Does Prevenient Grace Make Total Depravity Only Hypothetical and Not Actual?

, posted by SEA

Ben Henshaw has a page at his blog for questions, and he was recently asked this:

I have a question about the prevenient grace. According to this doctrine, God enables the dead in sins so that he or she may respond or reject the message Gospel.

I’ve heard from Calvinists and specially from the author Matthew Barret in his book “Salvation by Grace” that this concept contradicts the clear testimony of the Bible because, as he says, “man *is* totally depraved”. He says that the doctrine of pre-regenerating grace makes total depravity only hypothetical and not actual (as the Scripture clearly states).

How would you respond to that?

Here’s a quote from his book:

“Regarding the second group of Arminians (classical Arminians)—who argue that prevenient grace negates total depravity so that no person actually exists in such a state—they also are without biblical warrant because Scripture not only affirms total depravity in principle, but also states explicitly that men are indeed in such a state presently. To take but one example, Paul states that before man was saved he actually walked according to the flesh, setting his mind on the things of the flesh (Rom. 8:5–8). Before salvation man was actually hostile toward God, unable and unwilling to submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7). Man was in the flesh. and the “flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). Scripture does not speak of man’s depravity as that which is negated by prevenient grace or as that in which no man actually ever exists; rather, it speaks of depravity as that state of man in which he currently exists and in which he will die unless an effectual work of grace is accomplished…”

Barrett, Matthew M. (2013-07-29). Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (p. 249). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition. [Link to original comment]

Here is Ben’s answer:

You write:

According to this doctrine, God enables the dead in sins so that he or she may respond or reject the message Gospel.

To be more precise, this grace enables us to believe the Gospel, but we do not need any enabling to reject the Gospel. We have that ability already.

He says that the doctrine of pre-regenerating grace makes total depravity only hypothetical and not actual (as the Scripture clearly states).

How would you respond to that?

I don’t see how this claim follows at all for a number of reasons.

First, many Arminians hold that the grace that specifically enables a faith response accompanies the Gospel message. So it is only in accordance with the Gospel message being heard that one is enabled to believe it. It seems that this person is thinking more of a version of prevenient grace that would have us under that influence from the time we are born (more like in Wesleyanism). But even in that version, the objection still doesn’t really work (more on that below).

Second, if the enabling power of prevenient grace makes total depravity only “academic” then why shouldn’t that also be the case of prevenient grace which is, according to the Calvinists, irresistible regeneration? Does God regenerating someone to believe the Gospel make total depravity only “academic” and not real? If not, why should enabling grace that is not regeneration make total depravity less real? So the sword cuts both ways, esp. if we see such enabling as only affecting us when the Gospel is preached (as noted above).

Remember that both Arminians and Calvinists hold to prevenient grace. Sometimes Calvinists make it sound like it is just an Arminian belief, but that is not the case. “Prevenient” just means “comes before”. Basically, it just means “preceding.” So holding to prevenient grace means we hold that God must graciously work in us “before” we can believe. Calvinists believe that as well. They just see this working as irresistible, and many say this irresistible working is regeneration (though not all Calvinist hold to regeneration preceding faith). In fact, for Arminius this was the crux of the whole disagreement:

“The representations of grace that the scriptures contain, are such as describe it capable of “being resisted,” (Acts 7:51) and “received in vain” (2 Cor 6:1), and that it is possible for man to avoid yielding his assent to it and refuse all cooperation with it (Heb 12:15, Matt 23:37, Luke 7:30). While, on the contrary, this [Calvinist] Predestination affirms that grace is a certain irresistible force and operation.”


“In this manner, I ascribe to grace the commencement, the continuance and the consummation of all good. To such an extent do I carry its influence that a man, though already regenerate, can neither conceive, will, or do any good at all, nor resist any evil temptation , without this preventing [i.e. preceding] and exciting, this following and co-operating grace.”

“From this statement it will clearly appear, that I by no means do injustice to grace, by attributing, as it is reported of me, too much to man’s free will. For the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, “Is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?’ That is, the controversy does not relate to those actions or operations which may be ascribed to grace (for I acknowledge and inculcate as many of these actions or operations as any man ever did), but it relates solely to the mode of operation, whether it be irresistible or not. With respect to which, I believe, according to the scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered.” (From Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will and the Nature of God, ed. John Wagner, pp. 45, 69)

Saying that the prevenient enabling grace of God is resistible (Arminianism) rather than irresistible (Calvinism) has no bearing at all on whether or not total depravity is real. Indeed, in both views, the reality of total depravity is plainly assumed, otherwise, this prevenient enabling grace would not be necessary. So this argument is really just a bit of a canard as far as I am concerned.

Here is an example. Suppose a child has serious ADD. This condition, which has affected him from birth, prevents the child from focusing on his work at school. Because of his ADD he is simply too easily distracted to focus as he should. Eventually, he is given medication which overcomes his ADD. Now he is able to focus. So does the fact that the medication is enabling him to focus where he was not able to before mean that he no longer has ADD? Of course not. If he did not have ADD the medication would not be necessary. The fact that the medication is necessary is proof that the ADD is real. If not for the medication, he would not be able focus.

Now there is another lesson here. If the student is enabled to do his school work because the medication now makes that possible where it was impossible before, does this mean the child will now certainly do his school work? No. He can still choose not to do his work for a variety of reasons. But his refusal to do his homework cannot be blamed on ADD, since ADD has been overcome by the medicine. In the same way, if God enables us to believe the Gospel where it was impossible before, we are still able to resist obeying the Gospel, and might do so for a variety of reasons. But it is no longer because we are unable.

Now what if we extend this back to the beginning of someone’s life? Suppose severe ADD was diagnosed for this child somehow even before he was born. And suppose medication was administered from the very start in order to mitigate the affects of ADD. Does this mean ADD is no longer a problem? Of course not. If the medication were to stop being administered, the ADD would quickly manifest itself. So the child is still fully dependent on the medication in order to avoid the affects of the ADD he was born with.

And that is the main point. The point is that whenever or however that grace we need is applied, it is applied exactly because “we need it” and without it we would be without hope and unable to respond to God as we should. But if depravity were not real, that would not be the case, and grace would not be the reason why we are able to believe, etc.

So Scripture does testify that we are depraved. Left to ourselves, we are hopeless and unable to come to God. But thank God He has not left us to ourselves. He works in us through His grace to make it possible to seek Him, draw near to Him and believe in Him. That working is real and necessary because of our depravity, whether it is at work in one form or another even from birth or not.

And again, even in Calvinism this is true. We could also apply it to God’s work in sanctification. God’s work in sanctifying us proves that we need to be sanctified, that there is still sinful impulses in us that need to be overcome. When God enables us to overcome those impulses more and more and become more like Him in the process, does that mean those sinful impulses are not real? Does it mean they are only “academic”? Of course not. The fact that God continually works in us to overcome sin does not make sin “academic” or not a real problem.

In a similar way, God makes us “righteous” through justification. So when God makes us righteous, does that mean our unrighteousness that stands behind our need for God to make us righteous and justify us is then just “academic” and not real? Of course not. If it were not real, we would not need God to make us righteous.

And Calvinism runs into even bigger problems with examples of people who began to seek for God or desire a relationship with God prior to conversion. Cornelius in the NT is a Biblical example (Acts 10). He was a God fearer and God was pleased with His devotion prior to his hearing and believing the Gospel. That makes sense in Arminianism which says that God can work in someone’s life to desire Him prior to regeneration, but not in Calvinism where we are all just God haters prior to regeneration.

And we see many examples of this in our daily experiences too. Many slowly begin to desire and seek God in their lives before embracing the Gospel, even seeking salvation. Even Spurgeon says as much in the account of his conversion. But this doesn’t make sense if the Calvinist- you are a God hating rebel until you are regenerated- claim is true. In their scheme, you can’t even begin to desire God a little bit until God irresistibly regenerates you. That doesn’t accord with Scripture or experience. But the Arminian version of prevenient grace does. [Link to original comment]