November 7, 2020

One of the most important Wesleyan theological concepts is that of Prevenient Grace.  In this paper by David N. Field, a research associate in the Institute for Theology and Religion, at the University of South Africa, South Africa, Dr. Field gives not only a comprehensive understanding of the meaning of Prevenient Grace, but also the application to our 21st century church.

Dr. Field’s definition of Wesley’s concept is best understood as he compares it to the Reformed theology.  He writes:

Prevenient grace in the theology of John Wesley

 John Wesley developed his theology of prevenient grace within the context of his rather heated debate with his Calvinist contemporaries. Wesley, along with Calvinistic theology, strongly affirmed human sinfulness and the inability and unwillingness of human beings, in their natural state, to seek God. If anything his description of human sin is more pessimistic than Calvin’s. However he rejected the Calvinist solution that God chose some human beings to  be saved and then through a special intervention of God’s grace called these and only these out of sin, enabling them to repent and believe. Wesley argued that God loved all human  beings; that Christ had died for the salvation of all, and God would not hold people responsible for not doing what they were incapable of doing. Wesley’s counter proposal was to affirm that all human beings were bound in sin, and that God is free and sovereign and always assumes the initiative in God’s interaction with humanity. But he added that, as an outworking of the Christ’s atoning death for all human  beings, the Spirit of God was present and active in all people creating within them the ability to respond to God. Whilst human beings are called to respond to God’s grace this response is not predetermined by God and as a consequence of this grace human beings are able to reject or accept God’s action in their lives. It is this universal work of the Spirit that Wesley described as prevenient or preventing grace….
The method that Wesley adopted to argue against slavery was, thus, consistent with his understanding of prevenient grace. As God had given all human beings awareness of  justice, mercy and truth there was no necessity to appeal explicitly to the Bible in making an ethical argument; he could appeal to the general public using concepts such as natural law and liberty. He was able to argue that the natural law inscribed in the life of all people had greater authority than positive law. He could expect that that people who made no claim to be Christians would respond to his appeal. He could affirm the goodness of the African cultures from which the slaves were uprooted as the consequence of prevenient grace and their Islamic or traditional worship of God could also be affirmed as a means of encountering God. He could ignore the argument that whilst slavery was evil the slaves  benefited because they came into contact with the Christian gospel….
“Aspects of a theology of prevenient grace for the 21st century
Whilst Wesley developed his understanding of prevenient grace in the context of particular eighteenth century theological debates, its potential significance is not restricted to these debates. As an attempt to describe the mystery of God’s working in the world beyond the church, it has latent possibilities for the development of a contemporary social and public theology in the context of pluralistic and secular societies such as South Africa. Prevenient grace provides the theological foundations for working with people of different faiths as well as those who are not members of any religious tradition in the common struggle for justice, compassion and integrity. However, the unfolding of these possibilities is dependent upon a critical and creative reworking of Wesley’s theology to develop a more systematic and inclusive account of God’s work in the world beyond the church. What follows is not a comprehensive exposition of such a theology but rather the identification of key components that should be included in a contemporary account of prevenient grace.
Presupposed in a theology of prevenient grace is a reciprocal understanding of God’s grace. In the Wesleyan tradition grace is the personal presence of the Spirit of God amongst and within human beings as the one who heals, transforms and empowers. Because it is the personal presence of God it is interactive and dynamic. God acts to enable human beings to respond to God who, in turn, responds to their response. Whilst God in love and grace is persistent in seeking to draw people to Godself, overcome sin and absorb human rejection;  because God respects human freedom persistent negative responses can result in the withdrawal of the influence of God’s grace. God might in sovereign freedom and love continue to engage human beings who respond negatively; when they react positively God intensifies God’s presence and power.”
Dr. Field ends with these types of applications:
“…a contemporary theology of prevenient grace will be shaped  by an understanding of salvation as the coming of God’s comprehensive eschatological reign. This is not to underplay the importance of personal salvation but is to view this as the proleptic manifestation of God’s renewal of all things. The impact of prevenient grace is not to be identified with God’s reign; it is rather the preparation for and anticipation of God’s reign. The coming of God’s reign is, however, an eschatological and unexpected event characterised  by dynamic newness. Hence, there is no progressive development from the consequences of prevenient grace to the coming of God’s reign and the theology of prevenient grace is not an ideology of progress. It is within this broader context of the Spirit’s personal and active presence preparing the way for and anticipating the coming of God’s reign that the Spirit is in a particular way present within the individual’s life, drawing them to faith in Christ.”

To read the entire paper click here.