by John Hendryx
The term “prevenient grace” – a distinctly Arminian doctrine – refers to a universal grace which precedes and enables the first stirrings of a good will or inclination toward God and it explains the extent or degree to which the Holy Spirit influences a person prior to their coming to faith in Christ. The Arminian, together with the Calvinist, affirms total human moral inability and utter helplessness of the natural man in spiritual matters and the absolute necessity for supernatural prevenient grace if there is to be any right response to the gospel. Like Calvinists, Arminians agree that, apart from an act of grace on God’s part, no one would willingly come to Christ. This point is important to distinguish so as to not confuse Classical Arminianism with either Finneyism or Semi-Pelagianism, which both reject the need for prevenient grace. So Christ’s redemption is universal in a provisional sense but conditional as to its application to any individual, i.e. those who do not resist the grace offered to them through the cross and the gospel. Prevenient grace, according to Arminians, convicts, calls (outwardly), enlightens and enables before conversion and makes conversion and faith possible. While Calvinists believe the inward call to the elect is irrevocable and effectually brings sinners to faith in Christ, the Arminian, on the other hand understand God’s grace as ultimately resistible. In short, they affirm that prevenient grace, which is given to all men at some point in their life, temporarily brings the sinner out of his/her condition of total depravity and puts them in a neutral state of free will wherein the natural man can either accept or reject Christ.
Prevenient grace defined as follows by “Wesley’s Order of Salvation“:
“Human beings are totally incapable of responding to God without God first empowering them to have faith. This empowerment is known as “Prevenient Grace.” Prevenient Grace doesn’t save us but, rather, comes before anything that we do, drawing us to God, making us WANT to come to God, and enabling us to have faith in God. Prevenient Grace is Universal, in as much as all humans receive it, regardless of their having heard of Jesus. It is manifested in the deep-seated desire of most humans to know God.”
Furthermore, in reply to the orthodox assertion that the sinners’ generation of faith itself implies merit the Arminian will often respond by affirming that the human will, aided by prevenient grace, is free, even in accepting pardoning grace; that though this acceptance is no more meritorious than a beggar’s acceptance of an offered fortune, yet it is accepted freely, and with the full power of rejection, and is none the less grace for that. In other words, every sinner determines for himself, whether or not he will be saved, and thus determines his own election based on whether or not he responds positively to the gospel offered to him by God while under the influence of prevenient grace. The Arminian contends or reasons that anything else would be unfair of God.
While the example of the beggar may sound reasonable at first glance, I propose we look more closely at these concepts. What are the similarities and differences of Arminian theology with orthodoxy on the concept of saving grace?
Arminian Differences with Reformed Theology is in its understanding of the meaning of grace:
Assuming for the sake of argument that such a state was shown to exist, more questions quickly arise. If, as the result of prevenient grace, our desires are suddenly “neutral” what, then, causes a man to choose one way or another? In Jesus eyes, a person’s decisions and acts are inevitably determined by their inward condition, “A good tree bears good fruit, a bad tree bears bad fruit,” to think otherwise is impossible. What then of a tree that is neither good nor bad, what determines its fruit? You simply cannot have a will that doesn’t care (or is disinclined) and simply believes or rejects Christ by chance. To argue such would imply that God elects his people based upon their chance selection of Him. On the contrary, people believe in Christ because they see the awfulness of their sin, their great need of a Savior and the beauty, truth and excellency of the gospel of Christ. Only the spiritual regenerate man can see understand and see goodness in the gospel (1 Cor 2:14), an impossible supposition for one with a unrenewed heart. A blind man cannot see unless his eyes are opened. Likewise, those blind spiritually can only see if they are healed and when they are healed, they see. It is both biblical and self-evident that we always choose something based on who we are by nature – an apple tree will never produce grapes.
Ironically, the Arminian believes in compatibilism prior to prevenient grace … meaning that man makes necessary moral choices based on his nature. Yet after prevenient grace, he believes that man is freed from nature (without being given a new one), yet no biblical evidence is forthcoming to show the source of this doctrine. In other words, prior to God’s grace the Arminian, like the Calvinists see the impotence of the human will, but when grace comes, he switches gears by speculating that man now does not choose according to nature (as before) but is now granted a libertarian free will, i.e. that man can choose otherwise regardless of who he is by nature. Baffling, since never once does the Bible give a shred of evidence that people are given a temporary libertarian free will. Instead, returning again to Jesus’ words, we hear, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad” (Matt. 12:33). The doctrine of Arminian prevenient grace would therefore appear to have its origin in the idea that God must be “fair.” Arminians logically conclude that since God is good he must treat those opposed to and in rebellion against Him with absolute equity. In order to preserve this definition of “fairness,” the Arminian declares that God must give all people an equal chance. However, God is not obligated to give children of the devil (John 8:44) any chance at all if He does not want. God would have been perfectly just in doing to man what he did to the fallen angels, for whom He did not die. And if God could justly let all mankind go to hell (which we all agree) then why would it be unjust of God to forgive the debts of some, passing over the others? Does not Jesus Himself tell the parable of the landowner which ends by saying “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matt 20:15).
And regardless, if this is the case, then why would God be pleased with a choice of a person that is indifferent about the choice, someone that does not love the object of its choice? If the motive for believing the gospel is indifferent, so is the act … If we do not desire God, choice is either impossible or it is by mere chance.
Lastly, I want to make clear that I am not here trying to show that Arminians are unsaved. On the contrary, I write this in the hope it will raise awareness of the inconsistency among our Arminian brethren. It is true that God often saves us in spite of our bad or inconsistent theology, or else grace would not be grace. In fact, He saved all of us in spite of ourselves and our incorrect views. If we know or understand anything it is because God chose to reveal it to us (Matt 16:17). But we must make clear that Arminian theology is not orthodox in its view of grace, since it has no biblical support to speak of. (Obviously only one of these positions can be true so one or the other is orthodox). But their inconsistency is such that I believe most are sincere believers. For example, that the Arminian affirms, together with us, that they justly deserve the wrath of God, save in the mercy of Jesus Christ alone, means that perhaps we need to give them some slack. But we should never let up or grow weary on challenging them to see the deeply flawed problem in their theology of grace, since God has made it abundantly clear that He saves us by grace ALONE. Consider: to the degree that we think wrong thoughts about God and how He saves us, to that same degree we are guilty of idolatry and, in this God is not pleased. So we must declare such an ineffectual view of grace to be wrong, but at the same time, also see it as a battle taking place inside the camp. It is serious enough to warrant a fierce debate that may continue to the end of the age because the idea of prevenient grace is really just a lesser degree of the same error as semi-pelagianism (that is, it is synergistic: i.e. that faith is produced by our unregenerated human nature) and still gives a man too much hope in himself and his own natural abilities. Of the true believer, Paul says that they worship in the Spirit, glory in Christ Jesus alone and have no confidence in the flesh (Phil 3).
My prayer for the universal church is that we would all come into the unity of the truth as God has revealed it to us … and that God-dishonoring theology, wherever it may come from, would be trampled under foot.