Home > 1689 London Baptist Confession, C. H. Spurgeon, Decalogue, evangelism > Conflating Preparationism With the Second Use of the Law

Conflating Preparationism With the Second Use of the Law

July 18, 2016

I recently came across an online discussion that revealed some people’s misunderstandings about the law and another term, preparationism.  For consideration was the following quote from Spurgeon.  (The full quote is available in this sermon, from January of 1886.  The conversation included only the bolded parts of the full quote — but the excerpt still makes Spurgeon’s point well enough):

I do not believe that any man can preach the gospel who does not preach the law. The book of Leviticus and all the other typical books are valuable as gospel-teaching to us, because there is always in them most clearly the law of God. The law is the needle, and you cannot draw the silken thread of the gospel through a man’s heart, unless you first send the needle of the law through the center thereof, to make way for it. If men do not understand the law, they will not feel that they are sinners; and if they are not consciously sinners, they will never value the sin offering. If the Ten Commandments are never read in their hearing, they will not know wherein they are guilty, and how shall they make confession? If they are not assured that the law is holy, and just, and good, and that God has never demanded of any man more than He has a right to demand, how shall they feel the filthiness of sin, or see the need of flying to Christ for cleansing? There is no healing a man till the law has wounded him, no making him alive till the law has slain him.

Clearly, Spurgeon is here referencing the “second use” of the law (the pedagogical use): to point out to sinners what God’s holy standard is, to show that they are sinners and that they cannot keep God’s law on their own and they need a savior.  Yet the people in this conversation instead concluded (incorrectly) that this is an example of preparationism — which they defined as, that a certain “work” of preparation needs to be done in a person’s heart, or else the Holy Spirit is not able to bring conviction of sin to that person.

Such reasoning shows two problems: first, an incorrect definition of what preparationism is; and second, attributing that error (preparationism) to Charles Spurgeon.  As explained in this lesson in the 1689 Baptist Confession exposition series, as well as in this previous post about one of Spurgeon’s sermons, preparationism is the idea that a sinner must show a certain amount of repentance, a certain level of sorrow for his sin such as some of the “great saints” experienced, before he can come to Christ — an error that amounts to “justification by repentance” rather than “justification by faith.”

Quoting Spurgeon again on the error of preparationism:

In our day the evil has taken another, and that a most extraordinary shape. Men have aimed at being self-righteous after quite an amazing fashion; they think they must feel worse, and have a deeper conviction of sin before they may trust in Christ. Many hundreds do I meet with who say they dare not come to Christ, and trust Him with their souls, because they do not feel their need of Him enough; they have not sufficient contrition for their sins; they have not repented as fully as they have rebelled! Brothers and Sisters, it is the same evil, from the same old germ of self-righteousness, but it has taken another and I think a more crafty shape. Satan has wormed himself into many hearts under the garb of an angel of light, and he has whispered to the sinner, “Repentance is a necessary virtue. Stop until you have repented, and when you have sufficiently mortified yourself on account of sin, then you will be fit to come to Christ, and qualified to trust and rely on Him

The post about Spurgeon, linked above, includes additional quotes from Spurgeon in which he “named names” of specific Puritan authors who taught preparationism.  So it is established that Spurgeon did not teach preparationism; the original Spurgeon quote above is instead in reference to the second use of the moral law, that which is clearly taught in the New Testament – the law as our teacher, to teach us the knowledge of sin.

For some reason, many evangelicals today, especially of the New Calvinist group, dislike any mention of “law,” as though the gospel is all and only about grace; to suggest anything about “the law” gets a response of “legalism!” and rhetoric about how we’re saved by grace and “not under law.”  Much of this attitude, directed at those in the Reformed Covenant Theology camp, comes from failing to distinguish and to understand the difference between the second and third use of the law; an article from a couple years back well notes this problem as seen in actual posts from the Gospel Coalition blog (Tullian Tchividjian’s misunderstanding).

As seen with the above example conversation, some within New Calvinism are taking their anti-law idea even further, going to the extreme of rejecting not merely the third use of the law, but even the second use of the law – and equating it with the unrelated error of preparationism. To reject both the second use and the third use is to take a position outside of the Christian Protestant tradition.  For all evangelical groups – Reformed/Calvinist, Reformed/Lutheran, and even classic, revised and progressive dispensational Calvinists – have affirmed at least the second use of the law.  To reject the second use, and misunderstand what Spurgeon was saying as legalistic error, is to join company with the early Protestant-era antinomians and their leader John Agricola, a position described in this article about the 16th century antinomian controversy:

This Lutheran confessional consensus concerning mandata dei as guides for sanctified living nearly crumbled in the mid sixteenth century amid the Antinomian Controversy. Antinomianism, or a rejection of any use of the Law for Christians, found a prominent spokesperson in John Agricola. While serving as an instructor in Eisleben during the 1520s, Agricola taught that the mercy of God revealed in the Gospel alone suffices to cause a person to repent of his sins. In addition to rejecting the second use of the Law, he also discarded the third. Agricola, who had trouble accepting that Melancthon, rather than he, received an appointment to the new theology post at Wittenberg in 1526, criticized the distinction that Melanththon made on these points between Law and Gospel. “Agricola took an extremely antinomian position, virtually rejecting out of hand the whole Old Testament, as well as injunctions of the Law in the lives of the regenerate.” Confusion compounded the controversy when Melancthon’s followers noted that their teacher had, at times, ascribed a Law function to the “Gospel,” using that term in its broader sense to include both the Law and the narrow definition of the Gospel. “But Melancthon’s followers did not make this distinction. They insisted that the Gospel in its narrow, proper sense worked contrition and rebuked sin.” Luther and Agricola argued back and forth in print during the late 1530s. After Luther’s death, Agricola took major part in drafting the Augsburg Interim (1548), which forged a compromise between Rome and the Lutheran theologians by equivocating on the distinction between Law and Gospel.


  1. March 15, 2017 at 8:02 pm

    You misreprented preparationism. Spurgeon misrepresented it too. For the puritans, preparationism taught three things: (1) conversion is a process, (2) God draws people before they are regenerated, and (3) God uses the Law to drive us to despair so that we will forsake all self righteousness and rely on Christ.

    Also Spurgeon failed to distinguish between the warrant of faith and the way of faith. The warrant or faith is not our loathing of sin; it is God’s promise. However the way of faith is the humbling of the Law in order to receive the gospel. It is very difficult for a sinner to bbe saved. That’s the point of preparationism. Not trying to pick on Spurgeon. I hold to the 1689 confession and I love Spurgeon. But he got this one wrong.

    • March 16, 2017 at 8:41 am

      As noted in another recent online conversation, the Puritans did not as a group teach preparationism; it was the view of some particular teachers, as Spurgeon noted. Some advocated it, while others strongly rejected it. Further, the Westminster and 1689 confessions do not advocate/teach preparationism — some Puritans taught it, but they did not consider it as something of a confessional standard.

      The Spurgeon quote cited in this post, was his agreement with your point #3: the second use of the Law, to show us our sinfulness and need of Christ. And #2 is also a given, that God does provide all the grace needed for salvation, including the grace that first brings us to the point of salvation. However, I don’t know that “conversion is a process” is an accurate way to describe it; conversion (regeneration) happens in a moment, though for some people it comes after a period of time during which they hear the gospel, are exposed to it, before the actual moment of regeneration.

      But the error that some Puritans taught, and that Spurgeon was responding to, is what is commonly referred to as “preparationism,” the idea that a sinner must have a certain type of experience, that the sinner must experience a certain amount of repentance, before they can come to Christ. Instead, we recognize that every person’s conversion experience is different, and that God uses different means in each person’s case; with some sinners He takes a harsher approach, giving them more awareness and terror of the law (reference the classic example of John Bunyan), whereas others are led to Christ in more gentle ways, without the same level of awareness of their own sinfulness.

  2. cultivatingsheahan
    June 1, 2017 at 11:25 am

    Thanks for a good discussion. I wonder if you are “mis-numbering” the uses of the law. Is it not the first use of the law that it shows us our sinfulness and need of Christ? Then, as stated by Calvin, the second use of the law being the civil use of it? This is peripheral to your good points about preparationalism, but it still leaves me wondering after reading your post.

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