John Wesley was not the first theologian to speak of prevenient grace, but he did make it a central component of his theology and put it to some distinctively Protestant uses. In the process, his understanding of prevenient grace enabled him and his followers creatively to navigate between several seemingly stark alternatives.
The main point of prevenient grace was its universal reach. It enabled Wesley to affirm the Protestant claim that salvation was by grace alone without also affirming predestination. That God offered salvation to everyone rather than a predetermined elect was consistent with how Wesley read the entirety of Scripture. It most especially followed from his core belief that God is love, a love definitively revealed in Jesus Christ.
But it was his understanding of how grace worked that enabled Wesley and subsequent Wesleyans to avoid predestination. Prevenient grace worked to create in each person a basic sense of moral accountability (through the gift of a conscience) and restored a measure of liberty (to enable persons to obey that conscience in contradiction to their own sinful inclinations). This in turn enabled people to respond freely to the gospel message through becoming awakened to their sinful condition and to seek the forgiveness and new birth promised by God. Thus, prevenient grace enabled both an initially implicit, and, ultimately, an explicit relationship with God.
With the exception of this transforming work of prevenient grace itself, Wesley denies the Calvinist claim that grace is irresistible. Wesley argues that if grace is irresistible then a person “would no longer be a moral agent, any more than the sun or the wind,” and “would no longer be endued with liberty—a power of choosing, or self-determination…” (“The General Spread of the Gospel,” 9, in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 2; Abingdon, 1985] 489). Instead, grace invites persons into a transforming relationship with God. Referring particularly to justification and new birth, Wesley says that God did not “take away your liberty; your power of choosing good or evil: He did not force you; but, being assisted by his grace, you, like Mary, chose the better part” (489).
With this understanding of how grace works, Wesley was able to avoid predestination without embracing universal salvation. Predestinarians, assuming that only some persons will be saved, conclude that it is only those persons who must have received grace. Classic universalists, who link an emphasis on God as love with irresistible grace, conclude that in the end all will be saved. Wesley, by rejecting irresistibility for a relational understanding of grace, is able to affirm a God of love and universal grace without claiming everyone will necessarily be saved. Even more importantly, he shifts the emphasis of salvation itself from what occurs after death to what happens in this life (and then continues in the life to come).
Prevenient grace also enabled Wesley and his followers to avoid one other theological error—that is, claiming natural human free will. Calvinists in early-19th-century America, under pressure from new Enlightenment philosophies that were being quickly assimilated into popular culture, were abandoning Reformation understandings of original sin and gradually were beginning to affirm human free will. Methodists eventually did the same. But in the early decades of the new republic, Methodists continued to hold a strongly Protestant view of original sin coupled with a belief in prevenient grace. This enabled them to take the fallen condition of humanity with utmost seriousness while continuing to maintain a strong emphasis on the necessity of God’s grace for salvation. They were able, like Wesley before them, to hold both to the total corruption of original sin as an accurate description of the human condition and a divinely given universal human freedom to respond to God. Their focus was resolutely where Wesley would want it: on God and God’s promise of salvation through grace.