Universal prevenient grace refers to the doctrine that there is a divine enabling grace extended to all mankind, prior to and without reference to anything they may have done. This grace restores man's free will, which was corrupted by the effects of original sin, and enables him to choose or refuse the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ.
This doctrine is embraced in Arminianism, especially those of the Wesleyan tradition. John Wesley typically referred to it in 18th century language as preventing grace. In modern American vernacular, it is better termed preceding grace. It is noted that the term prevenient (or preceding) grace may also be found in Puritan writings, but in this sense it is not "universal" and is rather part of God's effectual call which precedes conversion.
Wesleyan Thomas C. Oden of Drew University defines universal 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."
Wesley and those of the Arminian tradition speak of their belief in the doctrines of original sin and total depravity thus appearing consistent with the clear teaching of Scripture on those issues. However, in their concept of universal prevenient grace, they make man's resulting moral inability merely hypothetical and not actual. According to this concept, God's "prevenient grace" universally offsets the effects of the Fall and the extent of total depravity such that every person on earth is "able" of his own free will to turn to God in Christ for salvation.
Scriptures cited in support
- John 1:4: In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
- John 3:16: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
- John 12:32: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
- Romans 1:20: For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
From a Reformed perspective, if the Bible taught universal prevenient grace (i.e. universal enablement) these verses would perhaps be consistent with such an understanding. However, they do not teach universal enablement in and of themselves. In fact, they may be understood just as consistent with the Calvinist doctrine of universal inability.
The doctrine in Wesley
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."
"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."
Wesley insisted on prevenient grace as a solution to two great problems in Christianity: the reality of original sin and the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone. 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.
Opposition to the doctrine
Calvinists refer to the Arminian (or Wesleyan) concept of prevenient grace as "universal enablement". The Arminian view teaches that God has restored to every individual the ability to seek after God and choose salvation. Arminians also 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. Since this "prevenient" grace is supposedly given to all alike, the determining factor in salvation becomes the will of man. However, Biblically speaking, it is God's willingness and resurrection-power alone that saves (Romans 9:18), as seen in the doctrine of irresistible grace.
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, which the Wesleyan doctrine implies. When the Bible says "no one seeks God, understands God, fears God, etc" (such as in Romans 3:9-20), it is speaking about the real (present) condition of the unregenerate. For example, when the Bible says people are "dead in their transgressions" until God makes them alive (Ephesians 2:1-5), this shows that people are incapable of believing, because sin has destroyed their moral freedom, until God gives them new life in Christ.
Arminians counter these objections by claiming that through prevenient grace God has initiated salvation and that free will has little to nothing to do with salvation. They acknowledge that outside of Christ all men are under the dominion of sin (Rom. 6, esp. vv 17-18, 22; 8:2; cf. John 8:34-36; et cetra) but argue that God the Spirit is present among and is working to redeem "all" men which they see as foretold by the prophets (Joel 2:28-29), envisioned by Moses (Num. 11:29) and fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16ff). Soteriologically speaking Wesleyans hold that the moral choice that man makes is not to receive God the Spirit because the Spirit of God is already there. Instead, Wesleyans argue, the moral choice is to suppress God the Spirit, doing that which is contrary to God's desire and His witness. In this denial, if done unto death, means to die in ones' sins. Therefore, Wesleyans claim that receiving grace, positively speaking, is passive, and negatively speaking, resisting grace is active and it is not libertine freedom that is upheld in Wesleyan theology but true compatibilism (God is sovereign, man is responsible).
Evangelical Baptist theologian Millard Erickson says,
- "It is here that many Arminians, recognizing human inability as taught in the Scripture, introduce the concept of prevenient grace, which is believed to have a universal effect nullifying the noetic results of sin, thus making belief possible. The problem is that there is no clear and adequate basis in Scripture for this concept of universal enablement."
Similarly, Calvinist Thomas Schreiner maintains that,
- "Prevenient grace is attractive because it solves so many problems [for the Arminian], but it should be rejected because it cannot be exegetically vindicated."
According to these critics, its only function is to relieve the believer's conscience of any doubt that God is doing everything he reasonably can to rescue everyone.
God does show mercy to everyone, and this grace restrains sin and gives mankind a knowledge of God and of their sinfulness and need of rescue from sin. But this common grace is distinguished from saving grace, which takes away willful blindness, converts the stubborn heart, and effectively brings one to faith. Common grace thus leaves people without excuse, but it does not save from sin and it does not provide universal ability to savingly respond to God.
- See also: Love of God
- Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), p. 243.
- Wesley's Works, 8:52 (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody MA, Reprint from the 1872 edition, 1986).
- Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985), p. 925.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, "Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Scheme?", in The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), Vol.2, p. 382. ISBN 0801020034
- Wesley on Salvation: A Study in the Standard Sermons (1989) by Kenneth J. Collins, chapter 1: "Prevenient Grace and Human Sin" (ISBN 0310754216)
- "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 0834115123)
- John Wesley's Message for Today (1983) by Steve Harper, chapter 3: "Power to Begin: Prevenient Grace" (ISBN 0310457114)
- Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition (1982) by Thomas A. Langford, chapter 2: "Wesley's Theology of Grace", (ISBN 0687073820)
- Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology (1994) by Randy Maddox, chapters 3-7 (ISBN 0687003342)
- 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 031075321X)
- Sermon #85: "On Working out Our Own Salvation" by John Wesley
- A Preliminary Defense of Prevenient Grace by Steve Witzki
- An excerpt on universal prevenient grace from R. C. Sproul's Chosen By God
- Is Prevenient Grace in the Bible?, by Joseph M. Gleason
- The Arminian-Wesleyan View of Prevenient Grace by Sam Storms
- Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?, by Thomas Schreiner (Chapter 18 in the book, Still Sovereign)
- Does the Bible Teach Prevenient Grace? (PDF), William W. Combs, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary