The Relationship Between Prevenient Grace and Free Will

Editor’s Note: William Burt Pope was the greatest Methodist theologian of the 19th century. This excerpt from Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology is lightly edited.

The Spirit of Grace is the Author of every movement of man’s soul towards salvation; but His influence requires and indeed implies a certain co-operation of man as its object. Here then we have three topics to be considered: (1) prevenient grace, (2) human co-operating agency, and (3) the relation between grace and free will.

Prevenient Grace

The Grace of God which brings salvation is the fountain of Divine lovingkindness to mankind, undeserving and impotent; exhibited once for all in the redeeming mission of Christ; and exercised in the administration of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of Grace, throughout the whole range of His saving work. It is the sole, efficient cause of all spiritual good in man: of the beginning, continuance, and consummation of religion in the human soul. The manifestation of Divine influence which precedes the full regenerate life receives no special name in Scripture; but it is so described as to warrant the designation usually given it of Prevenient Grace.


I. Grace, χάρις, is the love of the Triune God as it is displayed towards sinful man, helpless in his sin. It is therefore free grace corresponding to universal love; mercy towards the guilty and help for the impotent soul. It is sovereign as being under no compulsion, even that of the Atonement, which it provided, and was not created by it. It is universal, being spoken of rather as an attribute than as an act of God; but it is particular also, suiting its manifestation to each. It is independent of merit in the object, of necessity, for otherwise grace would be no more grace; but it is not arbitrary, nor is it independent of conditions. As this grace is that of the Father and the Son in the redemption of mankind, it has already been considered. It is now viewed as the grace of the Spirit in the administration of redemption. The Holy Ghost is once in Scripture termed in a most affecting connection the Spirit of Grace (Heb. 10:29). The propriety of the term Prevenient Grace, and the doctrine which it signifies, rests upon the general truth that salvation is altogether of the Divine lovingkindness. This is declared in two ways: man is impotent in his guilt and weakness; God’s manifold gift in redemption is free.

Man is impotent in his guilt and weakness; God’s manifold gift in redemption is free.

1. The powerlessness of man is everywhere assumed in Scripture, though not stated often in positive terms. Like many other universal truths—such as the Being of God, the immortality of the soul—it is the presupposition of the whole Bible. Still, it has sound and most impressive Scriptural confirmations: though some of those which may be appealed to must, in exegetical fidelity, be cautiously received. Certain of these passages refer rather to the hardening effect of continued sin: such as “you hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Some describe the impotence of man to carry on of himself God’s work; such as “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6); and “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God” (2 Cor. 3:5). Not a few refer to the entire dependence of the believer on Christ for all his spiritual good; such as “Without Me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). But there are others which lay stress upon the fact that the world was lost in sin and weakness when Christ interposed: “When we were yet without strength (ἀσθενῶν, helpless), in due time Christ died for the ungodly (ἀσεβῶν, godless).” “While we were yet sinners (ἀμαρτωλῶν, transgressors), Christ died for us.” “When we were enemies (ἐχθροί, under wrath), we were reconciled to God” (Rom. 5:6, 8, 10). Now all these words, while they depict the estate of fallen man at the time when the Redeemer appeared, must be made general in their application. They give, as a quaternion, the best negative definition of grace that the Scripture furnishes. As sinners are under the law and guilty, grace finds a method of mercy; as they are under the Divine displeasure, it provides for the reconciliation of God; as they are cut off from fellowship with their Maker, it gives them the Spirit of worship and holiness; as they are absolutely unable to help themselves, it provides them all the help of Heaven. Man is unequal to his own salvation, however it is viewed: whether in its beginning, or in its process, or in its end.

2. Hence it is declared that the salvation of man is altogether of grace. “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8): altogether of grace and not of works. There is no need to ask to which—whether salvation or faith—the gift refers: it refers to both, which in this connection are inseparable. It is not so much in single passages as in the constant tenor of Scripture that we gather the spontaneous freedom of the grace that provided salvation. In fact, the origin of human redemption is always traced to the love of God which, resting upon undeserving man, became grace. And the use of the term in the New Testament illustrates this. The word, as sanctified to Christian uses, and apart from its occasional classical application as graciousness,—in which sense it lights upon our Lord’s lips: they wondered at the gracious words, τῆς χάριτος, which proceeded out of His mouth,—has (Luke 4:22) three meanings in the New Testament. It is Grace from God to man, and as such is the sum of benediction: χάρις ὑμῖν; it is Grace working within the soul: My grace, ἡ χάρις μου, is sufficient for thee; (2 Cor. 12:9) and, finally, it is Grace going back to God in thanks: χάρις τῷ Θεῷ, thanks be to God. (2 Cor. 9:15)


II. This grace as the influence of the Spirit on the minds of men generally and of individual men before their personal acceptance is described in various ways. These may be classed as, first, referring to the Divine operation, when it is a striving and drawing; secondly, in relation to the means used, when it is a demonstration of the truth; thirdly, as influencing man, when it is the working in him to will, by piercing or opening his heart. These three are distinct, but one; and, when compared, yield a doctrine which is simple in its mystery though mysterious in its simplicity.

1. The drawing and striving of the Spirit are throughout the Scriptures abundantly referred to: the former operating on the human soul regarded as obedient; the latter wrestling with that soul regarded as repugnant; both tending to salvation, and in every case rendering that salvation possible. The Old-Testament declaration, “My Spirit shall not always strive with man” (Gen. 6:3), may be capable of another interpretation, but it is followed by constant reference to a resisting of the Spirit as the secret of human impenitence. In the New Testament we hear, from the lips of the Great Attraction Himself: “No man can, come to Me except the Father which hath sent Me draw him” (John 6:44), and we may add, “This spake He of the Spirit” (John 7:39). Both the striving and the drawing express the strongest influence short of compulsion. The zeal of human agency, described in Scripture, catches the same tone and strictly corresponds, being its representative. “That I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22) and “Compel them to come in” (Luke 14:23) are mutually correlative: neither the command, nor the obedience to it, is consistent with an absence of Divine influence, or with anything but a Divine purpose to save.

2. The Word of Truth is never without the influence of the Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost the first Christian sermon was preached with His accompanying power: they spoke, first indeed only to God but afterwards to man, as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4). Nothing less than this is meant by the reference to the “Word of God which effectually works in those that believe” (1 Thess. 2:13), and to the Gospel which came “not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost” (1 Thess. 1:5). An effectual Divine energy is described as belonging to the Word preached, apart from its final result: “My preaching was … in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 11:4). This ἀποδείξις is opposed to the influence of rhetorical skill, and establishes the general fact that the Spirit’s power has the energy and effect of a Divine persuasion, whether yielded to or not.

The Spirit’s power has the energy and effect of a Divine persuasion.

3. The effect produced is occasionally made prominent. Under that first sermon “they were pricked in their heart” (Acts 2:37), which in another form is stated of Lydia, “whose heart the Lord opened” (Acts 16:14). The piercing and the opening are not in these texts so different as is sometimes thought: both the Jews and Lydia “attended unto the things which were spoken” as the result. “It is God which, of His good pleasure, works in you to will and to do” (Phil. 2:13): here we have the last word of Scripture on this subject.

Personal Human Agency: Free Will

The prevenient grace of the Spirit is exercised on the natural man: that is, on man as the Fall has left him. As the object of that grace man is a personality free and responsible, by the evidence of consciousness and conscience. As fallen he is throughout all his faculties enslaved to sin; but knows that sin is foreign to his original nature, and that the slavery is not hopeless nor of necessity. His will is still the originating power or principle of self-determination, under the influence of motives originated in the understanding and feeling, but capable of controlling those motives. And his whole nature, as fallen, whether regarded as intellect, sensibility or will, is under some measure of the influence of the Holy Spirit, the firstfruits of the gift of redemption.

These several propositions are in themselves clear and simple and true. They are in harmony with all sound psychology; with common sense; and with the tenor and tendency of all Scripture. Their difficulty is felt only in relation to the theological speculations which have been connected with the influence of the Holy Spirit, and the metaphysical speculations with which the doctrine of election has surrounded them.

1. Prevenient grace is exercised on the personality of man, free and accountable: not upon any particular element of his nature, but upon himself. That personality is the Suppositum Intelligens, the responsible author of all that he does: not his will, nor his feeling, nor his intellect; but the hidden man, the αὐτὸς ἐγώ, the central substantial person who is behind and beneath all his affections and attributes. That influence of the Spirit, directly or through the Word, is exercised upon the agent whom St. Paul describes as the active I or the passive Me of every religious feeling that precedes regeneration.

2. The person or personality of the natural or unregenerate man is free, inasmuch as no power from without controls his will. It is the very nature of will to originate volition: otherwise, if constrained, will is no more will; the possessor of it is not accountable; and volition is only a misnomer for the obedience, only in appearance spontaneous, to a natural or physical law. Consciousness and conscience alike attest that the sinner—for of the sinner we are now speaking—is free and responsible: his consciousness in its first elements is that of a free agent; and his conscience, or moral consciousness, asserts his responsibility, not only for actions but for words and thoughts and the whole posture of the mind.

3. Again, that person is bound and enslaved to sin. Naturally the bias to evil and the aversion from the moral law are so universal that, even apart from New-Testament teaching, common consent allows that human nature is bound to what is wrong: so bound that none can escape without a direct Divine intervention; and bound so universally in actual experience as to warrant the induction that none will ever be born without it. In the case of actual transgressors, the effect of habit invariably both proves the original innate bondage and deepens its strength.

Human nature is bound to what is wrong: so bound that none can escape without a direct Divine intervention.

4. But the slavery is not absolute. It is conscious slavery, and not submitted to without reluctance. It is not so much a fetter on the will itself, as the ascendency of a sinful bias over the motives that actuate the conduct by governing the will: the feelings and desires of the affection, and the thoughts of the mind. The will is not bound; but the understanding which guides it is darkened, and the affection which prompts its exercise is corrupted by sense. Now here comes in the doctrine of Prevenient Grace. It is not needed to restore to the faculty of will its power of originating action: that has never been lost. But it is needed to suggest to the intellect the truth on which religion rests, and to sway the affections of hope and fear by enlisting the heart on the side of that truth.

The Relation of Grace to the Freedom of the Will

The Grace of God and the human will are co-operant, but not on equal terms. Grace has the pre-eminence, and that for many reasons. (1) First, the universal influence of the Spirit is the true secret of man’s capacity for religion; (2) secondly, His influence, connected with the Word, is universal, inevitable, and irresistible, as claiming the consideration of the natural man; and, lastly, He gives the power, whether used or not, to decide against sin and submit to God. These facts assure to grace its supremacy in all that belongs to salvation. But the co-operation of the will is real: because in this last stage it rests with the free agent himself whether the influence of the Spirit be repelled or yielded to. This is the uniform and unfailing testimony of Scripture; the consideration of which will prepare the way for a brief review of ecclesiastical opinions and dogmas on the subject.

The Grace of God and the human will are co-operant, but not on equal terms. Grace has the pre-eminence.


I. The general truth of a co-operation between the Spirit and the will of man is a postulate of the entire Scripture. Like some other fundamental truths, it is not demonstrated but taken for granted; and that very fact is sufficient evidence of our proposition. This co-operation may be viewed negatively or positively.

1. Negatively, there is no reference in the only authority to an arbitrary Divine power reigning over the things that accompany salvation. He who works in us to will is never represented as working so absolutely upon us that nothing is left to personal responsibility. “Turn Thou, me!” is followed by “and I shall be turned!” (Jer. 31:18) And both parts of the sentence must have their force. There is no saying in the Word of God which, fairly expounded, represents the Divine Spirit as overruling the energy of the human object of His grace.

2. Positively, and in the most express manner, the Scripture represents Divine prevenient grace as operating through and with man’s free concurrence. Figuratively this is expressed by the “good ground” (Matt. 13:23) which receives the seed: everywhere it is assumed that the first application of truth is probationary, detecting a character in the hearer which in some sense decides all. But it must always be remembered that this hearer of the Word has a preliminary grace in the roots of his nature which he yields to or resists in the very act of resisting or yielding to the appeal of Heaven. We find it, literally, in all those passages which declare that believers themselves voluntarily receive the Word of God or of Christ or of grace. So, in the Thessalonian “Having received the word” (1 Thess. 1:6; 2:13) (δεξάμενοι answering to παραλαβόντες). This last expression is used concerning the reception of Christ: “As ye have received Christ Jesus the Lord” (Col. 2:6). Another and cardinal text is: “We then, as workers together with Him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1). Here there is a co-operation of the Apostles with God; but it is equally certain that there is a co-operation of believers with both.


II. That the Spirit has the pre-eminence is equally the doctrine of all the Scripture, as indeed it is of common sense.

1. The fact that man is, since the Fall, still a free agent is not more essentially a necessity of his moral nature than it is the effect of grace. Redemption is universal, and goes back to the root of the nature. Its universality has this for its result that all who are born into the world are born into a state of probation: otherwise the human spirit would have fallen back under the law of physical necessity, or into that of diabolic bondage to evil. Unredeemed spirits are responsible; but their responsibility is no longer probationary: they are responsible for a state of guilt that has become determined by their own first act become habitual. The difference put between them and us is the mystery of redeeming mercy. The children of men are in bondage to sin; this is the character which is stamped upon them by inheritance. But the bondage is not hopeless nor is it to any mortal necessary; they have a natural capacity of freedom to act as well as to choose, to perform as well as will; and this their very nature is itself grace.

2. Grace has the pre-eminence inasmuch as its influence when the Word is preached, whether directly or indirectly, is inevitable and irresistible. Prevenient grace moves upon the will through the affections of fear and hope; and these affections are necessarily moved by the truths which the understanding perceives. But the understanding is under the necessary influence of the Word, while, apart from the understanding, in some sense, the passions are under the control of the Spirit. However obstinately and effectually the truth may be resisted as a ruling power, as truth it cannot be resisted.

In the secret recesses of man’s nature the grace is given disposing and enabling him to yield.

3. Moreover, in the secret recesses of man’s nature the grace is given disposing and enabling him to yield. Though the will must at last act from its own resources and deliberate impulse, it is influenced through the feeling and the understanding in such a manner as to give it strength. It is utterly hopeless to penetrate this mystery: it is the secret between God’s Spirit and man’s agency. There is a Divine operation which works the desire and acts in such a manner as not to interfere with the natural freedom of the will. The man determines himself, through Divine grace, to salvation: never so free as when swayed by grace.