|No man can come unto Me, except the Father draw him.| -- John vi.44.
From the preceding it is evident that preparatory grace is different in different persons; and that distinction must be made between the many regenerated in the first days of life, and the few born again at a more advanced age.
Of course, we refer only to the elect. In the non-elect saving grace does not operate; hence preparatory grace is altogether out of the question. The former are born, with few exceptions, in the Church. They do not enter the covenant of grace later on in life, but they belong to it from the first moment of their existence. They spring from the seed of the Church, and in turn contain in themselves the seed of the future Church. And for this reason, the first germ of the new life is imparted to the seed of the Church (which is, alas! always mixed with much chaff) oftenest either before or soon after birth.
The Reformed Church was so firmly settled in this doctrine that she dared establish it as the prevailing rule, believing that the seed of the Church (not the chaff of course} received the germ of life even before Baptism; wherefore it is actually sanctified in Christ already; and receives in Baptism the seal not upon something that is yet to come, but upon that which is already present. Hence the liturgical question to the parents: |Do you acknowledge that, altho your children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to condemnation itself, yet that they are sanctified in Christ, and therefore as members of His Church ought to be baptized?|
In subsequent periods, less stedfast in the faith, men have shunned this doctrine, not knowing what to make of the words |are sanctified.| This they interpreted to mean that as children of members of the covenant they were counted as belonging to the covenant, and as such were entitled to baptism. But the earnest and sound common sense of our people has always felt that this mere |counting in| did not do justice to the full and rich meaning of the liturgy.
And if you should inquire into the meaning of these words of the office of Baptism, |are sanctified,| not of the weaker epigones, but of the energetic generation of heroes who have victoriously fought the Lord's battles against Arminius and his followers, then you would discover that those godly and learned theologians, such as Gysbrecht Voetius for instance, never for a moment hesitated to break with these half-way explanations, but spoke out plainly, saying: |They are entitled to Baptism not because they are counted as members of the covenant but because as a rule they actually already possess that first grace; and for this reason, and this reason alone, it reads: That our children are sanctified in Christ, and therefore as members of His body ought to be baptized.'|
By this confession the Reformed Church proved to be in accord with God's Word and not less with the actual facts. With few exceptions, persons who afterward prove to belong to the regenerate do not begin life with riotous outbreaks of sin. It is rather the rule that children of Christian parents manifest from early childhood a desire and taste for holy things, warm zeal for the name of God, and inward emotions that can not be attributed to an evil nature.
Moreover, this glorious confession gave the right direction to the education of children in our Reformed families, largely retained to the present time. Our people did not see in their children offshoots of the wild vine, to be grafted perhaps later on, with whom little could be done until converted after the manner of Methodism; but they lived in the quiet expectation and holy confidence that the child to be trained was already grafted, and therefore worthy to be nursed with tenderest care. We admit that, latterly, since the Reformed character of our churches has been impaired by the National Church as a church for the masses, this gold has been sadly dimmed; but its original, vital thought was beautiful and animating. It made God's work of regeneration precede man's work; to Baptism it gave its rich development; and it made the work of education, not dependent on chance, cooperate with God.
Hence we recognize among the rising generation in the Church four classes:
1. All elect persons regenerated before Baptism, in whom the implanted life remains hidden until they are converted at a later age.
2. Elect persons, not only regenerated in infancy, but in whom the implanted life was early manifested and ripened imperceptibly into conversion.
3. Elect persons born again, and converted in later life.
4. The non-elect, or the chaff.
Examining each of these four, with special reference to preparatory grace, we arrive at the following conclusions:
Regarding the elect of the first class, from the very nature of the case preparatory grace has scarcely room here, in its limited sense. In its direct form, it is unthinkable with reference to an unborn or new-born child. In such it is only indirect -- i.e., frequently, it pleases God to give such child parents whose persons and nature's practise a form of sin less outspoken in its war upon grace than other forms of sin. Not as, tho such parents had anything from which the child could be grafted, for that which is born of the flesh is flesh; nothing clean from the unclean; it is always the wild vine waiting for the grafting of the Lord. Nay, the preparatory grace in this case appears from the fact that the child receives from its parents a form of life adapted to its heavenly calling.
The same applies to the elect of the second class. Altho we concede that the divine call works upon such during their tender years, yet, while it prepares for conversion, it does not prepare for regeneration, which it follows. The call is ineffectual unless the faculty of hearing be first implanted. Only he that has an ear can hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches and to his own soul. Hence, in this case, preparatory grace is scarcely perceptible. Surely there are many agencies that imperceptibly prepare for his conversion; but this is different from a preparing for regeneration, and we speak now only of the latter.
Properly speaking, preparatory grace in its limited sense is applied only to the third class of elect persons. It comprehends their whole life with all its turns and changes, relations and connections, heights and depths, events and adversities. Not as tho all these could produce the slightest germ of life or possibility of quickening. No; the germ of life can never spring from preparatory grace, any more than the preparation of ten cradles, of a dozen of clothes baskets, and of closets full of expensive infant-garments can ever juggle a single infant into any of those cradles. The vital spark is produced only by an act of the mighty God, independent of all preparation. But, from its birth, God guards that wild-vine and controls the growth of its wild shoots, so that in the hour of His pleasure, when He shall graft upon it the true vine, it may be all that it ought to be.
And this ends the discussion, for regarding the fourth class, by and by they will be separated from the wheat and blown away by the fan which is in His hand; hence preparatory grace is out of the question.
And from this it is evident that the proper work of the Holy Spirit regarding preparatory grace is scarcely perceptible.
Every feature of this work, so far presented, points directly not to the operation of the Holy Spirit, nor to that of the Son, but almost exclusively to that of the Father. For the circumstances of the child's birth -- i.e., the hereditary character of his family and more especially of his parents, and the future course of his life until the moment of his conversion -- belong to the realm of the divine Providence. The appointed place of our habitation, our generation and family, the formation of our immediate environment, the influences previously determined to affect us -- all belong to the leadings of God's providence, ascribed by Scripture to the work of the Father. The Lord Jesus said: |No man can come unto Me, except the Father draw him.| And altho this drawing of the Father has a higher aim and must be spiritually understood, yet it indicates generally that the determining of those things, which afterward regulates their direction and course, is attributed particularly to the First Person.
We notice a work of the Holy Spirit in this matter only as far as He animates all personal life, since He is the Spirit of Life; and as He cooperates with the Father in that special providence which refers to the elect. For, altho in our mind we can analyze the work of grace, yet we may never forget that the eternal reality does not fully correspond to this part of our analysis.
Hence, in the elect, the work of providence and that of grace often flow together, being one and the same. Our Church has tried to express this, in her confession of a general providence which includes