Monergism.com hosts articles by various Calvinists, some of which present arguments against Arminianism based on a Calvinistic hermeneutic, and others of which are a pure misrepresentation of Arminian doctrine. Having read “A Short Response to the Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace” by Dr. John Hendryx, I decided to assess the information and make corrections and distinctions where such are needed. The article is a mixed bag of truth and error, some statements which Arminians affirm and some which they deny, but which are published as representing Arminianism in toto on the doctrine of prevenient grace.
By prevenient grace we refer to a pre-regenerating “work of the Holy Spirit,” to quote Dr. Robert Picirilli, “that ‘opens the heart’ of the unregenerate (to use the words of Acts 16:14) to the truth of the gospel and enables them to [freely] respond positively in faith.”1 Apart from this pre-regenerating work, no one is capable of positively responding to the gospel, trusting in Christ, and experiencing the act of regeneration, which is performed solely by God the Father through the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). In other words, God must take the initiative in this action, and, when the individual positively responds with faith in Christ, He alone regenerates the person. No one can regenerate him- or herself, just as no one can justify him- or herself, nor believe in Christ by him- or herself.
Dr. John Hendryx defines prevenient grace, naming it “a distinctly Arminian doctrine,” as a “universal grace which precedes and enables the first stirrings of a good will or inclination toward God and it explains the extent or degree to which the Holy Spirit influences a person prior to their coming to faith in Christ.” (link) Some Arminians and Wesleyans do frame prevenient grace as being universalistic, operative at all times, even among those who have no access to the Gospel. Arminius and the Remonstrants, however, frame this operation of God’s proactive disposition toward helpless sinners (i.e., grace) in strict gospel-bound fashion.
For example, Arminius insists that “no one is converted except by this very word [of the gospel], and by the meaning of this word [of the gospel], which God sends by men to those communities or nations whom He hath purposed to unite to Himself.”2 Yet, he also does acknowledge that God is quite capable of converting certain persons, e.g., St Paul or St John the baptizer, through personal means that do not entail the full gospel message. Such instances are qualified, however, as being extraordinary and extremely rare.3 Since the ordinary means of God is use of the gospel, effectual through the inner work of the Holy Spirit, then this work of God is not deemed universal, meaning, at all times and in all places.
The Remonstrants maintain this same notion. In their Arminian Confession of 1621, they state emphatically, “But that man may not just perform the commandments of God … but also willingly want to perform them from the mind, God willed for His part to do everything necessary for effecting both in man, that is, He determined to confer such grace to sinful man by which he might be suitable and apt to render everything which is required of him in the Gospel.” They continue in their gospel-restrictive viewpoint:
Therefore, in the first place, when God calls sinners to Himself through the Gospel and seriously commands faith and obedience either under the promise of eternal life, or to the contrary, under the threat of eternal death, He not only bestows necessary but also sufficient grace for sinners to render faith and obedience. (emphasis added)
In a very genuine sense, though Calvinists differentiate grace in strict monergistic language, they, too, believe in prevenient grace. In other words, even the monergistic grace of God, which brings about regeneration so that the unconditionally elect can trust in Christ, is prevenient in nature — this operation of grace precedes faith. Also, Arminians believe that the initial prevenient grace of God is monergistic. True, God’s Spirit grants the individual an ability to believe (John 6:44, 45, 65; Rom. 2:4; Phil. 1:29) when the gospel is preached (Rom. 1:16, 17), but the person is the one who believes or chooses to remain in unbelief. In other words, this gospel-oriented grace can be resisted.
Hendryx writes: “In short, they affirm that prevenient grace, which is given to all men at some point in their life, temporarily brings the sinner out of his/her condition of total depravity and puts them in a neutral state of free will wherein the natural man can either accept or reject Christ.” (link) Again, not all Arminians or Wesleyans frame the matter in this same vein. There is no “neutral state” between total depravity and total regeneration.4 Being in an unregenerate state, and still depraved, the sinner is graced by the Spirit of God and enabled to believe in Christ.
I suppose we cannot lay all the blame on Dr. Hendryx, or other Calvinists, especially when some in the Arminian-Wesleyan camp (including the likes of Charles Finney, who is more properly a semi-Pelagian) advocate notions similar to that mentioned above. Still, the matter needs addressing, especially the following quote from Wesley’s Order of Salvation:
Human beings are totally incapable of responding to God without God first empowering them to have faith. This empowerment is known as “Prevenient Grace.” Prevenient Grace doesn’t save us but, rather, comes before anything that we do, drawing us to God, making us want to come to God, and enabling us to have faith in God. Prevenient Grace is Universal, in as much as all humans receive it, regardless of their having heard of Jesus [emphasis added]. It is manifested in the deep-seated desire of most humans to know God. (link)
There are certainly distinctions between Welseyan-Arminianism and classical Arminianism. Dr. Hendryx is kind enough to draw distinctions between classical Arminianism and semi-Pelagianism and the theology of Charles Finney. I do think, however, that a finer line needs to be drawn between the theology of Arminius and that of the Wesley brothers. Classical Arminians tend to focus on the life and works of Arminius and the Remonstrants, while Wesleyan-Arminians tend to follow the life and works of John and Charles Wesley. On certain theological issues, such as prevenient grace, the respective positions will differ.
While I cannot qualify Wesley’s statement regarding those who have never heard of Jesus being recipients of God’s prevenient grace, I can emphatically state that Arminius and the Remonstrants adhere to the Reformed principle that the Gospel in the Word of God is the primary means that the Holy Spirit utilizes in the inner-working of the unregenerate soul. This spiritual work is not merely an outward call, as Dr. Hendryx states, but is also an internal persuasion of the Holy Spirit.
Between the unregenerate state of the one being ministered to by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, or the Word preached, and the application of all redemptive blessings by grace through faith in Christ we must acknowledge both conviction of one’s sins by the Spirit and His persuasion on the candidate for salvation. Dr. Picirilli notes of Arminius: “By the internal persuasion of the Holy Spirit … He effects faith and binds Himself to give salvation to the believer.”5 All the promises of God concerning salvation are regarded for the believer (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10, 11, 12, 13, 20).
Therefore, in a strict sense, classical Arminians differ from Wesley’s view regarding prevenient grace being extended to those who have never heard of Jesus. However, in spite of Dr. Hendryx’s argument against this notion, we must pay careful attention to an Italian centurion in the first century named Cornelius, who was “a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” (Acts 10:2) In layman’s terms: that ain’t bad for an unregenerate, totally depraved soul.
Now, classical Arminians will insist that Cornelius was operating within the context of the grace of the Holy Spirit. But we are obligated to also admit that the author of Acts does not explicitly indicate such. Cornelius devoted himself to the God of Israel, fearing Him respectfully, giving financially to the Jewish people and praying constantly to Him. This was his daily practice prior to hearing the Gospel. He was not yet saved and thus not yet regenerated (Titus 3:5), yet he exhibited new covenant, spiritual distinctives. How? We insist he did so by grace.
While Dr. Hendryx states, “some Arminians believe that if a person is faithful, that is, responds believingly to, the degree of revelation made to them then God will accept that faith and impute it to them as righteousness, whether or not [they] have actually heard the gospel,” we argue that this is not representative of classical Arminianism. Still, we also claim that one is at a loss attempting to explain, from a Calvinistic perspective, how Cornelius was able to accomplish any of these realities prior to His conversion and regeneration apart from monergistic grace. While classical Arminians and Wesleyan-Arminians can answer “prevenient grace” to such a conundrum, Calvinists simply cannot, and therefore are confronted with quite the dilemma in explaining this thorny issue.
1 Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2002), 154. Picirilli adds: “Emphasizing this work is the theological ‘move,’ shall we say, that makes it possible for Arminians to insist, in all truthfulness, that [as I. Howard Marshall instructs] ‘in every case it is God who takes the initiative in salvation and calls men to him, and works in their hearts by his Spirit … nor can anybody be saved without first being called by God.'”
2 Jacob Arminius, “Apology against Thirty-One Articles: Article XVIII.,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:22.
3 Ibid., 2:21.
4 There is no “neutral state” in Arminius’ theology. The so-called First State of existence for our first parents is called Primitive Innocence, wherein Adam and Eve “had a mind endued with a clear understanding of heavenly light and truth concerning God … [and] a heart imbued with ‘righteousness and true holiness,’ and with a true and saving love of good; and powers abundantly … qualified or furnished perfectly to fulfill the law which God had imposed on him.” (2:191) The so-called Second State is the fallen state, wherein humanity is rendered helpless with regard to salvation apart from the grace of God. The so-called Third State is a state of Renewed Righteousness, wherein a “new light and knowledge of God and Christ, and of the Divine Will, have kindled in his mind.” Such a person, when positively responsive to this grace, “loves and embraces that which is good, just, and holy.” This work of holiness and power is “all begotten within him by the Holy Spirit.” (2:195) But there is no in-between state of the Second and Third.
5 Picirilli, 155.