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.