This post is part of a series walking through the second volume of Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace.
The role of common grace relative to the salvation of the individual now brings us to the topic of “prevenient” or “preparatory” grace. That is, “prevenient/preparatory grace” relative to common grace, not relative to saving grace.
Post-Fall, common grace arrests the effects of sin and brings “about a certain capability for what is called civic righteousness.” (222-223) But even this civic righteousness is the result of grace–though it “does not restore nature,” it merely “alters man’s condition.” (223) The practical application of this truth is that we should never despise others for the depths of their depravity–that root is in us too and is only restrained by Divine common grace!
We agree with others that civic righteousness exists “apart from regeneration and conversion.” (223-224) But they see it as coming either from a human nature (merely) weakened by the Fall or from “partially but not totally depraved nature.” (223-224) By contrast, we say that it is only grace in contrast to a totally depraved nature. Relative to saving grace, “there is nothing in the sinner’s nature” that inclines us to receive salvation. (224) Not even our disposition leans this way. Conversion is entirely an act of God.
Of course there are false conversions, but ultimately these will be shown for what they truly are. No one on their own chooses God’s way for salvation. We all by nature walk the broad path. In this sense, “prevenient/preparatory” grace isn’t a polishing of human nature, nor is it a nudging of the sinner in order to engage his will to accept salvation on his own accord. Some even include in this latter group (who have been nudged into accepting the faith on their own) all who have been baptized, and then call that ‘nudging’ through baptism ‘common grace.’ Which is one reason some of the Reformed balk at the terms common grace or preparatory grace, and so become defacto Anabaptists rather than recognize God’s gracious preparation work in our lives. This reluctance ultimately undermines the value of regeneration itself, since we turn our eyes from what came before it, and we start to equate regeneration with conversion.
To fix this problem, we must hold two truths in place:
- We are utterly incapable of receiving salvation naturally in every part.
- God’s providence is aimed through our lives at our regeneration and conversion.
So we need a distinction between God’s work “on our person” and His work ‘on our consciousness.” (227) This used to be the supernatural/rational distinction, but today we might think in terms of consciousness vs. our physical mind. The latter requires a physical and a spiritual cure, while the former requires a psychological and spiritual cure. In any case, the former is the consciousness and the latter the person. The Pelagian argues that sin starts in the former (the consciousness) and infects the latter (the whole person); the Reformed say that both are sinful because human nature is sinful. So the Pelagian applies the cure to the consciousness and the consciousness alone. The Reformed, by contrast, note that such efforts only apply “in the second stage”, and that first God Himself must work a supernatural action on man’s nature. Once He has done this, our consciousness will begin to fall in line and use the tools at its disposal for the new life. (228-230)
More on conversion and regeneration in the next chapter.