Brian Shelton, Prevenient Grace: God’s Provision for Fallen Humanity. Anderson, IN: Francis Asbury Press, 2014. xi + 283 pp., n.p., pbk.
John Wesley famously cracked that Calvinism was “within a hair’s breadth of the truth.” One would not get any such impression from listening to either contemporary Calvinists or Arminians, who have been practicing polarization with great diligence ever since the passing of their respective masters. Toccoa Falls College VP for Academic Affairs Brian Shelton makes Wesley’s pronouncement plausible again with a much-needed study of Wesley’s doctrine of Prevenient Grace. Strangely neglected by contemporary Wesleyans, this doctrine is actually their strongest response to Calvinist critiques of their theology. Shelton treats it exegetically, historically, and theologically in a winsome book that deserves attention from people on both sides of the controversy. The book concludes with a very useful FAQ section called a “Synthesis of a Case for Prevenient Grace.”
Prevenient Grace is the proverbial hair’s breadth from the corresponding Calvinist doctrine of “Effectual Calling.” Both deal with the problem that in the Gospel faith and repentance are demanded of people who are incapable of rendering any such response, because they are dead in their trespasses and sins and the natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit. It will be news to many Calvinists that there is an Arminian theology that takes this problem as seriously as they do and offers a similar solution: the enablement of the Holy Spirit is a necessary prerequisite to that response. The breadth of the hair lies here: Does the Spirit give that enablement to all men and women who hear the Gospel, or only to those who actually respond? Does He overcome all men’s sinful indisposition to the truth just enough so that they are able to make a free choice, or does He “call” those whom God foreknows so effectually that we can say that “whom He foreknew . . . He justified . . . and glorified” (Rom. 8:29-30)?
The exegetical section is the key. There are of course passages that can be taken as supporting either view (I’ve given one I think is on the Calvinist side above). Shelton shows what a responsible Arminian reading of them looks like. I think that in several of them the words can be taken either way, depending on the assumptions we bring to the text. In the end my own moderate reformed view remained intact. But I think Shelton has shown that constructive dialog between Evangelical Arminians and Gospel Calvinists needs to continue, and that both sides will profit from making this doctrine—and Shelton’s fine treatment of it—central in that discussion.
Scripture, as I said, seems to say (or at least imply) both Prevenient Grace and Effectual Calling. That is a sign that we need to live inside the hair. If that seems a rather narrow and constricted space, remember: Like the Tardis and a certain Narnian stable, it is bigger on the inside than the outside.
Donald T. Williams, PhD
For more writing by Dr. Williams, visit https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy, or Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, all from Lantern Hollow Press: poems and prose in pursuit of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty!