God’s Proactive, Enabling, Sufficient, Prevenient Grace

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Since the Arminian believes, like the Calvinist, in Total Depravity and Total Inability, but disagrees with the Calvinistic implication that this fact necessitates a doctrine of Unconditional Election or Irresistible Grace, what, then, in Arminian theology is needed in order for a totally depraved (and a totally, spiritually-incapacitated) individual to trust in Christ Jesus for salvation? In other words, if every sinner is saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8), what does “grace” entail? (I want to very briefly address Enabling, Sufficient, Prevenient Grace and not what is known as Common Grace.)

We realize that for most Calvinists, grace encompasses the notion that regeneration must precede faith (link). Calvinist Lorraine Boettner, for example, explains, “A man is not saved [regenerated] because he believes in Christ; he believes in Christ because he is saved [regenerated].” I place the word “regenerated” twice in brackets for clarification. There is no tender way to state this: Boettner’s claim, and hence the Calvinistic claim, is contrary to Scripture, in our opinion. In this motif, an individual is saved by grace to faith, not by grace through faith, as Scripture explicitly teaches (Eph. 2:5, 8). Nowhere in the entirety of Scripture are we taught that people trust in Christ for salvation as a result of having been saved. The New Testament everywhere affirms that a person will, by grace, be saved through (or on the condition of) faith or trust in Christ Jesus as Savior (cf. Rom. 10:13; 1 Cor. 1:21; Eph. 2:5, 8; 2 Thess. 2:10; Titus 3:5; Heb. 7:25).

The apostle Paul writes to the believers in Rome, “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4 NRSV; cf. ESV, NIV, NLT, Common English Bible, Revised English Bible). The Greek word for our English “kindness” (chrēstotēs) is mentioned twice, and it refers to God’s moral goodness and integrity: “In his attack on self-righteous Jewish piety [Paul] shows that the goodness [chrēstotēs] of God is no cheap, convenient grace. It should lead to a horror of one’s unwillingness to repent so that God’s aim of converting others to himself may be achieved.”1 (His forbearance and patience refers to God’s reactions to the stubbornness of those who keep rejecting His kindness, which is meant to lead them to repentance. But by their impenitent heart they are storing up wrath for themselves on the day of His wrath, when “God’s righteous judgment will be revealed,” Rom. 2:5 NRSV).

That God’s goodness or kindness is “meant to lead” a sinner to repentance demonstrates the action of such grace. God’s love for fallen humanity moves Him to grace sinners with salvation through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. Since sinners are not inherently able to trust in Christ, due to their bondage to sin — what Arminius calls, in part, the “perverseness of the affections and of the heart” — by which, as writes Arminius, it “hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil,”2 then an action of the part of God must first be performed.

This action, we believe, is performed by the ministry and work of the Holy Spirit, who was sent by the Father and the Son to “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8 NRSV). Arminius states that our will “is not free from the first fall; that is, it is not free to good, unless it be made free by the Son through His Spirit.”3 The action of the Holy Spirit in this regard is a “freeing” one from his or her bondage to sin, so that such a one might see sin for what it is, understand the righteous requirement for salvation (Rom. 1:16-17), and grasp the consequences of choosing sin instead of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, which is the coming righteous judgment of God.

If an individual, who is freed from his or her bondage to sin, responds positively to that grace, God “will bestow further grace upon him who profitably uses that which is primary.”4 We hold that this work of grace, which we call Enabling or Sufficient or Prevenient Grace, is always sufficient. Thomas Oden comments, “Any deficiency always lies with the fallen will and its distorted receptivity, not in an intrinsic inadequacy of the gift.”5 The graced individual is not resistant to the gospel by necessity, namely, by the decree of God. The sense in which deficiency lies with the fallen will of the recipient can be demonstrated in the Parable of the Soils in Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23 and Luke 8:4-8, 11-15.

Jesus warned the people to be careful how they listened to His teaching: “So pay attention to how you hear. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what they think they understand will be taken away from them” (Luke 8:18 NLT; cf. John 6:45). Why do some people listen intently to the message of the gospel and others disregard it? The deficiency is not to be found in the work of God’s grace, but in the persons themselves (cf. Matt. 13:19-22; Luke 8:12-14). “What God gives,” writes Thomas Oden, “is never ineptly given or wanting [i.e., lacking] in sufficiency. God antecedently wills that all should be saved, but not without their own free acceptance of salvation.”6 God is willing to save, and He has elected to save those who will trust in Christ Jesus for salvation. Hence we are not saved in order to believe in Christ; we believe in Christ by grace and are thus promised salvation.

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1 New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Verlyn D. Vergrugge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 610.

2 Jacob Arminius, “Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and its Powers,” in The Works of Arminius, the London Edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2: 193.

3 Ibid., 2:194.

4 Ibid., 2:20.

5 Thomas C. Oden, The Transforming Power of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 77.

6 Ibid. This Sufficient Grace is opposed to Effectual Grace, whereby God guarantees the salvation of those whom He has unconditionally elected unto salvation and faith, as in Calvinism. God’s intent, in Arminian theology, is not to effect salvation by necessity apart from one’s decision to trust in Christ, but to free the sinner in bondage so that he or she may freely trust in Christ, willingly. Calvinists tend to criticize Prevenient Grace based on their own presupposition of Effectual Grace, which will not work. Prevenient Grace must be scrutinized first by Scripture itself, and then judged for its consistency by its own contextual, biblical presupposition.