Prevenient grace is grace that God gives to begin the process of drawing a person to Himself. Its purpose is to prepare the heart of the non believer to respond to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Because of the sinful nature, no person seeks after God on his own. The Holy Spirit convicts a person of sin, shows him his need for the Savior, and urges the person to repent. Prevenient grace is universal, given to all. It is resistible – a person can spurn it to his own detriment. It works in combination with the hearing of the Word. It shows the non-believer that he has a further need for salvation. It results in saving grace when a person positively responds and perseveres in faith.
Describing prevenient grace, Thomas Oden writes:
Prevening grace antecedes human responsiveness so as to prepare the soul for the effective hearing of the redeeming Word. This preceding grace draws persons closer to God, lessens their blindness to divine remedies, strengthens their will to accept revealed truth, and enables repentance. Only when sinners are assisted by prevenient grace can they begin to yield their hearts to cooperation with subsequent forms of grace.
Prevenient grace has some commonality with the Calvinistic teaching of irresistible grace. Both attempt to explain how God draws the non-believer to Himself. Thus, Arminians and Calvinists often appeal to the same passages when explaining their concepts of drawing grace (John 6:44, for example). The two primary differences between prevenient grace and and irresistable grace are scope and resistability. Arminians believe that God draws everyone to Himself, while Calvinists believe that He draws a limited number. Arminians believe that drawing grace can be rejected, while Calvinists believe that drawing grace is always effectual.
Does scripture teach the concept of prevenient grace? There is no one passage that lays out a systematic definition of it, however, the concept becomes apparent throughout the overall tenor of scripture. Here are some passages that refer to the different aspects of prevenient grace:
Prevenient Grace Draws:
John 6:44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.
John 12:32 And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.
Prevenient Grace is Universal:
Titus 2:11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.
John 1:9 The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
John 16:7-8 But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment:
Romans 1:18-19 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
Revelation 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
Prevenient Grace Convicts the Non-Believer:
Acts 16:14 One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.
Acts 16:29-30 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Prevenient Grace Works in Combination with the Hearing of the Word:
Acts 2:37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Romans 10:17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.
Prevenient Grace is Given Generously:
Romans 8:32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?
Romans 2:4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?
Acts 17:26-27 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
Prevenient Grace Can be Rejected:
Matt. 23:37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.
John 5:34,39,40 Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved…You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
Acts 7:51 You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!
Heb 4:2 For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.
Heb 10:29 How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?
Prevenient Grace Results in Saving Grace when it is Accepted:
Ephesians 5:14 For it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
Recommended Resources for Further Reading:
The Transforming Power of Grace (book), by Thomas Oden
A Brief Consideration of Prevenient Grace (online article), by Dennis Hartman
Prevenient Grace (online article), by Jeff Paton