Question: "What is preparationism?"
Answer: Preparationism was a view of salvation that became popular among the Puritans. Preparationism held that a person who is not yet regenerated (saved) can participate in behaviors like prayer, Bible study, and church attendance in order to “prepare” himself for the Holy Spirit to actually save him. This “preparatory grace” might manifest itself in a sinner’s self-examination, a somber reflection of his sinfulness, or a sincere seeking after mercy.
In some cases, preparationism was understood as a different take on prevenient grace, a way for God to “soften the heart” of the sinner in advance of justifying him. In other cases, preparationism was taught as a way of making a particular sinner seem more acceptable to God—and therefore more likely for Him to save. If a sinner was going to church and living a moral life, then he was a “better candidate” for salvation. In more extreme versions, preparationism was seen as a requirement: those who want to be saved first need to get their lives into proper Christian shape.
Being Calvinists, the Puritans believed in total depravity, which holds that man is corrupt to the point that he cannot seek God without the influence of the Holy Spirit. Calvinism likewise holds to the idea that one is saved entirely by the grace of God, and man adds nothing to salvation. Preparationism, in many ways, seems to run counter to both of those concepts. Many Puritans who taught preparationism reconciled their apparently contradictory beliefs with the idea that “preparatory grace” was given by God and could not be manufactured on one’s own. However, the “preparatory grace” could be rejected in some cases, which violates another of Calvinism’s tenets, that of irresistible grace. In any analysis, preparationism was a step away from Calvinism and toward Arminianism.
Historically, preparationism became popular among Puritan theologians, especially in Colonial America. Some Christians objected to the suggestion that adherence to rules and regulations could make a person “more likely” to be saved. Some reacted to preparationism with a complete rejection of the idea that any sign could prove or disprove salvation. The resulting debates and disagreements inspired changes to the political, social, and religious landscape of the Colonies.
The form of preparationism practiced by the Puritans is rarely seen in the modern era. The ideas it touched on, however, are still a source of discussion. Today, any debate over preparationism is usually overshadowed by discussions of works versus faith, grace versus law, Calvinism versus Arminianism, and so forth. Debates over the extent to which an unsaved person can or should attempt to live obediently to God, and the level of encouragement he should be given in doing so, are echoes of the controversy of preparationism.