[This post originally appeared at GospelEncounter.wordpress.com]
“This struggle, this “striving with man,” this debating with him, this standing between him and death […] are to be acknowledged as magnifying that grace which regards the whole of the sinning race with compassion, and is ever employed in seeking and saving that which is lost.“
– Richard Watson, Theological Institutes, Volume 2
Here is another helpful description of Prevenient Grace from Wesleyan theologian Rev. Richard Watson, from his Theological Institutes (1850).
After establishing the doctrine of Original Sin and Total Depravity, Watson summarizes the issue at page 67:
It has already been established, that the full penalty of Adam’s offence passed upon his posterity; and, consequently, that part of it which consists in the spiritual death which has been before explained. A full provision to meet this case is, indeed, as we have seen, made in the Gospel; but that does not affect the state in which men are born. It is a cure for an actually existing disease brought by us into the world; for, were not this the case, the evangelical institution would be one of prevention, not of remedy, under which light it is always represented. If, then, we are all born in a state of spiritual death; that is, without that vital influence of God upon our faculties, which we have seen to be necessary to give them a right, a holy tendency, and to maintain them in it ; and if that is restored to man by a dispensation of grace and favour, it follows that, in his natural state, he is born with sinful propensities, and that, by nature, he is capable, in his own strength, of “no good thing.” With this the Scriptural account agrees.
Then, at pages 85-87, Watson shows that any “good” done by unregenerate man is only a result of the grace of God, and our response to the active “striving“, “wooing“, “gentle trials“, and “secret promptings” of the Holy Spirit upon the unregenerate person. These may sometimes look like the Calvinist “common grace”, expressing itself in “civil and social virtues”, but unlike common grace, it is always intended to lead to salvation; it “is ever employed in seeking and saving that which is lost“. The below excerpt is long, but I encourage you to read it all:
It is a fact, too, which cannot be denied, that men have constitutional evil tendencies, some more powerfully bent to one vice, some to another. Whether it results from a different constitution of the mind that the general corruption should act more powerfully in one direction in this man, and in another in that; or from the temperament of the body; or from some law impressed by God upon a sinful nature, (which it involves no difficulty to admit, inasmuch as society could scarcely have existed without that balance of evils and that check of one vice upon another which this circumstance produces, such is the fact; and it gives a reason for the existence of much negative virtue in society.
From all these causes, appearances of good among unregenerate men will present themselves, without affording any ground to deduct any thing from those statements as to man’s fallen state which have been just made; but these negative virtues, and these imitations of actions really good from interest, ambition, or honour, have no foundation in the fear of God , in a love to virtue as such, in a right will, or in spiritual affections; and they afford, therefore, no evidence of spiritual life, or, in other words, of religious principle. To other vices, to which there is any temptation, and to those now avoided, whenever the temptation comes, men uniformly yield; and this shows, that though the common corruption varies its aspects, it is, nevertheless, unrelieved by a real virtuous principle in any, so far as they are left to themselves.
But virtues grounded on principle, though an imperfect one, and therefore neither negative nor simulated, may also be found among the unregenerate, and have existed, doubtless, in all ages. These, however, are not from man, but from God, whose Holy Spirit has been vouchsafed to “the world,” through the atonement. This great truth has often been lost sight of in this controversy. Some Calvinists seem to acknowledge it substantially, under the name of “common grace;” others choose rather to refer all appearances of virtue to nature, and thus, by attempting to avoid the doctrine of the gift of the Spirit to all mankind, attribute to nature what is inconsistent with their opinion of its entire corruption. But there is, doubtless, to be sometimes found in men not yet regenerate in the Scripture sense, not even decided in their choice, something of moral excellence, which cannot be referred to any of the causes above adduced; and of a much higher character than is to be attributed to a nature which, when left to itself, is wholly destitute of spiritual life. Compunction for sin, strong desires to be freed from its tyranny, such a fear of God as preserves them from many evils, charity, kindness, good neighbourhood, general respect for goodness and good men, a lofty sense of honour and justice, and, indeed, as the very command issued to them to repent and believe the Gospel in order to their salvation implies, a power of consideration, prayer, and turning to God, so as to commence that course which, persevered in, would lead on to forgiveness and regeneration. To say that all these are to be attributed to mere nature, is to surrender the argument to the semi-Pelagian, who contends that these are proofs that man is not wholly degenerate. They are to be attributed to the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit; to his incipient workings in the hearts of men ; to the warfare which he there maintains, and which has sometimes a partial victory, before the final triumph comes, or when, through the fault of man , through “resisting,” “grieving,” “vexing,” “quenching” that Holy Spirit, that final triumph may never come. It is thus that one part of Scripture is reconciled to another, and both to fact; the declaration of man’s total corruption, with the presumption of his power to return to God, to repent, to break off his sins, which all the commands and invitations to him from the Gospel imply: and thus it is that we understand how, especially in Christian countries, where the Spirit is more largely effused, there is so much more general virtue than in others; and in those circles especially, in which Christian education, and the prayers of the pious, and the power of example are applied and exhibited.
The Scriptural proof that the Spirit is given to “the world” is obvious and decisive. We have seen that the curse of the law implied a denial of the Spirit; the removal of that curse implies, therefore, the gift of the Spirit, and the benefit must be as large and extensive as the atonement. Hence we find the Spirit’s operations spoken of, not only as to the good, but the wicked, in all the three dispensations. In the patriarchal, “the Spirit strove with men;” with the antediluvian race, before and all the time the ark was preparing. The Jews in the wilderness are said to have “vexed his Holy Spirit;” Christ promises to send the Spirit to convince the world of sin; and the book of God’s Revelations concludes by representing the Spirit as well as the Bride, the Holy Ghost as well as the Church in her ordinances, inviting all to come and take of the water of life freely. All this is the fruit of our redemption and the new relation in which man is placed to God; as a sinner, it is true, still; but a sinner for whom atonement has been made, and who is to be wooed and won to an acceptance of the heavenly mercy. Christ having been made a curse for us, the curse of the law no longer shuts out that Spirit from us; nor can justice exclaim against this going forth of the Spirit, as it has been beautifully expressed, “to make gentle trials upon the spirits of men;” to inject some beams of light, to inspire contrite emotions, which, if they comply with, may lead on to those more powerful and effectual. If, however, they rebel against them, and oppose their sensual imaginations and desires to the secret promptings of God’s Spirit, they ultimately provoke him to withdraw his aid, and they relapse into a state more guilty and dangerous. Again and again they are visited in various ways, in honour of the Redeemer’s atonement, and for the manifestation of the long suffering of God. In some the issue is life; in others, an aggravated death; but in most cases this struggle, this “striving with man,” this debating with him, this standing between him and death, cannot fail to correct and prevent much evil, to bring into existence some “goodness,” though it may be as the morning cloud and the early dew, and to produce civil and social virtues, none of which however, are to be placed to the account of nature, nor used to soften our views of its entire alienation from God; but are to be acknowledged as magnifying that grace which regards the whole of the sinning race with compassion, and is ever employed in seeking and saving that which is lost.
The full Theological Institutes is available online from Google Books, or in the recently re-printed edition from Lexham Press.