By Steps and Degrees: A Short Introduction to Preparatory Grace

Certain doctrines of Reformed theology, and their associated sub-doctrines, are brought into the limelight more than others. For example, there is a rich endowment of Protestant works on the doctrine of justification.[1] One cannot say the same, however, of the sub-doctrine of “preparatory grace,” which has not historically garnered much public attention within Protestant soteriology. The following is a short introduction to this term, sketched with the ambition of prompting Protestant theologians to reflect upon it further in order to contribute to the ongoing articulation of a helpful and important theological distinction.

Preparatory Grace

In Reformed soteriology, preparatory grace is an important theological distinction with respect both to the free sovereignty and goodness of God. The Triune God is equally sovereign over the entire cosmos “in all its spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible,” as he is over salvation, from election to consummation.[2] Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) described the Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God as Calvinism’s “dominating principle,” and the doctrine of preparatory grace must be understood as a necessary distinction within this principle.[3]

The Reformed tradition clearly derives the doctrine of preparatory grace from Scripture, and it has a history of interpretation and reflection demonstrably rooted in antiquity. Kuyper described it as a matter of “surpassing importance,”[4] and recent scholarship has noted its special importance to the theology of the Puritans.[5]


We may propose the following working definition of preparatory grace: preparatory grace is a gracious but non-saving work of God which prepares sinners, in a means consistent with human nature, for saving faith.

Preparatory grace is one part of God’s common operations. By it, elect and non-elect alike experience a non-salvific work of the Spirit that prepares sinners for faith in Christ.[6] As J. G. Vos (1862-1949) explained, “The saving operations of the Holy Spirit are confined to the elect; but in addition to the Spirit’s saving operations, there are common operations of the Spirit, which may be and often are experienced by others than the elect.”[7] Preparatory grace, then, is a form of common grace. Acknowledging this fact recognises the reality of God’s gracious activity prior to his efficacious work in the heart of sinners. In Reformed soteriology, these common operations of the Spirit, experienced by all men, elect and reprobate, to varying degrees, have been commonly distinguished from the saving operations of the Spirit with respective headings of “external calling” and “internal calling.”

Sorrow for Sin

The elect and reprobate alike, by the gracious work of the Spirit, can experience sorrow for sin. Paul says in Galatians 3:24 that “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” Such a verse demonstrates that God uses the law to prepare sinners for saving faith – sinners do not suck sorrow for sin out of their own thumbs. Before conversion, sorrow for sin is a gracious yet non-saving work of God by the operation of the Spirit.

God’s ordinary manner of saving sinners is to order circumstances so that gradually a sinner is brought to distress before being brought to deliverance, e.g. the Spirit ordinarily does not work suddenly, but rather, as William Perkins (1558-1602) observed, “by certain steps and degrees.”[8] Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) similarly also observed that God typically works in stages of preparation. Edwards described how, before we are given faith and are regenerated, men are in a state of condemnation, and in that state of condemnation “it is God’s manner of dealing with men, to ‘lead them into the wilderness before he speaks comfortably to them,’ and so to order it, that they shall be brought into distress, and made to see their own helplessness and absolute dependence on his power and grace, before he appears to work any great deliverance for them.”[9]

Consistent with Human Nature

The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that “God in His ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at His pleasure.”[10] The free sovereignty of God means that God can accomplish his purpose through whatever various means he so chooses in accordance with His most wise and holy providence. It is this tenet of the doctrine of providence that the Reformed have in mind when they maintain that sinners are prepared by grace for grace. God created all things and is sovereign over all. As Paul says in Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” For a believer, something as ordinary and mundane as the time and manner of their birth, and the time and place of their upbringing, are aspects of God’s providence worthy of contemplation, which move us to glorify God. Kuyper said, “God’s care for His elect does not begin at an arbitrary moment, but is interwoven with their whole existence, including their conception, and even before their conception, with the mysteries of that redeeming love which declares: ‘I have loved thee with an everlasting love.’”[11] God ordinarily uses ordinary means, and God ordinarily prepares sinners for faith in a manner consistent with their human nature, which includes aspects of life like birth and upbringing. Yet Wilhelmus á Brakel (1635-1711) makes two important distinctions regarding these circumstances:

These preparatory circumstances mentioned do not proceed from man, but are God’s common operations. They also are not a step toward regeneration, nor are they sufficient to transform man. Under such circumstances man is not capable by the exercise of His free will to transform himself, to believe, and to repent. The efficacious and almighty power of God must join itself to such circumstances in order for him to be converted. These preparatory circumstances are but means which God uses to deal with man in a manner consistent with his humanity.[12]

The two distinctions made are that: (1) preparatory grace proceeds from God and not man; however, (2) this grace does not necessarily lead to salvation and conversion. With respect only to the salvation of the elect and not the reprobate, preparatory grace is always accompanied with saving grace. It is evident, then, that the gracious common operations of God prepare sinners for faith, and that through this preparation it is God who is “overcoming obstacles in [the] minds and consciences [of sinners] to the claims of the gospel.”[13] There are countless external and internal obstacles that must be overcome in order for a sinner to be prepared for saving faith. Jesus poignantly illustrates this in Luke 8:4-15: the parable of the sower and its explanation. Jesus contrasts four types of soil upon which the seed was sown: the wayside, rocky, thorny, and good ground. Jesus explained that the good ground, which received the seed that is the Word of God and brought forth fruit, overcame the devil, the world’s temptations, and the pleasures of this life. The difference between external calling and internal calling, the difference between preparatory grace without efficacious grace and preparatory grace with efficacious grace, is evident in the contrast of the rocky and good ground. Jesus says the seed sown on the rocky soil was temporarily received with joy, and this is because of preparatory grace. It was received in an external fashion, albeit, until the time of temptation when what had grown withered and perished because it was rootless. This is an example of non-saving grace and temporal faith; it was not the efficacious grace of saving faith which perseveres.


We can see from this brief sketch, then, that preparatory grace contributes significantly and distinctively to that aforementioned “dominating principle” — the exhaustive sovereignty of God — that prearranges, connects, and is at back all things. I would encourage Reformed pastors and theologians to familiarize themselves with and direct the attention of their respective audiences to this important sub-doctrine. This will help all of us to reflect on our first-hand experience of God’s gracious activity, particularly God’s activity prior to His efficacious work in our hearts, whereby He brought us by various “steps and degrees” to repose and rest in Christ alone for salvation.

Christopher C. Schrock (M.A., Belhaven University) is an ordained minister. His academic writing has been published in Christian Scholar’s Review, and his poetry has been published in The Curator. He lives in Billings, Montana, with his wife, Julie Lynn, and six children.

  1. See biographical entries in Joel R. Beeke, Justification by Faith: Selected Bibliography (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1995); R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995); John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955); John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002); Alan D. Strange, The Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ in the Westminster Standards (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019).

  2. From editor’s “Introduction” to Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 16.

  3. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), 10.

  4. Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, trans. Henri De Vries (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1900), 283.

  5. For a survey and evaluation of the Puritan’s understanding of preparatory grace, see Chapter 28 “Puritan Preparatory Grace” in Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformed Heritage Books, 2012), 443-461. For additional in-depth analysis and historical development, see 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), especially pages 37-143. See also definition and analysis of theology underlying Puritan instruction on preparatory grace in “Preparationism Taught by the Puritans” by Cor Harinck in Puritan Reformed Journal (Vol. 2, Issue 2 [July 2010]: 159-171).

  6. For summary and explanation how common and efficacious grace differ, see A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (repr., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 449-452. In summary, Hodge argues efficacious and common grace differ with respect to “its subjects,” “its nature,” and “its effects” (449-450).

  7. Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, ed. G. I. Williamson (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2002), 149.

  8. Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Prepared by Grace, For Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ, 42.

  9. Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (Philadelphia: James Crissy, 1821) 78. In the following pages, Edwards highlights this ordinary order with several illustrations from Scripture, e.g., Psalm 72:6-7 “He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.”

  10. WCF V.3. in Reformed Confessions Harmonized, 40.

  11. Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, 284.

  12. Wilhelmus á Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 2, The Church and Salvation, 210.

  13. Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Prepared by Grace, For Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ, 17-18.


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