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The Wholesome Doctrine of the Gospel: Faith and Love in the Writings of William Perkins

William Perkins (1558–1602) is properly remembered as the father of Puritanism. He powerfully promoted the Reformed experiential faith with pulpit and pen, shaping preaching and piety for generations. Perhaps his most influential work, The Art of Prophesying, was a preaching manual that synthesized the Puritan emphasis on application, what they often called “uses” of Scripture. This application was relentlessly specific and relevant, and by all contemporary accounts, convicting. Here is what Perkins had to say about applying the text of Scripture when preaching…

“There are two kinds of application: mental and practical. Mental application is concerned with the mind and involves either doctrine or reproof. When it involves doctrine, biblical teaching is used to inform the mind to enable it to come to a right judg­ment about what is to be believed. When it involves reproof, biblical teaching is used to recover the mind from error.

When false teaching is refuted during the exposi­tion of Scripture, the following cautions should be observed. (1) Make sure that you thoroughly under­stand the issue involved or the state of the question to be discussed. (2) Reprove only the errors which currently trouble the church. Leave others alone if they lie dead in past history, or if they are not rel­evant to the people, unless you know that spiritual danger may still arise from them…. (3) If the error

is not foundational to the gospel, your refutation should be done not only in a truly Christian fashion (as should always be the case) but also in a friendly manner. Gentle and brotherly disagreement is called for here.

Practical application has to do with lifestyle and behavior, and it involves instruction and correction. Instruction is the application of doctrine to enable us to live well in the context of family, state, and church. It involves both encouragement and exhor­tation (Rom. 15:4). Correction is the application of doctrine in a way that transforms lives marked by ungodliness and unrighteousness. It involves admo­nition. Such admonition must be done generally at first, without reference to specific circumstances. This principle is well illustrated in 2 Samuel 12, where Nathan first made David aware of his sin by means of a general parable. Paul appears to have adopted a similar approach in Acts 19:26–37. If this kind of reproof does not bear fruit, it should be expressed in more detailed ways (1 Tim. 5:20). But our expression of hatred for sin must always be accompanied by an obvious love for the person who has sinned. Whenever possible, the minister should include himself in his reproofs. In this way his preaching, teaching, and counseling will be expressed in a mild and gentle spirit (Dan. 4:16–19; 1 Cor. 4:6; Gal. 2:15).

We can employ these different kinds of applica­tion (doctrine, reproof, instruction, and correction) with respect to every sentence of Scripture. It may be valuable to use the example of Matthew 10:28, where Jesus urges the disciples not to fear those who can kill only the body, but rather to fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.…

Concerning doctrine: (1) It is necessary for us to confess publicly the doctrine we know whenever the need arises. (2) We must make this confession even if it means risking the loss of our possessions and lives. (3) We should despise the value of our lives in comparison to the value we place on Christ and His truth. (4) Eternal punishments (experienced in both soul and body) are prepared for those who are not afraid to deny Christ and His truth. (5) God is intent and ready to rule and guide us, to enable us to make our confession aright. (6) The providence of God is not only general but particular, and it includes the tiniest details, even the hairs of our head. The providence of God is not only general but particular, and it includes the tiniest details, even the hairs of our head. Click To Tweet

Concerning reproof: (1) It is a mistake to think it is adequate merely to embrace in the heart the faith and right views of religion. It is equally mistaken to imagine that it is within human power to grant or affirm anything before men…especially when life seems to be in imminent danger of ending. (2) Epicureans are in error when they deny divine providence, thinking it beneath the majesty of God to take care of human affairs. (3) Stoics are in error when they imagine that all things are governed by fate or by some irresistible and violent necessity. (4) Those who displace the wise ordination of divine providence with chance and fortune are mistaken. (5) Pelagians are in error in attributing more than is warranted to man’s strength, as though it were in men’s power to embrace the faith at their own pleasure or to continue steadfastly in it and fear­lessly confess it to the end. (6) Others err when they depend more on outward things and unstable riches than on the power and goodness of God.

Concerning instruction: (1) We must, to the full extent of our power, strive to have the true fear of God in view because we have now learned that the one God is to be feared above all men. (2) We must learn to despise human things to such an extent that we always desire to leave this world and be with Christ in heaven. (3) Consideration of God’s special providence should teach us to think of the presence of God as all-seeing and all-knowing, to seek His help, and to believe that He helps in all things and that He is able and willing to deliver us from all danger when it is fitting.

Concerning correction: (1) These words of Christ correct the negligence of those who do not pray for sincere love, so that inflamed with it they would not refuse to lay down their life for His name. (2) There is here, too, a criticism of the negligence of those who do not acknowledge or see the providence of God showing itself in all things. (3) There is reproof here for those who do not give thanks to God for promising in His providence to govern and defend us in everything that concerns us. (4) Those who abuse God’s good creation are rebuked, since it is clear He takes care of all things.

We can handle any passage of Scripture in this way. But we should not try to expound every doc­trine on every occasion, but only those which we can apply appropriately to the present experiences and condition of the church. We must choose care­fully, lest those who hear God’s Word expounded are overwhelmed by the sheer number of applications.”

In his commentary on Jude, Perkins describes the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” as the whole of the gospel, which he breaks down into twenty-one doctrines to be believed and eleven doctrines to be practiced. Things like the sufficiency of Scripture illustrated above, the attributes of God, the person and work of Christ, self-denial, worship, and pursuit of vocation. So what we did in The Wholesome Doctrine of the Gospel: Faith and Love in the Writings of William Perkins, following an introduction to Perkins’s life and theology, was pull together thirty-two short selections like this from all over his writings and sermons, allowing him to expound those doctrines in his own words. The result is a digestible foray into the theology of this great man.

How might you benefit from this book? The hope is that readers will profit in a number of ways. Historically, you will become acquainted with a faithful pastor-theologian who has been largely, though unfairly, overlooked. Theologically, you will be thinking deeply with a third-generation Reformer who was internationally recognized as a faithful proponent of the Reformed faith in his day. But most importantly, devotionally, you will get into the writings of a man whose life purpose was to expound the Word of God for the people of God unto the glory of God. And Perkins was a master.

Andrew S. Ballitch

Andrew S. Ballitch (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Pastor of Preaching and Ministries at Westwood Alliance Church in Mansfield, Ohio. He is the author of The Gloss and the Text: William Perkins on Interpreting Scripture with Scripture.

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