A Short Response to the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace

by John Hendryx

The term "prevenient grace" – a distinctly Arminian doctrine – refers to a universal grace that precedes and enables the first stirrings of a good will or inclination toward God. It explains the extent or degree to which the Holy Spirit influences a person prior to their coming to faith in Christ. Both Arminians and Calvinists affirm total human moral inability and the utter helplessness of the natural person in spiritual matters, as well as the absolute necessity for supernatural prevenient grace for any right response to the gospel. Like Calvinists, Arminians agree that, apart from an act of grace on God's part, no one would willingly come to Christ. This point is important to distinguish so as not to confuse Classical Arminianism with either Finneyism or Semi-Pelagianism, both of which reject the need for prevenient grace. Thus, Christ's redemption is universal in a provisional sense but conditional in its application to any individual, i.e., those who do not resist the grace offered to them through the cross and the gospel. According to Arminians, prevenient grace convicts, calls (outwardly), enlightens, and enables before conversion, making conversion and faith possible. While Calvinists believe the inward call to the elect is irrevocable and effectively brings sinners to faith in Christ, Arminians, on the other hand, understand God's grace as ultimately resistible. In short, they affirm that prevenient grace, which is given to all people at some point in their lives, temporarily brings the sinner out of their condition of total depravity and places them in a neutral state of free will wherein the natural person can either accept or reject Christ.

Prevenient grace defined as follows by "Wesley's Order of Salvation":

"Human beings are totally incapable of responding to God without God first empowering them to have faith. This empowerment is known as "Prevenient Grace." Prevenient Grace doesn't save us but, rather, comes before anything that we do, drawing us to God, making us WANT to come to God, and enabling us to have faith in God. Prevenient Grace is Universal, in as much as all humans receive it, regardless of their having heard of Jesus. It is manifested in the deep-seated desire of most humans to know God."

Furthermore, in response to the orthodox assertion that the sinners' generation of faith itself implies merit, the Arminian often counters by affirming that the human will, aided by prevenient grace, is free, even when accepting pardoning grace. They argue that although this acceptance is no more meritorious than a beggar's acceptance of an offered fortune, it is still accepted freely, with the full power of rejection, and is no less grace for that. In other words, every sinner determines for themselves whether or not they will be saved, and thus determines their own election based on whether or not they respond positively to the gospel offered to them by God while under the influence of prevenient grace. The Arminian contends or reasons that anything else would be unfair of God.

While the example of the beggar may sound reasonable at first glance, I propose we look more closely at these concepts. What are the similarities and differences of Arminian theology with orthodoxy on the concept of saving grace?
Arminian Similarities with Reformed Theology:
(1) All men need to be saved from God's wrath through the atoning work of Christ
(2) Both Reformed and Arminians believe, that, without the grace of God, man is totally incapable of responding to the Gospel. In this both positions are in total agreement.

Arminian Differences with Reformed Theology is in its understanding of the meaning of grace:

Let's examine at least three ways in which prevenient grace sharply differs from the monergistic view:

(1) The Arminian doctrine of "prevenient grace" is exhaustively universal, meaning it is extended to all people regardless of whether or not they have heard the gospel. This appears to be in direct contradiction to the Bible, for instance, the apostle's question: "How can one believe if they have not heard?" and "...faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ." - Rom 10:14-17. This view, then, affirms (or at least makes room for) the idea that the gospel is not cognitively necessary for one to be saved. In spite of the overwhelming case made by Paul against the Gentiles in Romans 1-3, some Arminians believe that if a person is faithful, that is, responds believingly to the degree of revelation made to them, then God will accept that faith and impute it to them as righteousness, whether or not they have actually heard the gospel. This is, of course, purely speculative and not derived from revelation.

(2) Prevenient grace is not effectual but rather renders the sinner "neutral" – able to decide for themselves whether they will accept or reject Christ. First, since we must always go to Scripture as our authority in matters of faith (especially matters of this magnitude), we must seriously inquire whether there is any biblical evidence whatsoever to substantiate the Arminian dogma that there is a state of being that God places sinners into that is neither regenerate nor unregenerate, an in-between state which is neither corrupt nor good. It is imperative that this "state" is substantiated biblically, not merely by unaided speculation or logical necessity. Where does the Bible say that when God gives grace to people, they become partly regenerate but not fully regenerate?

Assuming for the sake of argument that such a state was shown to exist, more questions quickly arise. If, as the result of prevenient grace, our desires are suddenly "neutral," what, then, causes a person to choose one way or another? In Jesus' eyes, a person's decisions and acts are inevitably determined by their inward condition, "A good tree bears good fruit; a bad tree bears bad fruit." To think otherwise is impossible. What then of a tree that is neither good nor bad; what determines its fruit? You simply cannot have a will that doesn't care (or is disinclined) and simply believes or rejects Christ by chance. To argue such would imply that God elects His people based upon their chance selection of Him. On the contrary, people believe in Christ because they see the awfulness of their sin, their great need for a Savior, and the beauty, truth, and excellence of the gospel of Christ. Only the spiritually regenerate person can understand and see goodness in the gospel (1 Cor 2:14), an impossible supposition for one with an unrenewed heart. A blind person cannot see unless their eyes are opened. Likewise, those blind spiritually can only see if they are healed, and when they are healed, they see. It is both biblical and self-evident that we always choose something based on who we are by nature – an apple tree will never produce grapes.

Moreover, we should take notice that Jesus tells us many times in Scripture why some do not believe. "You do not believe because you are not my sheep" (John 10). The order here is of great importance. Jesus does not say, “You are not my sheep because you do not believe,” thereby making belief a condition of becoming a sheep. Rather, he says the exact opposite, "You do not believe because you are not my sheep." To believe, therefore, far from being a condition, is the sign (or fruit) that one is already a sheep. So too, Jesus speaking to some of the Jews said, "Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God." The nature of the person determines the choice they make. And who exactly is “of God”? Jesus answers clearly in his prayer to the Father in John 17:9 when he says, "I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours." The Father has set apart certain persons for Himself, and in His prayer here, Jesus is seen to only pray for them, while simultaneously excluding others who were not "given" to Him.

Ironically, the Arminian believes in compatibilism prior to prevenient grace, meaning that a person makes necessary moral choices based on their nature. Yet after prevenient grace, the Arminian believes that a person is freed from nature (without being given a new one), yet no biblical evidence is forthcoming to show the source of this doctrine. In other words, prior to God's grace, the Arminian, like the Calvinist, sees the impotence of the human will, but when grace comes, they switch gears by speculating that a person now does not choose according to nature (as before) but is now granted a libertarian free will, i.e., that a person can choose otherwise regardless of who they are by nature. This is baffling since never once does the Bible give a shred of evidence that people are given a temporary libertarian free will. Instead, returning again to Jesus' words, we hear, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad” (Matt. 12:33). The doctrine of Arminian prevenient grace would therefore appear to have its origin in the idea that God must be “fair.” Arminians logically conclude that since God is good, He must treat those opposed to and in rebellion against Him with absolute equity. In order to preserve this definition of “fairness,” the Arminian declares that God must give all people an equal chance. However, God is not obligated to give children of the devil (John 8:44) any chance at all if He does not want to. God would have been perfectly just in doing to humanity what He did to the fallen angels, for whom He did not die. And if God could justly let all mankind go to hell (which we all agree), then why would it be unjust of God to forgive the debts of some, passing over the others? Does not Jesus Himself tell the parable of the landowner, which ends by saying, "Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?" (Matt 20:15)?

And regardless, if this is the case, then why would God be pleased with a choice made by a person who is indifferent about the choice, someone who does not love the object of their choice? If the motive for believing the gospel is indifferent, so is the act. If we do not desire God, choice is either impossible or it occurs by mere chance.

Again, the Bible never teaches the concept of prevenient grace in a clear and open manner. The above response is, therefore, simply to further render absurd this untenable belief. Arminians awkwardly force this concept onto the Scripture in order to hold their system together. This alone should lead us to reject it. Unaided reason should NEVER be the foundation of our theological insights, especially one of such critical importance.

(3) Arminians hold that while still unregenerate (or partly regenerate as they would have it) some can and will improve on that grace. In other words, God's prevenient grace takes us part of the way to salvation (makes us partly regenerate), but man's will (or nature) does the rest (or completes it). Given this were the case, if all human beings have this prevenient grace at some point in their life, consider, if two persons hear the same gospel, why does one man believe and not the other? What makes them differ? Obviously, it was something in nature which made the difference, not grace. From this, we surmise that it wasn't prevenient grace that makes these two persons differ from one another, but rather, something in the man who made use of prevenient grace that made them differ. Simply put, if we desire to believe in Christ, where did this good desire come from? Grace or nature? The Arminian may say "grace". If so, why did not the one who rejected him also have this much grace? Since grace is not what ultimately sets the two men apart, it must be something else. In other words, one man somehow had the natural or innate ability to create a right thought, generate a right affection, or originate a right volition toward Christ... and if these thoughts were themselves autonomous and independent of this prevenient grace that led to their salvation, springing from the heart of natural man, then this is quite a troublesome doctrine. This leads us to ask, why do some men make use of prevenient grace and not others? The Arminian, therefore, still sees the grace of God as only a penultimate cause of salvation while the sinner's faith is what is ultimate, the sine qua non of his salvation. It can therefore be demonstrated that Arminian prevenient grace does not teach salvation by grace alone but salvation by grace plus nature. So whether or not God extends prevenient grace, you still have the same result: one man from his unregenerate will generates belief, another man from his unregenerate will does not generate belief and rejects Christ. Does one have a natural humility lacking in the other? Is not humility itself a gift of grace? The Apostle says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God, I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). In the case of believing the gospel, one person is making a morally good choice and the other a morally bad choice. In fact, any way to look at Arminian prevenient grace, it comes down to one person's internal principle of merit that ultimately makes him differ from others. This then leads to boasting that they are unlike others who don't have faith. But again, even more importantly, prevenient grace has no biblical support, and this is what makes the position untenable. Arminians are making the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and do not agree that it is the effectual gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble. I guess Arminians believe that some beggars are more equal than others. :) :) Click here to see how one Arminian Phd. attempts an answer to this question.

In the end, the problem with Arminian prevenient grace is that it is guided by unaided human logic and rationality rather than the Scriptures. The Scriptures testify that the man without the Spirit cannot understand the things of God (1 Cor 2:14). Even with prevenient grace theoretically putting humanity in a neutral position, we would still lack the quickening Spirit to give us what we need. How is it then that the natural man can understand or desire God independent of such quickening and renewing grace? Can a blind man see prior to his eyes being opened? Can a man with a heart of stone love and desire God before his heart is made flesh? How can an ox desire flesh to eat ... can water rise above its source? We believe that salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end. He deserves all the glory. While we were still helpless, Christ died for us, and His death purchased everything we need to be saved, including our regeneration. For an unregenerate man would not ever desire the things of God on his own. If God's grace does not save us, then man still ultimately decides based on some principle within, either good or evil.

Lastly, I want to make clear that I am not here trying to show that Arminians are unsaved. On the contrary, I write this in the hope it will raise awareness of the inconsistency among our Arminian brethren. It is true that God often saves us in spite of our bad or inconsistent theology, or else grace would not be grace. In fact, He saved all of us in spite of ourselves and our incorrect views. If we know or understand anything, it is because God chose to reveal it to us (Matt 16:17). But we must make clear that Arminian theology is not orthodox in its view of grace since it has no biblical support to speak of. (Obviously, only one of these positions can be true, so one or the other is orthodox). But their inconsistency is such that I believe most are sincere believers. For example, the Arminian affirms, together with us, that they justly deserve the wrath of God, saved only by the mercy of Jesus Christ alone, which means that perhaps we need to give them some slack. But we should never let up or grow weary of challenging them to see the deeply flawed problem in their theology of grace, since God has made it abundantly clear that He saves us by grace ALONE. Consider: to the degree that we think wrong thoughts about God and how He saves us, to that same degree, we are guilty of idolatry, and in this, God is not pleased. So we must declare such an ineffectual view of grace to be wrong, but at the same time, also see it as a battle taking place inside the camp. It is serious enough to warrant a fierce debate that may continue to the end of the age because the idea of prevenient grace is really just a lesser degree of the same error as semi-pelagianism (that is, it is synergistic: i.e., that faith is produced by our unregenerated human nature) and still gives a man too much hope in himself and his own natural abilities. Of the true believer, Paul says that they worship in the Spirit, glory in Christ Jesus alone, and have no confidence in the flesh (Phil 3).

My prayer for the universal church is that we would all come into the unity of the truth as God has revealed it to us, and that God-dishonoring theology, wherever it may come from, would be trampled underfoot.

Related Articles:
Does the Bible Teach "Prevenient Grace" in the Wesleyan/Arminian Sense? Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner
The Arminian-Wesleyan View of Prevenient Grace by Sam Storms
Does the Bible teach Prevenient Grace? by R. C. Sproul
Examining the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace by Fred Butler MP3
Objections to the Doctrine of Effectual Grace by Fred Butler MP3
An Excerpt on Universal Prevenient Grace from R. C. Sproul's Chosen By God
If prevenient grace refers to something that God does within the heart of fallen man, then we must ask why it is not always effectual. Why is it that some fallen creatures choose to cooperate with prevenient grace and others choose not to? Doesn't everyone get the same amount?
Arminianism Exposed: The Doctrine of Arminian Prevenient Grace by Rev. Mark Herzer
Is Prevenient Grace in the Bible? by Joseph M. Gleason
Prevenient Grace by Huckabee
Doesn’t God Choose us Based on Foreseen Faith? & Wouldn’t Election Make God’s Decision Arbitrary and Unfair?
Article in answer to the Arminian assertion that Calvinism is nothing other than theistic fatalism. The article proves why it is the Arminian position is actually impersonal and fatalistic while the Calvinistic position is based on the love and mercy of a personal God.
Why Does One Person Choose God and Not Another?

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