Ready, Set, Go: Understanding Prevenient Grace
Imagine you are watching the Boston Marathon. It is a beautiful April day, perfect weather for the race. Over 30,000 people of all ages and nationalities are gathered at the starting line. They have on their racing gear, their racing shoes, their numbers. They have stretched and loosened up. The appointed time comes and the starting gun fires. Nothing much happens! A few people seem to be taking the race seriously and they are soon out of sight. Many more hardly make it to the end of the block before they stop to take selfies. Most just stand around.
From God’s perspective, this must be what our lives look like. He has laid out the course, the Way of Salvation. He has prepared each and every person who has ever lived, who is alive today, and who will ever live. The starting gun has sounded, but most pay no attention.
How has God prepared us to follow his Way of Salvation? The simple answer is prevenient grace. There is one answer, but two parts. Like every other form of grace that we will talk about, prevenient grace is a free, unearned gift from God. I know, you are probably thinking “I have heard of amazing grace, we say grace before a meal, I listen to Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, but what does prevenient grace mean? What is it?”
Prevenient grace is all the ways God works in our lives before we really know him at all.
It is impossible to make too big a deal about this grace. Consider this: when Satan got Adam and Eve to break God’s rule in the Garden of Eden, sin came into the world and totally messed everything up. Adam and Eve pushed God aside and let Satan in. This one little embrace of evil put a barrier between people and God which is exactly what Satan wanted.
What Satan did not count on was God’s very being – God is love – and God’s unlimited power. God loved people too much to lose them like this. God also loved people too much to just drag them back whether they wanted to come or not. Without anyone’s permission, by grace God reached through the sin and placed within each of us a spark of his light. He did not create an out-of-control wildfire that would force us to act. Instead, God gave us just enough light so that we could see that there were other options besides darkness and sin. Just enough light that we could choose to follow him. Just enough light to choose to do good things. This spark of light is the first act of prevenient grace.
This means that there has never been a person and never will be a person who has not been touched by God’s grace.
Every time you see someone be kind, do good, or love, no matter if that person believes in God or not, you are seeing an expression of God’s prevenient grace in that person’s life. All good things come from God!
The second dose of prevenient grace comes as God tries to get our attention. God is not playing hide-n-seek. He wants to be found so he gets in our faces in many different ways. It might be in a song or worship or scripture. It might be in the compassion shown by a friend, the kindness of a stranger, the indescribable beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the awesome feeling that comes when standing on a mountain or at the beach. God wants us to realize for ourselves that he is indeed real. God wants us to believe, but he will never force us to believe.
This brings us to an important difference between that spark of light and God’s desire to be known. We cannot refuse that first touch of prevenient grace. Everyone gets it. After this first work of grace we always have a choice. So we can refuse to acknowledge God’s existence.
One woman overwhelmed by the beauty of nature raised her hands and shouted, “Thank you, universe!” The universe is the creation, not the creator, she had missed the point entirely. Others may get close but not quite there and end up chasing after false gods, or man-made ways of living. No matter how hard any of us try, the spark of light within will never be satisfied with anything less than the full light of God.
It’s easy to get discouraged when looking around the world. But whenever you see a friend or relative or stranger doing something nice, you can have hope because you are watching God’s grace at work in their lives. Maybe one day that grumpy or angry or irritating person will know it, too, because God never gives up on anyone. His grace is without limit.