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How to Use and Apply Doctrines

Category Articles
Date September 20, 2019

The following is an excerpt of Chapter 7 of The Art of Prophesying by William Perkins, the early Cambridge Puritan. The language has been modernized to some extent. 

* * *

Application is that aspect of preaching in which the doctrine, rightly drawn from the text, is diversely fitted as place, time and person require (Ezekiel 34:15, 16; Jude 22, 23). The foundation of application is to know whether the text propounded is a sentence of the law, or of the gospel. For when the word is preached, there is one operation of the law, and another of the gospel. For the law is thus far effectual, as to speak clearly to us of the disease of sin, and as a by-product to exasperate and stir it up; but it affords no remedy. Now the gospel, as it teaches what is to be done, so it has also the efficacy of the Holy Spirit joined with it, by whom, being regenerated, we have strength both to believe the gospel and to perform those things which it commands. The law therefore is the first in the order of teaching and the gospel second.

It is a sentence of the law, which speaks of perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins against the law, and of the curse that is due to them (Gal. 3:10; Matt. 3:7, 10). A sentence of the gospel is that which speaks of Christ and his benefits, and of faith being fruitful in good works: as John 3:16. Hence it is, that many sentences which seem to belong to the law, are by reason of Christ to be understood not legally but with the qualification of the gospel (Luke 11:28; Deut. 30:11, 14; Ps. 119:1, 2; John 14:21, 23; Gen 6:9, 17:1).

The ways of application are chiefly seven, according to the diverse condition of men, which is sevenfold.


Unbelievers who are both ignorant and unteachable. These men in the first place are to be prepared to receive the doctrine of the word. This preparation is to be made partly by disputing or reasoning with them, that you may thoroughly discern their manners and disposition, and partly by reproving in them some notorious sin, that being pricked in heart and terrified, they may become teachable (Acts 17:17, 22-24). When now there is hope that they are become teachable and prepared, the doctrine of God’s word is to be declared to them generally in some common terms, or ordinary points (Acts 17:30, 31). If they shall approve this doctrine, then it is to be explained to them distinctly, and in every particular; but if they shall remain unteachable, without hope of winning them they are to be left (Matt. 7:6; Prov. 9:8; Acts 19:9).


Some are teachable, but yet ignorant. To these men the catechism must be presented (Acts 18:25, 26; Luke 1:4). The catechism is the doctrine of the foundation of Christian religion, briefly propounded for the help of the understanding and memory, in questions and answers made by the living voice. The matter therefore of the catechism, is the foundation of religion. The foundation is a summary of the principles of Christianity (Heb 5:12). A principle is that which directly and immediately serves both for the salvation of men and for the glory of God; which, if it is denied and overturned, no salvation can be hoped for.

And here we must hold a difference between milk and strong meat, which are the same indeed, but differ in the manner and fashion of presentation. Milk is a certain brief, plain and general unfolding of the principles of the faith: as when a man teaches that we must believe in one God, and three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and that we must rely only upon the grace of God in Christ; and that we ought to believe in the remission of sins; and when we are taught that we ought to repent, to abstain from evil, and to do that which is good. Strong meat is a special, copious, luminous and clear handling of the doctrine of faith: as when the condition of man before the fall, his fall, original and actual sin, man’s guiltiness, free will, the mysteries of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the personal union, the office of Christ, the imputation of righteousness, faith, grace, and the use of the law, are presented out of the word of God distinctly and exactly. Moreover, milk must be set before babes, that is, those that are weak in knowledge: strong meat must be given to such as are of ripe years, that is, to them that are better instructed (1 Cor. 3:1-2; Heb. 5:13).


Some have knowledge, but are not as yet humbled. In such, the foundation of repentance ought to be stirred up, that is to say, a certain sorrow which is according to God (1 Cor. 7:8-10). ‘Sorrow according to God’ is a grief for sin because it is sin. In order to stir up this feeling, in the first place a man must use the ministry of the law which may beget contrition of heart, or the horrors of conscience; which, though it is not a thing wholesome and profitable of its own nature, yet it is a remedy necessary for subduing a sinner’s stubbornness, and for preparing his mind to become teachable. Now, that this legal sorrow may be wrought, it is fit to use some well-chosen portion of the law, which may reprove some one notable sin in men that are not as yet humbled. For sorrow for and repentance of even one sin, is for substance sorrow for and repentance of all (Acts 8:22, 2:23). Yea further, if any man, being afflicted with the cross and with outward calamity, has only a worldly sorrow, that is, if he mourns not for sin as it is sin, but for the punishment of sin, he is not at once to be comforted, but first this sorrow is to be turned into that other sorrow, which is according to God.

Then let the gospel be preached; for in the preaching of the gospel the Holy Spirit works effectually unto salvation. For while he renews men, that they may begin to will and to work those things that are pleasing to God, he truly and properly brings forth in them that sorrow which is according to God, and repentance unto salvation. To the hard-hearted, the law must be urged, and the curse of the law must be proclaimed with threatening, together with the difficulty of obtaining deliverance, until they are pricked in their heart (Matt. 3:7; 19:16, 17; 23:13, 33). But when the beginning of compunction appears, they are at once to be comforted with the gospel.


Some are humbled. Here we must very diligently consider whether their humiliation is complete and sound, or merely begun and only light or slight. For if they receive comfort sooner than is fitting, they may afterwards become more hard, like iron, which being cast into the furnace becomes exceedingly hard, after it is again cold. Let your procedure be after this manner with those that are humbled in part. Let the law be propounded, yet so discreetly tempered with the gospel, that being terrified for their sins, and with the meditation of God’s judgement, they may together also at the same instant receive solace by the gospel (Acts 8:20-23; Gen. 3:9, 13, 15). In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan, being sent by God, by a parable which he propounds, recalls David to the conscience of his act, and pronounces pardon to him being penitent. The doctrine of faith and repentance, and the comforts of the gospel, ought to be proclaimed and offered to those who are fully humbled (Luke 4:18; Acts 2:37, 38; Matt 9:13).


Some believe. To these must be propounded: (1) The gospel concerning justification, sanctification and perseverance. (2) The law without the curse, by which they may be taught to bring forth fruits of new obedience befitting repentance (Rom. 8:1; 1 Tim. 1:9). Let the Epistle of Paul to the Romans be the example. (3) Although the curse of the law is not to be urged against the person that is righteous and holy in the sight of God, yet it is to be urged against the remaining sins of the person. And as a father often sets his iron rods that are appointed for the servants before the eyes of his sons, that they may be afraid: so the meditation of the curse is to be stirred up very often in the faithful themselves, lest they should abuse the mercy of God to licentious living, and that they may be more fully humbled. For sanctification is but in part: therefore, in order that the remainders of sin may be abolished, we must always begin with the meditation of the law and with the feeling of sin, and conclude in the gospel.


Some are fallen. Those that are fallen are they which in part fall from the state of grace. Falling is either in faith or in manners. Falling in faith is either in the knowledge of the doctrine of the gospel, or in the apprehending of Christ. Falling in knowledge is a declining into error, whether lighter or fundamental. Now to those who fall thus, that doctrine which disproves their error, is to be demonstrated and inculcated together with the doctrine of repentance, and that with a brotherly affection. Take for an example the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (2 Tim. 2:25). The fall which is in apprehending Christ, is despairing. The trial of the cause is made fitly by private confession (Jas. 5:17). But lest that confession should be made a kind of rack or torture, it must be limited by these provisos: (1) It ought to be free, and not compelled: because salvation does not depend upon it. (2) It must not be of all sins, but only of those which wring the conscience: those which, unless they reveal them, greater danger may hang over their heads. (3) Let it chiefly be made to pastors, yet so as that we must know that it may be safely made to other faithful men in the church. The trial of their state is, that we inquire diligently whether they are under the law, or under grace. That this may manifestly appear, we must by asking questions first draw out of them: whether they are displeased with themselves because they have displeased God, that is to say, whether they hate sin as it is sin; which is the foundation of repentance unto salvation. Secondly, we must demand of them: whether they have or feel in their heart a desire to be reconciled with God, which is the ground of a living faith.

When trial is made, the remedy must be applied to them out of the gospel. This remedy is double. First, some evangelical meditations are to be often inculcated and pressed upon them: as (1) That their sin is pardonable. (2) That the promises are general in respect of believers,. and that they are indefinite in respect of particular men, and exclude no man. (3) That the will to believe is faith (Ps. 145:19; Rev. 21:6). (4) That sin does not abolish grace, but rather (God turning all things to the good of those who are his) makes it shine more brightly. (5) That all the works of God are done by contrary means. Secondly, they must be entreated to stir up in them, in the very bitterness of the temptation, their faith, and that they would certainly assure themselves that their sins are forgiven them; and that it would please them to struggle manfully in prayer, either alone or with others, against carnal sense and human hope. And that they may perform these things, they must be very earnestly beaten upon, and those that are unwilling must in some way be con­strained (Ps. 130:1-2; 77:1-2). Now that these medicines may be of force, that ministerial power of binding and loosing is to be used according to the form prescribed in the word (2 Sam. 12:13; 2 Cor. 5:20).

Falling in manners is when any believing man falls to the committing of some actual sin in life, as Noah’s drunkenness, David’s adultery, Peter’s denial, etc. To those that are fallen thus, because grace remaining in respect of its inherent power and habit, may be lost for a time in respect of sense and working, the law must be propounded being mixed with the gospel: because a new act of sin requires a new act or work of faith and repentance.


 There is a mingled people. A mixed people are the assemblies of our churches. To these any doctrine may be propounded, whether of the law or of the gospel: if the limitation and circumscription of the doctrine is made to those persons for whom it is designed. And this was the manner of the prophets in their sermons, to proclaim judgements and destruction to the wicked; and to promise deliverance in the Messiah to those who repent. If any man shall despair in the public congregation, when the rest are hardened, what ought to be done? Let those that are hardened hear the law circumscribed within the limits of the persons, and of the vices; and let the afflicted conscience hear the voice of the gospel applied in special manner to it.


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