In Chapter 2 (Sovereignty), Chapter 3 (Omnitemporality & Foreknowledge), and Chapter 4 (Predestination Decrees) we saw how God proactively works in the eternal realms to initiate salvation opportunities for all people. He was at work high in the heavenlies long before He was ever at work on earth in the practical lives of people. The latter part--His work on earth in the practical lives of people--is precisely what pre-salvation grace is. It is the intentional, practical work of God in the lives of unsaved people to guide them towards salvation.
Think of it this way. The born-again event is the door to the house of God's kingdom and family. The porch, the yard, the street, the neighborhood, and the city are pre-salvation grace. Each layer gets us closer to the door, until we finally say Yes to salvation and enter through the door.
God Foreknows, Then Decrees, Then Creates
God's foreknowledge informs and forms His decree, a divine procedure Paul called "the counsel of His will" in Ephesians 1:11. The first phrase, "the counsel of", refers to the guidance of His own omniscience/omnitemporal knowledge/foreknowledge. The second phrase, "His will", refers to His authoritative decree. And yet there is another divine activity that follows foreknowledge and decree: creation. God foreknows, then decrees, then creates what He decreed. Look at Ephesians 1:11 again, paying special attention to the creational language underlined (ESV): ...who works all things according to the counsel of his will.
The underlined phrase, "who works all things according to", refers to God creating and developing whatever He has decreed. If we read Ephesians 1:11 with clarifying inserts, it would look like this: ...who works all things [God creates and develops] according to the counsel of his will [whatever His omniscience/foreknowledge has guided Him to decree]. God foreknows, then decrees, then creates what He decreed. Other scriptures confirm and further clarify this pattern of divine activity.
In the following scriptures, look for the pattern: God foreknows, then decrees, then creates what He decreed. Or in the exact language of Ephesians 1:11, look for God working all things--creating, performing, developing, fulfilling--according to the counsel of his will.
Isaiah 41:4 (ESV): Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning?...
In the first half of God's question, He mentions creating what He decreed by using the phrase "performed and done this". In the second half of the question, God refers to a predestination decree: "calling the generations from the beginning".
Isaiah 42:9 (ESV): ...new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.
Here God mentions the decree by saying, "new things I now declare...I tell you of them". He then mentions the creating or "springing forth" of His decree into actuality in real-time.
Isaiah 48:3 is especially articulate (ESV): The former things I declared of old; they went out from my mouth, and I announced them; then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass.
In the first half of the verse God describes His decree in three different ways: "...I declared...went out from my mouth...I announced..." In the second half of the verse God describes creating His decree: "...suddenly I did them, and they came to pass."
Structurally identical to verse 3 is verses 6 and 7 (ESV): ...From this time forth I announce to you new things, hidden things that you have not known. They are created now, not long ago...
In the first part of this statement God mentions His decree: "...I announce..." In the second part He mentions creating His decree: "...They are created now..."
In maybe the most direct statement from God Himself about decreeing then creating, Jeremiah 1:12 says (ESV), Then the LORD said to me, "You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it."
The phrase "my word" is God's decree, the phrase "to perform it" is God creating and working out that decree in actuality in real-time.
We arrive once again at Romans 8:28,29, a passage that is either a nuclear power plant (if correctly interpreted) or a radioactive waste zone (if misinterpreted). Notice the three underlines in the passage (ESV): And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son...
The underlined phrase "all things work together for good" refers to God creating His predestination decree into real life on earth, a decree that was guided by His foreknowledge. In Romans 8:28,29, therefore, we see the full pattern of divine activity: God foreknows, then decrees/predestinates, then creates and works all things together according to what He decreed. Romans 8:28,29 is conceptually identical to Ephesians 1:11; Paul merely uses different wording.
God Working All Things is Pre-Salvation Grace
If God foreknows a person will follow in the way of Abraham unto salvation (see chapter 3, Omnitemporality & Foreknowledge, the section on Genesis 18:19), He decrees their choice will become a real event in real-time. He does not decide for them, but works to bring their decision into existence. To use the language of Ephesians 1:11 and Romans 8:28,29, He "works all things" to make that person's choice a literal reality on earth. This intentional, practical working of all things for a person who is not even saved yet is an astonishing display of pre-salvation grace.
Only God Can Create Literal Reality Out of Nothing
Only God can create literal reality out of nothing, and that creative process begins with decrees. Romans 4:17 is especially specific on this (ESV): ...calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Other scriptures continue this truth, telling us in various ways that God has to be the one to authorize and decree and create reality into literal existence. Romans 11:36 says (ESV), For from him and through him and to him are all things... John 1:3 says (ESV), All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. Colossians 1:16 says (ESV), For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. Not only does He have to authorize and decree and create reality into literal existence, He also has to uphold it and sustain it once it is in existence. Colossians 1:17 says (ESV), ...and in him all things hold together. Hebrews 1:3 says (NASB), ...upholds all things by the word of His power... Acts 17:28 says (NKJV), for in Him we live and move and have our being...
Now superimpose all those verses on top of the subject of salvation. Even if your freewill choice is Yes to Jesus, God still has to issue a predestination decree to bring that freewill choice into literal existence in real-time. Why? Because only He can create the reality architecture out of nothing so that freewill choice, and everything leading up to it, can come into existence. Notice especially Romans 4:17 and Colossians 1:16.
Romans 4:17. He has to call into existence the things that do not exist. Your freewill choice is genuinely your choice, but who will create and sustain the reality architecture so that you are even successfully born?! Do you realize how many things could have gone wrong before you even made it to the nursery, much less to the salvation moment?! God foreknows, then decrees, then creates. He foreknew you omnitemporally, then decreed that your choice would become a real event in real-time, then worked all things together to create your choice into existence as a real event in real-time.
Colossians 1:16 says it like this. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. This verse is like the light of seven suns. "By Him all things were created...all things were created through Him and for Him"--this means He had to create or bring into existence our choice to be saved. It was our choice, certainly, but God had to translate that choice from the eternal realms of omniscience and omnitemporality into a real event in real-time on earth. Only He can do that. Thus, His predestination decree does not make the choice for you, it starts the creative process that works your choice into an existential reality in real-time on earth.
This intentional, practical working of all things for a person who is not even saved yet is pre-salvation grace.
Pre-Salvation Grace, More Specifically
Pre-salvation grace is God intentionally and practically working all things to bring an unsaved person to the salvation moment. Whether they say Yes or No in that moment is their choice, nonetheless, He graciously works many moving parts to bring about that moment of decision. He (tries to) lead them to the city, then to the neighborhood, then to the street, then to the yard, then to the porch, then to the very door of the salvation moment. Scripture describes this fascinating process of pre-salvation benevolence in many passages, even in the Old Testament. Here are several.
He Appoints Time & Place before Birth
Acts 17:26,27 is a weighty passage giving us a glimpse into God's pre-salvation workings (NASB, underline mine): and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might feel around for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.
Speaking at the Areopagus in Athens, Paul said God determined the appointed time and place of all people. Why would God do this? Paul answers, God did this "so that each individual would seek Him, feel around for Him, and find Him". He even added that God is not far from anyone, but ready and available to those who respond to His pre-salvation workings. Paul is not speaking to born-again Christians here, he is speaking to unsaved Athenians fully committed to pagan religion.
The takeaway from Paul's message is that God's pre-salvation grace works all things--including when a person would be born and where they would live--to position them for their salvation opportunity. In verse 27 Paul emphasizes God is not far from anyone, i.e., His salvation opportunity is within reach. Yes, that includes the person born in a radical Muslim country where Christianity is banned, or the thick jungles home to a primitive tribe, or on Main Street in the Bible Belt. We may not see or recognize exactly how God has designed their salvation opportunity, but somehow, someway, He has.
He Speaks To & Summons Everyone
Psalm 50:1 (ESV): The Mighty One, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Asaph says God speaks to and summons all of humanity, from the rising of the sun to its setting, to come to Him. Isaiah 45:22 says the exact same, even in God's own words (ESV): Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.
Jesus speaks similarly in John 5:25 (ESV, underline mine): Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
Hebrews 3:7,8,15, 4:7 reiterate God speaking directly to the unsaved, summoning them to salvation and warning them not to harden their hearts when He speaks. All these verses say the same thing: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." The context in which these verses appear (Hebrews 3 and 4) address both the saved and the unsaved simultaneously. Both need to hear His voice and not harden their hearts when they do, albeit for slightly different reasons: the saved to avoid the Fatherly chastening described in 12:5-13, the unsaved to avoid hell and become born-again.
This pre-salvation speaking and summoning from God is unilateral and undeserved; it is pre-salvation grace.
He Grants Pre-Salvation Illumination
John said of Jesus in John 1:9 (Young's Literal Translation, underline mine): He was the true Light, which doth enlighten every man, coming to the world.
This statement tells us a bit more about pre-salvation grace (post-salvation grace too, for ongoing transformation): the Lord enlightens or illuminates every person to the realities of sin and their need for a Savior. This does not mean every person accepts the illumination happily or humbly. This does not mean every person explains the illumination with correct or precise wording. This does not mean every person will look to Jesus to be that Savior. They might accept the first illumination (the realities of sin, moral imperfection), but reject or misapply the sequitur illumination (the need for a Savior). They might look to someone else to be that savior and hero--a loved one nearby, another religious figure or guru, a political savior, etc. The basic illuminations that enlighten every person are simply that; how a person receives it, explains it, or acts on it is unpredictable and individualized.
John 1:9 has a parallel phrase in Hebrews 6:4-6. I cannot now delve into what this passage might mean. For the moment, simply notice how basic illumination is a pre-salvation grace intended to guide a person to salvation. Notice the underlined phrase, Hebrews 6:4-6 (NKJV, underline mine): For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.
Whether this passage refers to a saved person losing their salvation, an unsaved person who was never saved (but brought to the salvation moment multiple times and said No), or national Israel and their issues, is beside the point for now. In any and all spiritual scenarios the truth remains: light from the Lord is an absolute prerequisite to any level of relationship with Him, and He is the one who graciously volunteers the first light without being asked or sought.
Teaching on the Holy Spirit, Jesus said in John 16:8 (Young's Literal Translation): and having come, He will convict the world concerning sin, and concerning righteousness, and concerning judgment. Jesus describes here how the Holy Spirit would take over the pre-salvation illuminating work after the ascension. Identical to John 1:9, that illumination concerns the reality of sin and the need for a Savior from sin's penalty and power, i.e., "sin, righteousness, and judgment".
John 6:44,65, 12:32 all focus sharply on pre-salvation grace. 6:44 (ESV) says, No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them... 6:65 says, He went on to say, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them." 12:32 says, And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
Jesus is saying, without God's pre-salvation grace and workings no one could be saved. He describes it here as "drawing" and "enabling" the unsaved person. Not only does God have to create the salvation opportunity, He also has to guide, in a variety of ways and workings, the unsaved person to that moment of decision.
He Sends Messengers
I placed this point near the end so we could see God works unilaterally and independently long before an actual human messenger is ever sent. (In some cases a human messenger cannot be sent at all, yet this does not stop God's pre-salvation grace from working in a variety of other ways.) God loves to work through human partners, so it should not surprise us that one of His pre-salvation graces is to send anointed messengers. Romans 10:14,15 (ESV): How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"
He Ordains or Permits Pain
Job 33:13-30 is little known, but massively helpful, on some of God's pre-salvation workings. Verses 14 and 29 say God speaks and works in a variety of ways. Verses 15-18 mention warning dreams. Verses 23-25 mention human messengers and intercessors. Verses 19-22, the focus of this subsection, mentions pain. Yes, pain.
Throughout human history, how many people have said Yes to God because they were driven to that Yes by pain? Many people ignore the gentler forms of God's pre-salvation work, but pain, oh how pain can shatter open a person's heart to God. A few chapters later, in Job 36:15, Elihu says it this way (ESV): ...[God] opens their ear by adversity. The YLT translates it, ...uncovereth in oppression their ear. Part of God's pre-salvation grace is using the right type and the right amount of pain to open an unsaved person's ear to Him. Think of how the Lord blinded Saul for three days immediately preceding his salvation (Ac 9:3-9).
The Perfect Summary Verses
Job 33:14,29,30 are tremendously helpful summary verses on God's pre-salvation workings. Verse 14 and 29 say (NKJV), For God may speak in one way, or in another, yet man does not perceive it...Behold, God works all these things, twice, in fact, three times with a man...
What, exactly, is God speaking about and "working all these things" for? Verse 30 tells us: To bring back his soul from the Pit, that he may be enlightened with the light of life.
God speaks and works pre-salvationally to pull people out of hell and give them life, sometimes described in Old Testament language as delivering one's soul from the Pit.
Job 33:29's "God works all these things" equates with Ephesians 1:11 and Romans 8:28's "God working all things"? This is pre-salvation grace. God intentionally and practically working all things to bring an unsaved person to the salvation moment.
Why is Pre-Salvation Grace Necessary?
Every born-again, Bible-believing, knowledgeable-enough student of the Word believes in some version of pre-salvation grace. Why? Because of total depravity and its consequent total inability.
Total depravity (or total deadness) is the doctrine that no one can choose God, or even wants to, without the enablement of His pre-salvation grace. This is because an unsaved person is totally spiritually dead in sin ontologically (by nature). This doctrine is correct and important; the Scriptures are too articulate on this concept. What I reject, however, are the sequiturs and assumptions that hardline predestinarians make following total depravity.
Scriptures, Total Deadness
First, the verses that articulate unsaved humanity's total spiritual deadness. Jesus said in John 5:24,25 (ESV, underline mine): Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
Paul reiterated the same concept and language in Ephesians 2:1 (ESV): And you were dead in the trespasses and sins...
And Colossians 2:13 (ESV, underline mine): And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.
Scriptures, Total Inability
Total spiritual deadness equals total inability to want God or choose God, in the same way a physically dead person cannot want anything or choose anything. Several verses articulate this.
Romans 8:7 (NASB): ...the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.
And 1Corinthians 2:14 (ESV): The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
The most lengthy and detailed description of total depravity and total inability is Romans 3:9-18. Key phrases are in verses 11 and 12 (ESV): ...no one understands; no one seeks for God...no one does good, not even one. Verse 11 has a predicate in John 8:43, when Jesus said (NASB), Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot listen to My word.
Total spiritual deadness, and its consequent total inability to want God or choose God, necessitates God's unilateral intervention--pre-salvation grace. God must enable the unsaved person in some way to enter a space where they can willingly respond to Him. This is the idea in the many pre-salvation grace scriptures, especially ones like John 6:44,65 (ESV): No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him...And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father." And 1Corinthians 12:3 (NASB): ...no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.
Why is pre-salvation grace necessary? Because of total spiritual deadness and its consequent total inability to want God or choose God.
Pre-Salvation Grace is Dispensed, Then What?
Pre-salvation grace is dispensed. God works all things to bring a person to the salvation opportunity and moment. Then what? He lets them choose to accept or reject the offer. How a person reacts to, explains, or acts on pre-salvation grace is unpredictable and individualized. We will dig into exactly that in Chapter 6.
Working All Things is Not Determining All Things
One final clarification.
Hardline predestinarians claim God is meticulously micromanaging and deciding all things--including sin and evil, including who gets heaven and who gets hell. Unfortunately, they claim the phrase "God working all things" in Ephesians 1:11 and Romans 8:28 refers to God absolutely, meticulously predetermining all things. Responding to and correcting this silly proposal is not too difficult.
First, on a common sense linguistic level, working all things is not the same as determining all things. It is tragic, and mildly deceitful, that absolute predestinarians smuggle the word "determining" into the text and substitute it for "working". That is not what Ephesians 1:11 and Romans 8:28 say. They say God works all things. Working all things is not the same as determining all things. Do not let people smuggle outside words into verses to replace the words already there. Those smuggled-in words change the meaning of entire passages and create bizarre new doctrines.
Second, Job 33:29,30 clarify the meaning of God working all things for a person's salvation from the Pit (NKJV, underline mine): Behold, God works all these things, twice, in fact, three times with a man, to bring back his soul from the Pit, that he may be enlightened with the light of life.
What, exactly, does "all these things" refer to? Read verses 14-24; it refers to any and all tactics God uses to snatch someone from the fire of the Pit and give them life. Job 33:29,30, Ephesians 1:11, and Romans 8:28 are equivalent verses telling us the same thing: God works in any and all ways to bring a person to the salvation opportunity and moment.