“Prevenient grace”: Already there, without limit.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 November 2019
PREVENE pri'vin verb. Arrive first, come before, pre-exist.
[Prevenient pri'vin.jənt adjective, prevenience pri'vin.jəns noun.]

Time for an old-timey word, prevenient. One you’ll really only find theologians use anymore. But I gotta inflict it on you—sorry—because so many Christians use it to describe how God’s grace works.

Y’might already know humans are selfish, and this self-interest distorts everything we do. Including everything good we try to do: There’s gotta be something in it for us. Even if it looks and feels like there’s nothing in it for us—if it’s an absolute act of sacrifice, one which harms us instead of benefits us, one which makes us feel awful instead of noble—there’s still something way deep down, embedded in the core of our being, which gets some satisfaction from it. Otherwise we we’d never voluntarily do it. That’s just how messed up we are. “Totally depraved,” as the theologians put it.

But people usually pretend this messed-up core doesn’t exist, and claim it was a truly selfless act; that it proves we humans aren’t all bad. But self-justification is also selfish.

This total depravity means we’re too messed up to save ourselves. We’re never gonna be good enough. Even if, by some mathematically impossible fluke, we follow all God’s commands to the letter, we’re still gonna have this hanging over us: It wasn’t done out of love for God. We did it so we could claim righteousness. We want to be “good people.” We want the good karma; we want to merit heaven. Don’t lie; it’s totally why we go to all the trouble. It’s a pride thing. And God never did care for pride. Jm 4.6, 1Pe 5.5

So how can we be saved? Well duh; only God can save us. We gotta trust God.

But aren’t we pretty far gone? Aren’t we too messed up to trust God? We’re so self-centered, so focused on ourselves, humanity is spiritually dead inside: We can’t hear the Holy Spirit poking us in the conscience. Before we can turn to God, doesn’t he first have to transform something within us?

Sure. And he did. When Jesus died for the world’s sins, 1Jn 2.2 he took out sins both past and future. Ro 3.25 His act of atonement worked its way backwards and forwards through time, so that everyone receives God’s grace—from Adam and Eve, to you. Thanks to Jesus, through Jesus, every human on the planet, no matter how messed up, has the ability to recognize we need God to save us. We had the ability before we even realized we needed it.

This grace was always around. Always available. Prevenient.

Yeah, there are other Christians who insist it’s not. It’s not prevenient; it’s particular. God doesn’t offer grace to just anyone. He only offers it to the repentant. Or to the elect. He doesn’t waste his grace on people who want nothing to do with him, on people who will never turn to him. Grace is only for certain people, a limited few.

This idea doesn’t come from bible. Not that people don’t try to twist certain verses really hard, and claim it totally does. It comes from graceless humans. We don’t consider the whole of humanity worth saving; we figure there are sinners who just aren’t worth it. Jesus can’t have wasted his precious life on them. So, in these Christians’ minds, he didn’t. It’s a ransom for many, Mt 10.45, 20.28 not all.

Our infinite God has infinite resources, infinite love, infinite grace, and the ability to save absolutely everyone who turns to him. And wants to! 2Pe 3.9 But not all the world is willing. Mk 13.34, Mt 23.37 To all who receive him, he makes them his children. Jn 1.12 To all who don’t… he tries again. And again. His mercies never come to an end. Lm 3.22 ’Cause he’s patient like that.

Humans, not so much. And we project many of these selfish, depraved qualities upon God, and limit his grace because we lack grace. They feel it depletes their karma to waste love on people who will never reciprocate. They can’t justify this irrational, unbiblical idea, so they reframe it this way: They don’t love everybody because God must not love everybody—because he’s so almighty, so sovereign, his love would overwhelm and transform everyone it touches. Since not everyone is overwhelmed and transformed, God must not have loved them; certainly not in the way he loves us. So if he doesn’t love the world (despite Jesus saying he totally does Jn 3.16), why should they waste their love on ingrates? Hence limited love. Limited atonement. Limited grace.

It’s totally inconsistent with how Jesus describes his Father:

Matthew 5.43-48 KWL
43 “You heard this said: ‘You’ll love your neighbor.’ Lv 19.18 And you’ll hate your enemy.
44 And I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.
45 Thus you can become your heavenly Father’s children,
since he raises his sun over evil and good, and rains on moral and immoral.
46 When you love those who love you, why should you be rewarded?
Don’t taxmen also do so themselves?
47 When you greet only your family, what did you do that was so great?
Don’t the foreigners also do so themselves?
48 Therefore you will be egalitarian,
like your heavenly Father is egalitarian.”

Our heavenly Father loves both good and evil people—and grants his amazing grace to both. To all. Without limit. Preveniently.

Love for all. Grace for all.

True, verse 48 tends to get translated “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Mt 5.48 KJV ’Cause the word Jesus used is τέλειός/téleios, “complete, perfect, full.” So a lot of Christians quote this verse, then ignore Jesus’s teaching and talk about how God wants us to not sin, and be “perfect” that way. I’ve done it myself in the past.

In context Jesus is telling his followers to love everyone. Not just sinners. Everyone. Completely. With perfect consistency. Grace to all. Being egalitarian. That’s why I translated the word that way: The Father shows grace to both good and evil people, and so should we.

And that’s mighty hard to do, which is why people’d rather interpret it any other way. Way easier to bend the scriptures so God doesn’t show grace to evil people: Just point to those scriptures where he’s reached that point in the cycle where he’s done sending ’em prophets, and is now sending ’em raiders. Way more fun to point to how God hates sin, with “perfect hatred,” Ps 139.22 —just like King David described hating his enemies. They’ll claim this “perfect hatred” idea is God’s idea, not David’s; and so they get to hate their enemies too. Way more fun to be evil to evildoers, to help ’em get what’s coming to them. If karma won’t smite ’em for their evil deeds, let’s help karma along!

Yep, the reason Christians claim atonement and grace is limited to a select few, has nothing whatsoever to do with the scriptures. It’s entirely about our lack of grace, compassion, love, patience, and the Spirit’s fruit. It’s indulging that total depravity of ours, but covering it with a thin veneer of Christianism so it can look righteous. If God limits his grace, and gets to be a rotten bastard towards the lost, so do we!

But Jesus tells us to be better than that. Because he’s better than that. Because his Father’s better than that. We can’t defend our gracelessness by pointing to God’s gracelessness: He has no such thing. We can’t defend our limited patience, lack of forgiveness, expiration dates, tough love, or any graceless behaviors, on the grounds that God’s the same way. He’s not. The evil and good get the same sunshine and rain, because God’s grace is prevenient and his salvation’s for all.