Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace was his solution to a problem inherent in two central teachings of Protestantism. The first was original sin, which in Wesley’s day was under attack by influential advocates of human free will such as John Taylor. The longest single essay written by Wesley was a strong defense of the doctrine of original sin. He then turned the first part of the essay into the sermon “Original Sin” (1759).
In the sermon he insists on “the entire depravation of the whole human nature”; humans are “wholly fallen” and “totally corrupted.” Wesley saw this view of human nature as essential to genuine Christianity: “Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but a heathen still” (§III.1-2, in Sermons II, ed. A.C. Outler [Abingdon, 1985] 183-84). Clearly this was a doctrinal essential for Wesley.
He likens original sin to a terminal disease that has us in its grip. All our faculties are affected—our hearts are so governed by sin that we are not capable of knowing God or changing our lives; our vision is so clouded by sin we are unaware that we have a problem. We lack both power and knowledge.
Hence the necessity of the second Protestant teaching: salvation is by grace alone. We cannot save ourselves, so only God can save us. This God had done this through Jesus Christ. For Wesley, the two doctrines fit together; to deny the first was effectively to deny the second.
But herein lies a problem. If our only contribution to our situation is to make matters worse, then clearly we can have no role in our own salvation. God seemingly must do it all. Moreover, God’s grace must be irresistible because, given our sinful condition, we would be certain to resist if given the chance. Yet if grace is irresistible, and not everyone is saved, it is likewise clear that God must have chosen those who will be saved, and by implication those who will not be. The only other alternative would be universal salvation.
Not everyone found this to be a problem, of course. The Calvinists of Wesley’s day saw irresistible grace and predestination as a manifestation of God’s sovereignty. In this God is glorified, both by mercifully and graciously saving some, and justly condemning others for their sins. Wesley was not persuaded. While he certainly had a high view of God’s agency and power, sovereignty was not God’s most important attribute. As he said in his commentary of 1 John 4:8, “God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom…as he is said to be love; intimating that this is…his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds and amiable glory on all his other perfections” (Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament).
The Calvinist position was troubling to Wesley because it raised serious questions about the character of God. It also contradicted the clear teaching of Scripture that God seeks to save everyone, and that Christ died for all.
Prevenient grace (or “preventing grace”) was Wesley’s theological response to this dilemma. While all are indeed dead in sin and in themselves unable to respond to God, no one is entirely without the grace of God. Working in every human life, prevenient grace includes “the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him” (“On Working out Our Own Salvation,” § II.1, in ed. A. C. Outler, Sermons III [Abingdon, 1986] 203). Prevenient grace restores in each person a small measure of freedom, enabling them to respond to God’s initiative.
It was prevenient grace that allowed Wesley to insist, at one and the same time, salvation is by grace alone and God offers salvation to everyone. It also allowed Wesley to emphasize divine agency without diminishing the importance of human freedom. Prevenient grace does not take away our freedom, it restores it; it is not irresistible but enabling.
It is because prevenient grace gives us a measure of moral freedom that God holds us responsible for sin. We are without excuse, not because of our condition of original sin, but because we do not use the grace we have (cf. “On Working out Our Own Salvation,” § III.4, 207).
But we are also not without hope. God has opened the way to new life for everyone, and is inviting all to respond. All may come to know God’s love in Jesus Christ, and all may be renewed in that love.