Picture the following scene in your mind-- a young man has fallen in love with a beautiful woman from a distance. He sees her in town, at parties, at community events and he is smitten. The problem is that she doesn't even knows he exists. He tries to engage her in conversation when possible and she is polite, but it is clear that the subject of his affections doesn't have the same affection for him. He thinks about her all the time. He can hardly eat or sleep. He knows he needs to either win her heart or work to forget her.
He reasons it is better to have loved and lost than to have ever loved at all. One late night, he proceeds over to her house and in romance novel fashion, starts throwing pebbles against her bedroom window on the second floor. She is awakened and comes to the window and opens it to see who it is that has awakened her. And she gazes down upon the young man while he serenades her with his guitar and a love song he has written specially for her.
Does he win her heart? We do not know, but he has gone to great lengths to do so. Like the romance novels, they probably become a couple madly in love with each other. After all, we like happily ever after stories, but it is also the case that the love of one is not always returned by another.
This story describes well God's prevenient grace. Prevenient means "to go before." It is the grace human beings receive from prior to saving grace. The letter of 1 John describes this grace. "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (4:10). Notice that God loves us before we loved God. God sent Jesus to die for us before we respond to that sacrificial love.
In prevenient grace, God finds ways to woo us, to serenade us in all sorts of ways to tell us how much he loves us and wants us to love him in return. God desires a relationship with humanity long before humanity even acknowledges God’s existence. In prevenient grace, God makes it possible for us to cooperate further that we might respond and find the grace that saves us, that puts us in relationship with God.
Many years ago, I had a friend in a church where I was pastor. One night in Bible study I was describing to the group the nature of prevenient grace and what it meant. All of us sudden, his eyes opened wide and he blurted out, "That’s me! That's me! I'm an example of prevenient grace!" This man had grown up in a very unhealthy, dysfunctional environment. His parents abused drugs and alcohol and as he got older, he took up their ways. But, one day he made a decision for Christ and his life changed completely. As he looked back on his previous years when he was living a life that was out of control, he could see places where God was working in his life trying to nudge him in a different direction of living. He could see that God was loving him before he loved God. The problem was that he did not have a name for God's action prior to his salvation. That night in Bible study, I named it for him-- prevenient grace. It was quite wonderful after that night to see him witnessing to people that he was an example of God's prevenient grace. He wanted others to know that God loves us before we love God.
Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him. All these imply some tendency toward life; some degree of salvation; the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God and the things of God.