Sunday, January 7, 2007

William Perkins and Blessed Assurance

William Perkins (1558-1602) is well known. His life roughly spanned the rule of Elizabeth I and his legacy is one of profound influence on subsequent generations of preachers and theologians. Perhaps one of his most rehearsed sayings is his definition of theology: “the science of living blessedly forever.” For Perkins, this blessed living meant nothing less than the comprehensive and meticulous application of the words of Scripture. In Perkins’ preaching, joy and theology met at the place where the beleaguered conscience found hope and assurance in Christ . We hear that same desire in the words of Paul as he prays that the church at Ephesus might “…be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height – to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19 NKJV).
Perkins believed that in the Scriptures there could be found "a certaine and infallible doctrine, propounded and taught in the Scriptures, whereby the conscience of men distressed, may be quieted and [relieved]." He tried to make "theological and ethical teachings 'concrete'".[1] Scripture was not to be taken as ethereal philosophy but as the life-blood of real, hurting, growing, and redeemed people. Everyone from the preacher to the plough boy could have a certain hope. Since these were the Words of God, these assurances did not simply descend from the perch of a pulpit but from the very Throne of God.
This was not “decision” assurance that permeates evangelicalism today. Perkins’ style of preaching did not encourage the struggling pilgrim to journey back to that time and place where it was “decided” in order to find assurance there. In stead, this was “desperation assurance.” The decrees, promises and precepts of God were placed before the conscience as it thrashed about with the simple call, “Are you desperate for this hope here and now?” If not, the solution for this “case of conscience” was not to conjure up old feelings but to look anew to Christ and His Word. The system of casuistry (the case by case application of Scripture) that developed out of the Ramus/Perkins brand of thinking was not designed to quench this desperation. It meant to stoke it.
It is nothing new to say that “assurance” was a major theme in Perkins’ writing and preaching. In their exceedingly helpful new book, Meet the Puritans, Beeke and Pederson provide a moving example of Perkins ministry of assurance. Upon witnessing a man being led to the gallows with a drawn face and fearful eyes, Perkins cried to the man, “What man!...Art thou afraid of death?” The prisoner confessed his fear. Perkins brought him down for prayer and a word of counsel. The quintessential pastor/theologian offered “such an effectual prayer in confession of sins…as made the poor prisoner burst into abundance of tears.” As Perkins perceived that the man was convicted in his conscience, he unfolded the Gospel. Beeke and Pederson quote Samuel Clarke’s account which reported that the prisoner’s eyes were opened,

“to see how the black lines of all his sins were crossed , and cancelled with the red lines of his crucified Savior’s precious blood; so graciously applying it to his wounded conscience, as made him break out into new showers of tears for the joy of the inward consolation which he found.”[2]

I benefit from Perkins on many levels. But on this Lord’s Day I am most appreciative of the call to be simultaneously satisfied in and desperate for Jesus Christ. I pray that I will turn to the Word of God and treasure it as God’s profitable breath. May that breath be a favonian breeze to our souls.

If the format is off, I am sorry. Blogger unleashed a firestorm on this post for some reason. Hopefully it will not be too distracting.

[1]See McKim, Donald K. quoting from The Workes of the that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge II, 1 (Cambridge, 1616-1618) in "William Perkins and the Christian Life: The Place of the Moral Law and Sanctification in Perkin's Theology." Evangelical Quarterly 59, no. 2 (1987): 125-137.
[2] Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson. Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints. (Grand Rapids: Reformed Heritage Books, 2006), 472.

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