Grace before Grace?
Chapter 28 - Preparatory Grace
The Puritans taught preparaory grace, that God uses the Law to convince the unregenerate of their guilt. This has often been wrongly equated with the Medieval idea that if you do what you can, God will give you grace and save you. The Puritans rejected that Pelagian idea.
When the Spirit applies the law to a sinner headed for conversion, it wakes him up to his danger and guilt before a holy God. Even the unregenerate should be persuaded to avoid sin and attend worship, to put themselves in the way of the means of grace.
There is an illumination that convicts, making us aware of God's justice and power to punish, and an illumination that saves, making us aware of His sweetness. The Puritans distinguished these, but, seeing conversion as a process rather than a point in time, saw the first preparatory stage as often (naturally?) leading to true faith.
Scholars have assumed this preparatory grace idea is opposed and contradictory to Calvinism, but this is only so if you assume Gods sovereignty and human responsibility are contradictory. They are not. The Puritans followed the early Reformers in affirming both (1) man's inability to come to Christ without grace, and (2) God's work (which we can resist more or less) showing sinners their guilt by the law, before they believe.
Evaluating preparatory grace - cautions
Whenever you preach our duties to God, legalism and Arminianism is a danger.
We don't want to say men who cooperate with preparatory grace are qualified (owed!) for converting grace.
It was also a mistake to hammer away with the law for a long time, without mixing in the comforts promised by Christ's benefits.
And finally, several Puritans analyzed the several steps of conversion in a rather mechanistic way, not leaving room for the mysterious way the Spirit works in our hearts.
Evaluating preparatory grace - lessons to learn
It is part of offering the Gospel to all.
It reveals our lack of merit, instead of earning merit before God, and thus is Reformed.
It highlights what the Spirit does beyond regeneration, convicting unbelievers of their sin by the law.
It honors God's work even in unbelievers, treating them not as stones, but as having reason and will.
Much of this debate is semantic. Of course we should preach the law to unbelievers, hoping God will convict them. But how to describe what happens when that conviction begins, but true is not yet present? Is it grace? It may be the work of the Spirit, but it is not yet the grace that saves. We should encourage people to go to the Lord in prayer and contemplate their guilt before Him, while not giving the impression that doing so would make God owe them saving grace.