Book Review: Prepared by Grace, For Grace, by Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley
Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley, Prepared by Grace, For Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ. Reformation Heritage Books, 2013. 297 pages. $25.00.
Joel Beeke, president and professor of systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Paul Smalley, his teaching assistant, came together to writePrepared by Grace, For Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ.
The primary question they seek to answer from the writings of the Puritans is: “What is the ordinary way in which God leads sinners to Christ?” The answer at which they arrive is the preparatory work of the Spirit of God. The Puritans used this word “preparation” in many contexts. For this book, Beeke and Smalley specifically refer to the Puritan’s understanding of preparation for saving faith in Christ (3).
The Puritans believed that without the work of the Spirit, no one can confess that Jesus is Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). And while “the Spirit could sweep aside such obstacles and bring the sinner immediately to faith…that is not the Spirit’s usual or ordinary way, for He created the mind and conscience of man and generally prefers to work through those faculties…So, the Spirit works to prepare the lost sinner’s soul for grace” (9). This is the essence of the Puritan doctrine of preparation.
This doctrine is not without its controversies. Some modern scholars have sought to argue that the Puritan doctrine of preparation is not a Reformed doctrine at all, and that this doctrine attempts to usurp the gospel of grace.
Thus, it is with great care that the authors evaluate this critique by rooting the discussion in historical theology. The reader is first introduced to the writings of Augustine and Calvin and their Scriptural understanding of the doctrine of preparation. Subsequently, we are introduced to the English Puritans and the New England Puritans, and the authors examine their Scriptural understanding of the work of God in the souls of men to prepare them for salvation by the power of the Spirit.
According to the Puritans, the Spirit of God ordinarily uses means to lead sinners to Christ; namely, the law. Many of the Puritans believed that before a person would rest peacefully on Christ, he would ordinarily be convicted of sin and guilt. And it was the law that assisted the gospel in awakening sinners to their terrible state. Therefore, the Puritans stressed the law of God in their sermons and in their writings. Yet it is precisely at this point where the Puritans are often misunderstood. The Puritans never intended the use of the law to deteriorate into legalism.
In the eleventh chapter of Prepared by Grace, For Grace, we are introduced to John Bunyan’s remarkably refined understanding of the doctrine of preparation in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Worldly-Wiseman convinces the pilgrim to go to the village of Morality, where Legality and his son, Civility, supposedly can remove men’s burdens. The pilgrim is convinced to go there, but he is stopped by a huge hill (margin: “Mount Sinai”), which threatens to fall upon him, makes his burden feel heavier, and flashes with fire. Evangelist meets the pilgrim there and explains that the wisdom of this world sends us to the law for justification, a justification which the law cannot give. As Evangelist speaks, Mount Sinai burst into flames and a voice says, “As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10) (195). Christian quickly races away from the huge hill, and runs to the gate, and from there to the house of the Interpreter.
By way of explanation, Bunyan said this teaches us that on one hand, the world abuses the law by turning men away from seeking justification by faith alone, and thus to trust in their own works. This is legalism. On the other hand, the law assists the gospel preacher. The law’s fearful declarations of wrath against sinners should stop men from proceeding in legalism, and together with the gospel, drive them to faith in Christ. In this respect, the law is the tool of the Holy Spirit to convince sinners of sin and awaken them to flee damnation (195-96).
Far from being a betrayal of Reformed theology, the Puritan doctrine of preparation underscores the central truth of conversion, which is that God saves guilty sinners by Christ alone.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough to pastors and other church leaders. The Puritan doctrine of preparation will help them to seriously consider the content of their preaching, help them understand the role of the law and the gospel in Christian conversion, and help them evaluate the condition of the souls of those who sit under their care. This book will lead them to a greater sense of God’s grace, drive them deeper in humility, and call them to a heartfelt response of praise and worship for God’s immense kindness in revealing his Son to undeserving sinners.