Definition: The moving of the Holy Spirit upon the heart before the new birth.
The importance of understanding the doctrine.
This doctrine of the holy Scriptures is a very comforting and encouraging truth when properly understood. It helps us to understand God's love for sinners and helps us to understand sinners as well. The most generally understood form of prevenient grace is known as conviction for sin. In conviction for sin, the Holy Spirit moves upon the heart of the sinner encouraging him to repent and believe the gospel. Many Christians believe one cannot repent unless they are born again first. Of course this is quite a serious error. The Scriptures teaches both by word and example that God's order is to repent and then believe the gospel. Repentance always precedes saving faith. It is true one cannot repent without the aid of the Spirit and neither can he truly believe without the aid of the Spirit. The Spirit's aid during the time before the new birth is called "prevenient grace." One could call it preliminary grace. In prevenient grace we see God loving, caring, and working in a sinner's life, leading him to repentance, sometimes tenderly, sometimes strongly, more or less as he is able to hear. Through this the loving kindness of our Savior is shown!
We can see many changes in a sinner's life before he receives saving faith and the new birth. When the Spirit moves upon a sinner, convincing him of sin, his first reaction is to reform his life. He begins to attend church and in many ways change his life style. Some go to great lengths in reformation before the new birth experience; others not quite so far. One may even attend church regularly, pay his tithe, "amen" the preacher, pray daily, read the Scripture daily, pray with sinners, enjoy good preaching and singing, and yet be short of the new birth. This man is described in Romans 7. He desires to do good, but is frequently overcome by sin. "One may sense the presence of God; God may give a dawning of light unto them that sit in darkness . . . and show that He is a God that heareth prayer. All this and yet be short of the new birth" (Wesley's 52 Standard Sermons, p. 89).
Thus we see the importance of understanding this part of the "working of the Spirit," lest we think we have arrived when we have not. The new birth is accompanied by a more or less constant assurance of sins forgiven and victory over sin. When we properly understand this, it keeps us from despair. We know that God loves us even when we discover we are short of the new birth. This does not mean we are hypocrites or insincere, but that we mistakenly thought we were born again when we were not. Some have upon acknowledging this, confessed it and passed immediately into true saving faith and the new birth. To fact this honestly will help us to locate ourselves. In order to set our spiritual goals, it is helpful to know where we are now. Our goal should be a constant assurance of the forgiveness of sins and victory over sin.
Surely there are sincere, honest people who think they are born again, but at best are only awakened. They do not have any assurance and frequently lapse into sin and think their need is the second work of grace or sanctification, when the need is to be truly born of the Spirit. Knowing and understanding this makes us more loving and understanding of others who have not yet arrived. We see them as souls seeking after God, that perhaps they might feel after Him and find Him. A minister especially needs this understanding that he might properly lead his people into the real experience of the new birth.