Prevenient Grace – God's "Go" Signal?

In this excerpt from his classic Lectures in Systematic Theology, Henry Thiessen explains the concept of prevenient grace:1

All Christians are agreed that God has decreed to save men, but not all are agreed as to how He does this. We must, in this connection, particularly remember that God must take the initiative in salvation, that man, even in his present helpless state, is really responsible, and that God’s decrees are not based on caprice or arbitrary will, but on His wise and holy counsel. To our mind, the following things seem to be involved in the decree to save sinners:

The freedom of man

God has a very high regard for freedom. He could have made the creature an automon, but He preferred to make him capable of choosing whether or not he would obey and serve Him. The idea of freedom appears in two forms in Scripture.

On the one hand, freedom is thought of as simply the ability to carry out the dictates of one’s nature, whether as that of a holy unfallen being or as that of a sinful and fallen one. On the other hand, freedom is conceived of also as the ability to act contrary to one’s nature. Originally the creature (both angels and man) had freedom in both senses of the term. It had the ability not to sin and also the ability to sin. With the fall, the creature lost the ability not to sin (Gen 6:5; Job 14:14; Jer 13:23, 17:9; Rom 3:10-18, 8:5-8). It is now free only in the sense that it is able to do so as its fallen nature suggests.

Since man neither looks to God for deliverance, nor has any claim on God’s help, he is in a pitiable condition indeed (Rom 7:15-24). We, therefore, ask, How can he help living in sin? How can he ever choose contrary to his evil nature?

Prevenient grace

The upshot of the matter is that God must take the initiative if man is to be saved. God cannot relax His law simply because man is no longer able to obey it. Now all Calvinists believe in common grace. They teach that, since the race fell in Adam and lost all claims to consideration before God, we have in the blessings of life, health, friends fruitful seasons, prosperity, the delay of punishment, the presence and influence of the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the Church, manifestation of the common grace of God. Common grace is not sufficient for salvation, yet it reveals the goodness of God to all sinful creatures.

This is true, but why stop there?

We believe that the common grace of God also restores to the sinner the ability to make a favorable response to God. In other words, we hold that God, in His grace, makes it possible for all men to be saved.

That God does take the initiative in salvation is evident from His dealings with Adam and Eve after they had fallen (Gen 3:8-9). It is also evident from the teachings of Scripture in general (Isa 59:15-16; John 15:16). Paul says: “Not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” (Rom 2:4). This is a conative idea: it tries to lead thee to repentance.

Paul also says: “For the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). This results in the freeing of the will in the matter of salvation. That the will has been so freed is implied in the various exhortations to turn to God (Prov 1:23; Isa 31:6; Ezek 14:6, 18:32; Joel 2:13-14; Mt 18:3; Acts 3:19), to repent (1 Kings 8:47; Mt 3:2; Mk 1:15; Lk 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38, 17:30), and to believe (2 Chron 20:20; Isa 43:10; John 6:29, 14:1; Acts 16:31; Phil 1:29; 1 Jn 3:23).

But we should note exactly what this means and what it does not mean. It does not mean that prevenient grace enables a man to change the permanent bent of his will in the direction of God; nor that he can quit all sin and make himself acceptable to God. It does mean that he can make an initial response to God, as a result of which God can give him repentance and faith. He can say: “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned” (Jer 31:18-19; cf. Lam 5:21; Ps 80:3, 19; Ps 85:4).

If he can say this much, then he has had a measure of freedom restored to him; then he can in some measure act contrary to his fallen nature; and then he becomes doubly responsible, even in his present helpless state. And, if he will say this much, then God will turn him, grant him repentance (Acts 5:31, 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25) and faith (Rom 12:3; 2 Pet 1:1). The common grace of God is now seen to be intended to induce men to make this response.

Thiessen goes on to briefly discuss election based on foreknowledge of response to prevenient grace. We close our excerpt with the first portion of Thiessen’s discussion on “special or saving grace.”

We have seen that prevenient grace makes it possible for a man to respond favorably to God; but it does not compel him to do so. Because of it he can say: “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned” (Jer 31:18-19); in other words, he can now indicate some measure of desire for God. This positive response does not yet save him: it merely gives God the “go” signal, as we would say in this day of traffic signals. There are further conditions to meet; and in response to man’s “go” signal, God can now enable man to meet them. These conditions are, as we have already intimated, repentance and faith.


1 Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 154-157.  

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JohnBrian's picture

Article Six: The Election to Salvation

We deny that election means that, from eternity, God predestined certain people for salvation and others for condemnation.

Once again the Traditionalists misunderstand or misrepresent the view they oppose.

Calvinists affirm that all men are destined for destruction. We also affirm that in His mercy and grace God withholds that destruction from all who believe. God is active in extending mercy and grace to some, predestinating certain people for salvation, but is inactive in predestinating others for condemnation. There is no equivalency between extending mercy and grace, and withholding mercy and grace. In the case of the elect God extends mercy and grace, and in the case of the non-elect he withholds it. It is not that God walked down the line of humans and picked one for heaven and another for hell.

Since mercy and grace cannot be demanded - if they could they would cease to be mercy and grace  - and since all are destined to hell to begin with, we rejoice that God shows mercy to anyone. I recently read or heard (not sure which) an individual say that most of the folks who he met who expressed opposition to particular redemption, were in fact not opposed to it, but rather were opposed to unconditional election.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Charles H. Spurgeon ever preached on 1 John 2:2. 

Here is one of many Calvinist responses regarding the verse:

I also believe that rather than undermining the case for Christ’s death for His elect sheep, 1 John 2:2 actually affirms it. 



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David R. Brumbelow's picture

Semi-Pelagianism needs to be defined.  Very few Baptists have ever heard the term, and it seems to have many meanings.  Some wield it, not really knowing what it means. 

It seems to many that “Pelagianism” and “Semi-Pelagianism” are used by Calvinists to accuse others of heresy because they do not agree with Calvinism.  Some have done this with Sovereignty.  If someone does not believe in the Calvinist variety of Sovereignty, then they are accused of not believing in Sovereignty at all.  Not saying all Calvinists do this, but it often happens. 

Kind of reminds me of some who accuse a non-Premillennialist of heresy; or a non-Amillennialist of heresy.  No, they just disagree on some biblical teachings. 

If the Traditional Statement (TS) is heretical, then a large portion of the leaders of the SBC Conservative Resurgence are heretics.  Among the TS’s first signers, endorsers were:  Bailey Smith, Bobby Welch, Paige Patterson, Jerry Vines, Morris Chapman, Jimmy Draper, Steve Gaines, Frank Cox, David Allen, Chuck Kelley, Roy Fish…

The above first seven names all served as SBC presidents.  There is not a heretic among them.

David R. Brumbelow

josh p's picture

David, that’s why I said that I am careful about using the label. I agree that some Calvinists are guilty of doing that. I’ll have to double check some theological dictionaries but for the last couple of decades I have understood the second position that you outlined as Semi-Pelagianism.

Aaron Blumer's picture


David R. Brumbelow wrote:

Some believe a man is guilty of sin when he is conceived, or born.  He is directly guilty, because of Adam’s sin. 

Others believe a man is born with a sin nature because of Adam, but is not guilty of sin until he actually commits sin.

If the second of these is not the semi-pelagian view, how does it differ?

In Combs' study, the defining characteristic of the semi-pelagian view is that Adam's sin is not imputed to his descendants. What distinguishes this from Arminiansim in general is prevenient grace. Since the semi-pelagian view sees no need for PG, the implication is that man's natural state includes ability to respond positively to the general call.

(So semi-pelagian = nonimputation + natural ability)

Am I missing something? 

David R. Brumbelow's picture

The Traditional Statement mentions the call and work of the Holy Spirit prior to salvation.  How can anyone can miss it? 

TS excerpts:

While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit's drawing through the Gospel.

We affirm that grace is God's generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement, in freely offering the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in uniting the believer to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith.

We affirm that God, as an expression of His sovereignty, endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God's gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.

We deny that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person. We deny that there is an "effectual call" for certain people that is different from a "general call" to any person who hears and understands the Gospel. (end of excerpts)

However, no one, Calvinist or not, is going to mention that prior call of God every single time.  If someone wants to get that picky, they can accuse John 3:16, Romans 10:9-10, 13; etc., of being Semi-Pelagian. 

David R. Brumbelow

josh p's picture

I believe you were asked about your own comments not what the TS says. Your comments were about inherited guilt which the above does not address in the way that you did. 

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Original sin does not necessarily equal original guilt.  My comments above simply pointed out the different views and that both were within orthodox Christianity. 

“Second, presuppositions like ‘original sin entails original guilt’ are considered fact and any denial of such is considered to be a part of Semipelagianism. This was the approach of Herman Bavinck and appears to be followed by some Calvinists, including some commenting in ‘The Baptist Review.’ As Dr. Yarnell has accurately pointed out, on such a partisan definition of Semipelagianism, The Baptist Faith and Message would likely be classified as “Semipelagian” since the BFM makes no reference to original guilt. Not even Reformed theologians are in agreement on whether original sin includes original guilt. Henri Blocher in his book Original Sin notes the different views among the Reformed.”  -David L. Allen

This also speaks to the false idea of some that if you are not a Calvinist, you must be a heretic. 

David R. Brumbeow

josh p's picture

You are calling something orthodox based on your own opinion and then criticizing the “presupposition” that negates it. Rejecting Adamic guilt is unorthodox.

Here is Romans 5 to clear it up: “Romans 5:18–21 (NAS): 18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. 19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. 20 The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

I am not part of the SBC and therefore don’t really have a dog in this fight. I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that you are misrepresenting the traditional position until I have a chance to read more about it. 

Aaron Blumer's picture


David R. Brumbelow wrote:

Original sin does not necessarily equal original guilt.

It's been a while since I looked at the history, didn't the Council of Carthage (414?) where Pelagius' teaching was rejected specifically insist on Adamic guilt as inherent in the orthodox doctrine of Original Sin? If not, what was it that got Pelagius' stuff branded as heresy?

If we say it was his denial of the corruption of the Fall rather than Adamic guilt, that kind of brings our focus to a problem with this angle of defense: What does guilt have to do with the natural capacity to chose God?

It's inability that is seen by orthodox views to require divine intervention -- at the very least, in the form of prevenient grace. 

The "guilt" question doesn't seem to actually be relevant. 

(Edited to add: sometimes folks get hung up on "inability," and prefer to say natural man is able but always refuses. I believe this is just saying it a different way. "Unalterably unwilling" = "unable." It's just more specific about why. )

David R. Brumbelow's picture

So, the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition affirms that all people, even as infants, have inherited guilt. In explaining this view, theologian Wayne Grudem wrote that “even before birth, children have a guilty standing before God and a sinful nature that not only gives them a tendency to sin but also causes God to view them as ‘sinners.’” Calvinists point to Rom 5:12-21, in which Paul parallels the work of Adam and the work of Christ. But despite the teachings of Augustine and Calvin, Paul was not arguing for our guilt in Adam. Rom 5:12 states, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” Paul connects sin to death and states that all have sinned.

Some people read Augustinian-Calvinism into Romans 5, insisting that every person will die because “all sinned,” adding these words that are not in the text: “in Adam.” They say Romans 5 means we’re all guilty because of Adam’s sin. But the text only states that “death spread to all men, because all sinned.” We need to be careful not to read a theological system into the text of Scripture.  -Adam Harwood

David R. Brumbelow

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“A third possibility, which I am inclined to follow, is that the Greek words serve as a consecutive conjunction meaning ‘with the result that.’  In this case the primary cause of our sinful nature would be the sin of Adam; the result of that sin would be the history of sinning on the part of all who enter the human race and in fact sin of their own accord.”  -Robert H. Mounce, Romans, The New American Commentary, B&H; 1995. 

“Moody notes that Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, or inherited guilt, resulted from his small knowledge of Greek.  Thus he followed the Latin translation of in quo (in whom).  His position is rejected today even by Roman Catholic scholars who admit that it is not in the Scripture.  This does not in any sense deny the consequences in those who follow Adam’s example, but it does place the burden of responsibility upon each individual person (Jeremiah 31:29-30).”  -Herschel H. Hobbs, Romans, Word Books; 1977.  Hobbs is a former SBC president. 

“This last statement is commonly interpreted to mean that the guilt of Adam has been imputed to his descendants.  It more probably refers to the actual guilt which men incur because of that tendency to evil which they inherit, which is believed to be a result of the disobedience of Adam.  It is probably to be interpreted as a simple statement of the universal prevalence of sin, and of death which is its penalty, in order that Paul may compare with it the wide influence of the saving work of Christ.”  -Charles R. Erdman, Romans, Westminster Press; 1966. 

These quotes are simply to show that the belief that man inherits the tendency to sin, but not the guilt of sin, is a common evangelical, biblical belief.  It is wrong and unfair to accuse someone of heresy, or semi-heresy, just because he disagrees with some Calvinist doctrine. 

David R. Brumbelow

josh p's picture

I’m not interested in getting into a quote war with you which accomplishes nothing anyway but your quotes only respond to one small part of an entire passage. It’s not a Calvinist doctrine anyway. It’s a biblical one. You can be a non-Calvinist and affirm it.

dmyers's picture

Pastor Brumbelow:  You've provided a number of quotes on a number of topics, but you've avoided my original question (and other questions that others have asked).  The Statement you're defending says:  "We deny that Adam's sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person's free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned."  

If that sentence is correct, there is no need for prevenient grace at all, is there?  (If in our natural state we're capable of exercising our free will to respond to the gospel, we don't need prevenient grace, right?)  Do you and the other signers of the Statement deny the existence of or the need for prevenient grace to enable a person to trust Christ?  

To put the same question a different way:  Dr. Combs's chart of the contrasting positions on original sin and grace summarizes Semi-Pelagianism on Original Sin ("Man is born spiritually weak.  No imputation of Adam's sin.") and on Grace ("Man cooperates with God's grace").  The chart also summarizes Arminianism's positions on the same issues ("Total depravity (?) and total inability (hypothetical).  Imputation of Adam's sin usually denied." and "Prevenient grace leads to cooperation," respectively).  Which column best describes your/the Statement's positions on Original Sin and on Grace?

I'd appreciate just a straightforward answer, followed by whatever explanation or support you wish to add.

In response to your last comment above ("These quotes are simply to show that the belief that man inherits the tendency to sin, but not the guilt of sin, is a common evangelical, biblical belief.  It is wrong and unfair to accuse someone of heresy, or semi-heresy, just because he disagrees with some Calvinist doctrine."), two points.  First, it's completely unpersuasive to equate "common evangelical" with "biblical" belief.  The Ligonier survey of evangelical Christians' doctrinal beliefs demonstrates that a lot of "common evangelical" beliefs are in fact heretical.  Second, no one here has accused anyone of heresy or semi-heresy "just because he disagrees with some Calvinist doctrine."  That's a straw man argument -- another avoidance tactic.

Looking forward to some clarity -- I want to understand what your position is and/or what the Statement means to say on these specific issues.

David R. Brumbelow's picture


I’ve already answered your questions above.  The Traditional Statement also answers them.  Read it and read the link.

“While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit's drawing through the Gospel.”

David R. Brumbelow

dmyers's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:


I’ve already answered your questions above.  The Traditional Statement also answers them.  Read it and read the link.

“While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit's drawing through the Gospel.”

David R. Brumbelow

You hadn't answered my question or I wouldn't have re-asked it.  And if you have answered my question (straightforwardly), what's the harm in repeating the (straightforward) answer here?  I have read the Statement and I think it does answer my question, but you seem to be claiming that it says something different, but you won't address the question head on.  The different sentence from the Statement that you quote in your response here does not answer the question.  There's a difference between the Holy Spirit's drawing and prevenient grace.  If you don't or won't get the distinction, I can't help you.  Just be aware that if you're not preaching to your choir on these subjects (or at least to people who don't/won't ask follow-up questions), you're being incomprehensible.  You may think your answers/presentation are "cute" and clever, but the only one you're impressing is yourself.  You're not advancing the dialogue.

Larry's picture


For all the quotations of others, we could just quote God:

"For if by the transgression of the one the many died,  ...   the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, ... by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one ... as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men ... For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners."

What does this mean if not that the sin of Adam brought condemnation and death to all of us? 

The point of Romans 5 is that we become sinners in the same way we become righteous: By something we didn't do.

If you become a sinner by your own acts of sin, then you must become righteous by your own acts of righteousness. If, on the other hand, you are declared a sinner by the sin of Adam, you can be declared righteous by the obedience of Christ. The whole beauty and truth of the gospel depends on the imputation of Adam's sin and guilt. 

The idea that one can have original sin without original guilt seems to question the justice of God. How can sin not bring guilt? And if we are not guilty, on what basis are we condemned by the sin of the one man? Does God condemn people who aren't guilty?

The whole idea of the "traditional statement" is misleading, it seems  to me. I think what they mean is "majority view." Traditionally there has been a strong Calvinistic component in Baptist life. 

Andrew K's picture

If Adam's guilt is not inherited, then it seems to me you have an interesting problem re. children dying in infancy.

In the first place, since they have no guilt or share in Adam's sin, one would think it unjust that they bear the penalty of that sin (death). They shouldn't have to die at all, since they're receiving "wages" for which they didn't pay.

Now should one argue that those dying in infancy are simply the innocent victims of Adam's sin, the whole discussion over "elect infants" or "age of accountability," et al, is moot; as individuals innocent of any guilt (Adam's or personal guilt), they would naturally proceed directly to heaven, no questions asked. In this case, it truly would be better for most people to die in infancy.

josh p's picture

Larry, I already tried quoting that passage and was responded to with quotes.

Aaron Blumer's picture


The guilt question isn't really relevant to the prevenient grace issue. It comes down to inability. If natural man is able to turn to Christ on his own--or sort of partly turn, as some of the views seem to say--no prevenient grace is necessary. On the other hand, if his mind and will are hostile toward God, something must make it not hostile, something outside him.

The Statement seems to try to have it both ways, denying natural inability but also insisting the Holy Spirit's work is required, which seems to only shift the original problem to a (slightly) different location: does the Holy Spirit draw/convict every single person, or only some?

Larry's picture


The guilt question isn't really relevant to the prevenient grace issue.

I think it is at least somewhat relevant. Total inability is due to spiritual death which is because of the guilt of sin. If man is not guilty of sin, then then there would be no need for the kind of grace we are talking about here--prevenient or not. 

Why need grace unless you are guilty of sin?

Aaron Blumer's picture


I see the connection -- spiritual death as consequence of culpability. On the other hand, the argument could be made that man inherits inability as a consequence of Adam's sin without each person being culpable for that sin, sort of like if some evildoer poisons a well in a village: one is "guilty," but all are damaged.

This is not my own view, of original sin and its consequences though. (In my view, we are all both culpable and damaged.) So, my point is that since it's possible to conceptually separate guilt and inability, it's really the latter that is the problem for those who want to find some way to see everybody as able... and how to come up with that and yet fit it to Scripture and avoid the errors of Pelagius. It's a tall order. (To me, it doesn't seem worth it, especially if you're going to turn around and say nobody comes to the Faith unless the Spirit directly acts on him/her first. If you're going to do that, you're back at inability again, and the whole exercise was a turn on a merry go round. Seems to me, if you're going to posit universal prevenient grace, that grace should be sufficient to allow a person to come to Christ without any additional divine intervention. If more intervention is required, then the sinner is not able.)

(I mean "you" generically, not "you"=Larry Smile )

Andrew K's picture

Now back to point number three above. Calvinists and Arminians err when they claim that theologically, it’s either Calvinism or Arminianism. This approach does not do justice to the varieties of orthodox Christian traditions. Augustinianism is not identical with Calvinism. Nor can Lutheranism be identified as Calvinism. As Michael Horton rightly noted, Confessional Lutherans “cannot be pressed into Calvinist-Arminian categories” because they affirm unconditional election and monergism, but deny double predestination, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of believers (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 314.n.11). Douglas A. Sweeney (professor of Church History at Trinity) informs us that Lutheranism is . . . Lutherans. They are neither “hesitant Calvinists” nor “two-and-a-half-point Calvinists.” (See Baptists are Baptists, and we are a varied bunch! Those who affirm the TS reject the notion that one has to be either Calvinist or Arminian . . . and Baptist history is on our side. See

Appealing to Lutheranism as a "third way" between Calvinism and Arminianism (or full-blown semipelagianism) is problematic. Little wonder those who do so rarely elaborate on the issue, other than to raise it as an objection.

Confessional Lutheranism (contra mainline Lutheranism [which is pointless] or Luther himself [who strongly affirmed Augustinian predestination]) has developed mechanisms by which it can evade the issues at the heart of the disagreement between Arminianism and Calvinism.

These mechanisms, however, are rooted in a uniquely Lutheran sacramentology and Christology. Furthermore, they allow for a wide latitude of what they refer to as "mystery," but most of us--Calvinist or Arminian--would label "contradiction." Mechanisms that, upon scrutiny, would make your typical Arminian very uncomfortable.

Unless you a) agree with them on some of these points, or b) have developed similar complex theological superstructures of your own, appealing to Lutheranism is not a valid move. 


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