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The Notion of Preparatory Grace in the Puritans

Martyn McGeown

(slightly modified from an article first published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal)



I. Introduction
II. Early Puritan Preparationists
III. Other Puritan Writers

IV. Other Theologians

V. Objections to This Doctrine

VI. Appeals to Scripture Considered

VII. Conclusion


I. Introduction

Preparatory grace is a notion which crept into the theology of many of the Puritans. Although the Puritans insisted that man is totally depraved and unable to contribute anything to his salvation, "as early as 1570" some English theologians began to teach that the sinner "might somehow dispose himself for saving grace."1 By this they meant, generally (with some variation), that an unregenerate sinner could prepare himself for the grace of regeneration by a serious consideration of his sins in the light of God’s law. By careful self-examination, the sinner could and ought to stir himself up to loathe his own sinfulness and to desire mercy and, by a judicious use of means (especially attendance upon the preaching of the gospel), he could put himself in the position of being a likely candidate for the new birth. Most of the Puritans who advocated such views insisted that God prepares the sinner in this way. They were loath to suggest that man can do this unaided by the Spirit. However, they also taught that this preparatory grace was often present in reprobates so that preparation for regeneration did not necessarily lead to salvation in the end.


II. Early Puritan Preparationists

A. William Perkins (1558-1602)

William Perkins, although he was an ardent double predestinarian, was one of the earliest of the Puritans to be infected with this idea of preparationism. He taught that the Holy Spirit by the ministry of the gospel (and especially the law) prepares a sinner for regeneration. Perkins’ massive work, The Cases of Conscience was published posthumously in 1606. In a chapter entitled, "What Must a Man Do That He May Come Into God’s Favour And Be Saved?" Perkins writes that God usually guides the sinner through several stages before regeneration takes place:

God gives man the outward means of salvation, especially the ministry of the word, and with it he sends some outward or inward cross to break and subdue the stubbornness of our nature that it may be made pliable to the will of God … this done, God brings a man to a consideration of the Law … he makes a man particularly to see and know his own peculiar and proper sins whereby he offends God … he smites the heart with a legal fear … he makes him to fear punishment and hell and to despair of salvation in regard of anything in himself.2

Perkins therefore taught that before regeneration the stubbornness of the sinner’s nature is subdued, his will is made pliable to God’s will, and the dead sinner is made to see and experience the extent of his depravity. He then comes under a legal fear so that he despairs of salvation. However, insisted Perkins, these actions upon the sinner’s nature, emotions and will are not necessarily fruits of regeneration, for, he adds "these four actions are indeed no fruits of grace, for a reprobate may go thus far." They are only "works of preparations going before grace."3

Perkins did not teach that these preparatory steps are carried out by man, but by God, or with God’s assistance. Perkins was prevented from "flirting with any concept of meritorious preparation for conversion on the part of man"4 by his decretal theology. Man could not produce these good things in himself, but the outcome of such good things did depend in part on man. If both the elect and the reprobate are the recipients of such common works of the Spirit, which do not necessarily issue in salvation, the implication is that man has a role to play. He must be careful not to suppress such works in him. An unregenerate man has a fully functioning will but his will has been corrupted. Therefore Perkins insisted that regeneration affects the goodness of man’s will, not the faculty of willing itself:

Regeneration does not change the operations of the human faculties themselves, but only ‘the goodness thereof,’ because the former remains unaltered while the latter was lost in the Fall. Insofar as the human faculties are concerned, therefore, one may speak of preparation for conversion … insofar as the goodness of the will is concerned, however … the sinner may never prepare himself for conversion as the will itself is in need of being ‘born again.’5

Again to the question, ‘whether the natural corrupted will can in any way prepare and dispose itself to his own conversion and justification,’ Perkins replies: ‘… But the certain truth is, that the will cannot.’6

Perkins distinguished between different preparatory works. He did this by subdividing such operations into the "beginnings of preparation" and the "beginnings of compunction." The former he called "the ministry of the law." These beginnings of preparation, according to Perkins, are not gracious. They are common operations of the Spirit, which give no indication of whether God intends to save the sinner or not. Pangs of conscience, fear of punishment, horror over one’s sins and deep conviction could be merely foretastes of hell, not evidence of the grace of God working within the heart. On the other hand, the beginnings of compunction are gracious and lead to true conversion. The reprobate partake of the former, but only the elect of the latter works. This dichotomy "served not only to safeguard divine monergism in salvation, but also to allow for man’s active participation, however under the ministry of the law."7 Man could participate, but only as far as the law of God is concerned. By a careful consideration of the law of God he could bring himself to see his own guilt and misery under sin and in this way prepare himself to desire mercy. These works of preparation which "bring under, tame and subdue the stubbornness of man’s nature, without making any change at all" include "accusations of the conscience … fears and terrors arising thence … and the apprehending of God’s anger against sin."8 However, adds Perkins,

although they go before to prepare a sinner for his conversion following, yet they are no graces of God, but fruits both of the law, being the ministry of death, as also of an accusing conscience.9

Perkins, then, believed that God "universally invites the sinner to ‘prepare,’ and then he particularly enables the elect to ‘compose.’"10

In another work, A Grain of Mustard Seed or the Least Measure of Grace That Is Or Can Be Effectual To Salvation, Perkins urges the sinner to "labour to see and feel thy spiritual poverty" and "labour to be displeased with thyself."11 If a man has "some little feeling of his wants [i.e. what he lacks], some weak and faint desire, some small obedience," writes Perkins, "he must not let this spark of grace go out." He gave this warning in a section of the same work entitled, "The Foresaid Beginnings of Grace Are Counterfeit Unless They Increase."12

Of all the advocates of preparatory grace among the Puritans, Perkins sought most to minister to the troubled consciences of believers. Notwithstanding Perkins’ good intentions, it must be acknowledged that his doctrine did tend to distress the consciences of the weak. How shall I know if the works of the Spirit I perceive to be in me are fruits of "preparation" or "compunction"? If a reprobate can go a certain distance along this preparatory path, how may I know that I am not a reprobate, fooling myself into believing that I am on the narrow way, when I could very well still be on the broad way which leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13)? It was not Perkins’ desire to distress the weak, but to awaken the presumptuous out of his carnal security. He, therefore, sought to encourage the sinner who found the smallest sign of grace in himself to be of good courage. Perkins writes that "the will to become regenerate … is the effect and testimony of regeneration begun."13 If a man can but desire regeneration he shows by this that he is already born again and is in a gracious condition. However, above we have seen that Perkins fails to apply this principle with consistency, for "some weak and faint desire, some small obedience" may, if the spark of grace be allowed to go out, be evidence only of "counterfeit grace." It must be conceded that this is better than some later theologians, who, as we shall see, taught that a sinner can earnestly desire regeneration and yet remain unregenerate and perish. Others urged sinners to pray to God for the grace of regeneration, but offered them little hope that their prayers would be answered. Perkins, in contrast, taught (albeit inconsistently) that the desires which a man has for faith may be viewed as the first signs of regeneration:

Mark then … though as yet thou want [i.e. lack] firm and lively grace, yet art thou not altogether void of grace, if thou canst unfeignedly desire it. Thy desire is the seed, conception or bud of that which thou wantest. "If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink."14

This certainly serves to neutralize some, although not all, of the poison contained in Perkins’ doctrine of preparatory grace. It offers the sinner some hope but at the same time leaves the sinner doubting his spiritual status.

B. William Ames (1586-1633)

William Ames was a student of Perkins and, having emigrated to the Netherlands from England, became an advisor to the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619). Ames, too, emphasized the law’s role in preparing the sinner for saving grace. John Eusden, the editor of a recent translation of Ames’ The Marrow of Theology, provides some historical background. According to Ames, writes Eusden, "man’s paramount task [in salvation] was to make himself spiritually ready."15 He could do this by repenting, by confessing, by offering "his unsure, ambivalent will to God in prayer that it might be informed and enlightened" and by "expos[ing] himself to the law and the prophets."16 Ames distinguished two kinds of repentance. One, found also in the unregenerate, "precedes faith in order of nature, as a preparing and disposing cause" and consists of terrors of conscience and anxiety caused by the law. The other which follows faith and depends on it "turns man away effectively and genuinely from sin."17 Only in the former sense can an unregenerate man repent, insists Ames. However, in practice it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between these two kinds of repentance.

In his famous work, Conscience With The Power and Cases Thereof, Ames explains the stages necessary for "pulling a man out of the state of sin" and "into a state of grace." In a chapter entitled, "How The Sinner Ought to Prepare Himself to Conversion," he writes,

… it is first of all required that a man seriously looks into the law of God and make examination of his life … it is required … a conviction of conscience … a despair of salvation … a true humiliation of heart which consists of grief and fear because of sin … to put a man in a state of grace it is required that there be such an apprehension upon the gospel as whereby a man judges it possible that his sins should be forgiven … an earnest desire to obtain that mercy which in Scripture is called a spiritual hunger or thirst18

All of this, it ought to be emphasized, occurs before regeneration. The natural man can attain to this, and these preparatory actions may bear no saving fruit in the end.

Ames, writes Eusden, opposed the Remonstrants because he was disturbed by their anthropocentrism. He was unhappy with their "failure to give the sovereignty and working power of God a primary place in theology."19 However, continues Eusden, "Ames, almost alone in the orthodox party, found that the Remonstrant insistence on man’s response in the drama of salvation was a needed corrective for Reformed theology."20 Because of this Ames believed there was much that man could do to "prepare himself" for conversion, although in the final analysis conversion remained the work of God. He differed from "straight-arrow, orthodox theologians as Franciscus Gomarus (1563-1641) and Johannes Maccovius (1588-1644)" and was not "completely orthodox" in the matter of predestination.21 In this, Ames departed from the orthodox position. He did not

follow the prevailing orthodox line and hold that man can do little or nothing. Maccovius, for example, insisted that man in his fallen state was incapable of preparing for faith and conversion. Any steps which led to faith were associated with God’s regeneration and could not be connected with man’s efforts at salvation.22

Although it would be unjust to group Ames with the Arminians—he very clearly opposed them23—Ames’ position is a dangerous concession to the Arminian errors of resistible grace and partial depravity. We can be thankful that Ames’ views were not incorporated into the Canons of Dordt. Sadly the leaven of Amesian preparationism would influence generations of theologians as his Marrow became required reading in the major theological schools in England, the European continent and America.24

C. Richard Sibbes (1577-1635)

Richard Sibbes, writes Pettit, was much concerned with the work of the Spirit. He preached a lot on the subject, but "with a minimum of concern for the rigors of dogma."25 He spoke in the service of "spiritual warmth." In his sermons he sought to create a concern in his hearers for a change of heart. The purpose of theology is to "warm the heart" not impart "cold, scholastic, dogmatic" truth, he maintained.26 Sibbes, differing from Perkins, makes no distinction between preparation and compunction. "Reprobates," he maintained, "might immediately respond to the Spirit and so desire grace without excessive preliminary restraint."27

What is necessary is that the sinner does not resist the Spirit’s work in creating holy desires in him. The "sweet motions" of the Spirit may be resisted, claims Sibbes. Those who obey the promptings of the Spirit and "turn towards God in obedience will receive the full benefits of the Spirit; those who resist are lost."28 For example, there are those who "will cast water themselves upon those sparks which Christ labours to kindle in then, because they will not be troubled with the light of them."29 Others resist the knocking of the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Ghost hath often knocked at their hearts, as willing to have kindled some holy desires in them. How else can they be said to resist the Holy Ghost, but that the Spirit was readier to draw them to a further degree of goodness than stood with their own wills?30

The sense in which the reprobate "resist the Holy Ghost" needs to be clarified. They resist Him as they resist the preaching (Acts 7:51). They resist Him by opposing preaching and persecuting preachers, but the inward gracious works of the Spirit in the heart are irresistible and particular to the elect. The inward works of the Spirit in the heart of the reprobate are not gracious. They harden the wicked in their sins.

Others refuse to entertain the "gracious motions" of the Spirit:

The Holy Ghost is given to them that obey, to them that do not resist the Spirit of God. For in the ministry of the Gospel the Spirit is given in some degree to reprobates … they have the gracious motions offered them, but they do not obey them. Therefore the Spirit seizeth not upon them … the Spirit is given to them that obey the sweet motions of it.31

Sibbes exhorts the sinner to "entertain" the blessed messengers of the Spirit; to "labour to subject [himself] to" the Spirit of Christ; to become aware of his sin and misery so that he becomes a bruised reed.32 Sibbes’ work, A Bruised Reed, deals with, among other things, the subject of spiritual preparation. This bruising of the Spirit is something with which the sinner can co-operate. We must, "join with God in bruising ourselves" and "lay siege to the hardness of our own hearts."33 To prepare for salvation the sinner is supposed to make his own heart tender so that it is more open to yielding to the Spirit.34 Sibbes appeals to the example of King Josiah who was commended for having a tender heart (II Chron. 34:27), but we must insist that Josiah was already a believer. God had already regenerated the king. That explains why he responded to the discovery of the law with heart-felt sorrow over his sins and the sins of the nation. This was no self-preparation of an unregenerate sinner but obedience by a child of God.

Sibbes’ doctrine savours too much of Arminianism with its resistible grace. We can certainly agree with Pettit who writes that "of all the preparationists Sibbes was by far the most extreme in terms of the abilities he assigned to natural man."35


III. Other Puritan Writers

Although Perkins, Ames and Sibbes are the Puritans who wrote most extensively on the subject of preparationism, other Puritans make reference to the idea of preparatory processes in their writing and preaching.

John Owen (1616-1683) addresses the subject in the third volume of his Works in a section entitled, "Works of the Holy Spirit Preparatory Unto Regeneration." Owen writes:

Ordinarily there are certain previous and preparatory works, or workings in and upon the souls of men, that are antecedent and dispositive unto it [i.e. regeneration]. But yet regeneration doth not consist in them, nor can it be educed out of them.36

Owen explains that he means by this only a "material disposition" and "not such [motions] as contain grace of the same nature as regeneration itself," employing the figure of wood: "Wood by dryness and a due composure is made fit and ready to admit of firing."37 In a similar way, then, the sinner’s heart is prepared (dried out) so that the Spirit can ignite it in regeneration.

In an obvious reference to Owen, Abraham Kuyper takes issue with this illustration:

Even the representation still maintained by some of our best theologians, that preparatory grace is like the drying of wet wood, so that the spark can more easily ignite it, we can not adopt … The disposition of our souls is immaterial. Whatever it may be, omnipotent grace can kindle it.38

Owen clarifies what he means by this preparatory work. He writes of certain things "required of us by way of duty in order unto our regeneration."39 These are outward actions such as being physically present where the gospel is preached, and diligently concentrating on the Word preached and receiving it as the truth of God.40 The sinner may, through a diligent attendance on the means, be enlightened in some sense by the truth he hears, may be affected emotionally or intellectually by it, may be convicted of his sins, and may even undergo some reformation of character. These, writes Owen, are "good, useful and material preparations unto regeneration" but do not necessarily lead to it.41 Those who refuse to apply themselves in the use of means or who do not "sincerely improve" what they have received in these preliminary steps deserve to perish, and often do perish.42 Such "faint not merely for want of strength to proceed, but, by a free act of their own wills, they refuse the grace which is farther tendered unto them in the gospel."43

Other Puritans, by the advice they give to the unconverted, show that they believe that the unregenerate can indeed desire salvation. By this they mean more than the fact that the unregenerate can desire to escape hell. No serious-minded unbeliever, who believes in the existence of a place called hell, wants to go there. That does not mean that the natural man desires the spiritual blessings of salvation.

Thomas Manton (1620-1677) counsels the sinner to pray for grace but gives him no guarantee of success:

There is a great uncertainty, yet pray; it is God’s usual way to meet with them that seek him … God is not engaged, but who knows what importunity may do? He may, and He may not, give grace; but usually He doth. It is God’s usual way to bless industry, and yet all they that labour have not an absolute certainty of success.44

What a desperately gloomy message is this! How different from Christ’s promise: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Matt. 7:7-8).

Joseph Alleine (1634-1668) in his Alarm to the Unconverted makes appeals to the unconverted sinner which reveal how much power he ascribes to the sinner’s preparations. Sinner, he exhorts,

labour to get a thorough sight and lively sense and feeling of your sins … strive to affect your heart with a deep sense of your present misery … strike in with the Spirit when He begins to work upon your heart.45

He adds, "Christ offers to help … God offers to enlighten your mind … God invites you to be made clean, and entreats you to yield to Him … let Him do for you, and in you, what you cannot do for yourselves."46

William Guthrie (1620-1665), whose The Christian’s Great Interest was highly esteemed by John Owen, is less insistent on preparationism, although he also makes room for it in his theological system. He concedes that "we are not to speak of it … as if none might lay claim to God’s favour who have not had this preparatory work."47 Sadly, Guthrie cuts the throat of assurance with comments such as these:

It will be hard to give sure essential differences between the preparatory work on those in whom afterwards Christ is formed, and those legal stirrings which are sometimes in reprobates.48

I shall offer some things which rarely shall be found in the stirrings of reprobates, and which are ordinarily found in that law-work which hath a gracious issue.49

That one qualifying word "rarely" speaks volumes. Guthrie cannot offer the anxious soul any infallible mark of regeneration because those marks can also be found (albeit rarely) in reprobates. What advice does Guthrie offer to the unconverted? In words very similar to Alleine, he writes, "work up your heart to be pleased with and close with that offer [of the gospel], and say to God expressly that you do accept of that offer."50 Guthrie expostulates with objectors thus:

Or will any say, you cannot close with Christ? what is this you cannot do? Can you not hunger for Him, nor look to Him, nor be pleased with that salvation, nor open your mouth that He may fill it? Do not difficult the way to heaven, for it derogates much from all He hath done.51

So, we see, that Guthrie believed that the unregenerate sinner could make himself be pleased with the gospel "offer," could hunger after Christ and could therefore "close with" the Saviour. However, such a sinner, pleased with Christ, and hungering after Him, may nevertheless perish.

Thomas Shepard (1605-1649), founder of Harvard University, differentiates between various kinds of grace. Reprobates may receive various graces but never attain to saving grace. A thorough law-work is essential: "When the Lord sows saving desires indeed, he ever sows them in a broken heart, which is thoroughly broken."52 Hypocrites can be partakers of "awakening grace," "enlightening grace" and "affecting grace" but never, writes Shepard, "sanctifying grace."53 A man may profess to "hate sin," "close with the Lord Jesus," "love the people of God," "seek the glory of God" and be deceived. One wonders how a sinner in Shepard’s congregation could ever know that he is truly converted, for Shepard writes of such people "though they hate sin, yet it is unsoundly."54

An unsound conversion, claims Shepard, can be traced to humiliation under the law which was not sufficiently thorough:

Be sure your wound at first for sin be deep enough; for all the error in a man’s faith and sanctification, it springs from that first error of his humiliation; if a man’s humiliation be false, and weak, and little, his faith is light, and his sanctification counterfeit.55


IV. Other Theologians

Dutch Reformed divine, Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) reveals a belief in preparationism. He speaks of "preparatory convictions"56 and urges the unconverted to entertain hope because God "grants [them] conviction and a desire for repentance and salvation."57 His advice is to attend diligently on the means. "You have reason to hope … Wait, therefore, for the least movement of the Spirit, respond to it, and be careful you do not resist it."58 However, such a desire, granted to some of the unconverted who use the means of grace, does not guarantee salvation. It is not a sign of regeneration, but may lead to it.

Presbyterian theologian, William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) ascribes regeneration itself to the Holy Spirit but allows man to have some "agency … in the work of conviction which is preparatory or antecedent" to the new birth.59 Shedd wants to be careful in distinguishing the Augustinian/Calvinistic idea of preparation from the Semi-Pelagian/Arminian/Synergistic version. The Calvinist, writes Shedd, means by it "conviction of sin, guilt and helplessness." The Arminian "denotes some faint desires and beginnings of holiness in the natural man."60 This preparation, then, is not a "part of regeneration, but something prior and antecedent to it."61 Shedd next appeals to "common or prevenient grace." The sinner, writes Shedd, "moved and assisted" by this grace is able to perform certain duties. Shedd lists some of these common grace-assisted duties: "reading and hearing … serious application of the mind … conviction … illumination in regard to the requirements of the law … distress of conscience and … reformation of the outward life."62 This is God’s normal mode of operation, except in infants:

Man gains spiritual life in an instant, though he may have had days and months of a foregoing experience of conviction and spiritual death. This is the ordinary divine method.63

Furthermore, Shedd insists that the unregenerate have the "duty and privilege" to pray for the "convicting and regenerating Spirit."64 His proof is Luke 11:13. He reasons that since the Father has promised to give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him, when the unregenerate pray for the Holy Spirit of regeneration God will grant that request (or, to be more exact, "might possibly" grant it). But Christ is not teaching that the unregenerate can ask for the Holy Spirit. He is teaching that believers can be assured that God will grant them His grace and Holy Spirit, which they need to live a sanctified life. The teaching of Luke 11:13 and similar passages is summarized in Lord’s Day 45 (Q. & A. 116) of the Heidelberg Catechism: "God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him and, and are thankful for them." Shedd then appeals to Ezekiel 36 and Joel 2 and claims that the ground for such a prayer is that the Holy Spirit is "promised generally under the Gospel"! If Shedd means by this that God promises every unregenerate person regenerating grace we stand amazed, since the promises in the prophets are particular and certain. God promises to give His people, and them only, a new heart. The unregenerate are required to pray for regeneration, writes Shedd:

No man has any warrant or encouragement to pray either for conversion or for sanctification, before he has prayed for regeneration. Whoever, therefore, forbids an unregenerate man to pray for regenerating grace, forbids him to pray for any and all grace. In prohibiting him from asking God to create within him a clean heart, he prohibits him altogether from asking for the Holy Spirit.65

In addition we note that David petitioned God to create in him a clean heart when he was already regenerate (Ps. 51:10). Never in the history of the world has an unregenerate sinner asked God for regeneration.

Shedd warns that the sinner must not be slack in this work of conviction:

The Holy Spirit can convict a sinner without his co-operation … but this is not to be counted upon … [the sinner] must endeavour to deepen … the sense of sin which has been produced in his conscience, or he is liable to be entirely deserted by the Spirit, and left to his own will, and be filled with his own devices. The sinner cannot co-operate in the work of regeneration, but he can in the work of conviction.66

However, none of this makes God a debtor. This preparation does not make a man "deserving" of regeneration but a "suitable subject for the exercise of God’s unmerited compassion in regenerating grace."67 After seeking, desiring, preparing himself and praying, the sinner may find that God leaves him in his unregenerate state. The sinner may not complain because God is exercising His divine prerogative of sovereignty. The sinner, therefore, must "proceed upon a probability."68 In the end, his desires may be denied.

The sinner may even prepare himself for regeneration by giving up heretical notions. If a sinner believes he is not a helpless sinner, denies that sin deserves endless punishment or that the vicarious atonement is necessary, he is not in such a state prepared for regenerating grace. "Such opinions," writes Shedd, "must be given up and scriptural views must be adopted before the Holy Spirit will create a new heart."69 Even that may not be enough. If the "orthodox truth is held in unrighteousness" that attitude must be changed too, so the sinner is better prepared.70 After all that preparation, the sinner having become a "serious anxious inquirer"71 and one who is "endeavouring to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ"72 it is only "in the highest degree probable" for him, using common grace, to be saved.73 Where is the comfort in that?

Dutch theologian, Herman Witsius (1636-1708) treats preparationism in The Economy of the Covenants. Witsius does not believe that a man can prepare himself for regeneration. Since the unregenerate are evil trees, they cannot produce good fruit (Matt. 7:18). Therefore "unless a person can be thought to prepare himself for grace by sin" preparationism cannot be admitted.74 Preparationism, insists Witsius, is a semi-Pelagian doctrine. The semi-Pelagians taught that a sinner can come to grace

… by asking, seeking, knocking; and that, in some at least, before they are born again, there is a kind of repentance, together with a sorrow for sin … a beginning of faith, and an initial love of God, and a desire of grace.75

That certainly sounds like the teaching of some of the theologians which we have considered above. Witsius takes issue with the view of Perkins. Concerning his view he writes:

But we really think they argue more accurately, who make these, and the like things in the Elect, to be preparations to the further and more perfect operations of a more noble and plentiful spirit, and so not preparations for regeneration, but the fruits and effects of the first regeneration.76

Witsius concedes that operations of the Spirit may occur in the reprobate, but they are "no preparations for regeneration" either by their intrinsic nature or by God’s design, but these operations in the reprobate are "consistent with spiritual death" and the reprobate, being deceived by these "actings which counterfeit spiritual life, are the more hardened in a real death."77 Witsius’ conclusion, having carefully differentiated between regeneration in the broader and narrower senses, is to reject any means for preparing a sinner for the new birth. "They are not preparations for the first regeneration, but effects of it," because death is no preparation for life.78

There is a sense in which Witsius believes that the Lord, by His providential dealings with the elect before their conversion, "prepares" them for their future spiritual life. He "preserves them from base and scandalous crimes" and they are kept from the sin against the Holy Ghost. Such sinners may have grown up in an ecclesiastical environment so that "many evident principles of divine truth are understood by the natural mind" which serve the believer after he has been regenerated.79 None of these "dispose man for regeneration" but they are providential works of God, whereby, even before their regeneration, God works all things for the good of His elect. This is the same kind of preparatory grace to which Abraham Kuyper refers. The unregenerate elect are "the subject of divine labour, care and protection" even during their godless life before their conversion, according to Kuyper.80 Having said all this, Witsius too, like the Puritans, urges the one who will not "profanely despise his salvation" to attend the means of grace, for there is a "brighter hope" for the one who listens to the preaching and cries to God for converting grace, than for the one who neglects the church altogether.81


V. Objections to this Doctrine

We repudiate preparationism as foreign to Scripture and the Reformed confessions. Although there is much to admire in the Puritans, on this issue we must part company.

A. The Unregenerate Do Not Hunger After Righteousness

The Scriptures teach that spiritual hunger will always be satisfied. There is no sinner who has ever hungered after righteousness who will go away empty into that place where he will not have as much as a drop of water to cool his tongue (Luke 16:24). Jesus promises as much in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness." Why? Because there is a good chance, a fair possibility, a high probability, but no guarantee that they may be filled? No, the sweetness contained in the beatitude is this: "For they shall be filled" (Matt. 5:6). Preparationists take this sweet morsel of bread and cast it to the dogs (Matt. 15:26). Indeed, the point of this beatitude is that the one who is hungering and thirsting is blessed, that is, already regenerate. Such a hungering after mercy is not (contra Ames) a preparation for regeneration but evidence of it. The Canons of Dordt deny that the unregenerate "can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit, which is pleasing to God." Instead, as the Fathers at Dordt insisted, "to hunger and thirst after deliverance from misery and after life, and to offer unto God the sacrifice of a broken spirit, is peculiar to the regenerate and those that are called blessed (Canons III/IV:R:4)," quoting Matthew 5:6.

The unregenerate have no hunger for spiritual things. They see the bread of life as loathsome. They drink iniquity greedily like water (Job 15:16) but the water of life does not appeal to them. God does the wicked no injustice by not feeding them with the bread of life, because they have no desire for it. God creates, and satisfies, a desire for righteousness in the elect alone.

B. The Unregenerate Will Is Not Pliable to God’s Will

Furthermore, the Scriptures do not teach (contra Perkins) that the reprobate have wills made "pliable" to the will of God. The will of man is totally depraved. Without regeneration, the sinner cannot will or even will to will spiritual good. The Bible speaks of two kinds of men, and only two: the natural (unregenerate) and the spiritual (regenerate) man. There is no intermediate stage between these two states. I Corinthians 2:14 teaches that the natural man "receiveth not" spiritual things because he cannot know them. The carnal mind of the natural man is "enmity" against God. It cannot be subject to the law of God (Rom. 8:7). Of the one who does evil (the natural, unregenerate man), Christ says that he "hateth the light" and does not come to the light (John 3:20). The natural man does not understand, does not seek after God and does not do anything good (Rom. 3:11-12). The will before regeneration is powerless.

The Canons of Dordt describe God’s work of regeneration thus:

He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised; infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions (III/IV:11).

The only pliable will is the regenerate will. No unregenerate man has "a small obedience" or "faint desires." In no sense is the will "subdued" so that in some small way it wills good. No unregenerate man desires repentance, longs to believe in Christ, earnestly seeks after God or is pleased with the gospel. Every unregenerate man, without exception, abhors Christ, repudiates repentance, and finds the gospel "foolishness" (I Cor. 1:18). Only God by a mighty work of grace, which he works in His elect alone, can change that.

A small beginning of obedience is present only in the regenerate (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 114). Faith, even if it is as small as a mustard seed or is mixed with much unbelief is a sign of regeneration, not grace-induced seeking in the unregenerate (Matt. 17:20; Mark 9:24). Seeking is only something the regenerate can do, because all seekers without exception (of whom there are none by nature; Rom. 3:11) are promised that they shall find (Matt. 7:7; Luke 11:10).

C. Preparationism Makes Grace Common and Resistible

The preparationists speak of "enlightening grace," "awakening grace" and "affecting grace," in addition to saving grace. The reprobate, claim the preparationists, are frequently partakers of these types of "common grace" but because they do not "improve" the grace they justly perish. The Scriptures know of only one grace: saving, particular, efficacious grace. The grace of Scripture is irresistible.

D. Preparationism Complicates Conversion

Abraham Kuyper complains of those who teach that "certain moods and dispositions must be prepared in the sinner before God can quicken him."82 The preparationist would object to the word "can" and substitute "will," but the principle is basically the same. Kuyper argues that God can impart the new life of Christ to the most hardened sinner "devoid of every predisposition."83 Presumably, no Puritan would disagree with that. None would want to limit the omnipotence of God. But the Puritans represent the sinner as a long time under the "lash of the law."84 A long, arduous work of conviction of sin is necessary for most people to be regenerated and converted. This is not the way Scripture depicts conversion. Where was the prolonged conviction of sin in the Samaritan woman (John 4), in Zacchaeus, in the publican (Luke 19), in those converted on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), in the Apostle Paul (Acts 9) or in the Philippian jailor (Acts 16)? In each of those conversions the Spirit convicted of sin, and granted repentance from sin, but there is no indication in Scripture that sinners lie for weeks, months, even years, under the terrors of conscience. Yet, this seems to be the sine qua non in the Puritan doctrine of conversion. Thus, Shedd writes, "the Holy Spirit does not ordinarily regenerate a man until he is a convicted man, until … he has become conscious of his need of regenerating grace."85 Surely, if he is a convicted man, he is already regenerated. If he desires regeneration, he has been born again. No unregenerate person desires regeneration. The Canons of Dordt (I:16) do not lay so many obstacles before the sinner. There are those in the church who attend the means of grace, and who do not "strongly feel" the evidence of grace in them that they desire to feel. They ought not despair. The Canons are not speaking of the unregenerate, in which there is no "living faith," "peace of conscience," "earnest endeavour after filial obedience" (Canons I:16), but of those in whom these graces operate but are not "strongly felt." The Canons assume such to be regenerate because they show the signs of being spiritually alive. With true pastoral warmth the Canons encourage the trembling child of God:

Much less cause to be terrified by the doctrine of reprobation have they who, though they seriously desire to be turned to God, to please Him only, and to be delivered from the body of death, cannot yet reach that measure of holiness and faith to which they aspire; since a merciful God has promised that He will not quench the smoking flax, nor break the bruised reed (I:16).

If God has begun the work of salvation in a sinner (evidenced by a hatred of sin, and a desire after holiness), he will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6). The bruised reed of Matthew 12:20 is simply the child of God who is broken-hearted over his sins, who is "poor in spirit" (Matt. 5:3), who "mourns" over his sins (Matt. 5:4) and who "hungers" after righteousness (Matt. 5:6). None of those spiritual characteristics are ever found in an unregenerate person. God will not snuff out that smoking flax, although much imperfection (smoke) remains in him.

E. Preparationism Destroys Assurance and Breeds Despair

The doctrine of preparationism is desperately depressing. It robs the child of God of his assurance. As Pettit states it,

if contrition and humiliation are not in themselves signs of grace … how can one ever have assurance of faith? Far from being a comfortable doctrine, it was bound to lead to despair.86

It must lead there. Do I have sorrow over my sins? Do I earnestly seek after Christ? Do I hunger and thirst after righteousness? Do I have a deep sense of my sin and a desire for deliverance? Do I believe in Jesus Christ and trust in Him alone for my righteousness? All of the above may be merely signs of "preparatory grace;" not regeneration itself. Reprobates may come that far.

Do I feel my need for salvation and am I earnestly seeking to be found in Christ (Phil. 3:9)? If so, the Scriptures assure me that I am regenerate. The preparationists put obstacles in my way. Perhaps I am not humbled enough. Perhaps I have not experienced enough conviction. Perhaps I hate my sins, but only "unsoundly." The preparationists depict unregenerate sinners lying at the feet of Jesus, pleading with Him to regenerate them. Although the probability is high that such sinners will be saved (a greater possibility than those who completely neglect the means of grace), yet they offer no guarantee:

Yet all were told, at the same time, that no matter how much they prepared, no matter how thoroughly they searched beneath the surface of human appearances, God’s mercy could be denied in the end. The prepared heart, while a necessary prerequisite to the conversion experience, was no guarantee of salvation.87

Christ, however, teaches that "him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out" (John 6:37). He promises rest (not a possibility of rest) to those who "labour and are heavy laden" (Matt. 11:28), because the spiritual heaviness has been worked in them by the Holy Spirit. There are no heavy-laden, thirsty, willing sinners who will fail to receive the salvation which they seek. There are no sinners trying to come to Christ who fail to reach Him.

In New England, where preparationism was popular, candidates for church membership were required to "give detailed accounts of their conversion experience."88 Candidates would have to relate how they were under deep conviction of sin for a prolonged period. This, not a credible profession of faith in the truth of God’s word, with a godly walk, was the qualification for church membership. This became an impossible burden, for not all (especially those who grew up in the church) have such a dramatic conversion experience which they can relate to the elders. So concerned were the Puritan preparationists, especially in New England, to keep hypocrites out of the church that they endangered the wheat while trying to pull out the tares (Matt. 13:29).


VI. Appeals to Scripture Considered

Surprisingly, the preparationist theologians do not make many appeals to Scripture in their writings on this subject. If we examine the instances where men are said to prepare their hearts to seek the Lord, we see that in all such cases the person in question was already a believer. For example, Jehoshaphat (II Chron. 19:3), Ezra (Ezra 7:10) and Job (Job 11:13) prepared their hearts. There is no question that a believer can prepare his heart to seek God.

In other cases men are commanded to prepare their hearts (I Sam. 7:3). That does not indicate that they have the ability or the inclination of themselves to comply with such a command. The overwhelming evidence of Scripture is that man is dead in sins and unable to produce one good desire. One final appeal is made to Luke 1:17, "And he [i.e. John the Baptist] shall go before him … to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." This text does not teach preparatory grace, but simply that God had prepared a people for Himself whom He would save in the fullness of time when Christ would come. John the Baptist would prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming.


VII. Conclusion

We must insist, with Scripture and the Reformed Confessions, that man is powerless. He cannot prepare himself to receive Christ, he cannot desire Christ and he cannot seek Christ. We must oppose any doctrine, no matter how venerable its advocates may have been, which posits any other species of grace than sovereign, irresistible, particular grace, rooted in election, and earned for the elect on the cross. If there is a grace of God for the reprobate, then it must have its origin outside of election and it must not have been purchased on the cross. But that cannot be!  Preparatory grace is, therefore, a deadly compromise, not only of total depravity, but also of sovereign election and reprobation and of limited atonement.

Furthermore, since preparatory grace is allegedly resisted and rendered ineffective by the reprobate, the doctrines of irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints are compromised. Any doctrine which endangers these cardinal truths must be rejected by Reformed Christians root and branch. We reject the convoluted theology of those who invent new categories and qualifications which change the very definition of grace. A "grace" which does not bring salvation is not grace at all (Titus 2:11). We therefore reject Thomas Shepard's "awakening," "enlightening," or "affecting" grace. There can be, prior to regeneration, no gracious work in the unregenerate for the simple reason that regeneration is the first work of grace. It ought to be obvious that there can be no work prior to the first work. 

In addition, it is intolerable cruelty to demand of people a dramatic conversion experience before they can be assured of their salvation. Such obstacles may not be placed before believers who grew up in the church, who were taught to pray on their mother's knee, who were catechised and who therefore do not know a time when they did not believe in Jesus Christ. To demand of such that they describe a dramatic conversion experience before they are allowed to confess their faith is to grieve Christ's little ones. Nor may it be demanded on the mission field. It is enough when a person simply believes in Christ and shows evidence of that in a godly walk. To insist that every soul comes to Christ by means of a long and arduous process of conviction of sin (which is supposedly due to preparatory grace) is not biblical. It leads to doubting and lack of assurance. It makes true believers afraid to make confession of faith and come to the Lord's Supper. True conversion is a life-long process where the child of God daily turns from sin to God (repentance and faith) and experiences forgiveness at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. This is the Reformed doctrine of conversion as set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord's Day 33). 

Finally, we call attention to the fact that the Presbyterian tradition ought to reject preparationism on the basis of their own Confession. It is surprising that the notion of preparatory grace became so popular among the Puritans, since many of them helped frame the Westminster Confession, which teaches that "natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto" (10:3).


1 Norman Pettit, The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 3.
2 William Perkins, The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience, Book I, Chapter V, pp. 50-51; spelling of original modernized; italics mine.
3 Perkins, Whole Treatise, Book I, Chapter V, p. 51; italics mine.
4 Young Jae Timothy Song, Theology and Piety in the Reformed Thought of William Perkins and John Preston (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1998), p. 132
5 Song, Theology, p. 133.
6 Song, Theology, p. 134.
7 Song, Theology, pp. 136-137.
8 Song, Theology, p. 139.
9 Song, Theology, p. 139.
10 Song, Theology, p. 137.
11 William Perkins, The Courtenay Library of Reformation Classics, vol. 3, The Work of William Perkins, Ian Breward (ed.) (England: The Sutton Courtenay Press, 1970), p. 406.
12 Perkins, Works, p. 405.
13 Pettit, The Heart, p. 62.
14 Pettit, The Heart, p. 63.
15 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1983), p. 50.
16 William Ames, The Marrow, p. 50.
17 Ames, The Marrow, p. 160.
18 William Ames, Conscience With the Power and Cases Thereof: The English Experience: Its Record in Early Printed Books Published in Facsimile (Amsterdam and Norwood, NJ: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Ltd., and Walter J. Johnson Inc., 1975), Book II, Chapter 4, pp. 8-9.
19 Ames, The Marrow, p. 7.
20 Ames, The Marrow, p. 7; italics mine.
21 Eusden hastens to add, "It is not being suggested here that Ames was an Arminian-within-the-gates, or a quasi-Remonstrant" (Ames, The Marrow, p. 7).
22 Ames, The Marrow, p. 50.
23 Eusden writes, quoting a biographer of Ames, "Ames plainly deserved our saying in his honor what the mothers of Israel once said in honor of David: ‘Other theologians have slain their thousands, but Ames his tens of thousands!’ Ames was thought to be something of a giant killer in theological debate" (Ames, The Marrow, p. 7).
24 Eusden notes, "For a century and a half William Ames’s Marrow of Theology held sway as a clear, persuasive expression of Puritan belief and practice. In England, Holland and New England nearly all those who aspired to the Puritan way read the book. No matter what their aspirations, undergraduates at Emmanuel College, Leyden, Harvard and Yale had to read the Marrow in Latin as part of basic instruction in divinity. In a burst of enthusiasm Thomas Hooker (1586?-1647) of Hartford once recommended the Marrow and another of Ames’s works to fellow clergymen: ‘They would make him (supposing him versed in the Scriptures) a good divine, though he had no more books in the world’" (Ames, The Marrow, p. 1).
25 Pettit, The Heart, p. 67.
26 Pettit, The Heart, p. 67.
27 Pettit, The Heart, p. 67.
28 Pettit, The Heart, p. 67.
29 Richard Sibbes, Works, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner, repr. 1979), p. 73.
30 Richard Sibbes, Works, p. 74.
31 Pettit, The Heart, p. 67.
32 Pettit, The Heart, p. 68.
33 Pettit, The Heart, p. 68.
34 Pettit, The Heart, p. 70.
35 Pettit, The Heart, p. 73.
36 John Owen, Works, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Banner, repr. 1966), p. 229
37 Owen, Works, vol. 3, p. 229.
38 Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, repr. 1973), p. 291.
39 Owen, Works, vol. 3, p. 229.
40 Owen, Works, vol. 3, p. 230.
41 Owen, Works, vol. 3, p. 234.
42 Owen, Works, vol. 3, p. 236.
43 Owen, Works, vol. 3, p. 236.
44 Edward Hindson (ed.), Introduction to Puritan Theology: A Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1976), p. 100.
45 Joseph Alleine, An Alarm to the Unconverted (Edinburgh: Banner, repr. 1978), p. 100.
46 Alleine, Alarm, p. 140.
47 William Guthrie, The Christian’s Great Interest (London: Banner, repr. 1969), p. 37.
48 Guthrie, Interest, p. 53.
49 Guthrie, Interest, pp. 53-54; italics mine.
50 Guthrie, Interest, p. 195.
51 Guthrie, Interest, p. 204.
52 Thomas Shepard, The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, repr. 1997), p. 468.
53 Shepard, Parable, pp. 476-477.
54 Shepard, Parable, p. 481.
55 Shepard, Parable, p. 482.
56 Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 2 (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993), p. 249.
57 à Brakel, Reasonable, vol. 2, p. 258.
58 à Brakel, Reasonable, vol. 2, p. 259.
59 William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), p. 512.
60 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 512.
61 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 512.
62 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, pp. 512-513.
63 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 512.
64 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 513.
65 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 514.
66 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 515.
67 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 516; italics mine.
68 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 516.
69 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 518.
70 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 518.
71 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 518.
72 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 528; italics mine.
73 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 526.
74 Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, repr. 1990), p. 361.
75 Witsius, The Economy, p. 363.
76 Witsius, The Economy, p. 363.
77 Witsius, The Economy, p. 363.
78 Witsius, The Economy, p. 365.
79 Witsius, The Economy, p. 366.
80 Kuyper, The Work, p. 284.
81 Witsius, The Economy, pp. 371-372.
82 Kuyper, The Work, pp. 290-291.
83 Kuyper, The Work, p. 291.
84 Sibbes, Works, vol. 1, p. 44.
85 Shedd, Theology, vol. 2, p. 514.
86 Pettit, The Heart Prepared, p. 19.
87 Pettit, The Heart Prepared, p. 19.
88 Pettit, The Heart Prepared, p. 160.