What Is So Convenient About Prevenient Grace?

Prevenient grace is the official doctrine of the Church of the Nazarene, as well as Methodism. It is found in the roots of Pietism and Puritan theology. Its wide range of appeal makes it a dominate conversion theology in North American Evangelicalism. More specifically it is embraced primarily by Arminian Christians who are influenced by the theologies of Jacobus Arminius and John Wesley. We even see the Roman Catholic Church commenting on prevenient grace saying, “without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace.[1]”

More specifically, prevenient grace teaches that an unconverted person is incapable of choosing salvation due to being dead in sins, which is until the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel comes to awaken them and enable them to make a choice to accept or reject salvation. Thomas Oden comments on this saying, “By offering the ‘will’ the restored capacity to respond to grace, the person then may freely become an active, willing participant in receiving the conditions for justification.”[2]

Prevent grace tries to protect the doctrine of free will and yet not deny the doctrine of original sin. It avoids the pitfalls and heresy of Pelagianism while also avoiding Calvinism’s doctrine of double predestination. By avoiding the two opposite ends of the spectrum it is a very convenient ideology for many Christians.

For many years I held to the theology of prevenient grace. However, over the last 9 years I have been shifting away from this view of conversion theology. This is due to 3 areas of concern that have surfaced for me. While I can certainly appreciate any theology that tries to avoid the pitfall and heresy of Pelagianism, my following concerns are worth consideration.

Whether intentionally or not, prevenient grace is inadvertently handled much like a miniature version of the Roman Catholic’s view of “infused righteousness.” In other words, prevenient grace is viewed like a small dose of righteousness that is infused into the person thus enabling them to cooperate and chose life. This infusion of grace into the person can also bring about the perception that a person is declared righteous by God due to the divine nature of Christ taking up residence in his or her heart. Now just in case you are worried at this point, let me reassure you that the scriptures do teach of the Triune God dwelling in the believer. The scriptures do testify that the blessing and fruit of salvation is God at work “in” the life of the believer. However, this inward working is sanctification, not justification. You see, “the danger of saying that justification is something happening inside of a human being is that people will be looking always within themselves, instead of looking to Christ’s objective work.”[3] This is the error that Andreas Osiander taught. My friends, justification takes place outside of us, in the person of Christ. Faith in the Gospel points us away from self, to Christ. Faith then receives the extra nos gift. Extra nos is Latin and means that our salvation comes from outside ourselves, not from within. This salvation is something that God does to, for and upon us. I fear that prevenient grace may point us inward, rather than outward, thus allowing for uncertainty to set in.

Secondly, even though this view of prevenient grace gives credit to God, it actually turns faith and repentance from God’s work, into a work of man. In other words, instead of repentance and faith being something that happens to mankind as a result of the Law and Gospel (i.e. gifts), both repentance and faith become a work of man. Repentance and faith become something that mankind initiates as a result of the preparatory grace (i.e. miniature infused grace). In other words, in this view repentance and faith are ascribed to the realm of mankind’s response, what man is required to do in response to the preparatory grace. Thus, a man-centered narrative is ever so slightly introduced into the conversion narrative.

Thirdly, I pose the following question. As we hear the Word of Christ, is the Word merely informative words that enable us to have faith or is the Word performative, the Word creates faith in us? In other words, does the Word enable one to have faith, thus allowing them to act upon the Word or is the Word performative, where the Word acts upon the person? My concern in this third point is that I see God’s Word being not merely informative but powerfully performative. The Word of God spoke the world into existence and this same Word creates faith in dead sinners. (See Romans 10:17, John 17:20, 1 Corinthians 1:21, etc…)

In conclusion, the theology of prevenient grace seems to be very convenient in that it avoids Pelagianism and Double Predestination. However, its pitfalls of infused righteousness, the location of salvation, how one understands repentance & faith, and the difference between informative words & performative words are certainly worth noting. These are not mere linguistic issues but issues that I commit to you for your studies.

PAX

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[1] The issue of prevenient grace was discussed in the fifth chapter of the sixth session of the Council of Trent.
[2] Thomas Oden, John Wesley & Scriptural Christianity (Zondervan, 1994), 243.
[3] Paul McCain, General Editor. Concordia, The Lutheran Confessions, The Editor’s Notes on the Formula of Concord (CPH, 2006), 465.

About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at: www.pastormattrichard.com.

Comments

What Is So Convenient About Prevenient Grace? — 14 Comments

  1. Thanks for the article, Pastor Richard. I was just talking about Arminianism and prevenient grace at my Confessions reading group on Sunday night. We are currently on the second article of the Formula of Concord, talking about free will.

    I thought you hit the nail on the head. Prevenient grace is simply man’s work that we are suppose to pretend is God’s work. But if we teach that faith is not created by the Word, but rather drawn out of the individual by it, and if we teach that grace comes in anyway outside of the Word (that is, not through the Word), then we are enthusiasts.

    You noted that it even has roots in Puritan theology. I wonder if that would coincide with the Calvinists’ view of regenerating grace.

    The more I study the different views of grace, the more I realize that the Lutherans are the only ones who don’t teach enthusiasm, since grace (or God’s favor) is only given through the Word.

    If I could make one more observation though: I think the problem with all these denominations who teach prevenient grace (or some form of it) are stuck on the issue of the effective cause of the Word, namely faith, and the efficacious quality and power of the Word. So if someone does not believe from hearing the Word, it must be explained in such a way where he didn’t receive a certain kind of grace. The more you try to dig into it, you end up separating to some extent the Spirit from the means of grace, and thus end up with enthusiasm.

    The Lutheran understanding is given in AC V: “In order that we might obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. Through these as through means, He sends His Holy Spirit who works faith where and when it please God in those who hear the gospel…” So then we might ask, why some and not others? Why the effect in some and not in others? We answer by saying we don’t know, and all we know is that the Word is still efficacious, and the Holy Spirit cannot be separated from the Word.

  2. I think what caught my eye right off the bat was Thomas Oden’s statement, “…willing participant in receiving the conditions for justification.” What exactly are those conditions for justification? God’s answer to Israel has always been, “Obey ALL that I have commanded you..” Do ALL and get salvation. Don’t do everything and you get nothing. Israel always tries to get half credit, partial credit, or an “A” for effort when all the while God’s standard is “Pass/Fail”. IMO Prevenient grace makes the same move, in effect, diminishing the demands of the Law and the power of the Gospel. It supposes that if we can just fulfill this one part (choosing God/salvation) then God will work with that. I believe it was Luther who responded to Erasmus’ charge that man needed to cooperate in some tiny way with conversion by saying Erasmus had insulted God’s grace and the Gospel by implying it only took such a meek effort on our part to secure it. If you were going to say man had a role in conversion, Luther said, at least make it worthwhile and something difficult. (That’s a paraphrase by the way, I’m looking for the direct reference here in “Bondage of the Will”)

  3. Prevenient grace winds up being simply one more (failed) attempt to answer both sides of the question at the same time: Why some and not others? And because it attempts to answer the unanswerable–because it attempts to see into the mind of God *apart from Christ Crucified delivered in the (performative) Word*, it ends up simply begging the question. That is, on the Arminian/RC side, it does what Pastor Richard well points out–it becomes a mini-Gratia Infusa doctrine. However, on the Calvinist side, this *still* forces one into the question: Why did God give this “prevenient grace” to some and not others? It ends up answering nothing.

    Thank God for Election! (Not the American kind, mind you!) Thank God that Christ is sending out His angels to gather His elect from the 4 winds–His called and ordained servants, via the Gospel audible, edible, and tangible. Thank God that He will send out the angels on the Last Day to do it once and for all. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

  4. Another example of Pelagianism from another church body: “God’s Work. Our Hands.”–the ELCA slogan. As someone else responded, “It should be: God’s Work, Christ’s Hands”.

  5. Part of the problem that exacerbates this issue is that a lot of churches labeled as Arminian have actually fallen into the category of semi-Pelagian without realizing it.

  6. “My concern in this third point is that I see God’s Word being not merely informative but powerfully performative. The Word of God spoke the world into existence and this same Word creates faith in dead sinners. ”

    I would say that the Word is completely performative and not informative at all to the fallen intellect that is utterly opposed to it. The information can only be received by the new creation. Old Adam wants none of it. He is not transformed by it. God speaks the new man into existence.

    Whenever I mention this to those who insist that the mechanism by which faith is received is the understanding of the fallen intellect I am generally greeted with hollering about ex opere operato. I suppose that is true if you want to appply ex opere operato to the creation
    of the world as well. God speaks and things happen.

  7. “A sower went out to sow ….” (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23)

    Question: By what means is some of the soil made “good” before the seed lands upon it?

  8. @Carl H #8
    It’s *not* good before the seed lands on it. It is the Seed that makes it good, makes it bear fruit. Don’t try to make the parable answer a question it’s not asking. That’s a lesson I always have to remember, myself!

  9. The problem isn’t prevenient grace. If it were, then Augustine, who champions prevenient grace, would be in some sense Pelagian. The problem with Wesley and the Arminians is their understanding of co-operative grace (versus Augustine’s insistence on operative grace) in conversion.

  10. Pastor Richards, others,

    Just a short note that I used this excellent post in a series that I have been doing on the free will, in case anyone is interested in looking at this matter in more depth: http://wp.me/sYq5

    +Nathan

  11. @Carl H #8
    Question: By what means is some of the soil made “good” before the seed lands upon it?

    The parable uses things the local farmers would know about: paths, thorns, tilled soil.
    Don’t try to over-analyze it!

    {But if you must (!), no doubt the Holy Spirit prepared the “good soil” just as the farmer tills his field before he plants.}

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