Prepared By Grace, For Grace by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley
This new book on the Puritans and God’s ordinary way of leading sinners to Christ is a reservoir of research and careful study into the primary and secondary sources concerning preparation. Many readers will know of Joel R. Beeke, who has made himself a household name by his many works on the Puritans, including most recently his work entitled Puritan Theology. Paul Smalley, Beeke’s teacher’s assistant brings to the table some very keen insights about Puritan writing. So what is this book about? Well, for one thing, the authors indicate that, “This book addresses the question of how God ordinarily brings sinner to the point of trusting in Christ alone for salvation. Specifically, is conversion an event or a process?....Does God ordinarily begin the work of conversion by first convincing sinners of their guilt and His coming judgment” (1)? By diving into the sermons, writings, and vast secondly literature on the Puritans, Beeke and Smalley seek to delineate the process by which the Puritans understood conversion (quick or gradual process, law and gospel, the work of the Holy Spirit, repentance, and faith).
After setting out the tableware that conversion for the Puritans could be both gradual and immediate, that preparation that they preached was in a Reformed and Calvinistic context, the authors take on the challenge of answering the pointy questions of modern scholars (2-8). For some scholars such as Norman Pettit, the Puritans belief in the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man was a nonsensical and contradictory idea. Yet, Pettit misses the point that it is the process and application of redemption that man is left without aiding in his own salvation, not his moral actions otherwise (14-16). Lastly, the authors take on the writings of R.T. Kendall in his thesis concerning Calvin vs. the Calvisinists. This thesis states that the period after Calvin that sought to revive a type of Reformed Scholasticism (Beza) and degenerated into a sort of works-righteousness movement. As Beeke points out in citing the work of David Steinmetz, Theodore Beza might have offered an essentiall new method for theological training, but his theology as a whole was in concert with what Calvin taught before.
Part of the vast amount of literature on the Puritans includes some of the Early English Puritans, including Arthur Hildersam. One of the penetrating quotes from his work is that, “Someone might object to this, saying that people already know they are sinners, but Hildersam said their knowledge is like a sleeping watchdog that inspires no fear. Their conscience must yet be awakened, for “till men have the true knowledge and sense of their sin, they can never know Christ to the comfort and salvation of their souls” (40-41). Therefore, part of the goal in preaching the law was to convict and awaken people to their own sin, not to destroy their souls, but to lead them to repentance. This kind of message seems counter to our culture today, where we would rather call sin a disease or something that came upon us rather than a deadly sickness that we take part in each and every day. Furthermore, Beek and Smalley point out that “God had the freedom to convert people in whatever manner He chose” (40). There is a difference between an ordinary way that God uses to bring people to himself and other means that God uses outside the regular legal terrors the Puritans taught.
Lastly, I thought the way in which the authors brought together the themes of feeling the burden of sin while also noting the exercise of faith and the glory of what Christ has done was tremendous. Specifically looking at the work of Jeremiah Burroughs, they quote him saying, “But now those that are burdened with sin in such a manner as the Lord doth use to prepare the heart for his Son by, they feel the weight of it, but so feel that weight as they labor, that is, their hearts are yet active and stirring and working” (138). Burroughs sought to explicate the way Christ worked upon an individual’s mind, rationality and affections to bring him to a sense of his sin and the beauty of Christ. We often get the picture of the Puritans as sour faced and always talking about damnation and ruin, yet the beauty of this book is that the authors bring together the relationship between law and gospel so clearly in the writings of the Puritans. The sweetness of Christ is met alongside the humiliation of a soul seeing his sin. The gradual or explosive growth of affections for the things of Christ wane as the person is transformed by the Holy Spirit and his mind is desiring that which is of Christ.
I thought this book was well-written, impeccably researched and provided also a great sense of the majesty of Christ through its pages. I gather than many will be encouraged and will rethink their previous assumptions about the Puritans. I will add also that this book is not a Saturday at the beach read, but takes some committed time and mental energy to get through its pages.
Thanks to Reformation Heritage Books and Cross Focused Reviews for the complimentary copy of this book in exchange for review.