This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 10 states:
X. Of Free-Will
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.
Here in Article 10 we find, among other things, the basics of the doctrine of Total Depravity. Total Depravity refers to the biblical teaching that everyone is “dead in their sin” (Ephesians 2:1), and asserts that depravity, or the sinful human condition impacts the total human being. Our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls each are touched by sin’s effects. The result of this condition is that even the human will is corrupt, to the point that we cannot choose to do good works, cannot place our faith in Christ, cannot worship God, on our own (cf. the second half of Romans 14:23). If anything good is to come from us, we need help.
Thus another important teaching is described here: the doctrine of Prevenient Grace. The word “prevenient” comes from Latin “pre venire” – to go before. In the English language of the 16th century, when this Article was written, it was translated as “prevent.” Thus, when Article 10 here says “we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us,” it means that God’s grace must work upon us before we can be able to do good, or come to saving faith in Christ. This doctrine is also expressed in our liturgy. One of the Collects prayed in the Daily Office puts it thus: “Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favor, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy name, and finally by thy mercy obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ Our Lord.” This collect not only affirms the doctrine of Prevenient Grace but also adds to it the need for God’s continual grace, such that all our good must be “begun, continued, and ended” in God.
Sometimes the teachings of this Article may fall into some controversy. Roman Catholic teaching defines Total Depravity differently, asserting that the human will, despite sin, retains the ability to choose what is good. Additionally, the further step of claiming that the denial of human ability to do good and put faith in Christ is sometimes accused of being a strict Calvinist teaching. But this is far from the truth. Whatever one believes about the details of predestination, and other teachings related to our salvation, all the Protestant reformers agreed that the human will needs the prevenient grace of God in order to put saving faith in Christ. Some Protestant sects today do teach that salvation is found in our “putting our faith in Jesus,” but this is a distortion of the biblical teachings that salvation is found solely in the atoning work of Christ. God leads us to faith in him, either by his own election and choice (as teach the Calvinists) or by enabling us to put faith in him through his prevenient grace (as teach the Arminians). In either case, salvation is through Christ alone, and human free will is not enough to cut through the deathly shell of human sinfulness without God’s intervention.