Grace is one of those words that we throw around a lot as Christians. We talk about the fact that God offers grace to us through Jesus Christ, but we rarely get much more specific than that. The Methodist tradition focuses on three different aspects of grace: prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. This post will focus entirely on the first aspect, prevenient grace.
John Wesley, the main founder of the Methodist movement, understood prevenient grace to mean that every human action is grounded in the prior empowering of God’s grace. God’s prevenient grace is evident in even the smallest inclination towards belief or response to God, through the most heartfelt profession of faith and trust in Christ. This prevenient grace is universally available, but it is possible to resist it. Wesley identifies prevenient grace in terms of both pardon and power. On one hand, prevenient grace, according to Wesley, cancels out any inherited guilt. In terms of power, prevenient grace is able to at least partially restore depraved human inclinations, to the extent which we might be able to sense our need for God and respond to God’s offer of salvation. In the save vein, prevenient grace not only enables human beings to become aware of their need for God, but prevenient grace also partially restores human liberty. This is what enables humans to actually respond to God of their own free will.
An important thing to understand is that prevenient grace is resistable. Predestination theology holds to the idea that those who are elected by God are unable to resist his grace, and in short, response to God does not depend ultimately upon human response. Prevenient grace is understood differently. Rather than God’s grace being an irresistable force targeted at specific people only, prevenient grace is instead God’s initial move toward restored relationship with all of fallen humanity. This involves God’s removal of inherited guilt through Christ, a partial healing of our self-centered and depraved inclinations, and finally, specific overtures or moves towards individuals inviting them into closer relationship. Human beings are free to respond to this initial move by God, or to reject it. God’s grace precedes us in all things, as a natural activity that pervades from God’s being and character. Randy Maddox, a Methodism professor at Duke Divinity School, sums up prevenient grace well: “Without God’s grace we cannot be saved; while without our (grace-empowered, but uncoerced) participation, God’s grace will not save.”
So how does this theological concept of prevenient grace help us in our life of faith and ministry? Here are a few reasons (though it is certainly not limited to these):
- It reminds us that God is the one who has, and always will, make the first move towards us. Any relationship we have with God is because God loved us long before we could ever reciprocate.
- On the other hand, it reminds us that we have a choice in how we respond to God’s prevenient grace. We can reciprocate or we can reject. We, and all human beings, are given that choice. As human beings, WE are responsible. WE have to act. WE have to choose. No one else, including God, can or will choose for us.
- Prevenient grace is universal. It is extended to all people regardless of who they are, where they are, what they believe, or what they have done. We need to recognize that this is the case in how we treat one another.
- Relatedly, the universal nature of prevenient grace means that God’s grace is already present. We don’t bring God to anyone. God isn’t our possession. A mistake of many Christian missionaries throughout history has been the assumption that they are the ones bringing God to others. That is a false notion that negates the idea of prevenient grace. God is already present. A missionary may help others understand that this grace is present and be able to point to the one who offers it, but God is already there and already working.
These are just a few ways that the concept of prevenient grace informs our life as Christians and more specifically as Methodists. Next we will explore the justifying and sanctifying aspects of God’s grace. But for now, a couple of questions to think over:
How do you see the prevenient aspect of God’s grace working in your life? Your family? Your community? The world?
How does this concept of prevenient grace fit into your understanding salvation and of how God works in the world?