Volume 40 - Issue 3

“Not to Behold Faith, But the Object of Faith”: The Effect of William Perkins’s Doctrine of the Atonement on his Preaching of Assurance

by Andrew Ballitch


The Elizabethan Puritan, William Perkins, is accused of exclusively pointing people inward to signs of repentance or to their sanctification for assurance of salvation. It is assumed that he was bound to this strategy because he affirmed particularism in the atonement. Both Perkins’s accusers and defenders have tended to amass evidence from Perkins’s writings explicitly on assurance and, as such, there is a need to look at his actual practice. While Perkins certainly did point individuals toward themselves in his preaching, this article will show that he also pointed doubters to Christ and gospel promises for assurance.

William Perkins (1558–1602) began to displace John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and Heinrich Bullinger at the end of the sixteenth century as the most read champion of Reformed orthodoxy in England. Perkins was also the first English theologian after the Reformation to gain an international reputation.1 Among English Reformed theologians of his generation, Perkins alone discussed the atonement at length, and he approached the topic with his characteristic clarity and force.2 Perkins was committed to particularism in the atonement, yet in his preaching he directed people to look outside themselves and to Christ for assurance. However, he is accused of pointing people to their sanctification for assurance and only after, if at all, to Christ. Some argue that this practice flowed from his affirmation of “limited atonement.”3 While Perkins did employ the practical syllogism and encouraged people to look inward for assurance, this was not exclusively his tactic.4 To support this conclusion, first, I will explore Perkins’s view of the atonement. He maintained a classic reformed understanding but did not often employ the “sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect” distinction, though this was his view. He explicitly affirmed the particularity of redemption, primarily on the basis of Christ’s intercession and divine intention. Second, his professed preaching method reveals his aim to offer the promises and comforts of the gospel to wounded consciences. Third, and most significant for Perkins’s vindication in this case, he often pointed people to Christ for assurance in his sermons, apart from stressing the particularity of Christ’s death for them. Perkins remained steadfast to particular redemption and preached assurance by Christ and gospel promises.

Many have accused Perkins of directing the attention of those seeking assurance of their salvation in an inward direction only, in search of signs of sanctification.5 They level this charge directly or implicitly through indicting the stream of the Reformed tradition of which Perkins was a part.6 This accusation tends to come from those who have dogmatic reasons to polarize Calvin and the later Reformed tradition. Basil Hall asserted that Calvin’s followers altered Calvin’s own balanced synthesis of complimentary doctrines found in the Institutes. He saw William Perkins, Theodore Beza, and Jerome Zanchius as primarily to blame for this distortion of John Calvin.7 R. T. Kendall brought the general thesis of pitting Calvin against Calvinists to a head of debate when he traced the doctrine of faith from Calvin to Perkins, then to the Westminster Assembly and concluded that the Westminster divines followed Reformed orthodoxy rather than Calvin himself. He drove a wedge between Calvin and the later Reformed tradition on two counts: one was the extent of the atonement and the other was the ground of assurance.8 This “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis has been undergoing revision for decades. Paul Helm responded to Kendall by showing continuity between Calvin, Perkins, and Westminster. He saw increased precision and a tightening of theology in the later Reformed tradition, but continuity of content.9 Richard Muller has devoted much of his impressive corpus to changing this discussion entirely, arguing that “the Reformed tradition is a diverse and variegated movement not suitably described as founded solely on the thought of John Calvin or as either a derivation or a deviation from Calvin.”10 Muller and those influenced by him see development in the Reformed tradition rather than strict continuity or discontinuity.11

Few are as clear in their criticism of Reformed orthodoxy in general and Perkins in particular as Kendall. He asserts that like Theodore Beza, Perkins “pointed men to their sanctification” if they doubted their election. Beza and Perkins “could not point people directly to Christ because Christ did not die for all; Christ died only for the elect.”12 He intensifies his claim by alleging that for Perkins, “the practical syllogism became the ground of assurance. Perkins did not point people to Christ but to this reflection of oneself.” This was “an enterprise in subjectivism and introspection. Never did Perkins direct people to Christ before they satisfied the demands of the practical syllogism first.”13 Assertions like this derive from assumptions about what Perkins must have done as a result of his view of the atonement. Proponents of such positions have overstated their case and failed to account for what Perkins actually did in practice.

While Perkins affirmed a definite redemption, particular in the intention of God and application, this did not stop him from pointing doubters to Christ and to the promises of the gospel for assurance.14 He used the practical syllogism to encourage doubters and would point them inward in search of signs of sanctification or tokens of the Spirit, but again, this does not account for the totality of his practice. There are those who have taken issue with such comprehensive claims, but both sides of this debate have a common tendency to amass evidence from Perkins’s various treatises that deal overtly with the problem of assurance.15 This focus has been helpful because Perkins wrote so much and in such a sophisticated way on the topic, but little has been done by way of looking at Perkins’s actual practice in preaching. I intend to help fill this gap with what follows.

1. Perkins’s Understanding of the Atonement

Perkins articulated his thoughts on the atonement over the course of the final decade of the sixteenth century.16 He gives the doctrine sustained attention in three important works. The first Latin edition of A Golden Chaine, deemed his magnum opus, was published in 1590. An Exposition of the Symbole, Perkins’s explanation of the Apostles Creed and the closest he came to a systematic theology, came out in 1595. A Christian and Plaine Treatise of Predestination, originally in Latin, went through its first printing in 1598. While Perkins addressed the topic in other writings, these represent a systematic articulation over a significant breadth of time. An analysis of these works will provide a meaningful sketch of Perkins’s view of the atonement.

1.1. A Golden Chaine

Perkins wrote A Golden Chaine to explain salvation as a work of God from beginning to end; one link in this chain is the work of Christ. When this treatise is mistaken for a systematic theology it largely distorts the purpose and misrepresents the genre.17 The work is a practical or pastoral analysis of the order of salvation.18 Perkins was not trying to rob people of the possibility of assurance; in fact, he was laying the foundation for the opposite effect.19 He defines theology as the science of living blessedly forever, after which he briefly discusses God and then spends the rest of the work treating the work of God in salvation.20 For Perkins, the atonement must be considered in light of God’s sovereign choice in electing individuals unto salvation and the understanding that the goal of both salvation and reprobation is the glory of God.21

Perkins describes the atonement in terms of Christ’s satisfaction and intercession, under the heading of Christ’s office of priest. He says “Christ is a ful propitiation to his Father for the Elect.”22 He satisfied God’s anger for the offense of man through his perfect obedience to the will of God according to his humanity, and according to his divinity there was added a special merit and efficacy to that obedience. The satisfaction includes both his passion and his fulfilling the law. His passion is that “by which, he having undergone the punishment of sinne, satisfied Gods iustice, and appeased his anger for the sinnes of the faithfull.”23 After describing all of the things that Christ underwent, Perkins highlights five circumstances of his passion. These include (1) the agony experienced in the garden, made visible through the sweating of blood, caused by conflicting desires of obedience and avoidance of the wrath of God, (2) the sacrifice, “which is an action of Christ offering himselfe to God the Father as a ransome for the sinnes of the elect,” (3) the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice, (4) humanity’s sin imputed to Christ, the Father accounting him as a transgressor and translating the burden of humanity’s sin to his shoulders, and (5) his humiliation, consisting in his making himself of no repute with respect to his divinity and his becoming “by the law accursed for us,” part of which was death.24

Perkins carries on the theme of particularity in his discussion of the second aspect of Christ’s atonement, intercession. He claims Christ’s priestly role as intercessor is his being “an advocate & intreater of God the father for the faithful.”25 This intercession is made according to both natures. In his humanity he appears before the Father in heaven, “desiring the salvation of the Elect.”26 According to his deity he applies the merit of his death and makes requests “by his holy spirit, in the hearts of the Elect, with sighes unspeakable.”27 Christ’s intercession is such that all who are justified by his merits are kept by it. This intercessory work “preserveth the elect in covering their continuall flips, infirmities, and imperfect actions.”28 Christ not only saves, but he keeps people just and makes their works acceptable unto God.

Perkins does not use particular language alone, but is comfortable using biblical categories that seem to be universal. In discussing Christ’s satisfaction, he says “God powred upon him, being thus innocent, such a sea of his wrath, as was equivalent to the sinnes of the whole world.”29 He goes on to quote 1 Timothy 2:6, immediately following a statement of Christ’s passion as a perfect ransom for the sins of the elect, and concludes “it was more, that Christ the onely begotten Sonne of God, yea, God himselfe, for a small while should beare the curse of the lawe, then if the whole world should have suffered eternal punishment.”30 However, he is quick to combat a universal understanding of the atonement. He perceives that if Christ were reconciler of all people, making satisfaction for the sins of all people, it would follow that the sins of all are blotted out. Because this is not the case, Perkins sees the esteem of Christ’s mercy measured not by how many receive it, but in its efficacy and dignity. In response to passages that speak of the benefits of Christ being for “all” or the “world,” he sees the referents of such categories as “all kinds” or the “elect of many nations.”31 In this work, Perkins embodies the tension he observed in Scripture.

1.2. An Exposition of the Symbole

An Exposition of the Symbole is Perkins’s systematic, extensive comment on the Apostles’ Creed.32 He discusses the doctrine of the atonement within the larger context of the person and work of Christ, which accounts for largest section of the exposition. Perkins argues that Christ is only the savior of his people, the elect. If he were the savior of all people, he would have made satisfaction to God’s justice for everyone’s sins. God’s justice being fully satisfied, he would not be able to righteously condemn anyone. All people would be blessed, because satisfaction and pardon are inseparable. The means of salvation are Christ’s merit and his efficacy. His merit is in his obedience to the law and the satisfaction made by his passion. This freed his people from death and reconciled them to God. His efficacy is that he gives his Spirit to apply his merit to his people.33 This concept of Christ’s effectual sacrifice supports particularity. The fruit of Christ’s sacrifice is concrete. It removes all sin from the believer, both original and actual. It justifies the sinner before God and purges the conscience from dead works. Finally, it procures liberty to enter into heaven. These results are not made possibilities through Christ’s sacrifice, but are effectually accomplished.34

Perkins refutes a conditional decree based on universal election, redemption, and vocation, but is not opposed to biblical categories and language in describing Christ’s atonement. Again, his doctrine of redemption must be understood in light of his view of God’s sovereignty in salvation. It is simply not an option that Christ died for all people, because he does not intercede universally. Christ cannot die for those who are condemned; this would be an assault upon the justice of God. Perkins asserts that “universal Redemption of all and every man, as well the damned as the elect, and that effectually, we renounce, as having neither footing in Scripture, nor in the writings of any ancient and orthodoxe divine, for many hundred yeares after Christ, his words not depraved and mistaken.”35 Just before this conclusion, however, he concedes the idea of universal redemption, universal pertaining to universality among the elect. He is very careful to guard the value of Christ and his sacrifice. He says that the “passion is to bee ascribed to the whole person of Christ God and man: and from the dignity of the person which suffered, ariseth the dignitie and excellencie of the passion.”36 His dignity is so great that Christ’s suffering stands in the place of eternal damnation. When “the sonne of God suffered the curse for a short time, it is more then if all men and angels had suffered the same for ever.”37 While refuting universal redemption, he says, “wee graunt that Christs death is sufficient to save many thousand worlds: we graunt againe it is every way most effectuall in itselfe.”38 He proceeds to deny that it is effectual for every individual human being. This denial is founded on the lack of application. Here Perkins employs the traditional scholastic distinction of infinite sufficiency and limited efficacy in an attempt to remain faithful to biblical language.

1.3. Treatise on Predestination

In A Christian and Plaine Treatise of Predestination, Perkins provides his most careful articulation of the extent of the atonement. This is also his most academic piece on the subject, providing an extended polemic against Arminianism and drawing from the church fathers to support his positions. Perkins places this discussion in the larger context of the person and work of Christ. Christ as mediator pays the price of redemption, which with respect to merit is infinite.39 However, one must distinguish its merit as either potential or actual. The potential efficacy of the payment is, “whereby the price is in itselfe sufficient to redeeme every one without exception from his sins, albeit there were a thousand worlds of men.”40 Regarding the actual efficacy, “the price is payd in the counsell of God, and as touching the event, only for those which are elected and predestinated.”41 Perkins’s reasoning for this is based on Christ’s intercession, for “the Sonne doth not sacrifice for those, for whom he doth not pray.”42 Intercession and sacrifice are conjoined. Further, on the cross there was a real transaction. Christ bore the sins of his people and “stood in their roome.”43 His resurrection attests to the actual absolution of the sins for which he died. Those who die with him are raised with him. For Perkins, this can only be said of the elect. Absolution effectually brings about salvation.

Defending particularity in the intention of God and the infinite sufficiency of Christ’s death, Perkins responds to four objections. His contention is that “wee doe very willingly acknowledge that Christ died for all (the Scripture averring so much): but we utterly deny, that he died for all and every one alike in respect of God.”44 The denial is based on the obvious fact that most of humanity does not share in adoption, sanctification, and other aspects of salvation. The first objection is that Scripture affirms that Christ redeemed the world. Perkins’s response is that the word “world” in apostolic literature does not mean every person, but rather some from every nation. The next objection is that God wills all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Perkins answers by denying the idea of two wills of God and offers several explanations, including that “all men” means people in the age to come, all people who are saved, or some of all estates and conditions. The third objection is that everyone is bound to believe that Christ effectually redeemed them, which must be true because people are only bound to believe what is true. Perkins shows that what is true according to the intention of God and therefore binding is not always true according to the event.45 Everyone is obligated to believe the gospel, but the elect are bound to believe, thereby partaking in election, while the reprobate are without excuse because of their unbelief. The inability of the reprobate to believe is voluntary and cannot be excused, because it is not infused by God, but by birth. The final objection is that the church fathers rejected this understanding of the atonement. Perkins answers that they made the same distinction between universal sufficiency and particular efficacy.46 Once again, in this sophisticated and nuanced explanation, Perkins does not avoid the language he finds in the Bible, but qualifies it according to his understanding of the overarching picture of redemption.

1.4. Summary

Through varying degrees of clarity and across multiple genres of writing, Perkins was consistent in his doctrine of the atonement. He did not use the language of “limited” or even “atonement,” preferring to employ categories of redemption and satisfaction. While trying to remain faithful to the language he found in Scripture, he used the traditional distinction of infinite sufficiency and particular efficacy, even if implicitly at times. The particularism he saw in the atonement was based on the intention of God, the application of the benefits, and the intercession of Christ.47 Perkins thought it absurd that Christ would die for those whom God had not elected, to whom he would not apply the benefits of salvation, or for whom Christ would not intercede. He also resisted any attempt to limit the sufficiency of Christ’s death. Perkins was unwavering in his affirmation of the infinite value of Christ’s satisfaction based on the infinite dignity of his person. However, it would be unfair to dismiss the accusation against Perkins as a matter of semantics. Even if Perkins’s view of Christ’s work does not fit into the anachronistic category of “limited atonement,” he explicitly and regularly denied a universal and conditional conception of the atonement. Therefore, some charge him with being unable to consistently point people outside of themselves, namely, to Christ and the promises of the gospel, for assurance of salvation, as it would be impossible to determine objectively whether one was among the number for whom Christ died. Moreover, based on this presupposition, he is indicted for not pointing people outside of themselves for assurance in practice.48 Whether or not he could consistently hold his formulation of the atonement and point doubters to Christ for assurance is a dogmatic question beyond the scope of this study, which must be referred to theologians and the fields of systematic and applied theology. In practice, he did direct troubled consciences to the promises of the gospel in his preaching.

2. Perkins’s Express Method of Preaching Assurance

In The Arte of Prophesying, Perkins lays out his hermeneutical and homiletical principles.49 He defines preaching as speech “pertaining to the worship of God, & to the salvation of our neighbor.”50 Integral to the task of preachers is skillful application. Part of Perkins’s project is pointing out that there are different kinds of hearers. His direction for reaching three of these categories of hearers provides insight into his express method for preaching to those troubled by lack of assurance.

Perkins sees the preacher as addressing those who have already been humbled, and he sees churches as made up of both believers and unbelievers. First, to those who are in a state of full humility, one should proclaim faith and repentance and offer the comforts of the gospel. Second, churches consist of diverse people, so the preacher must assume that he is speaking to both sincere Christians and nonbelievers. Perkins sees the role of the pastor as proclaimer of both law and gospel. Likewise, the Old Testament prophets denounced the wicked, speaking judgment and destruction upon them, while at the same time promising deliverance to those who repented. When individuals fall into despair, they must be helped to hear the voice of the gospel applied to them.51 In either the case of humility or despair, Perkins directs pastors to point people to the promises of the gospel, even to offer and apply them.

Those who have fallen back occupy another category of hearer. By those who have fallen back, Perkins means those who in part fall from the state of grace in either faith or obedience. To those who fail to apprehend Christ, i.e., those in desperation, the remedy must be applied from the gospel. There are five evangelical meditations to offer and frequently impress: (1) sin is pardonable; (2) the promises of grace are to all who believe; (3) the very will to believe is faith; (4) sin does not abolish grace, but rather illustrates it; (5) all the works of God are done by contrary means. The second aspect of the remedy applied to those who have fallen back is to encourage them to stir up the faith that has lain dormant, namely, to reassure themselves of forgiveness and earnestly pray. Those who are afflicted in conscience should be pointed first to the promises of the gospel and then to action.52

While Perkins is not as forward with his method of preaching assurance as one might hope, he does leave the reader several patterns or principles. First, the preacher should only point those hardened or in need of instruction to the law. Perkins recommends that those in a state of humility or despair be pointed to the gospel. He does not advocate that afflicted consciences look to their humility, despair, works, sanctification, or the fact that they are under conviction for relief or hope. Whether they are believers or unbelievers, those in such a state are to look to Christ, whose work is described in the gospel, in repentance and faith. Second, Perkins assigns the preacher the task of determining if the humility is godly, in the case of those already humbled, and deciding if the individual is in a state of grace, in the case of the fallen. It must be noted that this task is given to the preacher as pastor and counselor, who is to mention nothing about it to the humbled or fallen individual. Additionally, Perkins did not give this advice in light of the extent of the atonement, but with the intention of keeping preachers from offering cheap grace. He understood grace to be free, but conditioned upon repentance and faith. Perkins’s proposed method of preaching to afflicted consciences was not to point them exclusively inward. Not only did he recommend that preachers point people outside of themselves and to the gospel, he modeled such practice in his own preaching.

3. Perkins’s Preaching of Assurance

Perkins’s preaching was the most extensive and endearing part of his ministry. He was known for powerful preaching and remembered for it long after his death.53 He served as lecturer at Great St. Andrew’s Church in Cambridge for almost twenty years, from 1584 until his death in 1602.54 Not all of his sermons survive, but a large number of them do.55 By looking at select sermons, which demonstrate that Perkins pointed people outside of themselves for assurance—sermons from Matthew, Galatians, Hebrews, and Revelation—we will have a representative sample of the breadth of Perkins’s preaching ministry.56

3.1. Matthew

While commenting on Matthew 4:3,57 Perkins argues that people are able to gain assurance from outside themselves, from the word of God. He sees one of the applications of this verse as moving people to labor for assurance of adoption. Part of this is having “our consciences assured out of Gods word.”58 Perkins understands 2 Peter 1:10 as first speaking of the assurance sealed upon the heart by God, which then leads to transformation. When Satan tempts one to doubt, every foundation will fail except “that assurance onely which is rightly founded upon the word of God.”59 Perkins concludes by explicitly affirming the possibility of assurance.60 He says, “this is the undoubted truth of God, that a man in this life may ordinarily be resolved and assured of his salvation.”61 There is no disclaimer about sanctification or the necessity of inward tokens of the Spirit in this application, but simply that people are first to look to God’s word in the battle against the temptation to doubt.

Perkins comforts those who are struggling with unbelief by directing them to the object of their faith in his exposition of Matthew 6:30.62 He does distinguish between measures or degrees of faith. The greatest degree is full assurance, but there is also weak faith, which is often mingled with doubt. Any degree of true faith is saving according to Perkins. He argues “that no man is saved by his faith, because it is perfect without doubting; but because thereby he laieth hold on Gods mercy in Christ.”63 So if weak faith does this imperfectly and without the comfort accompanied by strong faith, doubting or unbelief cannot condemn it, because the deciding factor in salvation is the laying hold of God’s mercy in Christ. The Christian is still to endeavor to come to full assurance of faith, but the foundation of such an endeavor is not one’s weak faith, but God’s mercy.

3.2. Galatians

In his discussion of Galatians 1:15–17,64 Perkins offers assurance by bringing the doubter’s attention to God’s golden chain of salvation. In looking at the efficient causes in Paul’s conversion, Perkins deduces the order and dependence of the causes of salvation. The order is election, vocation, obedience, and everlasting life. Perkins uses Paul’s chain to combat the error “which beginnes our salvation, in the prevision of mans faith, & good works.” Works of sanctification take last place and because salvation is founded upon the vocation of God, it “is more sure, then the whole frame of heaven and earth.”65 Another use of this chain is that by observing it, “we may attaine to the assurance of our election.”66 If God calls someone and he responds, election to everlasting life is assured, “because this order is (as it were) a golden chaine, in which all the linkes are inseperably united.”67 So the only way that assurance is even possible is that it has for its foundation God’s election. Election is made apparent by the chain of salvation, of which there is never even one link present without the whole.68 This is a promise found in the gospel of God’s grace; the calling is according to the sovereign will of God, not human apprehension.

3.3. Hebrews

From Hebrews 11:1,69 Perkins argues that faith gives such an assurance of things that are hoped for, but unseen, that they seem present to the believer. Among things hoped for, yet unseen, are everlasting life and glorification. Perkins defines saving faith as “a special perswasion wrought by the holy Ghost in the heart of the those that are effectually called, concerning their reconciliation and salvation by Christ.” This faith has the power to give being to the promises of salvation in the heart and a sense of real possession of them. The result, not the ground of this reality, is a sensation that “overwhelmeth the feeling of a worldly miserie.”70 Perkins interprets the idea of faith as evidence to mean “faith so convinceth the mind, understanding, and iudgment, as that it cannot but must needs, yea it compelleth it by force of reasons unanswerable, to beleeve the promises of God certenly.”71 Perkins claims that faith itself, not only by arguments grounded upon the word and promises of God, makes eternal life a reality in the believer’s mind.72 He is aware of times when God takes away the feeling of his favor. When one feels nothing but wrath, when reason would call for doubt and provide no hope in despair, the recourse is to “call to minde Gods mercifull promises, and his auncient former love; and cast thy selfe upon that love, though thou canst not feele it.”73 Perkins does not direct those who have every reason to despair to their past works or present sanctification, but to the promises and love of God.

Perkins picks up the idea that faith is best shown when there is no cause for belief in his comments on Hebrews 11:29.74 There are times when both one’s conscience and Satan will charge the soul with being damned; in this state of total despair, one must simply believe. Believing at such a time “is a wonderfull hard thing, and a miracle of miracles.”75 Faith of the smallest degree, even if hidden, “will make him to hope, and waite for mercie and life at the hands of Almightie God.”76 Despite one’s circumstances or feelings, Perkins argues that one must look to the mercy and promises of God and simply trust them. In a state of despair, looking for signs of grace within will bring no comfort or assurance.77

3.4. Revelation

Perkins appeals to Christ’s prophetic office in his discussion of assurance from Revelation 1:5.78 Part of this prophetic office is “to assure men in their consciences, that the promises of the Gospel, with all the benefits therein contained, as Iustification, Sanctification, and life eternall, which in the word be generally expounded, doe belong unto them particularly.”79 This assurance is wrought by the word preached, for by this, coupled with the inward work of the Spirit, the promises are applied specifically. The Spirit testifies with the believer’s spirit that God has adopted him. Perkins concludes by stating strongly that those who deny that men can be assured of their salvation by faith are “wicked and damnable.”80 For Perkins, to deny that assurance is possible through the word and Spirit, apart from works, is to deny Christ’s prophetic office.

4. Conclusion

Perkins held a nuanced view of particularism with regard to the atonement, but did not exclusively point people inward or to their sanctification for assurance in his preaching. His view of the atonement can be summed up in the traditional formula, “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect,” but this does not capture his view entirely. More specifically, he saw Christ’s death as particularly redeeming the elect because of the intention of God, the application of the benefits of redemption, and Christ’s intercession.81 So he affirmed that Christ’s death was effectual for the elect only. Despite the fact that human beings cannot comprehend the mind of God or uncover the mystery of predestination, Perkins held that assurance of salvation was possible. He did point people inward in search of tokens of the Spirit and to examine their lives for sanctification. However, both his professed preaching method and actual preaching practice demonstrate that this was not the only balm for afflicted consciences that Perkins used. Perkins often pointed people outside of themselves, to the promises of the gospel and to Christ, to remedy their doubt.

Perkins’s actual practice of preaching is impossible to reconcile with the claim of Kendall and other proponents of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis that the decree of election, which determined the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice, dominated his applied theology. Perkins would have disagreed with caricatures of his teaching that declare “the task of those who counted themselves to be elect, or those who were striving to discover their election, was to demonstrate their election through obedience.”82 For Perkins, this was neither exclusively nor primarily their task. It may be true that “if changed behaviors are the object of the soul’s gaze, faith raises no higher than those behaviors,” and that “this makes human behaviors the actual objects of faith,” but Perkins did not put behavior alone before doubting souls.83 He consistently directed their gaze toward Christ and the promises of the gospel made available through his death.

[1] Ian Breward, “The Significance of William Perkins,” JRH 4 (1966): 113–16.

[2] W. Robert Godfrey, “Reformed Thought on the Extent of the Atonement to 1618,” WTJ 37 (1975): 147.

[3] R. T. Kendall, “The Puritan Modification of Calvin’s Theology,” in John Calvin, His Influence in the Western World, ed. W. Stanford Reid (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 205. “Limited atonement” is an anachronistic and problematic designation. For a nuanced explanation, see Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 76–77.

[4] The practical syllogism was a line of reasoning, which included a major premise of God’s promise, a minor premise of personal testimony, with the application of the promise of salvation as the conclusion. The major premise normally centered on sanctification or a desire to repent and believe. For example, the reasoning often went that God promises salvation to those who desire to repent and believe, if one has such a desire, then one can have confidence in the application of that promise. For more on the practical syllogism, see Joel R. Beeke, Assurance of Faith: Calvin, English Puritanism, and the Dutch Second Reformation (New York: Lang, 1991), 113–14. Assurance was a crucial question for both Perkins and his hearers and readers. For this reason, his sermons and treatises are often dominated by the topic. See Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (London: Cape, 1967), 434–35.

[5] R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); Robert Letham. “Faith and Assurance in Early Calvinism: A Model of Continuity and Diversity,” in Later Calvinism (Kirksville: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1994): 355–84.

[6] R. N. Frost, Richard Sibbes God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver: Cor Deo, 2012); M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: Handsel, 1985).

[7] Basil Hall, “Calvin Against the Calvinists,” in John Calvin, ed. G. E. Duffield, Courtenay Studies in Reformation Theology 1 (Appleford: Sutton Courtenay, 1966), 20–29.

[8] Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism, 2.

[9] Paul Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982). See also Andrew A. Woolsey, Unity and Continuity in Covenantal Thought: A Study in the Reformed Tradition to the Westminster Assembly, Reformed Historical-Theological Studies (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2012); Robert. Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2009); Willem J. van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism, Reformed Historical-Theological Studies (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2011); Shawn D. Wright, Our Sovereign Refuge: The Pastoral Theology of Theodore Beza (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004).

[10] Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 9. See also Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); idem, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); idem, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725, 2nd ed., 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003); idem, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[11] Carl R. Trueman, “The Reception of Calvin: Historical Considerations,” Church History and Religious Culture 91 (2011): 20–21.

[12] Kendall, “The Puritan Modification of Calvin’s Theology,” 205. Beza did not hold to the same understanding of the extent of the atonement. He preferred to do away with the sufficient and efficient distinction. See Godfrey, “Reformed Thought on the Extent of the Atonement to 1618,” 141–42.

[13] Kendall, “The Puritan Modification of Calvin’s Theology,” 208.

[14] Roger Nicole argues that Calvin shared this view of redemption. See “John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement,” WTJ 47 (1985): 197–225

[15] Beeke, Assurance of Faith, 106–15; Paul R. Schaefer, The Spiritual Brotherhood: Cambridge Puritans and the Nature of Christian Piety, Reformed Historical-Theological Studies (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 56–59 and 92–97; Mark R. Shaw, “Drama in the Meeting House: The Concept of Conversion in the Theology of William Perkins,” WTJ 45 (1983): 50–65. Treatises on conscience by Perkins include Whether a Man be in the Estate of Damnation, or in the Estate of Grace; A Case of Conscience; A Discourse of Conscience; A Graine of a Mustardseed. All are included in volume one of William Perkins, The Workes of That Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge, Mr. William Perkins, 3 vols. (London: John Legatt, 1616–18).

[16] Godfrey, “Reformed Thought on the Extent of the Atonement to 1618,” 147.

[17] See, e.g., Hall, “Calvin Against the Calvinists,” 29–30.

[18] Richard A. Muller, “Perkins’ A Golden Chaine: Predestinarian System or Schematized Ordo Salutis?,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 9 (1978): 68–81. Muller not only explains the nature of Perkins’s work, but compares and contrasts it with Beza’s Tabula. He concludes that the primary difference is Perkins’s christocentrism.

[19] Perkins actually addresses assurance directly in this treatise several times. Toward the end of his discussion of salvation he deals with the problem of doubt. He argues that the spirit stirs up faith and increases it and that the remedy to doubt is beholding, not faith itself, but the object of faith, which is Christ. See Perkins, Workes, 1:87. Then, after his discussion of reprobation, describing the application of predestination, he concludes that the elect are made sure of their election first by the testimony of the Spirit and second by sanctification. See ibid., 1:113.

[20] Perkins, Workes, 1:11.

[21] H. C. Porter, Reformation and Reaction in Tudor Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), 297.

[22] Perkins, Workes, 1:27. When quoting Perkins I use the modern lower case “s” and switch the letters “u” and “v” to reflect modern spelling. Otherwise, spelling and grammar follows the 1616–18 edition.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 1:28.

[25] Ibid., 129.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 1:28.

[30] Ibid., 1:29.

[31] Ibid., 1:108–9.

[32] In his discussion of predestination, Perkins explicitly addresses assurance. Here he recommends one not try to determine election objectively, but subjectively. He proposes looking inward and using the practical syllogism, which he equates with the testimony of the Spirit with the believer’s spirit. The evidences of election are inward tokens, which include godly sorrow, combat between flesh and Spirit, care to prevent sin, desire for reconciliation, and affection for Christ, and outward fruit, which is new obedience. See Perkins, Workes, 1:284–86.

[33] Ibid., 1:187.

[34] Ibid., 1:220.

[35] Ibid., 1:296–97.

[36] Ibid., 1:187.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 1:296. Emphasis in the original.

[39] Porter, Reformation and Reaction, 298.

[40] Perkins, Workes, 2:609.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 2:621, emphasis in citation.

[45] E.g., Jonah’s message to Nineveh was binding yet not true according to the event, which never took place.

[46] Perkins, Workes, 2:621–25.

[47] Jonathan D. Moore, English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 38–43. This is contrary to those who give predestination primacy in interpreting Perkins’s particularism. See Dewey D. Wallace, Puritans and Predestination: Grace in English Protestant Theology, 1525–1695 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 55–61.

[48] Kendall (“The Puritan Modification of Calvin’s Theology,” 205, 208) asserts that Perkins “could not point people directly to Christ because Christ did not die for all” and that “never did Perkins direct people to Christ before they satisfied the demands of the practical syllogism first.”

[49] Perkins’s method is threefold: interpretation, analysis, and application. Interpretation begins with grammar, rhetoric, and logical analysis. The goal is to bring out the one, full and natural sense of the text. The means, or key considerations, are the analogy of faith, the context of the passage, and the comparison with other passages. The analysis or “resolution” is the drawing out of the passage various doctrines. These doctrines are then applied. The key for application is determining whether the passage is law or gospel. Law points out sin and gospel teaches what is to be done or believed. Perkins articulates seven spiritual conditions or ways of applying. This sophisticated breakdown allows application to be specific and pointed. See Ian Breward, introduction to William Perkins, The Work of William Perkins, ed. Ian Breward (Abingdon: Sutton Courtenay, 1970), 102.

[50] Perkins, Workes, 2:646.

[51] Ibid., 2:667–68.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Benjamin Brook, The Lives of the Puritans: Containing a Biographical Account of Those Divines Who Distinguished Themselves in the Cause of Religious Liberty, from the Reformation under Queen Elizabeth, to the Act of Uniformity in 1662 (Pittsburgh: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994), 130; John Brown, Puritan Preaching in England: A Study of Past and Present, Lyman Beecher Lectures 1899 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1900), 72.

[54] Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2006), 471.

[55] See Perkins, Workes, for his surviving sermons. These include expositions of Zeph 2:1–2, Matt 4, Matt 5–7, Gal 1–5, Heb 11, Jude, and Rev 1–3.

[56] The sermons dealt with in what follows were intentionally selected from a range of the collections of Perkins’s expositions and because they explicitly address the issue of assurance. The list is by no means exhaustive. Perkins does often point doubters to observe their hearts and lives for assurance. In his discussion of Gal 4:6, he calls the practical syllogism the testimony of the Holy Spirit and walks his audience through how to apply it, both in terms of belief and sanctification. See Perkins, Workes, 2:278. While expounding Matt 5:6, he points doubters to their displeasure with doubt and sin and desire to believe and be reconciled and says these are counted by God as faith. In this instance, however, he explicitly denies universal grace as a ground of comfort and offers instead the promise of God that those who desire righteousness will find it. See ibid., 3:10–11.

[57] “Then came to him the Tempter, and said, If thou be the Sonne of God, command that these stones may bee made bread” (ibid., 3:379), Perkins’s own translation. All subsequent Scripture references will be his translation.

[58] Ibid., 3:382.

[59] Ibid.

[60] See David Hoyle, Reformation and Religious Identity in Cambridge, 1590–1644 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007), 99. He understands Perkins’s overall position on the subject to be that Christian assurance is real assurance and that it will not fail the elect.

[61] Perkins, Workes, 3:382. This contradicts those that claim Perkins was unable to offer true assurance to the ordinary believer because of his understanding of temporary faith and ineffectual calling. See Kendall, “The Puritan Modification of Calvin’s Theology,” 205.

[62] “Wherefore if God so cloath the grasse of the field. Which is today, and tomorrrow is cast into the oven: shall he not doe much more unto you, O ye of little faith?” (Perkins, Workes, 3:184). Note that the page numbers for Perkins’s sermons on Matt 5–7 are independent of the rest of volume three.

[63] Ibid., 3:185.

[64] “But when it pleased God (which had separated me from my mothers wombe, and called me by his grace.) To reveale his Sonne in me (or to me) that I should preach him among the Gentiles, immediately I communicated not with flesh and blood. Neither came I to Hurusalem, to them which were Apostles before me, but I went into Arabia, and turned againe to Damascus” (ibid. 2:176).

[65] Perkins, Workes, 2:176. For a helpful, but brief discussion of Perkins’s understanding of grace, faith, and works in justification more generally, see Paul R. Schaefer, “Protestant ‘Scholasticism’ at Elizabethan Cambridge: William Perkins and a Reformed Theology of the Heart,” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, ed. Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999), 156–61.

[66] Ibid., 2:177.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 268.

[69] “Now Faith is the ground of things which are hoped for: and the evidence of things not seene” (Perkins, Workes, 3:2).

[70] Perkins, Workes, 3:2.

[71] Ibid.

[72] This is contrary to those who see a sharp distinction between faith and assurance in Perkins’s thought, such as Kendall, “The Puritan Modification of Calvin’s Theology,” 209.

[73] Perkins, Workes, 3:4.

[74] “By faith, they passed through the redde Sea, as by drie land: which, when the Egyptians had assaied to doe, they were drowned” (ibid., 3:157).

[75] Ibid., 3:158.

[76] Ibid.

[77] John Von Rohr, The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought (Atlanta: Scholars, 1986), 175–76.

[78] “And from Iesus Christ, which is a faithful Witnesse, and first begotten of the dead, and Lord over the kings of the earth: unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sinnes in his owne blood” (Perkins, Workes, 3:219).

[79] Ibid., 3:220.

[80] Ibid.

[81] See Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 106. Here he observes that sixteenth and seventeenth century debates over the atonement were within the language of Dort. Sufficiency, efficiency, and universal proclamation of salvation to all who believe were agreed upon. He asserts, “the debates were concerned with the divine intentionality underlying the sufficiency or infinite value of Christ’s death and its relation to the universal of indiscriminate preaching of the gospel.”

[82] Ronald N. Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology” (PhD thesis, University of London, 1996), 173.

[83] Ibid., 159.

Andrew Ballitch

Andrew Ballitch is a PhD student in church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and serves as pastoral intern at Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

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