God’s Gracious Provision: A Theological and Exegetical Defense of the Wesleyan Doctrine of Prevenient Grace

Thesis

The Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace (hereafter, WPG) is theologically and exegetically warranted and defensible. What I offer here is a summary of how I believe Wesleyans ought to defend WPG. In addition, I will make some suggestions about how WPG may apply to pastoral ministry and theology.1

What is “Prevenient Grace” and What Do Wesleyans Mean By It?

The term “prevenient grace” comes from the Latin phrase gratia praeveniens, a participial phrase meaning “grace that goes before.” As far as I can tell, the earliest reference to prevenient grace is in Augustine’s anti-Pelagian work De natura et gratia written in 415.2 In a later work, Augustine explicitly uses it to counter the Pelagian concept of “prevenient merit.”3 He also found justification for the term in Scripture, namely, in Psalm 59:10 (58:11 in the Latin Vulgate), “Deus meus voluntas eius praeveniet me” (Translation: “My God, in his mercy, will go before me”).

Prevenient grace, as Wesleyans use the term, is theological shorthand for a complex of theological concepts. At the core of WPG is the unity of three aspects of grace: that is, grace is given to all people (universal), grace enables a person to bear fruit from that grace (enabling), and once grace has been given it may be resisted (resistible). The three points are held together by Wesleyans. Many Calvinists also affirm each of these points, but they do so without holding all three in unity to describe one grace. For instance, the Calvinist concept of “common grace” is universal and even resistible, but has no salvific quality and, therefore, is not enabling. Grace for the elect is enabling but neither universal nor resistible. Therefore, the unity of these three points is essential to WPG. Based on the unity of these three concepts, prevenient grace in the Wesleyan sense usually refers to God’s universal provision whereby people are enabled to exercise the faith necessary for salvation.4

Objections Summarized

For over two centuries the same objections have recurred with regularity. In this section I will summarize five objections as they originally appeared and as they have recurred in recent theology.

The first objection I consider is the charge that WPG is novel in the history of Christian theology. This was the objection of Charles Hodge5 and John Rankin6 in the nineteenth century, and is implicit in Schreiner’s charge that Wesleyans have imposed their own extra-biblical framework.7

A second objection is that WPG is internally inconsistent. The objection originated with Jonathan Edwards8 and has been repeated by many, especially Nathaniel W. Taylor, the eighteenth-century father of the Calvinist “New Divinity” school.9 Taylor objects that Wesleyan- Arminians cannot consistently hold to the necessity of grace for moral freedom while presupposing that such a person is already a guilty sinner before grace. To be a “sinner” requires freedom, which, according to Taylor’s interpretation of WPG, is what prevenient grace is enables. More recently, in 2013, Matthew Barrett seems to imply a similar argument when he states that “prevenient grace and libertarian free will are not logically consistent.”10

A third objection is a response to the Wesleyan teaching that when God chose to redeem rather than destroy humanity after Adam’s sin, He committed himself to providing salvation to the entire world. This, Wesleyans say, is an act of justice after showing mercy. But, it is charged, the idea that God might “owe” grace to anyone runs contrary to the very nature of grace as gratuitous. So, Edwards objected in his Freedom of the Will:

Why is that called by the name of grace, that is an absolute debt, which God is bound to bestow, and which it would be unjust and cruel in him to withhold, seeing he requires that, as the condition of pardon, which we cannot perform without it?11

This is the most frequent objection to WPG in the nineteenth century and continues today. For instance, Schreiner writes, “If God should show equal mercy to all, then mercy is no longer viewed as undeserved.”12

A fourth objection is that WPG is the basis for a person’s ultimate damnation. This was one of Nathaniel Taylor’s objections:

According to the opinion in question, every sinful action performed in the world since the fall of Adam, has been the effect of supernatural grace…. Why, then, is not the death of Christ a greater calamity to our race, than the fall of Adam? The latter exposed no one to hell, all being rendered by it incapable of sinning. But by the death of Christ, all are enabled, graciously enabled, to sin; all do sin, all are exposed to eternal perdition.13

It is alleged that prevenient grace is totally and amazingly ungracious, “the greatest of all possible curses.”14

Finally, some have stated that WPG is not biblically defensible. Actually, that’s putting it softly. In 1995, Thomas Schreiner15 said that WPG “cannot be exegetically vindicated.”16 He concludes that it is “a philosophical imposition of a certain world view upon the Scriptures.”17 Schreiner’s student, Matthew Barrett18 repeated the same sentiment that WPG “cannot be  supported by Scripture” and, furthermore, “the Calvinist logic does indeed remain irrefutable.”19 Never in the history of the debate over WPG have Calvinists employed such absolute language in their criticism. In my dissertation, I offer an explanation of John 1:9 and Titus 2:11 in support of WPG. WPG is not derived from any single passage of Scripture but from a complex of biblical teachings, explicit and implicit. Consequently, in this paper I will not submit an exegesis of any particular passage, but will note some of the exegetical differences between a Wesleyan and Calvinist reading of Scripture.

Common Ground

Before responding to the objections, let me point out three crucial points of agreement between evangelical Wesleyans and Calvinists in regard to PG. First, Wesleyans and Calvinists affirm the doctrine of total depravity and its corollary, total inability. Both traditions built their doctrine of grace upon passages such as Eph 2:1-3 or Ps 51:5. Arminius, John Wesley, John Fletcher, and all of the major nineteenth-century Methodist theologians affirmed the doctrine of total human depravity.

Secondly, both Arminians and Calvinists affirm that grace is necessary for faith and repentance. There is no salvation apart from grace. A morally responsible person must exercise faith in order to be saved; and prevenient grace is the initium fidei, the beginning of faith. Both Wesleyans and Calvinists follow Augustine’s doctrine of prevenient grace at this point.

Consequently, Wesleyans and Calvinists deny that any act is meritorious, including faith itself.

The primary point of disagreement is that Wesleyans believe that enabling grace is universal and resistible. I will examine the five objections to this belief and then offer three ways WPG may relate to pastoral theology and practice.

Is WPG Novel?

The easiest objection to dispel is the charge of novelty. There are two responses to this objection. First, the three core elements of WPG have been widely affirmed throughout Christian history individually. Chris Bounds has argued that “our [Wesleyan] belief in unlimited atonement was the consensual exegesis and understanding of the first 500 years of Christianity.”20 Also, the Second Council of Orange (529) unequivocally affirmed enablement as a major tenet of prevenient grace. 21 And, finally, Rebecca Weaver has argued that resistibility was part of the Christian consensus before Augustine, and that only after Augustine was this “long-standing scheme of free will” called into question. 22 Few would deny that any of these points— universality, enablement, and resistibility—have been affirmed since the earliest days of Christian thought. The debate has been how they relate together conceptually. That is, are they one grace or different graces given to different people?

A second response is that Christians have affirmed these points together, though not without controversy (at least after Augustine). After Augustine, a great controversy arose in southern Gaul. Prosper of Aquitaine initially attempted to defend Augustine’s late shift to unconditional election and limited atonement, but eventually moved away from Augustine’s limitation of God’s saving will. Others including as John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, Faustus of Riez, and Caesarius of Arles (who chaired the Council of Orange), all affirmed these points as one grace—prevenient grace. So while WPG may be controversial, there is nothing novel about the Wesleyan concept. The charge of novelty is mistaken and does not adequately consider the history of the doctrine.

Is WPG Internally Inconsistent?

The objection that WPG is internally inconsistent is based on a misunderstanding of WPG. It is sometimes thought that Wesleyans believe that prevenient grace is necessary to restore free will. This is the assumption of Schreiner, et al., in their objections to WPG. As pointed out by Edwards and Taylor, this would create a logical inconsistency since in order to be a sinner, one must be responsible for sinning. And both Edwardians and Wesleyans affirm that one cannot be responsible for sin without free will. Wesleyans simply deny that free will is absent before grace. On the contrary, free will is an ordinary manifestation of the image of God.

There is one critical difference, however, between Wesleyans and Edwardian Calvinists. In Edwardian theology, God gives commands to people without giving them the ability to obey them; and then he holds them culpable for disobedience. Thus, Schreiner writes, “[Wesleyans] are incorrect in deducing that God would not give commands without giving the moral ability to obey them. The distinction between physical and moral ability is crucial.”23 He continues:

All people are summoned to believe in Jesus and are censured for not believing. Nonetheless, the Scriptures also teach that they have no moral ability to believe, and that the only way they will believe is if they are given by the Father to the Son.24

Our problem with this view is that Edwardians do not believe God has given the ability to believe to all people. In their view, some people cannot exercise saving faith because God has withheld the grace necessary to do so. For Wesleyans, this defies the logic of a divine moral government, especially divine justice.

Wesleyans affirm that God, in his justice, provides to all people whatever ability is necessary for salvation. The Wesleyan concept of divine justice was illustrated by Wilbur Fisk: Suppose a poor man was in need of having his leg removed to save his life. A good doctor graciously removes the diseased leg, but having removed it, he is now committed (if he is really good) by his own gracious act to suture the wound in order to keep the poor man from bleeding to death.25 This is illustrative of what God does following the preservation of the human race after Adam’s sin. So my first response to the objection is that no person is without the necessary ability to respond to grace. The notion that a person (even apart from grace) does not have a sufficient measure of freedom is not part of WPG.

Secondly, according to Barrett, Wesleyans are inconsistent in affirming prevenient grace and libertarian freedom. Since he does not provide details for this conclusion, I will treat his objection as similar to the New Divinity arguments made in the nineteenth century. Wesleyans have insisted that freedom requires alternative possibilities (I can perform an action or not perform the same action) in some cases. The objection says that if PG is necessary for free will, then a sinner (prior to PG) does not have free will. We should keep in mind that Wesleyans affirm total inability to do good as concomitant with total depravity. So we must go beyond the previous response and state what kind of freedom a sinner has before PG (hypothetically, since none are without PG). Do sinners possess libertarian freedom before grace?26 The answer is yes. How so? The alternatives required by libertarian freedom do not require the ability to good which is made possible only by PG. A person without PG, still possesses freedom. That is, they are able to will an action or not will the same action in some morally significant cases. Even apart from grace, it is not necessary for a sinner to perform every possible sin. There are alternative possibilities available to a person without grace—to will wrongly or to refrain from willing wrongly. Refraining from willing wrongly is not the same as exercising faith and is not sufficient for salvation, yet it does allow grace to work without resistance. Therefore, Wesleyans are not inconsistent since we affirm that sinners possesses significant (libertarian) freedom even before PG.

Does God owe us PG?

The charge that prevenient grace cannot be owed is the most ambiguous of the objections.

Here I will suggest some possible meanings. The first possible meaning is that any theology in which God has obligations placed upon him from outside of himself is mistaken. If this is the meaning of the charge, Wesleyans agree and the charge is dismissed. A second possible meaning is: Any theology according to which there are divine obligations of any kind is mistaken. If this is the meaning, it disregards the biblical covenants into which God entered freely. That is, God commits himself to a covenant relationship. A third possible meaning is: Any theology according to which God commits himself to the restoration of (what he knows will be) a fallen creation is mistaken. This is not likely the meaning since Jonathan Edwards affirmed specific election prior to creation.27 Wesleyans too affirm that God’s saving choice took place before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). This leads to a further possible sense of the objection: Any theology according to which God commits himself to be gracious to all people is mistaken. It has already been stated that many Calvinists affirm universal grace, so this too unlikely the meaning. But something similar probably is, namely: Any theology according to which God commits himself to be gracious to all people so that they may be saved is mistaken. This is most likely the meaning since we can trace it to Augustine himself, who wrote, “they who make the grace of God common to all, in effect, deny grace itself.”28 The central point, therefore, is not divine obligation, but God’s self-commitment to all people for their salvation.

In response, God does not “owe” grace to any person. Grace is God’s free response to sinful humanity. There is no sense in which we impose a debt upon God. But, as both Wesleyans and Calvinists affirm, God is free to commit himself to certain actions, such as providing for the redemption of the world. According to Arminius, God can be “indebted” in two ways: by promise or by his prior act.29 For Wesleyans, both ways are applicable to the question. God has promised grace to all people and he committed himself to provide grace for all people. It would not be consistent with God’s love or justice for God to promise salvation to the world, provide for it, but refuse to give the necessary grace for salvation, and then hold people culpable who are without it.

The real reason for this objection is indicated by Schreiner who writes, “If God should show equal mercy to all, then mercy is no longer viewed as undeserved.” In other words, universal grace would veil the gratuitous nature of grace to those who receive it. I find it somewhat ironic that, in Schreiner’s view, God must withhold grace from some in order for the elect to recognize it as grace. A Wesleyan denies that God is under any obligation other than by His own free commitment. If Augustine’s argument is correct (it’s not, in my view), the kind of inaction owed to the non-elect is not determined by God’s commitment to humanity, but to the elect’s inability to recognize grace. In other words, Augustine’s argument implies that an obligation is imposed upon God from outside himself (look back at the first possible meaning of the objection). Wesleyans deny this; Calvinists do to, but it is not clear that Schreiner does consistently.

Is WPG damning?

This objection is mistaken given the kind of freedom a person has even before prevenient grace (again, hypothetically, since none are without PG). The first problem with this objection is that it assumes that moral free agency is a curse. Consequently, the objector must reconcile his own view with the freedom given at creation. The larger question is: Why would God create morally free agents knowing that some of them would be condemned by their own choice? This is a question posed to all who profess free will, including Calvinists. It is not grace that damns a person, but one’s resistance to God’s governance in their lives. Grace is not necessary for our condemnation. In fact, if it weren’t for grace, the person would not even exist! (In the Wesleyan view, God’s sustaining of the human race after Adam’s sin was the first act of prevenient grace.)

Secondly, Wesleyans have historically affirmed that infants are in some sense “justified”—either at birth or in death.30 In the Wesleyan tradition, this doctrine can be traced to John Fletcher who described “infant justification” as an effect of prevenient grace.31 Fletcher held that all infants are provisionally and unconditionally saved by prevenient grace. It is true that later, upon reaching a morally responsible age, all people reject grace.32 Nonetheless, salvation is a gift actually given to all people in their infancy. Hence, the charge that PG is damning is mistaken.

Is WPG biblical?

There is no single passage of Scripture that “proves” WPG. But neither should we expect there to be. Prevenient grace is theological shorthand for a systematic understanding of the Bible’s implicit and explicit teaching on grace. There is no single passage that states all three of the components I have identified as the core of the Wesleyan concept. Nonetheless, there are several kinds of passages that support WPG. I will mention only the most critical—passages that affirm universal grace and passages that affirm enablement. I choose these two because Schreiner specifically identifies universal enablement as the main point of his objection.

Regarding the universality of grace, Wesleyans appeal to the classic “all” passages such as John 1:9, 3:16, 12:32, 1 John 4:10, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4, 4:10, and Titus 2:11. Yet Schreiner, Barrett, Carson, et al., understand these passages, particularly John 1:9 and Titus 2:11, as all people “without distinction” as opposed to all people “without exception.” However, I don’t think it is so clear that “without distinction” is opposed to “without exception.” Augustine limited the “all” passages to the elect because he viewed Romans 9 and God’s selection of Jacob over Esau as the paradigm for election to salvation. Consequently, he had to interpret these Scriptures in a limited way. Of course, 1 Timothy 2:1, for instance, can be interpreted: “I exhort, therefore, that first of all supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all kinds of men.”33 But to say, as Schreiner and Barrett say, that 1 Timothy 2:4, “[God] will have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth,” cannot support WPG, is grossly overstated and historically ignorant. Augustine’s own limitation of this passage was exceptional34 and rejected by his chief defender.35

The second kind of passage necessary to defend WPG are those which show that grace is necessary for a good will and for salvation. This includes passages such as Isaiah 64:6, John 15:5, Romans, 3:12, 1 Corinthians 4:7, and Philippians 2:13, all of which express the necessity of gracious enablement. In the case of John 1, Schreiner believes the acceptance or rejection of light in John 1:10-13 is prior to the illumination of 1:9. But this is a theological judgment that is not rendered necessary for the text. The text can mean that one’s illumination (1:9) precedes one’s rejection (1:10-11) or acceptance of the Light (1:12-13). Schreiner and Barrett’s ordering of the text is not “irrefutable logic” and, I argue, not even the plain reading of the text unless one first assumes that 1:9 cannot refer to universal grace. Wesleyans only insist that 1:9 refers to universal illumination, that illumination is gracious (which Schreiner denies), and that the illumination may be the reason why some are able to reject or accept Jesus Christ. This being said, the objection that Scripture “cannot be exegetically vindicated” is false and does not promote constructive dialog.

How Does WPG Relate to Pastoral Ministry?

In conclusion, I will offer a few ways in which WPG should effect pastoral ministry today. The most popular application of PG is in the realm of Christian missions. In the words of Dennis Kinlaw, “we are always the second witness” after the Holy Spirit. Wesleyans do not practice Christian mission without the hope that some among the “unevangelized” are already responsible to the Holy Spirit and His prevenient influence. In the historic Wesleyan view, none of the “unevangelized” are inevitably lost merely on the basis of their ignorance or native depravity.36

Secondly, if we believe that infants are covered by atonement of Christ, we ought to raise our children as Christians. We do not need to wait until our children are older to treat them as Christians. This does not mean we ignore their corrupt nature. And neither does it mean that there should not be a time when they consciously repent and exercise faith. But they may do this from within Christ instead of out of rebellion. Children tend to live up to the expectations we place upon them and enforce in them.

Thirdly, I think we would be well-served to extend the previous point to a child’s membership in the church. That is, we should consider including the children in the membership of the church. In our own church, the children of members may be enrolled as members at their dedication. The point is that just as we want to raise them in Christ, we also want to raise them in membership with the church. At some point they will faced with the decision whether to remain a member. Yet, I believe retention of our young people would increase if we raised them fully within the membership (and, therefore, the accountability and discipleship) of the church.

Because of prevenient grace, our children can belong to Christ and His Church. Their belonging will aid in their becoming.


[1] Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL).
[2] Nat. et gr. 1.31, “Ubi quidem operamur et nos: sed illo operante cooperamur, quia misericordia ejus praevenit nos,” in PL 44:264. Translation: We too do something, but we cooperate with God who also does something, because His mercy goes before us.”
[3] De gratia et libero arbitrio 1.5, WSA 26:77, in PL 44:837.
[4] The exception is the effect of prevenient grace in such cases as infancy. A discussion of this is beyond the scope of this paper but is included in the dissertation.
[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2:330.
[6] John Ranking, “Arminianism and Grace,” in The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 28.1 (Jan. 1856): 38-59.
[7] Schreiner, “Does Scripture Teach?” 245.
[8] Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (revised; Paul Ramsey, ed.; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 300.
[9] Taylor, Man, a Free Agent Without the Aid of Divine Grace (Doctrinal Tract 2; New Haven, CT: n.p., 1818), 8 (emphasis original); compare with John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” Works [BE], 3:207: “No man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.” Cf. Fisk, Calvinistic Controversy, 197-219, for a complete review of Taylor’s work.
[10] Barrett, Salvation by Grace, 280.
[11] Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (Paul Ramsey, ed.; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 301. (emphasis original)
[12] Schreiner, “Does Scripture Teach?” 245. I take Schreiner’s point to be a statement on what is possible rather than an epistemological statement.
[13] Taylor, Man, a Free Agent, 14, 18.
[14] Daniel D. Whedon, “Arminian View of the Fall and Redemption,” Methodist Quarterly Review 43 (Oct. 1861), 663.
[15] Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.
[16] Thomas R. Schreiner, “Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace (Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, eds.; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995, 2000), 246.
[17] Schreiner, “Does Scripture Teach?” 245.
[18] Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University in Riverside, CA.
[19] Matthew Barrett, Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 248.
[20] Christopher T. Bounds, “The Scope of the Atonement in the Early Church,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 47.2 (2012), 26.
[21] Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss, eds., Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (4 vols.; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 697.
[22] Rebecca Harden Weaver, Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1996), 235 (emphasis added).
[23] Schreiner, “Does Scripture Teach?” 243 (emphasis added).
[24] Schreiner, “Does Scripture Teach?” 243.
[25] Fisk, Calvinistic Controversy, 213.
[26] “Libertarian freedom” is the view of freedom that requires a person to have a significant amount of control over his decision-making in at least some morally significant case. Usually, this also includes having alternative possibilities. Cf. Kevin Timpe, Free Will: Sourcehood and Its Alternatives (2nd ed.; New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). [27] Stephen R. Holmes, God of Grace and God of Glory: An Account of the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001), 129.
[28] Exam. Perk., in Opera, 679; WJA 3:337-338.
[29] Collatio, in Opera, 617-618; WJA 3:246 quoted in Stanglin and McCall, Jacob Arminius, 123; Cf., Whedon, “Fall and Redemption,” 661; Thomas N. Ralston, Elements of Divinity (Louisville: E. Stevenson, 1851), 317-319; Miner Raymond, Systematic Theology (3 vols.; Cincinnati: Hitchcock and Walden, 1879), 2.317.
[30] Watson, Theological Institutes, 2:214; Sermons, 1:360; Hibbard, “The Moral Condition of Infants,” 645; Stephen Olin, “The Religious Training of Children,” Works 2:187; Burwash, Moral Condition of Childhood, 15; Miley, Systematic Theology, 2.247.
[31]  WJF 1:161, 283-284.
[32]  WJF 1:164, 284, 308.
[33] King James Version.
[34] Cf. Bounds and Weaver; Op. cit.
[35] Alexander Hwang, Prosper of Aquitaine, 215-216; cf., De voc. 2.15, ACW 14:114, “Adhibita enim simper est universis hominibus quaedam supernae mensura doctrinae quae, etsi porcioris occultiorisque gratiae fuit, sufficit tamen, sicut Dominus judicavit, quibisdam ad remedium, omnibus ad testimonium,” in PL 51.
[36] Watson, Theological Institutes, 2:444; Ralston, Elements of Divinity, 313-314; Lee, Elements of Theology, 221.