The Arminian Doctrine of Prevenient Grace
Whereas some Arminians (such as Jack Cottrell) deny the doctrine of total depravity, most affirm it and account for human free will by appealing to the concept of prevenient grace. John Wesley affirmed:
"I believe that Adam, before his fall, had such freedom of will, that he might choose either good or evil; but that, since the fall, no child of man has a natural power to choose anything that is truly good. Yet I know (and who does not?) that man has still freedom of will in things of indifferent nature” (Works of Wesley, 10:350).
How, then, does one exercise saving faith? Thiessen explains:
“Since mankind is hopelessly dead in trespasses and sins and can do nothing to obtain salvation, God graciously restores all men sufficient ability to make a choice in the matter of submission to Him. . . . In His foreknowledge He perceives what each one will do with this restored ability, and elects men to salvation in harmony with His knowledge of their choice of Him” (Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, 344-45. The best treatment of the notion of prevenient or enabling grace from an Arminian perspective is provided by H. Orton Wiley in his Christian Theology, 3 vols. [Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1952], 2:344-57).
In sum, the Wesleyan Arminian analysis of fallen human nature does not differ fundamentally from the Calvinistic one. So wherein do they differ? Why do Wesleyan Arminians affirm conditional election and Calvinists affirm that election is unconditional? The answer is prevenient grace. According to this doctrine, God graciously and mercifully restores to all human beings the freedom of will lost in the fall of Adam. Prevenient grace provides people with the ability to choose or reject God. According to Wesley, "there is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored to every man” (10:229-30). This grace, however, is not irresistible. Whereas all are recipients of prevenient grace, many resist it to their eternal demise. Those who utilize this grace to respond in faith to the gospel are saved. In summary, “Arminians maintain that ‘prevenient grace,’ a benefit that flows from Christ’s death on the cross, neutralizes human depravity and restores to pre-Christians everywhere the ability to heed God’s general call to salvation” (Demarest, 208).
There are several problems with the Arminian view:
First, the doctrine of prevenient grace, on which the Arminian view of conditional election is based, is not found in Scripture. See "Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?" by Tom Schreiner in The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will (Baker, 1995), 2:365-82.
Appeal is often made to John 1:9 – “There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.” To derive the doctrine of prevenient grace from this passage, on the basis of which one then constructs an entire doctrine of soteriology, strikes me as somewhat of a stretch. This passage could as easily refer either to the influence of common grace, or to the operation of general revelation. Schreiner contends that “enlighten” does not refer to inward illumination of the heart, mind, or will, but rather means to expose the moral state of the heart, i.e., to shed light upon someone so as to reveal and uncover the state of the soul (see 3:19-21).
Second, this view assumes that fallen men are able and willing to believe in Christ apart from the regenerating grace of God, a notion that Paul has denied in Rom. 3:10-18.
Third, would not this view give man something of which he may boast? Those who embrace the gospel would be deserving of some credit for finding within themselves what others do not.
Fourth, this view suspends the work of God on the will of man. It undermines the emphasis in Romans 8 on the sovereign and free work of God who foreknows, predestines, calls, justifies, and glorifies. It is God who is responsible for salvation, from beginning to end.
Fifth, even if one grants that God elects based on his foreknowledge of man's faith, nothing is proven. For God foreknows everything. One must determine from Scripture how man came by the faith that God foreknows. And the witness of Scripture is that saving faith is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8-10; Phil. 1:29; 2 Pet. 1:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; Acts 5:31; 11:18).
Someone once said to Charles Spurgeon, "God foresaw that you would have faith, and therefore He loved you." To which Spurgeon replied:
"What did He foresee about my faith? Did He foresee that I should get that faith myself, and that I should believe on Him of myself? No; Christ could not foresee that, because no Christian man will ever say that faith came of itself without the gift and without the working of the Holy Spirit. I have met with a great many believers, and talked with them about this matter; but I never knew one who could put his hand on his heart, and say, 'I believed in Jesus without the assistance of the Holy Spirit'."
The Arminian contends that God foreknows both that some are and others are not going to believe in Christ in response to the gospel. He also affirms that God knows why they respond either in belief or unbelief, for God is omniscient and knows the secrets and inner motives of the heart. God also knows what it is in the presentation of the gospel that proves successful in persuading some to say "Yes" and what it is that proves unsuccessful in persuading those who say "No."
The question, then, is this: If God truly desires for all to be saved in the way the Arminian contends, and if he knows what it is in the means of persuasion contained in the gospel that brings people to say yes, why doesn't he orchestrate the presentation of the gospel in such a way that it will succeed in persuading all people to believe? The point is this: Surely the God who perfectly knows every human heart is capable of creating a world in which the gospel would prove successful in every case. And if God desires for all to be saved in the way the Arminian contends, why didn't He?