(images courtesy Wikipedia)
By Spencer D Gear
One of the hottest topics of controversy between Arminians and Calvinists is the nature of grace extended to unbelievers. Arminians call their position ‘prevenient grace’ and the Calvinist position supports ‘irresistible grace’ in relation to salvation.
What is prevenient grace?
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Roger Olson, an Arminian, stated that prevenient grace “is the powerful but resistible drawing of God” towards the unbeliever. ‘Prevenient grace’ is not a biblical term, “but it is a biblical concept assumed everywhere in scripture” (2006:159).
The Remonstrants, Article 4, described it this way:
That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to the extent that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But with respect to the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, since it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places).
The Remonstrants understood that there was only one way to eternal salvation and that was achieved when God’s grace came to human beings before, during and after justification. Why was God’s grace needed in this way? It was because, as the Remonstrants stated, that no human being could ‘think, will, nor do good’ unless they received God’s prevenient or assisting grace.
Why do people not receive this assisting grace from God? It is because human beings are created with a free will to accept or reject God’s prevenient grace. The resistance by people is not because of God’s doing, it is because of the rebelliousness of the human heart and people choose to reject this prevenient grace. This failure of human beings to believe is not blamed on God (i.e. he did not give irresistible grace to people) but on
the rebellion and resistance of fallen human beings. God created human beings with the free will wither to cooperate with God and receive His grace or to reject finally God’s gracious gift…. Human beings would have no salvation at all apart from the grace of God; but God refuses to actualize that salvation in the life of anyone who continually resists God’s grace, refuses to humbly receive it, and finally rejects it’ (Lemke 2010:110).
What is irresistible grace?
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R. C. Sproul (1992:169-170), a Calvinist, describes irresistible grace as ‘effectual calling’. For Sproul,
the effectual call of God is an inward call. It is the secret work of quickening or regeneration accomplished in the souls of the elect by the immediate supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit…. Effectual calling is irresistible in the sense that God sovereignly brings about its desired result…. irresistible in the sense that God’s grace prevails over our natural resistance to it.
We need to understand that the language of ‘effectual calling’ is a way to soften the language of ‘irresistible grace’, with the latter coming with overtones of God forcing a person to receive salvation. Lemke (2010:112) considers that ‘some contemporary Calvinists seem to be a little embarrassed by the term “irresistible grace” and have sought to soften it or to replace it with a term like “effectual calling”‘.
While Sproul (1992), Spurgeon (1856) and J. I. Packer (1993:152-153) use the language of ‘effectual calling’, other Calvinists are more up front in emphasising that grace that brings about salvation cannot be refused – people are unable to resist. Packer’s language is that ‘in effectual calling God quickens the dead’, people understand the gospel through the Holy Spirit enlightening and renewing the hearts of elect sinners. They embrace this ‘truth from God, and God in Christ becomes to them an object of desire and affection’ as they are now regenerate and have been enabled ‘by the use of their freed will to choose God and the good’ and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour (Packer 1993:153). Spurgeon (1856) said, ‘If he shall but say, “To-day I must abide at thy house,” there will be no resistance in you…. If God says “I must,” there is no standing against it. Let him say “must,” and it must be’.
Steele, Thomas and Quinn (2004:52-54), as Calvinists, are more to the point, using the language that ‘the special inward call of the Spirit never fails to result in the conversion of those to whom it is made’. It is issued ‘only to the elect’ and the Spirit does not depend on ‘their help or cooperation’. In fact, ‘for the grace which the Holy Spirit extends to the elect cannot be thwarted or refused, it never fails to bring them to true faith in Christ’. That sounds awfully like God forcing the elect to come to Christ and by implication, leaving the non-elect to damnation.
John Piper and the staff at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN, do not use the softly, softly language. They state that irresistible grace
does not mean that every influence of the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted. It means that the Holy Spirit can overcome all resistance and make his influence irresistible…. The doctrine of irresistible grace means that God is sovereign and can overcome all resistance when he wills.
However, there is a paradoxical statement in the Bethlehem Baptist statement in that only a few paragraphs after making the above statement, it stated:
Irresistible grace never implies that God forces us to believe against our will. That would even be a contradiction in terms. On the contrary, irresistible grace is compatible with preaching and witnessing that tries to persuade people to do what is reasonable and what will accord with their best interests.
It sure is a contradiction in terms and the Bethlehem Baptist Church has given that contradiction by affirming that ‘the Holy Spirit can overcome all resistance’, yet God never ‘forces us to believe against our will’.
Irresistible grace has been described as:
When God calls his elect into salvation, they cannot resist. God offers to all people the gospel message. This is called the external call. But to the elect, God extends an internal call and it cannot be resisted. This call is by the Holy Spirit who works in the hearts and minds of the elect to bring them to repentance and regeneration whereby they willingly and freely come to God. Some of the verses used in support of this teaching are Romans 9:16 where it says that “it is not of him who wills nor of him who runs, but of God who has mercy“; Philippians 2:12-13 where God is said to be the one working salvation in the individual; John 6:28-29 where faith is declared to be the work of God; Acts 13:48 where God appoints people to believe; and John 1:12-13 where being born again is not by man’s will, but by God’s.
A Calvinist on Christian Forums has continued his opposition to prevenient grace. He wrote: ‘Why don’t you consider prevenient grace a violation of free will?’ (Hammster #517).
This was my response: It is not a violation of free will. It is common grace. It is no more a violation of free will than a person receiving a soul/spirit is a violation of free will.
God takes the initiative in all salvation. We know that prevenient grace is not a violation of free will because God has stated it clearly what He has done: ‘For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people (Titus 2:11 ESV).
This means that the human will is freed in relation to salvation. It is not a violation of free will. We know that the will has been freed in relation to salvation because it is implied in the exhortations:
- to turn to God. (Prov 1:23; Isa 31:6; Ezek 14:6; 18:32; Joel 2:13-14; Matt 18:3; and Acts 3:19);
- to repent (1 Kings 8:47; Matt 3:2; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38; 17:30), and
- to believe (2 Chron 20:20; Isa 43:10; John 6:29; 14:1; Acts 16:31; Phil 1:29; 1 John 3:23).
Prevenient or common grace is no more a violation of a person’s will than their receiving a beating heart before birth and breath after birth (OzSpen #519).
See also ‘Effectual Calling’.
This person who opposes prevenient grace goes on to state, ‘Prevenient grace is based more on humanism mixed with ancient Greek free will philosophy, than the Bible’.
- God must take the initiative if human beings are to be saved to enjoy eternal life. God’s common grace will not bring people to salvation. That God took the initiative in salvation is shown by what he did with Adam & Eve after the fall into sin (Gen. 3:8-9). Even after they became fallen human beings, they were still able to hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden and the Lord God called on the man and that man was able to hear God – even though ‘totally depraved’.
- We know this from the teachings of Isa. 59:15-16 and John 15:16. Paul told us in Rom. 2:4 that God’s kindness was designed to lead people to repentance.
- In accepting prevenient grace, I understand that God, in his amazing grace, has made it possible for all people to be saved (e.g. 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:2; Titus 2:11). With Titus 2:11, this amazing grace of God has appeared ‘bringing salvation for all people’ (ESV) or ‘the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men’ (NIV).
- The result is that the human will is freed in relation to salvation. This is what is implied in the OT and NT exhortations to turn to God (see Prov. 1:23; Isa. 31:6; Matt. 18:3; Acts 3:19), to repent (1 Kings 8:47; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38; 17:30), and to believe (2 Chron 20:20: Isa 43:10; John 6:29; 14:1; Acts 16:31; Phil 1:29; 1 John 3:23).
- We must remember what this means. It DOES NOT mean that prevenient grace makes it possible for a human being to change the permanent bent/nature of his will in favour of God. It does not mean that a person can stop sinning in the natural and make herself/himself acceptable to God. It does mean that a person can make an initial response to God (as with Adam & Eve) and God can give repentance and faith. God can say as he stated in Jeremiah 31:18, “Bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the Lord my God”. Or, “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us” (Ps. 85:4). God does it, but not without ‘restore us again” or “bring me back”. This truly is amazing grace. If we can say this, God has granted us a measure of freedom to respond to him – truly amazing grace. This means that in some way God has enabled us to act contrary to our fallen nature. If we will say this much, ‘bring me back’, God will grant a person repentance (“Acts 5:32; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25) and faith (Rom. 12:3; 2 Peter 1:1).
- God’s amazing prevenient grace has enabled human beings to have this opportunity to respond to God. It is a resistible grace, but God has enabled the will to respond to Him.
- So prevenient grace is amazing, God-sent grace.
This is amazing prevenient grace that enables all human beings to have the free will to say yea or nay to God. This is linked with comprehensive depravity, conditional election, unlimited atonement, resistible grace and the free will to commit apostasy. What an amazing God he is!
Lemke, S W 2010. A biblical and theological critique of irresistible grace. David L. Allen & Steve W. Lemke (eds). Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, 109-162. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic.
Olson, R E 2006, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Packer, J I 1993. Concise Theology. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers Inc.
Sproul, R C 1992. Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers Inc.
Spurgeon, C H 1856. Effectual calling, sermon 73, 30 March. Available at: http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0073.htm (Accessed 5 October 2011).
Steele, D N, Thomas C C, & Quinn S L 2004. The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed.
Thiessen, H C 1949. Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Who are the Remonstrants? They were Dutch Reformed Calvinists who were concerned about the Calvinistic emphasis that God forced his grace on sinners so that they could not resist it. While they have received the reputation of being Arminians, it is important to understand that they were Calvinists who objected to certain emphases of Calvinism. Another has explained that ‘Remonstrants is a name given to the adherents of Jacobus Arminius (q.v.) after his death, from the “Remonstrance” which they drew up in 1610 as an exposition and justification of their views. Their history may be divided into four periods, the first extending to the Synod of Dort, 1618; the second comprising the years of persecution until 1632; the third the time of toleration during the existence of the Republic of the United Netherlands until 1795; the fourth the period of their existence as an independent church community’ (CCEL, Remonstrants). The Calvinistic response to the Remonstrants was made at the Dutch Reformed Synod of Dort, AD 1618-1619.
 Desiring God, ‘What we believe about the five points of Calvinism’ (rev. March 1998). Available at: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/what-we-believe-about-the-five-points-of-calvinism#Grace (Accessed 5 October 2011). I was alerted to this reference from Piper in Lemke (2010).
 The Calvinist Corner, available at: http://calvinistcorner.com/tulip (Accessed 3 October 2011).
 Christian Forums, ‘The hypocrisy of prevenient grace’, Apologetic Warrior #2, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7596864/#post58675086 (Accessed 2 October 2011).
 I have received considerable help in preparing the remainder of this article from Henry C. Thiessen (1949:155-156).
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 4 June 2016.