Prepared By Grace, For Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ

Beeke, Joel R. and Paul M. Smalley. Prepared by Grace, for Grace: the Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013. 297 pp. $25, paper.

A mention of the term “preparation” when discussing Reformed soteriology is liable to set off all manner of alarm bells for those who adhere to a monergistic view of salvation by grace. Such alarm is likely due to a dearth of familiarity with the usage of such language in historical theology, particularly in Puritan writings. That is why this book from Dr. Beeke and his teaching assistant, Paul Smalley, is an important contribution. There truly are few writings on this topic, at least in any comprehensive form. There are works which deal with the soteriology of various individual Puritan authors, but none that I am aware of seek to give a broad overview of many Puritans on this topic.

Preparation for salvation, or the more pejorative (at least in Reformed circles) preparationism, is a topic which highlights a common challenge for theologians through the centuries in writing about the process of salvation. Does one write primarily from the perspective of God’s activity, seeking to map out an iron clad ordo salutis, or can we also benefit from considering the experience of humanity as they encounter the Gospel and are saved by God’s grace? Most Reformed theologians focus on the former. Thus when anyone discusses salvation from the less tidy view of human experience, some grow nervous that the Pelagian camel’s nose has crept under the tent flap.

The introduction states that “this book addresses the question of how God ordinarily brings sinners to the point of trusting in Christ alone for salvation. Specifically, is conversion an event or a process? If a process, how does the work of conversion begin?” (1) Specifically, the discussion focuses on “preparation for saving faith in Christ,” (3) mainly as it concerns the inward preparation of the heart. They authors rightly say, “Prejudice and preconceptions about preparationism have often hindered people from making objective judgments about the Puritan doctrine of preparation for grace.” (4) In the process, they examine the difference (or lack thereof) between preparation and repentance in the various authors considered.

Aside from the benefits the historical survey provides, perhaps another reason this book matters right now is that one issue underlying preparation is how we understand the first use of the law. Much confusion abounds in Reformed and Evangelical circles over what constitutes Biblical sanctification, and that because there is firstly much confusion over justification. To understand justification is to also grasp the role of the law of God in regeneration and repentance. Even if one has only a passing interest in Puritan views of preparation, they would still benefit from reading this book.

Chapter 1 discusses preparation and modern scholarship, but only focuses on three scholars who have written about the Puritans: Perry Miller, Norman Pettit, and R.T. Kendall. While it makes some sense to deal with modern critics of Puritan preparationism, at times it muddies their goal of introducing the Puritan writers themselves, even to the point of a seeming obsession to discredit those scholars. In a book of fewer than three-hundred pages, it may have been better to merely acknowledge other viewpoints in the introduction but then move on and simply explain the views of the Puritan authors and let them stand or fall on their own merits.

The second chapter gives a summary of the views of Augustine and John Calvin on preparation. The authors claim that Calvin has been misrepresented in regard to his strong language against any preparing work in the wills of the unregenerate. They assert that he was reacting to the strain of Roman Catholic preparationism from medieval scholars like William of Ockham. They draw on Calvin’s differentiation between the “repentance of the law” and “repentance of the gospel” as part of their case.

We already see in the analysis of Calvin the difficulty of language—when Calvin spoke of regeneration, was he including the effects of the law prior to new life or not? The authors continue in the succeeding chapters to parse the language used by the various Puritan authors, which they rightly identify as causing much of the confusion by scholars over whether views on preparation are orthodox or not. At times this attempted apologetic for each Puritan can seem strained even if correct. There are ample footnotes to demonstrate their research, but the brevity with which each Puritan author is treated could leave readers unconvinced of the conclusions.

The book proceeds to deal with, in order: William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, John Preston, William Ames, Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, William Premble, John Cotton, the Westminster Assembly, Jeremiah Burroughs, William Guthrie, John Norton, Thomas Goodwin, Giles Fermin, John Flavel, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, Ulrich Zwingli, and Herman Witsius (why the last two are not dealt with earlier is curious). I intentionally list all of these to show how much they try to accomplish in this one book. While the scope is certainly commendable, it seemed to be biting off too much for the length of the book. If fewer authors had been treated, the text could have delved into more detail with each one, perhaps presenting a more convincing case with each individual. Otherwise a larger volume would be needed to more adequately deal with so many of the Puritans. In addition, Dr. Beeke’s Puritan Reformed Spirituality (Reformation Heritage, 2004) or his A Puritan Theology (with Mark Jones, Reformation Heritage, 2012) could be consulted for more general information.

Some aspects of the Puritan views may seem foreign to those who are unfamiliar with their writings on this topic. Several of the Puritans examined listed anywhere from a handful to a lengthy list of steps in the preparation process. In some cases, those steps were divided between the pre-conversion and post-conversion experience. Beeke/Smalley rightly show both the helpfulness and problems of such lists as well as how subsequent writers reacted.

Thomas Hooker easily had the most problematic views on preparation as they indicate both in the chapter specifically about Hooker and in later chapters as other Puritans differed from him. Hooker’s writings show how difficult it is at times to pinpoint when the act of regeneration occurs in sinners. He proposed a degree of contrition and humiliation prior to regeneration that went too far for most of the other Puritans cited. A more curious idea from Hooker was that part of humiliation was when a sinner “not only submits to [God’s] justice but is content to be damned” (82). Thomas Shepard had similar troubling views in regard to the pre-regenerate soul.

Beeke/Smalley are correct in disputing the assessment of other on Puritan views of preparation due to a confusion between discussing God’s actions in the process of salvation and the interactions between the Holy Spirit and the will of unregenerate people. Acknowledging how much of the process remains hidden in the human heart adds a degree of Christian humility that ought to be present in such discussions. Certainly the Puritans as much as anyone understood and detailed the revelation of Scripture as it pertains to soteriology. Yet many of them would also admit a degree of mystery which remains.

In sum, in aiming for breadth of coverage the book may have sacrificed some as far as depth of treatment. Some readers will come to differing conclusions about the views of some of these Puritans on preparation, in part due to the brevity with which they are treated, but also given the complexity of the issues. But this is certainly a valuable book on a seldom discussed aspect of Puritan theology. Perhaps others will take up and expand upon what Beeke/Smalley began in this volume.

Kenneth J. McMullen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte