The Bible quickly introduces us to the story of Adam and Eve — created by God, placed in a perfect setting, and given a task to perform. They were forbidden only one thing; they were not to eat the fruit of a particular tree; but many others were accessible in the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 1,2)
They violated the one prohibition, and in doing so they placed themselves in rebellion against the Ruler of the universe, the God to whom they owed their existence and their ideal surroundings.
Where should the story go from there?
We can imagine two possibilities. First: In response to such disobedience the Lord God might have struck with fire all he had created, wiping it out. The second possibility: The Lord God might have turned his back on the couple, leaving them forever estranged from Him.
But possibility three is what actually happened: The Lord God came walking in the garden searching. He confronted the pair with their offense and then clothed them with animal skins. Thus begins a wondrous story of salvation.
In essence, God initiates by making himself known to sinful mankind and seeking them out. This is called prevenient grace.
A Seventeenth Century Dutch scholar named Arminius was foremost among those who brought the term forward, and later Eighteenth Century Oxford scholar, John Wesley, and his followers embraced this understanding during a great outpouring of God’s saving mercy on the British Isles.
John Wesley wrote: “It is God who takes the initiative first to provide for our salvation in Jesus Christ and then to enable us to respond through prevenient grace.” The Apostle John writes that Jesus was “the true light that gives light to everyone” and that “We love (God) because he first loved us” (John 1:9 and 1 John 4:19).
“Prevenient” comes from a Latin word that means preceding in time or order; coming before, or anticipating. In Christian thought it is used to speak of the manifestations of God’s grace that precede repentance and spiritual awakening. Wesley presented it as “all the ‘drawings’ of ‘the Father’, the desires after God which, if we yield to them, increase more and more.”
Thus, prevenient grace is the grace that initiates our salvation. It is the grace that prompts a little child’s first sense that there is a God above, and gives that child its earliest awakening to moral responsibility.
That is, God initiates the search for sinners whom Jesus died to save and He offers them hope. As one doctrinal statement has it, “This [prevenient] grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our first transient understanding of having sinned against God.”
Luke tells us about Zacchaeus, a man rich but of apparently shady character, motivated by greed as a tax collector. He attempted, out of curiosity, to see Jesus close-up and to do so he climbed into the branches of a Sycamore tree. But Jesus saw him and called him to come down.
Jesus then went to his home as a guest and the crowds responded by muttering that Jesus had gone to be a guest in the home of a sinner. But Luke reported the move more positively.
After being with Jesus for some time that day Zacchaeus, in a great burst of generosity, pledged half of his wealth to the poor and also stated his intention to return fourfold to any he had cheated.
Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus at the end of that day were as follows: Today salvation has come to this house…. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.
We cannot come to God on our own initiative because as simmers we are dead in trespasses and sins. It is by prevenient grace that we are first awakened and called.
As the Apostle Paul writes: but because of his great love for us God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved: (Ephesians 2:4,5).
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed.
Photo credit: Kasia (via flickr.com)