Prevenient Grace

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Prevenient Grace
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Prevenient Grace is a Christian theological concept embraced primarily by Arminian followers of John Wesley who are part of the Methodist movement. Wesley typically referred to it in 18th century language as preventing grace. In modern American vernacular, it might better be termed preceding grace.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline (2004) defines prevenient grace as, "...the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God's will, and our 'first slight transient conviction' of having sinned against God. God's grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith." [1]

Article VIII of the Articles of Religion which John Wesley adapted for use by American Methodists states that, "The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and works, to faith, and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will." The article is official doctrine not only for The United Methodist Church but for many other Wesleyan denominations as well.

Prevenient grace is divine grace which precedes human decision. It exists prior to and without reference to anything humans may have done. As humans are corrupted by the effects of sin, prevenient grace allows persons to engage their God-given free will to choose the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ or to reject that salvific offer.

Thomas Oden of Drew University defines prevenient grace as, "...the grace that begins to enable one to choose further to cooperate with saving grace. By offering the will the restored capacity to respond to grace, the person then may freely and increasingly become an active, willing participant in receiving the conditions for justification." [2]

Infant baptism is seen in Methodism as a celebration of prevenient grace, which is important (though not essential) for the life journey of the faithful disciple.

The Doctrine in Wesley

In John Wesley's sermon "On Working Out Our Own Salvation" (sermon #85), Wesley stated that prevenient grace elicits, "...the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him."

Wesley insisted on prevenient grace as a solution to two great problems in Christianity: the reality of original sin and the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Developing the idea based upon the witness of Scripture, Wesley felt that prevenient grace enabled the doctrines of original sin and salvation by grace to co-exist while still maintaining God's sovereignty and holy character as well as human freedom.

The Doctrine in Scripture

Scriptures used to support the doctrine include (from Wesley's translation):

  • Jeremiah 31:3 "...I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee."
  • John 6:44 "No man can come unto me, unless the Father who hath sent me, draw him..."
  • Romans 2:4 "...the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance..."
  • Philippians 2:12-13 " out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God that worketh in you according to his good pleasure, both to will and to do."
  • 1 John 4:19 "We love him, because he first loved us."

The Doctrine in Methodist Hymnody

Most Methodist hymnals, including the The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) have a section with hymns concerning prevenient grace. Examples of such hymns are:

  • Charles Wesley's "Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast", which includes the lines, "Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind...the invitation is to all...".
  • Charles Wesley's "Sinners, Turn: Why Will You Die" continues the theme, "Sinners, turn: why will you die? God, the Spirit, asks you why; he, who all your lives hath strove, wooed you to embrace his love."
  • Charles Wesley's "Depth of Mercy" offers a prayer to God: "Now incline me to repent, let me now my sins lament, now my foul revolt deplore, weep, believe, and sin no more."
  • The 19th century hymn "I Sought the Lord", with a text by an anonymous writer, reads in part, "I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me."

Opposition to the Doctrine

Some Christians, particularly those who adhere to some form of Calvinism, have been uncomfortable with and critical of the idea of prevenient grace, which they believe to be a modified form of Pelagianism. Wesley and his followers have defended the doctrine, however, by adhering strongly to the notion of human sin and total depravity (which Wesley defined as a complete corruption of our moral nature), stating that humans are incapable by themselves of responding to God's salvific offer, and are only able to do so by the grace by which God enables us, prevenient grace.


  1. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2004 (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2004), Section 1: Our Doctrinal Heritage: Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases
  2. Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), p. 243



  • Sermon #44: "Original Sin" by John Wesley
  • Sermon #85: "On Working out Our Own Salvation" by John Wesley
  • Sermon #105: "On Conscience" by John Wesley
  • Sermon #128: "Free Grace" by John Wesley
  • A Preliminary Defense of Prevenient Grace by Steve Witzki
  • Wesley on Salvation: A Study in the Standard Sermons (1989) by Kenneth J. Collins, chapter 1: "Prevenient Grace and Human Sin"
  • "Total Corruption and the Wesleyan Tradition: Prevenient Grace" by Donal Dorr, Irish Theological Quarterly 31 (1964), 303-321.
  • A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (1994) by J. Kenneth Grider, chapter 14: "The First Work of Grace"
  • John Wesley's Message for Today (1983) by Steve Harper, chapter 3: "Power to Begin: Prevenient Grace"
  • Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition (1982) by Thomas A. Langford, chapter 2: "Wesley's Theology of Grace"
  • Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology (1994) by Randy Maddox, chapters 3-7
  • John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine (1994) by Thomas Oden, chapter 8: "On Grace and Predestination", pp. 243-252
  • The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) "Prevenient Grace" section, hymns 337-360

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