God’s preventing grace

God's preventing grace
John Wesley by George Romney (Image credit: Wikipedia Commons)

As we observe Aldersgate Day this month to commemorate Wesley’s transformative experience of the grace of God in his life on 24 May 1738, let us turn our attention to one aspect of his theology of grace, namely, prevenient grace.

This facet of the outworking of God’s grace is extremely important—we may even say, foundational—to Wesley’s understanding of salvation. Yet it is also an aspect of Wesley’s teaching that is gravely misunderstood and heavily criticised in some circles.

What does Wesley mean by prevenient or preventing grace?

“Prevenient” is derived from the Latin praevenire, which means to precede or to come before. It should not be confused with the way in which the word “prevent” in English has come to mean today, i.e. as stopping something from happening.

In his sermon entitled Working Out Our Own Salvation, prevenient grace, according to Wesley, is that work of God which makes fallen human beings in some important sense once again capable of him. It precedes or comes before what Wesley calls convincing grace or repentance (II.1). Thus, in classical Christianity, prevenient grace is used interchangeably with “preparatory grace” or “enabling grace”.

Based on Philippians 2:12-13, Wesley identifies prevenient grace as first in his order of salvation (ordo salutis):

“Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him.” (II.1)

Wesley’s critics are quick to jump to the conclusion that his doctrine of prevenient grace is a tacit denial of the total depravity of the sinner, his inability to relate to God in any positive way. This, however, is to misunderstand Wesley.

In his sermon entitled Original Sin, Wesley asserts emphatically that every human being is “empty of all good”, and “filled with all manner of evil” (III.1). Wesley used the language of “total corruption” and “entire deprivation” to indicate that fallen human nature is entirely corrupted by sin. But God in his mercies did not leave fallen human beings in this woeful state of total depravity, but restores them by his (prevenient) grace so that, to use Wesley’s expression, they may have “the first wish to please God”. Prevenient grace therefore is that common or universal grace of God which restores in fallen human beings a genuine openness to God.

Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace can be further clarified by considering his understanding of the human will and conscience.

For Wesley, fallen human beings no longer have “natural free will”, since they are enslaved by sin. In fact, in his sermon Original Sin, Wesley goes so far as to state that due to the fall, human beings who once bore the image of God (imago Dei), now bear the image of the devil (imago diaboli): “We bear the image of the devil, and tread in his steps” (II.9).

However, in his treatise Predestination Calmly Considered, Wesley argues that by God’s prevenient grace, “there is a measure of free will supernaturally restored to every man, together with that supernatural light which ‘enlightens every man that cometh into the world’” (para 45).

This restoration allows the sinner to respond to the gospel and the overtures of divine love positively and move to repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification and ultimately glorification. However, it must be stressed that prevenient grace only enables such a response—it does not coerce it.

In a similar vein, Wesley maintains that conscience—that ability to discern good from bad—that is found in all human beings, is the outworking of God’s prevenient grace. In his sermon On Conscience, Wesley explains:

“This faculty seems to be what is usually meant by those who speak of natural conscience; an expression frequently found in some of our best authors, but yet not strictly just. For though in one sense it may be termed natural, because it is found in all men; yet, properly speaking, it is not natural, but a supernatural gift of God … (I.6).”

Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace is in harmony with the Reformation dictum that salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia). Prevenient grace, as we have seen, is that work of God which precedes every inclination and work of human beings such that sinners can never claim merit for their salvation.

Prevenient grace points to the divine initiative which is so eloquently articulated by the apostle Paul: “… but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Because of the divine initiative, God’s prevenient grace is already at work to create the requisite conditions which make human salvation possible.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.