Ask Steve: Common, Special, Prevenient Grace

Question: Steve, what are your beliefs on the following categories of grace: Common, Special, and Prevenient? In addition to explaining what these categories are, do you believe they are biblical? 

Answer: Even though these three doctrines are not stated in such terms in Scripture, I do believe that the Bible gives clear evidence of God’s common and special grace at work in the world. Prevenient grace is a little trickier, because theologians have different ideas of what prevenient grace is and what it looks like in action. I do believe in what is called God’s effectual call and regeneration that allows a sinner to respond in saving faith, but there is not much biblical support for the Arminian concept of prevenient grace, which is something I call unbiblical.

Common grace is the simple, but sometimes controversial, truth that God showers His gifts and blessings to all people, whether they are Christians or not. This grace is common because it is available to all people and is not restricted to Christians only. It is an act of grace because it does not give us what we truly deserve. Since we are all born sinners and contribute sin to the world everyday, we are not entitled to any of God’s blessings, but justly deserve torment, death, and misery in hell. The fact that we are still alive even after we sin endlessly, and enjoy the pleasures of good air, a home, food to eat everyday, and lovely scenery to gaze at shows that God is granting all of the world, both believers and unbelievers, unmerited favor. There are a multiple realms in life where God has revealed His common grace.

The first area is in the physical realm. The world is governed in a way that provides abundant rain, food, clothing, and shelter to people. Matthew 5:44-45 and Acts 14:16-17 reveal the fact that God lavishes His benefits on both the righteous and unrighteous. God’s goodness and compassion to people all around the world, though not in equal proportions, is on display. God also grants common grace in the intellectual realm in that He grants everyone a basic knowledge of His existence, as seen in creation and the conscience, so that they may respond to Him. This common grace is also observed in the education that is provided to many people to read and write (especially so that they can read Scripture and come to saving faith). The intellectual realm also encompasses man’s use of his intellect for science, technology, and vocation for carrying out the cultural mandate.

God’s common grace is also seen in the moral realm, where God’s law has been revealed in every person so that they may know right and wrong and govern in society. God’s common grace in the moral realm is what restrains lawlessness and brings order to society, something that will be removed shortly before the 7-Year Tribulation begins. Other realms that evidence God’s common grace is in the creative arts (ex. paintings, movies, music, etc), societal structure (ex. family unit, government institutions, educational system), and the religious realm (ex. God’s moral law in various religions that understand basic right and wrong, Christian influence that positively affects the non-believing world).

The one thing to note about common grace is that it does not mean that God endorses a sinner’s lifestyle. Common grace does not save a person from hell nor is it indicative that God has elected someone to salvation. Even though God sovereignly allows common grace to bless a sinner, His wrath still abides upon him until the person comes to repentance and trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation. In fact, one of the functions of common grace is to display God’s kindness so that men can come to repentance (Rom 2:4). This is where special grace comes in.

Special grace goes beyond common grace and grants the grace that is the most important: the saving grace that leads to eternal salvation. Special grace is defined by P.E. Hughes as “the grace by which God redeems, sanctifies, and glorifies His people. Unlike common grace, which is universally given, special grace is bestowed on those whom God elects to eternal life through His Son Jesus Christ.” Special grace is all that God does to save and restore lost sinners from sin to eternal life. Unlike common grace, special grace is not something that a person receives passively, but must actively pursue it in order to benefit from it. The sinner is called to respond by exercising faith in the object, which is Christ Jesus. This special grace is a gift from God and is not deserved, but a sinner, as I have mentioned, needs to appropriate it by repentant faith (Eph 2:8). Then the benefits come, which is justification, restoration of fellowship with the Lord, and eternal life. This special grace becomes the basis for his justification and his sanctification until the final stage of glorification.

Only the believer in Christ benefits from special grace, whereas the unbeliever’s grace ends with the common grace. The benefit of special grace is eternal, whereas common grace is only temporary. Special grace is only composed of God’s elect, whereas common grace can be composed of both God’s elect and His reprobates.

Prevenient grace describes a particular grace of God that precedes the act of a sinner exercising saving faith in Jesus Christ. This mostly describes the Arminianist stance against the Calvinist idea of irresistible grace, which is why this doctrine has also been called resistible grace and pre-regenerating grace. Prevenient grace is the assumption that the Holy Spirit neutralizes inherited depravity and corruption in all people. Prevenient grace allows all men to exercise free will to accept or reject the offer of salvation in Christ. Arminanists say that it is because of this type of grace that men are able, with a clear mind, to respond unhindered to the gospel message and thus experience the regeneration and salvation.

This idea is clearly not biblical. There is really no biblical evidence that states that God neutralizes someone’s depravity so that they can be freed from the harmful effects of sin. Philippians 1:6 and Hebrews 12:2 speak of God as the Author and Perfector of faith and the one who brings it to completion as He wills. However, prevenient grace does not guarantee that a sinner will choose Christ, since such grace can be resisted, even in the person’s neutral position. This implies that God cannot be the true Author or Completer of the sinner’s faith come He had elected from eternity past. Another reason to reject this doctrine is that 1 John 5:1 clearly teaches that the cause of someone believing in Jesus Christ is that he was born again, or regenerated. God does not merely make someone partially alive or better capable of making a good decision, but resurrects his spirit entirely to newness of life, which is the only way a spiritually dead sinner (Eph 2:1; Col 2:13) can see the truths of the gospel and come to Christ with repentance and love.

The idea that better captures the pre-salvific grace that allows sinners to respond in saving faith is effectual grace. This is the doctrine that God revives dead hearts in regeneration so that hearts can be willing and powerful enough to respond freely to God’s offer of salvation in Christ. God causes His word to take root in our lives (Jer 31:33), gives us a new heart to know Him (Jer 24:7), frees us from the bondage of sin (Rom 6:18), draws sinners to Christ (John 6:37), and imparts spiritual life to us (Eph 2:4-5). The elect of God benefit the most from God’s three graces, because it is God’s common grace that allows believers to live long enough to experience God’s effectual grace and thus apply God’s special grace. Unbelievers who ultimately reject Christ know only of God’s common grace and nothing more. Thus common grace is temporary, whereas effectual and special grace lasts forever.