The work of conversion is always initiated by the grace of God. John Wesley believed that God's prevenient grace was intended to be for all people. He said "the grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is FREE IN ALL, and FREE FOR ALL."
The need for this prevenient grace is based upon man's fallen condition. Wesleyans and Calvinists are in fundamental agreement on man's depravity. In fact, the command to repent and believe, found throughout scripture, would be impossible were it not for God's grace.
While Calvinists distinguish between common grace and special grace, they teach that special grace alone is saving grace. Special grace is extended only to the elect and is irresistible. Wesleyans find no biblical basis for the theological distinctions of common and special grace. Instead, Wesleyans teach a preliminary or prevenient grace. The doctrine of prevenient grace breaks the chain of logical necessity taught by Calvinists. The word prevenient or preventing is from two Latin words which mean to come before. Prevenient grace enables the sinner to either accept or reject the gift of salvation provided through Christ.
The Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace simply refers to the grace of God that goes before or precedes any movement of man toward God. Grace flows from the Father's self-giving love for lost humanity (John 3:16-18), and is mediated through the active life and obedient death of the Son. The Holy Spirit administers the finished work of the Son through his convicting, converting, regenerating, and justifying work in the hearts of repentant sinners (John 16:8-11).
John 1:9 teaches that Christ brought sufficient light into the world to graciously illuminate every person. The illumination does not guarantee the salvation of anyone, but it makes the choice of salvation possible. John Wesley described "the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first, slight, transient conviction of having sinning against him. All these," said Wesley, "imply some tendency toward life, some degree of salvation, the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart." While everyone may not have the same amount of light, those who miss heaven will be denied on the basis that they rejected whatever amount of light they did receive.
There would be no need for a universal atonement if all were not given the opportunity to accept salvation. John 12:32 declares that all men are drawn to Christ. This gracious drawing is resistible, but provides all people with the opportunity to believe. The Greek verb helkuo does not mean that God irresistibly drags the elect into faith. "There is no thought here of force or magic. The term figuratively expresses the supernatural power of the love of God or Christ which goes out to all (12:32) but without which no one can come (6:44)," writes Oepke in Kittel's One-Volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. The idea of a selective drawing contradicts the universalistic language used throughout John's Gospel and the entire New Testament.
In John 16:8-11 we see that the ongoing ministry of the Spirit is to convict (elencho) the entire fallen world of mankind of their sin of unbelief. The Spirit's motive for this work is to steer the guilty party toward redemption. Elencho means: "to show someone his sin and to summon him to repentance" [Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 2:474]. The ultimate goal of this conviction is to restore relationships between persons (Matt. 18:15; 1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:13; 2:15; cf. John 8:46) or between a person and God (e.g., John 16:8; Heb. 12:5) [The Complete Biblical Library, Greek-English Dictionary, 12:373]. People would never see their need for a Savior without the Spirit convicting them of their sin that separates them from a holy God.
Romans 2:4 teaches that God continues to lead (present tense) sinners to repentance. Even the Calvinistic theologian Charles Hodge, in his commentary on Romans, interpreted this verse as teaching prevenient grace. Yet he denied the implications of this doctrine. The following verse indicates that while God leads, man may refuse to be lead. We cannot conclude that this grace is simply common grace, not meant to lead men unto salvation, because the goal of this leading is repentance, the first step of conversion. And verse seven promises that the goal of this leading is eternal life.
While Titus 2:11 says that God's grace has appeared to all men, we cannot conclude that all men will be saved. Yet that grace cannot be explained as simply "common grace." The purpose of that grace was to bring salvation. While it is God's will that all men be saved (1 Tim 2:4), the grace which appears to all is resistible.
Therefore, we conclude with John Fletcher that "All our salvation is of God; All our damnation is of ourselves."