At the church I serve (Stansbury Park Baptist Church) I have been teaching though the book of Titus in our Sunday Morning Worship Service. This is and of itself is probably not all that interesting to you; but over the past couple of weeks I have been studying through verses 11 through 14 of chapter 2 detailing all the activities of God’s grace. Because of this I have had time to revisit and reconsider some of the different views of grace different folks within Christendom hold. Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to many to provide a broad overview of this important doctrine. In order to accomplish this I would like to look at two or three historical views of the Doctrine of Grace, touch briefly on the usage of the term in both the Old and New Testaments, and the need for grace at all. From there I would like to address three specific areas of grace; Common, Special and Prevenient along with my view of why or how it is a biblical concept.
Historically speaking there have been various prevalent views of grace in the life of the church. However, I would like to take the time to address just a few you have probably heard of such as, Pelagian & semi-Pelagian, Roman Catholic, Arminian, and Reformed Evangelical. The Pelagian view which is named for the British monk Pelagius, argues that grace is related to such things as the human conscience, reason and free-will which are all given to humans at/in the moment of their conception/creation. Then humans take these natural abilities and choose to live a life which is pleasing to God. This view proposes that man has within himself the ability to perfectly obey God and does not need/require His underserved favor to do so. Adherents to the modification of this view are known as Semi-Pelagian and they believe that though man does inherit a type of spiritual weakness from Adam it does not render him total depraved and without the ability to choose to follow God of his own accord. This subset of Pelagianism was the commonly held position of the Middle Ages.
The Roman Catholic position is not dissimilar to Semi-Pelagianism. Roman Catholicism sees grace as a divine help which assists man in his free choices. In this view grace can be both lost and restored, it can even be resisted altogether. Two distinguishing factors in the Roman Catholic view are the use of sacraments to dispense/receive grace and idea that the Virgin Mary is also a dispenser of grace from God.
The Arminian view sees God’s grace as that special grace which He has given to all men in order to take away the negative effects of original sin and thereby restore mankind to the state of being able exercise the free will and moral agency common to all men. This dispensing of grace is called Prevenient grace and it allows an unbelieving sinner to cooperate with God in his own salvation. Furthermore, because of this prevenient grace it is possible for everyone to exist in at least a preliminary state of grace which creates or provides at least the potential for salvation despite being born in sin. According to this view the grace of God can be completely resisted by man’s free will.
The Reformed Evangelical view differs in that it sees that grace exists in two categories; Common and Special. This view sees common grace as God’s undeserved goodness toward every human being who has ever lived or will ever live. This aspect of grace is demonstrated through God’s withholding of judgment, the restraint of sin (man rarely sins to his full potential) and the presence of any good thing enjoyed in the creation. Special grace, however, is the outworking of God’s saving power in the life of the sinner. Unlike the other views, reformed Evangelicals believe that this special grace is irresistible and unfailing in serving its purpose in salvation. Furthermore, this view sees man as totally depraved and incapable of choosing God or His salvation. This grace always brings the sinner to salvation.
The term translated grace in our English Bibles is derived from Hebrew and Greek words found in the Old and New Testaments respectively. This helps us to understand that the concept or idea of grace is indeed a biblically based one in the least. The Old Testament uses terms from two different roots to communicate the concept of God’s grace, favor, or mercy. The one which may be most familiar to evangelicals is the noun hesed and is found over 250 times in the Old Testament. While in the New Testament the primary word for grace is found 155 times and of those 100 times it is used by Paul in his writings. So you can see that the idea of grace is not something which theologians have imported to the Scriptures but rather it has been derived directly from the Word of God. Now before transitioning to some particular explanations of the types of grace, I want to remind you that grace is necessary because of the comprehensive effects of sin on the nature of man. This is recognized by all the views except Pelagianism, even if they disagree on how exactly grace works or is imparted to the human race by God. Therefore we do well to remember that if we don’t need grace then we don’t need to be saved thus we have no need of a Saviour.
Now to get into just a little more detail I would like to discuss Common and Special Grace a bit more. I will also address the difference in view between Arminians and Reformed Evangelicals as it applies to Prevenient Grace. Common grace as I stated earlier is that grace of God which benefits all of mankind throughout history. It includes the conscience of every man being able to distinguish between right and wrong, the restraint of evil through the institution of the government, the allowance for certain beneficial acts committed even by non-believers. However, there is nothing about this gift of grace which saves any man. Special grace on the other hand is that grace of God by which He redeems/justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies His chosen people. In the view of Reformed Evangelicals and I believe as taught in Scripture this aspect of God’s grace is only extended to and bestowed upon those whom He has chosen for eternal life in His Son (Eph 1:4-5; Rom 8:28-30; Titus 3:4-7).
Now as to Prevenient Grace; I believe that there is a biblical basis for seeking to understand and see the manner in which God initiates the salvation of man. However, I disagree with the explanation for how this occurs presented by the Arminian view. As I stated earlier, the Arminian view is that God has taken the initiative in salvation through the extension of this Prevenient Grace to all men freeing them from the negative effects of sin realized in the Fall. Man is no longer only able to choose to sin, he is free to choose not to sin and instead follow God. Though the proponents of this view offer many Scriptural supports, I believe that the concept that those supports is actually communicating is the spread of the Gospel beyond Israel and to all nations and not the removal or neutralization of a particular aspect of sin. I believe instead that Prevenient Grace is an aspect of Special Grace which illuminates the heart of the sinner chosen by God for salvation that he might understand the truth about Christ resulting in the reception of the grace gift of Redemption.
One last note on this issue should be remembered and that is this, whatever you might believe about God’s grace you would do well to remember “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)