It is an odd fact, but nonetheless a fact (as Tom Schreiner has rightly complained), that Arminians have not done a thorough job of articulating what the concept of prevenient grace means, and why it is important. Fortunately, there is now a book by Brian Shelton, which he kindly sent me a copy of, to remedy that deficiency. The book is 283 pages long and covers the subject from stem to stern, including discussions of Scripture, historical and systematic theology. Shelton shows that the idea makes sense, and in fact is vital to a proper theology of human fallenness and God’s grace. My concern, as I’ve already expressed it in The Problem with Evangelical Theology soon out in a second edition, is that the exegetical foundations for this concept would appear to be weak, and one shouldn’t build huge theological edifices, no matter how splendid or consistent, on weak foundations. This post will then focus on what Brian says about the exegetical evidence for the concept, which takes up 44 pages of the book (but in fact the first ten pages of that chapter mainly deal with human depravity and original sin, not with prevenient grace).
The first difficulty I have with the matter is the subsuming of the discussion under the term grace. This theological move is not a surprise since all of Reformation theology focused heavily on salvation by grace through faith, and even before that Aquinas and Augustine have much to say about grace, including a kind of grace that isn’t ‘saving grace’. In the Wesleyan schema of things differing sorts of grace are linked to the various stages of the process of salvation— hence prevenient grace that woos one to Christ, saving grace that comes with justification and is sometimes called justifying grace, sanctifying grace being the grace that works in the lives of those already Christian, and finally perfecting or glorifying grace that brings the salvation process to its proper conclusion. This of course is meant to make clear that salvation is by grace from start to finish, whatever secondary role the person being saved may play in the process. While certainly, there is plenty of discussion of grace in the NT, the fact remains that the phrase ‘prevenient grace’ does not occur in the NT, any more than the noun phrase ‘the baptism of the Holy Spirit’ occurs in the NT. The question then becomes— is the idea or concept present in the NT?
I think part of the problem is that the discussion has been confined too narrowly within the scope of discussions of grace. Take for example the Gospel of John which is so important for Shelton’s case for prevenient grace. The word grace (charis) itself actually only shows up once in the whole Gospel, in the first chapter (‘grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’). By contrast the Holy Spirit and Christ show up in a multitude of passages. So, I would say at the outset it would be far better to talk about the prevenient work of the Spirit on the unbeliever, and in the world, than to talk about prevenient grace. This is a much more exegetically defensible approach in various regards.
The second part of the problem, again speaking theologically, is that there are rather clear passages in the NT, for example Rom. 7.14-25 that make evident that at least some major portion of humanity is in the bondage to sin, and can’t get out. They may sometimes desire to do other wise, and the text even says they will to do otherwise, but when it comes to doing, they are bound to do something sinful. This whole passage does not sit comfortably with the notion of universal prevenient grace, if by that notion one means that the sinner has libertarian free will when it comes to sin. If, on the other hand, what is meant by the concept is simply the bare enabled ability to respond positively to the Gospel when it is heard, that is another matter. It is a matter Wesley himself wrestled with in the early sermon about natural man vs. evangelical man etc., eventually concluding in later sermons that there is no such thing as a purely natural man totally bereft of prevenient grace (unless perhaps the person has sinned away such grace?). We need to get down to exegetical brass tacks now.
Firstly, I don’t think Rom. 1.18-32 really helps us much in this discussion. It’s not a discussion about grace, or grace that has come to all of humanity as result of the divine intervention of Christ. To the contrary, it is about general revelation of the reality of God and of his power to all humankind through God’s creation. If this passage is about anything, it is about the notion that all human beings, created in the image of God, are without excuse when it comes to knowing that God is, and is Almighty, since it has been revealed to one and all in and through God creation and creatures. ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God….’ and so on. This is about creation theology, not redemption theology, and so not surprisingly it’s about God the Father and his wrath against all iniquity, not about Jesus the Son and his grace. That latter discussion comes later in Romans. Romans 2 is a bit more helpful, because it talks about God’s forbearance and kindness and patience with both Gentile and Jewish sinners, but those affirmations have to do with God’s character, and not with some universal dispensation of grace that breaks the bondage of sin.
Much more to the point is Shelton’s discussion of John’s Gospel (pp. 24ff.), and especially John 1.9, which I take to be referring to Christ who is the light coming into the world by means of the incarnation as discussed in this passage, and we are told that he enlightens everyone, all of humankind in his coming. If we simply stick to the immediate context, at the very least this means that Christ reveals to all their dark spiritual condition, and hence their need for repentance and salvation. This passage is not merely about creation theology and the general revelation of God in creation. This passages is about the dawning of redemption, because God loves the entire world and desires no one to perish. Now, we are getting somewhere.
And here is where I say that while John 1.9 makes clear that Christ is the illuminator of our spiritual condition, according to the Fourth Gospel it is the Holy Spirit who convicts, convinces, and converts a person (noting that it is ‘the world’ that the Spirit convicts of sin– John 16.8-11). The Spirit is also the one whom, after conversion, leads the disciple into all truth. It appears to me then that we would do better to talk about the prevenient work of the Spirit on and in the non-believer rather than discussing prevenient grace What then should we make of Rom. 7.13-25 in the end?
Firstly, as I argue at length in my Romans commentary, the persons being discussed in that passage are all those who are ‘in Adam’ and outside of Christ. In Christ there is indeed freedom from the bondage to sin (see Rom. 8.1-4). Paul is presenting us with a Christian view of the pre-Christian condition which does indeed involve bondage to sin. But it is this same passage that tells us that this ‘I’ in question has an conscience, he desires to do better, but can’t, and one could even say he’s under conviction of sin. This is one reason why one of Wesley’s suggestions about Rom. 7.14-25 is that it describes someone on the verge of conversion and under the conviction of sin. I think this is probably right.
I would disagree with the notion that a human being loses the divine image in the Fall, and I would also disagree with the notion that a human being loses the capacity for conscience in the Fall as well. Were that so, even Adam would not have experienced shame for his sin. Without a conscience, there is no shame. What Paul is suggesting is that the Spirit restores the bare ability to respond to conviction by the working of the Spirit, and to cry out voluntarily and without pre-determination ‘who will deliver me from this body of sin’? It is that heart cry, the cry to be freed from the bondage to sin, which a gracious God enables any human being to utter at the appropriate juncture in their lives, and so to respond positively to the preacher who then says— ‘thanks be to God in Jesus Christ, for there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’
In other words— I would rather talk about the ongoing work of the Trinity which enables a person to respond to the call for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ rather than talk about prevenient grace, though certainly what I am talking about involves God’s unmerited favor, his undeserved benefit. One cannot even cry out for help to God, without God having already worked in the sinner’s life. We do not need a doctrine of pre-determination, or effectual calling of the elect to do justice to what the Fourth Gospel and Paul’s letter to the Romans say about these things. And finally, if you’re wondering about Rom. 8.28ff. yet again— Paul there is reassuring those who love God and are called according to choice or purpose (it doesn’t say ‘his’ choice or purpose) that they have indeed been destined in advance to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. This is about the destiny of those who are in Christ, not about the predetermining who will be allowed to be in Christ. Christ’s history is our destiny, when we are fully conformed to his image by means of resurrection on the Last Day.
Think on these things.