Prevenient grace

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Prevenient grace is a Christian theological concept rooted in Augustinian theology.[1] It is divine grace that 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.

Prevenient grace is embraced primarily by Arminian Christians who are influenced by the theology of Jacob Arminius or John Wesley. Whereas Augustine held that prevenient grace cannot be resisted, Wesleyan Arminians believe that it enables, but does not ensure, personal acceptance of the gift of salvation. Wesley typically referred to it in 18th-century language as prevenient grace. In modern English, the phrase preceding grace would have a similar meaning.

Definition[edit]

Arminian Free Will Baptist theologian Robert E. Picirilli says that the word "prevenient" in prevenient grace comes from an archaic English usage meaning "anticipating," "going before," or "preceding."[2] Picirilli says that a good synonym for "prevenient grace" is "enabling grace," as it enables sinful mankind to believe.[3]

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."[4]

The Church of the Nazarene has made prevenient grace one of its sixteen "Articles of Faith" found in the Nazarene Manual.[5] The Manual declares on behalf of the Church of the Nazarene:

We believe that the human race’s creation in Godlikeness included ability to choose between right and wrong, and that thus human beings were made morally responsible; that through the fall of Adam they became depraved so that they cannot now turn and prepare themselves by their own natural strength and works to faith and calling upon God. But we also believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.[5]

Predecessor to the Nazarene Articles of Faith are the Articles of Religion, which John Wesley adapted for use by American Methodists. With very similar language between it and Article VII of the Manual, Article VIII states, "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), language that was taken directly from Article X of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion adopted by the Church of England in 1563."[6] Article VIII is official doctrine not only for The United Methodist Church, and its counterpart for the Church of the Nazarene, but for many other Wesleyan denominations as well, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the British Methodist Church, and other denominations associated with the Holiness movement.

The term "Prevenient Grace" has only become a part of the church language over the last 10 years.

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."[7]

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 Arminius[edit]

Arminius affirmed total depravity but believed that only prevenient grace allowed people to choose salvation:

Concerning grace and free will, this is what I teach according to the Scriptures and orthodox consent: Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace.... This grace [prœvenit] goes before, accompanies, and follows; it excites, assists, operates that we will, and co operates lest we will in vain.[8]

In Wesley[edit]

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 thought 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.

In Roman Catholic theology[edit]

The issue of prevenient grace was discussed in the fifth chapter of the sixth session of the Council of Trent :

The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, 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.[9]

In The Bible[edit]

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 GOD: 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..."
John 12:32: "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.”
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."
Titus 2:11: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men."

In Methodist hymnody[edit]

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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).

In other sources[edit]

Objections to the doctrine[edit]

Calvinists often object to prevenient grace, claiming it allows for Pelagianism or Semipelagianism. Arminius recognized the possibility of this objection. Theologian Robert E. Picirilli writes, quoting Arminius, that:

What Arminius meant by "prevenient grace" was that grace that precedes actual regeneration and which, except when finally resisted, inevitably leads to regeneration. He was quick to observe that this "assistance of the Holy Spirit" is of such sufficiency "as to keep at the greatest possible distance from Pelagianism."[2]

Calvinists have their own doctrine of prevenient grace, which they identify with the act of regeneration and which is immediately and necessarily followed by faith.[10] 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 (Matt. 5:43-48), restrains sin, and gives humankind a knowledge of God and of their sinfulness and need of rescue from sin. Common grace is thus said to leave people without excuse. Arminians object that Calvinist common grace leaves people absolutely incapable of coming to God (a point on which Calvinists agree) and thus do not believe it leaves them 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 (Eph. 2:1-5), and they see the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace as creating a third state, neither dead nor alive.[11] Calvinists understand "dead in sin" to mean absolutely incapable of all good, whereas Arminians understand it to mean the state of being separated from God by sin, but capable of choosing God when enabled to by grace.

Some 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.[12][13] 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 2:8-9.

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.

Comparison between Protestants[edit]

This table summarizes the classical views of three different Protestant beliefs.[14]

TopicLutheranismCalvinismArminianism
ConversionThrough the means of grace, resistibleThrough Grace alone which enables faith alone apart from works, irresistibleBy Grace through Faith and is resistible

References[edit]

  1. ^ Henry Bettenson, The Later Christian Fathers (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 204-205.
  2. ^ a b Picirilli, Robert E. (2002). Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation : Calvinism and Arminianism. Nashville: Randall House Publications. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-89265-648-6. Retrieved 8 August 2013. 
  3. ^ Picirilli, Robert E. (2002). Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation : Calvinism and Arminianism. Nashville: Randall House Publications. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-89265-648-6. Retrieved 8 August 2013. 
  4. ^ The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2004 (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2004), Section 1: Our Doctrinal Heritage: Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases.
  5. ^ a b Nazarene Manual 2005-2009
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), p. 243.
  8. ^ Jacobus Arminius, The Works of James Arminius, D.D., Formerly Professor of Divinity in the University of Leyden (Auburn, NY: Derby and Miller, 1853), 4:472.
  9. ^ Council of Trent
  10. ^ J. I. Packer. "Regeneration". Concise Theology. Tyndale. ISBN 978-0-8423-3960-5. Retrieved 2008-04-22. "Regeneration is monergistic: that is, entirely the work of God the Holy Spirit. It raises the elect among the spiritually dead to new life in Christ (Eph. 2:1-10). Regeneration is a transition from spiritual death to spiritual life, and conscious, intentional, active faith in Christ is its immediate fruit, not its immediate cause. Regeneration is the work of what Augustine called 'prevenient' grace, the grace that precedes our outgoings of heart toward God." 
  11. ^ Compare "Why Does One Person Choose God and Not Another?", a debate between an Arminian and John W. Hendryx, webmaster of the Calvinist site Monergism.org
  12. ^ Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985), p. 925: "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."
  13. ^ "Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Scheme?". The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 1995. p. 382. ISBN 0-8010-2003-4. "Prevenient grace is attractive because it solves so many problems [for the Wesleyan], but it should be rejected because it cannot be exegetically vindicated." 
  14. ^ Table drawn from, though not copied, from Lange, Lyle W. God So Loved the World: A Study of Christian Doctrine. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2006. p. 448.

Bibliography[edit]