Defending a term such as prevenient grace poses the same problem as defending such terms as trinity, total depravity, supra-, infra-, or sublapsarianism, or even Bible, for such terms do not appear in the Bible.
What, then, does the Arminian mean by the term prevenient grace? The word prevenient means “preceding;” thus the term, in its most simple form, means “grace which goes before,” or, “preceding grace” (or, as in ancient usage, “preventing grace”). So when the Bible claims that people are “saved by grace” (Eph. 2:8), Arminians understand that this grace must precede salvation if a person is to be saved (something which no Calvinist would deny).
This sense of grace (prevenient) is a far cry from the Calvinist’s view of God’s grace (and I would add that it is a much more biblical use of the word). For the Calvinist, grace, when applied in a salvific sense, refers to the grace of regeneration. So, for example, the Calvinist is obliged to re-interpret Ephesians 2:8 as, “For by regeneration you are saved through faith.” We, Arminians, believe that that is stretching the text entirely beyond all limits of proper interpretation.
Moreover, interpreting the grace of God for salvation in this way does injustice to other texts which refers to saving grace. Thus in Romans 3:24 it really means, “and all are justified freely by his regeneration;” and in Romans 4:16, “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by regeneration;” and in Romans 5:2, “through whom we have gained access by faith in this regeneration in which we now stand.” This just will not work.
So, Arminians maintain that prevenient grace is the activity which God employs through His Holy Spirit in convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11) as the gospel, in all its power, is being proclaimed (Rom. 1:16). If a person must first be regenerated in order to understand the gospel, as the Calvinist insists, then where is the power of the gospel?
We understand that the unregenerate sinner cannot obey God’s law (Rom. 8:7), nor understand the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10-14). Thus the necessity for the active, preceding grace of God.
Because of the fall human beings are held under bondage to sin. They need God’s power in order to be able to freely choose Christ Jesus (but it must be a free choice, for God does not do the choosing for people). So, God graces humanity, when the gospel is faithfully proclaimed, to respond positively to His call (or resisting that grace by not responding positively); and this grace comes before (hence prevenient) anyone chooses to believe in Christ.
If this is so, then why does everyone not believe in Christ through “prevenient grace” and be gloriously saved? Jesus Himself had this to say. “Those who have will be given more, and they will have an abundance” (Matt. 13:12). The context surrounds His disciples having the privilege of knowing the secrets of the kingdom. If someone was interested in knowing those things, they would be given more knowledge.
But to those who did not care about God’s kingdom, Jesus spoke to them in parables, “For this [contextually, Jewish] people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them” (Matt. 13:15). The Savior was more than willing to save, but most of the Jewish people were not interested.
The Calvinist will combat this statement and say that no one would ever be interested in spiritual things without God first regenerating their “dead” spirit; for how can the “dead” desire life? Well, if “dead,” in this sense, means “corpse,” I might agree with them. However, dead simply means separated (Isa. 59:2; Luke 15:24; Eph. 4:18). The words separated and corpse do not mean the same thing; and the one who makes the biblical usage of the word dead to mean corpse bears the burden of proof.
Concerning prevenient grace, Picirilli notes, “What Arminius meant by ‘prevenient grace’ was that grace that precedes actual regeneration and which, except when finally resisted, inevitably leads on to regeneration. He was quick to observe that this ‘assistance of the Holy Spirit’ is of such sufficiency ‘as to keep at the greatest possible distance from Pelagianism’ . . .
“By definition, pre-regenerating grace is that work of the Holy Spirit 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 respond positively in faith.”1 Please note that enabling (John 6:65) someone to do something does not guarantee that he or she will actually do it. A person can be granted the ability to do something and not actually go through with it.
Picirilli adds, “Emphasizing this work is the theological ‘move,’ shall we say, that makes it possible for Arminians to insist, in all truthfulness, that ‘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
A true, Classical, Reformation Arminian would never suggest anything other than God initiates salvation by grace, but confesses that this grace must be received through faith in Christ Jesus (John 1:12; Rom. 3:25; 2 Cor. 6:1).
Since I am rather limited by space, time, and your attention, let me offer two more quotes and then I will end this post. William Lane Craig writes, “The action of prevenient grace is followed by a response of the human will, either assenting to or dissenting from the operation of grace.”3
So we are vying for God’s enabling grace to the one who hears the gospel and is being convicted of sins through the work of the Holy Spirit in order for a person to freely choose either to receive or reject God’s offer of salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
Finally, what does prevenient grace do for those who have never heard the gospel or the name of Jesus? Walls and Dongell responds, “The Spirit no doubt works in and through the varied experiences of life, creating greater or lesser windows of opportunity and seasons of greater or lesser conviction. Obviously, the Spirit has worked in cultures and contexts where truth has been limited and where the name of Jesus is not yet known.
“But God has not left them without a witness to basic truth (Acts 14:17), assuring that all can perceive the reality of a Creator and the necessity of surrendering in thankfulness to him (Rom. 1). The sacrificial death of Jesus underwrites all of God’s saving activity and assures that all the redeemed explicitly confess him as Lord, whether in this life or on that great day when they first see and recognize him.”4
1 Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, and Free Will (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 153-154.
2 Ibid., 154.
3 William Lane Craig, “A Calvinist-Arminian Rapprochement?,” The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Publishers, 1989), 157.
4 Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I am not a Calvinist (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 72.