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William Perkins on Assurance of Faith

Category Articles
Date December 17, 2004

Dr. Joel Beeke of Grand Rapids gave the opening paper to 200 men at the Westminster Conference in London 7th December. His subject was the early Cambridge Puritan, William Perkins on the theme of how a man may know whether or not he is a Christian. The first volume of Perkins’ Works will appear in the next year or two and that will be anticipated by those who esteem this great Englishman to belong to the trinity of decretal and experiential predestinarians with Calvin and Beza.

William Perkins was born in 1558 and was converted from a worldly life when he was a student. He became minister at St Andrew’s Cambridge from 1584 until his death in 1602. He had great ability to reach the common man with his plain theology in sermons of many colours. At his death of kidney stones at the age of forty-four he had become the best known and read of the Elizabethan preachers, in fact his works outsold Calvin, Beza and Bullinger combined. He was the reason why many good preachers came from Cambridge and not Oxford. There were 185 printings of his works in the 17th century in Dutch alone, twice as many as any other preachers. There were fifty editions of Perkins’ works printed in various languages on the continent; some were translated into Welsh. Jonathan Edwards read him a century later. There were two volumes present in every American Puritan preacher’s home, Ainsworth on the Psalms and Perkins.

William Perkins addressed the questions raised by his hearers, “Am I one of the elect – one of the true children of God united with Jesus Christ? How can I be sure that I possess true faith? If reprobates can also have spiritual exercises which appear to be motivated by grace, how may I know whether I am a child of God or not? How can I be assured that Christ has died particularly for me?” He devoted several works in the late 1580s and 1590s to this subject.

For Perkins the three grounds of assurance were the promises of God, the testimony of the Holy Spirit and the evidence of fruit and graces on one’s lifetime. These three emphases became part of the Westminster Confession’s teaching on assurance. Perkins would also appeal to logic in pastoring the doubting Christian, using this syllogism:
Only those who repent and believe are the children of God.
I am a repenting person
Therefore I am a child of God.
Assurance gained from such an argument can be very real resting partly on the gospel and partly on experience.

Perkins’ counsels concerning the means of strengthening the assurance of salvation were the following:
Desire to keep the commandments of God and mortify sin.
Delight in God and his grace – delighting in God is a key mark of grace.
Flee from the lusts of the world.
Love one another as believers.
It is the hypocrite who rejects all such counsels.

In the following discussion Iain Murray sought to provoke the conference to discussion by asking which of the three grounds of assurance was the most important – the promises of God, the testimony of the Spirit or the evidence of graces in one’s life. There was a longish silence but no response to the question.

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