Historical theology does not often get a place at the table in missiological discussions. Its neglect can leave us at the mercy of current thinking and trends. Reading theologians from other eras guards us against our blind spots. Other eras have their blind spots too but they are usually different than ours. Historical theology is a safeguard against cultural bias. The book that I was asked to review looks at the Puritans, whose works I have spent a lot of time reading.
Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley have written a book titled, Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013). The volume deals with an issue central to missiology. The authors write in the introduction:
This book addresses the question of how God ordinarily brings sinners to the point of trusting in Christ alone for salvation. – Kindle loc. 137
The book focuses on Puritan teaching on preparation for conversion. It draws attention to controversies and misunderstandings of some modern scholars on the Puritans, particularly the suggestion that Puritan preparation is at odds with Calvinistic theology. These controversies, while of interest to historical theologians, may not draw the attention of missionaries. Nevertheless, the authors show convincingly that Puritan preparation is compatible with Calvinism.
It is, however, important to distinguish Puritan preparation from preparation that assigns some type of merit to human preparation for conversion. For the Puritans, preparation for conversion was by God’s grace, hence the title of the book. Preparation as the Puritans practiced it did not contradict salvation by grace through faith or God’s sovereign grace in salvation.
WHAT IS PURITAN PREPARATION?
In essence, it is the three-fold work of the Holy Spirit convincing humans of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8).
The Puritans believed that the Holy Spirit labors for the conversion of sinners. Specifically, since salvation is by grace through faith, the Spirit labors to work faith in the heart of the sinner. Without this work of the Spirit, no one can acknowledge or confess that Jesus is Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). Sadly, in addition to the utter inability of the sinner to exercise saving faith, during his years in the natural state many obstacles have piled up, such as habits of sin and settled attitudes of self-righteousness, which have so hardened his conscience that the sinner cannot even acknowledge his need for Christ. The omnipotent Spirit could sweep aside such obstacles and bring the sinner immediately to faith, but that is not the Spirit’s usual or ordinary way, for he created the mind and the conscience of man and generally prefers to work through those faculties. So the Spirit begins by removing obstacles to the gospel call in the mind and conscience. The gospel requires only faith in Christ, but ordinarily it is necessary to remove such obstacles to prepare the way for faith. So the Spirit works to prepare the lost sinner’s soul for grace. This is the essence of the Puritan doctrine of preparation. – Kindle loc. 274
Through the preaching and teaching of both law and gospel, sinners are humbled by their sin and inability to save themselves and flee to Christ as their only hope. The Puritans had a tendency to analyze everything in great detail and expanded this basic three-fold process into various steps. Yet while detailing eight or more steps, they acknowledged that not everyone experiences each of the steps they spell out.
The authors survey Puritan teaching on preparation from the 16th century through Jonathan Edwards (who was not technically part of the Puritan era) in the 18th century. They maintain that there is a basic unity in Puritan teaching on preparation while noting some excesses in some writers. There were many Puritans that warned against spending too much time preaching the law lest it lead to despair. The law convicts the sinner of the need for Christ. The whole purpose of preparation is to show the need and the beauty of salvation in Christ. The final chapter of the book reviews the problems with modern scholars assessment of Puritan preparation and gives an evaluation of the Puritan doctrine of preparation with cautions and positive lessons.
The law prepares sinners to understand and cherish the gospel. Without the convicting work of the law, humankind will not see the need for a savior. In previous blog posts, I have argued for the necessity of teaching the whole biblical storyline. Puritan preparation shows why this is so important – the law is a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ (Gal.3:24). The law helps us to see our sin as rebellion against our Creator and our inability to save ourselves. In this way, the law prepares us to accept the grace of God in Christ.
Beeke and Smalley in conclusion write:
We can learn much from the Puritans, if we read their writings with one eye on the Bible. Their method of soul care calls the church to return to preaching the law to convict and humble the unconverted. In today’s context, James 4:9 is virtually incomprehensible when it exhorts sinners and even nominal church members to “be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.” But sinners must be convicted of the wrath of God, and see the righteousness of it before they understand the need to repent and by faith to embrace the gospel promise. They must examine themselves and mourn over their sins. This message may not attract large crowds today apart from an extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit. But it will create a context in which the gospel makes sense and is good news indeed. It will also honor the Spirit who inspired both law and gospel and He will be pleased to honor our preaching. – Kindle loc. 6513
What might this look like in your context? Perhaps you would need to explain the concept of sin more completely. Certainly, in the West only really bad people are considered sinners. Perhaps your host culture’s word for sin is quite limiting. In most settings, we need to establish human responsibility and accountability to God before Christ’s redemption makes sense. Perhaps you are not a convinced Calvinist as the Puritans were, or I am. If so, how would you use the Old Testament and the law to prepare your audience to hear the gospel in a meaningful way?
The Holy Spirit is at work preparing hearts for the gospel. Our part in preparation is to declare the whole counsel of God which the Holy Spirit inspired.