I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have preserved my life. —Psalm 119:93
Is “Prevenient Grace” Biblical?
The task of establishing the idea of “prevenient grace” from a New Testament perspective may be challenging because the term itself does not appear in the New Testament or in the whole Bible for that matter. The term is theological and presents a Wesleyan understanding of God’s grace that goes before, enabling (but not forcing) sinners to respond to faith. In other words, while Christians generally believe in God’s initiative of grace, Wesley opposes the idea that prevenient grace irresistibly brings a person to faith in Christ.
Wesleyans believe that God’s grace is available to all and not just to a select number He has elected, and all are free to either respond or not. Does this mean that prevenient grace is a non-biblical idea? Not at all—it conveys a biblical principle or a concept that is clearly perceptible in some tangible ways in the text. So what are these tangible indications that the New Testament provides to support the idea of prevenient grace?
The Priority of God’s Grace
Although we do not find the use of the words “prevenient grace” in the New Testament, we find plenty of examples that explain God’s initiative in every action in relationship with humanity. The Old Testament draws a picture of God’s constant and creative activity toward creation. God was working in and through Israel, but His plans from the very beginning included all nations (Genesis 12:1-3), for “all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (Isaiah 52:10; Jeremiah 31:10). God’s promises to bless the nations and restore the world are carried out in the New Testament.
All the Gospels testify to the fact that Jesus fulfills God’s promises. Mark announces the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the fulfillment of Scripture when Jesus came (Mark 1:14-15). Luke says that “the scripture has been fulfilled,” when Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue (Luke 4:21; Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6). For Matthew, Jesus is Emmanuel, which is “God with us” (1:23). John is particularly helpful in explaining God’s plan for humanity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). The rest of the New Testament connects Jesus with the God of Israel and the Jewish scriptures that contain the mystery of God’s plan for humanity from the beginning; and now it is revealed in Christ to all (Romans 16:26).
The New Testament writers describe God’s initiative in Christ not only as the uniquely divine action to draw sinful humanity back to God but also as a gracious gift. This is another scriptural idea that supports the doctrine of God’s prevenient grace. In Romans, Paul writes that Christ died for the ungodly while we were still sinners (Romans 5:6-8) and, through Christ, we have obtained access to God’s grace (Romans 5:2). In 2 Timothy, he makes the same point that God’s grace is given in Christ Jesus before the ages began (1:9). In His mercy, 1 Peter assures us, God has provided a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1:3). This means that God’s grace is not offered on the basis of receiving something in return. It is not obstructed or constrained by prior circumstances or conditions. God’s grace is extended even when there is no promise that it will yield human obedience.1
The Priority of God’s Love
God has decided in our favor apart from our ability to reciprocate, gracing us with love prior to and independent of any response we might give, for no reason other than love. Love is the very nature of God—God does everything in love. His perfect (complete) love encompasses space and time.
Johannine literature is the most explicit source for understanding God’s priority of love. God is described by John simply as love (1 John 4:16). God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him (1 John 4:9).
God is always the first One to love, “Not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son” (1 John 4:10).
Further, Ephesians 2:4-5 links God’s mercy and love in an inseparable knot: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses.” For Paul, God’s grace is related to the Christ-event “as the definitive enactment of God’s love for the unlovely, and to the Gentile mission,” when he proclaims to the nations that God’s gifts are not restricted and are accessible beyond “the Torah-based definitions of value.”2
Grace to All
While the Gospels focus more on the life and ministry of Jesus as God’s Son who reveals the coming of God’s kingdom, Paul and other New Testament writers refer to Christ as the source of gracious redemption for all people, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). The theme of the universal applicability of the gospel of Jesus runs throughout the writings of Paul (Romans 1:5; 16:26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 2:8-9).
In Romans, Paul announces the good news is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). Throughout other epistles, Paul describes this power penetrating the entire person, the entire community, and the entire world (Galatians 6:14-15; 2 Corinthians 5:17). It enables people and communities to restore relationship with God and each other and creates conditions for making choices in relation to God. This power drove Paul on a mission to announce to all that the same grace that he received in Christ is offered to all the races and nations. The apostle Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, also announced that “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us” (Acts 15:8); so “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11).
The purpose of Jesus’ ministry—His life, death, and resurrection—is not only to call Israel back to their God but also to reconcile the world to Him. The whole world has come under God’s new rule in Christ (Ephesians 1:18-22) with the possibility of coming to participate in God’s life through Christ. This cannot be provided by anyone or anything else (Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18; 2:10).
God’s Offer for Us to Receive
God’s constant loving activity and His sacrificial action in Christ is His offer to all to believe, to be reconciled, and to have hope. This offer is received through faith (Romans 3:21-26). In Romans 11:16-24, Paul draws a very powerful picture of the olive tree and branches grafted in the root. The root most likely represents Christ; the branches are the various believing and non-believing Jews and Gentiles that can be either attached or broken off or grafted in on the basis of faith. The point is that God’s offer in Christ may be accepted or rejected/resisted although the possibility to be a part of the people of God remains open. Since the power of sin is broken in Christ and we have obtained access to God’s grace, we are free to respond to God’s grace.
Perhaps Peter may help us to understand this nuance when he says that through Christ we have come to trust in God. Moreover, God raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that our faith and hope may be in (or literally in Greek, “toward”) God (1 Peter 1:21). Jesus draws us to Himself (John 12:32). In other words, God in Christ reveals His faithfulness and prepares a way for us to see that and trust in Him. But it is up to us to exercise trust.
Often, Jesus is described as the light drawing or attracting people to Himself out of darkness. He leaves us with the Holy Spirit who will continuously work in the world to convince it of sin, bringing righteousness and judgement (John 16:8-11) or to enlighten people’s hearts so that they may have hope (Ephesians 1:17-18). In Romans 5:12-21, we are reminded that although all have sinned and all have access to the gift of grace, only those who respond to God’s grace in Christ or “receive the free gift” (Romans 5:17) reign in life. Those who accept are invited to participate in the destiny of God’s grace in Christ to reconcile divided humanity to Himself and to bring the whole created order to its original and intended goodness (Ephesians 1:3-14).
Svetlana Khobnya is a lecturer in biblical studies at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester, United Kingdom.
1. John M. G. Barclay is noteworthy here because of his extensive research on God’s grace as the gift in Christ, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 76.
2. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, 566.
Holiness Today, September/October 2020
Please note: This article was originally published in 2020. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.