Why Pastors Should Engage William Perkins
Few men of such fame in their lifetime have been so widely forgotten with the passing of time as William Perkins (1558–1602). Given his popularity as a preacher, he was appointed in 1584 as lecturer at Great St. Andrew’s Church in Cambridge, and was elected around the same time to a fellowship at Christ’s College. Perkins published twenty-one books during these years of ministry, and an additional twenty-seven were published from his manuscripts after his death. These writings were quickly translated into German, Dutch, Spanish, Welsh, Irish, French, Italian, Hungarian, and Czech. As such, their international popularity led one biographer to declare that “his books spoke more languages than the author ever knew.” In New England, close to one hundred Cambridge men drank deeply from the well of Perkins’s writings, and it has been said that “a typical Plymouth Colony library comprised a large and small Bible, Henry Ainsworth’s translation of the Psalms, and the works of William Perkins.”
Perkins’ Commitment to Sola Scriptura and Solus Christus
Perkins was without question one of the most popular writers of his day. But does this necessarily mean that we should read him today? Absolutely. Here are a few reasons why: his unwavering commitment to the Bible as the Word of God serves as a rebuke to the skepticism that plagues many modern-day approaches to Scripture; his exegetical method challenges the common notion that we must surrender any hope of arriving at the objective meaning of Scripture in favor of a language-event whereby we hear God speaking afresh; and his conviction that the Holy Spirit’s principal work is to illumine what He has inspired in Scripture serves as a corrective for those who are convinced that God’s revelation is something that happens inside of them.
Moreover, his delight in Christ as an all-sufficient Savior provides a much-needed tonic for the ever-increasing number of professing Christians who question the belief that salvation is found in Christ alone; his handling of the doctrines of justification and sanctification brings much needed clarity to some of the recent discussions concerning the relationship between faith and works, grace and effort, the indicative and the imperative; his realism as to the difficulties of the Christian life, especially the problem of indwelling sin, affords a refreshing cordial for those entrapped in a two-stage model of sanctification; his theological acumen provides valuable biblical, confessional, and historical perspective for those engaged in contemporary debates over perennial doctrinal issues; his repudiation of the spirit-matter dualistic worldview presents a challenge to those who flirt with a disembodied spirituality; his view of theology as “the science of living blessedly forever” presents a healthy challenge to the Enlightenment concept of religious neutrality in the field of theology; and his defense of “the wholesome doctrine of faith and love” speaks to those who struggle to grasp the inseparable union between creed and conduct, doctrine and practice, confession and devotion.
All these are reasons to read Perkins. But what about pastors specifically? What can they hope to gain from his writings? In my opinion, three main benefits await them.
Pastoral Benefit of Reading Perkins
First, they will glean fresh insight into the nature of pastoral ministry. Perkins lamented the lack of capable preachers in his day: “When we see a people without knowledge and without good guides or teachers, or when we see one stand up in the congregation unable to teach, here is a matter for mourning.” This led him to make the training of young men for ministry a chief priority. He insisted that a pastor’s aim in preaching should not be the demonstration of his skill, but the demonstration of God’s power. Click To Tweet It was essential, therefore, that a preacher possess not only “the knowledge of divine things flowing in his brain but engraved on his heart and printed in his soul by the spiritual finger of God.” Equally important for Perkins was the need for pastors to put away the “ornate” style of preaching so prevalent among them in favor of the “plain” style of preaching. He emphasized that the preacher’s principal goal is to “open” Scripture, so that its meaning becomes evident to all. He must then derive truths and doctrines from his text, and apply these to his congregation by means of uses—correction, admonition, and exhortation. Perkins’s “plain” style of preaching became paradigmatic among a generation of preachers. It shaped the English pulpit well into the eighteenth century, and pastors (especially those in the throes of constant homiletic innovation) would do well to consider its contemporary significance.
Second, pastors will encounter a rich resource for the cultivation of biblical piety. Perkins was convinced that many of his countrymen suffered the ill-effects of the Roman Catholic dogma of implicit faith—that is to say, they still assumed that as long as they accepted certain points of religion they were good Christians. “If we look into the general state of our people,” he wrote, “we shall see that religion is professed, but not obeyed; nay, obedience is counted as preciseness, and so reproached.” In Perkins’s assessment, the church was full of “common” Protestants who demonstrated little vitality. They possessed a notional belief in God, yet remained worldly in their ultimate concerns and pursuits. For Perkins, this was unthinkable. True faith can never remain indifferent to the things of God; on the contrary, it always engages the whole person in living for Christ. Troubled by the prevalence of those who accepted empty profession as conversion, and dead formality as godliness, he urged people to move beyond mere intellectual assent to hear-felt dedication to Christ. Perkins labored to prove the inseparable relationship between faith and love, doctrine and practice, creed and conduct. This experiential piety set the tone for the literature that would pour forth from the presses in the seventeenth century, and it will provide ballast to pastors seeking to navigate the many deficient views of spirituality so prevalent in the church today.
Third, pastors will see first-hand the importance of promoting and nurturing the knowledge of Christ crucified. Perkins was deeply concerned over those who placed their hopes in a mere theoretical knowledge of Christ—what he described as “a knowledge swimming in the brain.” For him, true knowledge alters the affections because it is “lively, powerful, and operative.” It is, firstly, to feel our sins so profoundly that we dislike “our past lives.” It is, secondly, to comprehend the Father’s love in giving “His own dear Son to death” to such a degree that our hearts are “inflamed to love God.” For Perkins, we cultivate such knowledge by considering Christ as He is “revealed in the history of the gospel” and “offered in the ministry of the Word and sacraments,” by recognizing that Christ stood in our “very room and place” while our “very personal and particular sins were imputed and applied to Him” upon the cross, and by esteeming Christ at “so high a price” that all else pales in comparison. This motif is prevalent throughout Perkins’s works, not to the same degree and intensity, but certainly as the foundation for all his ministerial labors. And this is perhaps the greatest benefit that pastors will derive from reading Perkins—they will make the acquaintance of a fellow pastor whose chief desire was to “preach one Christ by Christ to the praise of Christ.”