Preparationism As Taught By The Puritans
Cor Harinck, "Preparation as Taught by the Puritans", Puritan Reformed Journal 2, 2(July 2010):161-173
When John the Baptist was asked who he was, he responded, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias” (John 1:23). He preached the necessity of contrition and repentance prior to identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. This testimony of John the Baptist is the basis for the Puritan doctrine of preparationism. The Puritans believed that this was the correct method of preaching. They believed that the soul needs to be prepared for the act of believing in Jesus. A sinner will not believe instinctively. Faith in Christ is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s operation in the heart.
Defining Puritan Preparationism
I need to begin by dismantling two misconceptions. When the Puritans speak of being prepared for regeneration and receiving the grace of God, we are prompted to think that the sinner is able to prepare himself for regeneration and to render himself fit for faith in Jesus Christ. Such a notion, however, is foreign to the Puritan tradition.
There is a distinction between how the Puritans and the theologians of the Dutch Further Reformation defined regeneration. The Dutch theologians define regeneration as the starting point of the life of grace; that is, at the initial moment of spiritual awakening and conviction. They view regeneration from God’s perspective. The English theologians posit that regeneration occurs upon the initial act of faith in Christ. They view it from man’s perspective, teaching that the Christian is born when a sinner believes for the first time. Therefore they view preparation for regeneration as preparation for believing in Jesus Christ.
When the Puritans refer to being prepared for regeneration and for receiving God’s grace, they do not mean that a man can prepare himself. on the contrary! For the Puritans the term “preparation” communicates that man in his fallen state is entirely unfit and incapable of receiving God’s grace and believing in Jesus Christ. He needs to be prepared for this.
When Jesus began to preach, He cried out, “Repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). This is the summary of the message of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles. Man must return to God, must undergo an inner change, and must seek salvation in Christ. However, there must also be a work of God in him. He must repent and believe in Christ. That is how the Holy Spirit prepares the heart for the reception of salvation as it is in Jesus Christ.
This teaching is part and parcel of Reformed theology. The Reformers initially formulated what would later become a more fully developed doctrine of the heart’s preparation for faith in Jesus Christ. We encounter it in the teaching of Martin Luther regarding law and gospel. He teaches that God, by the law, must necessarily first humble the sinner before He can do His preferred work of justifying the sinner by faith. Calvin also states emphatically that the law prepares the sinner for grace, since he asserts that the way to salvation will not be opened unless one despairs of self and has been thoroughly humbled. There is a connection between Augustine, via Luther and Calvin, to the Puritans and the colonies of New England. But why did the Puritans focus so explicitly on the doctrine of preparationism?
First, the primary cause is rooted in the fact that the Puritans emphatically preached the duty of repentance and faith. They never tired of proclaiming to their congregations that, without repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21), they would perish forever. They did not stop at preaching the necessity of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, but they preached that God demands it. God demands that everyone who hears the gospel repent and believe in Christ. He demands that His message be believed—that we break with sin and believe in His Son. In support of this teaching, the Puritans would appeal to 1 John 3:23, “And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ,” as well as to John 6:29, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.”
They believed that preaching thus would bind upon the consciences of all who hear the Word the duty to repent and receive Christ as Savior and King. There will come a day that God will hold all hearers of the Word accountable for having neither repented nor believed, for “he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16).
Since the Puritans in New England pursued the ideal of establishing a church of true believers, they emphasized this demand all the more. In 1630, the founders of New England decided that church membership must be limited to those who would be able to give an account of the work of God’s grace in them, and who would publicly commit themselves to a life of sanctification. This was a prerequisite for church membership and for participation in the government of the colonies.
This requirement exerted tremendous pressure on the members of the church. The question was, “What can we do to be born again, and what will enable us to believe in Jesus Christ?” This prompted the Puritans to formulate directives that could lead to regeneration and faith in Jesus Christ.
What sort of directives did they give? William Perkins, the father of the Puritans, exhorts the unconverted by saying, “Strive to have an impression of your spiritual poverty and misery, especially your indwelling corruption, unbelief, pride, and love of self. Strive after a loathing of yourself, so that thereby you perceive that you need every drop of the blood of Jesus to cleanse you from all your misery.”1 The spiritual heirs of Perkins developed this more fully. They even went so far as to make a list of directives. In Zachary Crofton (representative of the Puritans) we read the following:
First, with a tender conscience, place yourself carefully and continually under the Word of truth and the gospel of grace.
Second, make a study of the character of God. Acquaint yourself with His attributes, such as His holiness, power, righteousness, grace, etc. Your souls will never be drawn away from sin nor be driven toward genuine contrition until you fear God and have a high esteem for Him.
Third, engage in critical self-examination. The worst of men would quickly be compelled to see the necessity of repentance by engaging in such a dialog with their own souls. Therefore, be diligent in examining yourself.
Fourth, increasingly wean yourself from the world. They who are truly contrite must be pilgrims upon earth.
Fifth, consider the brevity of life. Many a soul will end up in hell who had hoped to live a long life, thinking that there would be time later for repentance.
Sixth, solemnly consider the impending Day of Judgment.
Seventh, earnestly embrace the possibility of salvation by way of God’s offered pardon. It is a blessing that will most certainly be obtained if it is sought with a contrite heart and humility of spirit.
Eighth, let your heart be drenched in the blood of Christ. Meditate each day upon Golgotha.
Ninth, a sense of urgency will facilitate repentance. Delay no longer, for the longer you delay your break with sin, the more difficult it will become to part with it.
Tenth, cry out to God that you would receive out of His hands contrition and mercy.
To this he added: “Ask God to bless these means of grace, for your heart of stone shall then be taken away, and you will possess the requisite grace of repentance in truth.”2 Such was the manner in which they endeavored to lead their hearers to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
The Theology Behind The Puritans’ Preparationism
The underlying theology for all these exhortations and admonitions is as follows:
1. The Puritans Believed In Human Responsibility.
The Puritans upheld the responsibility of man in juxtaposition to the sovereignty of God. Sinners cannot change their hearts, but they can avail themselves of the means of grace which God uses to transform hearts. They cannot cause the wind of the Spirit to blow, but they can raise their sails.
2. The Puritans Believed In The Primacy Of The Intellect.
They believed that, as a rational creature, man is morally accountable. They believed that all grace enters the heart via the intellect. For the Puritan, the only way to the heart is through the head (William Ames, with his emphasis upon the will, operates somewhat outside the parameters of this Puritan tradition). God does not move people by way of compulsion, but rather, He addresses them by His Word as intelligent and rational human beings. He appeals to the mind. He reasons with men and seeks to persuade them. He admonishes them and stirs them up to seek Him. Cotton Mather was of the opinion that “when the Spirit of God converts us, He does not deal with us as with stocks and blocks who are void of reason. He deals with us as human beings, and draws us with the cords of a man.”3
3. The Puritans Believed That Fallen Man Possesses A Conscience That Testifies Of Good And Evil.
It was the primary goal of their preaching to stir the conscience. They believed that by means of the conscience, God has established His tribunal in every man.
By way of the conscience, the Holy Spirit strives with the soul of man, particularly to convict of sin. The minister must therefore take aim at the consciences of his hearers. The Word must prick the conscience if it is to be of any value to the hearer. When applying the Word to the hearers, the conscience must be smitten and man must come face to face with God. The application of the Word to the conscience was for them the most important means to reach the heart.
4. The Puritans Believed In The Supremacy Of Preaching.
성령께서는 말씀의 설교에 자신을 속박시키신다. “믿음은 들음에서 나고 들음은 하나님의 말씀으로 말미암는다.”( 로마서 10:17) 청교도들은 하나님의 말씀이 전부라고 기대하였다. 설교는 하나님의 말씀을 연구하고 충성스럽게 선포하는 설교자의 소명, 바로 그것이다. 그리스도께서는 자신의 종들에게 설교를 명하셨는데 이렇게 그리스도께서는 자신의 교회를 모으신다.
At the same time, the Puritans believed in the power of the Holy Spirit: “Ministers must knock upon the heart of man, and the Spirit comes with the key and opens the door.” It was this understanding that prompted them to address the mind, the will, and the conscience in their preaching. They treated men as rational and moral creatures. And even though they knew that God’s Spirit must illuminate the mind and renew the will, they exhorted sinners to engage their minds and wills. They addressed sinners with rational arguments that make it clear how necessary repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ were for them.
5. The Puritans Viewed Conversion As A Process.
The doctrine of preparationism is a component of the Puritan conversion experience. They viewed repentance as a process by which the soul is prepared for Christ. Therefore, they believed that every believer experienced preparatory work. There was a way to be traversed that would lead to Christ and give rest for the soul—it was the way of conviction of sin, dying to the covenant of works, and humbling the heart.
They were all personally and experientially acquainted with this. There are numerous personal accounts of how God led Puritan preachers regarding these matters, and how they, after much strife and doubt, found rest in Christ. By way of their experience, they sought to help others to find the way to Christ. That is why so much attention was given to those experiences related to conversion. This made their preaching pastorally oriented. They aimed to resolve the difficulties people would encounter, and, in so doing, they would emphasize the internal operation of the Holy Spirit.
The Puritans had differing opinions about the various stages in which the soul is prepared for a believing union with Christ. William Perkins delineated eight stages in the process of regeneration:
a. Hearing of the Word;
b. Giving heed to the demands of the law;
c. Reflecting on personal sins;
d. Experiencing convictions;
e. Meditating on the promises of the gospel;
f. Embracing and believing these promises;
g. Sorrowing over sin;
h. Living a life of new obedience.
The Puritans from New England, such as Thomas Hooker and Thomas Shepard, focused primarily on the inner experience of the sinner who must know of a certain measure of conviction of sin before he can truly embrace Christ by faith. They went so far as to insist that every sinner must have a certain measure of humiliation and spiritual distress before his union with Christ can become a reality. one such extreme view was held by Thomas Hooker, who taught that a sinner must be humbled so deeply that he will acquiesce in being condemned by God. This view was challenged by others, such as the well-known John Cotton, Cotton Mather, Giles Fermin, and Richard Sibbes. They were of the opinion that Hooker and Shepard did not sufficiently take into consideration that there are various ways whereby the Lord leads men to Christ. Others deemed all such preparation to be merely “law work” whereby the grace of God was obscured. The well-known Anne Hutchinson, along with John Wheelwright and John Cotton, accused the preparationists of teaching a covenant of works.
It was common for the Puritans to speak of the “law work” that generally precedes faith in the gospel. However, such a conviction of sin by the law functions within an evangelical context: its purpose is to lead the sinner to Christ. Regardless of differences of opinion, all the Puritans believed that a longer or shorter “preparatory work” of conviction, contrition, and humility of heart precedes faith in Christ.
They also considered union with Christ as a truly saving grace of the Spirit. The Puritan position was that regeneration coincides with the initial exercise of faith in Christ. All other activity is but common and preparatory work. This is not the fruit of grace; even the reprobate can have such experiences. However, the common operations of God’s Spirit often precede His saving operations. The Puritan’s view was that such a preparatory work must be crowned with a believing union with Christ.
Lessons Learned From Puritan Preparationism
What are we learn from this? Let me highlight the two most important lessons.
1. The Puritans posited that a certain measure of preparation preceding a believing union with Christ is required. By nature, the sinner is unfit, incapable, and unwilling to embrace Christ. Many obstacles in the human heart militate against the knowledge of Christ. There is so much innate legalism and an aversion for being saved by grace. There is so much blindness and ignorance regarding the way of salvation as that way is unveiled in Christ. High mountains of pride must be leveled; deep valleys of ignorance, discouragement, and despondency need to be filled. The way to Christ must be paved in the heart of the sinner.
2. The Puritans believed that one must be convinced that he is in need of a Savior. No one will come to Christ to be reconciled with God through Him unless he understands the sin and misery he needs to be delivered from. The knowledge of misery is an essential element of faith, for without such knowledge we will neither seek nor value Christ. This does not precede or follow faith, but rather accompanies it. Bitten Israelites looked to the elevated brazen serpent; likewise, they are sinners who believe. what Jesus says is so true: “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick” (Luke 5:31).
This precise element distinguishes biblical and Reformed preaching from the message of the modern evangelist who urges his audience to embrace Christ and to believe that Jesus has died for all without knowing why they need a Savior. This difference distinguishes biblical preaching from preaching that only focuses on sanctification—being a disciple of Jesus and being a witness to the world. Such preachers focus exclusively on the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount, denying the Christ of Golgotha. They forget that in order to live a life in harmony with the Sermon on the Mount, we first must have the heart of a Christian. We cannot place sanctification ahead of justification. Such preaching ignores the essence of man’s need, namely, that he is a guilty and lost sinner before God, in need of reconciliation by faith in a crucified Jesus Christ. In order to know Christ, we must be confronted with the law that exposes our sin. There is good reason why our Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the first thing we need to know is how great our sin and misery is. The Puritans understood this, and we can therefore continue to learn much from them.
How Preparationism Can Be Preached
So how can we preach the necessity of the heart being prepared for Christ? How do we counter a superficiality whereby sinners claim to accept Jesus without ever having been contrite before God? What is the best way to deal with this?
We can preach in such a way that relentlessly hammers on the necessity of exposing sin, focusing solely on the knowledge of sin and misery. We can repeatedly remind our hearers how deeply we have fallen in Adam. We can emphasize in every sermon that man is spiritually dead and incapable of repentance and faith. We can teach emphatically that a divine miracle must occur and that faith is a gift of God. From the perspective of experiential orthodoxy, we can emphasize that room must be made for Jesus, and that many bypass this, deceiving themselves for eternity and will perish. We can do all of this and think that we have met the requirement of preaching the law, and that we have sufficiently addressed the preparatory work that precedes faith in Jesus Christ.
However, does this convict our hearers of their sin and misery? Does this show them their need of Christ? Will this cause them to cry out, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner”? Hearing general truths regarding the miserable and fallen state of man will leave people neither hot nor cold. While nodding in agreement, they will let it pass them by, and they will say that they have such orthodox preaching. It will harden them in their dead orthodoxy, thinking that they are not as superficial as many who just “accept Jesus.”
But this kind of preaching will not readily cause hearers to experience the spiritual distress which causes sinners to cry out, “Jesus, Thou Son of David, have mercy upon me!” This is therefore not the method to be used to foster a true need for the blood of Christ.
What then is the proper approach? Preaching about misery does not need to become a cold and orthodox description of man’s wretched condition. The preaching of the law must function as a clarion call to awaken those who are asleep. It functions as a mirror held before us which reveals the truth about ourselves. The specific objective must be to confront sinners with the danger to which they are exposed as long as they are without Christ.
It is profitable that we ask ourselves these questions: How are sinners convicted of their sins? How does someone become desirous for a Savior? What does the Holy Spirit use to convict of sin? The apostle answers these questions when he writes, “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). By being confronted with what God requires of us in the law, we learn of our sin. Such was the preaching of the Puritans, and they did so most earnestly and emphatically. They made people feel what McCheyne refers to in his well-known poem:
Then legal fears shook me, I trembled to die;
No refuge, no safety in self could I see.
The Puritans did this very explicitly, often mentioning sins by name. Not only would they refer to blatant sins such as adultery and fornication, but also the sins of slander, backbiting, pride, the love of money, boasting, and abusive behavior within the context of marriage and the family. They subjected the entire domain of our human existence to the claims of God’s holy law, focusing especially on the sins of hardheartedness and unbelief. Their purpose was two-fold: First, the Puritans wanted to confront their hearers with the demand of repentance and faith. They would point out that God requires us to depart from our evil ways and believe in the saving gospel of His Son. God will condemn us if we do not repent and believe. The Puritan’s call to repentance and faith was not merely the giving of some sound and wise counsel, or the ｅxpression of an earnest desire such as, “May God convert you and grant you faith.” They proclaimed the message of Mark 1:15—“Repent ye, and believe the gospel”—as a demand of the most high God. They would point out that the cause of our hardheartedness and unbelief is not our inability alone, but our unwillingness, coupled with our love of sin.
We should let the Puritans be our teachers in this regard, for that is what it means to preach the law. How our hearers have found a safe refuge in the bastion of their inability! one will reason, “I am not able to convert myself and therefore I do not need to repent. I cannot believe, and thus I am not required to respond to the gospel.” How essential it is that our hearers realize that they are not victims, but that they are unwilling and guilty! That is why we need to confront them with the demand of repentance and faith. This must be accompanied by the proclamation of how sincere God’s invitation in the gospel is, and how dreadful it will be for a sinner to stand before God, having counted the blood of Jesus an unholy thing (Heb. 10:29). The sacred earnestness of the gospel is expressed in these words, “If the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matt. 11:22). How important it is therefore that this be a component of the preaching of the gospel!
When we do not hold before our hearers the mirror of the law, when we do not preach about sin and the wrath of God, and when we do not hold them accountable for the gospel, they will not consider themselves guilty. They will not value the gospel or seek after Christ who delivers from the wrath of God.
Second, the Puritans sought to lead sinners to Christ. They did so by preaching Christ as being the complete and willing Savior for lost sinners. They revealed how He offers Himself as the Savior of sinners through His invitations and promises of the gospel. He is able and ready to fulfill all their needs. They would unmask unbelief as the greatest sin and, at the same time, point to the mighty power of a crucified Savior. After the heart would have been grievously smitten because of the sin of unbelief, they would point the sinner to a pierced Savior from whose side blood and water flowed—atoning blood and cleansing water. It has been said that the Puritans did not merely lead men to Christ by seeking to impress upon their hearts and consciences the necessity of Christ, but by bringing Christ to the sinner and set Him before the sinner in His all-sufficiency and willingness. They could echo Paul: “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).
Precautions Regarding Preparationism
There are dangers regarding the doctrine of preparationism. It can degenerate into a conditional gospel, and this has indeed occurred. Some insisted that such preparation had to meet certain standards. I already referred to Thomas Hooker and Thomas Shepard, who would speak of certain stages in a person’s experience before he could believe on Christ: conviction of sin by the law, contrition of heart and a sense of my sinfulness, and finally humbling of myself before God that is characterized by acquiescing to both the punishment due and my condemnation.
This resulted in strife and darkness for many souls, and it even led some to despair. They could not measure up to the degree of humiliation that especially Hooker insisted on. Humiliation was never deep enough. Thomas Goodwin says, “If you that are now converted had lived in our younger days, you would have seen that we were held under John Baptist’s water, of being humbled for sin.”4
Shepard and Hooker were men of great spiritual discernment whose objective was to lead the sinner to Christ. They knew that only a humbled sinner will consider Christ to be of great value. However, by making the experience of the aforementioned stages almost mandatory, they made the way to Christ all the more difficult for a poor and contrite sinner. People would focus more on their preparatory activities rather than on Christ. Cotton Mather called Shepard’s work, The Sincere Believer, a masterpiece, but due to the stipulated requisites for the humiliation of the heart, he had serious reservations about his book on repentance.
Others began to refer to a preparatory work as a mandatory fitness to receive Christ. They would exhort people to prepare themselves for the reception of Christ. The entire focus shifted to the preparatory work that needed to precede believing in Christ. Consequently, many hearers would repeatedly ask themselves, “Have I humbled myself sufficiently? May I indeed believe the gospel? May I just come to Christ?” Many Puritans would deal with their congregations in a pastoral manner, and as true physicians of the soul they sought to untie the knots that kept people in bondage. Nevertheless, in some cases the requisite suitability received more attention than Jesus’ suitability to save sinners.
Cotton Mather said, “Just as Jesus was crucified between two murderers, so the doctrine of free grace is crucified between legal demands and one’s suitability.”5 This statement reveals the influence of the controversy surrounding Anne Hutchinson, who dismissed all preparation as a legal work, but there is still an element of truth in this statement.
The doctrine of a preparatory work can be harmful to troubled souls if it degenerates into requirements to be met in order for someone to receive grace, and even to believe in Christ. Regretfully, this still happens today. If we make a certain measure of the knowledge of sin requisite for coming to Christ, the sinner will be cast upon himself. How unbalanced we have become! Over against the extreme of, “Believe that Jesus has died for you,” stands the other extreme, “You may only believe the promise of the gospel and come to Christ if you have gone through certain stages of conviction and of being spiritually stripped of your own righteousness.”
The process in which room is made for Christ will then become a condition and a foundation upon which we rest. Not only will the knowledge of sin be a requisite, but it will become the basis upon which one is received by Christ. Instead of the repentant sinner focusing on the voice of Jesus who calls such to come unto Him, his entire focus will be on the question, “Have I been sorry enough? Have I striven enough?” The liberty of the gospel is thereby darkened, and the contrite sinner hardly knows how to come to Christ.
This is not the purpose of teaching the necessity of preparation. The purpose is to convince the sinner of his sin and misery and to lead him to the experiential acknowledgement that he is a condemned sinner before God—a sinner who cannot deliver himself. Its purpose is to make the soul feel its need for Christ, and to make the sinner willing to be saved upon the simple conditions of the gospel. All the preparation God works in the soul has one purpose: to make the sinner come to Christ as one who is poor, guilty, and unworthy. It is the work of God’s Spirit to bring the sinner to surrender himself to Christ as Lord and Savior. A soul that has truly been prepared will confess with Augustus Toplady:
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.