As part of my response to the claim that some Reformed orthodox theologians taught that salvation was not only in two stages but also, in some way, through works, I appealed to a quotation from William Perkins. I could have written much more about Perkins in that essay, but I decided to save that work for this essay.
William Perkins (1558–1602) is one of the most important of the English Reformed theologians. He was what some scholars call a “conforming Puritan,” meaning, he was a Puritan, but contrary to the way some talk about that movement (or phenomenon), he was not a separatist. According to some accounts (and some comments that he made about his own youth), he lived a dissolute life until he was converted. He was an undergraduate student at Christ’s College, Cambridge and after he completed his degree, he became a fellow there (1584–94). There he influenced a generation of younger English Reformed theologians, e.g., William Ames (1576–1633). Like a number of other Reformed scholars in the classical period, Perkins was also an active preacher, and his ministry of the Gospel was well regarded and received. He exercised a profound influence on Reformed theology in the English-speaking world and in Europe (when his works were translated into Latin and Dutch). His Golden Chain (1590) was first published in Latin and then translated into English, which was published the next year.1 This is perhaps the work for which he is most widely known.
Perkins wrote a number of other important works, however, including an Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer (1592), an Exposition of the Symbols or the Apostles’ Creed (1595), and A Reformed Catholic (1597, a brilliant response to Rome’s claims to catholicity). In the next year, he published (in Latin) On the Mode and Order of Predestination, which provoked a reaction from a young Dutch Reformed minister, Jacob Arminius (d. 1609). We are blessed to have all his English works in a modern edition published by Reformation Heritage Books.
The work we have been reading, in recent years, in my seminar on Reformed Scholasticism, is his Commentary or Exposition Upon the First Five Chapters of the Epistle the Galatians. This work was gathered and edited from his unpublished notes by Ralph Cudworth, who finished the commentary. It was published in 1617 in Cambridge.
One cannot help but be impressed by how thoroughly Protestant or, in the original Reformation sense, evangelical this work is. It is a gospel book. In his exposition of Galatians, like Robert Rollock on Ephesians, he consistently taught salvation sola gratia, sola fide, and he consistently distinguished between law and gospel.
What was he about in this commentary? I find it useful to begin at the beginning of most books since there we expect the author to tell us what he is about, what he intends to say, and why. Perkins rewards us for taking this approach since he lays out his argument explicitly:
Two things are generally to be considered, the occasion of this epistle and the scope. The occasion that moved Paul to write this epistle was because certain false apostles slandered him both in respect of his calling, as also in respect of his doctrine, teaching that he was no apostle, and that his doctrine was false. And by this means, they seduced the churches of Galatia, persuading them that justification and salvation was partly by Christ, and partly by the law.
The reason Paul wrote Galatians, according to Perkins, was to combat the slanders of the “false apostles.” According to Perkins, Paul wanted to combat the notion that “justification and salvation” (emphasis added) is partly by Christ (grace) and partly by law (works). His language is particularly important and impressive because we live in a time when it is being argued that 1) Reformed orthodoxy taught initial justification by grace alone, through faith alone, and 2) final salvation through faith and works. Perkins, however, taught explicitly that both justification and salvation (i.e., our justification, sanctification, and glorification) are by grace alone, through faith alone.
Perkins was utterly opposed to a two-stage doctrine of justification or a two-stage doctrine of salvation. As a matter of logic, the distinction itself, between final salvation through faith and works versus final justification through faith and works, evaporates. If we are finally saved through faith and works, then we are not finally justified until we are finally saved, are we? In what sense is one actually justified if it is possible not to be finally saved? Such a person is not actually justified. He is merely out on bail but still awaiting the final adjudication. What is afoot in the doctrine of an alleged initial justification sola fide and final salvation through works is nothing less than a sleight of hand. If one still must appear before the judge for final sentencing, then it is not true what Paul said in Romans 5:1: “Having therefore been justified through faith we have peace with God.” Were the two-stage doctrine true, then, he should have written: “Having been released on bail, we will finally be justified if we are sufficiently sanctified and obedient.” But that is not what Paul wrote. Indeed, in Romans 8:1 he wrote, “There is, now, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Were the two-stage doctrine correct, Paul should have written, “Having therefore been released on bail, there is still a possibility of final condemnation if we are not sufficiently sanctified and obedient.” But that is not what Paul wrote, and Perkins knew it. Unlike the advocates (then and now) of a two-stage doctrine of salvation, Perkins was a Reformation evangelical Protestant to his core and his theology was coherent.
Indeed, there is plain evidence that Perkins opposed a two-stage scheme of justification. In the Golden Chain, he responded directly to the objection that there are two stages of justification or that there is an initial justification and a final justification:
That popish device of a second justification is a satanical delusion for the Word of God does acknowledge no more but one justification at all, and that absolute and complete of itself. There is but one justice, but one satisfaction of God being offended. Therefore, there cannot be a manifold justification.2
If, for Perkins, there could not be a second justification (which would be through works) how could there be a “final salvation” through works? In his commentary on Galatians he taught no such thing. Inwoo Lee argues,
For Perkins, Christ’s finished work alone, outside us, justifies in God’s sight for everlasting life and therefore eliminates the second justification and purgatory altogether. Regarding the final judgment and the Christian, Perkins appealed to texts such as 2 Corinthians 5:10, Matthew 25:34–35, Galatians 3:11, the fourth petition in the Lord’s Prayer, and the thief on the cross in Luke 23:39–43. In 2 Corinthians 5:10 the Apostle is speaking of a final judgment of all mankind: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that every man may receive the things which are done in his body according to that hath done, whether it be good or evil (2 Cor. 5:10). This judgment according to works is not meritorious for justification because these works “are the outward signs of inward grace and holiness. Perkins continued, “the last judgment does not serve to make men just that are unjust, but only manifest them to be indeed which are just before and in this life truly justified.”
In Galatians 2:16 he characterized justification as a “judicial act,” which, he wrote, is language borrowed from the courtroom.3 In it a judge absolves or pronounces one innocent. Sometimes, he noted, justify can signify giving witness to something as in the case of James 2:21, where Abraham was said to have been justified by his works—that is, shown to have been declared righteous. From this, he argued under the use (i.e., the application) that we must “distinguish between justification, regeneration, and renovation.”4 Regeneration refers to our awakening from death to life and renovation, to our sanctification, but justification is distinct from them. Rome rejects this distinction and the modern evangelical advocates of a two-stage salvation unintentionally find themselves agreeing with Rome rather than with Perkins.
He argued at length in defense of the Reformation doctrine of a once-for-all justification sola gratia, sola fide on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ.5 Along the way, we should note, he explicitly affirmed the imputation of Christ’s active obedience:
Thus, we see what the obedience of Christ is. And here two errors must be avoided. The one is of some protestants, less dangerous, yet an untruth, namely, that we are justified only by the passion of Christ. But if this were so, we should be justified without fulfilling the law. For (as I have said), we owe to God a double debt: one by creation, namely, the fulfilling of the law, in all things, from our first beginning; the second, since the fall of Adam, namely, a satisfaction for the breach of the law. Now the passion of Christ is a payment of the second debt, but not of the first; whereas both must be answered. For “cursed is he that doth not continue in all things written in the law, to do them.” The passion of the Christ procures deliverance from hell but alone by itself, considered it does not purchase a right to eternal life.6
By “passion” Perkins meant suffering. Those—for example Johannes Piscator (1526–1625)—who denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, held that Christ owed his active obedience for himself and thus it could not be imputed to us. Perkins argued that such a construction fails to account for the demands of divine justice. We need the active obedience and the suffering obedience to be imputed to us to be covered before God.
What about salvation? Perkins addressed the question specifically:
Faith therefore justifies because it is an instrument to apprehend and apply that which justifies, namely, Christ, and his obedience. As the Israelites stung of fiery serpents were cured, so are we saved (John 3:14). The Israelites did nothing at all, but only look upon the brazen serpent; so we are to do nothing for our justification and salvation, but to fix the eye of our faith on Christ. The bankrupt pays his debt by accepting the payment made by his surety. It is the property of true religion to depress nature and to exalt grace. And this is done when we make God the only worker of our salvation, and make ourselves to be no more, but receivers of the mercy and grace of God, by faith, and receivers not by nature, but by grace, reaching out the beggar’s hand, namely, our faith in Christ, to receive the gift or alms of mercy (emphasis added).7
I have highlighted Perkins’s use of saved and salvation to call attention to the way he thought about salvation. For Perkins, there was no idea that we have an initial, provision declaration by God of a right standing with him, in this life, but that our final deliverance from judgment (salvation) is contingent upon the degree of our sanctification or our good works.
When he wrote, “it is the property of true religion to depress nature and to exalt grace” he was sounding a note he had played elsewhere. In his Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount he wrote that the desire to contribute to our salvation, even if it is by cooperation with grace, is a “natural” desire but it is not a gospel desire.
One particular clause in this passage deserves to be highlighted: “And this is done when we make God the only worker of our salvation.” Like the magisterial Protestants before him—unlike the advocates of a two-stage doctrine of salvation, Perkins had read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested Luther’s commentary on Galatians—Perkins knew that we are not only justified (declared righteous) by divine favor alone, through faith (not faithfulness) alone, but we are saved, delivered from judgment, sanctified, and glorified, by grace alone, through faith (resting and receiving) alone.
This is not merely an inference. He wrote explicitly in Discourse of Conscience that faith is the instrument of our salvation:
Lastly I answer that the ground of the former objection is erroneous, namely that the promise of salvation depends on the condition of our works: because the Scripture saith, it is made and accomplished on man’s part freely. I grant indeed that to the promise there is annexed a condition of faith: yet faith here must not be considered as a work, but as an instrument apprehending Christ with His benefits: and withal repentance with the fruits thereof are on our part required, yet not otherwise but as they are necessary consequents of faith, and the signs and documents thereof.8
Reformation man that he was, he knew that repentance and good works are necessary but that they are always and only fruit and evidence of new life and true faith.
In A Reformed Catholic he unambiguously wrote, “we exclude [good works] from the act of our justification and salvation.”9
- Armilla aurea, id est, Miranda series causarum et salutis & damnationis iuxta verbum Dei Eius synopsin continet annexa tabula (Cantabrigiæ: Ex officina Iohannis Legatt, 1590).
- William Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, 6.234.
- Perkins, Works, 2.111.
- Perkins, Works, 2.111.
- Perkins, Works, 2.111–15.
- Perkins, Works, 2.115.
- Perkins, Works, 2.222.
- Perkins, Works, 8.73.
- See the resources below this post for more from Perkins on this topic.
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- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
- Why I Am A Christian
- What Must A Christian Believe?
- Heidelblog Contributors
- Resources On The Controversy Over “Final Salvation Through Works”
- Inwoo Lee, Perkins on Justification (1)
- Inwoo Lee, Perkins on Justification (2)
- William Perkins: Grace Admits No Partner
- Perkins: As Soon As One Believes
- Perkins On “The Exclusive Particle”
- Perkins: The Sum Of Covenant Of Grace Was Given In Paradise
- William Perkins On Justification
- Perkins: Eternal Life Is By Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone
- Perkins: We Are Not Justified By Our Works Either Before Or After Our Justification
- Perkins: Justification Is The Greatest Question In The World
- Perkins: By Nature We Seek To Contribute To Our Salvation But The Gospel….
- Perkins: The Law Promises Salvation On The Basis And Through Obedience. The Gospel Promises Salvation On The Basis Of Christ’s Obedience And Through Faith Alone
- Perkins: We Exclude Good Works From The Act Of Justification And Salvation
- Perkins: Faith Is The Instrument Of Salvation
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