The Idea of Preparation in Puritan Preaching by Andy Hynes

Guest blogger Andy Hynes (@ABHYNES) is a PhD candidate at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary.

Puritan preaching never took a sharper prominence than during the period of preparation in the life of the sinner.  As the Father drew each elect sinner, the Holy Spirit was bringing about His convicting work.  Preparation/vocation became a staple in Puritan preaching and was referred to as God’s use of His law to convince sinners of their guilt and helplessness so that by His grace they may come to Christ.[1]   Seventeenth Century Puritanism developed a vast discourse of exhorting sinners to respond to God’s grace through means of personal examinations, sermons, meditations, prayer, and spiritual fellowship.[2]  The Puritan clergy presented themselves as Reformed evangelists.  They were Gospel centered pastors, seeking to glorify God in all ways.  To direct a person toward the things of God through preaching was a natural application of that truth.

They did not expiate a full doctrine of preparation, as one might think of the doctrine of election or justification.  They did informally expound an obligatory period for the sinner to hear and grasp the depth of their need for Christ.  That need was the straight result of the degeneracy of their heart.  The same reason God’s electing work was necessary doubled for the preparation work.  The wickedness of man’s heart prohibited him from pursuing God.  As the electing work of God was His alone to accomplish, so was the preparation work.  The spoken Word established the foundation for the Puritans’ comprehension of such things.  All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (1 Timothy 3:16-17, NASB).  They stored this truth deep in their hearts as the prepared to deliver a word from God.

A bit of confusion has surfaced about the Puritans’ idea of preparation.  Men like Perry Miller have labeled them “preparationists” because they developed a strong emphasis upon this thought.[3]  Their insistence upon preparation of the sinner for God to apply His salvific grace led to discussions concerning their potential deviation from strong reformed theology.  The preparationist idea promoted a Puritan thought toward a man centered salvation and a denial of God’s total sovereignty.  The proponents of this idea have skewed the vision of the Puritans.  They did not see a time of preparation as a man centered part of salvation.  They saw the period of preparation as the time when God’s Word, through the work of the Holy Spirit, would arrest the sinner’s heart and demonstrate his consequential need for grace.  In Puritan theological discourse, the use of preparation for conversion from a state of apostasy to a state of grace comprises the states of conviction, compunction, and humiliation by which a sinful soul is made ready to receive regenerating grace.[4]

The Puritans were still working out the details of God’s work in the sinner’s life.  They did not view man as the responsible party for preparatory things.  The sermon became the main component to the Puritan preparation idea.  As man was able to hear the Word of God the agent of God, the Holy Spirit, was free to do His work on bringing conviction and regenerating grace.

[1] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 443.
[2] Ibid., 434.
[3] For a thorough understanding of this thought see, Norman Pettit, The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life (Hew Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996).  Mark Dever criticizes Pettit for an improper understanding of Richard Sibbes’ Christology, and a faulty conception of the Puritan doctrine of preparation.  Much debate has taken place concerning the validity of the assertion that the Puritans diverged from traditional Calvinistic doctrine and to something different with the use of covenants.  They also argue that the Puritans moved away from sola gratia and toward a blended grace and works theology.  That assertion is what led to the Antinomian Controversy.
[4] William Stoever, A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven (Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1978), 196.

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