Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book Review: Prepared by Grace, for Grace

Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God's Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley
Reformation Heritage Books (2013); 287 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

One of the things that helped me find my home in the Reformed tradition is its emphasis on the fact that salvation is something that God accomplishes, from beginning to end. As one of my favorite hymn-texts puts it, "The work which his goodness began,/ The arm of his strength will complete."

But from the earliest generations, Reformed thinkers have not neglected the question of how human faculties are engaged in the process of spiritual birth. Indeed, their historical circumstances forced them to contend openly with this question. They had to differentiate the Reformed position from the Roman Catholic teaching of "congruent merit" on one hand and Arminian teaching on the human capacity to respond to the gospel on the other. In doing so, they sometimes differed slightly from one another.

Beeke and Smalley aim to show, however, that the concept of "preparation for salvation" was a thread which ran consistently through early Reformed thought, from Calvin to the eighteenth century. In making their argument, they counter much modern scholarship, traced especially to Perry Miller, which reads the theological development of preparation as a betrayal of Calvin, even an Arminian encroachment. The key point here is the doctrine of creation -- God created our mind and conscience, and while the Holy Spirit could sovereignly override these faculties to effect our salvation, he ordinarily chooses to work through them. As they sum it up so well, "Puritan preparation was a thoughtful attempt to do justice both to man's total inability to love God apart from spiritual renewal and his remaining dignity, responsibility, and ability as a person created in God's image." (69)

The authors illustrate this attempt by delving into writings from both sides of the Atlantic: English figures such as William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, Jeremiah Burroughs, and John Flavel, and figures from New England such as Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, and Jonathan Edwards. While their study of each writer's corpus is not exhaustive, it is thorough and careful enough to highlight subtle distinctions. For example, Thomas Hooker laid great stress on the "saving sorrow" people ought to experience before salvation, to the extent that he blurred the line between initial conviction of sin and actual conversion to and union with Christ. Later figures like Thomas Goodwin and Giles Firmin critiqued this ambiguity, as well as what they saw as Hooker's over-emphasis on the Law at the expense of pointing people to the grace of Christ. Jonathan Edwards, too, sought to make the teaching on preparation more biblically consistent. Over-schematizing the steps of preparation could actually draw attention away from the central truth of justification by faith in Christ, and pastors must remember that not all people will experience distinct "steps" in a set order. Finally, the point of preparation is not to set one's spiritual house in order so that it will be fit for Christ; rather, it is to make the sinner realize how helpless and enslaved by sin he truly is, and so to drive him to Christ alone.

For a student of historical theology, the draw of this study is self-evident. Indeed, I would have loved to read even more about each figure's historical/intellectual context to understand why preparation was a crucial matter back then. But why should a pastor invest the time in reading this book today? In a Reformed setting, I think the most obvious reason is to help one think through the role of the Law in the preaching of the gospel. The Puritans took for granted that human beings needed to be brought to grief over the offense of their sins; this way of thinking does not come naturally to most of us today. The past often surprises with fresh insights, especially when it touches on matters we tend to regard as uniquely pressing in our generation, such as approaches to preaching and evangelism.

As you will likely have gathered, these are deep theological waters, and I would not recommend this book to readers who do not have a basic exposure to Puritan texts and systematic theology. But an advanced degree in theology isn't necessary, either. Beeke and Smalley do an excellent job of guiding readers through the thickets of seventeenth-century literature, and the book, believe it or not, is a pleasure to read. It reminded me anew of how precious Christ is, and that the only goal of preparation is that the soul be "so far cast down as it sets a high price on Christ, and on grace, above all things in the world." (Richard Sibbes, 47)

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.