Prevenient Grace: An Arminian Error

Why I Prefer Not To Be Called An Arminian:

I’ve often told people that I am not an Arminian, but that is not because I dislike Arminians; nor is it because we disagree over that many issues. In fact, Traditional Southern Baptists (Provisionists), like myself, agree with much of what many good Arminian brothers teach. But, there are several differences I have with my Arminian friends that should be noted. For instance, some classical Arminians have various views on the doctrine of eternal security and apostasy, which we address elsewhere.

Also, some Arminians teach the “foresight faith view” in order to explain God’s eternal plan of election. When I was a young Calvinist, I had been lead to believe the only real alternative to Calvinism was this seemingly strange concept of God “looking through the corridors of time to elect those He foresees would choose Him.” Notable Calvinistic teachers almost always paint all non-Calvinistic scholars as holding to this perspective. Once I realized other scholarly views were available, I became more open to consider them objectively.

I found a much more robust and theologically sound systematic in what is called “The Corporate View of Election,” which so happened to be the most popular view among the biblical scholars of my own denomination (Southern Baptists). Therefore, I have come to affirm the unified declaration of the author’s in the book titled Whosoever Will:

“We are neither Calvinists nor Arminians; we are Baptists!”

Even among Traditional Baptists, there exists various nuances over the nature of fallen humanity in response to God’s revelation. However, the Traditional statement, signed by many notable Traditional scholars, clearly denounces the concept of “Total Inability,” a view maintained by all Calvinists and many classical Arminian scholars.

“Total Inability” is the belief that all humanity is born incapable of willingly coming to Christ for salvation even in light of the Holy Spirit wrought truth of the Gospel, unless God graciously works to empower the will of lost man (effectually by way of regeneration for the Calvinist, and sufficiently by way of “prevenient grace” for the Arminian). Traditionalists simply do not accept the unfounded presumption that the libertarian freedom of man’s will was lost due to the Fall. As article two of the Traditional statement says,

“We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.”

Notable Arminian scholar, Roger Olson, critiqued the Southern Baptist Traditional statement by calling it “Semi-Pelagian,” and I would like to respond to that charge here.

A Cordial Response To Dr. Roger Olson

I have much respect for the scholarship and work of Dr. Olson. I have used his resources many times in my own studies and find him to be a thoughtful and thoroughly biblical scholar in all respects. He unashamedly wears the label “Arminian” and defends his views as well as I have ever seen. However, I do have a small bone to pick with his teaching on “Prevenient Grace.” Dr. Olson clearly explains this perspective:

“Prevenient grace” is simply a term for the grace of God that goes before, prepares the way, enables, assists the sinner’s repentance and faith (conversion). According to classical Calvinism this prevenient grace is always efficacious and given only to the elect through the gospel; it effects conversion. According to classical Arminianism it is an operation of the Holy Spirit that frees the sinner’s will from bondage to sin and convicts, calls, illumines and enables the sinner to respond to the gospel call with repentance and faith (conversion). Calvinists and Arminians agree, against Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, that the sinner’s will is so depraved and bound to sin that it cannot respond positively to the gospel call without supernatural grace. [LINK]

Notice that Dr. Olson frames the discussion in such a way as to set up “supernatural grace” as separate from “the gospel call,” as if the “graciously prevenient” work of God cannot actually be the work of the gospel itself. If I had the opportunity to press Olson on this point I would have to ask if he thinks the inspiration and preservation of our scriptures is a supernatural and gracious work of God or not. If it is, then the entire Arminian premise appears to be flawed.

What must be noted is that the gospel itself meets EVERY needed characteristic of this so-called “prevenient grace.” Using Dr. Olson’s own definition: The gospel goes before, prepares the way, enables and assists the sinner’s repentance and faith (Romans 10:14-17).

The gospel is inspired, written, carried, proclaimed and preserved by the direct activity of the Holy Spirit Himself. What more must He personally do to enable the lost who hear it to respond to it? Does God’s grace really need more grace to work? If so, where is that principle clearly laid out in the scripture?

In another article, Dr. Olson specifically addresses the “Traditional Statement” produced by many respected theologians associated with the SBC. The statement, according to Dr. Olson’s own article, reads as follows:

Article Two: The Sinfulness of Man

We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

Genesis 3:15-24; 6:5; Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 6:5, 7:15-16;53:6; Jeremiah 17:5,9, 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:19-20; Romans 1:18-32; 3:9-18, 5:12, 6:23; 7:9; Matthew 7:21-23; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 6:9-10;15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27-28; Revelation 20:11-15” (italics added)

This article seems to support the perspective I expounded upon above to which Dr. Olson takes to task by stating:

A classical Arminian would never deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will. Classical Arminianism (as I have demonstrated in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities) strongly affirms the bondage of the will to sin before and apart from prevenient grace’s liberating work. Now, perhaps this is the point of the statement’s mention of “the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” But that, too, can be interpreted in a semi-Pelagian way.

Dr. Olson makes the same fundamental error of our Calvinistic brethren by assuming one’s bondage to sin equals a moral incapacity to humble himself and confess this bondage in light of the truth plainly made known by the gospel. As far as I can tell, this is never taught in scripture but is merely theological baggage presumed upon the text.

In contrast to Olson, I would contend that it is by the means of the Holy Spirit inspired gospel that God directly works within man’s hearts prior to their acceptance and/or rejection of the appeal made by that gospel. In fact, I believe that is what the scripture is contending when it says:

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

This penetrating work into the “soul and spirit” sounds like the work of “prevenient grace” described by my Arminian brethren, yet the author of Hebrews simply refers to “the word of God” as accomplishing this work, not some extra working of grace that aids the otherwise incapacitated nature of fallen man.

Here are other passages that seem to teach that the scriptures, God’s inspired words, are sufficient even for the lost:

“…you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:15-16).

And

“Consequently faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

And

“The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life” (John 6:63)

The Early Church Fathers likewise seemed to agree with this understanding:

Athanasius wrote, “The Holy Scriptures, given by inspiration of God, are of themselves sufficient toward the discovery of truth.”

Irenaeus, (130-202) wrote, “We have known the method of our salvation by no other means than those by whom the gospel came to us; which gospel they truly preached; but afterward, by the will of God, they delivered to us in the Scriptures, to be for the future the foundation and pillar of our faith,” (Adv. H. 3:1)

Olson continues to make his case by stating:

“Semi-Pelagians such as Philip Limborch and (at least in some of his writings) Charles Finney affirmed the necessity of the gospel and the Holy Spirit’s enlightening work through it for salvation. What made them semi-Pelagian was their denial or neglect of the divine initiative in salvation (except the gospel message).”

EXCEPT THE GOSPEL MESSAGE?!? That is kind of a huge exception to leave hanging there in a parenthetical afterthought. It is the GOSPEL–the “power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16)–the very appeal of Christ Himself for all to be reconciled from the fall (2 Cor. 5:20). Can we…or should we “EXCEPT it” from being “the divine initiative in salvation” without very clear biblical cause? Olson continues:

The problem with this Southern Baptist statement is its neglect of emphasis on the necessity of the prevenience of supernatural grace for the exercise of a good will toward God (including acceptance of the gospel by faith). If the authors believe in that cardinal biblical truth, they need to spell it out more clearly.

It seems only to be unclear to one who presumes that an additional work of supernatural grace is needed above that which is accomplished by the gospel itself, which begs the question of our disagreement:

Is another work of divine grace, besides that which the gospel accomplishes, needed to enable the lost to respond?

Show me in the Bible where such additional grace is said to be needed and I’ll be the first to recant my perspective on this. But, we must be careful in this discussion not to misapply texts having to do with God purposefully and judicially blinding the truth of the gospel from large numbers of Israelites due to their own rebellion. Dr. Olson certainly would not want to make the same hermeneutical mistake as the Calvinist on this point. Dr. Olson continues:

And they need to delete the sentence that denies the incapacitation of free will due to Adam’s sin. Leaving the statement as it stands, without a clear affirmation of the bondage of the will to sin apart from supernatural grace, inevitably hands the Calvinists ammunition to use against non-Calvinist Baptists.

With all due respect to Dr. Olson (and I really mean that when I say it), but the classical Arminians are strange bed-fellows with the Calvinists when it comes to their individualizing of the text and this particular error of separating the grace from its means. God’s gracious means to enable faith IS the Gospel. The TRUTH will set you free (John 8:32). The very words that Christ spoke and gave us to proclaim are “spirit and life” (John 6:63). Faith comes by hearing God’s gospel truth (Romans 10:14), and we will be judged by the very words of Christ (John 12:48). Dr. Olson continues:

It doesn’t matter what “most Baptists” believe or what is the “traditional Southern Baptist understanding.” For a long time I’ve been stating that most American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian, not Arminian and not merely non-Calvinist.

Likewise, it does not matter what classical Arminians believe or how ancient councils have framed this discussion. It is never right to label and dismiss people with manmade Catholic titles of heresy, especially when we all deny the heretical component of that original doctrine (i.e the denial of the sin nature and our need for a Savior from conception).

I would love to set aside the Pelagian boogeyman labels for a time and have a biblical conversation about any passage which Dr. Olson believes supports the unfounded idea that fallen humanity are born in such a condition that they cannot willingly respond to God’s own Holy Spirit inspired appeals to be reconciled from the Fall. It seems to me that God’s gospel appeals, in and of themselves, would be sufficient to do what He means for them to do. John 20:31 clearly lays out what his inspired words are meant to do:

“…these [scriptures] have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

Must we muddy the waters by suggesting that God, at some unknown point in the life of everyone, has to move in some other gracious way to enable all people to respond to the already gracious, powerful, Holy Spirit wrought truth of the gospel? What text necessitates such complex theological explanations? Why create a redundant theological term when the biblical word is more than sufficient? The GOSPEL is God’s enabling grace and the ONLY reason some do not have “ears to hear” is if they have become blinded or calloused against it because they have continually closed their eyes to the truth (John 12:39-41; Acts 28:23-28). There is nothing in scripture, as far as I can tell, which suggests men are born in such condition that would prevent them from responding to “the double edge sword” of the Holy Spirit’s soul piercing gospel truth (Heb. 4:12).

Olson writes:

Calvinists and Arminians stand together, with Scripture, against semi-Pelagianism. (Romans 3:11 and 1 Corinthians 4:7 to name just two passages.)

Regarding Romans 3:11, the teaching that “no one seeks God,” does not prove that no one can respond to God’s gracious means to seek and save us (i.e. through the gospel appeal). And the context of the 1 Corinthians 4:7 passage ironically warns us against saying you are of Paul or Apollos (i.e. of Calvin or Arminius) because “what do you have that you were not given?” How that supports the concept that the gospel itself is not a sufficient work of supernatural enabling grace is beyond me. In a follow up comment, Dr. Olson gives this less than helpful “litmus test” to determine if one falls into the heretic category:

The litmus test is this: Do you believe the initiative in salvation (speaking here of the individual’s salvation) is God’s or the human person’s? Can a sinner exercise a good will toward God apart from special assisting grace? If the answer to the first question is “God’s” and to the second is “no,” then I will count you an Arminian, not a semi-Pelagian.

Of course I believe God takes the initiative in salvation. He takes the initiative by sending the Law, His Son, the Spirit, the apostles, the Scriptures, and His Bride filled with Holy Spirit filled messengers to carry his powerful gospel appeal to every living creature. So, would I pass his first test question?

To Olson’s second inquiry, I would quickly say “no, a sinner cannot exercise faith apart from hearing the gracious truth of the gospel appeal.” Faith does come by hearing, after all. How will they believe in one whom they have not heard (Rom. 10)? So, would I pass his second test question, or can we assume the good doctor forgot his parenthetical exception of “the gracious gospel truth” leaving me to fail his heretical litmus test?

Means Mean Something:

Both Arminians and Traditionalists believe the Holy Spirit is personally working to enable the lost to come to faith so as to be saved.  We disagree as to the MEANS by which the Holy Spirit does this.

For instance, one Arminian friend of mine said to me, “In my mind even the thought experiment of whether the gospel is sufficient without the personal work of the Holy Spirit makes no sense…” I agree with him, that does not make any sense. 

Do you see the clear contrast between the Arminian and myself on this point? The Arminian thinks I believe “the gospel is sufficient without the personal work of the Holy Spirit,” whereas I actually believe, “the gospel is sufficient BECAUSE it is the personal work of the Holy Spirit.”

Should we ever conclude that God’s words, graciously inspired by His Spirit, are somehow insufficient to lead anyone who hears them to faith and repentance?

Need there be some kind of extra grace that makes the grace of the gospel powerful enough to lead one to salvation? I see no convincing evidence of this need in scripture, do you? If you do see it, is that because God has granted you a grace which makes you more capable of seeing truths revealed in scripture that He has kept from me and other believers? Or could it simply be that we all have the same gracious revelation and any errors of interpretation or suppressing of its truth is due only to our own free choices?

I suspect that much of the dispute within in the church over the centuries would not have been necessary if we simply dropped this unfounded presupposition that God’s gracious work needs more grace to work.

415 thoughts on “Prevenient Grace: An Arminian Error

  1. Could prevenient grace be that grace from God which has always been there from the beginning for all human beings in the form of God-given reason, freedom to choose between right and wrong, provision of law or moral truths and later gospel, and provision of spirit that empowers those who seek God? Not my idea; saw somebody else comment about it somewhere and found it persuasive.

    1. Scott Williams asks, “Could prevenient grace be…God-given reason, freedom to choose between right and wrong, provision of law or moral truths and later gospel, and provision of spirit that empowers those who seek God?”

      That’s fine. Now answer the question Calvinists ask, “How do you explain people rejecting salvation under those conditions?”

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