The Need for Preparatory Conviction by Andy Hynes

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

Since man was dead in sin, and unable to move in a spiritual way toward God, something must take place.  God’s electing work guaranteed the sinner’s redemption, but God never says in His Word how long that process might take.  God was not going to magically redeem or convert someone.  The process of drawing an individual to the knowledge of his sin and need for grace was a genuine step.  There was great need for preparatory acts.  Flavel penned,

The Spirit knocks by the gracious invitations of the word, the sweet allurements, and gracious insinuations of it; and without this, no heart would ever open to Christ. It is not frosts and snow, storms and thunder, but the gentle distilling dews and cherishing sunbeams that make the flowers open in the spring. The terrors of the law may be preparative, but the grace of the gospel is that which effectually opens the sinner’s heart . . . Now the gospel abounds with alluring invitations to draw the will, and open the heart of the sinner.[1]

It was impossible for a fallen man to come to Christ.  God must intervene in that person’s life if there was going to be regenerating change.  Men’s minds were full of errors.  Mere listening to God’s words would not be enough, but the Holy Spirit must work.  Flavel knew that apart from God’s divine assistance applied to the Words of Scripture, they would consequentially be melodious songs that lulled the sinner’s heart to sleep in cheap/false assurance of grace.[2]

There was a necessity for the sinner to be prepared to respond to the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Puritan doctrine of preparation focused on the Word.  With the Word as God’s instrument, the Puritans proclaimed truth uninhibited.  Charnock wrote,

The new creation answers to the election; the first purpose was free, the bringing that purpose to execution is free; whatsoever obligation there is, results not from the creature, but from himself, his own immutable nature which hath no variableness, not shadow of change . . . ‘By the word of truth,’ or ‘upon thy word of truth;’ in the New Testament, Eph. i. 13, ‘In whom you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.’ . . . And it is called truth by way of Excellency, as paramount to all other truth.[3]

They diagnosed the plight of man as not merely guilty for sins, but greatly polluted and enslaved to sin.  Bondage to sin characterized the entire condition of man. The depravity of man’s heart was the concern.  “They sought to expose the sinfulness that underlies sins, and convince men of their own utter corruption and inability to improve themselves in God’s sight. This, they held, was a vital work of the gospel preacher . . .” [4]   Unless the Gospel went forward, individual men remained helpless.

The Word as the Instrument of Preparation

While the pastors were the vessels used by God to verbally explain these things, the Word was the instrument.  God’s Word was the sufficient means of explaining man’s condition, need, and opportunity for redemption.  Sola Scriptura was the mantra, and in this part of the process, it was the authority.  The Puritans did not teach tradition or other things, but the Word.

The Puritans built their preaching and doctrine of preparation upon the Word.  Beeke and Jones listed a number of scriptures the Puritans used.  They used 2 Chronicles 33:12; 34:27; Job 11:12; Isaiah 40:3-4; 42:3; 55:1; 57:15; 61:1-3; 66:2; Jeremiah 4:3; 23:29; 31:19; Ezekiel 36:31; Hosea 5:15; 6:1-2; Matthew 3:7; 11:28; Mark 12:34; Luke 15:14-18; John 4:16-18; 16:8; Acts 2:37; 9:6; 16:13-14,29-30; 24:24-25; Romans 3:19-20; 7:7-13; 8:15; 2 Corinthians 10:4; Galatians 3:19,24; and Revelation 3:17, 20.[5]

God’s Word contained a plethora of directions leading people to spiritual preparation.  The Law made up the central use for the Puritans’ preaching on preparation.  The Law demonstrated the sinfulness of man.  Paul taught the law’s ability to show the depths of man’s wickedness in the book of Romans.  The Law provided clarity for the Gospel.  “The law was the word of truth, but referred to the gospel as the great end of it.”[6]  Without effective preaching of the law, a lost sinner would be unable to understand the fullness of the condition.  The Law was a means to an end.

According to Thomas Goodwin, the preaching of the Word was the principle means of God converting sinners.[7]  The Word preached and heard provided an avenue for the work of the Holy Spirit.  God used His Word to display His instructions and graces, and the preacher was the vessel He used to communicate such things.  Conversion could only come about through a dynamic confrontation with God’s Word in God’s chosen community.[8]  It was paramount for the sinner to be in the presence of the Word.  There was power in God’s Word; it could cut to the quick of the heart of a sinner.  However, there was an agent at work while the Word was going forth.  The Holy Spirit was quickening the heart of the sinner.  He embarked on a journey through the sinner’s heart to bring him to a vivid awareness of his lost condition.

[1] John Flavel, England’s Duty Under The Present Gospel Liberty, Sermon V, Every Conviction of Conscience is a Knock of Christ from Heaven for Entrance into Their Souls, vol. IV of The Works of John Flavel (1820; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 95-6.
[2] John Flavel, England’s Duty Under the Present Gospel Liberty, Sermon III, Behold I stand at the door, and knock, &c, vol. IV of The Works of John Flavel (1820; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 48.
[3] Stephen Charnock, A Discourse of the Word, The Instrument of Regeneration, vol. III of The Works of Stephen Charnock (1865; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 308.
[4] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 170.
[5] Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology, 460.
[6] Stephen Charnock, A Discourse on Self-Examination, vol. III of The Works of Stephen Charnock (1865; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 308.
[7] Peter Lewis quoted Thomas Goodwin in listing four reasons why God chose to use the preaching of His Word as the means of converting sinners. First, God chose to work mediatory instead of immediately. Second, it was the weakest of means of all others, and therefore His power and His glory was supreme. Thirdly, it was the hearing of the Word instead of the reading that was effectual. Fourthly, Jesus gave gifts to certain men to expound the Word.
[8] Jerald Brauer, ““The Nature of English Puritanism: Reflections on the Nature of English Puritanism,” Church History 23, no. 2 (June 1954): 102.

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