PREVENIENT GRACE: GOD’S PROVISION FOR FALLEN HUMANITY, by W. Brian Shelton

Published on March 16, 2015 by Tom Nettles

Francis Asbury Press, 2014 | 283 pages

Reviewed by Tom Nettles

 

The book is divided into eight sections, an introduction, six chapters and a bibliography.

Summary

The introduction demonstrates the need for the book in light of the importance of the doctrine for Wesleyanism and the relative scarcity (“stunningly absent”) of exegetical and theological material written in support. Shelton summarizes, “This book will show 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 of saving faith” (vii). He aims to show that “prevenient grace explains how God mitigates human sinfulness enough to exercise faith in Christ.” It “makes possible the freedom component that is necessary for salvation.” (iii).

Though the book contributes to the scholarly debate about “salvation’s invisible workings,” his main target is those tempted to deal with the Bible’s teaching on depravity by “reconsidering it as imaginary,” or, if it is real by “welcoming divine predestination of select individuals.” The book belongs “to those who encounter and admire biblical references to divine providence, or who find themselves pressed to explain what scripture says about such mysterious spiritual machinery on the human heart” (ii, iv).

Chapter one defines and describes prevenient grace. Shelton wants to show that “the doctrine of prevenient grace explains how the Christian God precedes his gracious, early activities of salvation in various venues.” This grace does not in itself save, cause repentance, or reduce the necessity to understand the gospel. It functions to “assist and lead to salvation,” that is, to make “possible the freedom component that is necessary for belief.” Pointing to Wesley and Arminius as reliable synthesizers of truth, Shelton contends “that prevenient grace comes to all people in a general sense to allow them to believe” so that people no longer are “totally depraved but capable of exercising faith to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the subjective activity of the Spirit on individual hearts.” (7)

The T of the “notorious TULIP system of Calvinism” no longer is operative, for God, through the death of Christ for all persons without exception, has acted “in some mysterious and abstract way” unilaterally to enable people to respond to the gospel. In one way, therefore, this grace, universal though it may be, comes “irresistibly, a divinely initiated effect irrespective of human consent that seeks radically to alter the sinful, natural state of all people in their relationship to God” (10). Divine grace is seamless in Shelton’s view. The grace that brings the cross, regeneration, justification, perseverance, and final glory is no different from the grace “that brings cooling rains or a warming sun to a rebellious world with each new providential morning” (8).

Chapter two engages exegetical theology in support of the subject. He examines three types of biblical passages: (1) those that clearly deny any merit in human actions; (2) those that show how “enabling grace” [a synonym for prevenient grace] is “available to all people;” (3) those that “seem to deny the availability of universal prevenient grace” (13). Among the critical formative passages Shelton discusses several passages in John with a heavy emphasis on John 1:9, “and enlightens everyone,” as paradigmatic for prevenient grace. He contends “The best overall reading of John would suggest a universal dimension to Jesus’ act of drawing, conditioned only by the free choice of those who refuse to hear” (47). He represents the Reformed reading of these texts as “theologically disingenuous” (Schreiner, Carson, Yarbrough) and that such a revelation of sinfulness would be “insignificant” if it did not also “give them an opportunity to respond” (28). That Christ’s appearance would merely increase the evidence of man’s depravity, Shelton calls a moot point. 

John 12:32, Romans 2:4, and Titus 2:11 emphasize that God’s grace and drawing and enlightening activity extend to all men without exception. To numerous examples of calls from God to repent, events in which sinners that hear the gospel actually repent, and biblical prayers for restoration, Shelton appends a conclusion: since Scripture indicates clearly that “the Lord enlightens sinners to believe, that God leads people to repentance, and that He wants all sinners to believe, how can an obvious connection [to prevenient grace] be ignored?” (54).

His argument always proceeds within the context of his view of John 1:19—“Men loved darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil.” He surmises, “Despite the efforts of God to attend to their condition, some people ultimately reject the divine work of their own selfish volition, even when confronted with an enlightening ability to do otherwise” (30).

Chapters three (forty pages) and four (75 pages) treat the evidence from historical theology for “prevenient grace” has been set forth throughout Christian history as a way of explaining how God saves by grace but does not violate human will. As Shelton describes his method, “This chapter offers a brief historical review of the concept of prevenient grace and its origins in the annals of church history.”

Special attention is paid to the refinement of Reformation, Remonstrance, and Wesleyan positions on depravity and ability” (62)  He includes, Irenaeus, Origen, Macarius, Augustine and Pelagius, the semi-Pelagian debate, medieval sacerdotalism,  eastern synergism, the Reformation, Counter Reformation, Arminius and the Synod of Dort, the Anglican context of Wesley, Niebuhr, and Brunner.

Chapter four concentrates on Arminius and Wesley. Shelton proposes a synthesis of their ideas as the best explanation of how prevenient grace embraces all the exegetical and doctrinal issues that must be satisfied in producing a coherent doctrine, focusing on Wesley’s Trinitarian understanding of prevenient grace (139-156). He sees Wesley as a careful, skilled, and articulate theologian whose writings explore the operations of prevenient grace in a detailed and sophisticated manner. Shelton summarized his findings in concluding, “Grace allows faith, so that its human appropriation toward believing is the work of God, through and through, yet contingent upon the human decision. God has sovereignly seen fit that the entire plan becomes entirely a divine gift and decree, appropriated by and contingent upon the free will of the believer” (174)

In chapter five on systematic theology, Shelton brings together his exegetical and historical discussions to present a coherent doctrine of prevenient grace. He wants to show that the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace holds together four principles of biblical salvation without contradiction: sinful depravity, salvation by grace, human responsibility, and the universal offer of salvation. Elements of this discussion will be approved and admired by all evangelical Christians. For his purposes he seeks to demonstrate the truly universal aspects of all the decrees and saving actions of the triune God so that everything God does toward this fallen world, even his pre-mundane foreknowledge, constitutes prevenient grace. “God grants people the ability to believe in Him, . . [and] the opportunity to receive the salvation of the Lord is the primary intention of God throughout the Bible” (182). God’s desire, Christ’s death, and the work of the Spirit are for all universally.

Prevenient grace operates from immediately following the fall of Adam until Christ appears in his second advent. “The effect of Christ’s righteousness somehow applies to all people throughout time, even to the Old Testament saints” (196; One would assume, based on the principle, that it included not just the saints but the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites). His argument concerning the application of the death of Christ to the faithful that preceded the crucifixion is quite good. Shelton defends what he allows to be called “synergism” of an evangelical kind—that is enabling grace precedes human response, but becomes effectually operative only on the basis of human response—rather than a semi-Pelagian synergism—human initiative precedes and prompts into operation a divine response of grace (218-221).

Shelton has an excellent discussion of the congruence of some aspects of Arminian prevenient grace with Reformed common grace, but does not compartmentalize so-called common grace from the salvific intent of prevenient grace. Shelton recognizes that Reformed theologians go beyond the parallels of common grace and prevenient grace to identify saving grace in its particular and efficacious application to the elect. At times he engages the distinguishing doctrines of Calvinism with an expected criticism by countering with what he is convinced is a superior synthesis of biblical data.

In a few places Shelton expresses concern that American Methodism saw a shift from Wesley’s emphasis on free grace to an emphasis on free will. He has his own intense presentations of free will (e.g. 214-216), but does not give a clear definition of it. From what is the will free? If sin does not operate as a causative factor in human choice, then why are there evil choices, even in the most advantageous of circumstances? He could help his cause and the reader’s understanding by presenting some morphology of the will and its operations. Arminianism, he argues, is not the application to the biblical text of an a priori commitment to libertarian freedom, but a reasoned response to the whole of the biblical witness.

Shelton’s final chapter investigates the relations of the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace to several questions that might arise from a variety of theological positions.: What is the fate of the “unhearing,” those that do not have the gospel preached to them; what about baptism of infants, especially for those that believe in some kind of sacramental efficacy in baptism; how does this relate to preaching and the altar call? He provides a brief synthesis in form of a short catechism to summarize his answers to pivotal issues. He proposes that the results of his work should not be viewed as “absolute truth claims but as our best explanation of faith seeking understanding” (264), and expresses his confidence that “We have seen evidence for prevenient grace in the atonement of Jesus, communicated through the work of the Holy Spirit so that all people are able to exercise believing faith” (264).
 

Evaluation

Though Shelton at times engages the entire spectrum of the Calvinist understanding of God’s grace in salvation, I will seek to limit my critical interaction to the main theme of the book, prevenient grace. God’s call to all men everywhere to repent, and passages of similar nature, are based on the absolute obligation that the moral creature has to his creator and lawgiver to turn from rebellion and transgression and obey the law—to cease to do evil and learn to do good. No set of circumstances can justify rebellion from the thrice-holy God, and any call to repentance is justified. By the same token, to make, through just means, a provision for forgiveness for all that will repent and believe, trust cordially, in that provision with the promise that all who do so will receive eternal life does not imply that all who hear the message have had restored to them the moral disposition to do these things, or as Shelton calls it, the “freedom component that is necessary for salvation” (iii).

Descriptions of how God has acted through Christ are manifestations of God’s wisdom and power in the incarnation and substitutionary propitiatory death of Christ so that he is shown to maintain his immutable justice while at the same time not executing his wrath on believing sinners. If the proclamation of this reveals that a heart still is in the “gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:23) or that one that hears it is still a “son of the devil, [an] enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, . . . making crooked the straight paths of the Lord” (Acts 13:10) it makes neither the preaching nor the purpose of God in manifesting the depths of human sinfulness disingenuous to any extent.

Much less can one conclude that the so-called “freedom component” arising from prevenient grace is operative. That Christ’s appearance does not release from the bondage of original sin but gives a deeper impression of human resistance to divine holiness and law is not at all moot but reinforces a variety of biblical presentations as to how human depravity manifests itself.

The verse in question (John 1:9) in fact brings the doctrine of the utter perversity of the human will to its highest point. It teaches that the creator, the one in whose image we are made, whose moral light has so established the categories of right and wrong that even the most perverse cannot escape them (Romans 2:1-3), against whose holiness our affections are now set, the one whose stamp of power and righteousness are on every tree and flower and bird, has appeared and walked and talked among us and we did not know him (verse 10). Even his covenant people that had the increased blessing of the prophets and the expectation of the Messiah (Romans 3:1, 2; 9:4, 5) “did not receive him” (also cf. 5:39-47).

The phrase “to all who did receive him” contextually is not John’s argument that in some cases prevenient grace is successful, but his introductory summary of the necessity and effects of the operation of God in the new birth (verse 13, “who were born . . . of God”; cf. 3:3-8; 6:63). What is the “enlightening ability to do otherwise” when, according to Shelton’s own acknowledgement, “some people ultimately reject the divine work of their own selfish volition” (30)? If prevenient grace has not removed our selfish volition, then to this Arminian idea of prevenient grace there must be added the Calvinist idea of irresistible grace to effect salvation in any one. A person with a remaining and prevailing selfish volition has hardly been enlightened with “ability to do otherwise.”

Biblical descriptions of unbelief at the hearing of the gospel do not support this view of “prevenient grace” as argued by Shelton, for it pictures such hearers as those who are “perishing, . . .[in whom] the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). To have “enabling grace” of the prevenient enlightening sort, one would have to see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” If prevenient grace as described were present then the blinding capacity of the god of this world would have been neutralilzed upon the hearing of the gospel, if not before.

But we see that, in fact, this is not the case. The quickening grace of God comes to those that are “dead in trespasses and sins . . . following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:1-2). Prior to quickening grace, Paul insisted that we all lived among these sons of disobedience, that is, among those whose very nature, whose spiritual genetic code, is marked by a continuous course of disobedience, and in the constant engagement with the “passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and”—mark the corollary to sons of disobedience—“were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” All of this he says about those that lived in the era immediately subsequent to the incarnation and the substitutionary death of Christ.

If this describes the effects of the Arminian/Wesleyan idea of the condition of persons under the influence of prevenient grace then we may be understood if we conclude that such an idea of grace is a non-entity; at least, it does not establish a condition in which a person has the moral propensity and disposition, for such is necessary for “ability,” to receive the glorious gospel of the blessed God. Neither does Romans 2:4 give a picture of Arminian prevenient grace. Instead it shows in inexcusability of human sin in the divinely established order in a world created by God, in which he does not immediately exact punishment for sin.

The perversity of an emboldened path of sin in light of the indomitable sense of right and wrong embedded within the imago dei shows the blind irrationality of an unrepentant life. At the same time it demonstrates that each person left to themselves will live out of a “hard and impenitent heart” and will “store up wrath for your self on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment is revealed.” The person denominated by such a description can hardly have been “enabled” if his heart is left in a “hard and impenitent” state.

Jesus looked at the Jews that had every advantage of knowledge based on divine revelation and said, “His voice [the Father’s] you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent” (John 5:37-38). This condition of multiplied resistance to the witnesses to Jesus’ messiahship arises from the reality, “I know you do not have the love of God within you” (John 5:42). Based on that knowledge he also observed, with infallible accuracy, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). He knew that because they did not believe the writings of Moses they also would not believe his words. This concatenation of moral events, involving their refusal to come to him, arises from that fundamental reality that they did not have “the love of God within them.” That is the primal condition of depravity and any so-called prevenient grace that does not remove that does not do what Shelton claims it does.

He writes, “The driving impetus for a case for prevenient grace is based on how Scripture speaks about all being capable of believing the gospel, and exhortations based on claims that God graciously enables us” (214). If the fallen sinner’s natural lack of love for God is not replaced by a love for God, then it remains utterly void of any effectiveness to move a sinner toward repentance and faith; but, if it does give a love for God then that is identical with the Reformed view of effectual calling. Paul insisted that “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). If prevenient grace does not give such a portion and qualitative operation of the Spirit that his work no longer seems foolish but compellingly worthy of reception, then it cannot move a person toward saving belief; but if it does remove that natural judgment of “foolishness” toward spiritual things and replace it with a judgment of wisdom and power, then the operation is effectual and is to be identified with the Reformed view of irresistible grace or effectual calling.

Those very conditions seen throughout Scripture as constituting unbelief and as inhibiting belief are the conditions that any grace that is saving in its effect must overcome, and Arminian prevenient grace posits no spiritual operation by which it is done. Even though Shelton contends “that any explanation of redemption does not preclude the possibility that a heavenly work like prevenient grace is part of its cause” (23), the conditions described above do seem to preclude that view of prevenient grace by establishing the need for a special efficacious grace..

The minimizing of saving grace to the same quality as that which produces a cooling rain is at least puzzling, if not outrageous and shocking. Though Shelton argues for a robust doctrine of depravity (ii, iii, 14-21) that involves humanity in an “inability to do good before the Lord” (21), also stated as an “inability to believe or do spiritual ‘good’ of his own volition” (29), there seems never to be a time in which this connection with Adam in the corruption consequent upon the fall is operative. Instead, these descriptions apparently denote only what man would be had not prevenient grace come into effect immediately. As it stands, however, prevenient grace has mitigated “the effects of sinful depravity,” was provided to Adam and Eve and all people following them “immediately following the fall,” so that “all generations had the ability to believe or doubt, as the Adamic covenant included God’s mitigation of the totally debilitating effect of human depravity” (260).

Shelton works with a good bit of energy to put distance between Arminianism and Pelagianism, but these components of his system are hardly a half-step from the view set forth by Pelagius. Shelton’s teaching that prevenient grace began its operations immediately upon the fall of Adam, has reversed our debility, and has re-established spiritual ability in a universal sense, hardly differs in any sense in the effects on Adam’s posterity from Pelagius’s argument. He believed that the only grace we need is the grace initially given to creatures in their creation, a view that identifies nature with grace, and argues that the creation grace that gave human rationality and the sustaining rhythm of nature are identical with saving grace. Since Shelton believes this and that the original ability is immediately restored by prevenient grace thus leaving all mankind in a state of ability, it is difficult not to see his system as a sympathetic brother to Pelagianism. How natural revelation joins with prevenient grace as a possible avenue for salvation for the “unhearing” Shelton discusses on pages 238-245 and leaves the question in a state of indecision.

Shelton shows concern about “compatibilist” interpretations of Scripture that give priority to those that emphasize divine monergism so as perpetually to override “the free will verses without harmonizing them” (215). I reject the idea that any tension exists between divine sovereignty and human responsibility [see 214-216] and that the texts present any difficulty of harmonization. Both are affirmed without equivocation in Scripture and both are maintained throughout the biblical narrative in complete integrity with no hint that we should propose the existence of a “tension” between the divine purpose and the ordained means by which he accomplishes it (Isaiah 19:1-15). Those that do so in Scripture are rebuked as savoring little of the overriding, universally prevailing wisdom and sovereign pleasure of God (Habakkuk 3:1-6; Job 40:4, 5; 42:1-6; Romans 9:19, 20).

God’s sovereignty rules over all things, from the act of creation through the assigning of eternal abodes for all moral creatures in eternity (Ephesians 1:11). His own morally immutable nature manifest in history flows in connected ways in accordance with the moral necessities involved in the decree (2 Timothy 1:9-11). These necessities in no way diminish either the freedom or the intrinsic worthiness of his actions. Even so our actions flow necessarily from our personal understanding, their necessity neither inhibiting the freedom in which we act nor the moral texture of our actions. Within the decree of God, our actions are one facet of those means that he has ordained as necessary to the accomplishment of the decree (2 Samuel 17:1-23, esp. v. 14).

When we act in complete freedom, moving in an unbroken stream of choices in the way any moral agent does, we act consistently with the decree of God. Each of our successive acts, arising from within the fabric of our understanding, immediately takes the form of absolute necessity in the way that all past actions and events now are viewed as necessary. They have taken their place as a part of those events that God has decreed out of his eternal wisdom as necessary for him to judge the world in righteousness (Habakkuk 1:5, 6; Romans 3:3-8; 9:6, 17-19; 11:4-7). It is only within the context of God’s purpose, power, wisdom, and redemptive determination that our purpose, power, and contextualized understanding (wisdom, if you like), arise and have any meaning.

These respective traits are analogous but not parallel, operating on equal planes, so that the tension so reputed to exist simply does not exist. Paul simply dismisses the arrogance of human argument on this issue with the characterization, “I speak in a human way” (Romans 2:5), and, at the conclusion of his lengthiest development of this theme affirms, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36). This is a conclusion to an extensive argument in which he shows the intricate use of the means of gospel preaching in all its connections as fundamental to saving faith and as necessary for the effecting of the divine purpose of salvation for the elect (Romans 10:5-11:6).

It is this connection between the necessity of our moral actions in accordance with understanding and the simultaneous freedom of those actions that Shelton rejects, or resists, or thinks too mysterious to identify, even within his Arminian framework—“He graciously convicts people of their sins, softens their hearts, and thus allows them to repent. Still, the exact detailed phenomenon—the precise divine mechanism by which God applies prevenient grace—is ultimately unknowable” (5). That is, how does prevenient grace bring some to salvation and leave others without salvation? Finally, for Shelton this tension can only be resolved in favor of the human will distinguishing one sinner from another, since grace is the same in both cases.

The supposed “tension” maintained in this view does make the manner in which a person passes from death to life unknowable, for it creates internal contradictions and then must press itself into inconsistencies. For example Wesley’s view is summarized with approval as “prevenient grace left a person in a condition of depravity and inability, yet provides the foundation to participate in the process of salvation” (5). Inability is a foundation to participate? Eventually, however, one must look at prevenient grace as including the “enabling process” (6). What can such a process accomplish if it does not establish the moral condition in the human soul that necessarily flees to find refuge in the righteous work of Christ? If it stops short and leaves one in the state of inability, no matter how slight, the effect will be a continued resistance to God’s way of salvation because the soul still prefers unrighteousness to righteousness and its own corruption to holiness. A choice in general is never made in opposition to the preference of the soul, but rather coincides with, or is identical to it. Even so, one does not trust, or seek sympathetic union with, another whose values are positively contrary to and antagonistic to his own. Belief in the saving work of Christ presupposes that a moral transformation that fits the gospel pattern of righteousness has occurred in the one so believing.
 

Tom Nettles recently retired from his position as Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. 


Editor’s Note:  You may like to see Brian Shelton’s interview in response to this review, and then Dr. Nettles’ response also.

 

Buy the books

Prevenient Grace: God's Provision For Fallen Humanity

Francis Asbury Press, 2014 | 283 pages