The Arminian Concept of God’s Will and Prevenient Grace

Highly regarded Wesley-Arminian theologian Thomas Oden passed away just a few months ago here in Oklahoma City. Among Oden’s many published works is one that provides a clear presentation of the Arminian-Wesleyan view of God’s saving grace. In it Oden contends that “the eternal will to save may be viewed as either antecedent or consequent to the exercise of human freedom in history” (The Transforming Power of Grace, 82).

This perspective recognizes “God’s primordial (or antecedent) benevolence, and God’s special (or consequent) benevolence. A distinction is posited between God’s antecedent will to save (antecedent to the exercise of human freedom), and God’s consequent will to reward the just and punish the unjust consequent to the exercise of their freedom” (83).

Thus the universal sufficiency of grace is viewed in three phases: “1. God’s will antecedently is to save all; 2. God’s will is to offer [prevenient] grace sufficient to make actual God’s universal will to save; 3. Consequent upon the exercise of freedom, God’s will is to destine those who freely accept grace to be near to God in eternal blessedness and to destine those who reject grace to be far from God in eternal separation” (83).

God’s antecedent will, says the Arminian (i.e., Oden), is that all be saved. It is called “antecedent” because it precedes and is unrelated to the free and self-determining response of people to believe or not believe. God’s consequent will, so called because it is subsequent to and follows upon the decision to believe or not believe, is that those who embrace the gospel in faith shall be saved whereas those who reject it be lost.

Thus the antecedent will of God is equally and impartially disposed toward all without regard to any human responsiveness. This antecedent will is wholly sincere, insofar as there is no secret intent that some would not be saved. Consequent to and upon human choice, God wills that those who have freely believed receive salvation. By virtue of divine foreknowledge, God knew in advance who would and who would not avail themselves of the prevenient grace that was the fruit of his antecedent benevolence. Thus, says Oden,

“the antecedent will focuses on God’s eternal intent to give, the consequent on God’s will in answer to historical human responsiveness. The former is universally and equally given, the latter particularly and variably received according to human choice” (88).

If there is any relation between God’s antecedent will and human faith, it is that faith is the condition under which God antecedently wills all to be saved. In other words, God truly and sincerely wills for all to be saved . . . but only if they believe.

Oden contends that “since God is eternally present to all moments – past, present, and future – God foreknows how free agents will choose, but that foreknowing does not determine their choice” (128). Events are known by God because they exist, but do not exist because he knows them. Thus God’s foreknowledge does not place a necessity on any foreknown event. Things do not happen because God foreknows them. God foreknows them because they will happen.

Grace arrested man in his fall and placed him in a salvable state and endowed him with the gracious ability to meet all the conditions of personal salvation. The redemption that God intends for all must be freely chosen as the human will cooperates with the conditions of grace enabled by the history of grace in Christ. “Insofar as grace precedes and prepares free will it is called prevenient. Insofar as grace accompanies and enables human willing to work with divine willing, it is called cooperating grace” (47).

Prevenient grace is universal. “To no one,” says Oden, “not even the recalcitrant unfaithful, does God deny grace sufficient for salvation” (48). Prevenient grace is responsible for “healing the nature vitiated by original sin and restoring the liberty of the children of God” (58).

Thus, “God antecedently wills that all should be saved, but not without their own free acceptance of salvation. Consequent to that exercise of freedom, God promises unmerited saving mercies to the faithful and fairness to the unfaithful” (77). God “provides sufficient grace to every soul for salvation . . . . Those who cooperate with sufficient grace are further provided with the means for grace to become effective” (77).

Therefore, whereas prevenient grace is distributed universally pursuant to the fulfillment of God’s antecedent will that all be saved, it is not irresistible. It only makes a response in faith possible, but not certain. Any or all may conceivably resist the overtures and operation of prevenient grace to their eternal damnation. That some freely choose not to resist, but to yield, freely embracing the gospel, is foreknown by God, on the basis of which he elects them to inherit eternal life.

What are we to make of this? It seems obvious that the entire scenario hangs suspended on the notion of prevenient grace. But does the Bible actually teach that God in some sense “neutralizes” human depravity and restores to all mankind the ability to respond positively to the general call to salvation? The simple fact is that the Bible is strikingly silent on any such notion of prevenient grace.

The Arminian will often appeal to John 1:9 where we read that, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” To derive the doctrine of prevenient grace from this rather obscure passage, on the basis of which one then constructs an entire doctrine of soteriology, strikes me as somewhat of a stretch. This passage could as easily (and more probably) refer either to the influence of common grace, or to the operation of general revelation in which the “light” of the knowledge of God, his existence and eternal attributes, is granted to everyone, thus rendering them without excuse (as described by Paul in explicit terms in Romans 1:19-21).

Tom Schreiner contends that “enlighten” does not refer to inward illumination of the heart, mind, or will, but rather means to expose the moral state of the heart, i.e., to shed light upon someone so as to reveal and uncover the state of the soul (see John 3:19-21). D. A. Carson agrees and explains it this way:

“The verb photizei may have its primary lexical meaning ‘to shed light upon’, i.e., ‘to make visible’, ‘to bring to light’. Inner illumination is then not in view (whether of general revelation or of the special light that attends salvation). What is at stake, rather is the objective revelation, the ‘light’, that comes into the world with the incarnation of the Word, the invasion of the ‘true light’. It shines on every man, and divides the race: those who hate the light respond as the world does (1:10): they flee lest their deeds should be exposed by this light (3:19-21). But some receive this revelation (1:12-13), and thereby testify that their deeds have been done through God (3:21). In John’s Gospel it is repeatedly the case that the light shines on all, and forces a distinction (e.g. 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:39-41)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 124).

Also, would not the Arminian view give man something of which he may boast? Those who embrace the gospel would be deserving of some credit for finding within themselves what others do not. Arminians object. They are quick to point out that if anyone does believe in the gospel it is only because of prevenient grace, something which they didn’t deserve. Yes, but whereas it is only because of prevenient grace that they believe it is ultimately because of what they, as over against others, choose to do with the power God has restored. Prevenient grace only makes saving faith possible. The individual himself makes saving faith actual. So we must still ask, “Who ultimately accounts for why one comes to faith and another does not?” In the Arminian system, the answer is the person himself, not God.

This view appears to suspend the work of God on the will of man. It undermines the emphasis in Romans 8 and other related texts on the sovereign and free work of God who foreknows, predestines, calls, justifies, and glorifies. It is God who is responsible for salvation, from beginning to end.

Even if one grants that God elects based on his foreknowledge of man’s faith, nothing is proven, for God foreknows everything. One must determine from Scripture how man came by the faith that God foreknows. And the witness of Scripture is that saving faith is a gift of God (see Eph. 2:8-10; Phil. 1:29; 2 Pet. 1:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; Acts 5:31; 11:18). Someone once said to Charles Spurgeon, “God foresaw that you would have faith, and therefore he loved you.” To which Spurgeon replied:

“What did He foresee about my faith? Did He foresee that I should get that faith myself, and that I should believe on Him of myself? No; Christ could not foresee that, because no Christian man will ever say that faith came of itself without the gift and without the working of the Holy Spirit. I have met with a great many believers, and talked with them about this matter; but I never knew one who could put his hand on his heart, and say, ‘I believed in Jesus without the assistance of the Holy Spirit’” (Autobiography, I:167).

The Arminian contends that God foreknows both that some are and others are not going to believe in Christ in response to the gospel. He also affirms that God knows why they respond either in belief or unbelief, for God is omniscient and knows the secrets and inner motives of the heart. God also knows what it is in the presentation of the gospel that proves successful in persuading some to say “Yes” and what it is that proves unsuccessful in persuading those who say “No.”

The question, then, is this: If God truly desires for all to be saved in the way the Arminian contends, and if he knows what it is in the means of persuasion contained in the gospel that brings people to say yes, why doesn’t he orchestrate the presentation of the gospel in such a way that it will succeed in persuading all people to believe? The point is this: Surely the God who perfectly knows every human heart is capable of creating a world in which the gospel would prove successful in every case. And if God desires for all to be saved in the way the Arminian contends, why didn’t he?

 

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About Sam Storms

Sam Storms is the Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sam is on the Board of Directors of both Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary, and also serves as a member of the Council of The Gospel Coalition. Sam is President of the Evangelical Theological Society. Visit http://www.samstorms.com