Or, in the language of Jonathan Edwards, that: ‘God makes men sensible of their misery before he reveals his mercy and love’.
Most of it is devoted, however, not to expounding this doctrine, but to a historical survey designed to prove that this has been the prevailing view in Reformed theology from the beginning (including Luther and Calvin), but particularly among English Puritans. Modern attempts by Perry Miller and others to show that significant figures diverged from this consensus are reviewed and (as a rule) refuted.
At the same time Doctors Beeke and Smalley lose no opportunity to point out that this Reformed preparationism was completely different from the Roman Catholic doctrine of congruent merit, according to which grace is infused as a reward for doing the best we can; and they are no less insistent that Reformed preparationism has to be distinguished from the Arminian idea that, once sinners are motivated by a sense of spiritual need, grace merely assists them to Christ, without any invincible input on God’s part.
These historical discussions have their undoubted value, but far the most important aspect of this book is the core idea itself. Regardless of the views of the Puritans, is it in fact God’s normal way of dealing with sinners to prepare them for conversion by awakening them, through the law, to a sense of sin and of imminent spiritual peril?
When we turn to key biblical narratives, the ‘preparatory law-work’ pattern certainly did not always apply. John the Baptist never experienced the agony of soul experienced by his namesake, John Bunyan. Nor is there any hint of a preparatory law-work in the case of the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John (Mark 1.16, 19-20); nor again in the stories of Philip and Nathanael (John 1.43-49), Matthew (Luke 5.27-28) or Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10). Instead, there is instant compliance with the call of Jesus. Self-knowledge would come, of course, particularly in the case of Peter, but it would come later.
At first glance, the story of the Philippian jailer confirms the book’s thesis. Immediately after the earthquake, he appears trembling and suicidal. But this was hardly due to any law-work; or, if there was a law-work, it was of very short duration. And when he asks ‘What must I do to be saved?’, Paul and Silas do not first confront him with the law before presenting him with the gospel. They call him to faith in Christ, speak the ‘word about the Lord’, and baptise him: all, probably, in less than an hour.
The law our schoolmaster?
Even in those New Testament passages commonly appealed to in support of the idea of a normative law-work, all is not as it seems. The best-known of these is Galatians 3.24, which the KJV renders, ‘the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ’. However, the Greek paidagōs was not a schoolmaster. He was a slave placed in charge of an under-age boy, and while one of his duties might be to conduct the boy to and from school he was not himself the schoolmaster. A further difficulty is that what Paul actually says is not that the law was put in charge of us in order to lead us to Christ, but ‘until Christ came’ (ESV) and the ‘law’ referred to was not the law in the narrow sense of the Moral Law, but the law that was introduced 430 years after the Abrahamic covenant (Galatians 3.17) – in other words, the Torah in all its breadth. In fact, this law did not lead the Jews to Christ; and today we are no longer under it.
The principle that Paul lays down in Romans 3.20 still stands, however: ‘through the law we become conscious of sin.’ Yet here, too, caution is required. What the Westminster Confession (10.4) calls the ‘common operations of the Spirit’ can sometimes produce serious conviction of sin in people who never actually come to Christ. How, then, can we tell whether the ‘law-work’ is the effect of a ‘common’ operation or of a ‘saving’ operation?
It can only be, as the Westminster Confession assumes, that those who experience it ‘truly come to Christ’. From this point of view, the intensity or otherwise of the conviction does not matter. It may appear quite unremarkable, but if it leads us to Christ it is sufficient; and, conversely, it may be awesome to behold, and yet if it does not lead us to Christ it is nothing. Here again the cross is the test of everything. Have we come to it?
Creating a stereotype
Faith is indeed born of need, and to divorce it from repentance is, as Bonhoeffer argued, to preach ‘cheap grace’. But the Puritan model of preparatory grace carries its own dangers. One of these is that it suggests a stereotypical pattern of conversion, including not only the same elements but the elements in the same order. Beeke and Smalley are aware of this danger, but nevertheless, as Mark Noll points out, the conversion narratives which Jonathan Edwards recounts in his Faithful Narrative (1737) ‘rapidly became templates for the way many others would picture the normative spiritual journey’; and prominent in these narratives was self-despair and intense conviction of sin.
In reality, no two Christians come to the Lord in the same way.
Once we create a stereotype, anyone whose experience is different may well lose all assurance of salvation, either because she did not begin where others began, or because she never experienced the terrors of the law as others did. We then lose sight of the fact that all that matters is whether we have come to Christ.
There is a danger, too, of linking repentance too exclusively to the law. In the very nature of the case, the law can produce only a legal repentance, in which fear of punishment predominates and in which there is no inducement to return to a heavenly Father. Such a repentance may certainly be an element in the journey to faith, but not all Christians experience it, and not all who do experience it become Christians. In fact, there is no outside-of-Christ state from which there is a guaranteed progression to the one place of safety: ‘hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3.3).
Evangelical repentance always includes a turning to God, and as such it is a result of faith, not a preparation for it. In David’s case, for example, his broken heart (Psalm 51.17) comes after God’s declaration of forgiveness (2 Samuel 12.13) and reflects his confidence in God’s steadfast love (Psalm 51.1). The Shorter Catechism sounds this same note (A. 87): the sinner turns to God not only ‘out of a true sense of his sin’, but also with ‘apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ’. His mercy is there before our repentance; and it is because we have faith in his mercy that we cast ourselves upon it.
Three offices of Christ
We have tended to see Christ primarily as the answer to guilt, the one who brings relief to troubled consciences.One result of this has been to throw his priesthood into special prominence. But Christ is not only priest. He is also prophet and king, and while faith will eventually attach itself to all three offices, it seldom does so all at once. It usually begins with one. That one is often his priesthood, and the sinner’s starting-off point is often a tormented conscience. But that is not the only point of entry into the Christian life, because sin has brought more than guilt. It has also brought ignorance and anxiety. While many, then, will first come to Christ to find peace for their troubled consciences others will come because he is the answer to their quest for the truth; and others because they seek assurance that someone has the world in his hands.
They set off from different points and they will tell different stories. But each will have the Son; and she who has the Son has life.
Donald Macleod is former Professor of Theology at the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh, now retired. The full version of this review is available on Donald Macleod’s blog at www.donaldmacleod.org
PREPARED BY GRACE FOR GRACE
THE PURITANS ON GOD’S ORDINARY WAY OF LEADING SINNERS TO CHRIST.
BY JOEL R. BEEKE & PAUL M. SMALLEY.
REFORMATION HERITAGE BOOKS. 297 PAGES. £15.10 ISBN 978 1 601 782 342