Preaching the Person and Work of Christ
William Perkins was a prolific writer and a monumental thinker within the Puritan movement. Yet Perkins believed that the heart of his ministry was preaching “one Christ, by Christ, to the praise of Christ.” We saw the principle behind this in our last post: Our preaching must be full of Christ because the Bible is full of Christ.
So far, so good. But what did this principle look like in Perkins own preaching? At this point, Perkins’ sermons on Matthew 4:1-11 can serve as an edifying illustration.
The full title of Perkins’ sermon is A general view of the strange combat between our Savior Christ and Satan. According to Perkins’ divisions, this combat consists of a preparation, the combat itself (which contains three conflicts in which Satan tempts Christ to unbelief, presumption, and then idolatry), and finally Christ’s victory over the Devil. Since the entire text focuses explicitly on Christ, Perkins’ Christological insights are scattered throughout the text. Nevertheless, they can be generally summarized as points which consider the person of Christ and points which discuss His work.
Preaching the Person of Christ
Perkins clearly sets forth Jesus as the God-Man. Perkins focuses the attention of his hearers on Christ’s humanity and the bearing which His human nature has on His wilderness temptations. While some might see discussions of the hypostatic union as too abstract for a popular sermon, Perkins considers it a vital truth for the comfort of believers. For example, when Perkins comments on the phrase “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil” from Matthew 4:1, he addresses the question of “how Christ could be ‘led’ by the Spirit, seeing He sends the Spirit.”Here Perkins distinguishes with theological precision between Christ’s divine and human natures, properly describing Christ’s actions according to His natures. Christ is subject to God’s providence according to His humanity (and is therefore “led by the Spirit”) while at the same time being the Author of providence according to His divinity (and is therefore the one who “sends the Spirit”).
This formulation is both theologically rich and gloriously orthodox, but Perkins’ purpose is not merely to introduce scholastic distinctions for their own sake. Rather, Perkins’ goal is to turn such truths to the benefit of the believer. He draws two specific uses from this truth which illumine Christ and encourage the Christian:
- The way in which Christ submits to the direction of the Spirit is a model of obedience for the believer. While Perkins never reduces the text to a mere moral example, he always has an eye towards the ways in which the text calls on Christians to be imitators of Christ. The careful reader should consider Christ’s actions as an example to follow. If Christ is led by the Spirit, then the believer should be led by the Spirit as well. This Christ-like willingness to submit to the Spirit allows the believer to endure in the midst of trials.
- If the Spirit led Christ into trials, the Christian should expect no less. It was the Spirit of God – not Satan – who led Christ into the wilderness to be tempted. The believer may think that being led by the Spirit means being led away from difficulty, but the life of Christ corrects that notion. Christ was led by the Spirit into trials and temptations, and those who follow Him can expect the same.
All of this is derived from Perkins exposition on v. 1. There are many other sections in Perkins’ sermon we could point to, but one further example is worth special note.
In the final verse of the passage, Matthew writes, “Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him” (Matt. 4:11). Perkins remarks here are fascinating. He reflects on the fact that though humans were made lower than the angels, in Christ humanity is exalted beyond the rank of the angelic hosts. Because God has taken to Himself human flesh, human flesh finds itself being ministered to by angels. This is not only true of Christ’s humanity; it is true of all redeemed humanity.
The implications are immense for the child of God. Christ, Perkins argues, fulfills Jacob’s ladder, and in Him angels descend and ascend from heaven to earth. Believers receive the blessings of Christ, and Perkins argues that one of those blessings is that God sends His angels to minister to them. This is a source of comfort for the Christian, but such a privilege should also prompt all believers to watch carefully how they live. Perkins reminds his hearers that they would be quick to behave well if they were in the presence of “an earthly prince… Much more then should the presence and attendance of God’s glorious angels, who pitch their tents about us if we be God’s children, make us circumspect to all our ways.”
Preaching the Work of Christ
Perkins finds equal cause for comfort and conviction in the work of Christ. Significantly, Perkins draws a tight link between the temptation of the first Adam in the garden with the temptation of the second Adam in the wilderness. Just as Adam stood as the representative of humanity in the first temptation, so Christ stood as the representative of humanity during these wilderness temptations. In both cases Satan comes to tempt a sinless man, and in both cases the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
The difference, of course, was in both the setting and the outcome. Adam was tempted in paradise where he lacked nothing. He had human companionship and encouragement in Eve and stood as the steward of all creation. There was nothing that he lacked and nothing that he needed. Christ, on the other hand, was tempted in the desert and had the company only of the Devil and wild beasts (as Mark 1:13 say). The first Adam had every advantage, while the second Adam had every disadvantage. Yet the outcome was gloriously different as well. Despite his advantages, the first Adam falls. Despite His disadvantages, the second Adam triumphs. Christ prevails over the Devil where Adam could not. The outcome of the first Adam’s temptation is that he himself is forced to flee. The outcome of the second Adam’s temptation is that the Devil is forced to flee.
Perkins identifies both Christ and Adam act as representative figures. That means that the victories of Christ over Satan are our victories. While the wilderness temptation is but one part of Christ’s work, it is a significant encounter which can only be rightly understood in light of Christ’s work as the mediator between God and man. Redemption was ultimately wrought on the cross, but the active obedience of Christ (which is nowhere more clearly seen than in this passage) is vital to the work of redemption as well. As Paul puts it in Romans 5:19: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” Christ’s obedience is seen in every aspect of his life, but the wilderness temptation is a manifestation of the power and perfection of Christ in contrast to the weakness and wanderings of sinful man.
In this we see the outworking of some of Perkins’ principles. As has already been noted, Perkins taught that every part of Scripture points to Jesus as the messianic Mediator between God and man. While contemporary readers might interpret this passage in isolation (viewing Christ’s temptation as either a passing anecdote or perhaps as an inspiring example), Perkins preaches the passage as a revelation of who Christ is and what He came to do. In persevering under Satan’s assaults, Christ is manifested as the merciful High Priest who has been tempted just like the believer. In prevailing over Satan’s assaults, Christ is manifested as the victorious King who turns Satan’s weapons back on him.
Christ’s combat with the Devil moreover reminds the believer that trials and temptations are a normal part of the Christian walk. Christ withstood the temptation to unbelief, presumption, and idolatry. In so doing, He shows all believers how to stand firm against Satan in imitation of their Savior. Perkins reminds his hearers that Christ’s victory over Satan is not only a call to obedience, but a warning against disobedience which will be dealt with on the Final Day — the day in which Christ will take up His Kingly judgment on the nations. Perkins believed that in these temptations, Christ was not only conquering the Devil, but was also comforting believers.
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Throughout his sermons on Matthew 4:1-11, Perkins holds forth Christ. He explores the person of Christ as the true God-Man. He proclaims the work of Christ as the second Adam who is both a perfect Priest and a powerful King. He preaches an applied Christology instead of an abstract Christology. At every turn, Perkins draws out truths about Christ which bring both conviction and comfort to his hearers. He is not afraid to probe the depths of doctrine, yet he always emerges from those depths with gems of grace.
Perkins’ preaching is as good as his principles. May all ministers labor to follow his example in preaching Christ.
Ben Franks serves as the Senior Pastor of Ketoctin Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Purcellville, VA. A native son of the PCA, he has done mission work in England with the EPCEW and served with churches in the PCA and OPC. He studied at Patrick Henry College, completed his B.A. in Classical Christian Education through Whitefield College, and earned his M.Div from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. His writings have been published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, the Confessional Presbyterian Journal, and the Banner of Truth Magazine.
"Perkins on Common Faith and Saving Faith" by Derrick Brite
"Puritan Preachers: William Perkins" by Joel Beeke
"Always Preach Christ?" by Ryan McGraw
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
Beeke, Joel R. and Randall J. Pederson. Meet the Puritans. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006.
Perkins, William. The Art of Prophesying. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2011.
_. The Works of William Perkins. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014.
. William Perkins, The Works of William Perkins (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 1:91.
. Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, 1:91.
. “By which example we are taught to suffer ourselves to be ordered and guided by the Spirit of God in everything we take in hand, yea in all our thoughts, words and deeds; for this is the true note of every child of God”. Perkins, The Works of William Perkins,1:91.
. “From this we learn that temptations come not by chance, nor yet by the will and pleasure of the devil only…but temptations come by God’s most just permission, and not without His special providence and appointment.” Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, 1:91
. “Christ…the man-God, is Lord of all angels, and they do Him homage and service. And though the manhood of Christ be not Lord of angels, yet being received into the unity of His Godhead, it is thereby exalted above all angels by many degrees. Wherein we may behold the endless goodness of God, in advancing our nature, which by sin was made more vile than all earthly creatures, far above the angels in degree, by reason of this conjunction which it has with the nature of God in the person of Christ. Now as by this bond the angels are made ministers unto Christ, so by virtue of the same, they become ministers to all His true members.” Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, 1:162.
. “His glorious angels…become ministering spirits for their protection, defense, and comfort.” Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, 1:162.
. Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, 1:162.
. J. Stephen Yuille puts it well in the preface to Volume 1 of William Perkin’s works: “This is the theological framework in which Perkins expounds Matthew 4:1-11. Adam was in the garden; Christ was in the wilderness. Adam was satisfied; Christ was hungry. Adam was surrounded by tame animals; Christ had every disadvantage. Adam chose not to delight in God; Christ chose to delight in God. Adam chose to ignore God’s Word; Christ chose to cling to God’s Word. Adam disobeyed; Christ obeyed. Adam succumbed to the devil; Christ triumphed over the devil.” Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, 1:xxxvi.
. “For as in temptation Christ stood in our room and stead, so is this victory not His alone, but the victory of His church.…In this appears the unspeakable mercy of God unto His church, in mitigating, and in due time putting an end unto the afflictions and temptations thereof; for the case of Christ the Head in this conflict, is the case and condition of all His members.” Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, 1:157.
. “But behold Christ Jesus the most holy person that ever was, even the ‘holy one of God’ [John 6:69], was tempted of Satan, and that exceeding sore, having the same troubles and vexations thereby arising in His mind that we have, insomuch as the angels came to minister comfort unto Him (v. 11). God’s dearest children therefore may and must be tempted, for that is no token of a child of wrath, unless we will say, that Christ Jesus was the child of wrath, which once to think were most blasphemous.…Christ was tempted, that he might be ‘a merciful high priest unto them that are tempted’ (Heb. 2:17-18).” Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, 1:143.
. “Now that which here befalls the devil, shall one day be verified of all wicked men: if they will not now obey God willingly, while in the ministry of the Word He bids them ‘repent and believe the gospel’ [Mark 1:15], they shall one day be compelled, even at the dreadful day of judgment, will they nill they, to obey that woeful voice of Christ, ‘Depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire’ (Matt. 25:41).” Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, 1:159.
. Perkins draws his sermons to a close with these words: “[T]hen will they find that this doctrine is needful, yea, they will bless God for this work of His Spirit that caused these temptations of Christ to be so particularly recorded, with His happy issue and victory over them all, not only for Himself but for all His members, that in their temptations they may look unto Jesus, lest they should faint in their minds, for ‘in that he suffered and was tempted he is able to succor them that are tempted’ (Heb. 2:18).” Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, 1:165.