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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  • James Petticrew

    Interesting that you say both Arminian and Calvinists both believe in prevenient grace, the Calvinist theologian that taught me systematic theology in Glasgow in the early 90s categorically denied that Calvinists believed in prevenient grace and in his notes commented that it lacked sufficient biblical basis. In retrospect I think he was trying to keep clear blue theological water between Calvinism and Arminianism as well as seeing the irresistibility of grace which leads to conversion as being intrinsic to it,

    • rogereolson

      Yes, most Calvinists deny that they believe in prevenient grace because they associate the term with Arminianism. My point is simply that they, too, believe that grace enables conversion. God’s supernatural, calling, convicting, illuminating and enabling grace is what makes the response of repentance and faith possible. No Calvinist denies that. What they deny, and Arminians affirm, is that such grace is resistible. By a fluke of historical theology, “prevenient grace” has come to name the Arminian view when there is nothing about the term itself (“prevenient” simply means “going before”) that requires that.

      • Dr. Olson, since regeneration is related to the subject of prevenient grace, let me bring up a curious footnote in Calvin’s Institutes. It is found in Book 3, chapter 3, which is called “Our Regeneration By Faith: Repentance.” While this chapter title itself contradicts the Calvinistic doctrine that man is completely passive in his regeneration ( a doctrine known as “monergism”), the footnote also contradicts it. It says this: “The Reformation doctrine that regeneration follows faith as an effect of it is stressed also in Comm. John 1:13.” Monergists ought to take note of this curious editorial footnote, for it implies that the Reformers were not all monergists. Therefore, present-day monergists should not imply otherwise.

        • rogereolson

          I suspect what Calvin meant was that faith is the gift of God that brings about regeneration. But you are right. Many Calvinist versions of the ordo salutis put regeneration before faith and repentance.

  • J.E. Edwards

    Good post, Roger. In relation to your position of correcting what this SBC group is doing. I pretty much agree with the correction you think it needs, too. We’ll talk later, I’m sure, regarding prevenient grace:)

  • K Gray

    Wonderful explanation.

  • David Rogers

    When does prevenient grace occur? Is it only co-ordinated with the reception of an explicit Gospel witness to Jesus Christ? Can prevenient grace enable one progressively over a range of time, possibly in stages, before the reception of explicit Gospel witness?
    I read the recent statement as being exclusivist and not inclusivist? Would you agree with that assessment?

    • rogereolson

      Here is what it says under “The Great Commission”: “We deny that salvation is possible outside of a faith response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” I suspect it is intended restrictively (exlusivist). However, an inclusivist could say that there is such a thing as an implicit response to the gospel that has not yet been explicitly heard. As for the “timing” of prevenient grace. I don’t know. The only thing the Bible tells us and that we must acknowledge theologically (to preserve the sheer gift nature of salvation) is that whenever a person is saved, his or her acceptance of God’s saving grace was enabled by prevenient grace.

  • John Inglis

    Thank you for a clear, succinct, helpful explanation that I will be able to use with others.

  • Troy Mueller


    What you have said here is exactly right. Semi-pelagianism leaves the door open to pelaginaism and gives ammo to the calvinists with regard to accusations concerning works salvation. As far as I can tell, most of the early general baptists believed that the fall of Adam resulted in human inability to seek after or respond to God without Divine aid. The Standarad Confession of 1660 says that “all men at one time or another, are put into such a capacity, as that (through the grace of God) they may be eternally saved…..”! 1 Corinthians 2:14 says that “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit” — the Holy Spirit must give enabling grace in order for a man to respond to God in faith and repentence. Keep beating the drum brother!! May God’s grace enable others to hear and understand, lest some of the glory go to man for his salvation!

  • Daniel W

    People may scoff and roll their eyes at me for asking this question, but I think it lies at the root of so-called Semi-Pelagianism: How can people be justly held accountable for sin when it is impossible by the very nature of their will for them not to sin? And in a related vein, how can people be justly held accountable for a condition they were put into by their ancestors Adam and Eve? Doesn’t the idea that people are unable to do good or follow God in any way due to their corruption from birth, yet will be condemned for not following God paramount to holding someone responsible for something they never chose and literally cannot keep from doing? How is this different from imprisoning a 7 year old child or a severely mentally disabled person for stealing?

    • rogereolson

      Swiss theologian Emil Brunner said that a sinner (a person not yet regenerated) can avoid any particular sin but not all sinning. Reinhold Niebuhr said that sin is “inevitable but not necessary.” Original sin is not a power that forces people to sin and rebel against God; it is a power that inclines them toward sin, a corruption that bends the will toward sin, but they are only guilty because they freely cooperate with it in acts of willful rebellion. There is a “mystery of iniquity” that cannot be fully understood but is clearly revealed in Scripture.

  • Andy W.

    Dr. Olson,

    Would Eastern Orthodox be considered semi-Pelagian? They don’t look at salvation in the same way as protestants but they speak of a “synergy” or co-operaton with God in salvation.

    • rogereolson

      As I understand it, the EO world view is so different that the issue of semi-Pelagianism can hardly come up. In EO theology, following Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus, there is no such thing as pure nature or even fallen nature. Because of Christ, the incarnation, all of nature is infused with grace. Wesley came close to something like that in some of his sermons. He was well aware of the EO view and sought an EO bishop to ordain him (or some of his followers whom he would then send to America to become bishops of the independent Methodist churches there). By one interpretation, anyway, what the EO view amounts to is a kind of universal prevenient grace. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner and others of the so-called nouvelle theologie believed something like this also.

  • DRT


    I am quite pleased that you decided to write about this since this has been a difficult issue for me and was a difficult issue in your last post.

    I understand the need for something like preceding grace from the standpoint that it levels the playing field for all people regardless of their point before their decision. The could be smart, stupid, rich, poor, educated whatever, it is not our doing it is god’s.

    But I am quite perplexed by the causal part of this because when I look at the situation, the mechanism could simply be that we were created to have the ability by god and that everyone has this ability as a gift from god.

    How is that different that preceding grace? If everyone has it, why could it not simply be part of the heredity that god planned into our evolution? Or are you saying that he witholds it from some?

    • rogereolson

      Prevenient grace is always, by definition, supernatural. Some Catholics and some Protestants (e.g., some Wesleyans) believe it is universally given (e.g., Rahner’s “supernatural existential”). Many, including Arminius and some of his followers, believe it is communicated only via the Word, the gospel.

      • This is very important to me. Can you point me to the best material you know (e.g., books) that present the view that prevenient grace is universal and the view that it comes only through the preaching of the Word? One of the problems I have with the thought that it comes only through the preaching of the Word is that it seems to indicate to me that those who do not hear the gospel automatically go to hell. Any good books or sources that deal with this?

        • rogereolson

          Right off the top of my head I don’t know of such a book. However, believing that prevenient grace comes only through the preaching of the Word (or receiving of the gospel in some way) does not necessarily doom those who do not hear or receive the gospel from a human preacher or missionary to hell. God is his own evangelist and can bring the gospel to people in his own ways beyond our knowing.

  • So how does prevenient grace affect ones standing before God before the first sin? Is their statement that no one is guilty until that point assuming its necessity?

    • rogereolson

      The antecedent referent of “its” is unclear to me. To what does “its” refer?

      • Their statement basically says that people are not born guilty, but are only guilty after sinning.
        Whether the signers of the new document would see it this way or not, it would seem to me that this necessitates prevenient grace. Am I off track? You don’t see that part as semi-pegalian, correct?

        • rogereolson

          The only part of the statement that sounds semi-Pelagian is the denial that Adam’s fall brought about any incapacitation of the will in his descendents (us).

  • Steve Dal

    Firstly prevenient grace (as you describe it) is nowhere in the Scripture. Its an attempt to derive an explanation. That’s all. Having said that I can accept that when someone hears the Gospel the Holy Spirit is involved. Of course. But nobody really knows how someone is attracted and someone else is not other than that soemone for all sorts of reasons sees it as worthwhile and someone else does not (the cares of this life etc). But what of people who are attracted so much to the idea of God that they make a step towards what they concpetualise as God. Say for instance Buddhists. Now we will say that Buddhists have not come to Christ and therefore are lost. But could it be that this attempt to ‘reach’ God given their limited understanding (they have not heard the Gospel) is not the Holy Spirit attracting them in the overall process of reaching out to God (a kind of preveniency). So firstly, preveniency may have a much bigger role. So how ‘helpless’ is man really? I think (like Paul in Romans 1) God makes his presence known to ALL MEN through the witness of creation. Is this not some kind of preveniency?
    The question of the helplessness of man is also interesting in the life of say Noah. It appears that Noah was a righteous man in terms of his behaviour within a generation that God was not pleased with. It seems this behaviour pleased God such His favour rested on him. So how ‘helpless are we exactly? Also, could I have been any worse when I decided to follow Christ? The answer is definitely yes.

  • Fred Wallis

    Dr. Olson,
    Could you give a brief account of the decision at the Council of Dort in which, if I’m not mistaken, they condemned Arminianism as heresy. I am an avowed Arminian and feel even the councils were susceptible to error. Could you offer a summary of the decision? I hope I did not err in naming the particular council “Dort.”

    • rogereolson

      It is variously called “Dort” and “Dordt” after the city where it was held (Dordtrecht). In Dutch it is usually called Dordt for short; the customary English spelling is “Dort.” (As with Munich, Germany. In Germany it is Muenchen.) So either is correct. It was not a council. In church history, “council” implies universality–all bishops invited. The Catholic Church recognizes twenty-one councils. The Eastern Orthodox recognize only seven. (Some say eight, but we won’t get into that here.) Protestants don’t have councils as such. They have synods. A synod is a gathering of “divines” (church leaders, theologians, ministers) called to settle church matters. It is usually denominational, not trans-denominational. However, during the Arminian-Remonstrant controversy in the United Provinces (what we now call the Netherlands), the prince and civic leaders and leaders of the state church (Reformed) called a synod and invited Reformed people from all over Europe and Great Britain to attend. If I’m not mistaken, I think even a few Lutherans showed up. Certainly some Church of England representatives came. The synod met over several months during 1618 and 1619. The Arminians (Arminius was dead) were treated as defendants, not full participants. The moderator (a strong opponent) decided when they could speak. When it became clear what was at stake and that the outcome had already been decided (with regard to the Arminian pastors and theologians) some delegates from other countries left the synod. The outcome of the trial part of the synod (followed by the writing of the Decrees and Canons) was that the Arminians were stripped of their pastorates. Some of them immediately emigrated to other countries such as England. A few were arrested and imprisoned (e.g., Hugo Grotius whose escape from prison is a fascinating story) and one was beheaded. Those imprisoned and beheaded were accused of more than heresy; they were accused (wrongly) of treason. Some of the leading anti-Arminians managed to convince the prince (Maurice of Nassau) that Arminianism is closet Jesuitism and the Jesuits were considered in league with Spain which had dominated the Netherlands for many years. As soon as Maurice of Nassau died, his brother, sympathetic to the Arminians, succeeded him and invited the Arminians to return. Many did and founded the Remonstrant Brotherhood (a denomination that still exists) and the Remonstrant Seminary (still exists). Many Dutch Arminians, however, remained in exile in England where they laid the foundation (together with non-Calvinist Anglicans) for an Arminian party within the Church of England. Wesley was influenced by that party. Eventually the Remonstrant movement split into two wings–a rationalistic one that verged toward deism and a pietistic one that remained evangelical. Of course, the Reformed churches in every country in Europe went through the same division.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    A quote from Pope: ““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…”

    Virtually every Christian Universalist (that I’m aware of) would happily agree with the above statement. This being true, they would further insist that salvation is inclusive, not exclusive. Otherwise, God would be guilty of partiality.

    • rogereolson

      Except for prevenient grace.

  • Mark Rogers

    Hey Dr. Olson,
    The 1678 Ortodox Creed reads “now in bondage under sin and Satan”. Must prevenient grace not free us from bondage to Satan? The Creed then states that prevenient grace has two results, God removes the enmity from his will AND frees him from his bondage to sin. My theological question is why you only credit prevenient grace with one work that of freeing the human from bondage to sin?
    Thank you for spending your time on this issue.

    • rogereolson

      Clearly the authors of The Orthodox Creed did not mean that God permanently removes enmity from the sinner. I agree with them insofar as “enmity” means overt hostility that closes off the possibility of being grasped by God’s love so that the gospel becomes attractive.

  • Bob Brown

    Thanks for the good explanation Roger. Thomas Oden’s book, “The Transforming Power of Grace” helped me tremendously to understand the importance of prevening grace, especially in the thinking of the church fathers. Once the grace that goes before is grasped and accepted, then and only then it seems to me, can arminians truly give all the glory to God and His saving grace, which of course is what is at the heart of Calvinism correct? Sola Gloria

    • rogereolson

      I have recommended that book here many times. It remains the best theological expression of Arminian soteriology in English. Of course, I agree with what you say. I have an essay on Arminianism is a God-centered Theology (posted here a year or two ago) in which I argue that true, classical Arminianism is a theology that gives all glory to God.

  • William

    Roger, do you consider Charles G. Finney to be semi-Pelagian? I imagine different people define semi-Pelagian differently, some pejoratively, some descriptive of non-monergistic views.

    • rogereolson

      I use the historical-theological definition of it and, yes, by that standard, I categorize Finney as semi-Pelagian.

  • Timothy

    When I was taught theology at London Bible College, the concept of prevenient grace came up in relation to Augustine rather than either Calvin or Arminius. Thus I have always associated it with Ausgustine rather than the later thinkers and just assumed that as they closely linked in their ideas to Augustine that they wouls share a belief in prevenient grace. Indeed, as Calvin is probably closer to Augustine than Arminius, I would have expected it to be more prominent in Calvinism than in Arminius. So a denial by Calvinists of prevenient grace seems very strange to me. Is it that for some prevenient grace implies resistable grace rather than grace prior to conversion or grace through which salvation comes?

    • rogereolson

      That is the difference. I’ve discussed that here during the last two weeks. All Augustinians believe in prevenient grace. Some consider it resistible and some consider it irresistible. Both Arminians and Calvinists are “Augustinian” in that regard.

  • Rob


    How does prevenient grace relate to the concept of common grace, if at all? If I understand either accurately, it sounds like prevenient grace (at least from an Arminian perspective) is perhaps a form of common grace that is extended all humans. Then, individuals at some level choose to accept or reject the prevenient grace that allows them to respond to he Gospel. My apologies if I am butchering one or both of these concepts.

    • rogereolson

      This is why prevenient grace is called (as I have done many times here) “special” or “supernatural” grace–to distinguish it from common grace which has nothing to do with salvation.

  • Clarifying post. Thanks for it.

    What bothers you more, Roger—a Calvinian approach to prevenient grace, or the more ancient approach to prevenient grace (i.e., that it is imparted to all who are baptized)?

    • rogereolson

      The Calvinist approach because it is tied to unconditional election.

  • I would affirm with many Lutherans and Baptists like Kenneth Keathley (his book “Salvation and Sovereignty”), that God brings us to life and the only thing we can add is negative. We can kill the life God gives. I agree with Calvinists that the problem with Arminianism is synergism (a positive contribution), but I reject their solution. I believe it is possible to have divine monergism (God alone making us alive) without divine determinism. This seems to be the view I find in Bloesch throughout his Christian Foundations series.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, but I have said numerous times here and in my books that the only “positive” thing a person does at the moment of conversion is allow God to do his work in him or her. Is that not close, if not identical, to what Bloesch says? I, too, have read Bloesch. I knew Don. He was, in my opinion, an inconsistent Calvinist. The charge of embracing paradox delighted him. My main disagreement with Don was over that–paradox. I believe it is always a task for further thought. He reveled in paradoxes as signs of God’s transcendence. I miss Don a great deal. He was one of my theological mentors (along with Ramm and behind them both Barth whom, however, I never met).

      • I agree that your evangelical Arminianism is very close to what I hear in Bloesch. Perhaps it’s where the accent is placed. I’ve heard many conservative Lutherans say, “If you believe God gets all the credit; if you don’t believe you get all the blame.” I think this fits the New Testament picture, and so my personal preference is to speak of our ability to kill what God gives. Our only contribution can be negative.

  • In his discussion of prevenient grace in the volume on the Holy Spirit Bloesch writes, “The one who truly seeks is no longer a natural or unregenerate person, but neither is that one a regenerate or born-again person. Before our new birth we who seek are best designated as pre-Christians rather than as non-Christians” (287).

    I agree with his way of resolving the tension of God making us alive and yet acknowledging the fact that regeneration does not come before repentance and faith.

    • rogereolson

      Sounds Arminian to me! 🙂 (I hope that doesn’t make don spin in his grave!)

      • Going over the volume on the Holy Spirit in the Christian Foundations series I read again Bloesch’s critique of some of the emphases in Mike Horton’s theology. He affirms Horton’s attack on the excessive subjectivism of American Evangelicalism but then takes Horton to task for his excessive objectivism. I think this relates to the paradox element in Bloesch. He wants to hold to both sides of the truth–as in a theology of Word & Spirit.

  • Mark

    The last two entries and comments on your blog have been very enlightening. The difference between Calvinism and the theology of Arminius has been interesting, as has the common concern both orthodoxies have against semi Pelagian and Pelagianism. I have a concern about doctrinal statements or creeds. My fear is that they can take a faith tradition down a wrong path, especially if they are not carefully reviewed, or if the motives of those behind the confession or statement are not pure. I hope that the authors of the statement will take a close look at your criticism and those on your blog’s comments and come up with a better statement.

  • CGC

    Hi Roger,
    Facinating discussion on previent grace. I have always heard Calvinists call Arminians who don’t take such a hard line view on total depravity in a Calvinist sense as “semi-pelagian.” And I have always thought that what people like to link to a known heretic could just as easily be called “semi-Augustinian.” So I am one who is hesistant about this term, no matter what direction people aim it in (the Calvinist or Arminian direction).

    • rogereolson

      Semi-Pelagianism is also semi-Augustinianism, although I think it is further removed from Augustine than Arminianism is. The use of the term “semi-Pelagianism” is a historical convention; scholars use it and know what it means. It’s like “Pelagianism.” We don’t really know that Pelagius believed all the things associated with that label. It’s just a term that has come to be agreed on for labeling a particular set of beliefs and sin and salvation.

  • Dr. Olson, I’m on my second reading of your good book called “Against Calvinism.” I hope it gets a wide reading. On page 50 you quote Calvinist Boettner’s statement about man’s total depravity. Unless I am mistaken, we who are against Calvinism but who do believe in the necessity of prevenient grace could agree with the first sentence in the Boettner quote. It says: “As Calvinists we hold that the condition of men since the fall is such that if left to themselves they would continue in their state of rebellion and refuse all offers of salvation.” Of course, we prevenient-gracers would oppose the Calvinist doctrine to which Boetner held: irresistible grace.

    • rogereolson

      Correct. I have always said that Calvinists and Arminians agree about much. In fact, I dedicated an entire chapter to that in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.

  • Chris Lutyk

    Roger, thanks so much for your work here on your blog. It and your book (Myths) have helped me so much to understand and articulate that I am a classical Arminian. I have a couple of questins concerning prevenient grace. First, does everyone receive prevenient grace? That is from a classical Arminian position a loving God would not withhold the opportunity to receive salvation to anyone would he? And do people get multiple invitations? Or do you think there could be process stage like Bloesch is quoted as existing… (pre-Christian). Thanks again.

    • rogereolson

      I’m agnostic about that. All I know is that prevenient grace works through the proclamation of the gospel. If God has other means of prevenient grace, I don’t know about them. I would love to believe God is an equal opportunity savior, but it just doesn’t seem that way.

  • Mark Johnson

    Roger: I am hoping this gets throught to you…I admire your work, and your staunch defense of Arminian Theology. I was hoping to give you this, and hope it helps. I think you are criticizing this Statement of Faith on the wrong level….I will admit that….on the whole, it is rather poorly constructed. It is not very cautious, but I (quite frankly) think you have criticized it on the wrong point….consider the quote you object to:

    “Article Two: The Sinfulness of Man
    We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

    We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

    And (What I take to be) the onus of your response:

    The problem with this Southern Baptist statement is its neglect of emphasis on the necessity of the prevenience of supernatural grace for the exercise of a good will toward God (including acceptance of the gospel by faith). If the authors believe in that cardinal biblical truth, they need to spell it out more clearly. And they need to delete the sentence that denies the incapacitation of free will due to Adam’s sin.

    The only thing they claimed was not “incapacitated” was the “will”….they did not mention “prevenient grace” per se… what? they are neither Methodists…nor committed “Arminians”….Must they speak the same language you do at all times? Maybe, this whole statement was a little sloppy…(I think so)…but it is not to be condemned merely from this…If you want something which implies a “prevenient grace” I think it is satisfied with this quote here:

    While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

    Is this not a “prevenient grace”?….It is in no way worded to the satisfaction of men whose thrust of Theological effort is centered around the “Cal vs. Arm” debate… and no, certainly, it is not nearly as precise as you might like…but Adam’s “Will” was not, in fact, “incapacitated” with the fall…and yet again…”While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.”

    I say this as a concerned “Arminian” (you would classify me as a “closet Calvinist” because I am also a Molinist) but nonetheless…

    There is obviously a little bit of fight by the nation’s largest “Protestant denomination” against the inroads of determinist Philosophy…and while, it may be prudent to take some of your objections to some of the “leaders” of the movement….are we not “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”?

    I hope you can appreciate the positive Spirit of this response…and thank you for your good work.

    • rogereolson

      I certainly did not mean to “condemn” the statement. I meant my comments about it as constructive criticism. I don’t know why they can’t be received in that way. I stand by my claim that that one sentence (no incapacitation of the will) is semi-Pelagian. The rest of the statement isn’t and that’s fine. It would just be better for them to omit that sentence as it clearly opens the door to semi-Pelagianism if it is not outright semi-Pelagianism and contradicts Scripture and past non-Calvinist Baptist confessions (e.g., The Orthodox Creed). I’m not calling the authors or signers heretics. I thought I made that clear in a follow up post here. I’m just saying that one sentence is a mistake and is probably not intentional on their part. I’m only asking them to reconsider it. As it stands, it will be used against them by their Calvinist counterparts to claim that all non-Calvinists are semi-Pelagians at best.

  • Samuel Coutinho

    Roger Olson,

    I am Brazilian and I am Arminian. (Forgive the mistakes in English)

    How would you describe the difference between prevenient grace espoused by Wesley and that espoused by Arminius?

    Do you believe as Wesley or as Arminius? (There are Calvinists here questioning if you’re really an advocate of the doctrine of Arminius.

    • rogereolson

      I see no difference between Arminius and Wesley on prevenient grace EXCEPT possibly that Arminius seemed to think it is tied to the Word of God (preached or communicated in some manner) and Wesley thought some measure of prevenient grace is universal.

  • Samuel Coutinho

    In “Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities”, you seem to defend something like congenital prevenient grace.

    “A measure of prevenient grace extends through Christ to every person born (Jo 1).”

    At this point, you seem to differ from Arminius. Could you explain better this point?

    • rogereolson

      As I recall, that quote was meant to express one view of prevenient grace among Arminians–Wesley’s view and that of most Wesleyans. Not all Arminians agree with it. Many (and I think Arminius himself falls into this category) would say prevenient grace (not common grace) is tied to the gospel however that may be communicated and “heard.”

  • Roger, good morning.
    A question about prevenient grace worries me, the Christian historian Earle E. Caris says in his book (Christianity through the centuries Chapter 29, Title 4 “reformed faith outside Switzerland, pg 265) that Arminius believed that man was able to seek salvation even before God grant you the grace that enables key for their willingness to cooperate, he still refers to a quotation from the works of Arminius: J. Arminius, Works, trans, James Nichols and WR Bagnall (Buffalo: Derby, Miller & Orton, 3 vol., 1853, 1329, 2472-73 . a similar quote is found in the work Theology of John Wesley by Kenneth J. Collins. Collins said that on page 106 quoting Albert Outler that Arminius’ claims that the man wants to turn to God before the grace incite. “This claim is well founded?

    Sorry for spelling errors, I’m using google translator.

    • rogereolson

      I think you mean Earle E. Cairns. I disagree with both of those claims (which seem to be the same claim) and I have proven that Arminius believed grace is necessary even for the first exercise of a good will toward God in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. I have Collins’ book, but I can’t find that reference on page 106. Perhaps you’re looking at a translation into Portugese and the pagination is different? IF Outler said that about Arminius, he was wrong. There are very many passages in Arminius’ works where he emphatically states that grace precedes (prevenient grace) every good that a person does. Now, IF all that is meant is that sinners apart from grace wish for God’s forgiveness, that might not be incorrect, but actual ability to turn to God FOR forgiveness is entirely made possible by (supernatural) grace.

  • Dr. Olson, good morning and thanks for the reply. Mr. Sim is right, the book is concerned Earle E. Cairns, it was already late when I wrote and I typing wrong. I would like if possible that Mr. transcribe a direct quote from Cairns and showed where he went wrong, and he did not understand. About Collins, the fact is I release my Portuguese for help to locate the chapter is the second, and reference note is 190. Mr. made ​​an interesting firmação Outler acknowledged that he was wrong about Arminius, I could cite the source of this recognition Outler?
    My interest in this, is that I’m thinking of writing a short essay on these false charges against Arminius, and I quote these two cases would be too valuable.
    Would also be grateful if Mr. can send both its first response when the second in my personal email.
    PS: I studied history of Christian theology in his book, he is fantastic and got rid of the mistakes of Calvinism.
    I would say that I am very happy to interact with Mr. Dr. Olson, I could never imagine that trade issues with the author of the book that I studied in my theological seminary, God is really good. (sorry for the mistakes in writing are due (because without the translator dialogue would be impossible) to

    • rogereolson

      Okay, now I’ve read the passage in Collins’ The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (p. 79). All I can say is Outler was wrong about Arminius. I suspect he had not read Arminius or had not read him with sufficient care. In Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities I demonstrate from numerous quotes from Arminius and later Arminians that Arminius did believe and teach that prevenient grace precedes even the first motion of the will toward God.This can be found in virtually every treatise Arminius wrote, so I have to think people who think otherwise have simply not read Arminius. In my experience, the vast majority of people who say what they think Arminius believed and taught get it from secondary sources and have never actually read Arminius himself.

  • Thiego Riker

    This is a part of the statement of faith of Baptists in Brazil.

    Election is the choice made ​​by God in Christ from eternity, of people to eternal life, not because of any merit, but according to the riches of his grace. 1 Before the creation of the world God, in the exercise of his divine sovereignty and the light of his foreknowledge of all things, elected, called, predestined, justified and glorified those who, in the course of time, freely accept the gift of salvation. 2 Although based on the sovereignty of God, this election is in full compliance with the free will of each and every men.3 the believer’s salvation is eternal. The saved persevere in Christ and are saved by the power of God. 4 No force or circumstance has the power to separate the believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus. 5 The new birth, forgiveness, justification, adoption as children of God, the election and the gift of the Holy Spirit saved assure permanence in grace of salvation.6
    How would you classify this part of the statement?


    • rogereolson

      While I don’t have the Baptist Faith and Message in front of me at the moment, it sounds very much like it. Both Calvinist and Arminian Baptists can find things with which to agree and disagree in it. Both tend to focus on those things with which they agree and not quibble about the wording they would not use. I suspect the BF&M was written (in 1925 and 1963) to include both Arminians and Calvinists.

  • Thiego Riker

    Dr. Olson

    thank you very much