Perkins on Common Faith and Saving Faith
Among the many disturbing trends in evangelicalism today, perhaps the one that stands out as most perplexing to many of God’s people is that of what is popularly being termed as “deconstruction.” No doubt it can be difficult for some to reconcile a Reformed soteriology with the reality of apostasy. We see someone who has professed the faith, and perhaps even preached the Gospel or performed great works in the name of the Christ—and now they have walked away. This prompts two important questions: What is the nature of true and saving faith, and how do we know if we have it? Thankfully, we have inherited a carefully nuanced and exegetically informed theology from our forefathers to help us deal with these concerns. And one of those forefathers is William Perkins.
In his exposition of the Apostle’s Creed, Perkins deals with the question of the types of faith one might possess. There two types of faith: (1) that of common faith which is held by both reprobate and elect alike, (2) and the faith of the elect, which is a true and genuine saving faith. Common faith, which is found even in the devil and his angels, has a few different characteristics. First, it is historical. A historical faith contains two key elements: notitia and assensus. Those who have this type of faith are not illuminated by the Holy Spirit but “attain to it even by the very light of nature, which was left in them from the beginning.” One can know and assent to various truths about God, yet not have the root of the matter in him. Or, as the brother of our Lord put it, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19).
Common faith is also a temporary faith. There are two different shades of temporary faith. The first is that is that which we see in the parable of the sower and the seed that fell upon the rocky ground (Matthew 13). This type of faith goes a step further than historical faith; not only is there knowledge and assent, but there is also a profession. Those who hold to this kind of temporary faith give all the outward signs of a true and genuine faith, but do so “without any love to the Word.” An example given by Perkins is the devils who know and confess the truth about Christ, “and yet looked for no salvation by Him.” These are people who profess the true religion, sitting under the ministry of the Word and partaking of the sacraments for decades. And yet they are completely devoid of true grace. Whatever the reason for their profession, it is not due to a genuine love for Christ and his Word.
Another type of temporary faith is perhaps the one most common in our day, and yet also the most alarming. This advances past mere profession and involves an inward rejoicing and even bearing fruit. One may object to this distinction, stating that joyful fruit should be a sign of a genuine faith. However, as Perkins rightly points out that, these fruits are only temporary because they are grounded, not in true religion, but in one of three temporary causes: (1) a desire for knowledge of strange points of doctrine; (2) a desire of man’s praise; or (3) a desire for profit or wealth. There are no doubt endless applications and examples of those in our day who would fall under this category. Unfortunately, the so-called “reformed resurgence” has not been immune.
Similarly, common faith can be the kind of faith that Simon Magus possessed: a faith based upon miracles or some desire for special revelation or work of God. It could be argued that this is the faith of the prosperity gospel, as it desires the gift but not the Giver.
If a common, non-salvific faith can know, assent to, profess, rejoice in, and even bear fruit as a result of hearing the gospel, then what is true saving faith? And how can one know that he truly has it?
True faith is that which “lays hold of a thing and pulls it to himself…” And that “thing” is the “whole Christ, God and man” and all of his saving benefits. To gain Christ is not only to gain salvation, but also to be reconciled to God. This is something that every person of true faith desires, even those with the weakest faith. This is not a mere excitement over doctrinal truth; it is a deeply rooted love for Christ and the Father with whom you have been reconciled.
This is why we must labor and strive to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). We may deceive ourselves and others with a temporary faith. We must be diligent to
“…supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).
Using the means that God has given us to build our faith (most especially the ordinary means of grace) will build our faith and help ensure that our seed will not be snatched away or choked out.
Those who have made shipwreck of their faith never truly apprehend the whole Christ. They may have had many outward signs or even some type of temporary fruit, but their hearts were stony ground. With so many who appeared so strong on the outside leaving the faith, you may find yourself fearful about your own salvation. You may be one who has a weaker faith. Perhaps even now you’ve read this and asked yourself “Is my faith strong enough?”
Well, no, it’s not.
But Christ is strong enough.
“We must know that this weak faith will as truly apprehend God’s merciful promises for the pardon of sin as strong faith, though not so soundly — even as a man with a palsy hand can stretch out as well to receive a gift at the hand of a king as he that is more sound, though it be not so firmly and steadfastly. And Christ says that He will not break the bruised reed nor quench the smoking flax.”
Derrick Brite serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aliceville, Alabama. He received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta and is currently pursuing a ThM in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"Puritan Preachers: William Perkins" by Joel Beeke
"William Ames: Saving Faith and Theology" by Ryan McGraw
"Faith, Feelings, and Facts" by Patrick Ramsey
William Perkins: Architect of Puritanism, ed. by Joel Beeke and Greg Salazar
The Gospel Pure and Simple, with Sinclair Ferguson, Liam Goligher, and Mark Johnston
 William Perkins, “An Exposition of the Creed” in The Works of William Perkins: Volume 5, ed. Ryan Hurd (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 9).
 Ibid., 10-11
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 15.