Prevenient Grace


The seventh Article of Faith of the Church of the Nazarene states the denomination's position on Prevenient Grace.At the time this is being written, there are changes in the language of the article that are in the process of being ratified. Therefore this post, as well as any other post that covers an article undergoing ratification, will look different than those for articles that are not undergoing changes. While the change in language often does not greatly affect the doctrine as it is understood by the denomination, it is difficult to provide a commentary on specific phrases during such a transition time. The following material that is in brackets indicate the language that is being deleted, and the words in italics are words that are being added.
We believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight. We also believe that the human race’s creation in Godlikeness included the ability to choose between right and wrong, and that thus human beings were made morally responsible; that through the fall of Adam they became depraved so that they cannot now turn and prepare themselves by their own natural strength and works to faith and calling upon God. [But we also believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.] [We believe that all persons, though in the possession of the experience of regeneration and entire sanctification, may fall from grace and apostatize and, unless they repent of their sins, be hopelessly and eternally lost.]

Defining Prevenient Grace

Prevenient Grace is simply "the grace that goes before" salvation. It is the grace that enables a person to respond to God.  Prevenient Grace is absolutely necessary before a person can turn to faith in Christ. Prevenient Grace is a necessary doctrine of evangelical theology. All evangelicals, whether Arminian or Calvinist, believe in a form of Prevenient Grace, although each camp differs from the other in the way that it interprets this grace. Most Calvinists hold to a doctrine of Irresistible Grace, while Arminians hold to a doctrine that God's grace can be resisted. In both cases, the Christian believes that God's grace must go before and enable (or directly cause) a person to come to faith in Christ. The Arminian believes that God's Prevenient Grace is extended to all people. The Calvinist, however, at least if he or she believes that God's grace is irresistible, must also believe that this grace is extended to only the elect, those chosen by God to be saved before the foundation of the world, and not to those who are not part of the elect. The Calvinist is therefore left with questions such as, "If God is good, and if God could irresistibly save everybody, why doesn't He save everybody? Why does He only choose to save a few?" and "Can a relationship with God be forced by Irresistible Grace? If it is forced, is it really a relationship based on mutual love? If not, is grace really irresistible?"

Resistible or Irresistible?

One of the issues at the heart of the Arminian/Calvinist divide is the debate over whether grace (specifically in the context of each one's understanding of Prevenient Grace) is resistible or irresistible. At the heart of this is the debate over whether salvation is monergistic (God's work alone), or synergistic (God works grace in the individual, and the individual simply receives that grace without resistance). If salvation is monergistic, then Irresistible Prevenient Grace follows. If it is synergistic, then Resistible Prevenient Grace follows. The Church of the Nazarene comes from the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, which affirms the latter.

I have already pointed out that the concept of Irresistible Grace faces difficult questions. Not only are these questions a problem for Calvinists who hold that grace is irresistible, but the idea that grace is irresistible is difficult to show from Scripture. In fact, I think that we see the opposite at several points, especially in the New Testament.

Perhaps the clearest indication that grace is resistible comes from Stephen's speech in front of the Sanhedrin. When in front of the Sanhedrin, Stephen makes the strong (but accurate) accusation that his persecutors, "stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you" (Acts 7:51). The members of the Sanhedrin resisted the Holy Spirit on several occasions, including this instance when Stephen presented this speech. God was extending grace to the Sanhedrin, and to their fathers, but they resisted it.

Avoiding Heresy

There are two major heresies that those unfamiliar with Arminian theology tend to label Arminians because of their stance on resistible grace and synergism. The first is Pelagianism. The second is Semi-Pelagianism. They are mentioned here, not because it is primary material on the Article of Faith presented here, but because the accusations are so commonly repeated by those who do not understand Arminian theology, especially on the internet.

Pelagianism is a heresy that was promulgated by a British monk named Pelagius. Pelagianism refers to the belief that the human will was not damaged in the fall, and that humanity can exercise good will towards God without the intervention of His grace. This was strongly opposed by St. Augustine, and Pelagianism was condemned at a Council of Carthage. Of course, the accusation that Arminianism, especially the Wesleyan-Arminianism advocated by denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene, are Pelagian is false. The Church of the Nazarene (and other Arminian denominations) hold that God's grace is absolutely necessary before we can exercise even the first bit of good will toward God. The Church of the Nazarene affirms man's total depravity, and thus the necessity of grace.

Semi-Pelagianism is a heresy that attempted to find a middle ground between the Augustinian view that mankind relied on God's grace for salvation, and the Pelagian view that mankind could turn to God of his own free will. Semi-Pelagianism was condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Orange in 529. Semi-Pelagianism does not deny our need of grace for salvation. However, Semi-Pelagianism does hold that the first steps toward God are taken by the human, and not by God. This differs from Arminianism in that the Arminian holds to the necessity of grace for salvation, while insisting that the first steps are taken by God, not by the human. It is a failure to grasp this distinction that leads many to confuse Arminianism with Semi-Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism is a heresy. Arminianism, including Wesleyan-Arminianism, is an evangelical form of synergism.

Conclusion

The Church of the Nazarene affirms the traditional Arminian view that mankind is totally depraved and needs the grace of God in order to be saved. In contrast to Semi-Pelagianism, it is affirmed that God initiates the work of salvation, and mankind either accepts or rejects His grace. God's grace is resistible, but it would be foolish to do so. Everything that we have or do is by God's grace.

Recommended Resource: Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God

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