Doctrine of Grace (Prevenient)

by Rev. Mark Herzer

Evangelical Arminians, in some sense, took seriously the doctrine of Original Sin. They knew that the Fall thoroughly impaired man's will. Since the Calvinistic system was the reigning system at the time and it alone gave adequate attention to the doctrine of Original Sin, Arminianism was forced to address the doctrine in a different way. While seeking to recognize the serious effects of Original Sin, they believed that Christ's death nullified all the effects. They believed their doctrine of prevenient grace could both take Original Sin seriously while at the same time put everyone on an equal moral footing. In that sense, grace could be said to precede all acts of faith. John Wesley held to this position. The net effect of it was that God has given grace to everyone to be able to believe if they will. The best sort of definition comes from Kenneth Jones who says, "The prevenient grace of God's convicting Spirit simply lifts the sinner up to the point where the choice is possible."1

Mrs. Wynkoop, a Wesleyan scholar, goes so far as to say, "No man is found in the 'state of nature.'"2 If she is correct, then everyone is in some sense (incompletely) in a redeemed state. Whereas the Arminians took Original Sin seriously, they did, however, overcome the problem by simply cloaking it with their novel doctrine of prevenient grace.3 In other words, they are one with the Calvinists when it comes to the debilitating effects of the Fall. But due to this novel doctrine, they are one with the Pelagians in making everyone capable of believing. So they part company with the Calvinists by somehow [by fiat?] making the grave judicial effects of Original Sin no longer operative by their universal prevenient grace. The beauty of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Original sin is that it controlled the flow of grace to counter the grave effects through their sacraments. Though both are wrong, at least the Roman Catholics limited it to their church and that it was not universal. The Wesleyans, on the other hand, made everyone recipients of grace without exception. For the Roman Catholics, all those inside the church are without Original Sin. For the Wesleyans, all those in and outside the church are without Original Sin (generally speaking).4 Perhaps this last statement was too strong; nevertheless, some of the judicial aspects no longer apply and for sure, its effect has been greatly dampened. Both systems have a doctrine of grace that is far from affecting salvation.

Some have tried to give what appears to be a scriptural argument for their position. Grider submits various passages which argue for repentance and thus concludes that man has the gracious ability to repent. Since God calls man to repent and since God wouldn't demand what we couldn't do, therefore, there is prevenient grace. Impeccable logic! The minor premise, however, is at fault. Even if one granted that, the conclusion could not be drawn. There are other ways for accounting for the premise.

They do not wish to relegate the Holy Spirit; they believe He is active in and working with prevenient grace. Grider urges us to believe that the Holy Spirit must work in order that we would believe. The passages he cites hardly argue for universal prevenient grace; it certainly seems to argue for particular prevenient grace.

John Miley seems to avoid the phrase 'prevenient grace' but not its meaning. We will let him speak for himself:

Man is fallen and corrupt in his nature, and therein morally helpless; but man is also redeemed and the recipient of a helping grace in Christ whereby he is invested with capabilities for a moral probation. He has the power of meeting the terms of an actual salvation. All men have this power. It is none the less real or sufficient because of its gracious source. Salvation is thus the privilege of every man, whatever his religious dispensation.5

He makes several startling statements. He states that man has been "redeemed." In what sense? By making man capable or by investing him "with capabilities for a moral probation." [Now, where is that in Scripture?] But the other surprising comment is his argument for a probationary situation (similar to Adam?); it must be a probationary state because if it is denied, then (as they rightly conclude) one would have to fall into Calvinism.6

This probationary period invested all of humanity with great gifts from the atonement. Similar thoughts developed in the Twentieth Century. The Nazarene Orton Wiley states that the atonement gave the following general benefits:

1. "The first benefit of the free gift was to preserve mankind from sinking below the possibility of redemption." But is there such a condition? When can our sin conquer sovereign grace? Most of all, where is that in Scripture?

2. "The second effect of the free gift was the reversal of the condemnation and the bestowal of a title to eternal life." He argues that the "culpability ? was removed by the free gift in Christ. The free gift removed the original condemnation?" Again, a statement without proof. We have already seen that sin no longer is a real concern when is comes to our eternal estate.

3. "The free gift was the restoration of the Holy Spirit to the race." What he means by this is not that all are regenerated by the Spirit but rather all are now given the Spirit "as a provisional discipline for the fuller grace of redemption." He is to everyone, "the spirit of awakening and conviction."7

So what do we notice? We are in a probationary state. In this state, the Spirit works in all and prepares everyone for grace but the final choice is up to man. Or as the veritable Arminian Grider says (who was quoting another Arminian): "God voted for me, the devil voted against me, and I cast the deciding ballot for myself."8 Man may kill grace (see section on Synergism). "The heathen have a measure of grace. The power to resist grace is of grace."9 The reason this is so forcefully maintained is because the Spirit's work has gushed out into everything and everyone. "The Divine Spirit is atmospheric, and it becomes personal whenever any person appropriates it. ? The Divine Spirit is like the mother's heart. It is universal and infinite. It is the mother-soul of the universe, with infinite power, and sweetness, and beauty, and glory [blah, blah]? and what time any man accepts the influence of the Divine Spirit, and cooperates with it, that moment the work is done by the stimulus of God acting with the practical energy and will of the human soul."10 The Spirit is in everyone working to restrain the inherited bias and prompt us towards the good. In fact, they have a good idea when this work begins. Jones is quite sure that this work occurs in every child "as soon as [he] can understand anything."11

This almost pantheistic notion of the Spirit-Grace obviously could be abused. Modern liberal Methodists did not miss this opportunity to exploit it. Some contemporary Methodists argue that since Wesley promoted this doctrine of prevenient grace, we can further conclude that those who never heard the Gospel could still respond to prevenient grace and thus be justified (apparently hinted at by Wesley). And to push this idea much further, they reasoned that "our evangelistic task is set, not in a world that is lost and deprived of God, but in one in which God is very much active, and where, moved by God's grace, people already experience the love of God in good measure through Christ and the Holy Spirit [mind you, the author is speaking of the unregenerate who never heard the gospel]. The evangelistic task is not to deny this universal grace, but to help persons move from 'grace to grace.'"12 In other words, we are not bringing Good News to a world under the Wrath of God but we are bringing a decent message to a graceful people (certainly not graceless because of prevenient grace) who were already saturated by and soaked in grace.13 Similar conclusions had been drawn by another writer in our section on 'The Doctrine of Atonement' where "sins" are no longer an issue for lost human beings.

So God has dispersed grace to everyone and everyone has been endowed with some grace, they are in an elevated status, a super-nature status (just short of redeemed nature). One can only wonder why anyone should pray for someone else's salvation since it is ultimately up to the individual. God can't do anymore, He already cast His vote for them, what is there left for Him to do? Thank God for sovereign mercy that can make a sinner willing in the day of His salvation.

Another point to consider is that if the atonement has secured the probationary status of everyone, then why hasn't it saved everyone? In other words, did only a portion of Christ's work merely apply to everyone and the rest is in limbo until accepted? They argue that prevenient grace was secured for everyone so that we could believe or reject the Gospel. They also argue that Christ died for everyone. How does only a portion of that work on the Cross apply to Everyone? "I did everything for you, everything and I am applying only 90% of it to you, but you have to believe for the other 10%."

Their doctrine of prevenient grace is ultimately rooted in their insistence upon the absolute non-negotiable of their theology, namely, man must be free enough to accept or reject. They wish to be debtors to Free Will and we to Sovereign Grace. They argue that since prevenient grace came before our choice, therefore their theology is one of grace. But then again, this sort of argument was advanced by the Papists. It is true that this universal prevenient grace came before our choice; but it affected no one efficaciously. It led none to salvation. The efficacious act came from man who could accept or reject the prevenient grace. Man's choice is the sine qua non of their theology and not God's sovereign irresistable grace. We, on the other hand, declare, "Of Him are ye in Christ Jesus!"

  1.  M. Wynkoop, Foundations of Wesleyan-Arminian Theology (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1967) 99.
  2.  T. Shreiner marvelously shows that the texts adduced by the Arminians to support Prevenient Grace is not only superficial but has been given little attention, see his "Does Scripture teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?" in The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will, II:365ff. However, not all Arminians are persuaded of the Adamic effect. A. M. Hills (very similar to his favorite theologian, Charles Finney) says, "Men are born with a nature full of propensities to sin, which lead them universally to commit sin; but they are not born sinners. They make themselves sinners by their own wicked choices" (Fundamental Christian Theology [Salem, OH: Schmul Publishing Co., 1980] I:406). Man is not truly guilty, but very capable of being culpable (see A Contemporary Wesleyan Theology, I:263).
  3.  I say "generally speaking" because they do end up saying that some of the effects of Original Sin exists in all, even the elect, I mean, even in the believers.  But it is not entirely consistent so the statement is true in a sweeping sort of way.
  4.  John Miley, Systematic Theology, reprint ed. (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1893) II:246.
  5.  These are simply his conclusions and statements.  Consider the following: "Therefore, if we hold the doctrine of native depravity, we must either admit a universal helping grace of the atonement or deny that the present life is probationary with respect to our salvation.  Such denial must imply two things: a limited atonement, with a sovereignty of grace in the salvation of an elect part, which for them precludes a probation; and a reprobation of the rest which denies them all probational opportunity for salvation.  Arminianism readily accepts the issue at this point; but the present section is not the place for the treatment of the questions involved" (Ibid., II:247).
  6.  All the quotes were taken from Wiley, Christian Theology, II:134-6.
  7.  Grider, A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology, 353.
  8.  Wynkoop, Foundations, 99 [emphasis is in the original text].
  9.  H. T. Hudson, The Methodist Armor (Nashville, TN: Publishing House of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1892) 34-5.
  10.  Pope, A Higher Catechism of Theology (Nashville, TN: Publishing House of the M. E. Church, n. d.) 208.
  11.  1"We are sure the Spirit begins this work [of prevenient grace] as soon as the child can understand anything, so as to lead the child to a knowledge of God and his will" (Jones, Theology of Holiness and Love, 216). This quote is taken from his section entitled, "Meaning of Prevenient Grace."
  12.  S. Wesley Ariarajah, "Evangelism and Wesley's Catholicity of Grace," in The Future of the Methodist Theological Traditions, M. Douglas Meeks, ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1985) 144.
  13.  The writer further asked if this sort of reasoning killed our sense of urgency in evangelism. He says that one cannot draw that conclusion since Wesley was so urgent in his evangelism. In other words, Wesley's practice denies the charge.