Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Prevenient Grace: The Beginning of Salvation

Faith is not the beginning of salvation. Neither is justification. Grace is the beginning of salvation. So, now, after we have had our helpful detour in the realm of faith, we will go back to the beginning, to grace. Specifically, we will begin with prevenient grace.

Those of you who are not of the Wesleyan persuasion may not be familiar with the term “prevenient grace” (other traditions have similar or virtually identical analogs). This is literally a “grace that goes before.” This term encompasses the first graces offered by God to humanity. This is grace offered to people before they even know who God is. This is a grace that is offered to ALL of humanity. Every person from birth (before birth really) has some part in God’s grace through prevenience. This means that while all people have a part in sin (all are sinners) no one is completely depraved. Total depravity, while a pious concept touted by some Protestants, is ultimately a misleading term. No one is totally depraved. To be TOTALLY depraved one would have to be TOTALLY without God’s grace; but the reality of prevenient grace means that no one is completely separated from God’s grace. No one is COMPLETELY depraved, all have a measure of grace.

This doctrine is at once incredibly hopeful and incredibly humbling. It is hopeful, because this means that no one anywhere on earth, at anytime in history, has been completely separated from God. All are given grace sufficient for salvation. All are given grace sufficient to come to God in a saving way (even if only through implicit faith in this life (See my former posts on faith for more about this). This extremely hopeful truth also has incredibly humbling implications. Since all are recipients of God’s grace, no one can claim any independent moral merit. All good actions, even before one is aware of God’s existence, flow from God’s grace. Any ability to make a decision for the good and the right comes from the empowering prevenient grace of God. Indeed, the very existence of a human conscience (a universal reality, even if expressed in various ways in different cultures) is a chief expression of God’s prevenient grace. Think of how much unrestrained evil would prevail if not for this powerful human reality!

What does all this mean for salvation? First, it means that the beginning of the process of salvation, at least in the lives of humans (the ultimate beginning is in the infinite love of the Trinity, which I wrote about several months ago), is in God’s grace. Salvation does not begin with a work of faith, not even the relatively passive faith-act of accepting God’s grace. No, salvation begins with a generous showering of God’s grace. This grace is forced upon us whether we like it or not. God unilaterally decides to give all of humanity grace. We have no choice in the matter; we are helpless to avoid his graciousness. Later, we have the opportunity to reject or accept this grace; but at first, God works alone.

This is the ultimate beginning of salvation. Salvation is a lifelong process that begins with this first of graces. Next week we will look into how this prevenience plays out as life goes on, how it might lead to further graces, and how this all matches up with sanctification. Until then . . . peace.


Kyle said...

Interestingly, I've read more than one Reformed Christian who argues that "Total Depravity" is actually referring to the breadth, not the depth, of sin. That is, sin is not "total" in the sense that we are as evil as we could be; instead, it is "total" in the sense that it has infected every facet of our personality. Alvin Plantinga, who considers himself broadly Reformed, has also advocated this interesting (and much more plausible) interpretation of TD.

Adam said...

Thanks for the comment. I must admit that I had not heard of this view before. It certainly is much more plausible. Each time I have heard the doctrine used it has been presented as if humans are completely evil and utterly wicked (to the core), incapable of any goodness. Of course this view would be true if not for God's grace, but since God's grace is a universal reality, the totally depraved human (in this sense) is a theoretical, but not actual, entity.

I think I could agree (probably) with this new sense of the doctrine that you have brought to my attention (unless of course you see some problems with it?).


Kyle said...

Well, even if someone has a wholly or consistently evil character (whatever grade of evil they choose to make consistent at every level of their character) - I wouldn't say that person is "evil to the core." They would still image God in various ways, I think, even if the moral dimension of the image of God is perverted. They would show an unremoveable need for right relationship with God and others, being miserable without it. They would exhibit faculties of will, mind, creativity, etc. Of course, this would only be possible if someone wholly extinguished their conscience, "seared it over with a hot iron," as Scripture (and Wesley, incidentally) says. Prevenient grace would still be available for this person, but it will have been rejected (since conscience is almost interchangeable with prevenient grace).

So in my mind, "total depravity" would only be a property of the damned. And I would say such a person still images God in various ways, and is thus not "evil to the core," wholly good of any kind of goodness (even if devoid of moral goodness). And, of course, this depends upon if you believe it is possible to have a consistently evil character or a wholly extinguished conscience. That's certainly a point for debate, though I'm not opening that up now. I'm just trying to show that even a damned person (TD on my view) wouldn't be totally devoid of the good image of God, however weakly and pervertedly s/he reflects the Creator.

I'm not sure how old or new this variant version of TD is (the breadth version), but Plantinga, in his autobiography, makes it sound like it is a standard interpretation of the doctrine. He might be looking too fondly, and thus unjustly, on his Reformed tradition! lol

Kyle said...

And no, I see no problems with this alternate view. It fits better with the empirical reality of moral goodness within human beings, Christian or non-Christian.

Incidentally, it also fits in well with implicit faith! =)

Adam said...

Good stuff. I won't discuss here where I disagree with you as I will be posting on eschatological issues at the end of my series on salvation theology (including the possibility and nature of universal salvation). Until then you have given me some good stuff to ponder:)