The Reformed View of Regeneration vs. the Wesleyan Theology of Prevenient Grace.

The Reformed View of Regeneration vs. the Wesleyan Theology of Prevenient Grace. November 18, 2011

Recently a Christian from Indonesia who writes to me with questions about the faith from time to time asked me about the Reformed theology of regeneration. Basically it goes like this— you can’t possibly have faith or respond to the Gospel unless God has already regenerated you so that you could do so, and you are not going to be regenerated unless God has chosen you to be so in the first place. Otherwise, you are a no-hoper. It’s all in God’s hands.

Now there are a variety of serious problems with this whole theological approach to salvation not the least of which are: 1) regeneration is associated with what happens at the new birth, at conversion in the NT, not what happens before then. Indeed, I will go so far as to say there is not a single verse in the NT that supports the notion that you must be regenerated before you receive the new birth by grace through faith; 2) this whole approach assumes a non-Biblical theology of grace, namely that grace always and everywhere is irresistible. It acts like a magnet does on iron fillings– ‘resistance is futile’; 3) it also assumes that God has got this whole deal planned and predestined in advance, and if you’re not among the elect, well…. you are out of luck; 4) there is in addition another whole concept that goes along with this called the ‘invisible elect’ amongst the mass of church attenders. The idea is that others cannot know who are among the elect, though elect individuals can have assurance in their hearts of salvation. The peculiar thing about this is that Paul is quite sure he can tell the difference between the saved and lost amongst his audience. Indeed he even talks about some who had Christian faith and then made shipwreck of their saving faith. You can’t make shipwreck of something you never had.

The Reformed view argues that since we cannot omnisciently know who is saved and lost (already in advance), then we must proclaim the Gospel to all, and charitably assume all in our midst are potential believers, unless and until they demonstrate otherwise. But in any case we need to hold on to this notion of a righteous remnant without the body of the congregation.

The problems with this whole notion of an invisible elect linked to the Biblical notion of a righteous remnant are :1) there is no NT concept of an invisible group of elect within the congregation. The election language is either used of Christ, or of ALL those being addressed in a NT document, say 1 Peter or 1 Corinthinans; 2) the righteous remnant are identified by Paul in Rom. 9-11 as all too visible and vulnerable to persecution. Those broken off from the people of God (the non-remnant) are also all too visible, and Paul suggests they may only be temporarily broken off from the body of believers and can be grafted back in, just as those who are currently ‘in’ are warned in Rom. 11 that God can break them off from the remnant in a heartbeat. Some of the lost will later be saved, and vice versa is also possible. You have to follow the story to its end, when Christ returns.

But so much for a ground clearing exercise. Let’s come to grips with the Biblical notion of grace, and more particularly prevenient grace. As a general proposition both Calvin and Wesley agreed that God’s grace and mercy is over all his works. The difference is that what Calvin called common grace was a sort of restraining influence on the non-elect and even a blessing of the non-elect, but it in no way enabled a person to respond to the Gospel. Some have even called this ‘damning grace’ since it was no help in saving the individual in question.

To the contrary Wesley said, it is pre-venient grace, not some non-Biblical theology of regeneration that enables a person to respond in faith to the Gospel call, and this grace is available to all. Let us look at a particular text in this regard— 2 Tim. 1. 9-10. We will consider several verses, first turning to vss. 1.9-10.

In vss. 9-10 Paul says “this grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Jesus…” Notice when this saving grace was first given— before the ages. Indeed, before humanity began, and it was given in, or possibly through Christ (the Greek could be read either way).

The only grace Paul knows anything about is a grace that comes from and has to do with the saving work of Christ, revealed in person in the Incarnation. That’s it. There is no ‘common’ grace in the Bible, if by that one means a sort of B grade grace that has nothing to do with the salvation of the individual or group in question.

Notice the difference between the giving of this grace and its revealing in Christ. All grace is to be found in Jesus and revealed as such in and by Him. Of course there is a reason for this— there is only one Savior. ‘God so loves the entire world, that he sent his Son… not to condemn the world, but so that it might have everlasting life’. In other words, the divine plan all along was broad in scope. It was God’s desire that none be lost.

And of course the provision he made for salvation includes an atoning death of Jesus for the sins of the whole world– Jesus did not come into the world to confirm the elect in their election. He came to save sinners ( 1 Tim. 1.15), which of course includes all of us. 1 Tim. 2.3-5 is clear enough— God sent his Son Jesus because ‘he desires all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth’ and to that end Christ gave himself as a ‘ransom for all’, not just some. It is not God who limits who gets the benefits of the atonement, it is us, in our response to Christ.

Back to pre-venient grace. This theology grows out of texts such as we have mentioned and the way it envisions the salvation process is exactly as it is described in the NT. Yes indeed God’s grace, administered by the Spirit must work in a person leading them to respond to the Gospel. No responsible Wesleyan theologian would suggest that its a matter of ‘us all having free will’. No indeed. Without grace no one responds to God for we are all in the thrall of sin and darkness.

The Bible is clear however that prevenient grace is not regeneration, it is pre-venient grace, the grace that enables the response to the Gospel. This can properly be distinguished (though not divided from) converting or saving grace. The person on whom the Spirit works is perfectly capable of stifling, or quenching the work of the Spirit in their lives. Indeed, even Christians can do this, as Paul makes clear in 1 Thess. 5.19. God’s grace, while at moments overwhelming us, and at times strongly so, is nonetheless resistible over time.

God’s grace is not like the Godfather— making you an offer you can’t refuse. No, God’s grace is of course an expression of God’s love, and the fundamental thing one needs to say about love is that it must be freely given and freely received, or it is not love. If it can be predetermined it is something less or other than love. You cannot coerce someone to love you. You cannot predetermine someone to love you. If God did that, it would violate the very nature of his love, which, as I said, is freely given, and freely received. Indeed, it would violate the very nature of God who is said to be Love in 1 John.

Now why would God, an all powerful God, operate in this fashion, rather than in the fashion Augustine or Calvin thought? Obviously, God could have pre-programmed everything, and then could have sat back and watch it all transpire exactly as planned. The very good reason God did not do that is because he wanted to have a PERSONAL relationship with those created in his image, a LOVING relationship with them. He wanted to set up a covenant in which the heart of the matter was voluntary free loving God with one’s whole heart and neighbor as self. Granted, it could not be done by fallen persons without God’s grace enabling such responses, but God’s grace is truly powerful. It can indeed renovate to the human heart, the human will, the human mind.

Jonathan Edwards, in some of the most profound wrestling with the issue of freedom ever penned (in his book the Freedom of the Will), came to the conclusion that absolute predestination was consistent with the notion of human freedom, if and only if by ‘freedom’ one means ‘not feeling compulsed to do something’. The idea is that one acts according to one’s nature, one cannot do otherwise, but since it is ‘natural’ then its not like swimming upstream against the tide. One doesn’t feel compelled to do it.

The problem with this view of freedom is, it too is not a Biblical idea of freedom. Freedom means the power of contrary choice. Freedom means the ability to either positively or negatively respond to the Gospel call. And when Paul gets around to talking about freedom say in Romans 8.1ff. here is what he says ‘the ruling principle of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death’. Now if you have been set free by God’s grace and by his Spirit, you are free indeed (which is of course why there are so many warnings in the NT to born again Christians against sin and apostasy— because they actually have the freedom to do such things).

The point here about pre-venient grace, is that it restores enough freedom to human beings so that they can, if they choose, respond positively to the Gospel. If they do not, it is certainly not God’s or grace’s fault. It is their own fault.

We could spend time going through all the new birth/conversion/ ‘made new creatures texts and show that these are the texts which talk about regeneration which happens coincident with justification by grace through faith, not before it. But that is a story for another day. Here let me be clear— what is at issue here is: 1) the character of God; and 2) the nature of his grace and love. Is it free grace and free love…. or is it something else?

Doubtless God could have set up the human realm differently, but the Bible says he decided to rule by love and grace and his desire was that all be saved. And that desire has not changed from before the foundations of the world until now, and never will. God already gave the grace for our salvation in Christ before all the ages. He was not caught by surprise by sin and the Fall. Here is a story worth shouting from the mountain tops.

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