Archive for the ‘Prevenient Grace’ Category

Common Grace vs. Prevenient Grace

December 30, 2008

One reader asked, “How does the Arminian concept of prevenient grace differ from the Calvinist concept of common grace? It seems to me that they each describe one and the same thing.”

In Calvinist circles, the term “common grace” is used to describe a number of things. One definition provides three aspects:

1) “a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general;”
2) “the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and in the community;” and
3) an influence in which, “God, without renewing the heart, so influences man that he is able to perform civil good” and, thus, “the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good.” (source)

In contrast, Wesley (one of the most influential Arminian writers) defined prevenient grace thus (I’m not sure whether these are Wesley’s own words or a distillation of his thought … they seem to be accurate, and I could not find a more pithy quotation directly from him.):

Human beings are totally incapable of responding to God without God first empowering them to have faith. This empowerment is known as “Prevenient Grace.” Prevenient Grace doesn’t save us but, rather, comes before anything that we do, drawing us to God, making us want to come to God, and enabling us to have faith in God. Prevenient Grace is Universal, in as much as all humans receive it, regardless of their having heard of Jesus. It is manifested in the deep-seated desire of most humans to know God.


One could loosely compare the two by saying that common grace simply places a limit on the depth of man’s depravity, whereas prevenient grace removes man’s depravity. Common grace makes man not as wicked as he otherwise would be, but prevenient grace makes man essentially morally neutral.

The two are quite different. It’s worth noting that some Calvinists use the term “common grace” to refer more broadly to things like the fact that God sometimes gives common physical goods to both regenerate and unregenerate alike (for example, God may give rain to water the crops of both a god-fearing farmer and his neighbor the god-hating farmer). Other times, people use the term “common grace” to refer to the outward restraints on human wickedness, such as civil government and parents.

Likewise, prevenient grace is sometimes given a range of meanings. I’ve heard the preaching of the gospel referred to, by an Arminian, as prevenient grace. Indeed, some Arminians would say that every favor or opportunity that God gives to man before he believes, prevenes (goes before) that faith, and consequently can be labeled prevenient grace.

Thus, while the central meanings of the two terms are largely unrelated, there is occasionally overlap, where a Calvinist might loosely refer to something as “common grace” and an Arminian might loosely refer to it as “prevenient grace.”

I should point out that not all Calvinists agree with using the term “common grace.” I understand the historical, linguistic, and logical rational for that disagreement (I think), but I view it as a scruple. I’m not going to debate the issue here, and I hope that I won’t unnecessarily offend my scrupulously Calvinistic friends by referring to their views that way. On the other hand, I don’t endorse the idea of saying that a person is a “hyper-Calvinist” if they don’t use the term “common grace,” or find the three points above to be an inaccurate statement of doctrine. I realize that puts me at odds with such notable contemporary bloggers as Phil Johnson, but that’s just something I’ll have to live with. And I’m not going to debate that issue here, either.

Having explained the differences between “common grace” and “prevenient grace,” I hope I will have answered my reader’s question.


Except a Man be Born Again, He Cannot See the Kingdom of God

January 27, 2008

Regeneration Precedes Faith

This is the first part of a response to Kangaroo|Dort. It is the positive exposition.

John 3:2-13
2The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. 3Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

4Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

5Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. 8The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

9Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?

10Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? 11Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. 12If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? 13And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.

What is it that Jesus was conveying? Jesus was explaining that it is necessary to be regenerate in order to be saved. What did Jesus mean?

Jesus was challenging Nicodemus’ assertion that, “We know that thou art a teacher come from God.” Jesus knew well that the Sanhedrin rejected him. Thus, a little later, Jesus points out, “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” But before he gets there, he explains to Nicodemus why it is that not everyone believes.

It is necessary to be born of the Spirit in order to understand the things of the Spirit and consequently in order to believe the things of the Spirit. Furthermore, while we can see the effects of regeneration, it’s like the wind: we don’t see where it came from or where it is going next. The Spirit’s action is invisible, and beyond our control.

Someone might object that to “see the kingdom of God” and to “enter into the kingdom of God” is a reference to heaven. This is incorrect for two major reasons:

1) What would be the point in context of telling Nicodemus that one has to be regenerate in order to go to heaven? I suppose one might assert that it is an example of “heavenly things” that Jesus mentions later, but it itself is really something that happens here on earth. Thus, to assert that it means that one must be regenerate to pass through the pearly gates, just does not fit the context.

2) Recall that the “kingdom of God” has a primary reference to salvation of one’s soul. Thus:

Luke 17:21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

Mark 1:14-15
14Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

In other words, seeing the kingdom of God is appreciation of the gospel message. Entering into the kingdom of God is repenting and believing the gospel. Neither is possible without regeneration.

Why is that? Why is the rebirth necessary?

1 Corinthians 2:14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

Paul’s explanation is that the rebirth is necessary because man by nature thinks that the things of God are foolishness! It’s not because the natural man does not have enough information, or because he needs a better teacher, it is because the natural man cannot understand spiritual things.

Indeed, he is not able to know them. He does not have that ability. This is contrary to the teachings of the Pelagians and similar modernists who assert that all men have the ability to understand spiritual things. After all, their argument goes, if God commands men to believe, he must give them the ability to do so. As can be seen from this verse: that does not follow. Instead, natural men does not receive the things of the Spirit and cannot.

This same principle is confirmed elsewhere in John’s gospel:

John 1:12-13
12But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: 13Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

Those who are believing on the name of God are they which were born of God.

But What about Prevenient Grace?

Someone who was willing to be subservient to the Scripture passages above, and yet preserve for all men the ability to believe, might argue that all men receive the new birth, and that not all make proper use of it. In other words, they would seem to say that Paul’s comments about the natural man demonstrate that everyone has been given grace by God, so that there are no natural men. Let us, therefore, look at what else Paul says:

Galatians 4:28-29
28Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. 29But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.

In other words, the natural men (those born after the flesh) continue to persecute the regenerate men (those born after the spirit). Paul knew this from first hand experience: before his eyes were opened he persecuted the church.

Galatians 1:13 For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it:

Thus, we can see that natural men do exist. There are those who are not born again.

Romans 8:5-10
5For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. 6For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. 8So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. 9But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. 10And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

Here again we see the same principle, the natural, carnal mind is God’s enemy and not only is rebellious to God but cannot be otherwise. The only solution is for the Spirit of God to dwell in you.

We see the same themes in Peter’s writings as well:

1 Peter 4:3-6
3For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: 4Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you: 5Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead. 6For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

Many men in the flesh think we Christians are strange because we do not live according to the sexual revolution, according to the culture of drugging and excessive drinking, and because we do not worship without even graphical representations of our God. Some even speak evil of Christians for being too austere, too “iconophobic,” or even too “puritanical.”

Men in the flesh simply cannot understand how we devalue such things.

The reason for the difference is simple:

1 Peter 1:21-23
21Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God. 22Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently: 23Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.

John explains the cause and effect relation in more detail in his first catholic epistle:

1 John 2:29 If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him.

1 John 3:9 Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

1 John 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.

1 John 5:1 Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.

1 John 5:4 For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.

1 John 5:18 We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.

Those are the effects of being born of God:

– doing righteousness;
– avoiding sin;
– loving/knowing God;
– believing that Jesus is the Messiah; and
– overcoming the world / having faith.

Titus 3:5
5Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; 6Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; 7That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

There is the flow: regeneration/renewal, justification (by grace, not works), and finally eternal life.

We can also see the same thing expressed other ways in Scripture:

John 9:39-41
39And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. 40And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? 41Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.

Blindness is the natural state of man. Like the man in the preceding passage, men are born blind. They cannot see the Lord. They cannot believe on Him. But Jesus opens their eyes and they believe. That’s the progression.

Mark 7:32-37
32And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. 33And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; 34And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. 35And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. 36And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it; 37And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.

Just as he opens the eyes of the blind, Jesus opens the ears of the mouth and the tongue of the mute.

And the analogies do not stop there:

Matthew 11:5 The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.

Luke 7:22 Then Jesus answering said unto them, Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached.

Recall that this is what the prophets foretold:

Isaiah 29:18 And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness.

Isaiah 42:18 Hear, ye deaf; and look, ye blind, that ye may see.

Isaiah 35:3-10
3Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. 4Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you. 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. 6hen shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. 7And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. 8And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. 9No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there: 10And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

You see, there is the picture. God miraculously saves those whom Christ redeemed. That is why it is logically, soteriologically, and rationally necessary that regeneration precede faith. It must be that way, for the deaf cannot hear, the blind cannot see, the lame cannot come, the dead cannot respond. There must be life given and then we can run to Christ, and worship him, like the man born blind:

John 9:1-38
1And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. 2And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
3Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. 4I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. 6When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, 7And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.
8The neighbours therefore, and they which before had seen him that he was blind, said, Is not this he that sat and begged?
9Some said, This is he: others said, He is like him:
but he said, I am he.
10Therefore said they unto him, How were thine eyes opened?
11He answered and said, A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight.
12Then said they unto him, Where is he?
He said, I know not.
13They brought to the Pharisees him that aforetime was blind. 14And it was the sabbath day when Jesus made the clay, and opened his eyes. 15Then again the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. He said unto them, He put clay upon mine eyes, and I washed, and do see.
16Therefore said some of the Pharisees, This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day.
Others said, How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them.
17They say unto the blind man again, What sayest thou of him, that he hath opened thine eyes?
He said, He is a prophet.
18But the Jews did not believe concerning him, that he had been blind, and received his sight, until they called the parents of him that had received his sight. 19And they asked them, saying, Is this your son, who ye say was born blind? how then doth he now see?
20His parents answered them and said, We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind: 21But by what means he now seeth, we know not; or who hath opened his eyes, we know not: he is of age; ask him: he shall speak for himself. 22These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore said his parents, He is of age; ask him.
24Then again called they the man that was blind, and said unto him, Give God the praise: we know that this man is a sinner.
25He answered and said, Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.
26Then said they to him again, What did he to thee? how opened he thine eyes?
27He answered them, I have told you already, and ye did not hear: wherefore would ye hear it again? will ye also be his disciples?
28Then they reviled him, and said, Thou art his disciple; but we are Moses’ disciples. 29We know that God spake unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is.
30The man answered and said unto them, Why herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes. 31Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. 32Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. 33If this man were not of God, he could do nothing.
34They answered and said unto him, Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out.
35Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God?
36He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him?
37And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee.
38And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him.

Even so it is with us: we were blind, but now we see. And we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and we trust in Him alone for salvation, worshipping Him.

May Christ be praised!


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