Prevenient grace is not a widely discussed doctrine, yet it lays at the heart of the view many Evangelicals hold concerning salvation, namely Arminianism. For all its significance, prevenient grace has received very little treatment in theological works, without a single book dedicated to defending or addressing the topic in the last 100 years (though there has been a historical treatment or two in this time). W. Brian Shelton has sought to address this theological lacuna with his defense of the Arminian doctrine of Prevenient Grace, Prevenient Grace: God’s Provision for Fallen Humanity (2014). My own Prevenient Grace: An Investigation into Arminianism (2016) sought to address this lacuna from the Calvinist side. Other labours, namely my studies at Regent College, and the state of that book at the time Shelton’s was published prevented me from interacting with his work, despite my awareness of it. I intend in this review to make up for this limitation in my work.
Christians of all stripes, Calvinists and Arminians alike, must thank Shelton for his diligent effort bringing forth the case for prevenient grace. Shelton has done the church a great service by bringing his scholarly eye to the topic and expounding at great length the case for the doctrine. The reader will especially benefit from his discussion of Prevenient Grace in the works of Jacob Arminius and John Wesley.
In his review of my Prevenient Grace, Shelton observed—to my shame—that the tone was often far more biting than is appropriate for Christian discourse. I am happy to say that Shelton is not liable to such a critique. His tone will be much appreciated amidst the heated debates often surrounding the topic of predestination.
Summary of Prevenient Grace
Shelton writes for an academic audience, though he does not presuppose extensive knowledge of the subject or surrounding debate. The argument he makes is
that prevenient grace is at least implicit in scripture if not explicit, that it is not contrary to any other biblical teaching on salvation, and (probably most important) that it offers the greatest coherence of the biblical data on saving faith. It seeks to demonstrate that prevenient grace is the best overall theological explanation for the universal opportunity and free will passages we find in the New Testament. (vii)
To make his argument, Shelton first defines prevenient grace (ch. 1, 1-12). Then he presents the Scriptural depiction of prevenient grace (ch. 2, 13-58), considers prevenient grace in history (ch. 3, 59-98) and particularly in the theology of Arminius and Wesley (ch. 4, 99-174). Chapter 5 seeks to bring the cases together systematically (175-236) and chapter 6 to consider its implications (237-265). Though we should be thankful for Shelton’s work here, in evaluation it must be said that he fails to make his argument. I will offer three reasons for this evaluation.
Evaluation of Prevenient Grace
His Exegesis of Scripture Is Insufficient to Make His Argument
A problem emerges soon for anyone attempting to expound the doctrine of prevenient grace: Calvinistic effectual calling and Arminian prevenient grace are actually very similar. Both teach that God’s gracious enablement is necessary for fallen human beings to come to God. The difference can be summarized in two oppositions; though both teach that God acts to enable fallen humans, Calvinism teaches that this act is particular and effectual—that those who receive it will believe—whereas as Arminianism teaches that God’s grace is universal and resistible.
Any exegetical case for either doctrine, therefore, cannot rest on texts that teach enablement. Instead, it must be shown that God’s enabling work is either particular or universal and effectual or resistible. In my opinion, Shelton fails to make a convincing biblical case for either universal or resistible enabling grace. Furthermore, like most theological treatise, Shelton does not go to enough depth with the passages he treats.
For example, he follows the usual party line that John 6:44 should be read in light of John 12:32 without giving sufficient attention to the argument of John 6. Shelton contends that John 6:44 does not “propose that the Father draws only some to redemption” (44) and that this verse ought to be reconciled with the “whosoever” verses of Scripture (45). However, as I have shown at length (Prevenient Grace, 61-78), John 6:44 clearly teaches that God only draws some, for Jesus is explaining unbelief by teaching that someone needs to be drawn to be saved, the verse states that all who are drawn will be resurrected to life (6:44), and the drawing itself is explained in terms of the New Covenant blessing of regeneration—given only to those who are saved (6:45).
His Presentation of Calvinism Is Often a Straw Man
Not only does Shelton’s exegetical argument fail to convince, his presentation of Calvinism is often weak (e.g. 193-194). A general rule of theological or philosophical engagement is to present the opposing side in the strongest manner possible. Consider, for example, his treatment of compatibilism, though I would also take issue with his presentation of limited atonement (e.g. he dismisses the distinction between the two wills of God without carefully considering the reasons why the distinction is necessary [185-186, cf. Prevenient Grace: An Investigation 144-151]).
When it comes to compatibilism—the position that human free will and God’s sovereignty are complementary not contradictory—Shelton claims that many Calvinist writers “are guilty of what lawyers call ‘finessing the bad facts,’ playing up one side while playing down the other” (216). This contention rests on the supposed practical contradiction Calvinists show, holding to a theoretical determinism while functioning like Arminians in practice, and the way they downplay human responsibility texts (215-216). The first claim misunderstands what Calvinists actually teach and the latter assumes the very thing it is trying to prove. That is, a consistent Calvinist will often look in practice like an Arminian, for they both hold to human responsibility. That is, both Calvinists and Arminians believe that humans are responsible for the actions they take; they will both charge people believe and to live out their faith and will explain much evil in the world by appeal to sinful human behaviour. Where compatibilism kicks in is on the theoretical level; Calvinists will go on to explain, where appropriate, that evil does not happen apart from God’s good plan but is ordained by God—determined by Him—for a purpose. The proponent of Libertarianism, the Arminian alternative, will say something similar, though they will often use the terminology “allowing” instead of “ordaining.” Where the different views of free will are most significant is in the matter of salvation.
Calvinists claim that humans are simultaneously able and unable; they are unable to respond to God’s commands because of their evil intentions yet they are able in another sense. It is because they have the ability to respond to God that they are held responsible. In this way, Calvinists do not downplay the human responsibility texts. Instead, they maintain that humans are fully responsible—able to respond according to nature (as a bird can fly according to nature)—and fully unable to come to God—unable according to moral ability (as someone afraid of heights is unable to jump out of an airplane). Shelton does not give enough weight to this careful argument of the Calvinist, assuming that only libertarian free will can uphold human responsibility (e.g. 262). This brings us to the last point I want to make about Shelton’s argument.
He Demonstrates that Prevenient Grace Is Opposed to the Biblical Presentation of Depravity
Central to Shelton’s thesis is the claim that prevenient grace is not “contrary to any other biblical teaching on salvation” (vii), however the Arminian presentation of prevenient grace opposes itself to the Biblical presentation of total depravity (I made this point with regrettable rhetoric in my Prevenient Grace, 119-120). That is, Shelton makes it clear that for the Arminian, depravity is a hypothetical category:
As Peterson and Williams argued [Why I Am Not an Arminian], human depravity never existed without God’s gracious influence. Yet its debilitating effects are no less real. Instead, God has altered our fallen condition with his grace so that no person is abandoned to a state of absolute depravity. In other words, prevenient grace mitigates the depraved will in a way that allows for repentance. (126)
both Arminius and Wesley maintained full effects of depravity from the Fall so that humanity did not deserve salvation, either through repentance, faith, or belief. Instead, God enables all people to believe through prevenient grace. (173)
Divine favor mitigates human depravity from the earliest dissolute person, Adam, and thus softens the Fall that disenabled us all. (235)
In this way, Shelton contends that depravity is sufficient to show that all human beings are undeserving of salvation and in need of God’s grace to be saved. However, no one is actually unable to respond to God’s call and no one remains under original sin (113, 247-248).
Though the Arminian desire to uphold the primacy of God’s grace in salvation is admirable, I suggest that this is not how Scripture ever speaks of human depravity. That is, the Bible never makes human depravity a past issue that has been addressed. Instead, Old Testament Israel was unable to remove their own depraved stubbornness and remained in need of God’s enablement (Deut 11:16, 30:6). It is because of depravity that many 1st century Jews did not believe (John 6:44-45). Furthermore, Satan is presently at work among “the sons of disobedience” and they remain children of wrath (Eph 2:2-3, 2 Cor 4), unable to submit to God’s law (Rom 8:6-8). The Israelites still have a veil over their eyes and are hardened in their hearts (2 Cor 3:15) and are blinded by the god of this world (4:4). These are just a few verses demonstrating that depravity is very real and active among the unbelieving world. A universal enabling grace cannot account for the universal Scriptural teaching that every human being is born into and lives their life under bondage to sin until they come to saving faith, which itself requires a heavenly birth (John 3:3-8).
Nevertheless, Shelton’s work is invaluable and his tone appreciably irenic. Arminians will appreciate the case he has made and Calvinists must rise to the challenges he offers.