One of John Wesley’s finest contributions to theology was his understanding of prevenient grace. Broadly speaking, this is the grace that “goes before”—that grace which precedes human action and reflects God’s heart for his creation. It testifies to God’s being the initiator of any relationship with him and reveals him as one who pursues us. While prevenient grace is an orthodox teaching held by the historic church, it becomes distinctly Wesleyan in its reach and scope. For John Wesley, prevenient grace is available to all, such that there is no “natural man” left in a purely fallen state without a measure of God’s restorative grace. Furthermore, prevenient grace is salvific in direction.
This means the Spirit of God works not just to restore certain faculties of humanity or to limit human sin, but ultimately directs people to the work of Christ. This is one of the marks that sets Wesley apart from Augustine and John Calvin. Prevenient grace reaches beyond Reformed common grace since it involves all of the preparatory work of the Spirit before a person accepts the gospel.
The foundation for God’s prevenient work as initiator is firmly grounded in Scripture. The narrative of Scripture bears witness to a God who calls and pursues persons. He called Adam in the garden while he was hiding from the shame of sin (Gen. 3:9), Abraham out of his father’s house at Haran (Gen. 12:4), and Moses while he was busy tending his flock (Exod. 3:4). Jacob and Israel were chosen to bless the earth because of a promise to Abraham, not because they were significant (Rom. 9)
The New Testament is replete with passages that testify to the character of God as loving initiator, especially as revealed in Jesus Christ. Luke 19:10 says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” We can only love because he first loved us, and this he did while we were still weak (Rom. 5:6; 1 John 4:10, 19; John 6:44). If left to ourselves, and here one should think of Wesley’s theoretical “natural man,” we would be absorbed in sin that leads to utter self-destruction and eternal separation from God.
The good news is that God acted in Christ and works through his Spirit in bringing us salvation. Wesley’s theology of prevenient grace teaches us that God is at work long before the church evangelizes, quickening people’s hearts to become the people he intends. His favorite reference was perhaps John 1:9, which reads, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” One notices that Wesley takes seriously the universality of the blessings afforded by Christ and actualized by the Holy Spirit (see also John 12:32; Titus 2:11-14). This particular grace is that which Paul speaks of in Acts 17:26-27, where the purpose of God’s providence in history is that persons would seek him and know him. In this way, prevenient grace is the presence of God in time and space—in all places and all times—preparing the world for the hearing of the gospel.
For John Wesley, the grace that goes before is irresistible in that it applies universal blessings (see his sermon, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation“). It “waiteth not for the call of man,” and in doing so its reach is all persons. It is salvific in direction in that it is all the preparatory work of the Spirit for justifying grace, and so its scope is leading people to salvation.
To be sure, prevenient grace raises important questions about other issues such as the destiny of the unevangelized and makes us to think seriously about our theology of world religions. These topics deserve further consideration. Nonetheless, the universality of such grace comports well with the loving character of God, which is fundamental to Wesley’s theology and surely to Scripture as well.
As I understand it, prevenient grace in itself does not make a person right with God. If the gospel is preached and a person rejects the gospel, their destiny is clear. If a person has not heard the gospel, God will exercise his perfect judgment.
Re: the subject of prevenient grace…I say God is always stacking the deck in our favor. He loves us and wants us to be saved…all of us. It is not His will that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. In His wisdom He maximizes the opportunity for every man to trust Jesus. He extends the best invitation possible for every man to say yes. He alone knows how to do that. He is an amazing God. When people reject, refuse…it is not because God is not honestly doing His great work…it is because they out of their own will refused to come to the table. Blessings to you for this article.
I have been studying about prevenient grace after mentioning to a pastor my concern for my adult son who to my knowledge had not yet made commitment to Christ but had been searching for peace in God prior to being killed in a horrible accident. Knowing he had been searching for answers and believed in God from childhood, I want desperately to believe that through God’s great love and wanting none to be lost that he took my son to heaven. It is opposite to what the teaching in the Methodist church was in my growing up in the church but I want to believe in more fully in God’s great charitable love and to believe that my son is in heaven. I fear for my sanity if I cannot expect to someday see my son in heaven and I actually feel that he is there and has beckoned to me that all is well. He had wanted to go to heaven for a long time but I am just not sure if the early death precluded him accepting Christ. Can you please help me understand?
Hello Esther, as I was student free will & destiny I came across this study.
I saw your comment with no answer.
I’m not in any religion, I have a personal relationship with Christ Jesus.
I believe your son is in heaven.
Because God has mercy and when Jesus came as the Son of God to die for ALL sins. He went to hell and took the keys of death from Satan. Jesus was and is perfect. That’s why she had the right to take the key for death.
This is something I’ve been study for a while now.
I hope and pray this gives you peace
I’d love to send you what I’ve studied in Messenger on Facebook if your open to it, I will send you my profile link.
I would like to comment on the link related to the topic of “Restrictivism” and the destiny of the unevangelized. It appears to me that this writer has a rather weak view regarding the sovereignty, wisdom, and Power of our God. God promises that those who seek Him, will be found by Him.
There is a reason that Christ was crucified during Passover, and that the Holy Spirit was manifested on the day of Pentecost (it was no accident or coincidence in either case).
These were 2 Holy days when all of those God fearing Jews (that the writer references) were commanded to be in Jerusalem to worship God. So they would have all been in Jerusalem to witness these events firsthand. Simon of Cyrene, the Jew who was made to carry Christ’s cross, aren’t his sons (Rufus was one) mentioned among the faithful believers in one of the letters of Paul?
Didn’t Jesus Himself make a point of showing up at many of these Jewish festivals and proclaiming who He was prior to being crucified?
And what about the early apostles and evangelists (like Paul, for example)? Where was the first place he went to with the Gospel, when entering a new town? Was it not the synagogue?
Even today, in places like the Middle East, where many Christians lack the courage to go… haven’t you heard the stories of people who, having no other access to the Gospel, receive a vision or dream in which Jesus reveals to them who He is?
God is more than able to ensure that His message is heard by those who are ready/able to hear it. It is us who must decide whether to accept the opportunity and privilege to partner with Him in this endeavor.
If prevenient grace enables men to believe in God, then it overcomes
death (Genesis 2.17; Ephesians 2.1)
_every_ intent of the thoughts of the heart (Genesis 6.5)
the heart of stone, removing it and giving a new heart (Jeremiah 31.31-34; Ezekiel 36.26)
complete inability (Romans 8.7,8)
if it overcomes death, it must be new life and it is given by God before the man seeks Christ for he will not seek Christ, being a dead, rebellious sinner for all the reasons above (John 3.3; John 6.32.38)
When God seeks a man, the man receives, as in all the examples you cited. These men were all chosen by God. Every other man is judged by God. Wesleyan prevenient grace is not in the bible.