Prevenient grace (also referred to as prevenial) is a Christian theological concept rooted in Augustinian theology. It is embraced primarily by Arminian Christians who are influenced by the theology of Jacob Arminius or John Wesley. Wesley typically referred to it in 18th century language as prevenient grace. In modern English, the phrase preceding grace would have a similar meaning.Prevenient grace is divine grace which precedes human decision. It exists prior to and without reference to anything humans may have done. As humans are corrupted by the effects of sin, prevenient grace allows persons to engage their God-given free will to choose the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ or to reject that salvific offer. Whereas Augustine held that prevenient grace cannot be resisted, Wesleyan Arminians believe that it enables, but does not ensure, personal acceptance of the gift of salvation. The United Methodist Book of Discipline (2004) defines prevenient grace as “…the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our ‘first slight transient conviction’ of having sinned against God. God’s grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.”
In John Wesley’s sermon “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” (sermon #85), Wesley stated that prevenient grace elicits, “…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.”
Wesley insisted on prevenient grace as a solution to two great problems in Christianity: the belief of original sin and the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Developing the idea based upon the witness of Scripture, Wesley thought that prevenient grace enabled the doctrines of original sin and salvation by grace to co-exist while still maintaining God’s sovereignty and holy character as well as human freedom.
Scriptures used to support the doctrine include (NT quotes from Wesley’s translation, unless noted):
- Jeremiah 1:5 (ESV): “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…”
- Jeremiah 31:3 (KJV): “…I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.”
- Ezekiel 34:11, 16 (ESV): “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…”
- Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
- John 6:44: “No man can come unto me, unless the Father who hath sent me, draw him…”
- Romans 2:4: “…the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance…”
- Philippians 2:12-13: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God that worketh in you according to his good pleasure, both to will and to do.”
- 1 John 4:19: “We love him, because he first loved us.”
- Titus 2:11: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.”
Most Methodist hymnals have a section with hymns concerning prevenient grace, most recently The United Methodist Hymnal(1989). One of the best known hymns written about the doctrine is Charles Wesley’s “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast”, which includes the lines, “Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind…the invitation is to all…” (emphasis added).
Charles Wesley’s “Sinners, Turn: Why Will You Die” continues the theme, “Sinners, turn: why will you die? God, the Spirit, asks you why; he, who all your lives hath strove, wooed you to embrace his love” (emphasis added). His hymn “Depth of Mercy” offers a prayer to God, “Now incline me to repent, let me now my sins lament, now my foul revolt deplore, weep, believe, and sin no more” (emphasis added).