The Biblical Case for Prevenient Grace

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The Bible teaches that all people are called to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:1; Acts 16:30-31), while also acknowledging that we are dead in sin and cannot come to God of our own accord (John 6:44 & 65; Romans 3:9-12; Ephesians 2:1; Philippians 2:13). How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory realities—the biblical call to repentance with what is often called total depravity? Watch this Seven Minute Seminary video with Brian Shelton as he explains what bridges this gap.

Throughout church history many have described the enabling effect of God’s grace as prevenient grace. This grace that “goes before” is the work of God’s Spirit on human hearts to loosen sin’s natural grip on us. Prevenient grace testifies to God’s being the initiator of our relationship with him and reveals him as one who pursues us. It becomes distinctly Wesleyan in its reach and scope by going beyond Reformed common grace and toward reconciliation with God.

Four passages that John Wesley referred to often were (NIV): John 1:9 (“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world”); John 12:32 (“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”); Romans 2:4: (“Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?“); and Titus 2:11 (“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people”).

Three qualities of prevenient grace:

  1. Prevenient grace is enabling.
  2. Prevenient grace is transformative.
  3. Prevenient grace is universal.

Two important qualifications:

  1. Prevenient grace is not universalism.
  2. Prevenient grace is not saving.

Read more about Brian Shelton’s journey exploring this doctrine here; Read a primer on prevenient grace by Andrew Dragos here; Read a catechesis summary of prevenient grace by Timothy Tennent here; Read a Wesleyan understanding of grace and works by Dale Coulter here; Download a free PDF of Jacob Arminius here.

If you’re interested in studying prevenient grace further, see Brian Shelton’s book, Prevenient Grace: God’s Provision for Fallen Humanity. From the cover: “God enables all people to exercise saving faith in Christ by mitigating the effects of depravity, an initiative that theologians call prevenient grace or enabling grace. Dr. Shelton clearly identifies the proper place of this concept in the theological landscape and calls for a new dialogue about its role in individual salvation. Prevenient grace has been a bone of contention between Wesleyan and Calvinist Christians for nearly five hundred years. However, Dr. Shelton traces the biblical and historical roots of this concept and concludes that it is vital to understanding how God reaches sinful human beings. He explains, This book endeavors to show that prevenient grace is implicit if not explicit in Scripture; that it is not contrary to any other biblical teaching about salvation; and that it offers the best coherence of the biblical data on saving faith.”

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Dr. W. Brian Shelton has served as Provost in northeast Georgia and Professor of Theology at three Christian colleges. He is a fellow with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities Leadership Development Institute and the Georgia Governor’s Teaching Fellowship. His research interests include historical biblical exegesis, Western patristics, early church martyrdom, and soteriology.A favorite activity is leading college students to Europe to visit firsthand the most important sites of church history.

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