Granted by the Father: A Primer on Prevenient Grace

Can anyone come to or believe in Christ apart from an inner work of God? No, actually, and this inner work is given various names. In Arminian theology we give this work the general name of prevenient grace, prevenient referring to "coming before," "preceding," thus giving us the literal statement of "coming-before grace," or "preceding grace." While you will not find the Arminian-loaded words prevenient grace, sufficient grace, or enabling grace in Scripture -- just as you will not find the Calvinist-loaded words regenerating grace, irresistible grace, or electing grace in Scripture -- we use the term prevenient grace in order to teach what we believe to be a biblical understanding; that if a person is to believe in Jesus Christ, and thereafter be saved, then a gracious work of God, through the Holy Spirit, must "come before" that faith. We see prevenient grace in the words of both Jesus and Paul.

Jesus informs a crowd of would-be followers that their motive is misplaced. They are viewing Him as a Provider for their physical needs and thus ignoring Him as the Provider for their spiritual needs. (John 6:26, 27) So they respond: "What shall we do, that we may work [ἐργαζώμεθα, present tense, work and keep on working] the works [ἔργα, plural] of God?" (John 6:28 NASB) Jesus does not berate them about mentioning works. He does not correct them and then launch into a six-week sermon series about grace. He merely responds: "This is the work [ἔργον, singular] of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent." (John 6:29) This is significant. Jesus refers to faith in Him as the singular ἔργον, work, the work which God requires. This work brings about "the food that endures for eternal life" (John 6:27), i.e., this work brings Jesus to the individual and vice versa.

In a primary sense, we view Jesus' words here as merely symbolic, since trusting in Christ is not a work proper (Rom. 4:4, 5). In other words, faith is not counted a work in the same sense as one envisions meriting a reward, since merit incorporates an effort tantamount to a work. Nor can one be a good person and trust in that goodness. We lost all inherent goodness through our first parents; and we consistently prove this to be the case on a daily basis. Faith, however, is merely the response within an individual that causes him to look outside himself for hope. He cannot look inwardly, because he cannot give himself what is required of God for salvation, and therefore he cannot save himself. If salvation is to occur in his life then he must look elsewhere. Jesus informs all to look to Him.

The crowd responds to Jesus, asking Him for a sign, which in itself is a declaration of their unbelief. Jesus calls them to believe and they remain in their unbelief. Jesus then presents Himself as "the bread of life," stating, "he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst." (John 6:35, emphases added) Recall that, when the crowd first approaches Jesus, they desire for Him to feed them. (John 6:26) At that point Jesus informs them of their real need: "the food that endures for eternal life." (John 6:27) He proclaims Himself to be that food (John 6:35), and they remain in their unbelief, and Jesus informs them that this is so. (John 6:36) At this He declares: "All that the Father gives Me shall come to [ἥξει, lit. "reach," "arrive at," "be present with"] Me, and the one who comes to [ἐρχόμενον, "comes to," not the same word just used] Me I will certainly not cast out." (John 6:37, emphases added) At John 6:37b Jesus repeats the "comes to" of John 6:35.

I do not conflate the "comes to Me" of John 6:35a with the "believes in Me" of John 6:35b. The one who "comes to" Jesus "comes to" Him to be fed with spiritual food -- that one "will never be hungry." (John 6:35a) Jesus insists that the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness will be filled. (Matt. 5:6) The food that Jesus is offering here is His very flesh (John 6:50) given "for the life of the world." (John 6:51; cf. John 6:33) Such a person "comes to" and keeps "coming to" Him, since ἐρχόμενος is in the present tense. Then there is the connective kai, and, where Jesus adds: "and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." (John 6:35b) But Jesus' point that the Father gives Him people needs a voice: δίδωσιν, gives, is a present active indicative, denoting that the Father gives and keeps on giving certain people to Jesus. Such people "come to" Him, as well as "believes in" Him, and He never drives such away. (John 6:37)

Jesus then notes two aspects about the will of the Father: 1) that of those given to Him, He should not lose (ἀπολέσω, properly, to utterly kill or destroy) any of them, or drive them away (John 6:37, 38, 39); and 2) that all who see the Son and believe in Him may have eternal life, and Jesus will raise those who believe in Him on the last day. (John 6:40) So, to attain eternal life, what Jesus teaches is that a person must believe in Him. (John 6:27, 29, 35, 40)

Interestingly, the Jewish unbelievers in the crowd are not perturbed at the insistence that they should believe in Jesus to attain eternal life, but that He claims to have come down out of heaven from the Father. (John 6:41, 42) Some of them had known Jesus since He was very young. "How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven?'" (John 6:42) Here is the proper context: some Jewish people who are following Jesus, looking for food to eat because they experienced His miracle of feeding over five thousand with only five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:1-25), refuse to obey Jesus' message to believe in Him to attain eternal life. Such people, then, are not given to Jesus by the Father. Why? Because the Father only gives to Jesus those who come to and believe in Jesus. (John 6:35, 37)


In other words, God does not give unbelievers to Jesus, but only believers. One is not given to Jesus in order that he might believe. One is not regenerated and thus saved in order that he might then believe in Jesus. These texts do not even make the slightest inference toward such a theory. That is a putting of the cart before the horse. We are saved by grace through faith, not to faith, not in order to believe. (Eph. 2:5, 8) A person is given to Jesus by the Father after the person, by grace, believes in Christ.

In their state of rebellion, and unbelief, Jesus commands the crowd to stop complaining. (John 6:43) He then adds: "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day." (John 6:44) We need Jewish ears and a Jewish perspective in order to hear what Jesus is saying to them. They are angry because Jesus claims to have come down out of heaven from the Father -- the God of Israel -- thus He is claiming pre-existence, spiritual authority, and a divine oneness with the God of Israel. This offends their Jewish senses. Jesus then reaffirms His oneness with the God of Israel by stating that the ones who come to Him, for eternal life, are the ones whom the God of Israel, His Father, draws to Himself. In other words, if they truly believe in the God of Israel, then they would come to Jesus for eternal life. (cf. John 6:68) The fact that they refuse to come to Jesus, and believe in Him, demonstrates that they also do not belong to the God of Israel. Jesus makes a similar connection at John 14:1, 6 to His disciples.

Who does the Father "draw" to Jesus? He continues: "It is written in the prophets, 'And they [contextually, the Jewish people] shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me." (John 6:45) Jesus quotes from Isaiah in His message to the Jewish people: "And all your sons will be taught of the LORD; and the well-being of your sons will be great." (Isa. 54:13) In essence, then, the Jewish people whom Jesus is addressing should have learned properly from the Father; those who come to Jesus and are drawn to Jesus by the Father are united with Jesus by grace through faith. That they have not been drawn to Jesus bespeaks of their unbelief, their rejection of the God of Israel, and not to any lack of grace from God. Their demise is their own fault.

Jesus continues: "Not that any has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes [present tense: and keeps on believing] has [present tense: and will continue to have] eternal life." (John 6:46-47 NASB) Jesus claims to have intimate knowledge of the God of Israel, since He has both seen the Father, and comes from the presence of God. The people whom God taught, referred to at John 6:45, are the Jewish people; and God taught them through the prophets of God. They would not listen; and they demonstrate this truth by not coming to Jesus for eternal life and believing in Him. Many who had followed turned back (John 6:66), Jesus already knowing their unbelief (John 6:64), and He states: "For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father." (John 6:65)

The notion of "granting," δεδομένον, at John 6:65 (cf. Luke 1:74; 7:4; 12:51; Acts 4:29; Eph. 3:16) is also employed by Paul, but with the use of a different Greek word: "For to you it has been granted [ἐχαρίσθη] for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake." (Phil. 1:29; cf. Acts 3:14; 27:24; Gal. 3:18) The root of the latter word refers to grace, a gift, a favor. The root of the former word refers to an offer, a giving, or a placing. But what cannot be denied, from the usage at both passages, is that a prevenient work of grace from the Spirit of God is necessary before a person may become united with Christ by faith. Arminius is emphatic on this point: "our will is not free from the first fall; that is, it is not free to [the performing of spiritual] good, unless it be made free by the Son through His Spirit."1 Spring-boarding from a reading of James 1:17, Arminius confesses our inherent need for God in all areas of life, as he argues that by the gracious power of God:
the dead are animated that they may live, the fallen are raised up that they may recover themselves, the blind are illuminated that they may see, the unwilling are incited that they may become willing, the weak are confirmed that they may stand, the willing are assisted that they may work and may co-operate with God.2
One may rightly suggest that wherever in Scripture one encounters words related to grace, granting, drawing or favor, the notion of prevenient grace may be inferred, given that prevenient grace is merely the grace which precedes an action. If one is to believe in Christ, come to Christ for salvation, be united with Christ, and to the body of Christ by faith in Christ, then that one must first be the recipient of God's prevenient grace. Moreover, the biblical concept of prevenient grace assumes the truths of total depravity and total inability. For if we maintained the inherent power to believe in or come to Christ on our own, then a work of prevenient grace would be unwarranted, and entirely gratuitous: classical Arminians defend the doctrine of total depravity and total inability.

Furthermore, prevenient grace also assumes that one cannot contribute toward one's salvation. We argue that neither prevenient grace, nor faith, saves the soul: only God saves and He has elected to save those who believe, by grace, in Christ. (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20). God is sovereign over salvation. God alone saves. But He alone saves the one who, by grace, trusts in Jesus Christ. God does not save unbelievers. That statement deserves a re-read: God has not elected to save unbelievers. (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13) Therefore, the one who, by grace and the granting of the Father, comes to Jesus for salvation, believing in His finished work, the same is given to Him by the Father for safe-keeping.

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1 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers," in The Works of Arminius, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:194.

2 Ibid., 2:196.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.