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.

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