Classical Arminians agree with Calvinists about total depravity and man’s natural inability to respond to the gospel. We are born depraved, fallen in sin, with a natural hatred for the things of God. No man will be saved (because no one would want the grace of God) unless God first does something to undo man’s natural inability.
The Calvinist response is irresistible grace, by which God regenerates sinners, taking away their dead hearts and giving them hearts of faith. The Arminian response is prevenient grace, by which God lifts all people out of their totally depraved state, bringing the conviction of sin and desire for holiness that makes it possible for individuals to respond to the gospel.
A recent post at the Evangelical ArminiansÂ (originally posted atÂ The Arminian) blog explains the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace. While the post does a good job of explaining the what and why of prevenient grace, it is weak in one area. After saying that “the Calvinistic claim is contrary to Scripture”, the writer nonetheless fails to show that prevenient grace is a biblical doctrine. It has been my contention that prevenient grace, while a useful theory that would reconcile the problem of total depravity, is not found in Scripture and as such is not an option available to us.
In fact, throughout the entry, the only verse cited to demonstrate prevenient grace is John 16:8:
This verse is used to show that prevenient grace “is performed by the ministry and work of the Holy Spirit, who was sent by the Father and the Son to ‘prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment’.”
The main problem with using this verse to show the Spirit’s work in prevenient grace is a question of timing. In the above quote, a rather important part of John 16:8 is left out: “…when he comes, he will…” Jesus was telling the believers about an event yet to take place. The Spirit had not yet come, his special convincing work had not yet begun.
Human depravity did not begin after the time of Christ. Men were totally depraved from the time of Adam onward. Despite this depravity, we find people from the time of Adam onward, through Jesus, and on to our day, who have had faith in God and sought to walk in obedience. If John 16:8 demonstrates the Spirit’s work in prevenient grace, how did anyone follow God prior to the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2?
The Old Testament does not tell us what God did to change the hearts of the saints, but this is not altogether unusual. Many details are missing from the Old Testament which are later given in the New. One demonstration is with the Old Testament practice of sacrifice. The OT faithful were not told that the sacrificial system was not salvific in itself, that it pointed instead to a coming Messiah. Hebrews 8:5 says these practices were a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” Later in the Old Testament we receive a clearer revelation about the coming Messiah, but even with the prophecies of Isaiah 53 and some other passages, there is still a mystery which is only revealed after the revelation of Christ.
The problem with prevenient grace is not that it cannot be found in the Old Testament, but that it also cannot be found in the New Testament, and the only verse used as an example of the Spirit’s work in prevenient grace points clearly to the work the Spirit does only after Jesus has returned to Heaven. It does not and cannot be used to explain something that happens prior to the Spirit’s coming in Acts 2.
I continue to wait for a clear demonstration of prevenient grace from the pages of Scripture.