Interview with Brian Shelton, author of PREVENIENT GRACE: GOD’S PROVISION FOR FALLEN HUMANITY

Published on May 4, 2015 by Fred Zaspel

Francis Asbury Press, 2014 | 283 pages

This is not our usual author interview at Books At a Glance, and we’re happy for the exception. A brief word of background: In a recent review here Dr. Tom Nettles (who serves on our Board of Reference) provided a relatively thorough summary of Dr. W. Brian Shelton’s recent Prevenient Grace. Nettles’ review also included some rather extensive interaction, providing a healthy model of informed and respectful critique. Shelton’s work is a lucid defense of a Wesleyan-Arminian viewpoint, and Nettles’ response, of course, reflects his Reformed commitments as well as those of Books At a Glance.

We should mention that an endorsement from Dr. Nettles accompanies the books’ publication, commending Dr. Shelton’s capable work. It reads as follows:

     Brian Shelton has done a superb job of putting together an explanation and a (confident but humble) defense of the Wesleyan-Arminian concept of prevenient grace. He has employed a carefully constructed theological strategy in this work – biblical, historical, systematic, and practical – in order to achieve the greatest possible clarity and even-handedness in discussing this important and highly distinctive issue. Those who agree with Shelton will find their ability to defend the position enhanced by his careful step-by-step arrangement of ideas and argument. Those who disagree will find it pleasing to push aside the straw men with which they have dealt in the past and confront a living, breathing, convicted, transparent, and congenial systematician who gives a robust presentation of the irreducible core of Arminian evangelicalism.

     All constructive discussion must have a standard with which to interact. This will facilitate both the quality and the brotherliness of a dialogue that not only will, but should, continue.

So Dr. Nettles shows genuine respect for Shelton’s work even while critical of it.

Meanwhile, Dr. Shelton is a friend of Books At a Glance also (not to mention a really likable guy!), and so we (Tom Nettles and I) thought that it would be good to offer opportunity for response. I am reminded of a book that was published back in the late 70s. I don’t recall the title, but it was advancing the Arminian view of grace. Yet the authors asked F.F. Bruce to write the Foreword, in which the famous British scholar wryly suggested that it was a mark of grace on the authors’ part that they would invite this unrepentant Augustinian to introduce their work! Likewise, in order to sharpen understandings we are happy to give Dr. Shelton opportunity to respond to Nettles’ review, and we appreciate his willingness. So, today we talk to Dr. Shelton about his subject, Prevenient Grace.
 

Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel): 
Brian, thanks for talking with us today about your book and your subject. I will try to address my questions to matters that get to the heart of the issue in order to give you opportunity to respond substantively to Tom’s review. But let’s begin with definitions: What, in your view, is prevenient grace? And perhaps you could situate your position historically for us also.

Shelton: 
You’re very welcome, Fred. Thanks to Books at a Glance for the response opportunity and the fantastic ministry this periodical offers. I didn’t realize that your organization “reflected Reformed commitments.” So, if you find me confused about my election as an Arminian, the good news is that you still see me as “a really likeable guy”!

Prevenient grace is the divine enabling to overcome a fundamental quality of original sin: ability to repent of one’s own sinfulness. Since the doctrine seeks to be biblical, it acknowledges Pauline testimony to being “dead in trespasses” (Eph. 2:5) while acknowledging genuine free will to “repent…for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). That free will is still tainted with sin and any decision to believe in Christ competes with sin, but there is now an ability to repent despite that hindrance of original sin.

Historically, prevenient grace formally emerges in the Arminian tradition around the Synod of Dordt (1618-19). It is a response to Reformation systematic theology and biblical interpretation of election passages in Scripture and definitions of God’s sovereignty, when Christians felt that the Reformed (Calvinist) position necessitated divine predestination to salvation as a solution to original, sinful inability. John Wesley and the Anglican church of the eighteenth century fall in this tradition, influencing American Methodism and its offshoots. However, as the book points out, there is testimony to prevenient grace in the larger Christian orthodox tradition from the early and medieval church.
 

Books At a Glance: 
The Wesleyan-Arminian understanding of prevenient grace allows for a doctrine of total depravity and total inability and yet argues that this depravity-inability is nullified (or rectified) by prevenient grace. Tom argues in his review that this effectively renders all the biblical statements regarding the unbeliever’s depravity-inability meaningless. How would you like to respond?

Shelton: 
For starters, one of the exegetical and theological tenets that Dr. Nettles and I share is the nature of original depravity. From a Protestant reading of Scripture, original sin is so spiritually crippling that none can repent by natural causes since the fall (Rom. 5). This mutual appreciation led Wesley to remark that he was “within a hair’s breadth of Calvinism.”

Our difference lies in the consequence: either (a) this depravity is mitigated by grace so that all may believe or (b) this depravity is total and requires predestining grace to believe. Too much of the debate wrongly centers on the mechanism of salvation, when the real issue is the prerequisite identification of the nature of depravity. The Remonstrance had it right when they started TULIP with a T: total depravity is the starting point for the reason of that system. So, I’m glad you asked this important question.

To answer your question, I think my brother Dr. Nettles overextends these passages. Sometimes Scripture speaks to a part without explaining the whole in any given passage. When Paul tells the Ephesians, “God made you alive, when you were dead through trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:5), he speaks about an effect of dire sinfulness that is not absolute and is not comprehensive in that passage, as if the only means of salvation must be predestining election. Such a quote can be a powerful sound byte, but it must be reconciled with the human responsibility passages in Scripture in which all of humankind is expected to repent. They must be harmonized in systematic theology, without depravity eclipsing human responsibility. The Calvinist perpetuates a problem that prevenient grace solves: how can “God desire all to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4) when depravity prevents them from fulfilling the requirement for repentance? 

An illustration might help. Saul (Paul) was “blameless to righteousness under the law” (Phil. 3:6) before he was a believer and he “received mercy because he acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13). This means his prayers, alms, and mediation on the law were genuine and honored by God. He was capable of behaving like a faithful Jew, not absolutely dead in sin but misguided when not yet Christian. Even Calvin could recognize a non-believer capable of doing good from common grace to all: “Yet so universal is this good that every man ought to recognize for himself in it the peculiar grace of God. The Creator of nature himself abundantly arouses this gratitude in us when he creates imbeciles.”1 Now, it’s Calvin’s turn to be within a hair’s breadth of Arminianism, as even non-believers are graciously enabled to exercise the image of God. So, when Paul speaks to the Ephesians, he is emphasizing without technicality what would convolute his point at that moment of his letter. The doctrine of prevenient grace mitigates these verses from absolutism to harmonize with free will demands of scripture, just as prevenient grace itself mitigates the effects of depravity. Prevenient grace maintains that there was an original total depravity that is now softened by God’s grace with respect to the will to believe.

One could cite Paul for this tension between the inability of depravity and the potential for salvation depicted in prevenient grace: “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom. 11:32).
 

Books At a Glance: 
John 1:9 (Christ “enlightens everyone”) plays a significant role in your argument. Tom argues, instead, that the verse in context should be understood in terms of  a revelation of human blindness – that though the Creator walked among us we did not know him – and that your interpretation of this does not take sufficient notice of context, particularly verse 13 (that those who believe were born of God). How would you respond?
 

Shelton: 
Dr. Nettles rightly recognizes that the passage depicts spiritual blindness in its context. There is neither denial of human hard-heartedness nor denial that some become children of light. There is no doubt that Jesus’ light illumines the human heart and that believers becomes children of God as part of a process of revelation. There is no doubt that part of the tragedy of the passage is that Christ came to his own, but because of sin his own failed to acknowledge him.

Furthermore, I would add that Dr. Nettles recognizes the book’s exegetical effort, when a common charge of his camp is that an Arminian position is less biblical than a Calvinist position. My reviewer never accuses the book of neglecting Scripture, only its interpretation. Such recognition is refreshing in the debate.

This objection is not an issue of context but of a dogmatic reading of the passage in the name of context. My Calvinist friend views the light as salvific for “those born of God” and not to the whole world, practically speaking, while extending the enlightening to all of creation as an “introductory summary of the necessity and effects” of the Incarnation. I do not agree that the verse limits that illumination only to an introduction to the divine plan and an effectual calling to the elect alone. An Arminian takes more completely the language of “all humankind” and “as many as believed in him” (John 1:9, 1:12) as the light offering salvation. Christians will have to decide for themselves if “all humankind” means that the world is enlightened by Christ or if that illumination functions only to the elect. The latter view maintains that non-believers only receive a principled revelation that actually doesn’t enlighten them at all. An Arminian finds this inattentive to the revelatory power of Christ at the Incarnation. The context is not an excuse for predestination to salvation in order to see the Light, but a paradoxical irony that the “light shown in darkness” but those unwilling would not see.
 

Books At a Glance: 
You understand this universal “enabling” grace to be a benefit of Christ’s death – something that Christ’s general or universal atonement purchased this for all humanity. How would you ground this exegetically? What passages would you suggest make this connection?

Shelton: 
The book has one entire chapter dedicated to the exegetical foundations of prevenient grace. Scripture takes center stage in the treatment of depravity and salvation, bearing directly on our theology. This is one of the most interesting questions you could ask, Fred. Your first inquiry begs the question of exegetical prerequisite as much as irresistible grace or effectual calling would, but your second question offers the latitude of a theological reading of Scripture. Thus, your question is good. Sometimes our theology has solid dots of exegesis and sometimes we draw lines between the dots in systematic theology. The Arminian places the ability to repent at the cross, while the Calvinist places the ability to repent before the dawn of time. I’m not sure that either can be anchored in one passage as much as in a systematic theology. Nonetheless, there is exegetical grounding.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul states that God has saved believers through what he calls the “ministry of reconciliation.” The message of this ministry is “that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (v. 19). This reconciliation at the cross has an application to all who believe, regardless of their time period. The technical term is “prolepsis” or “prochronism,” that the atonement is assigned to a period earlier than its own. The Book of Hebrews explains how the success of Christ’s work applied proleptically. As a mediator of a new covenant, Christ “offered one sacrifice for sins for all time” (Heb. 10:12; cf. 9:28) including those who lived prior. “A death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, [that] those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (9:15). Christ’s death covers the sins of the Old Testament godly as well as the Christians who believe in him later. Christ’s death facilitates all inheritors of Adam’s sinfulness the ability to seek a savior.

Add to this, Fred, that the Hebrews author tells us that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats, as well as the daily ministering and offerings, ever to take away sins (10:4, 10:11). This means that Christ’s work on the cross is the cause of salvation and any preliminary effects, such as prevenient grace. Add the call for repentance and obedience throughout Scripture to this passage set to land on a paradoxical combination of grace and ability that is the basis of prevenient grace. Of course, the four main passages on prevenient grace further complement this theological potential: John 1:9, Romans 2:4, John 12:32, and Titus 2:11. These verses speak of the general or universal atonement that you ask about and an Arminian believes they combine for the best, comprehensive reading of scripture.

In his letter to Mr. John Mason, John Wesley just made the claim: “Adam’s sin … is cancelled by the righteousness of Christ.”2 Kenneth Collins says, “Thus, the atonement of Christ … is the foundation for all the grace … which God showers on the world, but it is the Holy Spirit who conveys this boon to humanity by his very presence.3 Perhaps their quotes help to explain how gracious enabling stems from the cross.
 

Books At a Glance: 
Although you argue for a distinction between the Wesleyan-Arminian and the Pelagian views of prevenient grace, Tom charges that when you affirm that human depravity is neutralized or rectified by prevenient grace and that prevenient grace is not qualitatively distinct from the grace that operates for all within the order of nature, it leaves us with an understanding of humanity that is indistinguishable from Pelagianism. How would you respond?

Shelton: 
Yes, Nettles is right that “the order of nature” is now a state of universal depravity that has been mitigated by prevenient grace. This is not strictly natural; the depravity came naturally from Adam, while the grace followed it supernaturally from God.

However, human depravity is far from neutralized by prevenient grace. The doctrine only maintains that spiritual inability to repent is rectified, while other areas of humanity and civilization are blessed by the grace. I certainly don’t mean to be picky; systematic theology is a field of precision, so the book uses the word “mitigate” as the operative term for this effect. Depravity is softened but unfortunately alive and well. This is why Paul’s verses on depravity depicted above (e.g., Eph. 2:5) still apply for me and would not apply for Pelagius. His system is a works theology, Wesley’s is a mitigated depravity theology, and Nettles’ is a perpetual depravity theology. Arminians deny Pelagianism because of this fifth century church father’s neutralization of original sin.

Yes, prevenient grace operates to create a natural order of the human condition, but it is still an order providentially constructed. Unlike Pelagius, Arminius spoke of a current condition of man being one mixed with depravity and grace: “In his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of divine grace.”4 Ray Dunning would coin the phenomenon a “logical abstraction,” maintaining that a state of total depravity was consequential to the fall but was immediately adjusted by the prevenient grace of God.5  Thanks for letting me clarify that point, Fred.

This is not Pelagianism. Nettles is careful not to equate the Wesleyan-Arminian view with Arminianism, only to associate the views. Dr. Nettles is wise and precise here. Pelagius maintained an absence of original sin in people, so that one could obey the law and achieve salvation. In fact, for him, “grace” for salvation were merely the commands of scripture and the model of Christ, not the necessary work of the Holy Spirit. For Wesley and Arminius, the original state of total depravity necessitated unmeritorious grace for salvation; Pelagius rejected the necessity of such grace. This is drastically different and not “a sympathetic brother to Pelagianism” as Nettles says. However, the term “Semi-Pelagian” is often applied to this view and, well, an Arminian might be right in accepting this moniker. It is Augustinian in the requirement of grace; it is not Augustinian in the requirement for electing grace. The Arminian would also welcome a change in rhetoric to Semi-Augustinian!

For what it’s worth: in his letter to Lord Hippolytus à Collibus, Arminius insisted on fallen humankind’s need of grace in order to repent: “Concerning grace and free will, this is what I teach according to the Scriptures and orthodox consent: Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace. That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word ‘grace,’ I mean by it that which is the grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration.”6
 

Books At a Glance: 
Okay, this question is a bit complex, but I want to take the time to frame it in a way that sorts through to the heart of the issue. Tom observed that your advocacy of “free will,” without giving a clear statement as to how the will is related to human affection (likes and dislikes, negative and positive preferences etc.) makes it difficult to understand how prevenient grace (that stops short of changing the affections or preferences of the sinner, leaving one with selfish volition) actually creates the ability (assuming by this you mean a moral ability) to believe. If faith involves cordial repentance from sin and cordial approval of the righteousness of Christ, could you give a statement as to what constitutes this ability to believe the gospel? What constitutes the restored free will?

Shelton: 
Yes, you fulfilled your disclaimer that this question is a complex one! One chapter of the book is dedicated to the complex intricacies of prevenient grace in Arminius and Wesley as historical theology, and it particularly shows the latter searching for an understanding of salvation through various affections and abilities.

A restored free will can be defined in the same way from two sides. Firstly, whatever volitional mechanism is required for the Gentiles to respond to natural revelation (Rom. 1:20-21), or for the “whosoever will” passages to be effective (John 3:16), or for the “repent” commands to be real (Acts 2:38), that is the cordial minimum of one’s affections, volition, or heart to respond in faith. Salvation might accompany that response, or that response might lead to salvation, depending on the place of the individual heart.

Arminius’ position on prevenient grace may be best represented in this quote that might help: “In reference to divine grace, I believe … it is a gratuitous affection by which God is kindly affected towards a miserable sinner, and according to which he, in the first place, gives his Son, ‘that whosoever believeth in him might have eternal life.’”7 I would disagree that prevenient grace “stops short of changing the affections or preferences of the sinner,” but actually does so in part, leaving an internal paradox of both selfish volition and partially divinely repaired volition. This enabling grace is effective and irresistible insofar as it heals spiritual inability enough to repent. The repentance is then up to the individual. Thus, the tension of Paul in Romans 7:15-24 where two laws duel within him could apply to non-believer who, metaphorically speaking, is both pulled to the altar (prevenient grace) and pulled away from the altar (original sin) at the same time.

Secondly, in response to Calvinism, a restored free will can be defined as reinstated capacity sufficient enough to fulfill the scriptural commands to repent without requiring the necessity of electing grace. Whatever that means for affections, for volition, or mental capacity, it is more like innocent Adam’s than like fallen Adam’s with regard to its ability to cordially approval of the God who reveals himself to us. This is the extent of mitigation that is needed for humanity to believe: sufficiency for genuine response that precludes the necessity of predestination for salvation, which the Arminian does not conclude in scripture because of the more obvious tenants of gracious enabling.

In the end, we speculate in faith. Philosophy, psychology, and theology intersect around these biblical passages in some uncertainty that comes with the exact, mysterious mechanism of salvation. Wesley’s quote offers insight and humility to the condition you seek in your question: “Natural free-will, in the present state of humankind, I do not understand: I only assert, that there is a measure of free will supernaturally restored to every man.”8
 

Books At a Glance: 
In Predestination Calmly Considered, Wesley responded to the assertion that God might justly have passed by all men and have left them in their fallen condition in Adam by calling it a “precarious assertion, utterly unsupported by Holy Scripture.” When asked if he believed that God might justly have passed him by, Wesley responded “I deny it. That God might justly, for my unfaithfulness to his grace, have given me up long ago, I grant. But this concession supposes me to have had that grace which you say a reprobate never had.” Do you endorse this view? Do you believe that prevenient grace is the present ground of moral duty, and that without it a son of Adam cannot be held accountable?

Shelton: 
Yes, I agree with Wesley. He depicts our fallen condition and the divine option of salvation well in your quote, both theologically and personally. Your question does follows from this passage, as it leads one to ask about what the reprobate has without specificity. Can one extrapolate prevenient grace to moral duty and human responsibility? Yes, I suppose one can.

Meredith Kline describes how God’s involvement in the Old Testament accomplishes his miracles (as eschatology) before the pagan nations, but also indicts them in the phenomenon he calls, “Instruction ethics.”9 When neighboring nations saw the conquest, when Egypt saw the plagues, or when the god Dagon fell over before the Ark of the Covenant, those Gentiles were given revelation that made them accountable to recognize God. Prevenient grace assigns this same indictment to humanity, who is now able to repent but chooses not to do so. Non-believers had opportunity, but opted for sinfulness rather than repentance. This is depicted in Romans 1:18ff., when the Gentiles ignored the natural revelation that called them to repentance and honor of the true God. They were morally responsible because they were morally able.

If the doctrine of prevenient grace were a song to be sung, the chorus would concentrate on gracious salvation but it would not neglect Scripture’s depiction of human responsibility. That song would be caroled to Calvinist brethren to take account of the voluminous free will responses expected in scripture. If there is human responsibility yet there remains perpetual inability for responsibility in repentance, then the free will passages (as simple as John 3:16) are moot. An Arminian is bewildered that any reader would require these verses to be systematized into a total depravity in which only the elect could (and must) respond. Yet, prevenient grace reconciles these passages of responsibility and grace, and it does not allow depravity to eclipse totally the call of God to repentance. As Wesley said, it is an issue of the justice of God that the sons of Adam are expected to repent if they cannot repent; accountability without opportunity should be posited as unjust. However, for the Arminian, any theory of the justice of God is subordinated to a Scripture that speaks of universal opportunity to repent more persuasively than our own theories of justice. Scripture is why the book was authored, and in the end, Scripture should be our great convincing.

Let me close further with thanksgiving and Christian comradery for Dr. Thomas Nettles for a responsible review and Books At a Glance for a welcome response. Even when we don’t share exact views on the application of the gift of salvation, together with Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:15 we declare, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift.”
 

Footnotes:

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), II.2.14. Although Calvin attributes the effect to the image of God in all, it is tied to a divine common grace that comes to all.

2 John Wesley, “Letter to Mr. John Mason,” in The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, reprinted 2002), 12:453.

3 Kenneth Collins, A Faithful Witness: John Wesley’s Homiletical Theology (Wilmore, KY: Wesley Heritage Press, 1993), 63.

4 Jacob Arminius, “Declaration of Sentiments,” in The Writings of Jacob Arminius Translated from the Latin in Three Volumes, translated by James Nichols and W. R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), I:252-53.

5 H. Ray Dunning, Reflecting the Diving Image: Christian Ethics in Wesleyan Perspective (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 57; H. Ray Dunning, Grace, Faith and Holiness (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1988), 432.

6 Arminius, “A Letter Addressed to Hippolytus à Collibus,” in Writings, II:472.

7 Arminius, “Declaration of Sentiments,” in Writings, I:253 (emphasis original).

8 Wesley, “Predestination Calmly Considered,” in Works, 10:229-30.

9 Meredith G. Kline, “The Intrusion and the Decalogue,” Westminster Theological Journal 16 (1953): 1-22.


Editor’s Note:  We appreciate Dr. Shelton’s careful responses to this issue. Tomorrow Dr. Nettles will wrap up the discussion with some final observations. 

Buy the books

Prevenient Grace: God's Provision For Fallen Humanity

Francis Asbury Press, 2014 | 283 pages