Prevenient Grace: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011


First, I am a Methodist because I believe in prevenient grace. For Wesley, the spiritual life has no hope of a beginning without God’s prior action on behalf of the sinner. Prevenient grace is a collective term for all the ways in which God’s grace comes into our lives prior to conversion. Prevenient grace literally means, “the grace that comes before” and captures well what the early church called the preparatio evangelica, i.e. the preparation for the good news. One of the ways in which the Methodist-Wesleyan tradition is sometimes misunderstood by those in other traditions is in regard to our doctrine of sin. It may come as a surprise to some of our Reformed readers that the doctrine of total depravity (the famous T in the Calvinistic TULIP) is shared by Wesleyans and Methodists just as ardently as by Calvinists. Methodists, like our Reformed brothers and sisters, believe that salvation is impossible without a free and prior act of God on behalf of the sinner. Total depravity means that we are dead in our sins and therefore cannot help or assist ourselves. Sin is not merely a “ball and chain” which impedes our progress. We are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:5). Methodists affirm this truth. However, Methodists take very seriously the theological tension which exists between, on the one hand, the clear teaching of Scripture that we are dead in our sins and totally void of any ability to save ourselves (Eph. 2:1, Col. 1:21, 2:13; Lk. 15:24) and the universal call to the Gospel which requires us to “come” (Matt. 11:28), “repent”(Acts 2:38), “believe” (Acts 16:31) and a whole array of other commands, all of which call us to specific acts of faith and obedience. Since spiritually dead people have no capacity to respond, it is clear that God is bestowing grace in countless ways into our lives prior to our regeneration or conversion. Prevenient grace provides the link between human depravity and universal call. The important difference between Methodists and Reformed Christians is not on the fact of depravity, but on whether God’s prior action is limited to the elect (Limited Atonement – the L in the TULIP) or is universal. Despite the enormous respect we have for John Calvin, Methodists do not believe that the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement fits the biblical data as well as the doctrine of prevenient grace. The Methodists believe that God has universally acted on behalf of Adam’s fallen, depraved race. We believe that Christ, as the Second Adam, rescued the human race with an act of grace which grants them the capacity to accept or reject the good news of the Gospel when it is proclaimed. Wesleyans believe that if the doctrine of human depravity is not linked to God’s action in prevenient grace, then it creates an untenable theological conflict which, at least potentially, makes God either unjust or the author of evil, neither of which fits with a biblical view of God. For, if a spiritually dead person is incapable of responding to God’s call, then upon what basis is he or she held accountable for sin? Prevenient grace demonstrates how we can be totally depraved, yet given grace to respond and, if we do not respond, can be held fully accountable for our disbelief.

For Methodists, prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will. Prevenient grace lifts the human race out of its depravity and grants us the capacity to respond further to God’s grace. Jesus declared that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Methodists understand this text as referring to a divine drawing rooted in the Triune God which precedes our justification. It is God’s act of unmerited favor. It is God’s light “which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9), lifting us up and giving the human race the capacity to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ. Thomas Oden puts it well when he says that “the divine will always ‘goes before’ or ‘prevenes’ (leads the way) for the human will, so that the human will may choose freely in accord with the divine will.”1

Wesleyan thought affirms that God has taken the initiative to create a universal capacity for the human race to receive his grace. Many, of course, still resist his will and persist in rebellion against God. Wesleyan thought is actually a middle position between a Pelagian view (which makes every person an Adam and admits no sin nature or bondage due to Adam’s nature) and the Reformed view (which affirms limited atonement). What Wesleyans mean by free will is actually “freed will,” i.e., a will in bondage which has been set free by a free act of God’s grace. It is, of course, not free in every possible respect, since we are all influenced by the effects of the Fall in many ways; but we now have a restored capacity which has enabled our heart, mind, and will to respond to God’s grace. I love the fact that Methodists believe that even if you go to the ends of the earth with the gospel, you will always find that God precedes you and, in effect, “beats you there!” Perhaps prevenient grace is summed up best by the famous interruption to a missionary who was lecturing in Africa about how the missionaries brought the Gospel to Africa. The African believer interrupted and said, “The missionaries did not bring the Gospel to Africa; God brought the missionaries to Africa.” This insightful comment shifts the emphasis to God’s prior agency and the great missio dei (mission of God) whereby God is always the first actor in the great drama of redemption. Wesleyans fully embrace the importance of human decision and the exercise of the will. However, this is not possible without God’s prior action.

1 Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology vol., 2, The Word of Life (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), 189. Unless otherwise noted, this blog uses the New International Version.

Comments

  • “Despite the enormous respect we have for John Calvin, Methodists do not believe that the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement fits the biblical data as well as the doctrine of prevenient grace.”

    Sir, with all due respect to you and your works, I just believe that we should refrain from using “Wesleyan” and “Methodist” interchangeably. If we equate this two labels, as you did several times in this post, then we make “Calvinistic Methodism” an irony. But we know that history acknowledges numerous Calvinistic Methodists such as George Whitefield, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and others.

  • T Tennent says:

    Yes, we must not forget the platypus when discussing mammals.

  • Mark Royster says:

    Wesley’s strong (and beautiful) view of prevenient grace was no doubt nurtured by his devotional life anchored in the Book of Common Prayer. For example, consider the collect for peace from the office of Evening Prayer, which Wesley as a devout Anglican would have prayed daily:

    “O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey they commandments, and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the mercies of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

    It is fascinating to see the frequent specific articulations of prevenient grace throughout the Book of Common Prayer. Indeed the whole pattern of Anglican devotion stands on this foundation. Fortunately people are formed more by what they pray than by what they study, lex orandi, lex credendi. While significant Calvinist influences are seen in the 39 Articles, the whole liturgy preserved the ancient and universal catholic faith against Protestant innovations such as limited atonement.

  • I’m still learning here. However, the first thing that came to mind after I read this post was the thought of pain at all levels and how the combination of faith and free will transforms pain in something else that will eventually become part of our spiritual maturity.

  • Joe Cox says:

    Dr. Don Demeray said, after translating Wesely’s 52 Sermons into modern English, “If you take each the Wesleyan tradition and the Calvinist tradition to their extreme ends, they are only a hair’s breath different from each other.”

  • JAy. says:

    Likewise, prevenient grace also always makes me think of a story from a Chinese missionary. When they started to witness to their house-keeper of several months, the woman stopped them and asked if they were talking about the baby in the picture of The Virgin with Child that they had in the home. “That woman told me her son was special and that I should love him.”

    God is always there before us; sometimes we just have to help others to see Him clearly.

  • Andres D. says:

    Dear Sir, great article. It makes me understand better why I can identify so much with the Hymn “And can it be” and still be a 4.5 Calvinist. Thank you so much for remembering the “platypuses”, we are here but we are hidden. George Whitefield’s contribution to Methodism is enormous. Martin Lloyd-Jones thought he was the last of “Calvinistic Methodists”. He wasn’t.

  • luke says:

    13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent?…17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. 18 But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: …19 Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says,“I will make you envious by those who are not a nation;
    I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.”20 And Isaiah boldly says,
    “I was found by those who did not seek me;
    I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”n21 But concerning Israel he says,
    “All day long I have held out my hands
    to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
    ___Romans 10:16-21
    from these passages, I did not find prevenient grace, but the power of the Word of God, the Gospel, and the messengers who were sent out by Lord and preaching.

  • Tom says:

    Is it possible for a person to respond positively to prevenient grace and yet not hear the gospel and not be saved? Or is a positive response to prevenient grace, because it is a positive response to the God who gave the grace, sufficient for salvation…though maybe not sufficient to grow up in the full stature of Christ?

  • […] Tennent on Prevenient Grace: Why I’m a Methodist and an Evangelical (Pt. 2). This is really a discussion of what the Gospel IS to a Methodist. Good stuff […]

  • […] Prevenient Grace –  “salvation is impossible without a free and prior act of God on behalf of the […]

  • Craig says:

    A couple of statements that I’m not following the logic of. The universal call that requires all to come. Calvinists believe each of the elect, through irresistible grace, comes in response to the call. “Methodists do not believe that the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement fits the biblical data” You don’t seem to have presented the biblical data. The term “elect” is found in the Bible for ex 1 Pt 1. The Bible doesn’t say that any people were given enough grace which would enable them to choose or reject salvation. If God is love (1 John) and he elects some and not others, it is not for me to say that that is not fair. God defines fairness not me. He is also just. 1 John 1:9 “IF we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. ” He is just.
    See http://www.reformationtheology.com/2006/07/does_the_bible_teach_prevenien.php

    Yes. Prevenient grace as stated on your site is semi pelagian. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semipelagianism

    Augustine taught that prevenient grace is irresistible which is aka Calvinism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prevenient_grace

    Semipeligianism is arminianism. You have not made it clear otherwise.

  • Topher Jones says:

    Very interesting read. Thanks for posting. Help me with Romans 9. While the article was informative, I felt it lacked biblical enlightenment and leaned heavily on denominational doctrine/leadership. A slippery slope. It might help your assertion if you can adequately (biblically) refute the one point in Calvin’s answers to the Armenians. That is, limited atonement vs. Universal atonement.

    Thanks!

  • “… the spiritual life has no hope of a beginning without God’s prior action on behalf of the sinner.”

    Yes, Romans 3.10-12 says,
    “…as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.

    All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.””

    In the excellent study “Experiencing God,” Henry Blackaby pointed out that because no one is righteous nor do they even seek God, he concludes that that means than humans don’t have the capacity to even conceptualize God. He says that it doesn’t make any difference whether a person wonders about God, thinks about God or even is mad at God. People cannot do any of that without that being God’s drawing them to himself. John 6.44 “”No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”

    So I think that this point is actually a powerful evangelical tool if you can tell someone (that is being drawn by our Father) that they cannot think about God or even be mad at God without that being God’s merciful reaching out to them personally, to draw them to Himself.