Pillar Journal

William Perkins: Steps of Salvation

Perkins asserted both the absolute predestination of men to salvation or damnation, and the utter deadness and inability of sinners to do anything of spiritual value until God regenerates them.

William Perkins (1558–1602) was a towering influence in the English Reformed movement and similar movements in the European Continent and New England. Converted after a wild life of alcohol abuse, Perkins became a member of the spiritual brotherhood of Puritans at Cambridge. He had the unusual ability both to minister to criminals on death row and to write profound theological treatises. He was especially concerned with how God’s predestination of chosen sinners to eternal life worked itself out in everyday life.

Perkins asserted both the absolute predestination of men to salvation or damnation, and the utter deadness and inability of sinners to do anything of spiritual value until God regenerates them. He rebuked as “semi-Pelagian papists” those who “ascribe God’s predestination partly to mercy and partly to man’s foreseen preparations.”1Quoted in Pettit, The Heart Prepared, 62. No preparations by the unconverted can merit or cause conversion,2Yong Jae Timothy Song, Theology and Piety in the Reformed Federal Thought of William Perkins and John Preston (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1998), 132–35. he said. Given that Perkins taught a kind of legal preparation prior to evangelical faith, he clearly put Roman Catholic preparation in a different class than his own.

Perkins did not say that dead sinners were unable to do anything at all or to be prepared for conversion in any sense. He said the natural and corrupt will could still move people to intellectual study, civic virtue, morality, and outward religious actions such as listening to the Scriptures and discussing them. After all, humanity still possessed a conscience by which they could apply God’s law to themselves and experience guilt.3Tipson, “The Development of a Puritan Understanding of Conversion,” 209, 214.

While denying the Roman Catholic concept of preparation, Perkins proposed preparation of another kind. He wrote:

Q. But how mayest thou be made partaker of Christ and his benefits?
A. A man of a contrite and humble spirit, by faith alone apprehending and applying Christ with all his merits unto himself, is justified before God and sanctified….

Q. How doth God bring men truly to believe in Christ?
A. First, he prepareth their hearts, that they might be capable of faith, and then he worketh faith in them.

Q. How doth God prepare men’s hearts?
A. By bruising them, as if one would break a hard stone to powder; and this is done by humbling them (Ezek. 11:19; Hos. 6:1–2).

Q. How doth God humble a man?
A. By working in him a sight of his sins, and a sorrow for them.”4The Work of William Perkins, ed. Ian Breward (Appleford: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1970), 147, 156.

Perkins said that just as the body of an infant develops in stages within a mother’s womb, so the Holy Spirit works faith in the soul “not suddenly, but by certain steps and degrees.”5William Perkins, Exposition of the Creede, in A Golden Chaine (London: Iohn Legat, 1600), 192. He begins by enlightening the mind, first “with a further knowledge of the law than nature can afford,” and, second, “to understand and consider seriously” Christ and His grace. Then the Holy Ghost inflames the will to “hunger after Christ” and to pray for reconciliation with God. This weak faith then grows and develops into the sealing of the heart with “a lively and plentiful assurance.”6Perkins, Exposition of the Creede, 192–93.

Perkins said that in saving a man, God ordinarily follows a series of ten steps in two stages, the first stage being preparatory. In the first stage, (1) God gives a sinner the outward means of grace, especially preaching, plus some inward or outward affliction to subdue his stubbornness. (2) God makes him attentive to the law to see what is good and what is evil. (3) God causes him to “see and know his own peculiar and proper sins, whereby he offends God.” (4) God “smites the heart with a legal fear…makes the sinner fear punishment and hell, and despair of salvation, in regard of anything in himself.” These four steps are the works of preparation prior to grace; the actions which follow are effects of grace.7William Perkins, The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience (Cambridge: Iohn Legat, 1609), 15. One may experience the first four stages and yet not be born again.

In the stage of preparation the law is a “schoolmaster unto Christ” (Gal. 3:24). Perkins elsewhere explained, “The law, especially the moral law, urgeth and compelleth men to go to Christ. For it shows us our sins, and that without remedy: it shows us the damnation that is due unto us: and by this means, it makes us despair of salvation in respect of ourselves: and thus it enforceth us to seek for help out of ourselves in Christ. The law is then our schoolmaster not by the plain teaching, but by stripes and correction.”8Perkins, A Commentary on Galatians, 200. Perkins summarizes this stage in the explicit language of preparation: “In this verse, Paul sets down the manner and way of our salvation, which is on this manner; first, the law prepares us by humbling us: then comes the gospel, and it stirs up faith.”9Perkins, A Commentary on Galatians, 200.

Preparation for conversion by the law involves three agents: God, the minister, and the sinners. Ministers must so preach the law that men will be made willing to hear the gospel.10Tipson, “The Development of a Puritan Understanding of Conversion,” 237–42. God works through the law with restraining (but not renewing) grace. The sinner must listen, read, think, and pray.11Song, Theology and Piety in the Reformed Federal Thought of William Perkins and John Preston, 138–39.

The second stage of saving grace includes these next six steps: (5) God stirs the person’s mind seriously to consider the gospel.12Elsewhere Perkins said that a serious consideration of the gospel belongs to the first actions of the Holy Spirit, and hunger for Christ is the most basic act of saving faith, thus putting #5 with #1–4 above. See William Perkins, An Exposition of the Symbole or Creede of the Apostles, in The Workes of that Famovs and VVorthy Minister of Christ in the Vniuersitie of Cambridge, Mr. William Perkins (London: Iohn Legatt, 1612), 1:125. (6) God kindles in the heart sparks of faith consisting of a persistent desire to trust Christ. This is the beginning of justifying faith. (7) God sustains this faith to combat doubt, despair, and distrust. (8) God quiets the conscience so that the soul rests on the promise of salvation. (9) God stimulates the heart to “evangelical sorrow for sin, because it is sin, and because God is offended.” This is evangelical repentance. (10) God gives grace to the saved sinner to labor to obey God’s commandments.13Perkins, Cases of Conscience, 15. See Pettit, The Heart Prepared, 63–64; Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance, 88–92. Perkins elsewhere presented the same ideas in a somewhat different scheme, showing the flexibility of his analysis.14Perkins, A Golden Chain, 117–21 [ch. 36].

Perkins placed sorrow for sin in the steps preceding faith, but he placed evangelical repentance after faith. In this ordering he echoed the teachings of Calvin. Like Calvin, Perkins noted that the reprobate person may experience sorrow for sin, but evangelical repentance comes only to the elect in their spiritual rebirth.

At the same time, Perkins taught that in human experience godly sorrow often precedes an awareness of faith. He said, “Humiliation is indeed a fruit of faith; yet I put it in place before faith, because in practice it is first. Faith lieth hid in the heart, and the first effect whereby it appears, is the abasing and humbling of ourselves.”15Perkins, Cases of Conscience, 16. This humiliation consists of grief and shame over sin, confessing sin to God and our worthiness of damnation, and praying to God for mercy. Although the sinner may not yet perceive his own faith in Christ, the promises of Scripture to the broken-hearted (Isa. 57:15; Ps. 51:17; Prov. 28:13; 1 John 1:9) reveal that he has already “entered into the state of salvation.”16Perkins, Cases of Conscience, 16. So the order of sorrow/saving faith/repentance in objective reality may actually manifest itself as sorrow/repentance/saving faith in subjective experience.

Excerpt from
Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ
Joel Beeke & Paul Smalley