William Perkins (1558–1602) on the efficacy of the Sacraments



In his polemical work A Reformed Catholic, William Perkins (1558–1602) discusses the differences between Reformed and Roman Catholic theology, arguing that the Reformed are the “true catholics”. In the nineteenth chapter, he discusses the Reformed view of the efficacy of the sacraments:


Our consent.

Conclus. I. We teach and believe that the sacraments are signes to represent Christ with his benefits unto us.

Conclus. II. We teach further, that the Sacraments are indeede instruments whereby God offereth & giveth the fore-said benefits unto us. Thus far we consent with the Romane Church.

The difference.

The difference betweene us stands in sundry points. First of all, the best learned among them teach, that Sacraments are physical instruments, that is, true and proper instrumental causes, having force and efficacy in them to produce and give grace. They use to express their meaning by their comparisons: When the scrivener takes the pen into his hand and writes, the action of writing comes from the pen, moved by the hand of the writer: and in cutting of wood or stone, the division comes from the sawe, moved by the hand of the work-man: even so the grace (say they) that is given by God, is conferred by the Sacrament it selfe. Now we for our parts hold, that Sacraments are not physical, but mere voluntary instruments. Voluntary, because it is the will and appointment of God, to use them as certaine outward means of grace. Instruments; because when we use them aright according to the institution, God them answerably confers grace from himselfe. In this respect only take we them for instruments and no otherwise.

The second difference is this: They teach that the very action of the minister dispensing the sacrament as it is the worke done, gives grace immediately, if the parties be prepared: as the very washing or sprinkling of water in baptisme, and the giving of bread in the Lords Supper: even as the orderly moving of the pen upon the paper by the hand of the writer causeth writing. We hold the contrary: namely, that no action in the dispensation of a Sacrament conferreth grace as it is a worke done, that is, by the efficacy and force of the very sacramental action it selfe, though ordained of GOD: but for two other ways. First, by the signification thereof. For God testifies unto us his will and good pleasure partly by the word of promise, and partly by the sacrament: the signes representing to the eyes that which the word doth to the eares: being also types and certaine images of the very same things, that are promised in the word, and no other. Yea, the elements are not general and confused, but particular signes to the several communicants, and by the virtue of the institution: for when the faithful receive the signes from God by the hands of the Minister, it is as much as if God himselfe with his own mouth should speak unto them severally, and by name promise to them remission of sins. And things said to men particularly, do more affect, and more take away doubting, than if they were generally spoken of an whole company. Therefore signes of grace are as it were an applying and binding of the promise of salvation to every particular believer: and by this meanes, the oftner they are received, the more they helpe our infirmity, & confirme our assurance of mercy.

Againe, the Sacrament confers grace, in that the signe thereof confirmes faith as a pledge, by reason it hath a promise annexed to it. For when God commands us to receive the signes in faith, & withal promiseth to the receivers to give the thing signified, he bindes himselfe, as it were in bond unto us to stand to his owne word; even as men bind themselves in obligations, putting to their hand and seales, so as they cannot go backe. And when the signes are thus used as pledges, & that often, they greatly increase the grace of God; as a token sent from one friend to another, renewes and confirmes the persuasion of love.

These are two principal ways whereby the Sacraments are said to confer grace, namely, in respect of their signification, and as they are pledges of Gods favour unto us. And the very point here to be considered is, in what order and manner they confirme. And the manner is this: The signes and visible elements affect the senses outward and inward: the senses convey their object to the minde, the minde directed by the holy Ghost reasoneth on this manner, out of the promise annexed to the sacrament: He that useth the elements aright, shall receive grace thereby: but I use the elements aright in faith & repentance, saith the mind of the believer: therefore shall I receive from God increase of grace. Thus then, faith is confirmed not by the worke done, but by a kind of reasoning caused in the minde, the argument or proofe whereof is borrowed from the elements, being signes and pledges of Gods mercy.

The third difference. The Papists teach that in the Sacrament by the worke done, the very grace of justification is conferred. We say no: because a man of yeares must first believe and be justified; before he can be a meete partaker of any sacrament. And the grace that is conferred, is only the increase of our faith, hope, sanctification, &c.

Our reasons.

Reason I. The word preached and the sacraments differ in the manner of giving Christ and his benefits unto us: because in the word the spirit of God teacheth us by a voice conveyed to the minde by the bodily eares: but in the sacraments annexed to the word, by certaine sensible and bodily signes viewed by the eye. Sacraments are nothing but visible words and promises. Otherwise for the giving it selfe they differ not. Christ himselfe saith, that in the very word, is eaten his owne flesh, which he was to give for the life of the world: and what can be said more of the Lords supper? Augustine saith, that believers are partakers of the body & blood of Christ in baptisme: and Hierome to Edibia, that in baptisme we eate and drinke the body and blood of Christ. If thus much may be said of baptisme, why may it not also be said of the word preached? Againe, Hierome upon Ecclesiastes saith, It is profitable to be filled with the body of Christ, and drinke his blood, not only in mystery but in knowledge of holy Scripture. Now upon this it followes, that seeing the worke done in the word preached, confers not grace, neither doth the worke done in the sacrament confer any grace.

Reason II. Matth. 3. 11. I baptize you with water to repentance: but he that commeth after me is stronger than I—, he shall baptize you with the holy Ghost and with fire. Hence it is manifest that grace in the sacrament proceedes not from any action in the sacrament: for John though he do not disjoine himselfe and his action from Christ and the action of his spirit, yet doth he distinguish them plainely in number, persons, and effect. To this purpose Paul, who had said of the Galathians, that he travelled of them and begat them by the Gospel, saith of himselfe, that he is not any thing, not only as he was a man, but as he was a faithful Apostle: thereby excluding the whole Evangelical ministery, whereof the Sacrament is a part, from the least part of divine operation, or efficacy in conferring of grace.

Reason III. The blessed Angels, nay the very flesh of the Son of God hath not any quickening virtue from it selfe; but all this efficacy or virtue is in and from the Godhead of the Son: who by meanes of the flesh apprehended by faith, deriveth heavenly and spiritual life from himselfe to the members. Now if there he no efficacy in the flesh of Christ, but by reason of the hypostatical union: how shall bodily actions about bodily elements confer grace immediately?

Reason IV. Paul, Rom. 4. stands much upon this, to prove that justification by faith is not conferred by the sacraments. And from the circumstance of time he gathereth that Abraham was first justified, & then afterward received circumcision, the signe and the seale of his righteousness. Now we know, that the general condition of all sacraments is one & the same, and that baptisme succeeded circumcision. And what can be more plaine than the example of Cornelius, Act. 10. who before Peter came unto him, had the commendation of the feare of God, and was indued with the spirit of prayer: and afterward when Peter by preaching opened more fully the way of the Lord, he & the rest received the holy Ghost? And after all this they were baptized. Now if they received the holy Ghost before baptisme, then they received remission of sins, and were justified before baptisme.

Reason V. The judgement of the ancient Church. Basil, If there be any grace in the water, it is not from the nature of the water, but from the presence of the Spirit. Hierome saith, Man gives water, but God gives the holy Ghost. August. saith, Water toucheth the body, and washeth the heart: but he shows his meaning else-where. There is one water (saith he) of the sacrament, another of the spirit: the water of the Sacrament is visible, the water of the spirit invisible. That washeth the body, and signifieth what is done in the soule; By this the soule is purged and healed.

Object.Remission of sins, regeneration, and salvation, is ascribed to the sacrament of baptisme, Act. 16. Eph. 5. 26. Gal. 3. 27. Tit. 3. 5Ans. Salvation and remission of sins is ascribed to baptisme and the Lords supper, as to the word; which is the power of God to salvation to all that believe: & that, as they are instruments of the holy Ghost to signify, seale, and exhibite to the believing minde the foresaid benefits: but indeede the proper instrument whereby salvation is apprehended, is faith, & sacraments are but props of faith furthering salvation two ways: first, because by their signification they helpe to nourish and preserve faith: secondly, because they seale grace and salvation to us: yea God gives grace and salvation when we use them well: so be it we believe the word of promise made to the sacrament, whereof also they are seales. And thus we keepe the middle way, neither giving too much, nor too little to the Sacrament.

William Perkins (1558–1602) on church, Scripture, and authority


I appreciate how William Perkins (1558–1602) discussed church, Scripture, and authority in his book on preaching,

“The church can bear witness to the canon of Scripture, but it cannot inwardly persuade us of its authority.  If that were so the voice of the church would have greater force than the voice of God, and the whole state of man’s salvation would be dependent on men.  What could be more miserable than that?”

“We do not believe something because the church says it is to be believed; rather, we believe it because what the church says has first of all been said by Scripture.”

“The person who doubts the Scriptures will also doubt the testimony of the church.”

This is a great Reformation way of thinking – we have a very high view of the church, and an even higher view of Scripture.

Definition of Theology: “Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum” and its historical trajectories


By Jake Griesel

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), defining theology in a sermon on Hebrews 5:12 in Northampton, New England, 1739, stated: “Divinity is commonly defined, the doctrine of living to God; and by some who seem to be more accurate, the doctrine of living to God by Christ.”

By “some who seem to be more accurate”, Edwards was referring to Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706). The title of this blog, Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum (Theology is the doctrine of living unto God through Christ), was taken from Petrus van Mastricht’s Theoretico-practica theologia (1699), I.iii, and is his definition of theology. This definition, however, was not an invention of Mastricht, but had a theological and historical trajectory which goes back earlier in the Post-Reformation era.

Mastricht undoubtedly drew from William Ames (1575-1633), who in his Medulla S.S. Theologiae (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity – 1627), chapter 1, defined theology as “Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi” (Theology is the doctrine of living unto God).

Ames’ definition, in turn, can be linked to William Perkins (1558–1602) in his A Golden Chaine (1592), where he defined theology (and the body of Scripture) as such: “The bodie of Scripture, is a doctrine sufficient to live well.” (est doctrina bene vivendi).

Again, Perkins evidently adopted his definition from Petrus Ramus (1515–1572), who in his De Religione Christiana (On the Christian Religion – 1572), Chapter 1, wrote: “Theologia est doctrina bene vivendi.”

Thus we see that the definition of theology as Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum had an historical trajectory of thought spanning across an era of around 165 years, in which it was developed, modified, and translated from Latin into English. And on top of that, this was done in five different European cities as well as in America (in the case of Edwards), as can be shown here:

Edwards (1739) Northampton

Mastricht (1699) Utrecht

Ames (English translation, 1642) London

Ames (1627) Franeker

Perkins (1592) Cambridge

Ramus (1572) Paris

This shows that the Post-Reformation writers did not work in isolation, but drew their thoughts from one another and stood on the shoulders of those who had gone before them – a firm indication of the catholicity of the Reformed tradition in the Post-Reformation era.

Jonathan Edwards (refer to the quotation at the top) had a very high regard for Petrus van Mastricht:

“But take Mastricht for divinity in general, doctrine, practice, and controversy; or as an universal system of divinity and it is much better than Turretin or any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion.” [Letter, Edwards to Joseph Bellamy 1746]

Why was Mastricht’s definition of theology as Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum so important to Edwards? Edwards tells us:

“It comprehends all Christian doctrines as they are in Jesus, and all Christian rules directing us in living to God by Christ. There is nothing in divinity, no one doctrine, no promise, no rule, but what some way or other relates to the Christian and divine life, or our living to God by Christ. They all relate to this, in two respects, viz. as they tend to promote our living to God here in this world, in a life of faith and holiness, and also as they tend to bring us to a life of perfect holiness and happiness, in the full enjoyment of God hereafter.”

[A special thanks to Prof. Adriaan Neele from Yale Divinity School, who taught me about this trajectory in my third year of theological studies, and has been an inspiration to me ever since.]