What is prevenient (preceding) grace?
This post is a chapter from Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book, 30 Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith available for purchase from our store. This resource makes for a great teaching tool in local churches, especially for catechesis purposes. We’re featuring a chapter each week in hopes of encouraging you to pick up the book and share it with others as well.
Earlier we learned that part of God’s nature is the desire to reveal himself to us. God is not merely interested in giving us rules to live by. He wants us to know him and enter into a covenant relationship with him through Jesus Christ. This self-revealing nature of God comes out in many ways, including in creation, in our consciences, in Scripture, and ultimately in Jesus Christ.
It is important to understand that salvation never begins with anything we do, but always as a response to something God has done. To think that salvation begins with our repenting of our sins and asking Jesus into our hearts is not the way the Scriptures understand the whole process of salvation. Rather, salvation always begins with God’s prior action. He acts, and we respond or resist. It always happens in that pattern.
One way of talking about all the ways God prepares us to receive the gospel is to use the term, “prevenient (or preceeding) grace.” Prevenient grace refers to all those acts of grace in our lives prior to our becoming a Christian. We know that such grace exists because Jesus said that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). There is a “drawing” or “preparing” which precedes our actual conversion.
The other reason we know that God’s grace must precede our decision to follow Christ is that the Scriptures teach us that we are dead in our trespasses and sins apart from Christ (Eph. 2:1). The Scriptures do not teach that we are merely sick or that our overall spiritual progress is slow, but that we are spiritually dead. (This is another great distinctive feature of Christianity.) This means that we are incapable of helping ourselves or saving ourselves without God’s prior action.
Most Christians believe in the doctrine of total depravity. That means that humans are dead in their sins and cannot do anything to help or improve their spiritual state before God. However, it is also a Christian position to believe in free will. This means that we affirm that God wants us to act and make decisions for him. The problem is this: How can a spiritually dead person act or decide to give their lives to Christ? The Bible is full of injunctions to act—people are called to repent, to believe, to come, to decide, and so forth. The answer is the doctrine of prevenient grace. This is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will. Prevenient grace is a sovereign act of God whereby he lifts the human race out of its depravity and grants us the capacity to respond further to God’s grace. It is God’s act of unmerited favor. It is God’s light “which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9 esv), which lifts us up and allows us to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ.
God takes the initiative to create a universal capacity for the human race to receive his grace. Many, of course, still resist his will and persist in rebellion against God. The doctrine of prevenient grace protects the church from views which argue that there is no sin nature. It also protects the church from views which argue that Jesus only died for those who have been elected before all creation to be followers of Christ. Prevenient grace preserves both the depravity of the human race and our confidence that Jesus died for every person who has ever lived or will live. In fact, prevenient grace does not technically affirm free will in the sense that anyone can decide to follow Christ whenever they want, because this pushes salvation too much towards the idea that salvation depends on our initiative. Rather, what is sometimes called “free will” is actually “freed will,” a will in bondage which has been set free by an unmerited act of God’s grace. It is, of course, not free in every possible respect, since we are all still influenced by the effects of the Fall in many ways; but we now have a restored capacity which has enabled our heart, mind, and will to respond to God’s grace.
1 Timothy 2:4–6