Grace, Faith, and Predestination
Q: Can you explain the terms foreseen faith and prevenient grace for me? How are they used? How do they relate to the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions? To what historical period do these terms belong?
A: According to the Lutheran Confessions and a Christ-centered study of the Scriptures, these terms usually are used incorrectly and are at odds with God’s Word. You’ll see how this is so as we touch on the more detailed portions of your questions.
Some people are unwilling to let God be God. They attempt to understand His thoughts and actions when He makes no effort to explain them. Their speculation centers on the question, “Why are some saved and not others?” Foreseen faith, a misunderstanding of the origin and expression of justifying faith, is a human idea of how God predestines some to salvation. Its supporters claim that God, in His omniscience, can see ahead of time who will believe and marks that person as predestined to eternal election according to his foreseen faith. A similar phrase such folks use is that God predestines “in view of faith.”
Such ideas grow from our inability to comprehend the Lord’s infinite knowledge and power. They also may stem from the thinking that man must somehow do something in order to earn, merit, or gain salvation. This misunderstands the work of the Holy Spirit and the power of God’s Word. Attempting to understand God proves impossible, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)” Attempting to please Him through our own actions is fruitless, since Jesus said, “[U]nless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)”
The concept of prevenient grace falls into this latter category. The Lutheran Church follows the Old and New Testaments and the early Church fathers in understanding grace as a divine attitude. This is the primary Scriptural use of the word. At times, the concept of being “full of grace” may be applied to a believer, sounding as if grace were like water, a substance that can be poured, counted, or measured. However, the idea seems actually to mean that the believer is filled with the same attitude toward others as God has toward him.
Those who think of grace as a measurable substance and who believe that we are saved “by grace” need to figure out a way in which God pours enough grace into someone that the unbeliever moves toward God or into a state of saving faith. The method many arrive at involves prevenient (or preceding) grace. According to this way of thinking God slips enough of this first type of grace into a person that the person becomes able to cooperate in his salvation.
While Saint Augustine may have implied, Jacob Arminius and Charles Wesley particularly emphasized prevenient grace and various Methodist churches still teach it. The 2004 United Methodist Book of Discipline calls prevenient grace “the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our ‘first slight transient conviction’ of having sinned against God. God’s grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.”
Prevenient grace becomes a means for the Wesleyan tradition to teach both original sin and justification by grace alone. It allows fallen mankind to partner with God, to come to Him as He comes to it. Churches strongly rooted in the theology of John Calvin, such as many Presbyterian and Reformed bodies, disagree with this idea. They claim that if God gives this preliminary grace to everyone, human will and subsequent effort become the determining factors in salvation. They believe that this is counter to Ephesians 2:8-9, where Paul wrote that salvation “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works.”
However, as it struggles to give God the credit and the glory for saving sinners, Calvinism also leaves itself open to criticism, since it teaches that the God causes the damnation of all He chooses not to save. This double predestination denies universal grace, the Biblical teaching that Christ Jesus died for all people, not just for the elect; that is, those who will be saved.
Lutheran theology “solves” the Arminian and Calvinist problems involved with understanding grace, election, and predestination by not solving them. Instead, Lutherans teach that salvation is the free gift of God while damnation is entirely the fault of those who suffer it. While the paradoxes of salvation may be intellectually beyond our comprehension, we simply accept and confess the paradox that Scripture presents.
In Article XI of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord, Lutheran theologians noted that a “distinction between praescientia et praedestinatio, that is, between God’s foreknowledge and His eternal election, ought to be accurately observed.” It says that predestination “extends over the godly” and that upon God’s predestination “our salvation is founded so firmly that the gates of hell cannot overcome it. [John 10:28; Matt. 16:18]”
We are not to speculate. Instead, we seek and find evidence of our predestination “in the Word of God, where it is also revealed.” That’s because the Word “leads us to Christ, who is the Book of Life, in whom all are written and elected that are to be saved in eternity, as it is written. [Eph. 1:4]” Since Christ is the means of our salvation, we don’t look for added sources, such as prevenient grace. And since the Spirit uses this Word to create and sustain faith, we see that faith comes because of God’s divine intervention and does not cause or lead up to His accepting us.
Building on Romans 8:30, the Epitome says that knowing God’s predestination strengthens faith: “In [Christ] we are to seek the eternal election of the Father, who has determined in His eternal divine counsel that He would save no one except those who know His Son Christ and truly believe on Him.... Out of pure grace ... we have been elected in Christ to eternal life, and ... no one can pluck us out of His hand; as He has ... promised this gracious election ... certified it with an oath and sealed it with the holy Sacraments....”
Article XI of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord quoted from the public domain text at The Book of Concord online.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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