William Perkins (1558-1602) was a prominent Reformed theologian in the final decades of Elizabeth’s reign. He can be rightly described as a ‘Puritan’, though he didn’t describe himself that way. A Puritan was essentially anyone who thought that the Elizabeth’s official religious settlement (1559) ought to be one step in a process of ongoing reform. In contrast, Elizabeth herself stubbornly resisted any change to her church for her entire 44-year reign.
By the 1590s it was clear that Elizabeth’s church would not formally change anything. However, some reformers, such as William Perkins, believed that the solid Reformed theology of the existing religious settlement outweighed its shortcomings. More importantly, the most important reforms could take place within the existing church structure and theological confession. The most important reform is always the human heart.
Two Opposite Pastoral Challenges
Perkins was concerned by two opposite problems which he saw in his society. On the one hand, there were those with presumptive confidence of their salvation, but who often had not even understood the gospel much less genuinely embraced it by faith. This was inevitable in a nation where everyone goes to church and is nominally ‘Christian’. On the other hand, there were many who felt enormous anxiety about their status before God and struggled with doubt. This second challenge was the inevitable result of preaching the Reformed, Protestant understanding of the gospel. Protestants had (rightly) long preached a gospel of assured salvation in Jesus by faith alone. But what if I don’t feel assured? If salvation is about settled hope and certainty, are the spiritually anxious saved? How can God be at work in those so deeply unsettled about their status before him?
Perkins’ teaching on assurance addressed both of these problems. For Perkins, the relationship between faith and assurance is best understood by analogy to a seed and the plant that it grows into. Regeneration begins in the heart. Through the preaching of the gospel the Spirit of God plants the ‘seed’ of faith in the heart. This begins as a simple desire to know God and his ways. Eventually this seed grows into the mind, where it produces faith: dependent knowledge of the gospel. From there it grows further, extending into the affections, filling the believer with immediate awareness and assurance that they are God’s chosen and beloved child. Thus, there are three stages of growth: the seed of spiritual desire, faith in the mind, and finally, assurance.
Perkins thought that distinguished these stages of Christian growth was very important for pastoral ministry. It is what enabled him to sensitively deal with the presumptuous and the doubters alike. Desire, faith, and assurance are the same thing at different stages of maturity. Faith, when fully grown, is assurance.
A Theology that Shakes the Complacent & Comforts the Anxious
One of the important contributions that Perkins made on these themes was how helped those on the extreme ends of the spectrum of spiritual experience. The spiritually presumptuous need to be warned and shaken out of their spiritual complacency. If anyone lacks even a basic desire for spiritual things, then they don’t even have faith in its most undeveloped form. Their so-called ‘assurance’ needs to be exposed as deadly presumption. The way to help those in this state is through the preaching of the law, which beats down self-confidence before God’s holy standards, in order that they might become aware of their condemnation and severe need before God, and might then seek a savior.
To those who were anxiously uneven sure of whether they even had faith, Perkins offered enormous encouragement. In short, if you sincerely desire to know God then this is only possible because God’s Spirit is already at work in you. All seekers should take heart at the spiritual desires that God is producing in them already. They should focus on growing these desires toward Christian maturity. How? By making use of the ordinary ‘means of grace’ that God has given his church: sermons, sacraments, prayer, and spiritual exercises.
But there is a warning here. Genuinely regenerate desire will always grow (that’s what living things do!). Therefore, whilst taking encouragement from their present spiritual desires, seekers must eagerly aim to grow in Christ lest their experience prove false. Perkins, like Calvin and other before him, believed that it was possible to experience ‘temporary faith’; a limited experience of God’s grace that does not grow and that ultimately falls away. (Consider Jesus’ parable of the soils, Mark 4:1-20). By this combination of warning and encouragement, spiritual seekers would find encouragement to grow in the grace in Christ Jesus towards the full assurance of faith.
Further reading: Matthew N. Payne, ‘William Perkins’s Doctrines of Faith and Assurance through the Lens of Early-Modern Faculty Psychology’. Westminster Theological Journal (2020): forthcoming.
These ideas are discussed in many of Perkins’ works. In chronological order:
– A Treatise Tending unto a Declaration whether a man be in the state of damnation or in a state of grace (1588), I:363-6.
– A Golden Chain (1590), I:78-80.
– Foundation of Christian Religion: gathered into six principles (1591), I:5-6.
– Two treatises: I. nature and practise of repentance. II. combat of the flesh & spirit (1593), I:457.
– An Exposition of the Symbole or Creede of the Apostles (1595), I:125.
– A Grain of Mustard Seed (1597), I:638.
– The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience, distinguished into three books (1604), III:13.
All references are to: William Perkins, The Workes of that famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the Universitie of Cambridge, Mr. William Perkins (2nd ed.; 3 vols.; Cambridge, 1626, 1631)).