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by Al Maxey

Issue #731 ------- September 13, 2017
Not to the swift, the race; Not to the strong, the fight;
Not to the righteous, perfect grace; Not to the wise, the light.

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933)

The Theology of Prevenient Grace
Salvation Foundation of Wesleyan Arminianism

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), the beloved English Baptist pastor, who led a large congregation in London for many decades, and who was often referred to as the "Prince of Preachers," even by those not of his denomination, made the following observation about one of the great theological issues of his day: "Does not the Methodist hold as firmly as ever we do, that man is saved by the operation of the Holy Spirit and only the Holy Spirit? ... the old Arminian standards said the same. True, they affirm that God has given grace to every man, but they do not dispute the fact that, apart from that grace, there was no ability in man to do that which was good in his own salvation." Although there are clearly some very significant differences between true Arminianism and Calvinism, Spurgeon sought to shed light on the fact that there were also some points of agreement. Both accepted the sovereignty of God, and His inherent goodness, just as both accepted that man, by nature, was sinful and prone to depraved attitudes and actions. Both accepted that man was utterly incapable of initiating or securing his eternal salvation, and that our calling, election, justification, sanctification and salvation are entirely accomplished by God. Without His love, mercy and grace, we would all perish. The major difference between the two lies in whether man has free will to choose, and to what degree he does or does not participate in the salvation process. Is God's grace irresistible, or does man have the ability to resist it? John Calvin was convinced of the former, and this doctrine of irresistible grace was one of the primary points of TULIP theology. For an in-depth analysis of this, please see my series: A Study of "TULIP" Theology: Examining the Five Points of Calvinism in Light of God's Inspired Word. Jacobus Arminius, however, held a less rigid view, one which allowed for man's free will. Although God was indeed sovereign, yet man had been given by God the ability to either accept or reject His grace and His calling.

Needless to say, such theological differences led to tremendous debate over the centuries between some notable theologians and denominations. At times, these different convictions led to heated conflict. Among the leading proponents of Arminianism were John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. As one might expect, they came under fire from those who favored Calvinism. This led to some intense disagreements, some of which are quite fascinating to study. I have provided one such study, and how it affected one of our most beloved hymns, in Reflections #517 (A Hymn Born of Discord: Augustus Toplady vs. John Wesley: "Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me").

Perhaps at this point it would be well to briefly examine Arminianism, which is a school of soteriological thought that evolved from the teachings of the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), who had been personally taught by Theodore Beza (the successor to John Calvin). Arminius, however, soon rejected the Calvinistic teachings of Beza, and began promoting the ideas of free will and "election" of believers on the basis of faith. In a theological statement of belief known as The Remonstrance (the followers of Arminius would come to be known in the annuls of history as the Remonstrants), which was signed in 1610 by 45 pastors, five articles of faith were affirmed (which stood in stark contrast to the teachings of Calvin and his followers): (1) Election, and condemnation on the day of judgment, is conditioned by the rational faith or non-faith of man, (2) The Atonement, while qualitatively adequate for all men, was efficacious only for the man of faith, (3) Unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God's will, (4) Grace is not irresistible, and (5) Believers are able to resist sin, but are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace. Although there are many variations within Arminianism, these are the basic tenets, with emphasis on the free will of men and the doctrine of salvation by faith. Needless to say, this theology, which had been embraced by John Wesley, as well as many others, was strongly opposed by the Calvinists. Indeed, the Synod of Dort was held from 1618-1619 to address the five points of The Remonstrance, and from that synod would come the five points of Calvin's theology (known to most today by the acronym TULIP).

Although much time could be spent examining the many and varied points of doctrine (and dogma) within these two theologies (and the many doctrinal detours that devolved from them), I want to narrow our focus in this issue of Reflections to the third point of The Remonstrance, which was noted above. It states: "Unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God's will." In other words, no person, left completely on his own, would ever be able to either seek God or to respond to God's grace, unless God Himself, through the Holy Spirit, enabled that person to both seek Him and respond to Him. This view is derived from the belief that man is totally depraved by nature, a point of doctrine upon which both Calvinists and Arminians agreed. Since man, by nature, never could and/or never would seek God, it was up to God to seek relationship with man. The major debate over the centuries, of course, centered around whether man had the free will to either receive or resist that calling. But, there is another aspect of this that is often overlooked: a theological concept, rooted in Arminianism, concerning a divine outpouring of grace that precedes any human response to God's calling. This is known as Prevenient Grace (aka: "Preceding Grace" or "Enabling Grace" or "Preemptive Grace" or "Predisposing Grace"). It is a grace from God that precedes any human choice or decision, and which enables man to believe (have faith) in what God is about to deliver unto him. Had God not previously enabled a man to believe, such belief/faith would never occur (according to this view). We might compare it to a sower who must first prepare the ground before sowing the seed. If the seed is sown on unprepared soil (soil in its natural state: perhaps overrun with rocks, weeds, mineral deficiencies, rodents, etc.), that seed will likely never take root and prosper. Prevenient grace, similarly, is God graciously taking the needed initiative and acting to prepare man for the reception of His gifts of grace.

"Prevenient grace is the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God's will, and our 'first slight transient conviction' of having sinned against God. God's grace also awaken in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death, and moves us toward repentance and faith" [The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church]. Man is born in the clutches of total depravity; he cannot extricate himself; indeed, he even has no longing, by nature, to do so, it is believed. Therefore, God must precede any calling with an outpouring of grace that enables man to step beyond the blinding bondage of his total depravity and perceive that divine calling. This preceding grace is not salvific grace, but rather a grace that precedes that greater grace; it is a grace that enables one to respond to that saving grace of God. A good definition that I came across during my research is: "Prevenient grace is that which counteracts the effects of total depravity by enabling spiritual capacities, but which falls short of imparting eternal life." The Westminster Confession of Faith states that no man is capable of heeding God's calling until "being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed by it."

Both Calvinists and Arminians utilize statements made by Jesus in John 6 to validate their views. For example, in John 6:44 & 65 Jesus says, "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him. ... No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father." The Calvinists see this as affirming their view of the absolute sovereignty of God and His election. The Arminians also see it as affirming their teaching on preceding grace, for, as Jesus seems to say, no one can come to Jesus unless it has been granted unto him or her by the Father to do so. Thus: a grace that precedes grace. However, they would differ with the Calvinists on whether the one called has the ability (by free will) to resist or reject that calling. Yes, God enables all men to open their hearts and minds to His calling, but man still has the ability to choose whether or not to respond, according to Arminian theology. The true Calvinist would say that human choice is not a factor; rather, God calls and saves those whom HE chooses, and they have no ability to resist that election. "The relationship between mankind's faith and God's grace has been the subject of long theological debate. The issue focuses on whether grace is given to mankind because of his faith, or whether mankind's faith is the effect of God's grace" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 550].

"Arminians reject the Calvinist teaching that God draws for the purpose of forced regeneration irrespective of their wishes. Rather, Arminians believe God draws all persons to provide all with an ability or enabling to believe, as prevenient grace teaches" [Wikipedia]. In the words of the Arminian scholar William Barclay, "man's resistance can defeat the pull of God." This requires man to possess free will: the freedom to exercise that will by either accepting or rejecting God's call. However, both theologies declare, due to man's "total depravity," that a prior enabling of man by God's Spirit must occur before He issues His calling for man to come and embrace His gift of grace. "John Wesley thought that prevenient grace enabled the doctrines of "original sin" and "salvation by grace" to co-exist while still maintaining God's sovereignty and holy character as well as human freedom" [ibid]. In short, "Wesleyan Arminians believe that grace enables, but does not ensure, personal acceptance of the gift of salvation" [ibid]. In the Nazarene Manual (the manual of the Church of the Nazarene) prevenient grace is one of its 16 Articles of Faith. It declares, "We believe that the human race's creation in Godlikeness included ability to choose between right and wrong, and that human beings were thus made morally responsible; that through the fall of Adam they became depraved so that they cannot now turn and prepare themselves by their own natural strength and works to faith and calling upon God. But we also believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight."

Prevenient grace has been embraced by many Christian groups and individuals throughout the history of Christendom. The 2nd Council of Orange in 529 indicates God must first enable man to believe, for no man would do so of his own volition. It was dealt with extensively in the Council of Trent (1545-1563). It was one of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion adopted by the Church of England in 1563. More could be listed, but this illustrates how pervasive this doctrine of preceding/enabling grace is in church history. If one accepts the doctrine of the total inherent depravity of mankind, then one must also accept some form of doctrine that describes how God is able to reach such persons. Some would say He simply elects certain ones to be saved, even though they may not seek it or will it for themselves (in which case prevenient grace, practically speaking, is rendered unnecessary). Such arbitrary predetermination with regard to salvation raises concerns, however, for those who teach God creates man with free will. Yet, if man does have a "fallen nature," a view with which most would concur, it would be only reasonable to conclude that God in some way helps enable such persons to transcend that nature, even if only briefly, so as to perceive a divine calling. This has subsequently been characterized as the prevenient, preceding, enabling grace of our Sovereign God. My own views on this lean toward Arminianism rather than Calvinism, but my mind remains open on the matter as I continue to study it further. It is my hope that this brief presentation will encourage and challenge each of you who are reading this to do the same. After all, truth has nothing to fear from intense investigation.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in North Carolina:

I just wanted to stop and thank you for your scholarly work. I minister at a non-instrumental church in the western part of North Carolina, and I use your Reflections articles from time to time in my sermon research. I just looked over your article titled "Offering A Better Sacrifice: Why Did God Accept Abel's Offering, But Reject the Offering of Cain?" (Reflections #275). Very good info! Your work, by the way, was instrumental in helping me break out of legalism nearly ten years ago. In fact, we spoke on the phone in one of my darkest ministerial hours, and you were such a great encouragement to me then. Thank you so much! I am still reading and thinking!

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Good Morning brother. I confess that I am way behind in reading your articles. I had some time this morning, however, so I got a cup of coffee and dived right in! Reading Reflections #729 ("Our Adoption by God the Father: The Apostle Paul's Eschatological Intent in a Soteriological Statement to the Saints in Rome") has been a true blessing, and has prompted me to graciously "borrow" some of its content for my bi-weekly message I send out to fellow Christian educators (this mailout is titled "Thursday's Thoughts"). Anyway, what really struck home for me was the following statement you made near the end of the article: "Our Christian 'hope' is not in a maybe, it is in a certainty, and the Spirit within us affirms that truth to our hearts and minds, giving us a confident expectation of what is to come: a resurrection reality that we, and all of creation, await eagerly. Yes, we are sons and daughters of the Father; we are the elect, the chosen, the adopted. We are also heirs, even though that aspect of our sonship remains at present reserved for us in heaven. But, take heart, be filled with hope, there's a great day coming! A 'great gettin' up morning,' when hope is realized! I can't wait!! 'Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens. ... These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting ... and the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy. Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside helping us along!' (Romans 8:22-26, The Message)." Al, that first line you wrote brings tears of joy to my eyes after many, many years of doubt and wondering. Thank you Lord Jesus for this wonderful gift made possible by Your precious shed blood and the grace and love of the Father! I also love the phrase "a great gettin' up morning." I haven't heard that in a long time! That's an old phrase of hope, and it makes me excited for that great day! Blessings to you, my brother!

From a Reader in Indiana:

After reading your latest article, "Man With A Mustache: Reflecting on the Sin of Bigotry" (Reflections #730), I thought you might be interested in our congregational history-story. A wonderful African-American lady placed membership some time ago. She was telling about her experience around 1950 at a white church here in Indianapolis. She lived in the neighborhood and decided to visit. When she started to enter the church building, two men stopped her and told her to go to a black church. Fast forward about 40+ years. When we asked what congregation that was, she told us. We were shocked, for it was our congregation!! Interestingly, our mission statement says that "we exist to foster transformed lives in the image of Christ." Thankfully, the Lord has transformed us!

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Maxey, I read a lot, yet seldom write anything. I was moved to break my pattern and write, however, after reading your Reflections article "Man with a Mustache." This article on bigotry was long overdue and right on target! Thank you! I have been studying Christian Ethics since my freshman year at Abilene Christian College (1953). I am an 81 year old dentist who has been retired from private practice for about 20 years, and have been involved in Medical Mission work since the early seventies. I founded my own charitable corporation in 2004 and have been leading that ministry since its beginning. We have worked in about 20 countries and have been involved in doing medical and dental services in every specialty in medicine and dentistry. We have never discriminated against any worker or patient. We select our workers on the basis of their training and their desire to help the needy. Our patients are treated solely on the basis of their need and our ability to treat them. Thank you for your work, Al, and keep writing!

From a Leader with Eastern European Mission:

Al, your recent post about bigotry was good. Let me add how Paul stressed in nearly all of his epistles that we are not to look down on anyone because of race (neither Jew nor Greek), gender (neither male nor female), or economic/social status (neither slave nor free). He also called Cephas and Barnabas "hypocrites" for refusing to eat with Gentiles. This was said by a man who, before he met Jesus, was a zealous Pharisee, one who wreaked havoc on the church of God because of his dedication to the Torah.

From a Church Leader in Georgia:
(whose father and grandfather were well-known
leaders within the Stone-Campbell Movement)

Yes, I knew that Foy Wallace didn't have a high regard for black folks. Thankfully, my parents didn't raise me with this attitude. For 30 years, my wife and I have been doing mission work in Jamaica, and we have been well-supported by "white" churches. I am glad that such racial bigotry has been pretty well erased among the Lord's people in Churches of Christ!

From a Reader in Toronto, Canada:

I remember Foy E. Wallace, Jr. preaching for a week in Greensburg, Kentucky, either in the fall of 1959 or spring of 1960. He did not seem to have any problems with the congregation's efforts at integration or with "negroes" attending.

From a Reader in California:

"Man with a Mustache" is an excellent article, Al. When I saw the title in my email, I wondered what in the world is Al writing about with that kind of a title?! You surprised me. And enlightened me. Thank you! Also, Wow! - with regard to the bigotry example given in your article: and to think how many times, growing up in NW Alabama, that I heard both Wallace and Hardeman held up as giants of the faith!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

I grew up in New York City with people from multiple ethnic and religious backgrounds. I was stationed in Texas, Mississippi, and Georgia (1960-1964) where the same diversity existed. I had black roommates at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi and Turner AFB in Albany, Georgia. At that time we could hang out together on base, but not off base. There were separate facilities for blacks and whites off base, which led to some desegregation demonstrations in our area. I could not believe what I was seeing. There is NO PLACE for bigotry in the Lord's church. With His blood, the Lamb of God "purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (Revelation 5:9-10).

From a Reader in Texas:

A great study, brother ("Man with a Mustache"). Bigotry in the world, our nation, and even in the church is still far too often "alive and well." Satan is the reason; Jesus is the solution! Thank you, Al, for all you do, and for the deeper truth you seek and teach!

From a Reader in Georgia:

I just had an opportunity today to read your article "Man with a Mustache." Wow!! I was struck by the comments of Foy Wallace as he was reflecting on "negroes" attending church. Disgusting!! The heart of the problem is, as you wrote, the heart ... a DEEP heart problem! I often wonder why some folks think so little of themselves that they feel they have to put down others in order to feel better about themselves. It's a "superiority complex." They seemingly can't be seen as superior unless someone else is made to be inferior. Some people are just too bigoted for their britches!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Bro. Maxey, I hope you and your family are doing well. I just wanted to take a minute to share a few thoughts with you. With some recent study, there are times when I can't help but wonder if I've demonstrated enough "saving faith" or "faith with works" to be saved. Yes, that old devil does a good job on us, doesn't he?! I do have a more secure feeling regarding salvation after reading your Reflections, especially Reflections #369 ("The Assurance of Faith: How Do I Know I'm Saved?"). I believe that with a more focused effort from the heart, and help from the Holy Spirit, I can become a much more loving person, and I'm ashamed to say that this is not an easy thing for me. I am not an outgoing person, especially in public settings. However, your writings have given me a better understanding of what "works" God expects from us. Thank you again, brother, and have a blessed day.

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