Prevenient Grace

Rev. Robert L. Brush

The word “prevenient” is based upon two Latin words which mean “to come before.” While this is not the way in which we normally use the word “prevenient” or “prevent,” for our purposes in this article we will use the original meaning of this word. Thus prevenient or preliminary grace refers to the operation of God’s grace before we turn to God. Implied is the concept that God’s drawing grace precedes the human response of faith. John Wesley asserted, “Natural free-will, in the present state of mankind, I do not understand: I only assert, that there is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored to every man, together with that supernatural light which ‘enlightens every man that cometh into the world.’”

This dynamic is found in such passages as: Genesis 6:3; Psalm 51:10-12; 80:3; 85:4; 119:18-20; Isaiah 65:1-2; Jeremiah 31:18-19; Zechariah 4:6; Luke 24:25; John 1:9-13; 6:44, 65; 12:32; 15:5; 16:8-11; Acts 5:31; 8:16; 9:4-18; 10:35; 11:18; 13:43; 16:14-16; 18:10, 24-6; 19:3-4; 22:16; Romans 2:4, 14; 5:6-10, 15-16; 7:16, 22; 10:8-10, 14-15; 10:20-21; 1 Corinthians 2:4; 2 Corinthians 3:5; 6:1-2; Ephesians 2:1-8; 5:14; Philippians 2:13; Titus 2:11; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2; 1 John 4:19.

When the Methodist Discipline was revised in 1804, one preacher moved to strike out the word “preventing” and replace it with the word “assisting.” Thomas Coke rose to his feet, when the man finished, and asked at the top of his voice, “Where am I? In a Methodist Conference? I thought so, but have we turned Pelagians? Do we think that we can get along in our natural depravity with a little assistance, without preventing grace?” Coke insisted that the proposed change in words would ruin the Articles of Religion which assert the utter inability of anyone to do anything toward personal salvation except as God’s grace through Christ prevents. Coke declared that he would die for that word “preventing.”

This doctrine of the holy Scriptures is a very comforting and encouraging truth when properly understood. It helps us to understand God’s love for sinners and helps us to understand sinners as well. In prevenient grace we see God loving, caring, and working in a sinner’s life, leading him to repentance, sometimes tenderly, sometimes strongly, more or less as he is able to hear. Through this the loving kindness of our Savior is shown!

In John Wesley’s sermon, “On Working Out Our Salvation,” he declared, “God worketh in you; therefore you can work: Otherwise it would be impossible. If He did not work, it would be impossible for you to work out your own salvation.”

Most church members today think if they feel religious or enjoy going to church that they are most certainly a real Christian. This, of course, is not true. Before anyone is converted to God, or born again from above, the Holy Spirit of God must move upon his heart to acknowledge his sins and turn from them. Many think of this as the new birth, but the scripture calls this repentance. Some even think one is born again before they can repent or believe the gospel. However, this is not scriptural. The scripture says, “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Repentance precedes believing the gospel. This is prevenient grace. However, this drawing is not irresistible grace. As Colin Williams has observed, Wesley “broke the chain of logical necessity by which the Calvinist doctrine of predestination seems to flow from the doctrine of original sin, by his doctrine of prevenient grace.”

Wesley wrote, “Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace, including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him. All these imply some tendency toward life, some degree of salvation, the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God and the things of God. Salvation is carried on by convincing grace, usually in the Scripture termed repentance, which brings a larger measure of self-knowledge, and a farther deliverance from the heart of stone.”

Jesus said, “No man can come to me, unless the Father draw Him” (John 6:44). Some of the early Methodists called this “conviction of sin” the “drawings of the Father.” This preliminary grace or prevenient grace is absolutely necessary to salvation. Many today “accept Christ” or the Christian message and skip this part, because this is the way it is presented by the preachers. “Accept Christ” is the message. Repentance and godly sorrow for sin is seldom mentioned. Consequently our churches are filled with religious sinners, whose lives are only slightly changed by the gospel.

They still lie occasionally; still become angry to the point of being out of control; curse and swear. They are, at times, dishonest, rude, and love the world. The disturbing part of all this is that Galatians 5:19-21 tells us that those who manifest the works of the flesh in their lives are not Christians and shall not inherit the kingdom of God. Then these people are identified by sins such as adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness which is sexual sins, idolatry or the love of the world, sorcery or astrology, hatred, strife, envy or bitterness and jealousy, fits of anger, strife which stems from anger and resentment, dissension, divisions and false teachings, envy, murders (including abortion), drunkenness, reveling or orgies. They which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. They are not Christians!While few commit all of these sins, we can find all of these among nominal church members.

We know they are not true Christians, but there is another group who fear God, and yet are not truly born again either. They are sincere and at least try to be Christians. They live in the seventh chapter of Romans. “When I would do good, evil is present with me” (Rom 7:21). Romans 7 is not the true Christian experience, but a person “under conviction,” trying to overcome sin.

Many popular Bible teachers, who have the power to do much harm or much good, say this is the true Christian experience, but they are sadly mistaken and do much harm by taking this position. Theman in Romans 7 is living out the life of one influenced by prevenient grace, “the grace that goes before the new birth.”

We can see many changes in a sinner’s life before he receives saving faith and the new birth. When the Spirit moves upon a sinner, convincing him of sin, his first reaction is to reform his life. He begins to attend church and in many ways change his life style. Some go to great lengths in reformation before the new birth experience; others not quite so far. One may even attend church regularly, pay his tithe, “amen” the preacher, pray daily, read the Scripture daily, pray with sinners, enjoy good preaching and singing, and yet be short of the new birth. Thus we see the importance of understanding this part of the “working of the Spirit,” lest we think we have arrived when we have not. The new birth is accompanied by a more or less constant assurance of sins forgiven and victory over sin. When we properly understand this, it keeps us from despair. We know that God loves us even when we discover we are short of the new birth. This does not mean we are hypocrites or insincere, but that we mistakenly thought we were born again when we were not. Some have upon acknowledging this, confessed it and passed immediately into true saving faith and the new birth. To face this honestly will help us to locate ourselves. In order to set our spiritual goals, it is helpful to know where we are now. Our goal should be a constant assurance of the forgiveness of sins and victory over sin.

Surely there are sincere, honest people who think they are born again, but at best are only awakened. They do not have any assurance and frequently lapse into sin and think their need is the second work of grace or sanctification, when the need is to be truly born of the Spirit. Knowing and understanding this makes us more loving and understanding of others who have not yet arrived. We see them as souls seeking after God, that perhaps they might feel after Him and find Him. A minister especially needs this understanding that he might properly lead his people into the real experience of the new birth.

Romans 8 reveals the condition of one who is born again. He walks not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. This chapter also reveals to us that he who does not have the Spirit is none of His. My concern and purpose is to help awaken those who think they are saved and are instructed that they are truly Christians when the truth is they have only been awakened to the fact that they are sinners and need to be saved, like the man in Romans 7. They are sincere, but keep falling into sin of various kinds from time to time. Usually the same sin over and over, not knowing there is deliverance from sin through Christ.

I have been around church folk all my life. I was born and raised in the strictest sect of the Pharisees. I have become convinced the problem among even good people is they do not go on to the new birth, but stop short thinking that being religious is good enough. Consequently they fall into the same sins over and over. They are content to live and die in this condition, not knowing there is a better way. Yes, my friend, there is deliverance from the sinning and repenting of Romans 7. You can receive the Spirit and the result will be that the fruit of the Spirit follows. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. They that are Christ’s and have His Spirit, have crucified the flesh with its affection and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us walk in the Spirit (Gal 5:22-25).