Arminius and the Doctrine of Prevenient Grace

In his recent essay, Jackson Watts reminds us that Arminius wholly affirmed the human will’s complete depravity and perversity after the Fall. The Magisterial Reformers were not alone in affirming this. Arminius too held to the human will’s bondage after the Fall:

Therefore, if ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ (2 Cor. 3:17); and if ‘the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed’ (John 8:36) it follows, that our will is not free from the first fall. That is, it is not free to good, unless it be made free by the Son through the Spirit [1].

Although Arminius is continually misunderstood, it may be more accurate to say that he is continually misrepresented because his works are hardly ever read—even by Arminians. These misrepresentations especially concern his views of human depravity and the role of prevenient grace in salvation. In this essay I will consider some of Arminius’s key writings on prevenient grace and its role in the salvation of fallen mankind. Let’s begin by defining our terms.

Defining “Prevenient Grace”

Arminius commonly used the terms “prevenient” or “prevening” grace. In defining prevenient grace, Arminius was explicit to distinguish his views from the infamous British monk, Pelagius. Here is one such example: “That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion in regard to the word ‘grace,’ I mean by it that which is the grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration” [2].

Robert E. Picirilli further explains that the words prevenient or prevening mean “anticipating, going before, or preceding (emphasis his) [3]. Picirilli further explains, “What Arminius meant by ‘prevenient grace’ was that grace precedes actual regeneration and which, except when finally resisted, inevitably leads to regeneration” [4]. Therefore, prevenient grace is the grace that precedes, enables, and leads to regeneration.

The Necessity of Prevenient Grace for Salvation

Despite many Calvinists’ claims (and even Arminians), Arminius never taught that mankind could “choose God” and find salvation in an unaided state. Listen to Arminius’ clarity: “It is most certain that nothing good can be performed by any rational creature without this special aid of His grace” [5]. And again, The free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost” [6]. Once more, “Concerning grace and free will, this is what I teach according to the Scriptures and orthodox consent: Free will is unable to begin or perfect any true spiritual good, without grace” [7]. Arminius declared without hesitation or apology that mankind was utterly unwilling and unable to be saved apart from God’s prevening grace in Christ.

We find similar sentiments in the teachings of the Remonstrants (Arminius’ followers). And although they didn’t faithfully represent Arminius himself in all of their teachings, they further affirm the necessity of prevenient grace in salvation:

That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving Faith eminently is); but that is needful that he be born again of God on Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good [8].

There ought to be no doubt concerning Arminius’s affirmation of the necessity of prevenient grace in salvation. But exactly how does this prevenient grace work within mankind to bring about salvation?

The Role of Prevenient Grace in Salvation

As we have already noted, mankind is unable and unwilling to be saved apart from some supernatural work of the Spirit. This state of despair leads many Calvinists to conclude that regeneration must precede faith in salvation. However, this is not the conclusion of Arminius: “It is this grace which operates on the mind, the affections, and the will; which infuses good thoughts into the mind, inspires good desires into the actions, and bends the will to carry into execution good desires. This grace goes before, accompanies, and follows” [9]. Prevenient grace, then, includes an infusion of good desires and thoughts into the mind while simultaneously bending the will.

But this grace accomplishes even more. It also brings about the ability of exercising the gracious gift of God—faith. Yet is this grace available to all? Arminius says, “No.” Arminius writes, “This is effected by the Word of God. But persuasion is effected, externally by the preaching of the word, internally by the operation, or rather the co-operation, of the Holy Spirit. Tending to this result, that the Word may be understood and apprehended by true faith” [10].

Therefore, according to Arminius, salvation is not available to all of mankind. Salvation is only available to those who hear the Gospel. However, this Gospel must be accompanied by God’s prevening grace, which is capable of awakening the spiritually dead, bending the will of utterly sinful men, and wooing them to the gracious gift of salvation through faith.

“But is this faith a work of sorts?” you may ask. According to Arminius, it is not. Arminius explains that it is “produced in us by the free gift of God” [11]. Arminius further affirms, “I ascribe to grace the commencement, the continuance and the consummation of all good, and to such extent do I carry its influence, that a man, though already regenerate, can neither conceive, will, nor do any good at all” [12]. And finally regarding the “imputation of faith”:

For the word “to impute,” signifies that faith is not righteousness itself, but is graciously accounted for righteousness….But this gracious condescension and estimation is not without Christ, but in reference to Christ, in Christ, and on account of Christ, whom God hath appointed as the propitiation through faith in his blood. I affirm, therefore, that faith is imputed to us for righteousness, on account of Christ and his righteousness….This very thing—that God reckons the righteousness of Christ to have been performed for us and for our benefit—is the cause why God imputes to us for righteousness our faith, which has Christ and his righteousness for its object and foundation, and why he justifies us by faith, from faith, or through faith [13].

Arminius absolutely rejects the notion that this faith is a meritorious work in any way.

Conclusion

When more thoroughly examined, Arminius’s writings reveal something other than what we might have expected. Arminius was certainly not a second-rate theologian. And while foreign to most common caricatures of Arminius, he undeniably affirms mankind’s total depravity as well as the complete necessity of supernatural, prevening grace in salvation. As a result, there ought to be no hesitancy in placing Arminius and Classical Arminianism squarely within Reformational theology. Arminius was thoroughly trained in, convinced by, and in awe of the doctrines of grace—prevenient grace that is. As the final installment of our Arminius emphasis month, next week we’ll consider Arminius’ views on sanctification.

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[1] John D. Wagner ed. Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 5.

[2] Ibid., 376.

[3] Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, and Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism & Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 153.

[4] Ibid., 153.

[5] Wagner, 93

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid., 376.

[8] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), III 545-549.

[9] Wagner, 376-77.

[10] James Arminius, “A Declaration of the Sentiments of Arminius,” Works, III 334.

[11] Ibid., III 315.

[12] Ibid., I 253.

[13] Wagner, 378.

[14] Schaff, 549.

Author: Jesse Owens

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent article Jesse! Thanks for sharing it, and keep up the good work.

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