R.C Sproul, the popular Reformed pastor, author, and founder of Ligonier Ministries, asked the following question in his book: Chosen By God.
The $64,000 question is, “Does the Bible teach such a doctrine of prevenient grace? If so, where?”
And Tom Schreiner in his critique on prevenient grace (chapter 9 in Still Sovereign) summed it up like this:
Prevenient grace is attractive because it solves so many problems, but it should be rejected because it cannot be exegetically vindicated
Before continuing I want to make three important observations:
1. Reformed and Arminian views both hold to the concepts and doctrine of original sin/total depravity. In summary that means that people, because of our fallen nature, cannot initiate a relationship with God or come to faith without God’s help.
2. Reformed and Arminian views both hold to the need for prevenient grace – a grace that precedes faith. This grace is given by God to restore our fallen nature and enable a person to come to faith.
3. The primary difference between Reformed and Arminian theologies is whether prevenient grace is resistible or not.
Therefore, most (if not all) verses used to support a Reformed view of prevenient grace can be used to support the Armininan view as well.
To be fair, both Sproul and Schreiner are using the term “prevenient grace” to describe the grace that God gives to a person that restores the ability for a person to choose to accept or reject the salvation offered by God in Christ. They use the term in this exclusive sense and reject it in favor of effectual or irresistible grace, the grace that precedes faith and regenerates a person so that they will always accept God’s gift of salvation.
It is the presupposition that the preceding grace must be effectual and irresistible that affects how certain passages are interpreted.
The conversion of Lydia and Prevenient Grace
A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a God-fearing woman, listened to us. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying. After she and her household were baptized, she urged us, “If you consider me to be a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us. (Acts 16:14-15 NET)
As we examine this passage, it will highlight a problem that we all have when we start the process of interpreting Scripture. We have come with presuppositions. The beliefs we hold that shape how we think and see things.
Let’s take a look at what Anthony Hoekema, a Reformed theologian, writes in Saved by Grace about Acts 16:14.
In the chapter on Effectual Calling (page 89) he lists three things the Spirit does in conjunction with the preaching of the Gospel:
- Opening the heart and thus enabling the hearer to respond (Acts 16:14)
- Enlightening the mind so that that hearer can understand the gospel message (1 Cor 2:12-13; 2 Cor 4:6)
- Bestowing spiritual life so that the hearer can turn to God in faith (Eph 2:5)
In the chapter on Regeneration (page 102), which he defines as implanting new life, Hoekema writes (emphasis added):
Regeneration is an instantaneous change. It is not a gradual process, like progressive sanctification. …
In Acts 16:14 we read about the conversion of Lydia: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” The opening of the heart obviously describes regeneration.
Later, Hoekema writes (page 106-107; also 109) that effectual calling and regeneration are identical with each other but are logically different from and prior to conversion. He goes on to use Acts 16:14 as an illustration of this idea (emphasis added):
By way of illustration, we look again at Acts 16:14. … Since the heart stands for the inner core of the person, we may assume that the opening of the heart describes regeneration. This led Lydia to respond believingly to what Paul was saying – to accept it, to embrace it, and to act upon it. This type of response is what we call conversion.
Note the tenses used by Luke: while Lydia was listening to Paul (continuing action), the Lord in a moment of time opened her heart (snapshot action), so that she now began to give heed (continuing action) to what Paul was saying. Regeneration and conversion, as in Lydia’s case, occur simultaneously.But causually regeneration must be “prior” to conversion.
This is an excellent illustration of presuppositions and theological commitments influencing the interpretation of a passage. It causes us to read into a passage and see things that are not there. Let me say it again, this is a problem we all face regardless of our theological viewpoints.
Paul has gone down to the riverside to preach to the people assembled in prayer. Lydia is listening to Paul and, in a moment, Lydia’s heart is opened by the Lord.
Why is Lydia’s heart opened? The verb “respond” is in the infinitive mood and is there to answer this question. The infinitive is most often used to explain the why or purpose of the controlling verb (open). The opening had the purpose of allowing a response to Paul’s preaching. It could be translated:
The Lord opened her heart for the purpose of responding to what Paul was saying.
The infinitive tells us the purpose of the controlling verb, but it does not state whether the purpose is fulfilled. That must be understood from context.
Reading on, Lydia clearly responded to the preaching of the Gospel with faith in Christ (16:15). However, the text does not say whether Lydia’s positive response was the only possible outcome to having her heart opened, only that this was how Lydia responded. The opening of the heart could have been resistible, but Lydia rather than reject the gracious gift of salvation, accepted it.
Theologians can safely interpret the “opening of the heart” in this passage to be the necessary grace that precedes faith. This pouring out of grace enabled Lydia to “pay full attention to” or “respond to” the Gospel message that Paul was explaining.
What this passage does not tell us is whether that preceding grace is resistible or not. It does not tell us whether the intended purpose of this grace is always fulfilled.
And while the Reformed view of effectual grace is a possible interpretation, it is certainly not “obvious” nor the required interpretation of this passage.
I doubt I will be collecting $64,000 anytime soon.