Prevenient grace (or enabling grace) is a Christian theological concept rooted in Arminian theology, though it appeared earlier in Catholic theologies. It is divine grace that precedes human decision. In other words, God will start showing love to that individual at a certain point in his lifetime.
Prevenient grace is embraced primarily by Arminian Christians who are influenced by the theology of Jacob Arminius or John Wesley. Wesleyan Arminians believe that grace enables, but does not ensure, personal acceptance of the gift of salvation. Wesley typically referred to it in 18th-century language as prevenient grace. In current English, the phrase preceding grace would have a similar meaning, with the doctrine also being called conviction.
Arminian Free Will Baptist theologian Robert E. Picirilli says that the word "prevenient" in prevenient grace comes from an archaic English usage meaning "anticipating", "coming before", or "preceding". Picirilli says that a good synonym for "prevenient grace" is "enabling grace", as it enables sinful mankind to believe.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline (2004) defines prevenient grace as "the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God's will, and our 'first slight transient conviction' of having sinned against God. God's grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith."
We believe that the human race's creation in Godlikeness included ability to choose between right and wrong, and that thus human beings were made morally responsible; that through the fall of Adam they became depraved so that they cannot now turn and prepare themselves by their own natural strength and works to faith and calling upon God. But we also believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.
Predecessor to the Nazarene Articles of Faith are the Articles of Religion, which John Wesley adapted for use by American Methodists. With very similar language between it and Article VII of the Manual, Article VIII states, "The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and works, to faith, and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing [preceding] us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will" (emphasis added), language that was taken directly from Article X of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion adopted by the Church of England in 1563." Article VIII is official doctrine not only for The United Methodist Church, and its counterpart for the Church of the Nazarene, but for many other Wesleyan denominations as well, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the British Methodist Church, and other denominations associated with the Holiness movement.
Thomas Oden of Drew University defines prevenient grace as "the grace that begins to enable one to choose further to cooperate with saving grace. By offering the will the restored capacity to respond to grace, the person then may freely and increasingly become an active, willing participant in receiving the conditions for justification."
Infant baptism is seen in Methodism as a celebration of prevenient grace. Although infant baptism is important for the life journey of the faithful disciple, it is not essential.
Concerning grace and free will, this is what I teach according to the Scriptures and orthodox consent: Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace. ...This grace [prævenit] goes before, accompanies, and follows; it excites, assists, operates that we will, and co operates lest we will in vain.
John Wesley in his sermon #85, "On Working Out Our Own Salvation", stated that prevenient grace elicits "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."
Wesley insisted on prevenient grace as a solution to two great problems in Christianity: the belief of original sin and the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Wesley thought that prevenient grace enabled the doctrines of original sin and salvation by grace to co-exist while still maintaining God's sovereignty and holy character as well as human freedom. The Pillar of Fire Church, a Methodist denomination in the holiness movement, teaches that conviction is the first part of salvation:
92. What is conviction?
A person is under conviction when he realizes he is a sinner; that without Christ he is lost, and that there should be a change in his life.
93. What causes conviction?
The Holy Spirit brings it. "And when he [the Holy Spirit] is come, he will reprove [or convince] the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment" (John 16:8).
94. Is conviction necessary?
Yes, for we cannot be saved without first realizing that we are sinners and need God. We cannot repent without conviction.
Most Methodist hymnals have a section with hymns concerning prevenient grace, most recently The United Methodist Hymnal (1989). One of the best known hymns written about the doctrine is Charles Wesley's "Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast", which includes the lines, "Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind... the invitation is to all" (emphasis added).
Charles Wesley's "Sinners, Turn: Why Will You Die" continues the theme, "Sinners, turn: why will you die? God, the Spirit, asks you why; he, who all your lives hath strove, wooed you to embrace his love" (emphasis added). His hymn "Depth of Mercy" offers a prayer to God, "Now incline me to repent, let me now my sins lament, now my foul revolt deplore, weep, believe, and sin no more" (emphasis added).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit. Every time we begin to pray to Jesus it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace."
The Second Council of Orange of 529 stated that faith, though a free act, resulted even in its beginnings from the grace of God, enlightening the human mind and enabling belief. In canon 23 it is said that God prepares our wills that they may desire the good. Canon 25 states, "In every good work, it is not we who begin... but He (God) first inspires us with faith and love of Him, through no preceding merit on our part."
Prevenient grace (from the Latin "to come before") was discussed in the fifth chapter of the sixth session of the Council of Trent (1545-63) which used the phrase: "a Dei per dominum Christum Iesum praeveniente gratia" (rendered "a predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ"). Those who turned from God by sins are disposed by God's grace to turn back and become justified by freely assenting to that grace.
Calvinists often object to prevenient grace, claiming it allows for Pelagianism or Semipelagianism. Arminius recognized the possibility of this objection. Theologian Robert E. Picirilli writes, quoting Arminius, that:
What Arminius meant by "prevenient grace" was that grace that precedes actual regeneration and which, except when finally resisted, inevitably leads to regeneration. He was quick to observe that this "assistance of the Holy Spirit" is of such sufficiency "as to keep at the greatest possible distance from Pelagianism."
Calvinists have their own doctrine of prevenient grace, which they identify with the act of regeneration and which is immediately and necessarily followed by faith. Because of the necessity of salvation following this dispensation of prevenient grace, it is called irresistible grace. Wesleyan prevenient grace also contrasts with the Calvinist understanding of common grace by which God shows general mercy to everyone (Matt. 5:43-48), restrains sin, and gives humankind a knowledge of God and of their sinfulness and need of rescue from sin. Common grace is thus said to leave people without excuse. Arminians object that Calvinist common grace leaves people absolutely incapable of coming to God (a point on which Calvinists agree) and thus do not believe it leaves them without excuse.
Calvinists further maintain that when the Bible speaks of humanity's condition of total depravity, of spiritual death, it speaks of it as an actuality, not a hypothetical condition that prevenient grace resolves for everyone, as they believe the Wesleyan doctrine teaches. Calvinists see all people as either dead in their sins or alive in Christ (Eph. 2:1-5), and they see the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace as creating a third state, neither dead nor alive. Calvinists understand "dead in sin" to mean absolutely unable to choose God, whereas Arminians understand it to mean the state of being separated from God by sin, but capable of choosing God.
Some Calvinists (and others) derisively refer to the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace as "universal enablement." They characterize the Wesleyan view as teaching that God has restored to every individual the ability to seek after God and choose salvation and as not being justified by the Bible. They argue that because this grace is supposedly given to all alike, the determining factor in salvation becomes the will of man. Calvinists believe that Wesleyans teach that God seeks all people equally, and if it weren't for the fact that some were willing to respond to his promptings and persuasions, no one would be saved. They see this dependence on the will and choice of the individual as a good work required for salvation and thus an implicit rejection of salvation by grace alone. Conversely, in Calvinism it is singularly God's own will and pleasure that brings salvation (see monergism) lest salvation be, at least in part, "of ourselves" in contrast to Ephesians 2:8-9.
Wesleyans counter these objections by claiming that God has initiated salvation through prevenient grace, and while human beings still maintain God-given free will to respond to that initiative, salvation is still initiated (and ultimately activated), by God, through justifying grace.
Regeneration is monergistic: that is, entirely the work of God the Holy Spirit. It raises the elect among the spiritually dead to new life in Christ (Eph. 2:1-10). Regeneration is a transition from spiritual death to spiritual life, and conscious, intentional, active faith in Christ is its immediate fruit, not its immediate cause. Regeneration is the work of what Augustine called 'prevenient' grace, the grace that precedes our outgoings of heart toward God.
Prevenient grace is attractive because it solves so many problems [for the Wesleyan], but it should be rejected because it cannot be exegetically vindicated.