Prevenient grace

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Prevenient grace (or preceding grace or enabling grace) is a Christian theological concept that refers to the grace of God in a person's life which precedes and prepares to conversion. The concept was first developed by Augustine of Hippo (354–430), was affirmed by the Second Council of Orange (529) and has become part of Catholic theology. It is also present in Reformed theology, through the form of an effectual calling leading some individuals irresistibly to salvation. It is also in Arminian theology, according to which it is dispensed universally in order to enable people to respond to the offer of salvation, though it does not ensure personal acceptance.


The concept of "prevenient grace" was originated and developed by Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430),[1][2] based on St. Ambrose's (c. 339 – c. 397) writings.[3] Prevenient grace refers to the grace of God in a person's life that precedes conversion.[2] The original expression (Latin: gratia praeveniens) means literally "grace that precedes". The English expression comes from an archaic usage of the word "prevenient" meaning "preceding".[4] This concept has a similar meaning to the concepts of "vocation" or "calling".[5]

There are some variations of understanding of the prevenient grace, in terms of intent of God:

  • In Roman Catholic theology, it is a predisposing grace which helps to believe.[6][7]
  • In Arminian theology, it is an enabling grace which helps to believe.[8][9]
  • In Reformed theology, it is comparable simultaneously to two concepts: common grace[10][11][12] which doesn't improve man's depraved unregenerate nature and has no salvific purpose and the effectual calling by which God calls to irresistibly believe.[13][14]

When grace is considered with regard to its effects, prevenient grace is differentiated from subsequent grace.[15] The nature of subsequent grace differs depending on the view on the deterministic or non-deterministic nature of the providence of God : For example, John Wesley, named 2 forms of subsequent grace : "justifying grace" (also called saving grace) and "sanctifying grace". Both of those subsequent forms of grace are resistible.[12] On the contrary Calvinists have considered the justifying grace as an irresistible grace.[16]



The notion of "prevenient grace" (Latin: Gratia praeveniens) was developed by Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430),[1] along with the notions of "operative grace" and the "cooperative grace".[2] In reaction to Pelagianism, Augustine's stated that prevenient grace is necessary to prepare the human will for conversion.[2] Pelagius had appealed to St. Ambrose (c. 339 – c. 397), to which Augustine replied a series of quotations from Ambrose which indicated the need for prevenient grace.[3] Moreover, Augustine named the free will devoid of the help of prevenient grace, "captive free will" (Latin: liberum arbitrium captivatum).[17] And, by the action of the grace, it becomes a "freed will" or literally a "freed free will" (Latin: liberum arbitrium liberatum).[18]


In 529, at the Second Council of Orange, the question at hand was whether the doctrines of Augustine on God's providence were to be affirmed, or if Semi-Pelagianism could be affirmed. Semi-Pelagianism was a moderate form of Pelagianism which teaches that the first step of salvation is by human will and not the grace of God.[19]

The determination of the Council could be considered "semi-Augustinian".[20][21][22] It defined that faith, though a free act of man, resulted, even in its beginnings, from the grace of God, enlightening the human mind and enabling belief.[23][24][25] This describes the operation of prevenient grace allowing the unregenerate to repent in faith.[26][27] On the other hand, the Council of Orange condemned the Augustinian teaching of predestination to damnation.[28]

The canons of the Council directly quoted Augustine's work related on the concept of prevenient grace (Canons 1, 2, 5, 6, 7).[29] Boniface II (died in 532) writing to Caesarius of Arles, confirmed the notion of prevenient grace: "[W]e confirm by the authority of the Apostolic See your confession, in which in the Opposite way you explain that right faith in Christ and the beginning of all good will, according to Catholic truth, is inspired in the minds of individuals by the preceding grace of God."[30]

In Catholic theology[edit]

The Second Council of Orange of 529 stated that faith, though a free act, resulted even in its beginnings from the grace of God, enlightening the human mind and enabling belief.[19]

In canon 18 it is said "That grace is preceded by no merits. A reward is due to good works, if they are performed; but grace, which is not due, precedes, that they may be done [St. Prosper]."[31] In canon 23 it is said that God prepares our wills that they may desire the good.[32] Canon 25 states, "In every good work, it is not we who begin… but He (God) first inspires us with faith and love of Him, through no preceding merit on our part."[33]

Prevenient grace was discussed in the fifth chapter of the sixth session of the Council of Trent (1545–63) which used the phrase: "a Dei per dominum Christum Iesum praeveniente gratia" rendered "a predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ".[34] Those who turned from God by sins are disposed by God's grace to turn back and become justified by freely assenting to that grace.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) explains, "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit. Every time we begin to pray to Jesus it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace."[35]

In Arminian theology[edit]

Classical Arminianism[edit]

Prevenient grace is an important concept in Arminian theology.[36] Jacobus Arminius affirmed total depravity but believed that prevenient grace enables people to respond to God's offer of salvation: "Concerning grace and free will, this is what I teach according to the Scriptures and orthodox consent: Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace. […] This grace [prævenit] goes before, accompanies, and follows; it excites, assists, operates that we will, and co operates lest we will in vain."[37]

Theologian Robert E. Picirilli writes, quoting Arminius, that: "What Arminius meant by "prevenient grace" was that grace that precedes actual regeneration and which, except when finally resisted, inevitably leads to regeneration. He was quick to observe that this "assistance of the Holy Spirit" is of such sufficiency "as to keep at the greatest possible distance from Pelagianism."[4] Arminius distinguished between "prevenient" or "preceding" grace that involves a monergistic work of God, and a "subsequent" or "following" grace that involves a synergistic work.[38]

Wesleyan Arminianism[edit]

John Wesley in his sermon #85, "On Working Out Our Own Salvation", stated that : "prevenient grace elicits the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning His will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against Him." Wesley insisted on prevenient grace as a solution to two great problems in Christianity: the belief of original sin and the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone.[39]

Thomas Oden defines prevenient grace as "the grace that begins to enable one to choose further to cooperate with saving grace. By offering the will the restored capacity to respond to grace, the person then may freely and increasingly become an active, willing participant in receiving the conditions for justification."[40]

Wesleyans generally distinguish two forms of call related to prevenient grace : 1. A universal call which is the secret influence of the Holy Spirit upon the conscience. 2. A direct call through the revealed word as found in the Holy Scriptures.[5]

John Wesley adapted the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion adopted by the Church of England in 1563 into the Articles of Religion, for use by American Methodists. With very similar language with Article X of the first, the Article VIII of the second states, "The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and 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 by Christ preventing [preceding] us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will" (emphasis added)."[41]

The Article VIII is official doctrine for many Wesleyan or Holiness movement denominations such as the United Methodist Church,[42] the Church of the Nazarene,[43] or the Pillar of Fire Church.[44]

Infant baptism is seen in Methodism as a celebration of prevenient grace. Although infant baptism is important for the life journey of the faithful disciple, it is not essential.[45]

Most Methodist hymnals have a section with hymns concerning prevenient grace as The United Methodist Hymnal (1989). One of the best known hymns written about this doctrine is Charles Wesley's "Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast", which includes the lines, "Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind… the invitation is to all" (emphasis added).[46]


Some refer to the Arminian concept of prevenient grace as "universal enablement." They characterize the Arminian view as teaching that God has restored to every individual the ability to seek after God and choose salvation.[47]

Nevertheless, Arminians consider that prevenient grace is rather individually directed than universally directed.[48] They consider it is the enabling influence of the Holy Spirit on a human person in a "relational dynamic—a back-and-forth, influence-and-response, relational movement. Like other interpersonal forms of communication and influence, it is something that can come and go".[11][49]

Calvinists argue that because this grace is supposedly given to all alike, the determining factor in salvation becomes the will of man. They see this libertarian will and choice of the individual as a good work required for salvation and thus an implicit rejection of salvation by grace alone.[50]

Arminians object that, according to their view, salvation is by grace alone. This is because the provision of salvation including its initiation, activation and obtaining is by grace alone. It is respectively the result of prevenient grace, justifying grace and regenerating grace.[50]

Besides, they remark that Calvinism teaches the compatibility of divine determinism and moral responsibility.[51] Man is responsible for his choice when he acts voluntarily, even if his will is determined by God. Thus, as man comes to faith voluntarily, it follows that man is morally responsible for his faith. Consequently, the choice of salvation through faith is a good work. So, for Calvinists to remain consistent, they can not claim that the praiseworthiness of the choice of salvation (whether libertarian or semicompatibilist) is a rejection of salvation by grace alone.[52] Furthermore, Arminians reject the idea that the libertarian choice to accept the provision of salvation is participation in the work of salvation.[39]

In Reformed theology[edit]

Calvinists have their own doctrine of prevenient grace, which they identify with the effectual calling and which is immediately and necessarily followed by faith. Because of the necessity of salvation following this dispensation of prevenient grace, the justifying grace is called irresistible grace.[13][14]

The Calvinist form of prevenient grace is also related to common grace by which God shows general mercy to everyone, restrains sin, and gives humankind a knowledge of God and of their sinfulness and need of rescue from sin.[11][10][12] Despite this grace has no salvific purpose, it is said to let people without excuse of not coming to God.[53] Common grace explains also why people seem to come to God, but eventually seem to commit definitive apostasy.[54] About that issue, Calvin formulated the concept of a temporary grace (sometimes called "evanescent grace") that appears and works for only a while in the reprobate but then disappears.[55][56][57][58] According to this concept, the Holy Spirit can create in some people effects which are indistinguishable from those of the irresistible grace of God,[59] producing also visible "fruit".[60] Temporary grace was also supported by later Calvinist theologians such as Theodore Beza, William Perkins,[61] John Owen,[62] A. W. Pink[63] and Lorraine Boettner.[64]


Since Calvinist common grace leaves people absolutely incapable of coming to God, non-Calvinists do not believe it leaves them without excuse.[39] Concerning the operation of temporary grace supposed to explain apparent apostasy, non-Calvinists find it contrary to the revealed character of God,[65] and leaving Christian believers without real assurance of salvation during their life.[66]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ a b Stewart 2014, p. 131. "[...] to [Augustine] we owe the term gratia praeveniens [...]".
  2. ^ a b c d McGrath 2001, p. 356.
  3. ^ a b Fitzgerald 1999.
  4. ^ a b Picirilli 2002, p. 153.
  5. ^ a b Wiley 1940, ch. 26. "Vocation or Call is further distinguished as the Indirect or universal call, and the Direct or immediate call [...] By the Universal Call, or Vocatio Catholica, is meant that secret influence exerted upon the consciences of men, apart from the revealed Word as found in the Holy Scriptures."
  6. ^ Endres 2012, p. 79.
  7. ^ Ray 2022, p. 206.
  8. ^ Schwartz & Bechtold 2015, p. 165.
  9. ^ Forlines 2011, pp. 20–24.
  10. ^ a b Cox 1969, p. 144.
  11. ^ a b c Pinson 2022, p. 197.
  12. ^ a b c Shelton 2015.
  13. ^ a b Cunningham 2022. "[...] contrasting [the Arminian doctrines of universal vocation and sufficient grace] with the doctrines generally held by Calvinists, in regard to effectual calling and efficacious grace."
  14. ^ a b Grudem 1994, p. 692.
  15. ^ Aquinas 1954, Art. 3. "[S]ince God's love means something eternal, it can never be called other than prevenient. Grace, however, signifies an effect in time, which can precede one effect and follow another. It may therefore be called both prevenient and subsequent. [G]race is not divided into prevenient and subsequent grace in respect of its essence, but solely in respect of its effects [...].
  16. ^ Hägglund 2007, pp. 139–140.
  17. ^ McGrath 2005, p. 26.
  18. ^ McGrath 2005, p. 27.
  19. ^ a b Stanglin & McCall 2012, p. 160.
  20. ^ Oakley 1988, p. 64.
  21. ^ Thorsen 2007, ch. 20.3.4.
  22. ^ Bounds 2011.
  23. ^ Denzinger 1954, ch. Second Council of Orange, art. 5-7.
  24. ^ Pickar 1981, p. 797.
  25. ^ Cross 2005, p. 701.
  26. ^ Olson 2009, p. 81.
  27. ^ Stanglin & McCall 2012, p. 153.
  28. ^ Denzinger 1954, ch. Second Council of Orange, art. 199. "We not only do not believe that some have been truly predestined to evil by divine power, but also with every execration we pronounce anathema upon those, if there are [any such], who wish to believe so great an evil."
  29. ^ Denzinger 1954, ch. Second Council of Orange.
  30. ^ Denzinger 1954, ch. Confirmation of the Council of Orange II, Item 200.
  31. ^ Denzinger 1954, ch. Second Council of Orange, Canon 18.
  32. ^ Denzinger 1954, ch. Second Council of Orange, Canon 23.
  33. ^ Denzinger 1954, ch. Second Council of Orange, Canon 25.
  34. ^ Waterworth 1848, Session 6, ch. 5.
  35. ^ John Paul II 1993, item 2670.
  36. ^ Bettenson 1970, pp. 204–205.
  37. ^ Arminius 1853, p. 472.
  38. ^ Stanglin & McCall 2012, p. 152.
  39. ^ a b c Cox 1969, pp. 147–148.
  40. ^ Oden 1994, p. 243.
  41. ^ Melton 2005, p. 48.
  42. ^ UMPH 2004, Section 1: Our Doctrinal Heritage: Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases. "[Prevenient grace is] the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God's will, and our 'first slight transient conviction' of having sinned against God. God's grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith."
  43. ^ NPH 2017, art 7, Section: Prevenient Grace.
  44. ^ PF 1948, p. 39.
  45. ^ Manns & Meyer 1984, p. 141. "When modern Methodists expound infant baptism, they think first of "prevenient grace", for which infant baptism is said to be an effective, or at least a useful, sign."
  46. ^ Westerfield Tucker 2011, p. 172.
  47. ^ Erickson 1990, p. 925. "It is here that many Arminians, recognizing human inability as taught in the Scripture, introduce the concept of prevenient grace, which is believed to have a universal effect nullifying the noetic results of sin, thus making belief possible. The problem is that there is no clear and adequate basis in Scripture for this concept of universal enablement."
  48. ^ Reasoner 2014, pp. 183–189.
  49. ^ Oden 1994, p. 246. "[Prevenient grace] draws us gradually, incrementally, in stages [...]. At each stage, we are called to receive and respond to the grace being incrementally given[...]."
  50. ^ a b Coords 2021.
  51. ^ Helm 2010, p. 230. "[Calvin] holds that this determinism is compatible with human responsibility."
  52. ^ Bignon 2018, p. 231-232. "Praiseworthiness and blameworthiness are the two sides of the one same coin of moral responsibility. If one goes, the other one goes with it, and denying praiseworthiness would, I'm afraid, come at the cost of denying blameworthiness also, which is unacceptable given orthodox views of divine judgment. The burden of much of the present work has been to defend the compatibility of moral responsibility with determinism, in the obvious hope of maintaining the truth of both of them. So determinists ought not deny any moral praiseworthiness for righteous deeds, as there is no asymmetry at that level between praiseworthiness for the good and blameworthiness for evil: both are entailed by human moral responsibility."
  53. ^ Kuyper 2016, ch. 22, § 6.
  54. ^ Robinson 2022, p. 352.
  55. ^ Calvin 1961, p. 66. "[T]hose who appear to live piously may be called sons of God; but since they will eventually live impiously and die in that impiety, God does not call them sons in His foreknowledge. There are sons of God who do not yet appear so to us, but now do so to God; and there are those who, on account of some arrogated or temporal grace, are called so by us, but are not so to God".
  56. ^ Calvin 1961, pp. 151–152.
  57. ^ Calvin 1845, 3:24:8. "Sometimes, however, he communicates it also to those whom he enlightens only for a time, and whom afterwards, in just punishment for their ingratitude, he abandons and smites with greater blindness."
  58. ^ Calvin 1963, p. 76. "[...] I do not see that this is any reason why He should not touch the reprobate with a taste of His grace, or illumine their minds with some glimmerings of His light, or affect them with some sense of His goodness, or to some extent engrave His Word in their hearts. Otherwise where would be that passing faith which Marks mentions (4.17)? Therefore there is some knowledge in the reprobate, which later vanishes away either because it drives its roots less deep than it ought to, or because it is choked and withers away."
  59. ^ Calvin 1845, 3:2:11. "Experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. [...] [T]he Lord, the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instills into their minds such a sense of goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption [...] Therefore, as God regenerates the elect only for ever by incorruptible seed, [...] there is nothing to prevent an inferior operation of the Spirit from taking its course in the reprobate. [...] Thus we dispose of the objection, that if God truly displays his grace, it must endure for ever. There is nothing inconsistent in this with the fact of his enlightening some with a present sense of grace, which afterwards proves evanescent."
  60. ^ Calvin 1845, pp. 478–479, 3:2:11-12. "[Some reprobates are] just as a tree not planted deep enough may take root, but in the process of time wither away, though it may for several years not only put forth leaves and flowers, but produce fruit."
  61. ^ Keathley 2010, ch. 6‌. "The doctrine of temporary faith, a notion first formulated by Calvin but later developed by Beza and William Perkins, further intensified the problem of assurance in Calvinist and Puritan theology. According to them, God gives to the reprobate, whom He never intended to save in the first place, a “taste” of his grace. Based on passages such as Matt 7:21–23; Heb 6:4–6, and the parable of the Sower, Beza and Perkins attribute this false, temporary faith to an ineffectual work of the Holy Spirit."
  62. ^ Gribben & Tweeddale 2022, p. 402. "[...] Owen readily admits that the Spirit occasionally induces a partial illumination of the gospel truth, which might produce some conviction of sin and reformation of behavior. [...] For whatever its superficial resemblance to genuine conversion, it nevertheless falls short of that reality and explains the phenomenon of an apparently temporary illumination famously described in Heb. 6.4."
  63. ^ Pink 2009, pp. 18–19. "Scripture also teaches that people may possess a faith which is one of the Holy Spirit, and yet which is a non-saving one. This faith which we now allude to has two ingredients which neither education nor self-effort can produce: spiritual light and a Divine power moving the mind to assent. Now a man may have both illumination and inclination from heaven, and yet not be regenerated. We have a solemn proof of this in Hebrews 6:4-6."
  64. ^ Boettner 1932, ch. 14. "In addition to what has been said it is to be admitted that often times the common operations of the Spirit on the enlightened conscience lead to reformation and to an externally religious life. Those so influenced are often very strict in their conduct and diligent in their religious duties. To the awakened sinner the promises of the Gospel and the exhibition of the plan of salvation contained in the Scriptures appear not only as true but as suited to his condition. [...] This faith continues as long as the state of mind by which it is produced continues. When that changes, he relapses into his usual state of insensibility, and his faith disappears."
  65. ^ Robinson 2022, pp. 352–253. "For God to act in this manner strikes the non-Calvinist as not only ludicrous, but more importantly, as God being deceptive in lulling the temporary believer into thinking that he (and his fellow believers) are true believers and part of God's elect at one time. [...] [I]t is contrary to the character of the God who reveals himself as the God of truth and faithfulness [...] ."
  66. ^ Walls & Dongell 2004, pp. 201–202. "What is truly remarkable here is that persons who receive this partial and temporary illumination appear for a time to be truly elect but in fact aren't. They are deluded by a false hope. This dreadful possibility is what haunts Calvinists who struggle with the assurance and certainty of salvation."


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