Conversion: Must there be a Preparatory Law-work?

 A review of Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013.  297 pp. Pbck.  $25.00).

The key thesis of this book is that conversion is normally preceded by a preparatory law-work; or, in the language of Jonathan Edwards, that ‘God makes men sensible of their misery before he reveals his mercy and love.’

Most of it is devoted, however, not to expounding this doctrine, but to a historical survey designed to prove that this has been the prevailing view in Reformed theology from the beginning (including Luther and Calvin), but particularly among English Puritans such as William Perkins, John Preston, William Ames and Richard Sibbes; and among New England Puritans such as Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard and John Cotton.  Modern attempts by Perry Miller and others to show that significant figures diverged from this consensus are reviewed and (as a rule) refuted.

At the same time Doctors Beeke and Smalley lose no opportunity to point out that this Reformed preparationism was completely different from the Roman Catholic doctrine of congruent merit, according to which grace is infused as a reward for doing the best we can with our own natural abilities; and they are no less insistent that Reformed  preparationism has to be distinguished from the Arminian idea that once sinners are motivated by a sense of spiritual need, grace merely assists them to Christ, without any invincible input on God’s part.

These historical discussions have their undoubted value, but far the most important aspect of this book is the core idea itself.  Regardless of the views of the Puritans, is it in fact God’s normal way of dealing with sinners to prepare them for conversion by awakening them, through the law, to sense of sin and of imminent spiritual peril?

The idea was certainly not confined to 17th century Puritans.  The list of witnesses could easily be extended to include J. Gresham Machen, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and even the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and the ‘testimonies’ which are now such a feature of Evangelicalism often tell the story of a journey from ‘the terrors of law and of God’ to an eventual sense of spiritual peace.

Yet, as Beeke and Smalley concede, this should not be taken as a template to which all conversions must conform.  Unfortunately, however, as Mark Noll points out (The Rise of Evangelicalism, p.84), the conversion narratives which Edwards recounts in his Faithful Narrative (published in 1737) ‘rapidly became templates for the way many others would picture the normative spiritual journey’; and prominent in these narratives was self-despair and intense conviction of sin.  But Edwards also recorded that, ‘There is a great variety as to the degree of fear and trouble that people are exercised with, before they attain any comfortable evidences of pardon and acceptance with God.’

Key biblical narratives

When we turn to key biblical narratives, the ‘preparatory law-work’ pattern certainly did not always apply.  John the Baptist never experienced the agony of soul experienced by his namesake, John Bunyan, and as J. G. Machen points out (What Is Faith?, p. 129), the Baptist was by no means unique in this respect: the children of Christian parents ‘often come to trust Christ as their saviour almost as soon as consciousness begins; these children of the covenant know the grace of God almost as soon as they know sin.’  This does not mean that they do not need to be born again: it means that they are born again at an age so tender that sin has not had time to harden their hearts.

Nor is there any hint of a preparatory law-work in the case of the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John (Mk. 1:16, 19-20); nor again in the stories of Philip and Nathanael (Jn. 1:43-49), Matthew (Lk. 5:27-28) or Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10).  In none of these narratives is there any hint of a preparatory law-work.  Instead there is instant compliance with the call of Jesus.  Self-knowledge would come, of course, particularly in the case of Peter, but it would come later.

Similar conversion narratives occur in the Book of Acts.  At Philippi, for example, Lydia simply has her heart opened by the Lord and her journey to faith is smooth and untroubled.  At first glance, the story of her fellow-Philippian, the jailer, looks very different.  Immediately after the earthquake he appears on the scene, trembling and suicidal.  But this was hardly due to any law-work; or, if there was a law-work, it was of very short duration.  And when he asks, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Paul and Silas do not first confront him with the law before presenting him with the gospel.  They call him to instant faith in Christ, speak the ‘word about the Lord’, and baptise him: all, probably, in less than an hour.

Even in those New Testament passages commonly appealed to in support of the idea of a normative law-work, all is not as it seems.  The best-known of these is Galatians 3:24, which the KJV renders, ‘the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ’.  However, the Greek paidagōs was not a schoolmaster.  He was a slave placed in charge of an under-age boy, and while one of his duties might be to conduct the boy to and from school he was not himself the schoolmaster.  A further difficulty is that what Paul actually says is not that the law was put in charge of us in order to lead us to Christ, but ‘until Christ came’ (ESV).  From this point of view Christ was ‘the end of the law’.  But then the ‘law’ here is clearly not the law in the specific sense of the Moral Law, but the law that was introduced 430 years after the Abrahamic covenant (Gal. 3:17): in other words, the Torah in all its breadth.  It was this law, the great boundary-marker of Judaism, that Paul’s opponents insisted should still be imposed even on Gentile converts, but it is a law to which, as Paul makes clear, we are no longer subject, because we are no longer either slaves or minors; and a law which, in the event, did not lead the Jews to Christ.  On the contrary, despite the leading of the Torah they collectively rejected their own Messiah.

‘Common’ and ‘saving’ operations of the Spirit

None of this abrogates, however, the principle which Paul lays down in Romans 3:20, ‘through the law we become conscious of sin.’  Yet here, too, caution is required.  What the Westminster Confession (10:4) calls the ‘common operations of the Spirit’ can sometimes produce serious conviction of sin in people who never actually come to Christ.  How, then, can we tell whether the ‘law-work’ is the effect of a ‘common’ operation or of a ‘saving’ operation?  The temptation is to assume that it is a matter of the degree of conviction: if it is deep, intense and distressing it is a clear mark of saving grace.  But this is manifestly not so.  Judas Iscariot had a conviction of sin so intense and distressing that he went and hanged himself.  As Stoddart pointed out (as quoted by Edwards in his work on The Religious Affections: p. 59 of the 1961 Banner of Truth edition), ‘common affections are sometimes stronger than saving.’  It is certainly no uncommon thing at times of revival to see the deepest terrors in those who in the event never become followers of the Lord.  After all, the law, as well as the gospel, can be sown on stony ground and produce instant terror: ‘But since they have no root, they last only a short time.’ (Mk. 4:17)

What, then, is the sign that a law-work is truly gracious?  It can only be, as the Westminster Confession assumes, that those who experience it ‘truly come to Christ’.  From this point of view, the intensity or otherwise of the conviction does not matter.  It may appear quite unremarkable, but if it leads us to Christ it is sufficient; and, conversely, it may be awesome to behold, and yet if it does not lead us to Christ it is nothing.  Here again the cross is the test of everything.  Have we come to it?  There is always the danger that a tormented conscience, and disillusionment with the world, will be mistaken for true discipleship.  This is why it is so important to warn everyone not to rest till they are in Christ; and rather than test whether we have come to Christ by the intensity of our conviction of sin we should test our conviction of sin by asking whether we have truly come to Christ.  This is what the Apostle John stated so unambiguously:  ‘He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.’ (1 Jn. 5:12)

A stereotypical pattern?

Faith is indeed born of need, and to divorce it from repentance is, as Bonhoeffer argued, to preach ‘cheap grace’ (see the whole chapter on ‘Costly Grace’ in Bonheoffer’s, The Cost of Discipleship).  But the Puritan model of preparatory grace carries its own dangers.

One of these is that it suggests a stereotypical pattern of conversion, including not only the same elements but those elements in the same order.  In reality, no two Christians come to the Lord in the same way.  In particular, conviction of sin may vary greatly from one believer to the next, not only in its intensity but in its timing.  The French evangelist, César Malan, once remarked that God awoke him as a mother wakes a sleeping child: with a kiss.

In some instances, the deepest sense of sin may come not as a ‘preparatory’ experience but at the height of Christian maturity.  This was what happened to Bishop Handley Moule (see the details in J. C. Pollock with Ian Randall, The Kewswick Story [2006],pp. 90-93).   An address he heard at Keswick ‘showed me to myself’ and faced him with ‘the sins of my converted life’.  There is no evidence that Moule had experienced any ‘law-work’ preparatory to his conversion, but that moment at Keswick turned him into a man ‘broken, hungry of soul.’

If we convey the impression that there is a definite, normative pattern to which all conversions must conform, anyone whose experience is different may well lose all assurance of salvation, either because she did not begin where others began or because she never experienced the terrors of the law as others did.  We then lose sight of the fact that all that matters is whether we have come to Christ.  How we started or why we first set out or by what route we travelled is of no consequence.  What matters is that we have come to the Son, not relying on the depths of our own experience, or on the fact that it corresponded to that of others, but on what Christ did for us on Calvary and on what he promises to continue to do through his Holy Spirit.  The so-called ‘preparatory work’ can itself become the basis of a dreadful delusion, but the true believer will never have a high view of his own spiritual experience or even of his own conversion narrative.  What matters is that he has a high view of Christ.

There is a danger, too, of linking repentance too exclusively to the law.  In the very nature of the case the law by itself can produce only a legal repentance: one in which fear of punishment predominates and in which there is no inducement to return to a heavenly Father. Such a repentance may certainly be an element in the journey to faith, but not an inevitable one.  Not all Christians experience it, and not all who do experience it become Christians.  In fact, there is no pre-conversion (outside-of-Christ) state from which there is a guaranteed progression to the one place of safety, ‘hid with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3).

Evangelical repentance always includes a turning to God, and as that great Puritan compilation, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, insists, it is a result of faith, not a preparation for it.  In David’s case, for example, his broken heart (Ps.51:17) comes after God’s declaration of forgiveness (2 Sam. 12:13) and reflects his confidence in God’s mercy and steadfast love (Ps. 51:1).  The Shorter Catechism sounds this same note (A. 87): the sinner turns to God not only ‘out of a true sense of his sin’, but also with ‘apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ’.  His mercy is there before our repentance; and it is because we have faith in his mercy that we cast ourselves upon it.  As Evangelista points out in the Marrow, ‘Sorrow and grief for displeasing God by sin, necessarily argue the love of God; and it is impossible we should ever love God, till by faith we know ourselves loved by him.’ It is that love itself, and our unworthiness of it, that makes us weep bitterly (Lk. 22:62).

Merely preparatory?

But did the Puritans really view conviction of sin as merely preparatory to effectual calling?  In the Shorter Catechism it is in fact an integral part of effectual calling.  The predestinated outcome of this call is that we should accept Christ, and the call itself includes two elements: God ‘persuades’ and God ‘enables’.  And how does God persuade?  By convincing us of our sin and by enlightening us in the knowledge of Christ.  Neither of these is preparatory.  The call persuades us both of our need and of Christ as the answer; and the preacher’s whole posture reflects this.  No sermon sets out merely to prepare a sinner for grace; none of us preaches for a merely preparatory repentance.  We aim at the conversion of the sinner, and our final plea is never, ‘Go home and prepare for grace!’  The gospel brooks no delay either on the grounds of unworthiness or on the grounds of unpreparedness.  We are bound, as John Owen remarked in his treatise, The Reason of Faith, to believe the word the moment we hear it preached (The Works of John Owen, Vol. 4, p. 81).  There can be no ‘going home to think’.

But God doesn’t merely persuade.  He enables.  He opens hearts and renews wills.  He regenerates.  Yet this is not something that happens apart from the word.  Nor is it the divine pattern that God must first renew us before the word can become effective.  As the Lord of the hearing as well as of the speaking, he renews us through the word itself, giving us the faith he commands us to have.  Just as Jesus spoke to the dead Lazarus, so God speaks to the spiritually dead, and they come forth.

This experience is often referred to as ‘regeneration’, but this word must not beguile us into thinking that God’s renewal of the sinner is always an immediate, instantaneous act.  Only once does the Bible apply the word ‘regeneration’ to the salvation of the sinner (Titus 3:5).  It also speaks of conversion as a new creation, and while God could have created the world in one day, he chose to do it in six.  The same pattern may often, if not always, be seen in God’s drawing of the sinner to Christ.  The Puritans, accordingly, described effectual calling as a ‘work’ (Shorter Catechism, A. 31), and that work leaves its own psychological footprint: the story of our human response to the divine call.  To some extent, we can tell that story ourselves, describing the stages of our own spiritual journey, but our telling of it must always be provisional.  The work of the Spirit, the intimate touch of the finger of God on the human heart, is always mysterious, and it may be far more difficult to trace the Redeemer’s footprints in our spiritual lives than to trace the Maker’s footprints in creation.

One final point: ever since Luther we have tended to see Christ primarily as the answer to guilt, the one who brings relief to troubled consciences, and one result of this been to throw the priesthood of Christ into special prominence.  But Christ is not only priest.  He is also prophet and king, and while faith will eventually attach itself to all three offices, it seldom does so all at once.  It usually begins with one, that one is often his priesthood, and the sinner’s starting-off point is often a tormented conscience.  But that is not the only point of entry into the Christian life, because sin has brought more than guilt.  It has also brought ignorance (the ‘unknown God, Acts 17:23) and anxiety. While many, then, will first come to Christ to find peace for their troubled consciences others will come because he is the answer to their quest for the truth; and others because they seek assurance that Someone has the whole world in his hands.

They set off from different points and they will tell different stories.  But each will have the Son; and she who has the Son has life.