "...the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. 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. God's grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.
Article VIII of the Articles of Religion which John Wesley adapted for use by American Methodists states that, "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 [preceding] us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will" (emphasis added). The article is official doctrine not only for The United Methodist Church but for many other Wesleyan denominations as well, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the British Methodist Church, and those denominations associated with the Holiness movement.
Thomas Oden of Drew University defines prevenient grace as, "...the grace that begins to enable one to choose further to cooperate with saving grace. By offering the will the restored capacity to respond to grace, the person then may freely and increasingly become an active, willing participant in receiving the conditions for justification.
Infant baptism is seen in Methodism as a celebration of prevenient grace. Although infant baptism is important for the life journey of the faithful disciple, it is not essential.
In John Wesley's sermon "On Working Out Our Own Salvation" (sermon #85), Wesley stated that prevenient grace elicits, "...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."
Wesley insisted on prevenient grace as a solution to two great problems in Christianity: the belief of original sin and the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Developing the idea based upon the witness of Scripture, Wesley felt that prevenient grace enabled the doctrines of original sin and salvation by grace to co-exist while still maintaining God's sovereignty and holy character as well as human freedom.
Scriptures used to support the doctrine include (NT quotes from Wesley's translation, unless noted):
- Jeremiah 1:5 (ESV): "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you..."
- Jeremiah 31:3 (KJV): "...I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee."
- Ezekiel 34:11, 16 (ESV): "For thus says the Lord : Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out...I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak..."
- Luke 19:10: "For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost."
- John 6:44: "No man can come unto me, unless the Father who hath sent me, draw him..."
- Romans 2:4: "...the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance..."
- Philippians 2:12-13: "...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God that worketh in you according to his good pleasure, both to will and to do."
- 1 John 4:19: "We love him, because he first loved us."
In Methodist hymnody
Most Methodist hymnals have a section with hymns concerning prevenient grace, most recently The United Methodist Hymnal
(1989). One of the best known hymns written about the doctrine is Charles Wesley's
"Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast", which includes the lines, "Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind...the invitation is to all
..." (emphasis added).
Charles Wesley's "Sinners, Turn: Why Will You Die" continues the theme, "Sinners, turn: why will you die? God, the Spirit, asks you why; he, who all your lives hath strove, wooed you to embrace his love" (emphasis added). His hymn "Depth of Mercy" offers a prayer to God, "Now incline me to repent, let me now my sins lament, now my foul revolt deplore, weep, believe, and sin no more" (emphasis added).
The 19th century hymn "I Sought the Lord", with a text by an anonymous writer, reads in part, "I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me" (emphasis added).
In other sources
- "'You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,' said the Lion." - from The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis
- "Every time we begin to pray to Jesus it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace." #2670 Catechism of the Catholic Church
- "That grace is preceded by no merits. A reward is due to good works, if they are performed; but grace, which is not due, precedes, that they may be done [St. Prosper]." Can. 18. #191 Council of Orange II A.D. 529 Councils of Orange
Objections to the doctrine
have their own doctrine of prevenient grace, which they identify with the act of regeneration
and which is immediately and necessarily followed by faith. Because of the necessity of salvation following this dispensation of prevenient grace, it is called irresistible grace
. Wesleyan prevenient grace also contrasts with the Calvinist understanding of common grace
by which God shows general mercy to everyone restrains sin, and gives humankind a knowledge of God and of their sinfulness and need of rescue from sin. Common grace thus leaves people without excuse.
Calvinists further maintain that when the Bible speaks of humanity's condition of total depravity, of spiritual death, it speaks of it as an actuality, not a hypothetical condition that prevenient grace resolves for everyone, as they believe the Wesleyan doctrine teaches. Calvinists see all people as either dead in their sins or alive in Christ and they see the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace as creating a third state, neither dead nor alive.
Calvinists (and others) derisively refer to the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace as "universal enablement." They characterize the Wesleyan view as teaching that God has restored to every individual the ability to seek after God and choose salvation and as not being justified by the Bible. They argue that because this grace is supposedly given to all alike, the determining factor in salvation becomes the will of man. Calvinists believe that Wesleyans teach that God seeks all people equally, and if it weren't for the fact that some were willing to respond to his promptings and persuasions, no one would be saved. They see this dependence on the will and choice of the individual as a good work required for salvation and thus an implicit rejection of salvation by grace alone. Conversely, in Calvinism it is singularly God's own will and pleasure that brings salvation (see monergism) lest salvation be, at least in part, "of ourselves" in contrast to Ephesians .
Wesleyans counter these objections by claiming that God has initiated salvation through prevenient grace, and while human beings still maintain God-given free will to respond to that initiative, salvation is still initiated (and ultimately activated), by God, through justifying grace.
- Sermon #44: "Original Sin" by John Wesley
- Sermon #85: "On Working out Our Own Salvation" by John Wesley
- Sermon #105: "On Conscience" by John Wesley
- Sermon #128: "Free Grace" by John Wesley
- Wesley on Salvation: A Study in the Standard Sermons (1989) by Kenneth J. Collins, chapter 1: "Prevenient Grace and Human Sin" (ISBN 0-310-75421-6)
- "Total Corruption and the Wesleyan Tradition: Prevenient Grace" by Donal Dorr, Irish Theological Quarterly 31 (1964), 303-321.
- A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (1994) by J. Kenneth Grider, chapter 14: "The First Work of Grace" (ISBN 0-8341-1512-3)
- John Wesley's Message for Today (1983) by Steve Harper, chapter 3: "Power to Begin: Prevenient Grace" (ISBN 0-310-45711-4)
- Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition (1982) by Thomas A. Langford, chapter 2: "Wesley's Theology of Grace", (ISBN 0-687-07382-0)
- Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology (1994) by Randy Maddox, chapters 3-7 (ISBN 0-687-00334-2)
- Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love (2005) by Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl (Beacon Hill Press) (ISBN 0-8341-2182-4)
- John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine (1994) by Thomas Oden, chapter 8: "On Grace and Predestination", pp. 243-252 (ISBN 0-310-75321-X)
- The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) "Prevenient Grace" section, hymns 337-360 (ISBN 0-687-43134-4)