David Pallman, “Prevenient Grace in Romans 2:4”

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In the debate over prevenient grace, one text that has received a surprisingly insufficient attention is Romans 2:4. Here Paul writes, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and restraint and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” Taken at face value, this verse seems to provide strong evidence for prevenient grace. It is clear both that God takes the initiative towards sinners with the gracious intention of bringing them to repentance, but that sinners nonetheless can (and do) reject this grace.

Calvinists make much of the fact that the scope of the grace referenced in Romans 2:4 is not universal. As Robert Peterson and Michael Williams note,

“But Paul does not say that God’s grace enables all sinners to believe the gospel. … Arminians correctly cite Romans 2:4 as evidence of God’s goodness in directing sinners towards repentance. But a closer examination of the verse reveals that Paul is not making a universal statement.”

Peterson and Williams are quite right in their observation as far as it goes. Certainly, Paul does not specify the scope of this grace in Romans 2:4. But they seem to miss the larger point, namely that God does, in fact, give grace that enables people to repent. By showing that the verse does not specify that the grace is universal, they have not thereby shown that is limited. The answer to that question can be determined later on. Arminians believe that it is universal based on other texts (John 1:9, 12:32, Titus 2:11). But the mere fact that Paul does not say that God gives such grace to everyone in this verse does not mean that it is therefore only given to some.

Presumably, Peterson and Williams would say that such grace is only extended to the elect. However, if that is the case, then they run into the problem of Paul saying that that the recipients of this grace think lightly of it (or some translations say they “despise” it). In other words, this enabling grace is resistible. That is the more fundamental point here. Additionally, there is a good reason to suspect that the grace is universal. Paul uses the same word translated “patience” (makrothymia) in Romans 2:4 again in 9:22 saying, “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with great patience objects of wrath prepared for destruction?” No Calvinist disputes that the vessels being described in 9:22 are representative of all those who are not elect. Yet, according to Paul, it is these same vessels that God endures with patience that is intended to lead to repentance. It would be special pleading indeed to claim that Paul means something completely different by “patience” in 2:4 than he does in 9:22. The contexts of both statements are similar. They both involve God being patient towards unbelievers who are being prepared in some sense for wrath and judgment. If we have no good reason to believe that Paul is using the word “patience” in a completely different sense in 9:22, then it follows that Paul is indeed teaching that God endures all vessels of wrath (the non-elect) with patience intended to lead them to repentance. In short, prevenient grace is universal in scope if Paul is consistent in his use of the word “patience.”

But what if this verse is not teaching that God is enabling sinners to believe at all? What if the phrase “leads you to repentance” means something completely different? Matthew Barrett makes just such an argument saying, “There is nothing here that indicates a doctrine of universal prevenient grace. What is being described is not a giving of universal grace but rather the withholding of God’s judgment for a period of time.” But surely Barrett is being disingenuous here. It is entirely appropriate to speak of withholding judgement as giving grace. If nothing else, God is certainly giving additional time for repentance. Moreover, Barrett does not adequately deal with the fact that this patience is explicitly said to lead the sinner to repentance. On this point he says,

“Paul says nothing about a universal grace that is provided to all people enabling them to repent. Such a detailed description of grace is not included in this passage. Rather, the present tense verb “leads” (ἄγει) in verse 4 simply indicates that it is God’s desire that sinners repent. How exactly God goes about executing such a desire is not specified in this text.”

It is difficult to see Barrett’s point here. Barrett openly states that the verse is, in fact, teaching that God wants people repent. But the verse says more than that. It also tells us that God actually leads people to repentance. This is exactly what the doctrine of prevenient grace claims. True, the verse is not specific on the details of how God’s grace leads to repentance. But I take it to be evident that this minimally includes enabling. It would make no sense to say that someone who is unable to repent was nonetheless being led to repentance unless Barrett is suggesting that God is rather like the man who holds a carrot on a stick out in front of his horse to lead it on but that the horse will never be able to eat since it ever moves just out of his reach. But if this is what Barrett is suggesting, then it makes one wonder how this can be described as an act of kindness. As with Peterson and Williams, Barrett does not touch on the fact that this grace that leads to repentance is described as being resisted.

We have seen that when discussing Romans 2:4, Calvinists draw our attention to what is not being said. Certainly, such observations are helpful and should remind the Arminian not to read more into the verse than it says. However, although the scope and specific details of the grace are not specified, the fact remains that Paul describes divine grace that precedes salvation and leads to repentance which can nonetheless be rejected by a sinner. Ironically, when Peterson, Williams, and Barrett do give a positive interpretation of this passage, it fits very well with the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace. But they overlook important details which are very supportive of seeing this verse as teaching of prevenient grace (the grace being resisted and the connection to Romans 9:22). Perhaps this verse does not definitively establish that every nuance of the doctrine prevenient grace is true. But it does show that several of the important elements of doctrine are biblical.


By David Pallman

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