Arminians and Prevenient Grace
It is important to point out that Calvinists and Arminians share a considerable amount of common theological ground, even when it comes to the issue of salvation. Perhaps the most important issue on which they agree is anthropology, or the doctrine of man or human nature. Both camps acknowledge that fallen human beings are born with a corrupt and depraved nature, in bondage to sin, utterly unable to do anything pleasing to God. Both camps agree that unregenerate human beings are willingly enslaved to their fallen natures.
John Wesley affirmed this truth:
"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).
Wesleyan Arminianism differs significantly on this point with the version of Arminianism espoused by Charles Finney. Finney believed that all people possess the ability, apart from divine grace, to choose what is good no less than they possess the ability to choose what is evil. Contrary to Wesley, Finney rejected the idea that people are born morally depraved because of Adam's sin. In fact, when it came to the doctrine of sin, Finney was more semi-Pelagian than Arminian.
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 what is called prevenient (or preventing) grace. According to this doctrine, God graciously and mercifully restores to all human beings the freedom of will lost in the fall of Adam (appeal is often made to John 1:9). 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).
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.
Henry Thiessen explains it this way:
"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" (Lectures in Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 1949], pp. 344-45).
Thomas Oden, a contemporary theologian, contributes greatly to our understanding of the Wesleyan-Arminian view on prevenient grace. Grace, says Oden, arrested man in his fall and placed him in a salvable state and endowed him with the gracious ability to meet all the conditions of personal salvation. The redemption that God intends for all must be cooperatively chosen by freedom cooperating with the conditions of grace enabled by the history of grace in Christ. Oden writes:
"Insofar as grace precedes and prepares free will it is called prevenient. Insofar as grace accompanies and enables human willing to work with divine willing, it is called cooperating grace" (Transforming Grace, 47).
"To no one, not even the recalcitrant unfaithful, does God deny grace sufficient for salvation" (48).
"Actual grace both removes the obstacles to salvation and enables the will to act in a salutary way. Grace works negatively to remedy the infirmity resulting from sin, and positively to elevate the soul to salutary acts, so that the soul may be enabled to receive God's own justifying action manifested on the cross and persevere in this reception" (57-8).
Prevenient grace, says Oden, is responsible for "healing the nature vitiated by original sin and restoring the liberty of the children of God" (58). Again,
"God antecedently wills that all should be saved, but not without their own free acceptance of salvation. Consequent to that exercise of freedom, God promises unmerited saving mercies to the faithful and fairness to the unfaithful" (77).
"God provides sufficient grace to every soul for salvation . . . . Those who cooperate with sufficient grace are further provided with the means for grace to become effective" (77).
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.' This could as easily refer to (1) the influence of common grace, or (2) the operation of general revelation. Schreiner contends that 'enlighten' does not refer to inward illumination of the heart/mind/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 (see 3:19-21).
Second, consider Romans 8:29, a text on which many Wesleyan-Arminians base their view of divine election because of the reference to God's 'foreknowledge'. But note well that there is no reference in the text to faith or free will as that which God allegedly foresees in men. It is not what he foreknows but whom.
Third, 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.
Fourth, 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.
Fifth, this view suspends the work of God on the will of man. It undermines the emphasis in Romans 8:28-38 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.
Sixth, 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'.
A concluding question for the Arminian:
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?