What is prevenient grace?

by Matt Slick

Prevenient grace is a kind of grace that God gives to a sinner who is not naturally able to believe in Him, and it then enables the person to believe in God of his own free will. The term actually means "grace that comes before." It was a phrase developed by Jacobus Arminius. The Arminians use it to counter the Calvinistic doctrine of salvation which advocated God's election and choosing people to be saved. Some advocates of prevenient grace state that such a movement of God upon the sinner places him in a similar position as Adam was before he fell. The advocates of prevenient grace do not deny the sinfulness of people. In fact, they affirm Total Depravity which is the teaching that the sinner is completely touched by sin in all areas and that his sin prevents him from freely choosing God in his sinful restriction.

It is the unbeliever who is deceitful and wicked (Jer. 17:9), full of evil (Mark 7:21-23), loves darkness rather than light and does evil (John 3:19), does not seek for God nor does any good (Rom. 3:10-12), is ungodly (Rom. 5:6), dead in his sins (Eph. 2:1), by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3), cannot accept or understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14), and a slave of sin (Rom. 6:16-20).

Therefore, prevenient grace is the grace of God that enables a person to freely choose God or not. Unlike the reformed doctrine of irresistible grace (the saving grace of God that necessarily occurs upon conversion), prevenient grace that can be successfully resisted by the sinner. In addition, receiving this grace is not based upon anything in the individual or foreseen faith of the individual. It does not regenerate the person but it supposedly sufficiently frees the sinner from the bondage of his sinful nature to enable him to freely encounter God and make a choice.

So, prevenient grace refers to the grace that precedes a person's decision to believe in Jesus. In other words, it is the grace that God provides for a person that enables the person to freely choose God.

Criticism

The proposal of prevenient grace raises more questions than it answers. In fact, it makes things worse for its proponents.

First, why does one person's free will move him to believe but another person's free will does not when God's prevenient grace is applied? Think about it. What is different about one person over another that either enables or doesn't enable a person to freely choose? Why are they different? And, what is different about one person's free will as compared to another? Just saying that that is the nature of free will does not answer the question. Also, just saying that prevenient grace enables a person to believe according to his free will choice, doesn't solve anything, either. It just pushes the issue back a little bit further into the tangle of more questions.

Second, doesn't God know how much prevenient grace to apply to a person to get him to believe? Of course He does. Consider the following Scriptures.

  • Prov. 21:1, "The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes."
  • Psalm 105:24, "And He caused His people to be very fruitful, And made them stronger than their adversaries. 25 He turned their heart to hate His people, To deal craftily with His servants."
  • Daniel 4:35, "And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’"

Prevenient grace is an offering by some Christians in an attempt to reconcile God's election, predestination, and human free will. It's not doing the job very well because it is not properly dealing with the issue of what free will is, how it operates, and the issue of God's sufficiency in being able to move a person's heart to where He wanted to go as Proverbs 21:1 says, and how God can turn the heart of people as Psalm 105:25 says. After all, God does according to His will in heaven and on earth as Daniel 4:35 says.

 

Inside CARM

Prevenient Grace
Prevenient grace is grace of God that comes before to a person that enables him or her to be able to choose God. It is not based upon anything in and because of that individual. Theologically speaking it is a position held by Arminians and not by the Reformed. Prevenient grace is a theological problem because it cannot explain why one person believes and another does not.

What is grace?
Grace is the unmerited favor of God. It is where God shows us mercy, kindness, and patience instead of the judgment that we deserve for sinning against Him. God's grace cannot be earned by our actions or sincerity. It cannot be lost by our rebellion or sin.

What is the ordo salutis?
"A term found particularly in Calvinistic theology to indicate the temporal order of the process of the salvation of the sinner according to the work of God. Elements include calling, regeneration, adoption, conversion, faith, justification, etc."

 

Prevenient Grace and the Bible

What Jesus said:
John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life."

What Paul Said:
Galatians 2:21, " “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”"

What the Old Testament Says:
Psalm 84:11, "For the LORD God is a sun and shield; The LORD gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly."

What the New Testament Says:
Hebrews 4:16, "Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."

 

Dictionary

"The species of actual grace which, as an illumination or inspiration of the Holy Spirit, precedes the free determination of the will. It is held to mark the beginning of all activity leading to justification, which cannot be achieved without it, but its acceptance or rejection depends on man’s free choice. Belief in the existence of prevenient grace claims scriptural support in such texts as Ps. 59:10 (Vulg.), Rom. 8:30, and 2 Tim. 1:9. It was defended by St Augustine (who often uses the technical term, ‘gratia praeveniens’) against the Pelagians, taught by St Thomas Aquinas, formally defined by the Council of Trent, and asserted in Article 10 of the Thirty-Nine Articles." (Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

 

 
 

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.