Thursday, October 05, 2006

Untangling the Words: Grace, Prevenient Grace, and Faith

When we talk about God's love and our salvation, our definitions have gotten so muddled, our terminology so churchified that it's easy to lose track of what we're discussing. Ben Witherington, a man that most would grant knows a few things about Christianity, wrote:
And if the greatest being of all wants to love me, why would I not respond positively, grace or no grace? Now having said that, I do think that we are saved by grace through faith, but one can argue that God only gives prevenient grace to those he knows will respond positively. Thus we are back to square one. -- Ben Witherington, comments section of his post on Origen, and the Nature of God's Sovereignty*
After reading that, I felt compelled to type some definitions as quickly as I could manage.

Grace: that someone is inclined to behave kindly towards another; a state of favor. In theology, that God loves the world and that the world is therefore in a state of favor with God.

Prevenient grace: That God loves us first.

Faith: Trust. In theology, a recognition that God is trustworthy, a response to his love, which came first (see prevenient grace).

Which is to say, the fact that God wants to love us is grace. The fact that he loves us while we are plainly unworthy and even hostile is prevenient grace. God's love comes to us through Christ, which is what it means that grace comes through Christ. God's love towards us is, for us, his trustworthiness, his faithfulness. It causes us to trust Him, which is faith.

Which is exactly why the view of some camps that God is uninterested in saving most people is so destructive to faith. It is impossible to trust a Being you plainly think is glad to blast most of the planet for personal reasons, and unwilling to help most people.

It is also exactly why telling people about God's faithfulness in Christ is the seed that bears fruit and changes lives, and why the gospels -- which do nothing but tell about God's faithfulness and love coming to the world through Christ -- are the ultimate evangelistic material.

* This is not meant to pick on Dr. W. That quote was in the comments section, and comments tend to be written off-the-cuff. I wouldn't have quoted it except it was such a good example of the "theologianese" that I have seen far too often, where the "theologianese" has lost its roots in the real world to the point where someone will oppose a word's ultimate meaning ("if God wants to love me") to its churchified meaning ("grace or no grace") without even realizing it. Systematic theology can become systematic distortion when we aren't more careful about what words mean.


DugALug said...


You, Codepoke, and Maeghan, have some really cool deep posts. I love the thoughts and they keep me on my toes.

Thanks for the great stuff.

There is two things that you might want to include with this set of definitions though.

Mercy - God's decision to not give us what we deserve.

The deliniation between grace and mercy.

With Grace, God is allowing an action to occur free of judgement. With Mercy, God has waived the judgement for what has already occured.

I don't really see grace as an action of love, but more an action of God's faith in us.

So to me, Prevenient grace is not that God loves us first, it is that God had faith in us first. You could say that love was the biproduct of this, but I think this is a more literal interpretation of that phrase.

Just some thoughts,

God Bless

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Doug

So going with what you're saying, that God had faith in us ... faith to do what? Or am I not getting what you're saying?

DugALug said...


Good question and I'm glad you asked.

The word faithful means strict or thorough in the performance of duty and/or
True to one's word, promises, vows, etc.: to be reliable, trusted, or believed

If God is anything, God is faithful: it is that character of God that is so appealing to schlumps like me.

But God has faith in us. He believes that we would accept Him, not by the force of Him showing His might, or even the threatning of damnation: God has the faith that we will receive Him, without coersion. This is what I believe is the quiet underbelly of the scripture about the 'deep calling the deep'.

It is God's faith in mankind that is so compelling. Job is a perfect example of this. God declares to Satan that His servant will not fall. Angry, scruff, and beaten by what was brought against him, Job weathered, and from it decalred: naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return. Oh the Lord gives and takes away: blessed be the name of the Lord. The Lord chastises him for questioning, but God's faith in Job never faultered.

In the end faithful means being one who continues regaurdless of situation. God is also that exact model to us.

God Bless

Anonymous said...

The catechism definition of grace I was taught was "undeserved love and favour." I think it's a very good one.

Weekend Fisher said...

I'm with you on "undeserved love and favor." So plug that definition back into the sentence ... "If the greatest being of all wants to love me, why would I not respond positively, undeserved love and favor or no undeserved love and favor.

Sigh. I know, I should just get over it.

DugALug said...

Janet, WF,

Catechism, I haven't heard that word in a long time. I am a long way from my Catholic roots:

Grace - undeserved love and favour

I am not so sure it is accurate because whether we deserve it or not is arbitrary. I would opt to exchange 'undeserved' for 'unconditional'.

If the greatest being of all wants to love me, why would I not respond positively, undeserved love and favor or no undeserved love and favor.

There is a little problem I have with WF's comment above. God is not the greatest being of all: He is the creator of all beings. All life comes through Him.

God's unconditional love and favor are compelling. Hence the scripture about God's hand being stretched out to us and the story of the Prodigal Son.

So now the sentence becomes:
If the creator of the universe loves me unconditionally, what is stopping me from receiving it?

The focus of Mercy and Grace is not the receiver, but the giver. 'Undeserved' implies it has something to do with what we have or haven't done. 'Unconditional' implies, that even in our folly and in the height of rebellion, God still loves us and his favour is available to us.

God Bless

Weekend Fisher said...

"The greatest being of all" (etc. for that quote) was lifted from the original quote from Dr. W. that got me started on this, with Janet's catechism def plugged in. Which really I wouldn't pick nits with the definition, "undeserved" and "unconditional" are first cousins.

It's not too far from the def. they teach in our catechism classes. (Lutheran.)

Take care & God bless

DugALug said...

The greatest being of all" (etc. for that quote) was lifted from the original quote from Dr. W. that got me started on this,

Oops, I see that now. My bad. Sometimes I'm just a knucklehead.

I see a big difference between the words unconditional and undeserved. One implies it is something I did or didn't do, while the other implies it something that is being done to me. Cousins... maybe, but distant (kissing) ones at that.

God Bless