John Wesley on Prevenient Grace
Prevenient grace has a foundational place in John Wesley’s theology. Why is this so? Because salvation is central to the Christian faith. Wesley stated, “salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) ‘preventing grace.’”1 Prevenient grace, as a crucial aspect of Wesley’s doctrine of grace, needs to be set in the larger context of that doctrine and his theology as a whole.2 This enables us to have a clear view of prevenient grace and its functions in Wesley’s theology and, hopefully, to avoid misunderstandings. For Wesley, prevenient grace was not his innovative contribution to Christianity but an essential, gracious gift of God to fallen humanity revealed in Scripture and rooted in and reflected upon in the Christian tradition.
Because of borrowed words from other languages into English and the resulting changes in word meanings, the term prevenient grace, like Christian perfection, can appear odd and even confusing. Prevenient is from the Latin praevenire, meaning to precede or come before. Wesley, as was common in his day, usually used the term “preventing” grace in a sense that was in harmony with its Latin root word. This is very different to the common meaning of “prevent” in English today (as stopping something from happening). If defined in line with Wesley and classic Christianity, alternative terms such as “preparatory grace” or “enabling grace” may be used.
Prevenient grace can be described as the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing us to God.
While the term prevenient grace is not found in the Bible, the concept is, nonetheless, deeply embedded in it. In Scripture and in the life of the believer, grace is supremely revealed and embodied in the incarnation and atonement of Jesus Christ. Reconciliation with God is made possible by the prevenient work of the Holy Trinity in sending to us the Son of God. Wesley saw the incarnation of Christ—“the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9)—as a gift of prevenient grace to all people. Prevenient grace can also be implicitly linked to God’s work in directing “his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Wesley framed prevenient grace in reference to the Trinity: it is the drawing of us to the Father, the light of the Son, and the work of the Spirit in convicting us of sin.3 As this suggests, salvation is a supernatural, divine work enabled by the grace of God.4
In relation to the history of Christian thought, Wesley’s view of prevenient grace was drawn especially from the early church and the Church of England. As with the Church of the Nazarene’s Article of Faith Seven, grace/prevenient grace is found in the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. Article Ten addresses grace and free will stating that “after the fall of Adam . . . we have no power to do good work . . . without the grace of God by Christ preventing us.” This understanding of the relationship between grace and free will was fundamental to the Protestant Reformation. It highlights both human inability to turn to God apart from grace, and, more importantly, the power of God’s grace to save us, personally and corporately.5
It is not uncommon to hear Wesleyans today discuss free will in such a way as to suggest that we can simply choose to be saved. Wesley denied this view of “natural free will,” yet he believed “that there is a measure of free will supernaturally restored to every man.”6 This restoration by God’s prevenient grace allows us to cooperate with that grace and to move to repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification, and ultimately glorification.
As God’s initiative, prevenient grace enables us to respond to God—in Wesley’s terms to “co-work” or “cooperate” with God. While the doctrine can be found in many of Wesley’s writings, the single place in which it is most clearly expressed is his sermon “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” which uses Philippians 2:12-13 as its text: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God that worketh in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Wesley memorably sums up this teaching as “first, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works; therefore you must work.” Here Wesley underscores the universality of prevenient grace; therefore, “no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.”7
In reference to salvation, prevenient grace is “the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight, transient conviction of having sinned against him.”8 Although it should be remembered that there is only one united grace of God, for the purpose of explaining how God’s grace progressively operates in human experience, Wesley described a fourfold process of grace. Being awakened by prevenient grace, convincing (or convicting) grace is the movement and desire toward repentance. Justifying grace allows us to trust in Christ for our salvation. Sanctifying grace brings our salvation to its fullness—salvation from the power and root of sin and restoration in the image of God. Wesley asserted, “all experience, as well as Scripture, shows this salvation to be both instantaneous and gradual.”9
For Wesley, our conscience is a supernatural gift given by God through which prevenient grace works. This teaching is present in “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” and built upon in his sermon “On Conscience,” where Wesley defines conscience as “that [universal] faculty whereby we are at once conscious of our own thoughts, words, and actions, and of their merit or demerit, of their being good or bad, and consequently, deserving either praise or censure.”10 Recognizing that God’s Holy Spirit speaks to us through our conscience is another way of comprehending Wesley’s conception of the working of prevenient grace.
Prevenient grace, while part of the broad Western Augustinian tradition, came to Wesley particularly though the Arminian and Anglican traditions. Wesley, as an inheritor of and contributor to these traditions, stressed that God’s grace is “free grace.” That is, it is an unmerited gift of God preveniently given to us “while we were yet sinners” and it is a universal, supernatural gift given to all people. This is distinguished from any doctrine that limits God’s saving grace to a select few.
For Wesley, every person is enabled to cooperate with God as they are convinced, justified, and sanctified.
In summary, “prevenience” is a reality of all manifestations of God’s grace. By its very nature, God’s grace is prevenient grace. Therefore, prevenient grace is not a stage of grace that we leave behind once we respond to it; we need God’s grace continually throughout our lives, and God graciously extends it to us so that we might be born again having our affections, mind, and will transformed by God, leading us to “go on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1).
Prevenient grace suggests that we should hold unconditional love as central to ministry. A pastoral and evangelistic task of all Nazarenes is to preach the Gospel in word and deed as a means of awakening people to the prevenient work of God already present in their lives. The Holy Spirit enabling us to see the work of God’s prevenient grace in the lives of those around us should activate the call to discipleship in the church. When we heed this call, we co-work with God to help people encounter God’s free grace that leads to liberation from sin and the joyous life of holy living.
Geordan Hammond is director of the Manchester Wesley Research Centre and senior lecturer in Church History and Wesley Studies at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester, United Kingdom.
All Scripture quotations in this article are taken from the King James Version.
1. John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” (Sermon 85), The Wesleyan-Holiness Digital Library, http://whdl.nbc.edu/working-out-our-own-salvation-sermon-85. Accessed June 15, 2020.
2. For example, for Wesley, grace/prevenient grace is intimately related to and at times indistinguishable from God’s love and God’s providence.
3. See Wesley’s sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” Prevenient grace should be seen as the Holy Trinity’s gracious action, not a substance that God places within us.
4. There is wide consensus among Wesley scholars that grace is the center of Wesley’s theology. In Albert Outler’s oft-cited phrase, it is the “axial theme” of his theology. This has been refined by Randy Maddox as “responsible grace”: God’s grace and our grace-empowered and willing participation co-operate in the via salutis (way of salvation); by Kenneth Collins as the conjunctive of “holiness and grace”; and by Henry Knight as “the relationship between love and grace” with an emphasis on Wesley’s “optimism of grace,” and “grace as the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.” This should underscore that it is crucial to place prevenient grace within Wesley’s doctrine of grace as a whole. Prevenient grace is a useful way of thinking about God’s grace as long as it is understood that there is only one unified grace of God. It is not a separate grace from the grace of God that enables repentance of sin, salvation, and sanctification.
5. Throughout this article, “us” refers both to us personally and corporately as the body of Christ.
6. Wesley, Predestination Calmly Considered.
7. John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” (Sermon 85).
Holiness Today, September/October 2020.
Please note: This article was originally published in 2020. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.