Does the Bible teach Prevenient Grace?

by R. C. Sproul

As the name suggests, prevenient grace is grace that “comes before” something. It is normally defined as a work that God does for everybody. He gives all people enough grace to respond to Jesus. That is, it is enough grace to make it possible for people to choose Christ. Those who cooperate with and assent to this grace are “elect.” Those who refuse to cooperate with this grace are lost. The strength of this view is that it recognizes that fallen man’s spiritual condition is severe enough that it requires God’s grace to save him. The weakness of the position may be seen in two ways. If this prevenient grace is merely external to man, then it fails in the same manner that the medicine and the life preserver analogies fail. What good is prevenient grace if offered outwardly to spiritually dead creatures?

On the other hand, if prevenient grace refers to something that God does within the heart of fallen man, then we must ask why it is not always effectual. Why is it that some fallen creatures choose to cooperate with prevenient grace and others choose not to? Doesn’t everyone get the same amount?

Think of it this way, in personal terms. If you are a Christian you are surely aware of other people who are not Christians. Why is it that you have chosen Christ and they have not? Why did you say yes to prevenient grace while they said no? Was it because you were more righteous than they were? If so, then indeed you have something in which to boast. Was that greater righteousness something you achieved on your own or was it the gift of God? If it was something you achieved, then at the bottom line your salvation depends on your own righteousness. If the righteousness was a gift, then why didn’t God give the same gift to everybody?

Perhaps it wasn’t because you were more righteous. Perhaps it was because you are more intelligent. Why are you more intelligent? Because you study more (which really means you are more righteous)? Or are you more intelligent because God gave you a gift of intelligence he withheld from others?

To be sure, most Christians who hold to the prevenient grace view would shrink from such answers. They see the implied arrogance in them. Rather they are more likely to say, “No, I chose Christ because I recognized my desperate need for him.” That certainly sounds more humble. But I must press the question. Why did you recognize your desperate need for Christ while your neighbor didn’t? Was it because you were more righteous than your neighbor, or more intelligent?

The question for advocates of prevenient grace is why some people cooperate with it and others don’t. How we answer that will reveal how gracious we believe our salvation really is. The $64,000 question is, “Does the Bible teach such a doctrine of prevenient grace? If so, where?”

We conclude that our salvation is of the Lord. He is the One who regenerates us. Those whom he regenerates come to Christ. Without regeneration no one will ever come to Christ. With regeneration no one will ever reject him. God’s saving grace effects what he intends to effect by it.

[R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God. Tyndale House Publishers: Wheaton, Ill.]

28 thoughts on “Does the Bible teach Prevenient Grace?

  1. As I am sure you already know, I disagree with Sproul on this (and many other issues).

    Response to grace gives no one the right to boast, for it is ultimately grace which enables the choice. However failure to respond to grace leaves one responsible for sin.

    There are more more difficult problems with Sproul’s side of the argument.

    To turn some of his questions back on him:

    Why is it that Christ has chosen you and not them? Why did Christ say yes to you while to them He said no? Was it because you were more worthy than they were? If so, then indeed you have something in which to boast.

    And ultimately, this question of his: “If the righteousness was a gift, then why didn’t God give the same gift to everybody?” is completely condemning of the Calvinist position of limited atonement.

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  2. Well Heath I hope you understand that your opinion is just that. You can disagree with brother R.C. all you want, but does that make you right? Therefore, I would appreciate it if you did not come onto my blog with the attitude that you are going to set us straight. I am sure you have read the rules for commenting here. If you disagree with a post then you must offer biblical proof that the point you are arguing against is not biblical while your point is. Thanks!

    In any case, I will attempt to address your “arguments.” Everyone except Christ is already responsible for their sin. They stand condemned already. Therefore, the call to believe the Gospel is not a test to see if one will refuse it then become guilty because of that. We are all already guilty (Romans 1)

    There are difficult problems with R.C.’s side of the argument only if you are viewing salvation from the perspective that men have any say so or input into it. Ephesians 2:1-10 makes it clear that we don’t.

    God chose His people before the foundation of the World. Ephesians 1. Why did God chose me and not Saddam or Stalin or Hitler or Judas Iscariot? That is His purview and up to His sovereign choice and we cannot discern what criteria He used. It was according to HIS good pleasure and had to be that way so that boasting is excluded (Romans 3).

    Your last statement makes no sense to me. Perhaps I haven’t had enough coffee. 🙂 In any case, you don’t have to respond.

    I have read R.C.’s book Chosen by God and I agree with his thesis completely. I have also read The God who Justifies by James White and The Doctrines of Grace by James Boice and Philip Ryken, however I did not become Reformed in my theology from any of that study. I spend nearly a year studying this stuff. I devoured everything I came across on the subject. It was tough. I grew up SBC so I really didn’t have any theology. When this started I had never heard of Arminianism and my concept of Calvinism came from Humanities class in college back in the 1960’s. So, when I started studying this I discovered that my theology, such as it is, was mostly Arminian except that I believed in the perseverance of the saints since I had done a Bible study on that.

    So, I simply studied and asked a lot of questions. I prayed about it a lot. I studied my Bible. After about 8 or 9 months the only point that I was still struggling with was Irresistible Grace. I was an Evangelism Explosion trainer and I just could not conceive of how anyone could be saved without them “deciding.” As I studied the theology of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Spurgeon, John Owens, and William Tyndale then I finally understood that no one is saved by doing anything they could do as easily as deciding to have coffee black or with cream and sugar. No, Ephesians 2:1-10 made it clear to me that God had to change us first and all those whom He regenerates believe and repent.

    Thanks for listening.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  3. AMEN MIKE! It is such a hard pill to swallow at first isn’t it??? 🙂 Salvation is of the Lord, not ‘our’ deciding. His righteous right arm caused our salvation. God is totally sovereign over everything. And personally, I couldn’t be more thankful. We mess up everything! Oh, and one more thing……ya gotta love R.C.

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  4. Amen Paul and Luann, I know this, that if man could lose His salvation he would. If salvation is up to us then we won’t do it. Why? No one seeks after God and that includes all of us.

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  5. Well Mike, I don’t understand why you think I am trying to “set you straight.” I am actually responding to Sproul’s questions (which are based on logic) with a logical response of my own. The entire article as presented is more philosophical in nature than biblical. Thus I figured a philosophical discussion was what you were looking for.

    But since you want my biblical sources for my belief in previenient grace, here is a partial list of verse which draw a clear picture of previenient grace:

    Genesis 1:26-27; 2:16-17; Deuteronomy 28:1-2; 30:19; Joshua 24:15; Psalm 8:3-5; Isaiah 1:8-10; Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:1-4; Micah 6:8; Romans 1:19-20; 2:1-16; 14:7-12; Galatians 6:7-8 Ezekiel 18:25-26; John 1:12-13; 3:6; Acts 5:31; Romans 5:6-8, 18; 6:15-16, 23; 10:6-8; 11:22; 1 Corinthians 2:9-14; 10:1-12; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 2:12-13; Colossians 1:21-23; 2 Timothy 4:10; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 2:1-3; 3:12-15; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; James 2:18-22; 2 Peter 1:10-11; 2:20-22

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  6. Mike,

    I think that Heath may misunderstand God’s sovereignty. (I am not bashing you Heath)

    Heath,

    I would like to share some verses which may help understand the election part.

    “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Acts 2:39

    “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him……….” John 6:44

    “For he says to Moses, ” I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the scripture says to Pharoah, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will? But who are you O man, to answer back to God?” Romans 9:15-20

    “I form the light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord who does all these things.” Isaiah 45:7

    Then Job defends God’s sovereignty in the midst of his own suffering. ” Then his wife said, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die. ” But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Job 2:9-10

    Knowing that your flesh does not have the ability to do the will of God, what do you think it is that draws you to Christ?

    Did Christ draw you to him, or did you do it all by yourself? Remember, no good dwells in our flesh. Our nature cannot draw us to him.

    In Christ,

    Josh

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  7. And we are spiritually dead until the Holy Spirit regenerates us…….and spiritually dead people can’t make any spiritual decisions. We are alive physically, but we are dead spiritually. The only decisions we will make are the ones we have by nature and that is we are a fallen sinful people who are bent towards evil. Our sinful nature always wants to put ‘self’ on the throne.

    Heath, Did you look at Matt. 11: 21-27? Or Mark 4: 11 & 12?? Rom. 9:18 or 21??

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  8. Sorry Heath, what I see in those verses is simply God’s Sovereign Grace. Yes, man has a will. However, unregenerate man’s will is incapable of seeking after God. This is very clear in Romans and Ephesians 2. During salvation, it is by God’s grace that man turns to Him, sees his guilt, then in belief by the faith God gives him, he repents. God saves His elect, all of them.

    As far as believers obeying God, that is still by His Sovereign Grace.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  9. Josh,

    I do not think soverignty is the issue here. Both of us would agree that God is completely soverign. The issue in this discussion is to what degree God exercises His soverignty. God could certainly control every one of our actions had he designed creation in that way. Some who argue here would probably say that he does… Others of us see scripture painting the picture a bit diffrently.

    So it is really a question as to what degree God exerts control over creation.

    After all, if God’s soverignty is exercised completely in all things, then how do we understand the actions of Satan? Shall we then make God the author of evil? I think we would both agree that this is not so, and thus even though God is soverign, He is not the cause of sin. And all we argue on the Armenian side is that previenient grace is the gift of God that overcomes the depravity of original sin and allows restoration of relationship with God.

    On a personal note, I am glad that God allows the elect to understand him in both ways… whether we are inclined to focus on God’s soverignty or God’s grace, the result is the same… God’s sacrifice of His one and only Son has opened the door that we might be saved.

    Mike,
    I am not trying to argue for arguments sake, but honestly trying to respond to Josh’s comment…

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  10. If you ever look at all the people in your local church, and you sit back and ponder why some seem to have a passion for serving or missions, some seem more holy than others in the church? the question could be asked what did those people do that the others did not do? the more correct question would be what did God do to those people that He did not do to the other people, answer He regenerated their heart.

    If faith is our first gift by God, and the nature of an unregenerate man is at odds with God, dead in sin, unable to comply with God, then wouldn’t God have to first have to regenerate the man before that Prevenient Grace is given? It seems that the Doctrine of Regeneration & the nature of man before the new heart is given has no ability, right?

    Unless, the Prevenient Grace is given after the saving faith? Romans 8:30 those whom He predestined He called, those whom He called, He also justified, those whom He justified, He glorified. It’s all in the past tense, as good as done, right? So how could God leave anything up to us with Prevenient Grace to see if we will act or not?

    In other words, it seems Prevenient Grace, is sort of open ended. Also it seems there are two “calls” of God, a “call” that is effectual & saving and a “call” to all men that is not a saving “call” because some people go to hell, Rom 8:30 shows that there are two calls. In the same reasoning how could Prevenient Grace be given to every man, if that was the case nobody would go to hell, because those whom He called… He glorified?

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  11. This is where I become Calminian and much more Luterhesque 🙂

    Grace is universal. The entire world is its object. God became incarnate in Christ for the benefit of all men; He died for the atonement of the sins of all; all have been pronounced righteous through His resurrection; the invitation or call of grace is intended for all. No one is excluded from the salvation which grace has provided.

    However, Grace is resistible, since it is offered to us through certain means. Scripture constantly warns not to reject salvation.

    I agree that God makes us alive by His mighty power, without our aid (Eph. 2:5; John 1:13). But Scripture warns that we can resist God’s gracious call (Matt. 23:27; Acts 7:51; 2 Cor. 6:1). And some people do resist God’s grace, or all would be saved (1 Tim 2:4). Furthermore, God warns us not to resist His grace (2 Cor. 6:1; Heb. 4:7).

    Having said all this, Christians can and should be assured of their eternal election. This is evident from the fact that Scripture addresses them as the chosen ones and comforts them with their election, Eph. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13. This assurance of one’s personal election, however, springs only from faith in the Gospel, from the assurance that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

    I also agree that those who are predestined to salvation cannot be lost but will continue by God’s power to a blessed end (Rom. 8:30; 1 Peter 1:5). Scripture does not teach, however, that those who come to faith cannot lose that faith (Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-29; Ps. 51:11). God urges His people not to continue in sin but to live in repentance and faith (Rom. 6:1-4). I consider this somewhat of a Mystery to only be revealed in heaven.

    JS

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  12. Yes, I agree much of what I said might seem contradictory. I consider some of this incompatible with human reason and we will find out in heaven.

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  13. I actually disagree with Heath. I think Gods sovereignty is the difference in the Calvinstic and Arminian sides and I think a slight variant makes a big difference.

    I think a lot of people also abuse Gods sovereignty. Most people abuse Gods sovereignty because they want Gods sovereign control to become their control — and they may not even know they are doing this.

    I am glad that this does hot happen on this BLOG.

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  14. Mike – the argument against prevenient grace is moot and unproductive if indeed it does not exist. Being convinced of irresistable grace does not change that fact or lack thereof. In that doctrine God will provide this grace to those He has chosen to, nothing will either enhance or hinder that.

    Even if true no one knows to whom God will provide that grace, and all reformed and Arminians are called to witness to all regardless of their view of that subject. On this particular issue I see no benefit to believe or not believe because our call to gospel obedience remains the same.

    Just some thoughts.

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  15. In terms of Gods sovereignty

    Highly Calvinistic churches tend to emphasize the “glory” or “sovereignty” of God as the central teaching of Scripture, while I (and other reformers), believe that the central teaching of Scripture–and the key to understanding and interpreting the Bible-is the Gospel: the Good News of Salvation for sinners by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

    Why, because Gods sovereignty is fully explained to us on the Cross.

    Its a slight, but I think, very important distinction and why I hold the centrality of the Gospel so close to my heart.

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  16. Let me uncharacteristically defend my Calvinist brethren. The two most distinguishable issue I have benefited greatly by reading Calvinist literature are:

    1. A greater view of Scripture
    2. A greater view of God’s sovereignty

    Since some have brought up sovereignty, let me say as an Arminian I have been exhorted to appreciate God’s sovereignty by many reformed writings about that subject. OK, you ask, how does free will coexist with God’s sovereignty?

    I don’t know, when you have it all figured out let me know! 🙂

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  17. My dad’s been preaching about Election the last couple of Sunday mornings (Unfortunately I’m not caught up on the blog over there). He mentioned that the doctrine of election is the “strong meat” that comes after we’ve learned to live by faith. There are only two philosophies of life (well, one is life, the other is death). The former is living by faith – totally dependent on God. The latter is living “by our wits” – using our intellect, reasoning, abilities, feelings, etc. to make decisions, and – if we are believers – maybe asking God to stamp His approval on our plans. The second philosophy is the one that claims “God gave you your … (whatever) and expects you to use it.”

    Ultimately, the study brought us to Isaiah 55. The first 7 verses talk about man’s responsibility, ending with these two:

    6 Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: 7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

    The last 4 verses talk about God’s part, starting with verse 10:

    10 For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: 11 So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.

    In between the two sections are probably the two most important verses when it comes to election:

    8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

    It’s hard to understand why God “loved Jacob but hated Esau” before they were even born and without their having done anything. Yet He did; but Esau was still responsible for his choices, just as Cain and others who walked out from the presence of the Lord.

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  18. It is a mystery isn’t Carrie, but we must simply believe what God tells us and not try to over rationalize it thereby changing the truth in order to view God in light of our own value system.

    Thanks for sharing this Carrie.

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  19. Good point Rick.

    I had a pastor (LCMS) who once re-reminded me that God most fully revealed himself to us through Jesus Christ. Because of his influence and many scriptures that It is through this lens that I see Gods sovereignty as opposed to a more nebulous understanding of Gods sovereignty.

    Anhow, for the Cal vs Arminian debate…. the issue is really not Gods sovereignty… the question is How does God exercise his sovereignty. Sovereignty can not be overly simplified to God is controlling…. However, God is in control.

    Does he do it by the pleasure of His will and fore-ordaining or does he also have other elements of His character involved with how he exercises his sovereignty. Thats where the debate really lies and some people miss this.

    JS

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  20. While I agree that the center of all Scripture is Christ, He being the Gospel, you cannot take that Gospel out of context.

    If Christ is who He said He is, then you cannot come to the Father on your own, no sparrow dies without authorization, and you cannot understand Him unless you are His.

    Then you look at the old testament through the lens of the Gospel, what will you see? No prevenience, but a Sovereign God who does all He pleases. If He does not change, where did this sudden equivocation come from? Looking at the age of arminianism, I would say very bad hermeneutics.

    What are the effects? If both preach Christ, what’s the difference? If you say Christ is something other than what and who He said, all of the Bible intended there, than you do not preach Christ. Mormons do not preach Christ, Catholics do not preach Christ, anyone who stands firm on the assertion that they saved or helped save themselves or that it depended on something within them, does not believe in the Christ of Scripture because He saves totally and completely.

    I also would agree that the sticking point is mainly in the sovereignty of God. I’ve heard seminary profs rail against it and people revolted by it, as I once was.

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  21. Hello, ezikiel3622:

    As I read your first paragraph, I immediately thought of
    Luke 7:41-47. But, you took off on a different direction,
    I guess.

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