Perhaps I was ill-prepared to read Joel Beeke and Paul M. Smalley’s new book. I am not particularly Reformed (though I am reforming), but I am Evangelical. The Puritans helped shape what ‘Evangelical’ means. I have appreciated the writings of various Puritans (Edwards, Baxter, Owens) but I am no expert on the Puritans. I have a cursory understanding of their writings and significance, mostly from secondary literature. Beeke and Smalley dedicate Prepared By Grace For Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ to exploring one aspect of Puritan theology: Preparatory Grace. By tracing the theology of the Puritans from its precedents, to the early English Puritans through Edwards, Beeke and Smalley are able to demonstrate a remarkable continuity in regards to this issue. They also demonstrate the continuity with the theology of Calvin and continental Calvinsits.
So what is Preparatory Grace? It is the work of the Spirit, prior to conversion by which a person feels the weight of their sin. This is not salvific, they still need to cast themselves on the Grace of God; however this preparatory work lays the ground for conversion. I think this is significant on several grounds. First, the Puritan Theology of preparation for Salvation gives attention to where God was at work in a person’s life, pre-conversion. Thus this feature of Puritan theology provides a corrective to 20th Century revivalism which emphasizes salvation as an event only. The Puritans would agree that there is an ‘event’ where the sinner crosses from darkness into light, but they also acknowledge the process by which a person comes to saving faith.
Second (and Beeke and Smalley articulate this theme well), the theology of Preparatory Grace endues the preaching of the Law with significance. By preaching the Law, the reprobate are brought under the conviction of sin. This is a work of the Spirit and not the psychological manipulation of the preacher, but preaching provides the occasion for sinners to encounter God’s standards. Beeke and Smalley demonstrate that Puritan emphasis on preparation (at its best) is not promoting legalism. Rather they are naming the experience of the converted.
Third, this also ascribes some dignity to the sinner. While they cannot of themselves come to Salvation, there is a sense that they can be moved unto love and good works and the Law of God can have good effect on them. This is not Salvation, but it does put them on the road.
Throughout their book, Smalley and Beeke are interacting with contemporary scholarship. They argue contra R.T. Kendall, that the Puritan theology of preparation is in continuity with the theology of John Calvin and the Calvinists. They argue contra Perry Miller that the supposed ‘anti-preparationists’ were not anti-preparationist per se, but against Arminianism and Catholic versions of preparation which they saw as deficient.
The continuity of the Puritans on this issue, does not mean that every Puritan theologian agreed on every aspect of what Preparation looked like. For example, Thomas Hooker, who wrote more on preparation than anyone else, also argued that one of the characteristics of ‘the prepared’ was that they felt content to be damned (249). Many other Puritan writers took issue with this feature of Hooker’s theology.
This is a well reasoned and interesting account of Puritan theology. Because of the academic nature of this book, I do not recommend it for general consumption but anyone with an interest in theology or history (or historical theology) will appreciate the benefits of this book. If you are looking for an introduction to the theology of the Puritans, look elsewhere because the focus of this book is too narrow for that. But the initiated will appreciate this. I give this book four stars.