What are the different types of prevenient grace?


Thanks for your question. The answer will be in three parts: (1) A Definition; (2) Three Types; and (3) Troubling Arminian Errors.

A Definition

The word prevenient comes from the Latin praevenire and means "to come before" or "precede." Within Arminianism, Prevenient Grace (PG) is a term used to describe a necessary grace given by God that comes before a sinner exercising saving faith in Jesus Christ.

PG doesn’t guarantee salvation. So, PG is a resistible grace and, as such, it stands diametrically opposed to the biblical truth of the Reformed doctrine of Irresistible Grace.

In general, within Arminianism, PG is an enabling grace of God that counteracts the effects of the fall of man in the garden. It restores man's free will and therefore enables everyone to choose to come to Christ if they so desire; that is, it enables everyone to come to Christ by faith – but doesn’t guarantee it. Therefore, in opposition to Ephesians 2:8, the efficacy of this enabling grace is determined not by God but by man. In practice, it is a supposed salvation by works – the work of man deciding to believe. Compare Titus 3:5.

Three Types

Historically there are three core types of PG within Arminianism. There is (1) Universal; (2) Individualistic; and (3) Wesleyan. They are all closely related, but some differences do exist.

Universal Prevenient Grace

PG is given to all people without exception. Until the sinner is drawn to Christ through the gospel, he is in complete bondage to sin. The Holy Spirit uses the gospel as an instrument to teach and convict the sinner. Then he opens the mind and heart of the sinner enabling him to exercise saving faith in Christ. Though the sinner is now enabled to come to Christ, there is no guarantee that he will. [1]

Individualistic Prevenient Grace

In this second type of PG, there are both a greater drawing and a lesser drawing. The greater drawing comes by way of the internal call of the Holy Spirit and the gospel. So, God is drawing all men in a lesser sense but only drawing those who have the gospel presented to them in a greater sense.

Through PG God has healed man’s inherited depravity, though not fully; he’s now only partially depraved. In this so-called partially depraved state, he is now enabled to exercise faith in Christ Jesus. [2]

Wesleyan Prevenient Grace

John Wesley recognized three graces in salvation: (1) PG; (2) saving grace; and (3) sanctifying grace. The first, leads to salvation, the second provides salvation, and the third continues salvation. For Wesley, PG was enabling, transformative, and universal.

In Wesleyan/Arminian theology, by the atoning work of Christ, God gave a universal PG that totally negates the depravity of all mankind. Therefore, mankind is in a neutral state and can choose Christ or not. [3]

A key verse for Wesley was John 1:9. He understood the phrase, "light to everyone" as inward PG. However, the context of John 1:9-13, reveals this doesn’t refer to an inward illumination, but the exposure of something when light is shed upon it from without. It’s like walking into a dark room and turning on the light and suddenly seeing a table covered with dust.

John 1:9 lies within a larger context where the light exposes some things from without. The light exposes that some are evil because they didn’t receive Christ (John 1:10-11), while yet others are seen to be righteous because they were given the ability to believe in Christ (John 1:12-13). Likewise, later in John 3:19-21, we understand that those who are evil shrink back from the light because they do not want their unrighteous works exposed (John 3:20), but those who practice the truth come to the light (John 3:21).

The light isn’t inward, but outward exposing the spiritual state of one’s own heart. So, the coming of the light reveals where people are in their spiritual relationship to God and not PG.

Troubling Arminian Errors

Prevenient grace is an Achilles heel of Arminianism, Wesleyanism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. The doctrine of PG lacks biblical support. It is their own manufactured fly in the ointment making clearer their errors. It isn’t a biblical doctrine.

Arminianism and God’s Commands

Arminianism argues God commands that all people are to repent of their sin (Matt. 4:17; Acts 17:30; 2 Pet. 3:9, et. al.). This is a true statement, and from this Arminians state that the command infers the ability to repent. But responsibility doesn’t necessarily imply ability. An example may help us here:

When a police officer stops someone and has them do a field sobriety test, he might command them to say their ABCs backwards, or to stretch out their hands horizontal to their body and walk in a straight line. However, the commands do not imply the driver's ability to do them. The officer stopped the violator suspecting they were driving while intoxicated. The officer is not expecting a positive result from his tests. So, the commands he gives aren't meant to establish one's ability to do them, but rather to establish further probable cause as to one's inability to safely drive a vehicle.

The Bible contains numerous general calls. However, these reveal only our responsibility and not necessarily our ability. Even after regeneration, we need Christ to accomplish that which God commands us (cf. Phil 2:13). Again, responsibility doesn't imply ability!

Arminianism and Matthew 11:21-27

In Matthew 11:21-27, Jesus teaches us that some in Tyre and Sidon would have repented if God had sent some miracles their way. But the miracles from God never arrived. Why? Because God never sent them! Instead, those in these cities were righteously judged and destroyed by God.

God sometimes withholds things such as repentance from certain people (cf. Rom. 9:18). So, against prevenient grace, God doesn’t desire to enable everyone to salvation. (Please see "Calvinism and 1 Timothy 2:4, 6?" below.)

Arminianism and John 12:32

Matthew 11:21-27 exposes the Arminian’s false use of John 12:32 which says, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." In error, they interpret the word "all" to mean each and every person in the entire world. But clearly, it didn’t include those in Sodom.

In context, the word "all" should be interpreted as "all kinds of people," i.e., not only Jews but Gentiles as well. The same applies to some other Arminian misused verses, such as John 1:9; 16:8; Romans 11:32, Titus 2:11, and Revelation 5:9, etc.

As Scripture teaches us, some were ordained to condemnation (Rom. 9:22-23; Jude 1:4). Even the word "world" in John 3:16 is clarified by John 3:18, i.e., "some are condemned already."

Arminianism and Mark 4:11-12

In Mark 4:11-12, we observe that Jesus intentionally spoke in parables. We are told why – "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven" (Mark 4:12).

Thus, prevenient grace can’t be biblical as Jesus didn’t desire all men to understand the gospel "once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 1:3). (Please see "Calvinism and Titus 2:11?" below.)

Arminianism and a Non-Guaranteeing Grace

Arminianism affirms that salvation isn’t guaranteed in prevenient grace. However, Philippians 1:6 teaches that God’s grace will be "completed." Paul states, "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." Within Arminianism, PG is the "beginning work" in their soteriological formula. But, against Scripture, they claim the Holy Spirit doesn’t necessarily complete his beginning work?

Clearly, the ones drawn by the Father will be raised up (John 6:44). All whom God predestined are called, justified, and at the last day will be glorified (Rom. 8:30, 35-39).

Arminianism and the New Birth

The Bible teaches that man is spiritually dead in trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 2:13). Dead is dead. There’s no such thing as a Zombie Theology of being half dead or half alive. And as a leopard cannot change its own spots (Jer. 13:23), we are unable to change our spiritual condition. The spiritually dead have no power or life in them to make spiritual choices.

This being the case, we need more than just a little PG assistance to be saved. We need a new heart (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26). We need to be resurrected from the dead and made alive in Christ so we can see and irresistibly choose what he has freely given to us. As Jesus said, "Ye must be born again" (John 3:7, KJV).

1 John 5:1 states, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him." As John teaches us, the reality of a person’s ability to believe in Christ is only made possible by the fact that he has first been born again. Because one is regenerated, they are enabled to believe and repent. [4]

Being born again is "not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). Thus, this new birth is necessarily from without! It is through the Spirit. As John 3:8 states, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." And as the text reveals to us, this new birth is needed to both enter (John 3:5) and perceive the kingdom of God (John 3:3) and all that is in it – including faith, repentance and justification, etc.

The grace of God is irresistible (John 6:44, 65)!


[1] This is contrary to the gospel, as John 6:37 proclaims that all that the Father has given to Christ will come to him (also see, John 6:39; 10:28; 17:2, 6, 9, 24).

[2] One can’t be partially depraved any more than they can be a little bit pregnant! You are either pregnant or you are not, and you are either depraved or you’re not.

Arminian’s partial depravity is contrary to Romans 8:7-8 where Paul teaches us that sinful man (1) is hostile to God; (2) does not submit to God's law; (3) cannot submit to God’s law; and (4) cannot please God. This is a picture of a totally depraved man who can’t please God. It’s impossible. So, if the salvation of his people pleases God, PG must be in error since even the partially depraved couldn’t embrace it – nor would they desire to!

[3] Catholic theology (Trent, 1545 to 1563) taught PG well before Wesley (1703-1791). In Catholic Theology, PG is seen as an assisting grace, which aids people who choose to cooperate in justifying themselves.

Council of Trent, Sess. VI, cap. V:

"On the necessity, in adults, of preparation for Justification, and whence it proceeds."

"The Synod furthermore declares, thatin adults the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God."

[4] The proper ordo salutis (order of salvation) is: election, effectual calling, regeneration, conversion (faith and repentance), justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification.

Related Topics

Calvinism and 1 Timothy 2:4, 6?
Calvinism and Titus 2:11?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).