Prevenient Grace and Semi-Pelagianism

, posted by Godismyjudge

This post is a response to Scott Christensen’s article “Prevenient Grace and Semi-Pelagianism”. (link) One of the main aspects of Mr. Christensen’s article is calling Arminians Semi-Pelagian. Pelagius was a heretic condemned by the early church for teaching man does not need God’s grace to repent and believe. Semi-Pelagianism (a watered down form of Pelagianism which might be characterized as God helps those who help themselves) was likewise condemned by the early church. So calling someone Semi-Pelagian is serious and unwelcome. It’s the mirror image of calling someone a hyper-Calvinist. Both “Semi-Pelagian” and “hyper-Calvinist” are pejorative terms. Worse real Semi-Pelagians and hyper-Calvinists exist, so one does not want to get lumped in with those crowds. So this post will defend Arminianism from the charge by defining Semi-Pelagianism, addressing arguments that Total Depravity is undone by Prevenient Grace, that free will procures God’s grace, that Libertarian Free will acts contrary to our Nature and that Prevenient Grace is libertarian free will. Finally, I will attempt to show that Calvinism is closer than Arminianism to Semi-Pelagianism.

Defining Semi-Pelagianism

Mr. Christensen defines Semi-Pelagianism as synergism, which he explains as the idea that “free will triggers the grace of God whether strictly in the initiation of the process or… in the continuing invocation of further supplies of grace.” Mr. Christensen is aware Arminians maintain the priority and necessity of God’s grace from the very first moments of our conversion, but since Arminians say man’s response to God’s grace leads to further grace, he sees them as Semi-Pelagian.

Mr. Christensen makes three arguments defending his definition of Semi-Pelagianism. First, John Cassian (among the best historical examples of Semi-Pelagianism) said sometimes God’s grace comes before faith. So the Arminian belief that God’s grace comes first is not enough to get around Semi-Pelagianism. But Arminians maintain the absolute necessity of grace. Prevenient grace is not something God provides for convenience or for really obstinate sinners. We need it. Without prevenient grace, no one can believe.

 Second, Mr. Christensen points out that in some of Cassian’s writing he said grace precedes faith. But here we have to be careful by what Cassian means by grace.

Cassian said:

unless in all these there is a declaration of the grace of God and the freedom of our will, because even of his own motion a man can be led to the quest of virtue, but always stands in need of the help of the Lord? For neither does anyone enjoy good health whenever he will, nor is he at his own will and pleasure set free from disease and sickness. But what good is it to have desired the blessing of health, unless God, who grants us the enjoyments of life itself, grant also vigorous and sound health? But that it may be still clearer that through the excellence of nature which is granted by the goodness of the Creator, sometimes first beginnings of a good will arise, which however cannot attain to the complete performance of what is good unless it is guided by the Lord, the Apostle bears witness and says: “For to will is present with me, but to perform what is good I find not.” (See Works of John Cassian, Conference XIII, Chapters 8-12)

 By grace, Cassian means God giving us an excellent nature and keeping us alive. This is not the type of grace Arminians talk about when it comes to total depravity and resistible grace. In Arminius’ words, grace illuminates our minds and inclines our wills. Because our minds are blinded by Satan and our hearts love darkness rather than light (2 Corinthians 4:4, John 3:19), prevenient grace overcomes problems in our hearts and minds; it doesn’t just keep us alive or give us opportunities to hear the Gospel.

 Third, Mr. Christensen points out that Cassian was a synergist and so are Arminians.1 But this was not the aspect of Cassian’s theology that got him condemned by the Second Council of Orange. Here’s an analysis of James Arminius’ theology showing his full compliance with the cannons of Orange. (link)

 But the early church in general didn’t embrace Augustine’s monergism over synergism. First, the cannons of Orange are noticeably silent on election and determinism except when it anathematizes the idea that some are foreordained to evil. Second, the Synod itself seems to affirm synergism when it says “According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul.”(link) Third, Celestinus, the bishop of Rome put space between the church and Augustine’s monergism when he said: “but as we dare not despise, so neither do we deem it necessary to defend the more profound and difficult parts of the questions which occur in this controversy, and which have been treated to a very great extent by those who opposed the heretics. Because we believe, that whatever the writings according to the forementioned rules of the Apostolic See have taught us, is amply sufficient for confessing the grace of God, from whose work, credit and authority not a little must be subtracted or withdrawn” (Quoted in Works of James Arminius Volume 1, Declaration of Sentiments – Predestination. 1853 page 219).

In short, Mr. Christensen’s anachronistic definition has Semi-Pelagians condemning Semi-Pelagianism at Orange.

 Total Depravity undone by Prevenient Grace

 For me, Mr. Christensen’s most thought provoking point was that for some Arminians, prevenient grace undoes total depravity, so no one’s actually totally depraved. Arminianism allows a number of explanations of how prevenient grace works, so probably some Arminians will respond to this argument differently than others. But however grace works, it’s a matter of grace, not depravity; so even if Mr. Christensen’s point is accurate, that does not make Arminianism Semi-Pelagian.  Also, I think most Arminians would agree that the hardening of hearts is at least sometimes a case where a person actually cannot please God or trust in Christ.

But some Arminians, like Arminius and myself, see the second half of Romans 7 as the premier example of prevenient grace. God uses the law to teach man about his sinfulness and need for salvation. So prevenient grace shows man that he cannot obey rather than enabling him to obey – at least in this case. Likewise, as Mr. Christensen himself notes, many Arminians see prevenient grace working in iterative stages (more on this below). So man may be unable to obey in some areas but able to obey in others.

Calvinists themselves often hold to a common grace that restrains man’s sinfulness. For example, Charles Hodge argues based on Genesis 6:3, Acts 7:53, Romans 1:25-28 and Hebrews 6:4 that “the Influences of the Spirit is granted to all Man.” He goes on to list: virtue, fear of God, religious experiences, conviction of truth, temporary faith based on the moral evidence of the truth, and reformation of life as effects of the influence of the Spirit on all men. (link) In some of these cases, it’s hard to tell the difference between Calvinist “common grace” from Arminian “prevenient grace”, unless we get into God’s intentions behind His actions.

However, in fairness to Mr. Christensen, I have seen Arminians push “ought implies can” farther than I would. For example, Thomas Edwards takes passages like Romans 8:7 or 1 Corinthians 2:14 and explains them as we can’t obey while we put ourselves into a certain evil frame of mind, but at other times we can obey. Similarly Edwards takes passages like Ephesians 2:5 as applying only to the worst of godless heathens rather than most people. (link) But I still would not call Thomas Edwards a Semi-Pelagian, because he does not deny the priority and necessity of grace. I cite him as an example of the type of Arminian that would likely follow a different line of response to Mr. Christensen’s arguments.

Free will Provokes Grace

Mr. Christensen’s core argument against Arminianism is that man’s response to God’s grace “prompts”, “provokes”, “procures”, and “invokes” additional grace. Procures is not the right word – in no sense do Arminians believe we procure God’s grace. Likewise, we do not prompt God, as if He needed a reminder or nudge to give grace.

Invokes is closer, but I wouldn’t use that term without clarifying that we do not invoke God’s grace in the sense I fear Mr. Christensen means. We could call for grace all the live long day and not get any, were it not for God’s choice to give it – a choice He could omit at His liberty.

Matthew 18:32 is a good example. “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.” The servant had not paid the debt nor was the king obligated to cancel the debt. But the king did take the request into consideration. Contrast this with Romans 4:4 “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation”. In a similar way, additional prevenient grace is God’s gift, not something we earn.

Although we do not earn or cause God’s grace, it is true that God chooses to give grace to those who respond – grace that He would not otherwise give. Here’s how Arminius explain the difference between a gift and something earned: Christ says, “To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Not, indeed, because such is the worthiness and the excellence of the use of any blessing conferred by God, either according to nature or to grace, that God should be moved by its merits to confer greater benefits; but, because such are the benignity and liberality of God, that, though these works are unworthy, yet He rewards them with a larger blessing. (link)

And while I do think this answer is sufficient, I do think Middle Knowledge provides helpful additional insights into this issue (link).

Libertarian Free will acts contrary to our Nature

Mr. Christensen explores the question of whether libertarian free will amounts to an uncaused effect. Behind this discussion is his assumption that causes only operate deterministically and there can be no agent causation or indeterministic causation. Thus he concludes libertarian freedom amounts to acting contrary to our nature and randomly. But didn’t God have libertarian freedom when He chose to create the world or say elect Mr. Christensen? Very few Calvinists would openly deny God’s libertarian freedom and say “God had to elect me”. Arguments that attempt to prove libertarian free will is illogical contradict passages that ascribe libertarian freedom to God (Genesis 1:1, Exodus 9:15).

What then is the connection between who we are and what we do? Our desires arise in part from our nature and they lead to but do not determine our choices. While we always desire the things we choose, we don’t always choose things we desire. Put another way, desiring something is necessary for choosing it, but not sufficient for choosing it.  When a person desires two things, they can choose either. For example, Paul in Philippians 1:23-24 talks about his having two competing desires and in Romans 7:15 he talks about not doing something he wants to do. So our nature and desires act as a perimeter fence setting the boundaries of our freedom, but they do not eliminate freedom altogether. We can still choose between the options before us and between the various desires that we have.

Libertarian Free Will = Prevenient Grace?

At times Mr. Christensen assumes prevenient grace is synonymous with libertarian free will. But this confuses the questions of “can we choose between alternatives” and “is trusting Christ one of our alternatives”?  A depraved person can choose between sinful options or non-moral options, even if they can’t choose to trust and obey God. Granted, being able to choose to repent or not is more interesting than the ability to choose between shoes; so prevenient grace that enable us to repent is an important topic, but it’s not conceptually identical to libertarian free will.

Mr. Christensen then asks if unbelief is a gift.2 He reasons that if faith is a gift due to prevenient grace, then unbelief is a gift, since prevenient grace also enables unbelief. But prevenient grace does not enable unbelief. We have that ability naturally – prevenient grace opens up good alternatives. By nature we desire evil, by grace we have a competing desire for good. (Galatians 6:7-9)

Similarly, Mr. Christensen asks if prevenient grace is even grace if it’s resisted. He says “In fact, it [prevenient grace] is non-existent for those who resist it. Grace is only present and effective (i.e. successful for leading one to salvation) for those who do not resist, but this is what Calvinists have said all along.” Minimally, prevenient grace existed in that it enabled the person to obey, even if the person didn’t in fact obey. Moving from unable to able is a real change in the person. But likewise the drawing influence of prevenient grace is real. The desire for good is real. Unless we resist, we will be converted.

Probably, Mr. Christensen is just faulting prevenient grace for not being irresistible grace. Arminianism is wrong for not being Calvinism. But that’s like saying a steak is bad for not being chicken. I am sure Mr. Christensen prefers chicken, but that’s not a argument that something is wrong with steak.

Is Calvinism Semi-Pelagian?

Given Mr. Christensen’s definition of Semi-Pelagianism, does Calvinism avoid the charge of Semi-Pelagianism? I will argue that it does not and that Calvinism has serious problems with affirming total depravity. Mr. Christensen states: “The freedom to choose to love God and exercise saving faith is not a problem. Calvinists agree with this in substance as long as freedom of choice is defined as acting willingly or voluntarily in accordance with one’s regenerated nature.” But this admits that in Calvinism, faith is our act – God does not believe for us. And in Calvinism we are responsible for our actions. So in Calvinism, we are responsible for our faith. So if Arminianism has a problem because man is responsible for faith, so does Calvinism, but in other ways we can see that Calvinism is worse.

In Calvinism, an unregenerate man would believe if they wanted to.3 This sort of freedom (sometimes call compatibilist freedom; other times called natural freedom does not require the man to be regenerated, nor is it dependent on supernatural grace. Rather, man by nature has the ability to act on his desires. So long as the man is not handicapped or compelled, he is free in this sense and therefore responsible per the Calvinist’s own description of responsibility. So Calvinists end up with the unwanted but unavoidable conclusion that unregenerate man is able to repent and believe (in what they hold to be the morally relevant and common man’s sense of ability) 4.

This conclusion is unwanted, because Calvinists insist that one of the foundations of their theology is the idea that unregenerate men cannot repent and believe. But what we have is a conflict between Calvinists’ theology (total depravity) and their philosophy (compatibilism). Compatibilism constrains what Calvinists mean when they say man is unable to believe and whatever they mean by it, they do not mean man cannot believe in what they consider to be the common man’s notion of ability, nor in the sense of ability relevant to moral responsibility.5

To insist that God’s giving man good desires makes Him responsible for our faith, undermines the compatibilist idea that we are responsible so long as we act on our desires. Sure unconditional election and irresistible grace settle the big picture, but this settling operates above the level of moral responsibility, per compatibilism. We still act on our desires whether those desires come from our depraved nature or the new nature God gives us in regeneration; so since we are acting on our desires we are responsible in either case.  So to claim God is alone responsible undermines compatibilism.

Arminianism avoids the problems that attaches to Calvinism, by embracing Total Depravity in a deeper and more persistent way. When our Lord says “no man can come to me unless the Father who sense me draw him” (John 6:44), we take that to mean that without grace, we do not have libertarian freedom to believe. We understand Christ’s statement using the common man’s notion of ability, a sense relevant for moral responsibility. But on compatibilism, Christ is not denying compatibilist freedom, or man’s ability to believe where ability is understood in the common man and morally relevant sense. If Christ were denying compatibilist freedom, that would amount to saying we are compelled to unbelief or mentally handicapped.

So in Calvinism, without God’s drawing man can believe (using the definition of ability they deem to be the main one in discussing freedom, ability and moral responsibility. And in Arminianism, without God’s drawing man cannot believe (using our definition of ability, which we deem the main one for ability, responsibility and freedom). So which is Semi-Pelagian? Nevertheless, this result exposes errors in Mr. Christensen’s way of defining Semi-Pelagian, rather than identifying Calvinists as real Semi-Pelagians.


1If synergism means both God and man’s libertarian free will is involved in conversion, then yes Arminians are synergists. But synergism is often uses in other contexts such as justification by works or does man regenerate himself and Arminianism is not synergistic in these senses.

2 Faith is a gift of God in some sense and like most gifts it can be rejected, but for a discussion on Ephesians 2:8-9, see

3For example, Turretin affirms that man has “the essential freedom from coaction and physical necessity” and “natural power or faculty of the will” and even grudgingly concedes that in this sense an unregenerate man can be said to “be able to believe if he wishes”. (See sections 2 and 4 on page 669 and section 40 on page 682 of Volume I, Tenth Topic, Question 4 of Institutes of Elenctic Theology).;

4 Per Calvinism, moral responsibility attaches to just compatibilist freedom (what Edwards calls moral freedom). For example, John Frame says: “An alternative concept of freedom, one consistent with Reformed theology and held by a number of philosophers (the Stoics, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Hobart, Richard Double et al) is often called “compatibilism,” for on that basis, free will and determinism (the view that all events in creation are caused) are compatible. …

Reformed theology recognizes that all people have freedom in the compatibilist sense… I believe that compatibilist freedom is the main kind of freedom necessary to moral responsibility”. (link)

5According to Edwards, “But it must be observed concerning moral Inability, in each kind of it, that the word Inability is used in a sense very diverse from its original import. The word signifies only a natural Inability, in the proper use of it; and is applied to such cases only wherein a present will or inclination to the thing, with respect to which a person is said to be unable, is supposable. It cannot be truly said, according to the ordinary use of language, that a malicious man, let him be ever so malicious, cannot hold his hand from striking, or that he is not able to show his neighbor kindness; or that a drunkard, let his appetite be never so strong, cannot keep the cup from his mouth. In the strictest propriety of speech, a man has a thing in his power, if he has it in his choice, or at his election: and a man cannot be truly said to be unable to do a thing, when he can do it if he will. It is improperly said, that a person cannot perform those external actions, which are dependent on the act of the Will, and which would be easily performed, if the act of the Will were present”. (Edwards. Freedom of the Will. I.4)