Pillar of the Orthodox
Being an Interaction with the Text of
A Golden Chain, or
The Description of Theology
For Systematic Theology II, Master of Divinity Program
The North American Reformed Seminary
August 1st in the Year of Our Lord 2011
In his book Puritanism and Revolution, Christopher Hill describes William Perkins as “the first systematic Calvinist theologian in England,” who “was as popular with the townspeople as with the scholars of Cambridge.”1 Hill goes on to demonstrate that Perkins’ school of disciples while teaching at Cambridge included such luminaries as “Preston, Sibbes, Ames, Cotton, Gouge, Thomas Goodwin,” and that Perkins is often cited as one of the three “trinity of the orthodox” along with Calvin and Beza.2 Such assertions do much to Perkins’ credit. Yet after reading and studying the Golden Chain,3 I can see very clearly why he was and is considered a pillar of the orthodox.
In reading the Golden Chain, I collected quotations from the various chapters, and grouped them by 15 major categories. However, due to space constraints, I must concentrate my paper on four major themes: first, the Law of God; second, theology proper, including Christology and the Trinity; third, soteriology, including sanctification, atonement and justification; and fourth, the sovereignty of God, including God’s decree, providence and reprobation. These four themes serve to bolster Perkins’ reputation and cover over 69 percent of the quotations I gleaned from the Golden Chain.
First, then, Perkins’ treatment of the Law of God. Upon concluding his exposition of the Ten Commandments in chapters 19 – 29, Perkins treats of the “use of the law” in chapter 30. The use of God’s Law varies, depending on the spiritual state of the subject:
The use of the law in unregenerate persons… is to denounce eternal damnation for the least disobedience, without offering any hope of pardon. This sentence the law pronounceth against offenders, and by it, partly by threatening, partly by terrifying, it reigneth and ruleth over man.4
The end for which the law thus rules over the unregenerate is, “to urge sinners to fly unto Christ.”5
Yet the use of the Law of God varies greatly for the regenerate:
The use of the law in such as are regenerate is far otherwise: for it guideth them to new obedience in the whole course of their life, which obedience may be acceptable to God by Christ. (Romans 3:31) ‘Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.’ (Psalm 119:24) ‘Thy testimonies also are my delight and my counsellors.’ and verse 105, ‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.’6
Perkins also defines the Law of God with excellent precision, recognizing its breadth of its exposition in Scripture. “The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, is an abridgement of the whole law and the covenant of works.”7 This statement is significant on many levels. One fact of major significance is that for Perkins and later Puritan theologians, the whole law which God requires obedience to is not limited to the Decalogue. Much to the contrary, as his exposition of the Decalogue proves, Perkins considered many of the Judicial Laws of Moses to be extensions of the Decalogue, and still binding on modern men. In other words, Perkins recognized a latent category of laws which are judicial, and yet “one Decalogue” with the Ten Commandments.
In addition to the care that must be taken in applying the Law to various subjects and the broader context of the Law, Perkins also gives rules for the true interpretation of the Decalogue, setting the stage for later Puritan casuistry:
I. In the negative, the affirmative must be understood; and in the affirmative, the negative. II. The negative bindeth at all times, and to all times; and the affirmative bindeth at all times, but no to all times; and therefore negatives are of more force. III. Under one vice expressly forbidden are comprehended all of that kind: yea, the least cause, occasion or enticement thereto is as well forbidden as that. (1 John 3:15) ‘Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer.’ (Matthew 5:21-48) Evil thoughts are condemned as well as evil actions. IV. The smallest sins are entitled with the same names that that sin is which is expressly forbidden in that commandment to which they appertain; as in the former places hatred is named murder and to look after a woman with a lusting eye is adultery. V. We must understand every commandment of the law so, as that we annex this condition: unless God command otherwise. For God being an absolute Lord, and so above the law, may command that which his law forbiddeth.8
In light of these considerations, let us review various portions on Perkins’ treatment of the Decalogue. In considering the preface to the First Commandment, Perkins says: “Thy God. These are the words of the covenant of grace, (Jeremiah 31:33) whereby the Lord promiseth to his people, remission of sins, and eternal life.”9 In other words, the giving of the Decalogue at Sinai is part and parcel of the covenant of grace, and not the covenant of works given all men in Adam. Again, the uses of the Law for the regenerate and unregenerate diverge.
In reference to the Sinaitic covenant, Perkins states the following:
The covenant albeit, it be one in substance, yet it is distinguished into the old and new testament. The old testament or covenant is that, which in types and shadows prefigured Christ to come, and to be exhibited. The new testament declareth Christ already come in the flesh, and is apparently showed in the Gospel.10
This point is strengthened by Perkins’ comments on the manumission of Israel mentioned in the preface to the First Commandment: “This delivery was not appropriate only to the Israelites, but in some sort to the Church of God in all ages: in that it was a type of a more surpassing delivery, from that fearful kingdom of darkness.”11 Thus, for Perkins, the salvation given to Israel is one in substance with the salvation given to us, and therefore the Decalogue as given to Israel is one in substance with the Decalogue given to us.
Perkins, therefore, had no difficulty in drawing parallels between King Hezekiah’s destroying the brazen serpent and the duty to end the Papal image worship of his day.
The image also of the cross and Christ crucified, ought to be abolished out of Churches, as the brazen serpent was, (2 Kings 18:4) Hezekiah is commended for breaking in pieces the brazen serpent to which the children of Israel did then burn incense. This did Hezekiah, albeit at the first this serpent was made by the Lord’s appointment. (Numbers 21:8) and was a type of Christ’s passion. (John 3:14) Origen in his 7th book against Celsus, We permit not any to adore Jesus upon the altars in images, or upon Church walls: because it is written, Thou shalt have none other gods but me.
Epiphanius, in that epistle which he wrote to John Bishop of Jerusalem saith, It is against the custom of the Church, to see any image hanging in the church, whether it be of Christ, or any other saint, and therefore even with his own hands rent he asunder the veil, where such an image was painted.12
As seen in this quotation, Perkins had a firm grasp on the teachings of the Fathers and Councils of the Church, which it pains me to pass over due to space limitations.
Moreover, just as the magistrate and people of Judah entered into a solemn civil covenant with God, so must we to maintain the holy and solemn service of God. To maintain the holy and solemn service of God:
leagues of amity among such as fear God according to his word are lawful: as contracts in matrimony, league in war, especially if the war be lawful and without confidence in the powers of man. (2 Chronicles 19:2) (Malachi 2:11)
To these may be added that covenant which the magistrate and people make among themselves, and with God, for the preservation of Christian religion.13
Perkins cites 2 Chronicles 15:12-14 as proof that such civil covenants are morally required by the affirmative part of the Second Commandment, “Thou shalt worship God in spirit and truth.”14 This would form the basis for the later Solemn League and Covenant among Perkins’ school of disciples and beyond.
Taking God’s Name in vain likewise receives treatment according to Perkins’ rules for interpretation, cited above.15 For instance, Perkins states that the Third Commandment forbids:
Abusing God’s creatures: as when we either deride the workmanship of God, or the manner of working: again, when we debase the excellency of the work, obscure God’s gifts in our brother, or discommend such meats as God hath sent us to eat: finally, when as we in the contemplation of any of God’s creatures, give not him the due praise and glory.16
To this end, Perkins cites 1 Corinthians 10:31 where we are instructed to do all to God’s glory. Moreover, since God’s “Name” includes all things by which He reveals Himself, his workmanship and giftings must never be abused, and He must receive all the glory for them.
Moreover, the heathen arts which seek to rob God’s providence of its majesty are grievous forms of taking God’s Name in vain:
3. [Astrology] withdraweth men’s minds from the contemplation of God’s providence, when as they hear, that all things fall out by the motion and disposition of the stars. 4. Stars were not ordained to foretell things to come, but to distinguish days, months, and years.17
God spells out the purpose of the motion of the stars in Genesis 1:14, and condemns such practices in passages such as Isaiah 47:13-14. God’s Name must be hallowed in His mighty and benevolent providence, as well as in the specific sin mentioned in the Decalogue, taking God’s Name in vain. This, too, is consistent with Perkins’ rules of interpretation: “Under one vice expressly forbidden are comprehended all of that kind.”18
Although brief, Perkins’ discussion of the Sabbath laws of Scripture is powerful. In short, Perkins declares that the Sabbath day is profaned by working for profit, unnecessary journeys, fairs or markets operating, all kinds of farming activity, jests, sports and banqueting, and external Sabbath-keeping without the heart.19 Moreover, Perkins states that the Fourth Commandment forbids the “manifest profanation of the Sabbath in pampering the belly, surfeiting, adultery, and other like profaneness, which is nothing else but to celebrate a Sabbath to the devil, and not to God.”20
One point Perkins made which would greatly offend modern sensibilities is that the Fifth Commandment forbids making “contracts of marriage without the counsel and consent of the parents.”21 This was the nearly universal view for thousands of years, until modern romantic notions make it seem barbaric. Perkins felt very little need to prove such a point, but merely illustrated it using Genesis 6:2 and 28:8-9. Genesis 6:2 shows the sons of God marrying all whom “they chose,” and chapter 28 deals with the rogue Esau’s unlawful choice of wives. Esau chose wives without parental consent, particularly with his first two wives, Judith and Basemath who were “a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah.”22
Concerning the Sixth Commandment, Perkins points up the oft neglected aspect that God’s Law requires death in certain instances. Death, not by the hands of private men, but by lawfully elected civil magistrates executing vengeance against those that do evil.23 Perkins states that:
this law is as well transgressed by not killing, when the law charges to kill, and by pardoning the punishment due unto murderers, as by killing when we should not. (Numbers 35:16) ‘And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.’ and verse 33, ‘The land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.’24
Moreover, as one exercised in the Word of righteousness, Perkins skillfully applied the Judicial Laws of Moses to modern society. In applying Deuteronomy 23:24-25 to preserving the life of our neighbor, Perkins states that “before the vintage or harvest, we ought to permit any man, for the repressing of hunger, to gather grapes or pluck off the ears of corn in the field.” Moreover, Perkins similarly applies the gleaning laws in Leviticus 23:22 and Ruth 2 as part of the Decalogue: “In the vintage and time of harvest we ought neither to leave the trees naked of grapes, nor rake up after the reaping, ears of corn: but to leave the after gatherings for the poor.”25 Therefore, for Perkins, the Moral Law is not equated with the Decalogue, but extends to any judicial law which makes application of one of the precepts of the Decalogue, as will be further demonstrated under other commandments.
For instance, in discussing the Seventh Commandment, Perkins considered Deuteronomy 22:22-24 to be binding and authoritative moral law for Christians: “With those whereof one is married, or at the least betrothed. This sin is called adultery: and God hath inflicted by his word the same punishment upon them which commit this sin after they be betrothed, as he doth upon such as are already married. (Deuteronomy 22:22-24)”26 Note that Perkins states that God’s word inflicts a punishment upon adultery, which is explicit in the passage Perkins cites. As Perkins stated in his treatment of the Sixth Commandment, “this law is as well transgressed by not killing, when the law charges to kill,” and therefore magistrates are guilty of murder when they do not execute the vengeance written against adulterers and others sentenced to death by Scripture.
Perkins likewise makes pointed application of biblical sexual ethics:
With man and his wife. They abuse their liberty if they know each other so long as the woman who is in her flowers. (Ezekiel 22:10) ‘In thee have they discovered their fathers’ nakedness: in thee have they humbled her that was set apart for pollution.’ (Leviticus 18:19) ‘Also thou shalt not approach unto a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is put apart for her uncleanness.’ (Ezekiel 18:6) ‘And hath not eaten upon the mountains, neither hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, neither hath defiled his neighbour’s wife, neither hath come near to a menstruous woman.’ Ambrose, Liber De Philosophia, which Augustine citeth, book 2, Contra Julianum, saith, that he committeth adultery with his wife, who in the use of wedlock hath neither regard of seemlessness nor honesty.27
Ezekiel 18:6 is cited again a few pages later to demonstrate that “Both parties must separate themselves in the time of a woman’s disease, and at appointed fasts. (Ezekiel 18:6) (1 Corinthians 7:5)”28
I was once personally told by a Presbyterian minister that such passages as Leviticus 18:19 are out of date and Jewish in nature. However, Perkins wielded the Sword of the Spirit more skillfully than that unfortunate man, and understood how to faithfully discern right and wrong, and moral versus merely judicial laws in Moses. Cases of conscience must be answered, and they must be answered by faithful and accurate expositions of Scripture as a whole and in its parts.
Perkins likewise faithfully exposited the moral-judicial laws respecting usury, calling usury a form of oppression in violation of the Eighth Commandment. Yet he recognized that taking a gain off of a loan is lawful, so long as the person taking the loan makes an honest gain by using such money. However, for the poor in particular, Perkins condemns usury, citing Psalm 15:5 and Exodus 22:25 as proofs for his position.29 Along with usury, Perkins recognized that gaming for money and gain is likewise oppressing our neighbor, “For thou mayest not enrich thyself by impoverishing thy brother. This gaming is worse far than usury, and in a short while will more enrich a man.”30
Welfare, without the work for the poor required by the gleaning laws in Scripture, is likewise contrary to the Eighth Commandment:
Unjust dealing out of bargaining is likewise manifold… To feed or clothe stout and lusty rogues or beggars. (2 Thessalonians 3:10) ‘For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.’ What then think you, must those licensed rogues and beggars by authority, I mean all idle Monks and Abby-lubbers have? Socrates in the Tripartite History saith plainly that that Monk which laboureth not with his hands, is no better then a thief.31
Moreover, as touched upon under the Sixth and Seventh Commandments above, Perkins was skilled in discerning which Judicial Laws of Moses still applied to Christian republics. In light of this, it is significant to note that Perkins binds Christian consciences by the renting and pawning laws of Exodus 22:14-15, 26, and Deuteronomy 24:6, 10-13. Likewise, he cites the Judicial Law’s requirement of just weights and measures in Deuteronomy 25:13-15 as another application of the Moral Law in the Judicial Law.32
However, despite these consistent applications of the laws of God, Perkins makes one glaring mistake. “Now if any man object that the judicial law of God doth only require the restitution thereof fourfold for such an offence: I answer, that the civil magistrate, when he seeth some one, or many offences to increase, he may by his authority increase the civil punishment due to that sin.”33 Perkins goes on to argue that the circumstances of the British people and their native disposition gave magistrates justification for such an augmentation. Thus, for Perkins, the punishment for theft was not tied to the judicial law of God, but could be augmented as necessity requires.
However, as Johannes Piscator points out, this line of reasoning is not rational. If the number of crimes increases, then the number of punishments should increase, not the type of punishment. God did not assign judicial punishments by chance, but by the nature of the offense. The nature of theft does not change by the number of times it is committed. Therefore, grounding the death penalty for theft on an indemonstrable hypothesis is a rather grave theoretical error, and could lead to taking innocent life.34 Nevertheless, this one error is far outweighed by Perkins’ consistent application of biblical law.
One very insightful comment Perkins makes, which demonstrates his skill as a thorough theologian, is that Joseph, Mary’s husband, had a genuine religion, which entailed a firm commitment to the Ninth Commandment. Perkins says, “when he saw that Mary was with child, was readier to conclude that before her betrothing she was with child by committing fornication, then after by committing adultery. (Matthew 1:19)”35 Perkins thus not only upheld the Ninth Commandment, but also recognized that the punishment appointed by Scripture for adultery is not set aside by this narrative.
In regard to the Tenth Commandment, Perkins demonstrates the balanced view of the Reformed Faith, over against other less biblical systems of thought. In commenting on the notion of coveting another man’s house, Perkins states that:
it is apparent that only evil concupiscence is condemned in this place. (Colossians 3:5) For there is a good concupiscence or desire: as of meat and drink, and that of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:17) ‘For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.’36
Thus, unlike other ascetic or semi-ascetic faiths, there is good lust in God’s Word as well as evil desire. Lust, in itself, is neither one nor the other. Thus far the first theme in the Golden Chain, the Law of God.
The second major theme that I gathered quotations on is the doctrine of God, including the Trinity and Christology. The doctrine of God, or theology, is a major theme in this book, as is indicated by the subtitle of the book, “A Description of Theology.” Perkins says that in Scripture “the principal science is Theology. Theology is the science of living blessedly forever. Blessed life consisteth in the knowledge of God. (John 17:3) ‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.’”37 Thus, the Queen of the Sciences is likewise the Queen of Scripture.
In terms of theology proper, Perkins discusses God’s perfection, simplicity and immutability, among other attributes. God’s perfection, he says, “is his absolute constitution by the which he is wholly complete within himself.”38 Perkins cites Exodus 3:14 and Acts 17:24-25 as his proof. God is “I AM,” and is therefore complete in Himself without reference to anyone else. God likewise stands in need of nothing, having made all things.
God’s simplicity, a less than simple topic, is discussed by Perkins as follows:
Hence it is manifest that to have life and to be life, to be in light and to be light, in God are all one. Neither is God subject to generality or speciality, whole or parts, matter or that which is made of matter, for so there should be in God divers things, and one more perfect than another. Therefore, whatsoever is in God is his essence, and all that he is, he is by essence. The saying of Augustine in his sixth book and fourth chapter of The Trinity, is fit to prove this, In God (saith he) to be, and to be just and mighty are all one: but in the mind of man it is not all one to be, and to be mighty or just: for the mind may be destitute of these virtues, and yet a mind.39
Scripture informs us that the Father and the Son have life in themselves.40 Moreover, Scripture states that God is life.41 Thus, to have life in Himself and to be life are all one for God. In God’s simple essence, these cannot be divided, as they may in other beings, such as man. This point is simply yet profoundly illustrated by Augustine.
Perkins discusses God’s immutability as follows, “God’s immutability of nature is that by which he is void of all composition, division and change.”42 As the Apostle James informs us, “there is no variation or shadow of turning” with God.43 The Prophet Malachi likewise declared this doctrine to comfort the afflicted sons of Jacob until the coming of Messiah: “I am the LORD, I do not change.”44 Though, as Perkins points out, Scripture speaks of God repenting, yet “the meaning is that God changeth the action, as men do that repent therefore repentance signifieth not any mutation in God, but in his actions and such things as are made and changed by him.” As a skilled theologian, Perkins did not prate about some kind of pious paradox, but rather reconciled the mind of Christ revealed in Scripture.
In addition to the discussion of these three attributes, Perkins discusses God’s will and decree in some amount of detail, as will be discussed more under the topic of God’s sovereignty. In discussing God’s will, Perkins states, “the will of God is that by the which he both most freely and justly with one act willeth all things.”45 Yet God’s holiness must be factored into the discussion of His will, and thus Perkins points out that,
God willeth that which is good by approving it, that which is evil, inasmuch as it is evil, by disallowing and forsaking it. And yet he voluntarily doth permit evil, because it is good that there should be evil.46
Perkins discusses the notion that it is good that there should be evil in more detail in his discussion of God’s decree, particularly that of reprobation.
Yet as a pillar of the orthodox, Perkins’ theology went well beyond bare monotheism into solid, credal orthodoxy. Without a firm foundation in the doctrine of the Trinity, theology is a dead science. Thus, after his discussion of theism as derived from Scripture, Perkins discusses Trinitarianism. First, Perkins takes on the perplexing question of what makes a “Person” in the Godhead: “The constitution of a person is when as a personal property, or the proper manner of subsisting is adjoined to the deity, or the one divine nature.”47 The personal properties are such as the Father being unbegotten and begetting the Son; the Son being begotten from all eternity by the Father; and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son.48
Perkins continues on this subject, discussing how the Persons are distinguished:
Distinction of persons is that which albeit every person is one and the same perfect God, yet the Father is not the Son or the Holy Ghost, but the Father alone; and the Holy Ghost is not the Father or the Son, but the Holy Ghost alone; neither can they be divided by reason of the infiniteness of their most simple essence, which is all one in number, and the same in the Father, the same in the Son, the same in the Holy Ghost, so that in these there is diversity of persons, but unity in essence.49
One God in Three Persons is the basic building block of our faith, and Perkins offered a sound exposition of this fundamental dogma of the Christian religion.
At the heart of God’s revelation and salvation, of course, is our Lord Jesus Christ. Christology, therefore, figures largely in Perkins’ exposition. The Son of God, though fully, equally and eternally God, conjoined His divine nature with a human nature. As Perkins points out, it was necessary for our mediator to be both God and Man:
It is requisite for the Mediator to be God. I. That he might the better sustain that great misery wherewith mankind was overwhelmed.
That he might make his human nature both of plentiful merit and also of sufficient efficacy for the work of man’s redemption.50
The weight of sin was too great for any man to sustain in human nature. Moreover, the price of man’s redemption was too costly to be paid by any mere man. Thus it was necessary for the Word to minister strength and efficacy to the human nature.
Moreover, the mediator was necessarily man as well: “It was necessary that Christ should be man. First, that God might be pacified in that nature, wherein he was offended. Secondly, that he might undergo punishment due to sin, the which the Godhead could not being void and free from all passion.”51 Divine justice required a sacrifice to be made in the same nature as the offender, as is witnessed throughout the New Testament, as in Hebrews 2:14. In addition, God’s impassibility means that He cannot suffer, and therefore to suffer and make satisfaction, manhood was required.
Yet being both God and Man does not mean that the two natures are mingled or confused:
The distinction of both natures is that whereby they, with their properties and effects, remain without composition, mingling or conversion, distinct.52
The manhood, yet retaining the physical properties of a body, did not become ubiquitous or omnipresent, as Lutherans and Papists fondly imagine:
Christ’s body although it be thus glorified, yet it is still of a solid substance, compassed about, visible, palpable and shall perpetually remain in some certain place. (Luke 24:39) ‘Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.’53
Perkins’ teaching accords with the orthodox symbol of Chalcedon:
This also approveth that sentence of the Chalcedon Creed, ‘We confess that one and the same Christ Jesus, both Son, Lord, and only begotten, is known and preached to be in two natures without confusion, mutation, distinction, or separation.’54
The third major theme is the doctrine of salvation, consisting of the doctrines of sanctification, atonement and justification. The one true and living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit has given His Law, and revealed Who He is. This same God has likewise revealed His salvation in the sight of the nations. As a theologian concerned with the practical application of Scripture to all areas of life, Perkins had much to say concerning sanctification.
First, as cited above, sanctification’s standard and compass is the Law of God.55 This gives structure and content to what can otherwise be a confusing topic when dealt with by impressions and feelings men receive. Moreover, the faithful not only have an unerring standard for their sanctification, but are bound to obedience “not as it is satisfactory, but as it is a document of faith, and a testimony of their gratitude towards God, or a means to edify their neighbors.”56 Perkins views justification and sanctification in a biblical light, as opposed to the merit-monger, who seeks justification by works, and the antinomian who boasts of free grace while downgrading the law in sanctification.
Sanctification, however, is not merely a moral effort by the faithful. “The efficient cause of [mortification and vivification] is the Holy Ghost, who doth by his divine power convey himself into the believer’s hearts, and in them, by applying the power of Christ, his death, and resurrection, createth holiness.”57 Mortification, Perkins says, is the “first part of sanctification, whereby the power of sin is abated and crucified in the faithful.”58 “Vivification is the second part of sanctification: whereby inherent holiness being begun, is still augmented and enlarged.”59 Thus, Christ is made the Christian’s sanctification, in both his death to sin (Romans 6:2-4), and his growth in grace (Ephesians 4:23-24).
Moreover, the life of sanctification helps a man discern the sort of person he is, or the status of his election. “Luther’s saying is far more true. Good works do not make a good man, but a good man doth make works good.”60 A good tree bears good fruit. Moreover, in discerning one’s election, he may look to the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit, or, if that testimony is not so powerful in the elect, “then may they judge of their election by that other effect of the Holy Ghost; namely, sanctification: like as we use to judge by heat that there is fire, when we cannot see the flame itself.”61 The effect proves the presence of the cause. This accords well with the admonition of the Apostle to make our “calling and election sure” by means of growth in sanctification.62
Concerning the atonement made by Christ Jesus our Lord, Perkins refers to it as a satisfaction for our sins. “Satisfaction comprehendeth his passion and fulfilling the law. His passion is the first part of satisfaction by which he, having undergone the punishment of sin, satisfied God’s justice and appeased his anger for the sins of the faithful.”63 The biblical message of salvation is one declaring God’s justice and anger against the offending creature, satisfied only by the passion and obedience of our Savior Christ. These themes are clearly portrayed by Perkins. Christ’s passion, moreover, is not merely a theoretical propitiation, but “is a full propitiation to his Father for the elect.”64 This is a real and full atonement for sin; the true salvation from sin spoken of in Scripture.
Dovetailing with the biblical teaching of a real atonement is the Scripture’s declaration that we are fully justified by God’s grace. “Remission of sins is that part of justification, whereby he that believeth, is freed from the guilt and punishment of sin by the merits of the passion of Christ.”65 The effectual atonement of Christ produces real and full freedom from guilt and punishment in the elect. There are no maybes for Perkins in this equation.
However, salvation is not completed by the mere erasure of guilt. No, God has procured abundant and full righteousness for His people: “Imputation of righteousness is the other part of justification, whereby such as believe, having the guilt of their sins covered, are accounted just in the sight of God through Christ’s righteousness.”66 By Christ’s obedience to God’s Law, we are freed from the curse, and righteousness is imputed to us by faith. This is a sure foundation for the confidence the saints have in Christ’s work on their behalf. We have a full salvation, entailing our election before the world was, Christ’s obedience and satisfaction for us, our calling to faith and repentance in time, our justification before God’s righteous Law, and our sanctification to demonstrate our thankfulness to God and our faith to our neighbor.
The fourth major theme is the doctrine of divine sovereignty. God does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth.67 In Perkins’ words, “The decree of God is that by which God in himself hath necessarily, and yet freely, from all eternity determined all things.”68 Yet, just as with the use of God’s Law, the topic of God’s decree varies depending on whether we consider God’s decree of evil works or of good:
God’s operation is his effectual producing all good things which either have being or moving, or which are done. God’s operative permission is that by which he only permitteth one and the same work to be done of others as it is evil, but as it is good he effectually worketh the same.69
Men may mean wicked works for evil, but God means them for good; whether to save many alive, or to demonstrate the positive good of punishment.
Not only has God generally determined the course of divine providence by His decree, He has likewise fixed the destiny of each man in particular:
God’s decree, in as much as it concerneth man, is called predestination: which is the decree of God by the which he hath ordained all men to a certain and everlasting estate, that is either to salvation or condemnation, for his own glory.70
The Scriptures declare that God has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation, and that God has fitted some to destruction while preparing others for glory.71 This God is not one to be trifled with. He is to be feared, worshiped in awe and reverence, believed in completely, and obeyed diligently.
In discussing this matter of predestination in more detail, Perkins discusses the decree of reprobation:
The decree of reprobation is that part of predestination, whereby God, according to the most free and just purpose of his will, hath determined to reject certain men unto eternal destruction and misery, and that to the praise of his justice. (Romans 9:21) ‘Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?’ (1 Peter 2:8) ‘To them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed (etethēsan).’72
Perkins, while maintaining the freedom of the Potter, likewise demonstrates the justice of God, which He demonstrates in the execution of this decree:
Neither do we here set down any absolute decree of damnation, as though we should think that any were condemned by the mere and alone will of God, without any cause inherent in such as are to be condemned. For unto the decree of God itself, there are certain means for the execution thereof annexed and subordinate.73
God has ordained the end, and the means to the end. The justice of God is seen in the damnation of reprobates for their sins, and not merely by the decree of God. As Perkins states, “we must note that God hath so decreed to condemn some, as that notwithstanding, all the fault and guilt of condemnation remaineth in the men only.”74
Perkins also skillfully deals with objections to his frank views on predestination. For example, one objection handled concerns the declarations in Scripture, such as Ezekiel 18:23, where it states that God does not will the death of the sinner. In this regard, Perkins states:
God therefore wills the death of a sinner, but as it is a punishment, that is, as it is a means to declare and set out his divine justice: and therefore it is an untruth for a man to say that God would have none condemned. For whereas men are once condemned, it must be either with God’s will, or without it: if without it, then the will of God must needs suffer violence, the which to affirm is great impiety: if with his will, God must needs change his sentence before set down, but we must not presume to say so.75
Augustine likewise gave careful consideration to such objections, and Perkins cites him to that effect:
“Augustine in his Enchiridion, chapter 103, It is thus said (saith Augustine) God would have all to be saved, not because there was no man which he would have damned, who therefore would not do miracles amongst them, which would as he saith, have repented, if he had done miracles, but that by all men we should understand all sorts of men, howsoever distinguished, whether Kings, private persons, &c. And in his book Rebuke and Grace, chapter 44, It is said, he would have all to be saved, so as we must understand all such as are predestinate to be saved, because amongst them there are all sorts of men, as he said to the Pharisees, You tithe ever herb.”76
Thus, for Perkins and Augustine, the statements of Scripture which seem to indicate that God desires every last man to be saved must be understood in such a way as permits the clear declarations of God’s decree to make unimpeded progress in striking awe and reverence into our hearts. God is not subject to man, and is not attempting to save people that He cannot save. He has done whatsoever it has pleased Him to do, and no one has the right to complain against him.
God’s sovereignty, however, is not limited to his general decree, or his specific electing love for the saints. It is likewise a source of comfort for the feeble, courage for the downtrodden, and hope for the weary pilgrim. God’s working all things after the counsel of His will likewise means, “that the afflictions of the faithful come not by chance, but by the counsel and providence of God, which disposeth all things in a most excellent sort.”77 God disposes our afflictions according to his counsel and providence. A wise and loving heavenly Father has determined that we should suffer.
Moreover, we may not only solace ourselves in God’s character, but in the specific designs He has for us; for good and not for evil. “That albeit afflictions are grievous, yet are they good and profitable. For they are helps, whereby men being humbled for their sins before God, obtain peace, and holiness of life.”78 Thus, for the elect the doctrine of providence and of God’s sovereignty in general are a source of encouragement in what can be a very discouraging task of battling against sin. Yet, when we see even the most grievous afflictions as from God’s fatherly hand, and for our highest good, we can embrace whatever God brings into our lives. His providence is our comfort rather than a foreboding consideration.
In conclusion, in reading the Golden Chain, I have been edified by Perkins’ discussion of the topics covered. As in my study of Archbishop Ussher’s Body of Divinity, so in Perkins, I have been blessed by a detailed study of the Law of God, commandment by commandment. God’s Law, the curse and enemy of the wicked, is a light unto the saints’ path, and their guide in sanctification. Concerning God Himself, Perkins discusses divine perfection, simplicity and immutability, as well as God as One in Three and Three in One. Christ our Lord, and His Person are likewise given careful attention. The edifying doctrine of our daily Christ sanctification was discussed, along with the grounds of our Christian joy and experience: the atonement of Christ and our justification. Finally, the high mystery of predestination was considered, and its implications in God’s general decree, the specific decree of predestination of men and angels, and the doom of the reprobates.
Perkins set out to write this book in order to teach “the science of living blessedly forever.” As a student of divinity, I have been blessed in the contemplation of the Queen of Sciences. As a Christian, I have been edified and encouraged. As a historian, I have been challenged to consider the Fathers and Councils of the Church. In conclusion, in assessing the Golden Chain, I believe that Perkins is, in fact, a pillar of the orthodox. His exposition of the leading doctrines of the Christian faith is both sound and practical; edifying and enlightening. I recommend this book for any Christian as well as for students of divinity.
1 Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the 17th Century, First St. Martin’s edition (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 196.
3 William Perkins, A Golden Chain, or the Description of Theology, Containing the Order of the Causes of Salvation and Damnation, according to God’s Word, First Edition (Puritan Reprints, 2010). This work will be cited as Golden Chain in the text and as Perkins in the footnotes. Note: spelling, capitalization, punctuation and formatting have followed this edition as closely as possible.
6 Perkins, 149.
15 Pages 3-4, supra.
16 Perkins, 81.
18 Page 3, supra.
22 Genesis 26:34-35.
23 Cf. Romans 13:4.
25Perkins, 116 for both quotations.
34 For Piscator’s refutation of this notion, see Johannes Piscator, Disputations on the Judicial Laws of Moses, 2nd edition (Shenandoah Valley, Virginia: Junius Brutus Tractate Society, 2011), 127-36.
40 John 5:26.
41 John 14:6.
43 James 1:17
44 Malachi 3:6
48 Cf. Perkins, 9-11.
55 Page 2, supra.
62 Cf. 2 Peter 1:10.
67 Cf. Daniel 4:35.
71 Cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:9 and Romans 9:22-23.