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William Perkins and the Pursuit of Godliness

Category Articles
Date June 9, 2017

Sixty years ago a friend of mine was a preacher in a Reformed congregation in Grand Rapids. The practice in that congregation was that at the close of the sermon the elders stood in the front of the church and the preacher came and shook hands with each of them. Thus they showed to all who were present their solidarity with the doctrines taught in the pulpit at that preaching.

‘We all believe that these things are true,’ they were affirming. There was one rare occasion when one of the elders refused to shake hands with him. So the two subsequently met and the elder explained to him the parts of the sermon with which he was unhappy. It was this; ‘You taught progressive sanctification,’ and he was absolutely right. My friend believed not only in definitive, punctiliar sanctification – indicating the change in status and resources which every Christian experiences at regeneration – but he believed also in the ongoing and relentless pursuit of holiness which is the mark and endeavour of the true believer.

The Christian is to work out his salvation with fear and trembling, while such an activity makes no contribution whatsoever to the disciple’s title to glory. Such a view of progressive sanctification was the cause of that elder’s complaint. He was rightly totally convinced that salvation is wholly by the grace of God alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, but he was neglectful of the responsibility that the believer has – who can do all things through Christ who strengthens him. Making progress in sanctification is not an option (like one view of the millennium). It is a vital evidence and mark of true discipleship, the fruit of that sovereign regeneration wrought in us by the Holy Spirit so that the Christian is someone who pursues godliness.

We grow in the Lord’s grace and Lord’s knowledge. Our whole status has been changed through union with Christ, yes, but the reality of our claim to be joined to the Son of God must be displayed in a wholly new way of life, with new endeavours, and new determinations, and new works. It is thus that we are ‘the light of the world and the salt of the earth.’ We make progress in our daily appropriating the Lord Christ. We continually go to church and hear the word, and worship God every Sunday without fail. That is one aspect of our personal commitment to progressive sanctification. We refuse to put our lights under a bushel and simply grow dim.

When our Lord was asked by an inquirer whether there were many people who were going to be in the kingdom of God he simply told the questioner to be sure that he was striving himself to enter through the narrow door (Luke 13:24). It is irrelevant to our pilgrimage to know the exact number of those who are saved and whether we are going to be in the majority or not. We all may venture helpful opinions on that question. But our primary need is a life characterized by having entered the kingdom of God through Christ, the narrow door, and a daily walk on the narrow way, pursuing the godly life. Every Christian is to be a striver. That insistence was a characteristic of the ministry in preaching and in writing of William Perkins.

How did this conviction come about? He was born into a nominal Roman Catholic family under the reign of Queen Mary, which family subsequently with most Englishmen became a nominal Anglican family under the reign of Queen Elizabeth. For six years William Perkins and John Calvin were both alive in the continent of Europe (Calvin died in 1564). The year of Perkins’ birth was 1558, and the first months of his life was an unforgettable period in the history of Great Britain. 40 evangelical Christians were burned alive during that time, some not far from his childhood home. These forty martyrs included two women who were both named Alice, Snoth and Driver, and another aged godly woman named Kathlene Knight, all were incinerated for their biblical convictions at the hands of religious men who thought that by such atrocious cruelty they were doing God a favour. In all, during the few years before Perkins was born and in the first months of his life, 280 men and women, young and old, were tortured to death by being burned at the stake, one expression of Romish rage against the spread of gospel Christianity. The English grapevine repeated the stories of their courage at thousands of family gatherings around kitchen fireplaces, or taught by village schoolmasters, or preached by itinerant preachers or declared from thousands of pulpits. Those historic facts concerning the army of martyrs were known by all of England and could be spoken of openly when finally the Protestant Queen Elizabeth came to the throne during the first months of Perkins’ life when she succeeded her half sister Queen Mary in November 1558. On the occasion of Mary’s death, when Perkins was a few months old, the burning of evangelical believers ceased immediately. Protestant Christian leadership transformed the country.

Our society today is in the greatest need of transforming, biblical grace. Our world is dominated by four philosophical and cultural ideologies; radical individualism – ‘I did it my way:’ then, pervasive consumerism, what the King James version calls ‘mammon.’ I was present a few months ago at the funeral service of an inhabitant of my home town who’s not been a church attender for years, and there I heard her son-in-law pay this tribute to her, that she loved two things in life, the TV soaps, and shopping. There is this pervasive consumerism that characterizes our age. Thirdly, secularism, that this world and our life can be understood without any reference to its Creator and his law, the God who has spoken and is not silent. Fourthly, creeping statism, big government which is increasingly becoming ‘big brother.’ In our democracies there is no party manifesto that is without some evidence of pervasive statism. How they long to control us. Such influences as those four ideologies fail to add any lasting meaning or value to lives that are so swiftly lived out and then must face an open-ended encounter with the living God.

The legacy of Perkins and the Puritans, with their insistence that the message of the Bible must be understood and proclaimed, has provided us today with utterly relevant and most helpful resources to equip us to engage with today’s pluralistic and atheist culture. Reprinting Perkins and the Puritans is not some rather quaint archeological exercise. Perkins provides us with the vital alternative to the four beasts I’ve mentioned that are today intimidating and deceiving the western world. He gives us a blessed, vital, and optimistic vision that makes the human heart that receives it flourish. He does so with lucidity, elegance and passion. I have found him so easy to read, as easy as reading Jonathan Edwards (except when he writes on the will) or Dr. Lloyd-Jones.

Through the rediscovery of the Puritan world view favoured men and women experience the joy of salvation, knowing their sins are forgiven, that they are saved by God’s grace through the person and work of Christ, that they are loved and accepted by God who became their heavenly Father. The raft of beliefs and practices that the medieval church had accumulated and which it was promoting was sunk by the mighty onslaught upon it of the sword of the Spirit as the gospel of Christ was declared in homes, village greens and in prisons as well as proclaimed from hundreds of pulpits.



That knowledge of what Protestantism stood for, and why the martyrs had died, was not the cause of William’s conversion. That would have been mere historic faith, or system faith that he and his family possessed, having socially exchanged one Romish system for a Anglican system. There could be no pursuit of godliness flowing from such an impersonal religious world view.

There is every indication that in his teens William Perkins was a lost boy walking the broad way that leads to destruction. He was living a life of contentment without God. He was a typical 19 year old student at the university of Cambridge, profane, prodigal and loving alcohol and the culture of fellow drinkers. But in Christ’s College were Christian members of staff, one especially who became his personal tutor, was a man called Laurence Chaderton, and along with him other outstanding godly men, Richard Rogers and Richard Greenham, men who had been personal friends of some burned at the stake; they were men with backbone. So God began to work in William Perkins’ heart and he was converted. In other words, he was saved from the guilt and lordship and punishment of sin through Jesus Christ’s blood and righteousness alone. He was born again. Being justified by faith he had peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ.

He had been humbled on one particular occasion during this converting season when, worse for wear through drinking ale, he heard a woman warning her obstreperous little boy to be quiet or she would hand him over to drunken Perkins. ‘Is that what people think of me?’ he must have mused as God convicted him of his wasted life. How important can be a rebuke. Remember the person who rebuked John Bunyan, returned from active service in the Civil War, who had become the hero of the teenagers of Bedford, for his foul tongue, swearing and blasphemy. We may choose to rebuke, but always, knowing our own hearts, with meekness.

So William repented of his unhappy barren years and gave the remainder of his brief life to Jesus Christ. He was 44 when he died. After his conversion he had a brief two dozen years of Christian activity. So Perkins entered through the narrow gate and began, in the city of Cambridge as a student, that happy life of following the Son of God. There is no other way of pursuing godliness; not by believing religious systems; not through attending religious services; not by submission to sacraments; not by resolutions to self-denial. It is receiving Christ in the glory of his person and the perfection of his finished work as our teacher and instructor, our Priest and Paschal Lamb, our Shepherd king, Lord of providence and God of our sanctification. We must have him if we are to have godliness. The first challenge facing those of us who are examining a candidate for the ministry is to ascertain whether he has a credible profession of faith. Is Jesus Christ in truth his Lord and his Saviour? Has he passed from death into life? How then did the converted Perkins pursue godliness?



A fiercely intelligent man, Perkins graduated at 21 years of age, and at 24 after further study he received his M.A. He devoured books, the more he read the more he understood and the more he remembered. He learned and evaluated speedily, grasping the teaching and able to explain to his tutors the thrust of the authors. For six years he read the Cambridge libraries dry, the best of the church fathers and the newly produced writings of the reformers he imbibed and understood, being able to give an exact and accurate account of what they were teaching. This was an enormous advantage to him as a preparation for his ministry.

I studied for three years under some giants, Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, Edward J. Young, Ned Stonehouse, Meredith Kline and Ed Clowney. I studied alongside some outstanding fellow students, Palmer Robertson, John Frame, George Marsden, Walt Chantry, Bob Den Dulk and Will Metzger. Never in my subsequent ministry did I chafe at having had inadequate theological training – though sadly, to my regret, I did not take advantage of all I was being offered during that time in my life. Occasionally exhausted ministers have called me telling me they were taking a sabbatical study break. They were ‘preached out,’ they said,  and they hoped they could compensate a little for their inadequate training by taking some seminary courses. Could I recommend such? There must be thousands of preachers who feel like those men, frustrated at inadequate preparation for their vocation under the teaching of modernists’ dry cerebral lectures they’d grown, alas, luke warm. Perkins, you realize, had the best teachers in England. How did he go on pursuing godliness?



From his fellow Christian students he discovered that they visited on Sundays the local jail where they sought to help the prisoners with creature comforts and by preaching and witnessing to them. Soon William Perkins was the leading student in charge of constant Lord’s Day visits to the dungeons of Cambridge prison. His ministry was powerful, convicting numbers of these wretched prisoners of their sin and hemming them in to take Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

There was a notable occasion when Perkins had to accompany a convict to the gallows, a man to whom he had been ministering but who was to be hung for his crimes. The man saw the instruments of his death, and, understandably, he looked scared out of his mind and half dead. ‘What!’ cried Perkins to him. ‘Are you afraid of death? What’s wrong?’ The man said he was not so much afraid of death as of what lay after death. ‘Come,’ said Perkins, ‘see what God’s grace will do to strengthen you.’ So they knelt down together and Perkins cried mightily to God for this man, blessing the Lord for his pity to the chief of sinners, for the promises of grace made to all who prayed, ‘God be merciful to me the sinner.’

The man broke his heart, and Perkins underlined the gospel to him and the freeness of God’s grace. We are told that he showed the condemned man, ‘how the black lines of all his sins were crossed and cancelled with the red lines of his crucified Saviour’s blood’ (The Works of William Perkins Volume 1, p.xii). He really laid on the man the immeasurable forgiveness of Christ that could be his by trusting his words. The man wept again at the mercy being offered to him there and then. He climbed the steps one last time to the gallows and faced the crowd and testified to his sin and to the salvation that was found in Christ’s blood, and then he accepted the hangman’s rope with patience as one who’d been delivered from hell by the Lord Jesus – whom soon he would meet in glory. He died bravely to the silencing of the spectators and hawkers and clowns (who characteristically made money from those gatherings) and to the assurance that Perkins received that this man he’d come to know had been translated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s own Son. In other words, my emphasis is this, that Perkins was not an egghead who could speak only to fellow eggheads. He learned his rhetoric – the ‘Art of Prophesying’ as he called it – by speaking in Cambridge jail to illiterates and carnally living sinners. You do not become a preacher by attending a seminary, any more than a flight to Africa equips you in becoming a missionary. How is God providentially using you now? So how did Perkins pursue godliness?



Immediately on receiving his M.A. degree he was appointed that very month as a preacher in St. Andrews, the church across the road from his college, Christ’s. This was his principal vocation, but he was also appointed a lecturer in Christ’s College so that he spoke there to the students, and lectured, and tutored. He catechized students in Corpus Christ College on Thursdays taking them through the ten commandments, and on Sunday afternoons he counseled such men as Richard Sibbes, John Cotton, John Preston and William Ames and many others. That activity and the legacy of the ten volumes of his writings are the reasons he is considered the father of Puritanism, even England’s proto-Puritan. So we have looked at how Perkins pursued godliness.



For Williams Perkins a true preacher was a Christian who had been given authority from God to redeem repentant sinners from hell and damnation. He adds, ‘Of course, the minister is not the means of working out this redemption. That belongs totally and exclusively to Christ himself, but the minister is God’s instrument and Christ’s instrument – first, to apply the means of reconciliation; and second, to pronounce the individual to be safe and delivered when these means are used’ (The Art of Prophesying, Banner of Truth, p.115).

It is the greatest honour for a man to be called to the ministry. It is the greatest privilege that is given to men or angels. What it is is a commission to deliver men from the power and condemnation of hell and make them heirs of heaven. Perkins says, ‘In relation to some callings God says to one person, “Work and build houses, provide men with sustenance.” To the physician he says, “Heal that man”; to the lawyer: “Do that man justice!” to the soldier: “Fight for him”; to the magistrate: “Defend him”; to the king: “Govern him, and see that everyone does his duty”. But it is to the minister exclusively that God says: “Deliver him from going down to the pit.” (Perkins op, cit., p.116). It is therefore tragic to see how some by not preaching at all, and others by their vain preaching, show how they intend anything but winning souls for God’ (op. cit. p.117). ‘Let them preach, so that they can return their commission from the Lord with these words: “You gave me this people, Lord, and told me to deliver them, so that they do not go down into hell. I have done it. It is the very thing my soul aimed at with all my energy and desire. By your mercy I have completed the task”’ (op. cit. p.117).

The preacher then has received the gift of teaching the word of God, and in the New Testament he is compared to a pillar. The reason for that is that his charge is to sustain and support the whole congregation ‘by doctrine, prayer, counsel and a good life. Elisha was called by Joash, “the chariots and horsemen of Israel” (2 Kings 14:14). And the church of God upon earth is called “the pillar and ground of truth” in respect of the ministry of the word (I Tim. 3:15) . . . Of course, all believers are to stand fast in temptation against their spiritual enemies (Eph. 6:13), but this they shall better do if they are directed by the good example of their teachers’ (William Perkins, Works, Volume 2, p.95).

But of course it is not any kind of preaching that God blesses to the salvation of sinners. Preaching, Perkins insists, must be ‘simple and clear, tailored to the understanding of the hearers and appropriate for expressing the majesty of the Spirit. For this reason none of the specialized vocabulary of the arts, nor Greek and Latin phrases, nor odd turns of phrase should be used in the sermon. These distract the minds of those listeners who cannot see the connection between what’s been said and what follows. In addition, unusual words hinder rather than help people in their efforts to understand what’s being said, and they also tend to draw their kinds away from the subject in hand to other things. In this connection, too, mere story-telling – as well as vulgar or foolish statements – must be avoided’ (The Art of Prophesying, p.72).

Preaching must also express the grace that’s in the heart of the minister. ‘The grace of the person is the holiness of the heart and of an unblameable life. While these do not in themselves qualify anyone to be a minister, no-one can do the work of the ministry without them . . . It’s an easy matter to show wisdom in words; you must teach me to live by your life; this is the best teaching. Words do not make as great an impression on the soul as works do! A minister who is wicked, either openly or secretly, is not worthy to stand before the face of the most holy and almighty God. That is why the judgments of God remain, for wicked ministers to tremble at them’ (op cit p.73).

But is the word of God, not the eloquence of the preacher that creates godliness. All believers must submit themselves to be cleansed and reformed by the Word of God. ‘”Ye are clean (says Christ) by the word which I have spoken unto you” (Jn. 15:3). Our Lord makes the Word of God the instrument of our purification; to similar effect he says in his prayer to his Father, “Sanctify them with thy truth, thy word is truth” (Jn. 17:17) . . . If (through the preaching) we see any uncleanness in our hearts or lives, we must purge it out by this Word, and return no more to the filth of our former sins. It is the mark of Christ’s sheep that they hear his voice, and they obey the same. Let us by that testify ourselves to be his sheep. Let us by the pursuit of godliness be distinguished from dogs and swine’ (Perkins Works, Volume 1, p.622).

But there is no guaranteed blessing that conversion or godliness will invariably accompany the preaching of the word. After preaching we have to bow before God’s sovereignty and say, ‘Even so Father for so it seemed good in thy sight.’ Perkins reminds us of Noah, when in a sermon Perkins says, ‘In one hundred and twenty years’ preaching both in word and action Noah could not turn a single person to faith and repentance. A most fearful thing, if we well consider it, that both by preaching and by making the ark he could not turn one of the sons of Lamech, Methusalah, or Enoch to believe him, but that they rather chose to be misled in the general vanity of that wicked world rather than to serve God with Noah . . . such a response has been the lot of many holy prophets . . . and when they seem to do no good, but that men grow worse and worse, this must humble and abase them in themselves and make them sure that the power and virtue is not in them but it is in God, . . . However, whether your labour be “the savour of life unto life” or of “death unto death” to your hearers, this is “to God a sweet savour of Christ”‘ (2 Cors 2:15&16) (Perkins’ Works, Volume 3, pp.108&109). We sow and we plant and we water. We must pursue godliness in our preaching, but we may never forget that God alone can give the increase.


At the close of his monumental exposition of the Sermon on the Mount Perkins examines the conclusion of Jesus in the parable of the wise builder who earthed his house onto bedrock. Our Lord uses this storm survivor as the great example of the true godly disciple. Such a man hears the teaching of Christ and then he does what the Lord says throughout all the remaining years of his life. What is this doing of God’s will? Of what does it consist? There are three essentials, says William Perkins (Works of William Perkins, Volume 1, pp. 696-698).


Perkins appeals to the three characteristics of saving faith that evangelical theology has always used from his time to John Murray’s.

i] Knowledge. The world must know who Jesus is. The children who abuse Jesus’s name with their intolerable execrations know nothing of who is the Lord Christ. They have to be told this before they can trust in him. All of us must listen to the best preaching every single Sunday to inform our minds of this remarkable person. Who is he, and what did he say and do, and why did he say and do those things? Men must appropriate the knowledge that God has taken such pains to reveal to the world.

ii] Assent. The new knowledge must be accompanied by an event of recognition when you realize that these words are actually true, ‘true truth’ was Schaeffer’s phrase. They are the enduring words of God. They are, you believe, a divine revelation given for our salvation.

iii] Application. That is what Perkins called it. We usually use the word ‘trust’; in other words, we apply ourselves to the true words of God and we make them our own. We entrust ourselves, body and soul for time and eternity, to them. We appropriate them for ourselves. We imbibe the bread of life; we drink the water of life. There can be no growth, no nourishment and no godliness unless we have personally received Christ as he is freely offered to us in the gospel. We trust everything about Christ, his warnings and his promises, and all that his apostles have said about him, and then we live accordingly, in the light and power of the speaking, acting Christ.

Take note of three things, adds Perkins. Take note of the beginning of your faith; you saw your sin and misery and you heard of the Lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world, and you laboured against your unbelief to have for yourself the covering of his blood. That is the beginning of faith, and then there is the fruit of your faith, that consequent change in your whole being in such matters as your attitudes and enthusiasms and delights and understandings and values and ambitions and contentment. All things have been made new, and you have rested in the will of God, as Isaiah says, ‘he that believeth shall not make haste’ (Isa.28:16). Then, thirdly there is the constancy of your faith. Henceforth we live by always trusting in God, even when we can feel and see no tokens of God’s mercy. Perkins says, ‘Indeed he that lets go the hold of God’s mercy when he is in distress may assure himself that he never had true faith, for the just shall live by faith in all conditions and estates, and will with Job even keep trusting in God though the Lord kill him’ (op. cit. p.697). So godliness shows itself in this saving trust in God. Then there is . . .


Perkins says that repentance is the fruit of faith, explaining, ‘In true repentance there be two things: its beginning, and its nature. The beginning of it is a godly sorrow when a man is grieved properly and directly because by his sin he has offended God, who has been unto him so loving a Father in Christ. This causes repentance unto salvation not to be repented of (2 Cor. 7:10), and it arises not so much from the fear of punishment as from the consideration of God’s mercy, making a man displeased with himself for offending so loving a God, who has been so gracious and bountiful unto him in Christ. The nature of repentance stands in the change of the mind, when any person lays aside the purpose of sinning, and by God’s blessing and grace he takes to himself a new purpose never to sin more. This is properly to repent, and if this be in truth, there will follow the change of the will, of the affections, and of all the actions of the life’ (Perkins op.cit. pp. 697-698). He purposes never to sin again.

I remember Iain Murray telling me of an occasion in his first year as a convert when he took a non-Christian friend to an evangelistic rally. At the end the evangelist invited people to confess their faith by coming to the front. His friend got out of the seat and walked to the front and Iain accompanied him, and they went to the counsellors’ room where Iain explained the gospel to his friend and then they prayed. The man dolefully just said this, ‘Oh God, help me never to sin again.’

Initially Iain’s nose was out of joint as he heard that prayer. He didn’t expect anything like that; the evangelistic books never said anything about such praying, but when, later on, Iain came to consider that prayer he saw how all the gospel was in that cry. Here was a repenting sinner’s longing to be wholly delivered from sin – his worst enemy. That saving repentance is the second mark of the pursuit of true godliness. And finally . . .



The root is faith in Christ. The inseparable companion is repentance, and the fruit is obedience. That is true godliness. Perkins says, ‘A man endued with faith and repentance does, according to the measure of grace received, endeavour to yield obedience to all God’s commandments, from all the powers and parts both of his soul and his body’ (op. cit. p.698). It is our undying duty to live in obedience to our Lord, but, it would prove our utter ruin to live on our obedience, rather than live on the obedience of Christ. Perkins calls this a ‘new’ saving obedience, new because it is a renewing of that which in man was lost in Adam’s fall, but which has now been renewed through the last Adam. How different is such saving submission to our Lord Jesus from man’s resolutions and temporary reformations.

Perkins acknowledges that it is true that ‘many hypocrites have a reformation of life but yet they fail. They do so in two ways; first, their reformation is only outward, not inward. Their obedience, wills and affections all still remain wicked and corrupt, and secondly, their obedience is partial; it is only to certain of God’s commandments, not to all of them. So it was with Herod; he would hear John gladly, and would do many things, but yet he wouldn’t leave his brother’s wife. But true obedience, which proceeds from true faith and repentance, has these following four heads and branches, firstly a Christian must use his mind and “prove what is the good will of God” (Romans 12:2); secondly, he must restrain his life from outward offences which tend to dishonor God and scandalize the church; thirdly, he must mortify the inward corruptions of his own heart; fourthly, he must labour to conceive new motions agreeable to the will of God, and bring forth and practice good duties, demonstrating both outward and inward obedience to God’ (op cit p.698). This is living the real Christian life that always pursues godliness.





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