Matt O’Reilly is Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Union Springs, Alabama, a Ph.D candidate in New Testament at the University of Gloucestershire, and Adjunct Instructor of New Testament Greek at Asbury Theological Seminary. Connect at www.mattoreilly.net or follow on Twitter @mporeilly.
New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg recently wrote on the different understandings of grace as irresistible as opposed to prevenient. After describing the difficulty that many have with “limited atonement,” namely that it means “Christ’s death went for naught for those who do not repent,” he goes on to suggest that prevenient grace may have a similar problem:
What if the problem with prevenient grace is parallel? Would God extend sufficient (but resistible) grace to those he knew would forever resist and reject it? Wouldn’t that just be a waste?
Blomberg is a fine scholar and has contributed in a variety of ways to sound biblical scholarship. Here I would raise a question, though. He seems to be speaking of grace as if it were a substance. It is something that God “extends,” something that can be wasted. Many of us often speak in such ways, and I would like to hear Blomberg discuss this more thoroughly. Grace is not a substance; grace is a person. There is no grace other than the person of Jesus Christ Himself. Salvation by grace means being joined in a relationship of union with Jesus such that all that is His is shared with those who are joined to Him. When we think of grace as a person rather than as some other sort of thing, it is difficult to make sense of terms like “waste.” Can a person be wasted?
When we begin to conceive of grace like this, we can begin to see the value of the concept of prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is about the activity of God through His Spirit to draw people into a new relationship with the Father through the Son before that relationship is actually established. Wesleyans (and Arminians) tend to think of salvation in terms of a new relationship with God. This is one reason we are concerned by the idea of irresistible grace. It is difficult to conceive how an irresistible relationship, one that must be had against the will of one party, can be a relationship of mutual self-giving love. A relationship of love is one in which both parties freely desire to engage. And relationships of reconciliation are pursued before they are firmly established. Such relationships, it would seem, can be resisted.
So, prevenient grace is not about God offering a thing (or substance) to those who He knows will reject it. Prevenient grace is about the triune God offering Himself and wooing His beloved into a relationship of boundless other-oriented love. Prevenient grace is not about receiving a thing; it’s about receiving a person. In this light we can recast the question: Would God offer Himself in relationship to those who He knew would forever resist and reject that relationship? The resounding answer seems to me to be yes. Isn’t that who He is? Does He not present Himself to those who are at enmity with Him? Does He not call out to the banquet those who refuse to come? Does He not long to gather His people as a hen gathers her chicks despite their resistance? Grace is not a substance. Grace is Jesus. And Jesus offers Himself, not for us only but also for the whole world.