Leading Sinners to Christ

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I trust that all of us desire to lead sinners to Christ in the most biblical and God honoring way possible. I'm sure that all who read this blog (and write for it) want to be used of the Lord to bring their unsaved friends and family members to Jesus. But how do we do this and from whom can we learn? This is where I have been extremely helped by Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley's new book entitled Prepared by Grace, For Grace. This work teaches us from the great Puritans themselves how to do this most noble work in a way that squares with Scripture. Not only is this volume a helpful clarification on what the Puritans taught about this matter and a great antidote to much of the easy believism that is so rampant in our day, but it is also a prod to do the work of spreading the glorious gospel to the lost.

 

The publisher describes the book like this:

 

Few teachings of the Puritans have provoked such strong reactions and conflicting interpretations as their views on preparing for saving faith. Many twentieth-century scholars dismissed preparation as a prime example of regression from the Reformed doctrine of grace for a man-centered legalism. In Prepared by Grace, for Grace, Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley make careful analysis of the Puritan understanding of preparatory grace, demonstrate its fundamental continuity with the Reformed tradition, and identify matters where even the Puritans disagreed among themselves. Clearing away the many misconceptions and associated accusations of preparationism, this study is sure to be the standard work on how the Puritans understood the ordinary way God leads sinners to Christ.

 

Here is what Derek Thomas writes about it:

 

"I can think of no abler team of writers in the world today to tackle the important issue of preparatory grace, with all of its attendant law-gospel implications, than Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley. As with legalism, preparatory grace suffers from verbal abuse partly through ignorance of the real issues, and partly through prejudice for its supposed attempt to usurp gospel grace. Beeke and Smalley have provided us with a plethora of historical and theological material to enable us to walk through this controversial but important issue. It has been suggested that to understand the relationship between law and gospel is to be a theologian; on this score, these authors are theologians par excellence.  

 

With the publisher's permission, here are some key aspects of the book from chapter fourteen:

 

Positive Lessons from Puritan Preparation

Despite all these criticisms and cautions, the Puritan doctrine of preparation still offers a great deal of truth and wisdom. Here are several lessons we can learn from it.

 

1. Puritan preparation assists the free offer of the gospel.

It is false to portray preparation as the antithesis of an open invitation for all sinners to come to Christ. John Preston wrote, "We preach Christ generally unto all, that whosoever will, may receive Christ; but men will not receive him, till they be humbled, they think they stand in no need of Christ."[1] To be sure, preparation can be presented in a way that inhibits men from coming. The Puritans labored to avoid this error by mingling teaching on preparation with clear announcements of the gospel call.

Hooker himself preached, "Why, it is a free mercy, and therefore why mayest not thou have it as well as another?... If you will but come and take grace, this is all God looks for, all that the Lord expects and desires, you may have it for the taking."[2] But Hooker also understood that "whosoever will" (Rev. 22:17) implies that sinners must be made willing to come to Christ for salvation.[3] Sinners must sense their need of Christ before they can rationally choose Him.

 

Regeneration is a simple and instantaneous act of God giving faith to the sinner for justification and eternal life in Christ. So the gospel call is simply, "Repent ye, and believe" (Mark 1:15). But the sinner's experience that precedes regeneration ordinarily involves thought, feeling, and activity. Thus the simple gospel call is accompanied by many subordinate and related duties such as: "hearken to my words" (Acts 2:14), "incline your ear" (Isa. 55:3), "let us reason together" (Isa. 1:19), "we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device" (Acts 17:29), "examine yourselves" (2 Cor. 13:5), and "be afflicted, and mourn, and weep" (James 4:9). When the Puritans preached such duties, they did not present an alternative to trusting in Christ without delay, anymore than Paul did when he "reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come" with Felix (Acts 24:27). Preparatory duties are the servants of faith.

 

Shepard said that King Jesus commands all people to come to Him for grace, offering Himself in a great exchange.[4] But sin makes it a "wonderfully hard thing to be saved."[5] So the Westminster divines taught that the first work by which God "doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel," is "convincing us of our sin and misery" (WSC, Q. 31). Christ is portrayed in the prophecy of Isaiah 55:1 as a merchant of salvation in the market place, crying, "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." As Guthrie said, preparation stirs our first thirst and hunger for salvation.[6]

 

2. Puritan preparation is thoroughly Reformed, not Roman Catholic or Arminian.

Calvin, Perkins, Pemble, Ames, Cotton, and Norton distinguished between Reformed and Roman Catholic ideas of preparation, rejecting the latter as granting partial merit to fallen men but embracing the former as revealing to men their utter lack of merit.[7] They regarded Arminian preparation as a crypto-Romanism, but put the preparation doctrine of their Reformed brothers in another category. Presbyterian theologian William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) explained the difference:

The term 'preparative' as used by the Augustinian and Calvinist, is very different from its use by the Semi-Pelagian and Arminian. The former means by it, conviction of sin, guilt, and helplessness.... In the Semi-Pelagian use, a 'preparative' denotes some faint desires and beginnings of holiness in the natural man upon which the Holy Spirit, according to the synergistic theory of regeneration, joins.... In the Calvinistic system, a 'preparative' to regeneration, or a 'means' of it, is anything that demonstrates man's total lack of holy desire and his need of regeneration.... It is common or prevenient grace. Man's work in respect to regeneration is connected with this. Moved and assisted by common or prevenient grace, the natural man is to perform the following duties, in order to be convicted of sin, and know his need of the new birth.[8]

Shedd also included reading and hearing the Scriptures, serious thinking about the truths of the gospel, and prayer for the Holy Spirit.

 

We might illustrate the difference between the Roman Catholic view of preparation and the Reformed view by asking whether a man is prepared to sell his house. The answer might depend, in part, on whether the owner is rich or poor. A rich man would say he is prepared to sell his house when he has cleaned it and decorated it so that it will attract a buyer. While no degree of such preparation could obligate a buyer to purchase the rich man's home, such preparations do increase its "merit" or market value. This corresponds to the view of preparation that the Puritans rejected as "papist." According to the Roman Catholic doctrine of congruent merit, an unsaved man cannot strictly obligate God to save him, but he can make himself as attractive as possible by doing what lies in him, and enhance his "value" or merit in God's sight.

 

On the other hand, a poor man is prepared to sell his house when he realizes he is completely unable to pay his bills. He once treasured his home, but now needs a buyer to deliver him from debt. Such "preparation" has nothing to do with the value of the home. As his debts mount, the man's house decays through lack of maintenance. He is nonetheless prepared to sell it; he even prays that a buyer will have mercy on him and take it off his hands. This corresponds to the Reformed view of preparation that the Puritans embraced. This preparation consists not of increased worthiness, or meritorious acts, but an increased sense of need and helplessness. This preparation for grace leads to a conversion by grace which excludes boasting in self, for all the glory must go to the Redeemer of helpless and impoverished sinners.

 

3. Puritan preparation highlights the common work of the Holy Spirit.

Rather than viewing the Spirit's work as confined strictly to regeneration, the Puritans said the Spirit works mightily beforehand through the preaching of the Word to convict sinners of sin. Ames quoted the British representatives at Dort as saying, "There are certain internal effects, leading unto conversion or regeneration, which are stirred by the power of the word, and of the Spirit, in the hearts of those not yet justified."[9] Hooker described contrition as "an act of the Spirit of Christ, whereby it doth fling down those strongholds" by which sin and Satan resist the Word.[10] Both Goodwin and Edwards developed their doctrine of preparation in the context of the three-fold ministry of the Spirit promised by Christ in John 16:8-11.[11] Puritan preparation makes a vital contribution to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit by expanding our awareness of our dependence on His work in us, and increasing our gratitude towards Him for it.

 

4. Puritan preparation engages sinners with the law but not with legalism.

The convicting use of the law is central to preparation for faith. Calvin wrote, "The law summoneth all the world before God, not one except[ed]: it condemneth all the children of Adam.... Now seeing God thundereth against us, we must needs run to that mercy which is offered unto us in our Lord Jesus Christ."[12] Perkins wrote, "First, the law prepares us by humbling us: then comes the gospel, and it stirs up faith."[13] He wrote on Galatians 3:24,

The law, especially the moral law, urgeth and compelleth men to go to Christ. For it shows us our sins, and that without remedy: it shows us the damnation that is due unto us: and by this means, it makes us despair of salvation in respect of ourselves: and thus it enforceth us to seek for help out of ourselves in Christ. The law is then our schoolmaster not by the plain teaching, but by stripes and correction.[14]

Thus the law serves the gospel by showing that we cannot be justified by the law. Bunyan portrayed this truth in Pilgrim's Progress by showing that when Christian wandered off the path in search of Mr. Legality to remove his burden, the threatening of Mount Sinai held him back and spurred him on to follow Evangelist's advice to quickly go to the wicket-gate.[15] As Edwards pointed out, a superficial view of the law tends to engender self-righteousness, but the searching preaching of the law, and hard labors to keep it, tend to destroy self-righteousness.[16]

 

5. Puritan preparation respects the mystery of regeneration and its timing.

At the beginning of this book, we defined preparation as a prelude to conscious faith in Christ. The Puritans acknowledged that in preparation, a person may be saved by faith in Christ, but he is not yet conscious of his faith, but only of his longings for Christ and salvation.

 

Edwards said the new birth can come in "a confused chaos...exceeding mysterious and unsearchable." He referred to Ecclesiastes 11:5, "As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all."[17] Hooker also wrote about the mystery of spiritual birth, comparing it to conception and gestation in the womb.[18] Whereas the English Puritans tended to locate regeneration closer to the soul's first conscious receiving of Christ by faith, the Dutch theologians tended to locate it in the early convictions of conscience. Brakel wisely observed, "If he [the sinner] were to begin with the first serious conviction, in all probability he did not have faith yet. If he were to begin with the moment when, for the first time, he exercised faith consciously and in a most heartfelt manner, he would reckon too late, for in all probability he already had faith."[19]

 

6. Puritan preparation honors God as Creator and Savior.

Ames said it was "crude" to treat people as nothing more than "stone."[20] The Canons of Dort likewise argue that the "grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor takes away their will and its properties, neither does violence thereto" (Head 3/4, Art. 16). God created man with a mind and a will. He created a world in which He works by means. His creations are good and must be used with thankfulness. All good things did not disappear with the fall. But sin has made man dead with respect to God. Only a sovereign and undeserved act of divine grace can raise the sinner to a living faith, hope, and love in Christ. Honoring God as Creator requires us to treat people as rational and volitional beings. Honoring God as Savior also requires us to show people that they are utterly incapable of regenerating themselves. The Puritans recognized both truths in exhorting the unconverted to use their natural abilities to read, think, listen, feel, and pray, even though only a supernatural work of grace can produce faith in sinners.

Samuel Willard said that in effectual calling, "The Spirit of God, in the work of application, treats with men as reasonable creatures, and causes by counsel; not carrying them by violent compulsion, but winning them by arguments, by which they are 'made willing in the day of his power' (Ps. 110:3)."[21] Jeremiah Burroughs said, "Jesus Christ doth work upon the heart in a rational way, as a rational creature, although he doth work above reason, and conveys supernatural grace that is beyond reason."[22] Edwards wrote, "God in the work of the salvation of mankind, deals with them suitably to their intelligent rational nature."[23]

 

7. Puritan preparation reveals the sufficiency of Christ.

Preparation reveals the sufficiency of Christ by showing that everything that contributes to salvation, from the first stirrings of conviction of sin to the peace of full assurance of grace and salvation, comes from Him. Hooker said in preparation "the Lord Christ" wages a merciful war against the power of sin.[24] Conviction of sin is Christ knocking upon the door of the soul.[25] We must not view preparation as putting an obstacle between Christ and the soul, for preparation is an encounter with the living God who calls out to the soul with a voice that shakes the threshold of the heart.

Preparation also reveals the sufficiency of Christ by convincing sinners that apart from Christ they can do nothing, not even come to Christ. Hooker said, "That soul which was cured by any other means save only by Christ, was never truly wounded for sin.... But if the soul were truly wounded for sin, then nothing can cure him but a Savior to pardon him, and grace to purge him."[26] Goodwin said that until sinners are humiliated, they are like able-bodied men with no money who think they can always get a job. Humiliation shows them to be maimed and helpless, lacking even the hands to receive Christ, so they must look to Christ even for the hands.[27]

 

8. Puritan preparation is biblical.

The Puritans based their doctrine of preparation on an array of specific texts in the Holy Scriptures, such as: 2 Chronicles 33:12; 34:27; Job 11:12; Isaiah 40:3-4; 42:3; 55:1; 57:15; 61:1-3; 66:2; Jeremiah 4:3; 23:29; 31:19; Ezekiel 36:31; Hosea 5:15; 6:1-2; Matthew 3:7; 11:28; Mark 12:34; Luke 15:14-18; John 4:16-18; 16:8; Acts 2:37; 9:6; 16:13-14; 29-30; 24:24-25; Romans 3:19-20; 7:7-13; 8:15; 2 Corinthians 10:4; Galatians 3:19, 24; Revelation 3:17, 20. Patricia Caldwell says the Puritan experience of preparation especially resonated with the prophetic theme of Israel's sufferings in exile as God urged His people to repent of their sins.[28]

 

Perhaps most fundamentally, the Puritans used the three-fold pattern of the Epistle to the Romans, which included Paul's treatment of sin and wrath (1:18-3:20), salvation by faith alone in Christ (3:21-11:36), and our thankful response of obedience to God's mercies (12:1-15:13). Romans is perhaps the clearest and fullest presentation of the gospel in Scripture and arguably was the most influential book in the Reformation. It gave a definitive pattern to Reformed thinking on conversion by saying that a sense of sin and misery precedes both deliverance and having peace with God. Those who would disregard or dismiss Puritan preparation should read Romans and meditate on Paul's rationale for spending so much time on sin before explaining the good news of the gospel.

  

Conclusion

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. A comfort gained upon grieving over sin is solid and lasting comfort.

 

This book is far from exhaustive in explaining the Puritan doctrine of preparation. We have only briefly considered the writings of significant authors. We have almost entirely passed by the preparatory doctrines of men such as Peter Bulkeley, Samuel Rutherford, Richard Baxter, John Owen, Cotton Mather, and Solomon Stoddard. For further study, we encourage you to read Ames's disputation on preparation found in the appendix. You might also explore topics such as the relation of preparation to faculty psychology, common grace, and the conscience. The fruit of a great field of research is still waiting to be harvested. In our survey of Puritan views on this topic, we hope we have shed some needed light on a matter of great importance.

 

We should remember that preparation was only one part of Puritan teaching on soteriology. The Puritans also developed rich doctrines of effectual calling, saving faith, repentance unto life, assurance of salvation, and spiritual joy in Christ. It would be a mistake to think that the Puritans were obsessed with conviction of sin, contrition, and humiliation, when these preparatory works were only the beginning of the way that may lead to salvation as they understood it.

 

The focus of the Puritans, as with all biblical Christianity, was Christ. As William Perkins said to his student preachers at the conclusion of his Arte of Prophecying, "The sum of the sum: Preach one Christ by Christ to the praise of Christ."[29] Puritan preparation was just a means to an end, and the end was knowing, trusting, loving, serving, and glorifying Jesus Christ. We close with the words of Thomas Hooker:

The Lord proclaims his mercy openly, freely offers it, heartily intends it, waits to communicate it, lays siege to the soul by his long sufferance: there is enough to procure all good, distrust it not: he freely invites, fear it not, thou mayest be bold to go: he intends it heartily, question it not: yet he is waiting and wooing, delay it not therefore, but hearken to his voice.[30]

 

More information on Prepared by Grace can be viewed here:

 

http://www.heritagebooks.org/prepared-by-grace-for-grace-the-puritans-on-gods-way-of-leading-sinners-to-christ/

 



[1]. Preston, "Pavls Conversion," in Remaines, 187.

[2]. Hooker, The Vnbeleevers Preparing for Christ, 19-20.

[3]. Hooker, The Vnbeleevers Preparing for Christ, 2-3.

[4]. Shepard, The Sincere Convert, 106-112.

[5]. Shepard, The Sincere Convert, 144.

[6]. Guthrie, sermons upon Isaiah 55:1-2, in A Collection of Lectures and Sermons, 113-14.

[7]. Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.27; Ames, "The Preparation of a Sinner for Conversion," theses 1-2; Pemble, Vindiciae Gratiae, 27-29, 56; Cotton, The Way of Life, 182; Norton, The Orthodox Evangelist, 130. On Perkins, see Pettit, The Heart Prepared, 62.

[8]. William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1888), 2:511-12.

[9]. Ames, "The Preparation of a Sinner for Conversion," thesis 5.

[10]. Hooker, The Application of Redemption... The First Eight Books, 151.

[11]. Goodwin, The Work of the Holy Ghost in Our Salvation, 6:359-61; Edwards, "The Threefold Work of the Holy Ghost," 14:391.

[12]. Calvin, Sermons on Timothy and Titus, 50.

[13]. Perkins, A Commentary on Galatians, 200.

[14]. Perkins, A Commentary on Galatians, 200.

[15]. Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress (1738), 14-21.

[16]. Edwards, "Pressing into the Kingdom of God," 19:284-85.

[17]. Edwards, Religious Affections, 2:160-61.

[18]. Hooker, "To the Reader," in Rogers, The Doctrine of Faith.

[19]. Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, 2:245.

[20]. Ames, "The Preparation of a Sinner for Conversion," corollary.

[21]. Willard, A Compleat Body of Divinity, 432.

[22]. Burroughs, Four Books, 1:22.

[23]. Edwards, Religious Affections, 2:152.

[24]. Hooker, The Application of Redemption... The Ninth and Tenth Books, 47-50, 98-99.

[25]. Hooker, The Application of Redemption... The Ninth and Tenth Books, 101, 111-12.

[26]. Hooker, The Sovles Preparation for Christ, 133.

[27]. Goodwin, The Work of the Holy Ghost in Our Salvation, 6:384-85.

[28]. Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative, 172.

 

[29]. Breward, ed., The Work of William Perkins, 349.

[30]. Hooker, The Application of Redemption... The First Eight Books, 362-63.

Posted June 6, 2013 @ 9:03 AM by Rob Ventura
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