Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley. Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Way of Leading Sinners to Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013. $16.87 (Amazon). 297 pp.
If you are a Christian, you have no doubt wondered whether conversion is a gradual process or a punctiliar event. Does God simply seize people apart from their will or does he carefully woo them? Whether or not we know the answer exactly, we can be sure that God uses the ordinary things of life to drive people to his Son. The Puritan doctrine of preparation is designed to show us just that and help us wade through these deep theological waters.
Prepared by Grace, for Grace is authored by Dr. Joel Beeke, president and systematic theology professor of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Beeke is also a pastor at the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation, and author of many other works, including most recently, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. In Prepared, Beeke teams up with his teaching assistant, Paul Smalley, to write an introduction on the Puritan doctrine of preparation.
Beeke and Smalley trace the historical development of the doctrine of preparation. They begin by discussing the roots of preparation in Augustine and Calvin before addressing its Puritan emphases. Putting finer details aside, this book has two main threads of tension woven throughout. The first tension is between law and gospel. The second is between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
Reformed preparation–what the Puritans believed and taught–holds that both the law and the gospel must be preached. If sinners are not confronted with their sin, they will never see the good news of grace in Jesus Christ. Therefore, preachers must not shy away from plainly showing God’s demands in the law and that sinners are under the wrath of God. As I enter into pastoral ministry, this aspect of the book is the most encouraging reminder for me. We preach the law so that sinners might see and feel their need for the perfect Christ.
The Puritans also believed that preparation is not a blow to God’s sovereignty in salvation. In explaining preparation, the Puritans taught that sinners could do certain things as they wait for exercise saving faith, such as avoiding gratifying their flesh, perform acts of kindness, reading the Scriptures, pleading with God for faith, attending church and small groups, etc. The objections the Puritans faced then and by modern scholarship is that this bordered Arminianism–that man can work his way to God and earn grace. The Puritans, however, rightly held that God not only ordained salvation for each saint, but he also ordained the means. Therefore, whatever a person did in the preparation stage, it was being done because God was moving that person to do it.
If you are looking for a light read on how conversion happens, this book is not for you. It is an intense study–certainly not bedtime reading. Each chapter is written in an essay-type format, so it has an academic feel to it, and can be dry at times. The book is probably better suited for a serious educational setting rather than a casual group study. I also found the material to be repetitive at times. The authors must develop a comparison and contrast on preparation throughout Puritan history–which they do quite well–and this forces the reader to re-read information, even quotes, that appear earlier in the book. By and large, Beeke and Smalley prove that the Puritans had great agreement on preparation. Because of this, one may wonder why nearly 300 pages needed to be written when probably 215-230 would have sufficed.
In the end, the book will prove to be immensely helpful for those serious about Puritan theology. It’s a tough read, but if you are committed to do some hard digging–scholar or not– you will find a few, precious diamonds to take with you.