Prevenient Grace: Why It Matters

Prevenient Grace: Why It Matters June 7, 2012

Prevenient Grace: Why It Matters

This is a follow up to my earlier post regarding the statement of the traditional Southern Baptist view of salvation by certain Southern Baptist non-Calvinist, non-Arminian pastors and theologians. If you have not read that post, go back and read it before reading this one. Here I am picking up where I left off there and taking some comments subsequent to it into account.

Also, here, I am not delving into the debate between Calvinists and Arminians over the nature of prevenient grace as irresistible or resistible. That’s certainly interesting and much discussed in evangelical and Baptist circles, but here I am simply talking about prevenient grace AS IT IS BELIEVED BY BOTH CALVINISTS AND ARMINIANS.

Most people associate “prevenient grace” with Arminianism, but that is something of an accident of historical theology. Calvinists also believe in prevenient grace. “Prevenient grace” is simply a term for the grace of God that goes before, prepares the way, enables, assists the sinner’s repentance and faith (conversion). According to classical Calvinism this prevenient grace is always efficacious and given only to the elect through the gospel; it effects conversion. According to classical Arminianism it is an operation of the Holy Spirit that frees the sinner’s will from bondage to sin and convicts, calls, illumines and enables the sinner to respond to the gospel call with repentance and faith (conversion).

Calvinists and Arminians agree, against Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, that the sinner’s will is so depraved and bound to sin that it cannot respond positively to the gospel call without supernatural grace.

One commenter here attempted to use 19th century Methodist Arminian theologian William Burton Pope to say that Arminianism does not necessarily believe what I wrote above. However, here is a quote from Pope that absolutely contradicts that and affirms the necessity of prevenient grace because the fallen will of the sinner is helpless without it: “No ability remains in man to return to God; and this avowal concedes and vindicates the pith of original sin as internal. The natural man…is without the power even to co-operate with Divine influence. The co-operation with grace is of grace. Thus it keeps itself for ever safe from Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism.” (A Compendium of Christian Theology [New York: Phillips & Hunt, n.d.] 2:47) (I provide other quotes from Pope to support my contention that he believed in the necessity of prevenient grace due to bondage of the will to sin and inability to cooperate with grace on page 152 of Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities)

All agree that Pelagianism is rank heresy. It was outrightly condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. Both the magisterial and radical reformers (at least the leading Anabaptists) condemned it as it is traditionally understood to mean (which Pelagius may or may not have meant—he was often ambiguous) that the human person, even after the fall, is capable of achieving saving righteousness apart from supernatural grace.

What is more often misunderstood and debated is the nature of semi-Pelagianism. The only monograph in English that I know of is Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy by Rebecca Harden Weaver (Union Theological Seminary of Virginia) (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1996). Weaver recounts the whole history of the debate over original sin and grace that took place among monks between 426 and 529. “Semi-Pelagianism” is a theological term coined much later to describe the teaching of certain semi-Augustinian monks of Marseilles (the “Massillians”) led especially by John Cassian. The essence of semi-Pelagianism is that, although humans are fallen and bent toward sin, and cannot achieve righteousness without supernatural grace, they are able apart from supernatural grace to exercise a good will toward God and God awaits that first exercise of a good will before he responds with forgiveness and regenerating grace. The initiative is on the human side.

As I demonstrate in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, Arminius and his faithful followers (Episcopius, Wesley, Fletcher, Watson, Summers, Pope, Miley, Wiley, et al.) adamantly rejected semi-Pelagianism and all, to a person, affirmed the necessity of supernatural grace for the first exercise of a good will toward God. I provide numerous quotes to that effect in the book. It is simply a blatant theological error to equate classical Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism. Unfortunately, there is a long history of making that error among Reformed theologians. Most of them rely on each other for their information about Arminianism and have not read Arminius. Some of them have read some of Wesley and try to single him out as an “inconsistent Calvinist.” That’s nonsense. There is no substantial disagreement between Arminius and Wesley on this or most other subjects (with the possible exception of so-called “eternal security” correctly called “inamissable grace”).

What have Baptists traditionally believed about prevenient grace? Well, of course, Particular Baptists (who appeared about forty years after the Baptist founders Smyth and Helwys and were Calvinists) have always emphasized the necessity of supernatural grace for the beginning of salvation. That’s not in debate. The question is: What have non-Calvinist Baptists believed about prevenient grace (which includes the question what have they believed about the incapacity of the will apart from it)?

It very may well be that the majority of Southern Baptists have believed and do believe that Adam’s fall did not result in the incapacitation of anyone’s will to respond to the gospel apart from supernatural grace. I have argued for a long time that semi-Pelagianism is the default theology of most American Christians of most denominations. The Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963) does not settle the issue as it does not speak directly to it.

So, let’s look back at the most important statement of faith of early General Baptists. (“General Baptist” is a term traditionally used for non-Calvinist Baptists.) The Orthodox Creed was written in 1678 in response to Second London Confession of Particular Baptists in 1677. The Orthodox Creed was written and signed (initially) by fifty-four messengers, elders and brethren of General Baptist congregations in England. (See W. L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith [Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1959], pp. 295-334)

Most scholars consider The Orthodox Creed a relatively reliable guide to what General, non-Calvinist Baptists believed in the first century of Baptist life. (Or its second century if you count Anabaptists such as Mennonites as baptists and forerunners of Baptists which I do.)

The Orthodox Creeds says that “man,” as a result of the fall of Adam, “wholly lost all ability, or liberty of will, to any spiritual good, for his eternal salvation, his will being now in bondage under sin and Satan, and therefore not able of his own strength to convert himself nor prepare himself thereunto, without God’s grace taketh away the enmity out of his will, and by his special grace, freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, enabling him to will freely and sincerely, that which is spiritually good….” (XX. Article “Of Free-Will in Man” Lumpkin, p. 312)

Clearly, unequivocally, 17th century Baptists believed in the incapacitation of the will due to sin and the necessity of special (supernatural) grace for the first movement of the will toward God.

Why? The consistent, constant testimony of Scripture is that human beings do not seek after (the true) God: Psalm 14 and Romans 3 are stand out passages to this effect. At the heart of Paul’s message is that all boasting is excluded because the person has nothing good that he or she has not received (from God). (1 Corinthians 4:12)

Theologically, semi-Pelagianism is shallow and opens the door to Pelagianism; it does not take seriously enough the helplessness of humanity or humanity’s total dependence on God for everything good. It also attributes an autonomy to the human being that elevates the person too high in relation to God. It also reduces the gift nature of salvation and opens the possibility that salvation can be at least partially earned or merited.

Only the doctrine of prevenient grace matches what Scripture says about the human condition and about salvation and protects the gospel from humanistic dilution.

Semi-Pelagianism was condemned by the Second Council of Orange in 529—as Calvinists love to point out. (Usually they use that against Arminianism as if it were semi-Pelagian which it is not. They often gloss over the fact that the council ALSO condemned belief that God ordains anyone to evil!)

Back to the statement of the traditional Southern Baptist belief about salvation. I am not accusing the authors or signers of semi-Pelagianism. But, as it stands, the statement affirms it, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It begs correction. When corrected, however, if it is ever corrected, to include the necessity of prevenient grace due to incapacitation of will, it will be an Arminian statement whether that term is used or admitted or not. The only reason I can think of why the authors won’t amend it is to avoid being Arminian. Is that good enough reason to rest in theological error?

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