Common Grace vs. Prevenient Grace: What’s the Difference?

The question was put to me over lunch earlier this week and not for the first time. So I thought it worthwhile to post here a few reflections on the difference between the Reformed doctrine of common grace and the Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace.
What is Common Grace?

The easiest way to clarify the difference between common and prevenient grace is to consider them both in relation to salvation. Common grace does not lead to salvation; prevenient grace does. In Reformed theology, common grace is not saving grace and is not regarded as part of soteriology (i.e., theology of salvation) or the order of salvation. Instead, according to Berkhof, it was developed in response to questions like these:

How can we explain the comparatively orderly life in the world, seeing that the whole world lies under the curse of sin? How is it that the earth yields precious fruit in rich abundance and does not simply bring forth thorns and thistles? How can we account for it that sinful man still “retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior”?…How can the unregenerate still speak truth, do good to others, and lead outwardly virtuous lives? (Systematic Theology, 4.III.A.1.).

In short, how can sinful people who live in a fallen world do anything good or virtuous? The answer, from the perspective of Reformed theology, is common grace. Here’s Berkhof again, common grace 

curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men” (Systematic Theology, 4.III.A.4.)

So we might say that common grace is that which keeps the effects of sin in check to some degree and makes possible human culture and civilization.
It is essential, however, to understand  that in Reformed thinking common grace is distinct from special (or particular and saving) grace. Common grace does not save people from condemnation; special grace necessarily effects the salvation of the elect to whom it is given. Berkhof points to several further distinctions between common and special grace Common grace is given indiscriminately to all people; special grace is limited to the number of the elect. Common grace never removes the guilt incurred by sin; special grace always does. Common grace doesn’t renew human nature; special grace changes the inner person. Common grace is resistible; special grace never is.
What is Prevenient Grace?

While common grace is not considered saving grace, prevenient grace may very well lead to salvation, though not necessarily so. In Wesleyan-Arminian thinking, prevenient grace is simply the work of God in a person’s life that precedes conversion and prepares that person to freely receive the gospel. In Reformed thinking, common grace is not part of the order of salvation; in Wesleyan-Arminian thinking, it is. At the risk of oversimplifying the order of salvation, prevenient grace leads to justifying grace, which leads to sanctifying grace and then glorifying grace. I’ll hasten to add that since we Arminians see grace as resistible, it follows that prevenient grace need not always lead to justification and final salvation. Prevenient grace is not effectual. It does not effect salvation as the Reformed understand special grace to effect salvation. Rather, prevenient grace prepares the human heart to believe the gospel and be saved, but prevenient grace can be resisted. To summarize, if you can look back and see the work of God drawing you to Christ prior to your conversion, that is prevenient grace. 
I should add that Wesley and Arminius had somewhat different views of the extent of prevenient grace. Wesley thought prevenient grace extended to all people in some degree in order to mitigate the effects of original sin. If I understand correctly, Arminius thought prevenient grace came specifically through the preaching of the gospel to free the hearts of those who hear to respond freely to the good news. Both saw prevenient grace as part of the order of salvation. Both understood it to be resistible. They differed on the scope and perhaps the means. 
One more point of clarification is necessary. Prevenient grace is not substantially different from justifying or sanctifying grace. They emphasize different points in the same journey of salvation by grace through faith. The terms have to do with process and chronology; they are not different sorts of grace. 
Two Different Graces?

I think people tend to confuse common grace and prevenient grace because both have the lost as their object. Otherwise, they have little else in common. They are fundamentally different concepts that address fundamentally different questions. Common grace answers the question of how fallen people can do anything that is not thoroughly wicked. Prevenient grace answers the question of how fallen people can be prepared to respond freely to the gospel. 
In the end, Reformed theology seems to posit two substantially different forms of grace – one effective to salvation and one not. The problem, as I see it, is that this divorces grace from the work of Christ, which Berkhof acknowledges with regard to common grace. To be fair, he rejects the suggestion that there are two substantially different forms of grace by arguing that common grace is not attribute of God while special grace is. But if this is the case, why create confusion by calling it grace? Arminian theology successfully provides a coherent understanding of God’s grace: there is only one grace, and it leads to and finds its fulfillment in Jesus and union with him.

Here’s My New 7 Minute Seminary: The Doctrine of Sin (@OfficialSeedbed)

Here’s my latest contribution to the Seven Minute Seminary series at Seedbed.com. This one is on the Doctrine of Sin and touches on a variety of relevant issues. What is the difference between Original Sin and Total Depravity? Does Total Depravity mean we are as bad as we could be? What are the pastoral implications of the Doctrine of Sin? 

Check out my other Seven Minute Seminary contributions:

Eternal Security? How do you fall away?

In a couple of recent posts (1, 2) I’ve reflected on the language of security and falling away in the New Testament. When the suggestion is made that a believer can indeed fall permanently and to his detriment from grace, the question is commonly raised as to how this happens. What does someone have to do fall away? How does a person move from justification to condemnation? Following on from my last post, I’ll focus my comments on Paul’s discussion of the matter in Romans 11.
 
The starting point must be the comparison that Paul draws between God’s attitude toward unbelieving Israel and his audience in Rome. My previous suggestion that a believer can indeed fall to their peril is based on this comparison in which Paul tells the Roman Christians that Israel was broken off for unbelief; thus, his warning to the Romans, “if God did not spare the original branches, perhaps he will not spare you” (11:21). For the apostle, believing Gentile Christians are liable to the same fate as Israel, namely God might cut them off. The comparison between the Roman church and Israel is developed through a contrast between the faith of the Romans and the unbelief of Israel, “They (Israel) were broken off because of their unbelief (Gk. apistia), but you stand only through faith (Gk. pistis)” (11:20). The explicit contrast of Paul’s Greek is somewhat muted in the English translation of “unbelief” vs. “faith” simply because English doesn’t have a negative word using the root “faith”. The Greek apistia vs. pistis is much stronger, and a more literal translation would say that Israel was “broken off because of their afaith (or unfaith?), but you stand only through faith.” This is enough to highlight the fact that, for Paul, if a person can move from God’s favor into condemnation, it is conditioned on whether or not that one continues in faith in Christ. The logic is quite clear. If it is through faith that we are united to Christ and brought into a state of reconciliation with God, then our unbelief would mean the breaking of our union with Christ, which would also mean that we no longer partake in the blessings of our former union.
 
Paul’s understanding of the contrast between faith and unbelief becomes increasingly clear when we consider Romans 4:20. Speaking of Abraham, Paul writes, “No unbelief (Gk. apistia) made him doubt the promise of God, but he was empowered by faith (Gk. pistis) giving glory to God.” Note the again the strong contrast between apistia and pistis. Abraham’s righteous standing before God is conditioned on his belief in the promise of God (4:21-22), and the opposite of this by-faith-righteousness is unbelieving condemnation. In Romans, Abraham is the prototypical Gentile believer, because he believed and was justified prior to his circumcision. So, faith in the crucified and risen Christ incorporates even a Gentile believer into Abraham’s family, which is defined around the Messiah. In contrast, unbelief cuts a person off from this family. This is precisely what Paul says happened with ethnic Israel, and in his thinking it is a danger to believers in Rome. Thus, his exhortation to continue in the kindness of God, which is conditioned on perseverance in faith, in order to avoid being cut off (11:22).
 
Returning to the initial question regarding how one falls away, we can say that the condition for being cut off from the people of God is unbelief or a cessation of faith in Christ. He does not here raise the issue of evil works as a means for falling away, though he would certainly assert that evil works are the product of unbelief. This makes sense in light Paul’s larger soteriology. If a person is justified by faith, then falling into unbelief would necessitate falling out of justified reconciliation with God. One might say that this is all hypothetical for Paul, and that a true believer will never fall into unbelief. The problem with that suggestion is that Paul doesn’t seem to be dealing in hypotheticals. His argument is based on the very concrete and historical example of God’s action to cut off unbelieving Israel. Cutting off, he insists, is the grievous consequence of unbelief. For Paul, it appears to be a real possibility that a justified true believer could fall into unbelief and be cut off from the people of God.

The Bad News that Makes the Good News So Very Good

We all know that thinking about the doctrine of sin is no fun. In fact, it can be rather depressing to reflect very long on our natural depravity and fallenness. It can even be tempting to avoid talk of sin and neglect the doctrine altogether. But if we do, we do so to our peril.
I find it helpful to think of the importance of listening to our doctors, even when they give unfavorable diagnoses. Many know all too well the pain of hearing the “bad” news from a physician. It brings grief, hurt, and heartache. But we also know that if we do not listen to our doctors, the consequences could very well be deadly. If we are willing to hear the bad news and be honest about it, then we are prepared to hear the good news of the prescription that can lead to health and life. News about medicine or treatment plans are only good news if we are willing to hear the bad news first.
The doctrine of sin is like that. The gospel says that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). And if we do not face the reality of our sin, then the good news of forgiveness and new life in Christ and through his cross is lost on us. If we aren’t real about sin, why would we be real about forgiveness of sin? Just as we must hear the bad news of a doctor’s diagnosis to benefit from the good news of his treatment, so also must we hold fast to the doctrine of sin, because sin is the bad news that makes the gospel the really good news that it is. 
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More Thoughts on Hell

I know; it’s kind of a depressing title for a blog post. But the reality is that with the ongoing back-and-forth over Rob Bell’s forthcoming book, like many other Evangelical Christian types, I’ve been thinking a good bit about Hell for the last couple of days. So, here goes.
I have, from time to time, found myself sitting around with friends having theological discussions in which the topic turns to the destiny of the unevangelized. At times I have decided to bite the bullet, lay my cards on the table, and admit that I actually do believe that a person has to hear the Christian gospel about Jesus of Nazareth and respond in faith in order to gain the Heaven that is eternal life in God’s new creation. My declaration sometimes receives a mixed response and has been met with some surprise that I believe a loving God would actually condemn untold multitudes of people to Hell simply for having never heard the gospel. Let me say that I appreciate it when friends and colleagues press me to think carefully and biblically about issues like this, and that I typically find such conversations to be stimulating and refining.
But the question remains: Why would I believe that God would consign people to everlasting Hell? In short, my answer is: As best as I can tell, that is what Paul thought. And if the apostle to the Gentiles thinks it, then I’m basically committed to it. But what exactly does Paul say?
One of the key texts that shapes my view on this is Romans 10:9-17, in which Paul basically says that justification and ultimate salvation come through confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in the heart that God raised him bodily from the dead. He goes on to substantiate his and all Christian mission through a series of rhetorical questions which are intended to make the point that the default position of all people is unsaved; therefore we need to send out preachers so that they can hear the good news, believe in the Lord, and call upon him for salvation, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (10:13). Paul is substantiating Christian mission with his belief that those who never hear the good news will never be able to call on the Lord and experience his salvation, which means they remain unsaved, which, for Paul, is a bad thing and is the same as condemnation.
I know someone (probably lots of someones) will disagree with this interpretation, but it really seems to me to be the plain reading of this text. Paul takes it as a given that the default human position is unsaved, by which he means condemned. He took the better part of the first three chapters of the letter to make the point that the common human condition, for Jew and Greek, is condemnation; falling short of the glory of God, and falling short of the glory of God is the Hell from which we need to be saved.
Here’s the key point I want to make, and it is a response to the common suggestion that a loving God would not send billions of people to Hell just for never hearing the gospel. For Paul, people are not condemned because they never hear the gospel; they are condemned because they are unrighteous and have committed idolatry by worshipping created things rather than the creator who has made himself known in what has been made (see Rom 1:18ff.) People are not born in some sort of neutral default mode only later to become saved or condemned based on their response to the gospel. The default mode is condemnation; the possibility of salvation for even a few (or only one) is grace upon grace and mercy in abundance. And if we cannot see that, we would do well to spend some time reflecting biblically on the purity and holiness of God and his absolute hatred for sin, which is not inconsistent with his love.
One more thing, and I’m not the first to say this, if people will ultimately be saved having never heard the gospel, then, by all means, stop evangelizing! If hearing the gospel establishes responsibility where before there was none, then stop doing missions! If people are by default on their way to Heaven and telling them about Jesus opens the possibility of Hell, then never speak his name again! If people actually have to hear the gospel and reject it before they are condemned, then just keep quiet! You see; the very notions of evangelism and mission are inconsistent with an inclusivistic theology. People are better off never hearing.
So, let me sum up by saying that I don’t believe that God will send anyone to hell just because they never heard the gospel. Rather, I believe that those who are ultimately lost will be lost because they have fallen short of the glory of God in their refusal to give glory to God instead giving the glory that, as Creator, he alone deserves to created things. There will be no scenario where an unevangelized person stands before God and hears him say, “You never heard the gospel; you’re going to Hell.” Scripture seems to clearly indicate something more along the lines of: “You exchanged my glory for a lie, and the consequence is that you may have no share in my glory.”

Should United Methodist Website Be Expected to Maintain Church’s Doctrinal Standards?

Should commentary on the official website of the United Methodist Church be expected to uphold and adhere to the doctrinal standards of the denomination? If a recent piece titled “Every heart inclined to both good, evil” and written by Rev. Michael Williams is any indication, the answer is: evidently not. In the article, written for the United Methodist News Service and posted on the denominational website, Rev. Williams, senior pastor of West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, claims boldly that “good and evil are inclinations of every human heart.” Williams argues that his position is properly drawn from John Wesley’s own theology. Not only is this a poor reading of Wesley, it is a direct contradiction to the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church.
Article VII of our United Methodist Articles of Religion states that “man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.” This corruption of human nature is known as “original sin” and, according to the United Methodist Church, is naturally engendered in every human being. Rev. Williams’ position that “good, like evil, is a capacity of every human heart” is clearly contradictory to United Methodist belief. Indeed, Article VIII indicates that no human being has naturally the power to do good works. In short, Williams’ understanding of human nature is deficient when held against the doctrinal standards of our denomination.
Williams attempts to build his case on John Wesley’s General Rules, the first two of which have been popularly abridged as “Do no harm” and “Do good.” But such a reading of Wesley neglects key sources for his understanding of a person’s natural capacities and inclinations. Two extended quotes will make the point. The first is from his sermon on “Original Sin,” in which Wesley wrote:
“No man loves God by nature, any more than he does a stone, or the earth he treads upon. What we love we delight in; But no man has naturally any delight in God. In our natural state we cannot conceive how any one should delight in him. We take no pleasure in him at all; he is utterly tasteless to us. To love God! it is far above, out of our sight. We cannot, naturally, attain unto it” (Works, VI:59).
And in his sermon on “The New Birth”:
“And in Adam all died, all human kind, all the children of men who were then in Adam’s loins. The natural consequence of this is, that every one descended from him comes into the world spiritually dead, dead to God, wholly dead in sin; entirely void of the life of God; void of the image of God, of all that righteousness and holiness wherein Adam was created. Instead of this, every man born into the world now bears the image of the devil in pride and self-will; the image of the beast, in sensual appetites and desires…While a man is in a mere natural state, before he is born of God, he has, in a spiritual sense, eyes and sees not; a thick impenetrable veil lies upon them; he has ears, but hears not; he is utterly deaf to what he is most of all concerned to hear. His other spiritual senses are all locked up. He is in the same condition as if he had them not” (Works, VI:68, 70).
Wesley was no optimist when it came to natural human ability for good. Instead, he affirmed with historic Christianity that human beings are depraved and spiritually dead. We come into the world with no love for God and no capacity for good. Williams claims that “For Wesley, the possibility of doing good or harm resulted from the free will God gives us to choose to follow one inclination over another.” But this is not so. For Wesley, human beings are in bondage to sin and not free at all. God in his great kindness and through his preventing grace mercifully frees us to act aright. The idea that human beings have some natural neutrality to choose either good or evil carries the stench of Pelagianism and has no basis in the theology of John Wesley.
The present problem is not merely that Rev. Williams, a minister in the United Methodist Church, has a profoundly non-Methodist anthropology. The larger and more severe problem is that the editors of the United Methodist News Service had the audacity to publish the article on the denomination’s official website. Do not our doctrinal standards apply to material written there? Should opinions which contradict the established beliefs of our Church be published online for all to see? I could find no disclaimer stating that the views of the author are not necessarily the views of the United Methodist Church, and I lament that some unsuspecting reader might stumble across this article and be misled to believe that this is the common doctrine of the people called Methodists, for it certainly is not.
Let us return then to our original question: should commentary on the official website of the United Methodist Church be expected to uphold and adhere to the doctrinal standards of the denomination? My answer is a resounding yes. The only appropriate action for the editors is to retract this article and take care not to make such a grievous error again.
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*Thanks to Duke student Jonathan Andersen & Joseph at Methodist Thinker for drawing my attention to the article by Rev. Williams.