Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Common Grace vs. Prevenient Grace

One reader asked, "How does the Arminian concept of prevenient grace differ from the Calvinist concept of common grace? It seems to me that they each describe one and the same thing."

In Calvinist circles, the term "common grace" is used to describe a number of things. One definition provides three aspects:

1) "a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general;"
2) "the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and in the community;" and
3) an influence in which, "God, without renewing the heart, so influences man that he is able to perform civil good" and, thus, "the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good." (source)

In contrast, Wesley (one of the most influential Arminian writers) defined prevenient grace thus (I'm not sure whether these are Wesley's own words or a distillation of his thought ... they seem to be accurate, and I could not find a more pithy quotation directly from him.):
Human beings are totally incapable of responding to God without God first empowering them to have faith. This empowerment is known as "Prevenient Grace." Prevenient Grace doesn't save us but, rather, comes before anything that we do, drawing us to God, making us want to come to God, and enabling us to have faith in God. Prevenient Grace is Universal, in as much as all humans receive it, regardless of their having heard of Jesus. It is manifested in the deep-seated desire of most humans to know God.
(source)

One could loosely compare the two by saying that common grace simply places a limit on the depth of man's depravity, whereas prevenient grace removes man's depravity. Common grace makes man not as wicked as he otherwise would be, but prevenient grace makes man essentially morally neutral.

The two are quite different. It's worth noting that some Calvinists use the term "common grace" to refer more broadly to things like the fact that God sometimes gives common physical goods to both regenerate and unregenerate alike (for example, God may give rain to water the crops of both a god-fearing farmer and his neighbor the god-hating farmer). Other times, people use the term "common grace" to refer to the outward restraints on human wickedness, such as civil government and parents.

Likewise, prevenient grace is sometimes given a range of meanings. I've heard the preaching of the gospel referred to, by an Arminian, as prevenient grace. Indeed, some Arminians would say that every favor or opportunity that God gives to man before he believes, prevenes (goes before) that faith, and consequently can be labeled prevenient grace.

Thus, while the central meanings of the two terms are largely unrelated, there is occasionally overlap, where a Calvinist might loosely refer to something as "common grace" and an Arminian might loosely refer to it as "prevenient grace."

I should point out that not all Calvinists agree with using the term "common grace." I understand the historical, linguistic, and logical rational for that disagreement (I think), but I view it as a scruple. I'm not going to debate the issue here, and I hope that I won't unnecessarily offend my scrupulously Calvinistic friends by referring to their views that way. On the other hand, I don't endorse the idea of saying that a person is a "hyper-Calvinist" if they don't use the term "common grace," or find the three points above to be an inaccurate statement of doctrine. I realize that puts me at odds with such notable contemporary bloggers as Phil Johnson, but that's just something I'll have to live with. And I'm not going to debate that issue here, either.

Having explained the differences between "common grace" and "prevenient grace," I hope I will have answered my reader's question.

-TurretinFan

6 comments:

Albert Medina said...

Hi TF,

Is it your view that the concept behind "common grace" is Biblical though that neither demands defending the term used for it nor defending the wording used by the CRC 1924 Synod? I think I am of such persuasion. I have read people who said that there is some truth in those three points, though the term "common grace" is inaccurate in describing them.

Turretinfan said...

I believe that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. I believe that God does restrain the wickedness of evil men. I also believe that there is a degree of outward conformity to God's law to be found in the unregenerate. To the extent that those are the concepts behind "common grace," I think those concepts are Biblical.

I'm hesitant to say that I agree with "the concept," because (for many) the term "common grace" has become a buzzword for either (in its denial) hyper-Calvinism or (in its affirmation) Arminianism.

-TurretinFan

Turretinfan said...

I believe that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. I believe that God does restrain the wickedness of evil men. I also believe that there is a degree of outward conformity to God's law to be found in the unregenerate. To the extent that those are the concepts behind "common grace," I think those concepts are Biblical.

I'm hesitant to say that I agree with "the concept," because (for many) the term "common grace" has become a buzzword for either (in its denial) hyper-Calvinism or (in its affirmation) Arminianism.

-TurretinFan

Anonymous said...

Regarding the third point:

an influence in which, "God, without renewing the heart, so influences man that he is able to perform civil good" and, thus, "the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good."

This is odd! What does civil good mean? Apparently, it is contrasted with saving good. The first being a gift of God by means of "common grace" the latter also a gift of God by means of "saving grace". In both cases God enables these goods, right?
But what is "doing civil good" really supposed to mean? I guess it means good in the sight of man whereas "doing saving good" means doing good in the sight of God . According to you, the performance of either "good" is enabled by God. However the civil good is, in fact, not good at all. It isn't good in the sight of God, therefore it is rather odd that God would enable someone "graciously" to do something which isn't good in his sight (that is, truly good) anyway.

Either the tree is good, then the fruit is good. Or the tree is bad, then the fruit is bad.
There is no partly good fruit. Good fruit, according to scripture, is only that which is good in the sight of God. It is the standard of judgment. So, good fruit, is "truly good". What then is civil good? Is it also good fruit? According to the reasoning you present, civil good is not something that would be identified as "good fruit". However, the absence of good fruit is only bad or no fruit, which is always considered evil. So why should God grant the ability to do civil good (bearing fruit of a bad tree) if man is able to do that anyway? What is the "common grace" supposed to accomplish here?

Notice that man is able to do what is good in the sight of the world by his sinful nature! He doesn't need any so-called common grace in order to work according to his fallen nature! And civil good is just that: Good according to the world.


I believe that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust.


Again, I think it is a rather odd idea to consider this a manifestation of a certain type of grace. Note for instance the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Surely, the rain falls on the whole field, watering the wheat and the weeds. And there is a reason why the weeds should not be pulled out right away. However, the reason is not beneficial to the weeds themselves but to the wheat. And grace should be something beneficial to the recipient to make any sense, shouldn't it?


I believe that God does restrain the wickedness of evil men. I also believe that there is a degree of outward conformity to God's law to be found in the unregenerate.


"outward conformity to God's law"?
Surely, there are those who walk around in sheep clothes, and this refers to the entirety of outward conformity to God's law, but it is indeed very weird to ascribe this disguise to a gracious divine action.
Again, any tree is known by its fruit. A good tree produces good fruit only . A bad tree produces bad fruit only . A wolf does not become a sheep by getting dressed in sheep's garment. And this sheep clothing is certainly not a product of "common grace".

Moreover, the idea of "outward conformity to God's law" is quite remarkabl anyway. God's law is spiritual in essence and righteousness a quality of character and a person's intrinsic nature. However, conformity doesn't refer to something intrinsic but rather conveys the idea of assimilation, alignment or even customization -- or simply put: sheep clothing. Sheep clothing never profits no matter how conform it looks. And being righteous before God is not a matter of degree. On is either righteous (conformed to God's law) or not. Any apparent righteouness is just the would-be rigtheousness of the world, the goodness in the sight of man, that which is called "civil good" here.


To the extent that those are the concepts behind "common grace," I think those concepts are Biblical.


God's provision for everybody and his blessings even for hostile emperors is certainly mentionend in the bible. That's no question. But is there a classification of graces behind it?
I suspect this concept to be highly eisegetical and destitute of any rational meaning of the word grace . It rather seems there is but one type of grace of God as opposed to the two-types-of-grace system outlined here.

Turretinfan said...

Monty, I assume that is you. Thanks for your comment. Please be careful to distinguish between where I am quoting the CRC definition of common grace and where I am stating my own views.

I think the concerns you have raised are typical of the kinds of concerns raised by folks who think that "common grace" is a misleading term at best.

-TurretinFan

Turretinfan said...

Mr. Medina - thanks for pointing me to that very odd blog.

I should add another note to this discussion: it seems that some Amyraldians may try to refer "common grace" to being roughly equivalent to "prevenient grace." I haven't seen this much, and so I'm hesitant to include this in the article, without further study.

-TurretinFan