Is Grace Cooperative?

The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.”

- Titus 2:11

Every discussion of divine grace must address the issue of how free the human will actually is after the fall of Adam. As we have seen, thinkers who have emphasized the enslavement of the human will to sin—including men such as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards—have never denied that human beings are free to make choices. Both human experience and the teaching of Scripture show us that even unregenerate people make real choices every day. The issue, according to these thinkers, is that our freedom is always limited in some way by our desires. To be free is to do what we most want to do; the problem is that apart from grace, the only thing we want to do is sin. To do what is truly good and pleasing to God, grace must change our hearts, and for these thinkers, divine grace always produces a change in the hearts of the elect such that they inevitably trust Christ and persevere in faith.

Despite its clear biblical foundations in passages such as Ephesians 2:1–10, the understanding that saving grace is ultimately irresistible—that it effectually overcomes all our resistance to it and brings us to salvation—remains a minority position among professing evangelical Christians. Today, most people who identify as evangelicals adopt the views of grace and freedom propounded by men such as Jacob Arminius and John Wesley.

Arminius and Wesley understood the necessity of grace for salvation, but they wanted to preserve our ability to accept or reject saving grace. Thus, based on passages such as Titus 2:11, they proposed what is called “prevenient grace,” a grace given to all people that frees us enough from our bondage to sin that we have the ability to choose Christ but that does not finally persuade us to make that choice or guarantee that we will be saved. (Many Roman Catholics speak of God’s prevenient grace in a similar way.) This view has the advantage of stating that no one can be saved without grace or even God’s initiative in freeing our wills just enough to choose Him. The problem is that the doctrine of prevenient grace ends up creating a kind of de facto semi-Pelagianism. If prevenient grace is indiscriminate and merely restores our ability to choose, then it is hard to see how salvation is truly all of grace. In a sense, God takes the first step in redemption by bestowing prevenient grace, but the final reason why anyone is saved must be located in our will, in our willingness to move toward God that we somehow, with the help of grace, work up in ourselves.

Coram Deo

Passages such as Titus 2:11 are invoked as proof of prevenient grace, but the biblical doctrine of election forces us to reject Arminian and Wesleyan interpretations. When Paul says the grace of God has brought salvation to all people, he must mean God has saved all kinds of people. Salvation is not restricted to one gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic group, so we must preach the gospel to people of every background.

Passages for Further Study

Genesis 12:1–9
Isaiah 6:1–8
Acts 9:1–22; 22:1–21; 26:1–23

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