It is believed that the phrase “prevenient grace” which is previous to salvation was coined or at least popularized by Augustine. He said, “God anticipates us…that we may be healed…anticipates us that we may be called…that we may lead godly lives”. (Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on Nature and Grace,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 133.)
John Wesley (ad 1703–1791), the founder of Methodism, popularized the teachings of James Arminius. He echoed much of Arminius’s teaching, especially the concept of prevenient grace, or first grace. According to Wesley, prevenient grace is a grace that God gives to open up the will of a sinner so that everyone has the opportunity to freely choose or not choose to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. (See John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” in The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 1979).) This concept was an attempt to defend human freedom of the will without denying the pervasive effects of sin on the human condition.
Prevenient grace is, “A designation of the priority of God’s gracious initiative on behalf of humans. Hence the term refers to the gracious action of God, displayed in the person and work of Christ but present in the lives of human beings through the agency of the Holy Spirit, which precedes all human response to God’s initiative. Calvinists view prevenient grace as that aspect of special grace by which God redeems, sanctifies and glorifies the believer; hence, it is bestowed only on those whom God elects to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. For Wesley (and consequently for many Arminians) prevenient grace is the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of all people, which gives them the freedom to say yes to the gospel; thus, prevenient grace can be accepted or rejected, but justification cannot be achieved without it.” (Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 95.)
Theologian Henry Thiessen defined prevenient grace thus: “Since mankind is hopelessly dead in trespasses and sins and can do nothing to obtain salvation, God graciously restores to all men sufficient ability to make a choice in the matter of submission to Him. This is the salvation – bringing grace of God that has appeared to all men.” (Henry C. Thiessen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 344–45.) Theologian Sam Storms qualifies the concept of prevenient grace: “This grace, however, is not irresistible. Whereas all are recipients of prevenient grace, many resist it, to their eternal demise. Those who utilize this grace to respond in faith to the gospel are saved.” (Sam Storms, Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 29.) Theologian Bruce Demarest summarizes: “Arminians maintain that ‘prevenient grace,’ a benefit that flows from Christ’s death on the cross, neutralizes human depravity and restores to pre-Christians everywhere the ability to heed God’s general call to salvation.” (Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997), 208.
What has God’s prevenient grace done for you personally?
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