In today’s first reading, we hear: “Beloved, we love God because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). In reading the Scripture, I was reminded of a recent discussion about prevenient grace. It was a short conversation. My friend, a life-long Catholic, was unfamiliar with the expression. Not the “grace” part, but “prevenient.”
Grace is a theological term well familiar to Christians. In the Catholic tradition there has been 2,000 years of thought about “grace” and in time adjectives were used to describe grace. These were terms well familiar to folks growing up with the Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has a section on Grace which includes paragraphs on sanctifying grace (CCC ⧣1999), actual grace (CCC ⧣2000), habitual grace (CCC ⧣2000), sacramental grace (CCC ⧣2003), special graces (CCC ⧣2003) and an intriguing description of grace:
“The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, ‘since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it:’” (CCC ⧣2001)
While the CCC does not give the grace as specific name in #2001, it does later on:
No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Every time we begin to pray to Jesus it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace.[emphasis added] Since he teaches us to pray by recalling Christ, how could we not pray to the Spirit too? That is why the Church invites us to call upon the Holy Spirit every day, especially at the beginning and the end of every important action. (CCC ⧣2670)
Third edition of the Roman Missal introduced the language of “prevenient grace” in the Prayer Over the Offerings on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. But it is not a novel theological concept being introduced. Rather it is an old concept being reintroduced.
The Second Council of Orange of 529 stated that faith, though a free act, resulted even in its beginnings from the grace of God, enlightening the human mind and enabling belief. In canon 23 it is said that God prepares our wills that they may desire the good. Canon 25 states, “In every good work, it is not we who begin… but He (God) first inspires us with faith and love of Him, through no preceding merit on our part.” Without using the term, they are describing prevenient grace.
Prevenient grace (from the Latin “to come before”) was discussed in the fifth chapter of the sixth session of the Council of Trent (1545–63) which used the phrase: “a Dei per dominum Christum Iesum praeveniente gratia” (rendered “a predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ”). Those who turned from God by sins are predisposed by God’s grace to turn back and become justified by freely assenting to that grace. It is divine grace that precedes human decision. Perhaps to simply put, it is a grace that “leans us into the choice for God.” We are predisposed; hardwired if you will.
In the evolution of the Protestant Reformations and its following Reform movement (16th century and following), the now centuries old idea of prevenient grace was brought to the fore to address two great problems in Christianity: the belief of original sin and the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. John Wesley insisted on prevenient grace as a solution. Wesley thought that prevenient grace enabled the doctrines of original sin and salvation by grace to co-exist while still maintaining God’s sovereignty and holy character as well as human freedom.
“..because He loved us first.” Even when we were clueless, forgetful, willful, obstinate, unbelieving, uncaring, disobedient, untrusting, spiteful, and all the rest. He loved us first. Ever showering prevenient grace to “lean us” into responding in love. It is God “wooing” us.
He loved us first. That is an amazing grace!