Prepared by Grace, for Grace, Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013. Paperback, pp. xiii + 287. [Reviewed by Rev. Martyn McGeown.]
It is no secret that Joel Beeke loves the Puritans. In this book, Beeke and Smalley examine one of Puritanism’s most controversial doctrines, preparatory grace or “preparation.” The Puritans were faced with a situation in which almost everyone was a member of the state church. Clearly, a great number of churchgoers were unbelievers. How, then, could the preacher awaken the carnal, self-righteous hypocrites sitting in the pews to their need of salvation? The Puritans developed a theology to awaken their listeners by preaching the law of God. The idea was that God used the law to convict sinners of their sin, so that they would see their need for Christ and come to Him for salvation. This, in itself, was not wrong: the Heidelberg Catechism uses the law to teach us our misery (LD 2). The problem was that the Puritans made preparation a very elaborate process, which in practice distressed the consciences of true believers. Conversion becomes impossibly convoluted and complex.
Prepared by Grace, for Grace traces the doctrine of preparation through many different Puritan writers (William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, John Preston, William Ames, Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, John Cotton and many others). Most of these men agreed on the main lines of preparation, but they differed on the details. Much of the disagreement involved when exactly regeneration could be considered to have taken place, how much preparation is necessary, and (to me this is crucial) how preparation differs in the elect and reprobate.
Exactly at that point, Puritan preparatory theology becomes distressing: how much preparation must a sinner undergo, before he can have assurance that he is saved? Often as I read the book, I found myself writing in the margin, “Is this regeneration yet?” “Is such a person a believer yet?” “Can a person reach this step and still perish?” That is the fundamental issue that I have with Puritan preparatory theology: it makes assurance of salvation very difficult to attain. What might appear to be evidence of regeneration and saving faith could, in fact, be simply preparation. Reprobates might come so far!
Thomas Hooker, for example, wrote, “In preparation the soul grieves because of the Holy Spirit’s piercings and woundings, yet it does not yet have an inward principle of grace to love God and hate sin as sin” (81) and “a man under godly sorrow is not yet ‘in Christ’ but only ‘prepared for Christ.’ This sorrow is not ‘sanctifying sorrow.’” To this, Beeke and Smalley remark, “Here Hooker diverged from most Puritans in teaching a true, godly sorrow in the unregenerate” (87). Thomas Shepard explained that “there is in the elect a farther stroke of severing the soul from sin, conjoined with the terrors and sorrows [before their closing with Christ], which is not evident in the reprobate.” Shepard’s order of salvation was “common preparatory sorrows, the special grace of cutting off the old man, grafting into Christ by faith (calling), justification and sanctification” (96). John Norton had as many as twelve steps of preparation in his scheme!
The Puritans’ exegesis was, in my view, quite fanciful. They labored to explain preparation using many figures and illustrations, some taken from Scripture, others not. For example, preparation was like drying wood before it was burned; preparation was God giving the soul “fitness to receive” grace, like an empty bucket can receive water “but has no ability to fill itself or even to move itself under a faucet” (57); preparation was God gathering together the dry bones in Ezekiel 37, before He breathed life into them (one might be a gathered, flesh-covered, yet lifeless, skeleton); preparation was the forming of Adam’s body from dust, before He breathed into it the breath of life (248-249). John Cotton posited a double-work of the Spirit, giving a “spirit of bondage” (severing sinners from worldly entanglements and impressing upon them the weight of their sins) and a “spirit of burning” (consuming their hypocrisy), before He gave them the Spirit of regeneration. “People may go so far and not enter into adoption,” he warned (120). That is very fanciful exegesis of passages such asand !
The research and the scholarship of the book are good and quite extensive, and the authors interact with some modern critics of Puritan theology, clearing away some misconceptions. If one is not interested in what the Puritans taught, however, simply read the last chapter for the authors’ conclusions. There I find myself in agreement with the criticisms (cautions) offered by Beeke and Smalley (251-254). These include the fact that the Puritans “at times did not choose their words as wisely as they should have;” the Puritans were guilty of a “lack of balance in presentation even in the context of a sound system of doctrine” (one man memorably put it that “a man may be held too long under John Baptist’s water”!); and the Puritans rigorously developed and painfully applied sequences of steps that could easily mislead their audiences into thinking that they were not yet saved.”
The Puritans have written some good material, but their doctrine of assurance (which flows out of their doctrine of preparation) is, quite frankly, miserable. Why, then, do Beeke and his allies insist on publishing books which praise the worst of what the Puritans have written? If you are interested in historical theology, this book will be helpful; if you are interested in the assurance of salvation, avoid the Puritans.