Scattered Ramblings on Prevenient Grace

I went to my church’s small group last Thursday.  This fall, we are going through Robert Morris’ The God I Never Knew: How Real Friendship with the Holy Spirit Can Change Your Life.

We read a part of the book that was about the Holy Spirit’s role in bringing people to Christ: the Holy Spirit convicts people of sin and of their need for Christ’s forgiveness and imputed righteousness.  The Holy Spirit seeks to convince people and to woo them to come to Christ.  Yet, my impression (and I am open to correction on this) is that Morris believes that people can still say “no” to the Holy Spirit.  This is not irresistible grace, as the Calvinists present.

I do not think that Morris is a Methodist.  He sounds to me like a charismatic Christian.  But the church that I am attending is United Methodist.  And Morris’ presentation of the Holy Spirit wooing people to come to Christ sounds to me like the Arminian concept of prevenient grace, which is a part of the Methodist tradition.

As I have indicated a couple of times on this blog, I do not entirely understand the concept of prevenient grace.  I am probably not alone in my feelings.  A few days ago, I read Ben Witherington’s review of Brian Shelton’s book on prevenient grace.  Witherington opens his review by saying: “It is an odd fact, but nonetheless a fact (as Tom Schreiner has rightly complained), that Arminians have not done a thorough job of articulating what the concept of prevenient grace means, and why it is important.”

Where exactly is my confusion about prevenient grace?  Well, I have heard two definitions of it.  First, I have heard some define prevenient grace as the Holy Spirit making it possible for everyone to respond to the Gospel.  Without prevenient grace, people cannot accept the Gospel freely because they are corrupt and alienated from God.  But prevenient grace makes the choice possible.  Prevenient grace is not like Calvinist irresistible grace, for prevenient grace maintains that people can still say “no” to God.  What prevenient grace makes possible is a choice.  And, in Witherington’s review, I see the idea that everyone has some prevenient grace.

But I have also heard another definition of prevenient grace: as the Holy Spirit wooing people.  Where I get confused is that the Holy Spirit does not seem to me to convict or to woo everyone.  There are people who may not hate God, per se, but they are not particularly drawn to God.  Arminians try to portray their system as superior to Calvinism.  Whereas Calvinism portrays God as choosing who will be saved and who will be damned, and transforming those chosen to be saved such that they will believe, Arminianism claims that God gives everyone a chance to be saved—-that everyone can say “yes” to God upon hearing the Gospel.  But I question whether Arminianism is as democratic as it might think, since the Holy Spirit does not seem to woo everyone.

I asked about this at the group, albeit more succinctly.  The facilitator responded that she believed that the Holy Spirit reaches out to everybody, in some manner.  Someone else in the group then asked what advantage Christians have over non-Christians, if everyone is somehow guided by the Holy Spirit.  The person asking the question, and others in the group, said that Christians are more open to the Holy Spirit’s leading, as they seek and respond to God’s voice.  Everyone can be guided about the existence or morality, and maybe even the existence of a higher power.  But there is something special and illuminating about knowing what God is specifically doing, and responding to that.

Why do some believe, whereas others don’t?  One lady in the group told a story about how she had been married to a man who was an atheist, and she tried her best to stop believing in God.  “That only lasted for thirty minutes!”, she said.  She could only be an atheist for thirty minutes.  Some may say that her husband, like everyone, was spoken to by the Holy Spirit, but he said “no” to what the Holy Spirit had to say to him.  Maybe he was rebellious, or he did not want a higher being to be telling him what to do but preferred to live his own way.  But I have my doubts that this is the case with every atheist, though.  There are plenty of atheists who may simply conclude that there is not enough evidence for the existence of God.  That lady in the group had a difficult time being an atheist; well, there are atheists who find it difficult to believe in Christianity, even if they may want to do so.  And, to be honest, I often wonder if grace shown to some and not to others is really the answer to the question of why some believe in God but others do not.  Why do some like football, whereas others do not?  People are drawn to what they are drawn to for various reasons.  At the same time, I do not rule out that people have spiritual experiences.

I thought of a couple of passages.  The first is John 16:8, in which Jesus states that the Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment.  The world.  Does that mean everyone?  I know that some Calvinists dispute that “world” means every single person.  But what if we were to accept that “world” means everyone?  Does the Holy Spirit convict the world of sin?  Well, one can perhaps say that everyone can be convicted that right is right and wrong is wrong; we have a conscience.  What is interesting, though, is that John 16:9 associates the sin with not believing in Jesus.

Second, I thought of John 1:9, which calls Jesus the light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world.  Some say that Jesus as the Logos did so and does so, for John 1 talks about Jesus as the pre-existent Logos, and they conclude that even those who do not know explicitly about Jesus can still be in touch with Jesus through their adherence to the Logos, the system of reason that underlies the cosmos.  We got some into that topic in the group, as one lady was saying that she was rethinking her love for Oprah because Oprah said there were many ways to God, and another lady responded that there can be many ways to Jesus, even for non-Christians.  Others, however, interpret John 1:9 in reference to the incarnate Christ.  Interestingly, the next verse implies that the world had a choice about whether to accept or reject the incarnate Christ, and it largely chose to reject him.  But did the entire world have this choice?  Many were unaware of Jesus.  “World” may refer to Jews and Gentiles rather than every single person, and yet John 1:9 states that the light enlightens every person coming into the world.  That sounds to me like it is trying to be all-inclusive.

Anyway, those are my ramblings for the day.  Maybe I am misunderstanding prevenient grace, or calling something “prevenient grace” when it is another kind of grace.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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