Christology and the Gift of Prevenient Grace: A Look at Titus 2:11

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In thinking through much of John Wesley's teachings and writings, I am often struck by the idea of prevenient grace. Most of my Reformed brothers and sisters find the entire concept to be compelling, but for other reasons offer objections to the doctrine—I find these to be unsatisfying but will leave them aside for the moment only to note anecdotally that there is some significant correspondence between common grace and prevenient grace.

A text that I have been meditating over is Titus 2:11. The Greek text reads as follows:

Ἐπεφάνη γὰρ ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ σωτήριος πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις

I have translated it as follows:

"For the Gift of God has apocalyptically revealed [i.e. displayed] the [i.e., his] liberation to all people."

The Greek verb Ἐπεφάνη is regularly used in the LXX (the Greek Old Testament; that is, the Greek translation of the Hebrew, which would have been Paul's primary Bible) to refer to God's revelation of himself to various people (Jacob: Gen 35:7), to Moses and the totality of Israel (Num 6:25), and to show kindness and mercy to the various Psalmists (Ps 31:16, 67:1, 80:3 and others). More citations could be offered, but the point is relatively clear: this verb refers to an apocalyptic unveiling of God's presence and purpose for humanity. God has also revealed himself to people in wrath as well (Rom 1:19): the interplay between "apocalyptic" language and "revelation" language in Rom 1:18-20 strongly suggests that God has been revealed to all people, even the unrighteous in Romans 1 and to the present righteous in Titus 2. There appears, therefore, to be no distinction in God's revelation to all people, as the categories of righteous/unrighteous are Paul's major binary thinking, especially as it relates to his eschatology (c.f. 2 Cor 2:15; 4:3, 9).

What is more controversial or disputed perhaps is the articular use of χάρις ("gift, grace"). Personally, I suspect this may be a reference to Christ, as the capstone of Paul's argument in 2:11-13 is that Christ is both God and Savior, so v.10's reference to "gift" could refer to Christ (c.f. Titus 1:4), who is perhaps described as a gift elsewhere in Paul (c.f. Eph 3:8 and 4:7; Rom 3:24; 2 Cor 8:9; plus the ending benedictions of most of Paul's epistles include χάρις and Christ). This is not a major point, but it might be a substantial one if I am correct. Or, perhaps as likely, the use of σωτήριος is itself the gift to all people. It may even be both.

In any sense, this "liberation" (see λυτρώσηται in v.14 as well) has been apocalyptically revealed "to all people" (taking the dative in its most normative sense). The use of ἀνθρώποις is generic, referring to the mass of humanity, and is thus not necessarily restricted to a specific group. This is consistent with Wesleyan theology, which specifies the need for all people to repent and join the family of God.

Some disagree. Thomas Schreiner ("Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace?" in Still Sovereign) is perhaps representative when he writes:

Titus 2:11 says that God's grace has been manifested through Christ's work on the cross, but it does not say that God has thereby supplied the ability to believe to all people. Wesleyans conclude from the atonement effected by Christ that enough grace has been imparted to all people so that they can now choose whether or not to believe. But it is precisely this point that is not taught explicitly in the verse. It does not necessarily follow that since grace was manifested in the death of Christ that all people as a result have the ability to believe in him.

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Schreiner seems to miss the point on multiple counts. First, the verse is not exclusively about the atonement, but about the revelation of God in Christ (vv.11-14). Liberation and atonement surely correspond but we must be careful to not reduce this verse to atonement theology. Second, a mistaken matter of logic seems to be at work in Schreiner's brief commentary on this verse: if one assumes that a verse is limited entirely and exclusively to the text, and does not address any other issues within the text, then the text itself cannot be said to speak "explicitly." One is then forced to ask, "How explicit must the text be for you?" Evangelical theology is predicated upon asking the proper questions of the text of Sacred Scripture, and not excluding questions that arise from a natural reading of the text. Theological interpretation is key here.

Third, and perhaps most problematic, is the assumption of "ability" on the part of Schreiner. Many Reformed theologians seem to assume that "ability" is in view here, but that places the exegesis of the text backward: what is the purpose of revelation (especially an apocalyptic revelation) if not to reveal the eternal Son of God as an impetus for belief and confession and submission? Take for instance the Christ-Hymn in Philippians 2:5-11, which assumes that people's bowing the knee to Christ's exaltation is predicated on his resurrection! The imperatival nature of New Testament ethics does not necessitate that all human beings are able to respond to the apocalyptic revelation of God in Christ, but the inability does not suggest the opposite: that we are prohibited from recognizing our own need for liberation in Christ. A slave may recognize that he or she is a slave and believe in Christ, but that does not automatically free them from bondage: such is the need for Christ's reconciliation and salvation for all people. Of course, one might ask what the purpose of revealing what God desires ("perfection," see Matthew 5) if it is merely an ideal that does not demand pursuit: simply put, I do not think God gives laws and commands simply to show that people are sinful, but they are given because people are sinful and need a Savior.

Therefore, God has revealed his liberation to all people, unveiling the mystery of his plan for liberating all people (1 Tim 3:16). All people are witness to this resurrection power, and all are called to repentance, awaiting the "blessed hope and the grandeur of the glory of our great God and Liberator Jesus Christ" (v.13). Even the wicked acknowledge God (Titus 1:16) but in action/works, they deny him (ἀρνοῦνται). This assumes that participation in Christ is no mere mental acquiescence, but fully engaging and participating in the life of God's calling.

Does Titus 2:11 teach prevenient grace? It seems most likely, given Paul's theology and the immediate context that the Wesleyan reading is the best interpretive option, and the objections do not stand. So, yes: this text is a sufficient prooftext in support of the doctrine of Prevenient Grace. Thus, the revelation of God in Christ illustrates that all people are, by consequence, to not only submit to God in the totality of their being, but to live lives of "good works" as opposed to people who chose to participate in evil, suffering, and self (1:15-16).

NQ