Prevenient Grace and Practical Ministry

By: Dustin Walters

 No one can come to be in a state of grace or experience regeneration apart from the drawing of the Holy Spirit (John 6:44). The Calvinist and the Arminian agree on this point. J. Matthew Pinson convincingly locates James Arminius within the broader Reformed tradition. He provides a helpful comparison of Calvin and Arminius when he says, “In short, he agreed with Calvin and his followers on what it means to be in a state of grace, but he differed with them on how one comes to be in a state of grace.”[1]

Several terms must be defined to establish a common foundation of understanding for the reader. After these terms are defined, a broad overview of the way in which grace has been understood in the Christian tradition will precede the supporting claims for this thesis.  

Defining Key Terms 

The phrase prevenient grace will be used throughout, so it is appropriate to define what this strange phrase means. W. Brian Shelton states, “The doctrine of prevenient grace explains how the Christian God precedes his gracious, early activities of salvation in various venues.”[2] Robert Picirilli defines prevenient grace as “that work of the Holy Spirit that ‘opens the heart’ of the unregenerate (to use the words of Acts 16:14) to the truth of the gospel and enables them to respond positively in faith”. [3] Prevenient grace in this project will be understood as that grace that precedes regeneration and opens the door to salvation if it is not resisted. Prevenient or pre-regenerating grace meets the needs of the total personality, which is the second term that must be defined.  

Total personality refers what comprises the human person. Humans are described as being made in God’s image and according to his likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). God is both rational and relational and he has created humans in his image. F. Leroy Forlines developed his systematic theology from his understanding of the total personality. He says, “The personality is concerned with thinking (the activity of the mind), feeling (the activity of the heart, which refers to the seat of our emotions, and acting (the activity of the will)”.[4] A key argument of this essay is that the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace meets the needs of the total person more than Calvinism’s irresistible grace and effectual calling does. Part of what it means to be human is the ability to decide, so the next important term that must be defined is free will.  

Free will refers to the ability of the human person to choose between available options. Reformed Arminians are against Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism, which might surprise some Calvinists. Picirilli’s definition of free will is foundational in the discussion of the application of grace. For Picirilli, “Free Will is a way of saying that a person is capable of making decisions, that a person can choose between two (or more) alternatives when he or she has obtained (by whatever means) the degree of understanding of those alternatives required to choose between them.”[5]

This understanding of free will aligns well with the definition of prevenient grace articulated above. The three terms emphasized in this section will be the most important in the development of the present thesis. Additional terms will be defined as needed, yet attention must now be directed to a historical overview of the way in which grace has bene understood in the broader Christian tradition.  

Grace in Christian Thought: An Overview 

Grace has been understood in unique ways in Christian history. Only three key thinkers will be discussed: Augustine, Calvin, and Arminius, providing an overview of the way grace has been understood historically. However, this overview intends not to serve as an exhaustive explanation of the various views of grace.

Augustine on Grace 

Benedict Bird wrote an excellent article on Augustine positing that Augustine  

simultaneously upholds free will and the necessity for prevenient grace, with the result that believers are drawn to God, willingly believe, and willingly ‘persevere up to the end’. No one is saved against his will; no one is coerced into willing what he does not will. But neither is salvation made conditional upon the will of man in such a way that there is any uncertainty about the salvation of every member of the elect.[6] 

Bird’s understanding of Augustine’s work is compelling. Arminius wanted to align himself with Augustine, even though he would have differed on the conditionality of election. For Augustine, grace is “absolutely necessary for any truly good decisions or actions of any fallen human person.”[7] Arminius would have agreed with Augustine on the necessity of divine grace based on the way he understood human depravity. Arminius said,  

In this state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by Divine grace, but it has no powers whatever except such are excited by Divine grace.[8] 

John Calvin developed his understanding of grace on the foundation Augustine established.  

Calvin on Grace 

John Calvin lived in the 16th century and was a French reformer and theologian. Calvin has been considered as “the most influential writer among the reformers.” [9] Calvin’s understanding of irresistible grace is evident throughout his writings, including his remark in the Institutes

For if everyone who has heard from the Father, and has learned, comes, certainly everyone who does not come has not heard from the Father or learned; for if he had heard and learned, he would come.… Far removed from carnal sense is this teaching, in which the Father is heard and teaches us to come to the Son.[10]

In this excerpt, Calvin’s understanding of effectual calling is clearly depicted. Calvinism understands grace as irresistible, while Arminianism understands it as resistible. In Calvinism, a person will of necessity respond to the Gospel call, but in Arminianism, one has the freedom to respond in faith and repentance, or reject the Gospel. As Joshua Colson expressed, “Whereas the Calvinist believes that the irresistible grace of God ensures a response of faith, the Arminian believes that the grace of God enables a response of grace”. [11] Arminius’s thought aligned within the broader Reformed tradition, yet Arminius made a significant departure in his understanding of God’s grace.  

Arminius on Grace 

James Arminius argued against irresistible grace. He said,  

The efficacy of saving grace is not consistent with that omnipotent act of God, by which He so inwardly acts in the heart and mind of man, that he on whom that act is impressed cannot do any other than consent to God who calls him: Or, which is the same thing, grace is not an irresistible force.[12] 

Arminius believed in the necessity of divine grace to enable the unable to believe. Shelton writes, “Despite its critics, Arminius’ doctrine of grace holds that God provides all people the ability to believe they are saved through Christ’s work, not through their own”.[13] Those who contend that Arminius believed in salvation apart from divine grace have not read Arminius. Additionally, as Pinson observes regarding notions of Arminianism and Pelagianism, “Arminians have always been in line with the Second Council of Orange in their strong aversion to semi-Pelagianism”.[14] 

In this section, grace has been considered with emphasis on Augustine, Calvin, and Arminius. All three Christian thinkers required grace in the reception and application of saving faith. While each of the three were distinct, there is more commonality between them than has been thought by some, at least on the popular level. At this point in the project, the reader is invited to consider how prevenient grace strengthens the evangelism and preaching ministries of the local church.  

Two Ministries that Benefit from Arminianism’s Prevenient Grace 


The discussion on the necessity of God’s prevenient grace has implications on every ministry of the church, including outreach or evangelism. Evangelism involves the intentional effort of believers sharing the Gospel with unbelievers with the hope that those unbelievers will be reconciled to God. As J. Mack Stiles said, “Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade”. [15]

There are various aspects of evangelism as well as varying methods for effective evangelism. The doctrine of prevenient grace recognizes that the Gospel call extends to all people universally. This recognition impacts the evangelistic practices and outreach commitments of the local church. Outreach and evangelism must be intentional because natural revelation alone is insufficient to result in saving faith. There are limitations involved in natural revelation, so a special revelation from God is needed to result in salvation.  

One’s outreach strategy must include the individuality of prospects and an awareness that, without special revelation, the evangelistic prospect cannot become a regenerate believer. A healthy understanding of the role and limitations of natural revelation compels one to actively seek means to share the special revelation of Scripture. Natural revelation points to the existence of God, human limitation, and the need for morals, but natural revelation does not result in saving faith. The doctrine of prevenient grace provides theological motivation for engaging in outreach and evangelism. Not only does the doctrine of prevenient grace impact the outreach of the local church, but it also impacts the preaching ministry of the church.  


Preaching is the act of proclaiming the special revelation of the Triune God who became flesh and dwelt among sinful humanity. It is not simply an address about Jesus. Preaching is the act of illuminating God’s word. Tony Merida writes, “Faithful preaching is the responsible, passionate, and authentic declaration of the Christ-exalting Scriptures, by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the glory of the Triune God”.[16] It is through the Word that the Holy Spirit draws sinners toward faith and repentance. God can and does use other means to draw people to himself but ordinarily, God reaches people through the act of preaching, which prepares the human heart to recognize and respond to God’s pre-regenerating grace. Prevenient grace most faithfully aligns with God’s ordinary means of grace for reaching people.  

One less articulated aspect of the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace is that it fits within an ordinary means of grace approach to ministry. The ordinary means God uses to reach people and grow his church do not rely on human creativity but on God’s ordained means for drawing people to himself. The discussion on prevenient grace is incomplete if it does not motivate the local church to take every possible step toward inviting people to respond to God’s free offer of grace.  

Reformed Arminianism and Prevenient Grace 

Robert Picirilli labored to articulate the Reformed Arminian understanding of prevenient grace. He outlines four advantages of understanding prevenient grace and calling as one and the same. The first advantage is that prevenient grace makes salvation the initiative of God. A second advantage of this linked terminology is that it serves to make the call to salvation as universal as the gospel call. The third advantage of this terminology is that it avoids the confusing language of an external an internal call as in Calvinism. The fourth advantage of this language according to Picirilli is that it does not rule out the possibility of an effective and ineffective call.[20] J. Matthew Pinson is right to find issue with the Wesleyan tendency that appears to diminish the effects of the fall. He said, “Many Wesleyan theologians have tended to speak in terms of prevenient grace in the objective terms Shelton describes-an objective state into which humanity is born…This sort of language makes Reformed Arminians extremely nervous”.[21] 


This post has sought to demonstrate that the doctrine of prevenient grace prioritizes the total personality of the believer and strengthens the evangelism and preaching ministries of the church. Matthew Pinson’s summary regarding the nature of prevenient grace serves as a fitting conclusion for this paper. He said,  

The Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace is essentially the outcome of the doctrines of the gratia universalis (universal grace) and gratia resistibilis (resistible grace). The Calvinist understanding is the outcome of the doctrines of gratia particularis (particular grace) and gratia irresistibilis (irresistible grace).[22]  

The Arminian concept of pre-regenerating or drawing grace emphasizes both the divine plan and the personal response of believers. Arminians must revisit the significance of the teachings of free grace, free will, and free salvation. 

[1] J. Matthew Pinson, 40 Questions About Arminianism, ed. Benjamin Merkle, (Kregel Academic: Grand Rapids, 2022), 35.

[2] W. Brian Shelton, Prevenient Grace: God’s Provision for Fallen Humanity, (Francis Asbury Press: Anderson, 2014), 1.

[3] Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation-Calvinism and Arminianism, (Randall House: Nashville, 2002), 154.

[4] F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth: Theology for a Postmodern World, (Randall House: Nashville, 2006), 55.

[5] Robert E. Picirilli, Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, (Wipf and Stock: Eugene, 2017), 4.

[6] Benedict Bird, “The Development of Augustine’s Views on Free Will and Grace, and the Conflicting Claims to Consistency Therewith by John Owen and John Goodwin.” The Westminster Theological Journal 83, no. 1 (Spr 2021): 73–101.

[7] Roger E. Olson and Adam C. English, Pocket History of Theology: Twenty Centuries in Five Concise Acts, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 54.

[8] James Arminius, The Works of James Arminius (Nashville: Randall House, 2007, )2:192. “On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers”, “art. 11.

[9] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 269.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 965.

[11] Joshua Colson, Master of Arts Thesis, “A Reformed Arminian Conception of Prevenient Grace: A Historical and Systematic View”, (unpublished: Welch College: 2019), 64.

[12] James Arminius, The Works of James Arminius (Nashville: Randall House, 2007, )2:722. “Certain Articles to Be Diligently Examined and Weighed, “art. 13.

[13] Shelton, 120.

[14] Pinson, 140.

[15] J. Mack Stiles, Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus, (Crossway: Wheaton, 2014), 26.

[16] Tony Merida, Faithful Preaching: Declaring Scripture with Responsibility, Passion, and Authenticity, (B&H: Nashville, 2009), 6.

[17] Leo G Cox, “Prevenient Grace: A Wesleyan View.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 12, no. 3 (Sum 1969), 144.

[18]  Ibid., 148. That appears to be a contradiction. Either monergism is true or synergism is true. Both cannot be true at the same time and in the same way.

[19] Ibid., 145.

[20] Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, 158-59.

[21] Pinson, 195.

[22] Pinson, 192.

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