The fourth point immediately follows from the doctrine of depravity. If we are born depraved, separated from God, and incapable of coming to Christ on our own, then God is the one that needs to act first. Furthermore, our depravity also means that we do not deserve God helping us either. This makes whatever act God does to help us to be “grace”.
However, Arminians understand grace very differently than Calvinists. And it probably won’t surprise you that I believe the difference is a causal understanding vs a social understanding.
So how do Calvinists understand the concept of grace? With a misnomer like “The Doctrines of Grace” you would expect a pretty detailed account of what grace is. However, I find grace to be unrecognizable within Calvinism.
For Calvinists, grace is basically what God does to save us. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, however it is a rather incomplete conception of grace. I’ll get into why later. If you look at the way that Calvinists treat it though, they treat it simply as a cause. Most interestingly, grace in the Calvinist system is extremely mechanical.
The way I picture it is that in Calvinism there is this grace package, and once the package comes to you, it does everything that it is supposed to do. You’re walking around, being depraved and what not, and then God sends His grace upon you. You become regenerated, then you have faith, and then you are justified, and then you are saved. Bam! Bam! Bam! It happens in a flash. One thing causes the next, and it happens the same way to every person. Now I might be exaggerating a little here1, but this is how a Calvinist sounds to me when they talk about it.
This has always struck me as bizarre. When I think of the concept of grace, I think about two people, where one is betrayed and yet is kind and forgiving to the other person. To me grace is a relational term: it describes the relationship between two people. Grace on the Calvinist view seems to cut out the personal nature of the term. Now I know deep down Calvinists affirm its personal nature. When they talk about grace apart from the theology, it is clear that the word carries intense personal weight for them. But that doesn’t seem to me to be connected to the actual theology.
But none of this is necessarily wrong or bad. It merely strikes me as odd. Where I think that the Calvinist goes wrong here is that they seem to think that any expression that isn’t like this isn’t truly grace. But this makes no real sense. We never experience grace between people that is like this. Now, of course this point doesn’t mean that the Calvinist view is not grace, but it does mean that their definition is too restrictive.
Calvinists really, and I mean really, misunderstand the Arminian view of grace. Indeed, their analysis of our view of grace is so baffling that it was my trying to understand their criticisms that allowed me to recognize their causal centeredness.
Typically, myself included, Arminians say that prevenient grace is God preparing and enabling a depraved person, freeing their will to be able to do good, and encouraging them to come to the truth of the Gospel (which is Christ’s lordship and atoning power). I’ve always considered that a rather sufficient definition, and I still do for most people. But it is too ambiguous for the Calvinists because they make some assumptions of our view that the above definition doesn’t clarify.
Calvinists talk about Arminian grace in the same way as they talk about their own view of grace. They assume that we have a similar grace package concept, but that we think this package is extended to all people at the beginning of their life. Additionally, in their perception of our view, there’s less stuff in the package, in the sense that it merely make a person neutral, rather than radically transforming them. However, this is completely alien to Arminians. It is not at all what we actually think. I think they get it so wrong because they are attempting to describe our view from a causally centered thought process, and we simply don’t think that way.
We see grace as a kind of quality of an act, rather than a type of causation. For instance, I could ask someone what the word “sweet” means. One person answers, “it means that there are simple and cheap carbohydrates in your food that your body can readily use as fuel”. Another can answer, “It is a kind of flavor, one that we associate with desserts, treats, and junk foods.” Note how both are correct in a sense, but one is more like the way we commonly use the term. For us, you can have two actions that are completely the same, but one is gracious and the other not because of the reasons and motivations of the one doing it. Therefore, it isn’t what an act does that necessarily makes it grace, but the heart of the person performing the action.
More simply though, prevenient grace is not an act of God. It is a set of acts that God does throughout a person’s life, not bringing them to “life”, but keeping them “alive”. Some of these acts are resistible, but some are actually irresistible. It depends on the person because God does not do the same acts of grace in every person’s life. Rather what God does is based on where our relationship with Him is and who we are and our circumstances. They are personal intimate acts of one wooing His beloved to come to Him like Hosea. It is merely the final offer of the gospel that is never presented in an irresistible way.
Think of a child who doesn’t know how to swim in a pool with her father. His father holds the child in the water. He doesn’t simply make the child buoyant, but stays there, holding his child until she starts to swim on her own, instructing her, loving her. It is constant and dynamic. The father holding the child doesn’t show a change of state in the child, for the child is the same before the father holds her and while the father holds her. However, it is the father’s hands that enables her to swim and rescues her from drowning.2
What makes it grace isn’t that we are passive, but that we don’t deserve it. We deserve to be condemned and rejected by God. Instead, He woos us anyway. That’s grace! Undeserved favor! The only way this isn’t grace is to so restrict one’s definition of the word so that it looses all semblance of the act of love and care that should come with the term.
1 Emphasis on “might”. This is literally what the Calvinist sounds like to me, but I want to give them the benefit of the doubt here.
2 Be careful not to overextend the metaphor here. This metaphor isn’t meant to describe salvation. The metaphor is simply meant to describe how enablement doesn’t entail the idea of a change in state.