Big Words: Prevenient Grace

Pastor Craig Carter

On most points we, as Methodists, have similar views to other denominations but, in some areas, we differ. 

I heard about a man who arrived at the gates of heaven and St. Peter asked, “What denomination?” 

“Methodist,” the man replied.

“Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass by Room 8.”

Another man arrived. “What denomination?”

“Lutheran.”

“Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass by Room 8.”

A third fellow showed up. “What denomination?” “Presbyterian” “Go to Room 15, but be very quiet as you pass by Room 8.”

Perplexed, the man asked, “I understand different rooms for different denominations, but why do I have to be quiet when I pass by Room 8?”

The reply: “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8 and they think they’re the only ones here!”

I think it’s safe to say that we all want to get to heaven and personally, I don’t care who else is there! But last week we identified a major obstacle that stands in the way. 

It’s the big word of depravity, or universal human sinfulness. We have all sinned and fall short of God’s standard. And the price we pay for our sin is death, eternal separation from God. 

Since original sin has infected each of us as members of the human race, we cannot do anything good and we certainly cannot save ourselves. 

So because of depravity we find ourselves in a helpless and hopeless situation. We are like a person left to drown in the middle of the ocean. In that state, our only hope of being rescued is some sort of outside assistance. 

How that help is provided forms a major difference among denominations. 

Those of a Reformed or Calvinistic persuasion believe the solution is unconditional election. There is evidence in Scripture (most notably in Romans 9) that God exercises His sovereignty to choose who will be saved and conversely, who will not be saved. It’s tied to the notion of predestination – some destined for heaven, some for hell.

While it seems quite arbitrary, who are we to question God…since God is God. 

As Methodists, we also hold to the doctrines of election and predestination. However, those decisions are not unconditional, rather they are conditioned on our response, of which God has foreknowledge. 

God decrees some will be saved and some eternally lost based on the choice we make – to accept Christ and His salvation or to reject Christ and His gracious offer. 

But since we are plagued by total depravity and cannot do anything good ourselves, how is it possible for us to choose to follow Jesus?

That brings us to the big word, or concept, of prevenient grace

Prevenient comes from a Latin compound word, prae + venire, which literally means “comes before.” In the 18th century English of John Wesley’s day, it was commonly called “preventing grace.”

When we hear the word, prevent, we think of “to keep from happening, to stop.” But the archaic meaning is more literal and means “to go or arrive before.”

So prevenient grace is the unmerited favor of God that comes before we are saved. It operates in us and around us prior to our conversion. 

“It is not possible for men to do anything well till God raises them from the dead…It is impossible for us to come out of our sins, yea, or to make the least motion toward it, till He who hath all power in heaven and earth call our dead souls into life.” (John Wesley in Harper 41)

Prevenient grace serves to counteract the effects of depravity (death/darkness of sin). So God’s grace (undeserved goodness) is active and operative in our lives before we even give a conscious thought to God or recognize our need for Him. 

That means the first move in the work of salvation belongs to God, not us. 

While not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, there are several images of prevenient grace provided in the Bible: 

An illustration of how everyone is illumined/enlightened with knowledge of God: The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. (John 1:4 NLT) 

An illustration of how God draws persons to himself: “For no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me…” (John 6:44a NLT) – 

An illustration of how God leads people to salvation: “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” (John 8:12 NLT)

Prevenient grace is “leading grace” that moves us toward repentance and prepares us for faith. 

How does it do that? 

“Salvation begins with what is usually termed preventing grace; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight conviction of having sinned against him.” (John Wesley in Williams 40)

Prevenient grace causes us to desire to please God, creates in us a sensitivity to God’s will, and produces in us a conviction of sin. In other words, prevenient grace makes the beginning of God’s work of salvation. 

“There is no man that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly termed, preventing grace…Everyone feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience. So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.” (John Wesley in Williams 43)

So we are all without excuse because God’s grace is “free in all and free for all.” 

It should be noted that prevenient grace is not sufficient for salvation. A response of faith is needed. But the only reason that is possible is because of the prior activity of God. 

“God worketh in you; therefore you can work. Otherwise it would be impossible.” (John Wesley in Harper 42)

Our first two big words go hand-in-hand. Think of prevenient grace as the antidote for depravity. 

Yes, we are dead in our sins, but God awakens us and shows us how to live. 

We walk in the darkness of sin, but God begins to shed light along our path. 

We are deceived by our sins, but God starts to reveal to us His truth. 

So, what are the practical effects of prevenient grace?

1) Works to create awareness of God

Prevenient grace awakens us to God and our need for salvation. That knowledge comes in two primary ways according to Scripture: His Creation and our Conscience. 

For one, God reveals Himself to us through His Creation. 

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. (Romans 1:20 NLT)

Everyone should know there is a God by simply taking a look around. 

God also makes us aware of who He is, what He is like, and how we are to relate to Him through the Law (i.e. our conscience). 

Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. (Romans 2:14-15 NLT)

Almost every culture has similar standards of behavior (e.g. don’t steal, don’t kill) because God’s law is written on every human heart and etched in our conscience. 

Because of prevenient grace no one has a legitimate excuse for not believing in God. Creation shows He exists and our conscience reveals that we don’t measure up. It is the first step in the process of salvation as we begin to sense our need for God. 

2) Gives us response-ability

Mere knowledge of God is not sufficient for salvation; in fact, it may just leave us frustrated. 

We all know the frustration of knowing more than we can live up to. 

But prevenient grace gives us the ability to respond, the power to decide. We can be held accountable for our sins only if we have a choice in the matter. 

“No man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.” (John Wesley in Williams 43) 

Prevenient grace enables us to overcome our depraved condition and exercise our will for good and choose God’s way. 

There is inherent risk involved. Since God has given us the power to decide, we can choose for Him or choose against Him. But God is willing to take that risk because of His great love for us. Love is both freely given and received and there’s always risk involved. 

Through His prevenient grace God shows us His love and gives us the capacity to love Him back. Then it’s up to us to choose how we want to respond

“Stir up the spark of grace which is in you now, and God will give you more grace.” (John Wesley)

3) Keeps the world in order

Prevenient grace restores part of the image of God that was destroyed in the Fall. So it provides every human a portion of the “moral imprint” of God. In this way, it serves as “restraining grace” (compared to the chaos of total depravity).

4) Absolves the guilt of original sin

So now we are only responsible and held accountable for our own sinful acts. 

5) Becomes saving grace for those not having the capacity to make moral decisions (or express faith in Christ) such as infants, mentally challenged, and unreached people. 

The implications of prevenient grace include: Evangelism (God is already at work prior to our witnessing efforts), Holy Communion (everyone is welcome because the body & blood of Christ provides whatever type of grace is needed – prevenient, justifying, sanctifying), and Infant Baptism (provides a grace “inoculation” against sin and extra dose of God’s goodness). 

Prevenient grace comes before we are saved, but is usually only recognized afterward. 

Looking back over my life, I see that it was God’s prevenient grace that let me be raised by godly parents, grow up in a Bible-centered church and kept me from killing myself through some ungodly choices. It was also what placed countless Christians in my path that steered me back on track and led me to a young lady seeking the Lord. 

How about you? Where and how has God worked in your life even when you weren’t looking for Him or maybe even aware of His existence? Praise the Lord!