Prevenient Grace and Libertarian Free Will

Several of Ben’s posts lately concerning free will have caused quite a stir among the Determinist crowd, mostly due to his defense of the concept of libertarian free will. Many Calvinists we have conversed with point to such concepts as total depravity and bondage of the will to make the case that the will is not free, but don’t realize that they hit cleanly beside the point in that we agree that the human will is by nature enslaved to sin.

One cannot correctly understand the Arminian/Synergist view of libertarian free will without first understanding prevenient grace. Reformed theologians are correct in saying that the human will is in bondage to sin stemming from the sin of Adam,

Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. (Romans 8:7)

Thus by nature, human beings are blind and hard-hearted towards the gospel and cannot believe in Christ of their own accord. To overcome the power of the sinful nature, something stronger than sin must enter into the equation, which can only come from God. Jesus said in John 6:44,

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”

By what means then does God draw us unto Christ despite our depraved tendencies? What can be stronger than sin and death? Words? Ideas? Emotions? Arguments? None of those can break through to a heart practiced in evil, and are by themselves futile efforts. God’s work against the power of the sinful nature must of necessity be much more than any device man can muster; which Luke mentions as the means by which one believes in the book of Acts:

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. (Acts 18:27)

This grace which can overcome the innate sinful desires of men and allow them to receive the gospel message and believe in Christ as Savior is sometimes called ‘preventing grace’ or ‘prevenient grace;’ literally, grace that precedes our faith and conversion. This is a prime tenet of Arminianism and has been so since its early days as a theological system.

“That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ, but respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible; inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places.” (Article 4 of the Remonstrance)

The article of the Remonstrance above rightly states that God’s grace is not only the beginning of salvation, but what sustains it and accomplishes it as well. Left to our own devices our hearts would remain willfully closed forever to the good news; and left with only our own powers and diligence, there would be none who could endure to the end. But the grace of God changes all of that, for to even the worst of sinners it may be said,

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age… (Titus 2:11-12)

and the very weakest of saints have power far greater than that of their sins working in them,

…for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Phillipians 2:13)

Working also in those who love Him to understand His will,

Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. (Acts 16:14)

And it is for this reason that we espouse libertarian free will, for while man does inherently have a sinful nature bent only on evil, the presence and power of God’s grace which has appeared throughout the world gives us a different path and possibility to follow — a contrary choice to make between the goodness of God and the sinful ways of the world. Thus it must be noted that the exercise of the will towards good does not and cannot exist apart from the grace of God, for without grace there would be nought to pick but our own choice between devilish poisons. This, hopefully, will clear up some of the misconceptions about free will; but to cover all bases, let’s take a look at what the Arminian/Synergist view of libertarian free will is and is not.

Free will is:

It is, through God’s grace, the ability to heed and obey the gospel, or in the resistance of grace, to disbelieve it.

It is the power to act under the grace of God to do righteously in faith, or to reject the influence of grace and follow after the old nature.

Free will is not:

It is not the power to do whatever you want, whenever you want, without any kind of restriction or influence. Some confuse the term ‘Libertarian’ to mean ‘completely unrestrained and uninfluenced,’ a better name for that kind of mythical human freedom would be ‘Anarchist free will’ (or perhaps just ‘volitional chaos’). The term Libertarian simply denotes that the creature is actually free to make its own choices between influences, as opposed to Compatibilist free will, which maintains that all ‘free’ choices are actually pre-determined or caused.

It is not man’s complete sovereignty over himself. While God does delegate men power and freedom of the will to an extent, He still ultimately retains control of body, soul, and spirit.

The concept of this type of free will, that is to say, the ability to abide in or reject grace is clearly inferred throughout scripture, which strictly warns us in numerous places against falling short of the grace of God (Hebrews 12:15), spiting the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29), and falling from grace (Galatians 5:4); while at the same time encouraging us to continue in grace (Acts 13:43), abound in it (2 Corinthians 8:6), and grow therein (2 Peter 3:18).

So while we do acknowledge that libertarian free will does play a key role in salvation, there can be no willing obedience to the gospel apart from God’s grace, for salvation and saving faith can’t be wrought by force of an already enslaved will,

So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. (Romans 9:16)

This fact renders even the power of the will concerning the choice to fear and serve the Lord wholly contingent on God’s preceding grace, making grace of first and primary importance for our salvation. Not as some overriding and irresistible force that automatically installs a new heart and will into the sinner as one would a new Operating System on a computer. No, but rather a subtle, yet still incredibly powerful grace, a still small voice that can move barriers in the heart that dwarf mountains; a grace that can reach across the chasm of spiritual death to draw a sinner unto life in the Son of God, a truly gentle and beautiful kind of grace that can bring even the most wicked and unregenerate of wretches willingly to the foot of the cross…that kind of grace is truly amazing.

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19 Responses

  1. And even in view of this excellent post, some still maintain that we are Semi-Pelagian (or, at times, outright Pelagian).

    Ignorance is NOT bliss.

    Billy

  2. Nice post, JC. Good reminder that Arminians are not Semi-Pelagian.

    Out of curiosity, do you think fallen man is under prevenient grace all the time or just at certain moments?

    Happy Thanksgiving!
    Dan

  3. I’ve responded at the Triablogue.

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2007/11/arminian-perspectives.html

  4. Jesus said that one son said “I will go” but didn’t go and the other said “I will not go” but later changed his mind and went.

    Thessalonians tells us that God will send strong delusion to some so they will believe a lie. Why bother if they already are so depraved they can never believe the truth anyway?

    Most believers who espouse Calvanism do so later in their Christian experience because it is not the normal reading of Scripture, one must be force fed it.

  5. Great post. Your defense of Armininism is excellent.

  6. You have made those Calvinist over at Triablogue mad with you. However, thanks for your humility in your answers and your defense of Arminianism. That is sadly lacking in most theological debates.

  7. Ben;
    You have done a very good job in explaining your position.

    Please let me see if I understand you correctly?

    Rom. 3:11 there is in the whole world NOT ONE who is seeking God, in fact they all are haters of God, lovers of pleasures and lovers of self.
    So then, God has given to everyone of those wretched sinners a little bit of that special kind of “prevenient” grace, (as a kind of a kick starter), so they can out of their limited free will to believe in God, choose Jesus, repent of their sins, call upon His name or whatever?

    Hm! Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it!

  8. I think most of you think that the grace that has been given can not really save you, until you act positively (by faith) believing in the finished work of Jesus at the cross.
    And if you do not believe, then you go direct to hell!
    I don’t think so!

    Salvation is not the work or the power of men, but it is the work and the power of the Lord Jesus Christ only.

  9. Hope you all had a good Thanksgiving.

    Dan, there appear to be times in scripture when God withdraws grace from men. The case of “strong delusion” that Henry cited from 2 Thessalonians 2 is a good example, though note that God did so not because He arbitrarily wanted to damn them, but because they had already rejected the truth and loved wickedness (vs 12).

    Paul G, Ben didn’t write this, I did, he simply gave me permission to post it. Yes, we are all sinners by nature, which is exactly why grace is necessary.

    Hm! Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it!

    Almost as unbelievable as a man rising from the dead, yet I believe it still.

    Salvation is not the work or the power of men, but it is the work and the power of the Lord Jesus Christ only.

    Given that grace is no power of ours, receiving it being no work of the law, and that cleansing from sin is by His blood rather than our choices, I agree.

    For anyone interested, I’ve given a good-humored response to Mr. Belvedere on my site.

  10. J.C.,

    Just read your response… Good stuff! I almost fell down laughing when I read:

    “Can Thibodaux explain the following for us: (1) If man is Totally Depraved, yet has been given (2) Prevenient Grace which enables him to repent and believe, then what exactly accounts for the decision to either remain in 1 or act upon 2? What separates Person A who selects 1 and Person B who selects option 2?”

    “Yes. It’s called (drumroll) libertarian free will…my article actually makes reference to the concept in such inconspicuous places as, say, the title.”

    Classic! Keep up the good work.

  11. JC,

    You said, “Dan, there appear to be times in scripture when God withdraws grace from men. The case of “strong delusion” that Henry cited from 2 Thessalonians 2 is a good example, though note that God did so not because He arbitrarily wanted to damn them, but because they had already rejected the truth and loved wickedness (vs 12).

    I want to be sure I understand your answer. Are you saying that you believe mankind is under prevenient grace at all times unless God chooses to harden/withdraw His grace from them (e.g., bring strong delusion, etc.) due to their own rejection of said grace?

    Thanks

  12. J.C.
    Here in Australia we don’t celebrate thanksgiving, apart from those of us who believe in Jesus, we thank Him every day for His loving kindness.

    Thank you for the link, I read it twice and still do not completely understand you or Mr. Belvedere.
    Perhaps, because I think of grace as the unmerited favor of the Lord, or the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ at the cross for His elect children. Therefore I do not see grace as ‘common or prevenient’ or something that has been given to the sinner to receive or reject in order to be saved.

    About libertarian free will.
    I do not understand that yet!
    It doesn’t sound right! But I will read more on the subject and ask the Lord Jesus what He thinks.

  13. J.C.,

    That was my first visit to Triablogue. Their response to you was actually one of the more pleasant things on the front page. Not a nice place. They really don’t teach them the whole flies-honey/vinegar lesson, do they?

    **waves “hi” from the ecumenical-charismatic side of the blogosphere**

  14. Dawn,

    As far as which people are under God’s prevenient grace and when, I don’t claim to know. I do believe He gives it to all men at one time or another, and I would guess that He gives it to all men freely until they steadfastly reject it, though there could well be more to it than that.

  15. Thanks Nick. I think the perfect cure for vitriol is a bit of humor.

    Sean,

    They really don’t teach them the whole flies-honey/vinegar lesson, do they?

    No kidding. The way they treat people convinces me that even if I had determinist leanings, I couldn’t be a Calvinist (at least of the brand they are). Though not as popular, kind and respectful Calvinists such as Chris DeVidal speak much more for Calvinism as a system than any of the insulting sensationalism at Triablogue. Great to hear you’re charismatic, Ben and I both are as well.

  16. I would add that its nice to challenge the Calvinist at their own distinctions of grace. I have, fairly speaking, never seen a Calvinist legitimately show a scriptural justification of “effectual” versus “general/common” grace.

    Any place “grace” is found in a soteriological context, the Calvinist will look to see if the interlocutor was saved or not, and then insert “effectual” or “general/common” accordingly. This way God planned it.

    In addition to your scriptural citation, I would add the Parable of the Sower. We see no distinctions there. The only changing variable is the soil.
    And of course Matthew 11:20-24.

  17. Where can I read the best exegetical support for prevenient grace? I do not know of where it is taught in scripture. Please steer me in the right direction.

    Mitch

  18. […] posted before on a proper Christian description of libertarian free will, as have numerous other writers. Of note is the fact that libertarian free will, in the context of […]

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