This note demonstrates how John Wesley’s prevenient grace maintains total depravity without falling into Pelagianism. The first section sets the framework for understanding the uniqueness of Wesley’s prevenient grace by describing positions of the reformed and eastern traditions regarding the effects of original sin. The second section focuses on Wesley’s understanding of prevenient grace against the backdrop of the reformed and eastern traditions with special attention given to prevenient grace asrestoring the moral law of God on the hearts of humanity. The third section considers Wesley’s use of John 1:9 as scriptural proof for prevenient grace and offers Isaiah 6:1-8 as a supplement to that proof. The final section concludes the project with an integrated observation of Wesleyan soteriology that considers prevenient grace in light of holy love.
The Effects of Original Sin: The Reformed and Eastern Traditions
Prevenient grace reconciles what seems to be a contradiction between the reformed doctrine of total depravity and human free will in salvation. The doctrine of total depravity asserts that with the Fall of humanity came the loss of all and any moral good. Humanity is therefore incapable of cooperating with God’s gracious act of redemption. For humanity to contribute or even cooperate in the act of salvation would be to violate the very nature of a fallen humanity. Total depravity sets itself against positions that assert a synergistic soteriology. Normally, passages such as Genesis 6:5 and Romans 3:9-18 are highlighted as the biblical evidence for total depravity.
As is evident in Calvinism’s TULIP theology, the doctrine of total depravity comes with a series of subordinate components that eliminate entirely the role of human free will in salvation. Unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints all naturally proceed from total depravity. While Scripture gives clear support for total depravity, there seems to be some conflict with U-L-I-P. Does scripture really teach that God does not desire for all to be saved? It also seems that there is scriptural support for some sort of role for human free will in salvation. If salvation unfolds in and through a personal relationship, and a loving relationship is not something that can be coerced, then human free will must play some sort of role in salvation. How can one maintain that humanity has a cooperative role in responding to the gift of salvation while simultaneously maintaining that prior to salvation humanity is utterly incapable of any moral good?
Can one maintain the doctrine of total depravity and still uphold human freewill in salvation? How can one maintain human free will without falling into Pelagianism?
Prevenient grace is the bridge. The doctrine of prevenient grace enabled Arminius and Wesley to maintain the reformers emphasis on total depravity yet activate the role of human free will in salvation without making salvation dependent on a human work. Normally, prevenient grace is understood to be the grace that “goes before” salvation, enabling humanity to have enough of a moral orientation to cooperate with the divine act of salvation. With this, humanity is still able to choose, but that choice is utterly dependent upon God’s work of [prevenient] grace.
Eastern tradition differs with the reformed tradition (and with Wesley) with regard to the effects of original sin and total depravity yet still avoids falling into Pelagianism. Eastern theologians maintain that humanity, even after the Fall, is not so depraved that they are unable to respond to God’s gift of redemption. hus, “the Fall did render us prone to sin, but not incapable of cooperating with God’s offer of healing.”
While the eastern position is at odds with Wesley’s (treated below), both lead to the same place in which human free will can maintain a role in salvation without compromising orthodoxy. It is in light of the eastern position that Wesley’s position becomes clearer. Namely, the distinction between totally depravity, which teaches that the Fall renders humanity incapable of responding to God’s redemption, and total depravity which does not deprive humanity of God’s grace necessary for humanity to respond.
Wesley’s Prevenient Grace
In Wesley’s development of his own understanding of the role of human free will in salvation and that of prevenient grace, he sought “to find a third alternative to Pelagian optimism and Augustinian pessimism with respect to the human flaw and human potential.”
Wesley agreed with the eastern tradition regarding the necessity of human free will in reconciliation with God, yet he maintained the legitimacy of the reformation’s total depravity:
“Is it by nature filled with all manner of evil? Is he void of all good? Is he wholly fallen? Is his soul totally corrupted? Or, to come back to the text, “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart evil continually”? Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but a heathen still.”
Following this, Wesley certainly believed that humanity has no capacity for doing good:
The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself by his own natural strength and good works to faith and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God preventing us that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will.”
While Wesley believed with eastern theologians that humanity does have an ability to respond to God’s redemptive work, he believed that this ability was, in fact, originally lost in the Fall and could only be restoredunto humanity through the prevenient grace of God. Again, the eastern tradition states that the ability to respond was never lost. Wesley asserts that the deprivation of all moral good in humanity was lost, but can berestored through prevenient grace. Without the assistance of the grace of God, humanity is utterly incapable of responding to the divine gift of redemption.
Unpacking this concept of Wesleyan prevenient grace, Kenneth Collins identifies five benefits conveyed to humanity by prevenient grace which together migrate some of the worst effects of the Fall.
All five of the benefits have something to do with general revelation to some degree. The five benefits are:
(1) A basic knowledge of God universally revealed. Wesley contends that Paul’s affirmation of the effectiveness of general revelation in revealing the “invisible attributes” of God demonstrates that a totally depraved humanity has not been left without God’s grace.
(2) Through prevenient grace, God “re-inscribed…a knowledge of this moral law upon their hearts.”
(3) Humanity’s moral conscience is the work of God through prevenient grace.
(4) Natural free will of humanity is a result of prevenient grace. This is distinct from Roman Catholicism and eastern tradition that maintains that while free will was effected by the Fall, it was not lost altogether.
(5) “Prevenient grace expressed as a limited knowledge of God’s attributes, as an understanding of the moral law, as the faculty of conscience, and as a measure of free will supernaturally restored, has the cumulative effect, which can be distinguished from each of the preceding instances, of restraining human wickedness, of placing a check on human perversity.”
In sum, prevenient grace, according to Wesley, restores a moral fiber in the hearts of men; just enough of a fiber that allows for humanity to respond to the divine gift. There is just enough of human free will activated so as to allow an opportunity to choose the God of love who does not coerce estranged loved ones back into his family. Wesley’s development of the doctrine of prevenient grace leaves room for both total depravity while maintaing enough function of the human free will so as to avoid a paradigm of salvation that prohibits the image of God in humanity to function with limits via grace. Because the responsibility of humanity in salvation is entirely dependent on God’s prevenient grace, humanity has no place to boast in their own salvation. With Wesley’s tradition and presentation of prevenient grace, sola fida, sola gatia.
Biblical Evidence for Prevenient Grace
Many in the Reformed tradition take issue with Wesleyan/Arminian notion of prevenient grace because of the seeming lack of clear biblical evidence for the doctrine. Is prevenient grace merely derived at as an inference from other free-will doctrine, or is prevenient grace attested to clearly in scripture?
Wesley identifies John 1:9 as the primary biblical proof for his doctrine of prevenient grace. Wesley uses John’s symbol of light representing Jesus to also represent the light of grace present in all humanity. “Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world.”
Wesley also pointed to the universal grace of God that continually sustains the world in its current state as evidence of prevenient grace.
It is through grace that all live (sinners and righteous alike). Because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God yet are still permitted to live, it must be grace that sustains the world universally. It is this same grace that sustains the world that “goes before” and allows sinners to respond to His redemptive acts in history.
Wesley’s interpretation of John 1:9, while it can point to prevenient grace, certainly does not seem as if (at least at first glance) that prevenient grace, in particular, is what John has in mind in writing. It does seem that he is identifying Christ as the means of life and the one who is able to restore life (light) to a fallen (dark) humanity. While grace is certainly the meansthrough which light comes into a dark world, it does not seem that grace is the center of John’s thinking in this particular text. So, while Wesley’s choice of John 1:9 is appropriate, it is still prudent to identify other passages of scripture that support the doctrine of prevenient grace.
Isaiah 6:1-8 offers an interesting account of individual salvation through the experience of the prophet. Upon encountering a sovereign and holy Yahweh through a temple vision, the prophet’s response is one of immediate confession (6:5). Sincere confession is always preceded by conviction of sin. Conviction of sin always comes within a context ofgrace; namely, grace that goes before justification (6:6-7) and sanctification (6:8).
Grace is the means by which the vision itself is even made possible. Without grace, Yahweh would not be able to appear before the prophet who is a man of unclean lips and who lives amongst a people of unclean lips. It seems that this example highlights the fact that the simplepossibility for conviction of sin indicates the ability for humanity to respond when God speaks. That possibility, it seems, is due to prevenient grace.
The doctrine of prevenient grace (or at least the ability for humanity to respond to special revelation) seems to be an inherent component of the biblical worldview at large. It is exactly here that Wesley is accurate in his interpretation of the John 1:9 passage. The grace of Calvary is built into the created order. That grace is the groundwork on which the redemptive acts of God unfold within a context of human responsibility.
Wesley’s interpretation of Romans 1:19 (see above) underlines this same dynamic that prevenient grace is a part of the biblical worldview at large. That is, the simple fact of general revelation demonstrates that humanity, while being totally depraved, is not entirely deprived of God’s grace.
It is of no surprise that Wesley, who saw holy love at the center of Calvary and salvation, sought a place for human free will in the process of salvation while still maintaining that salvation depends on God’s grace alone. Salvation is the work of God in bringing humanity back into relationship with himself. Reconciliation demands willful participation. A soteriological paradigm that eliminates the cooperation of humanity trumps the very essence of God’s plan for salvation according to Scripture. Wesley, in starting from a trinitarian mode of thought, saw the necessity of cooperation and free will in the act of reconciling the world to Himself.