William Perkins: 3 Reasons the Spirit Drove Christ into the Wilderness to be Tempted

By Obbie T. Todd

While a student at Christ’s College at Cambridge, William Perkins (1558-1602) experienced his conversion after overhearing a woman in the street chiding her disobedient child. Much to his surprise and humiliation, the mother alluded to him as “drunken Perkins.” According to Perkins, this experience then propelled him to reform his ways and to eventually cling to Christ for salvation. The young Perkins went on to meet Laurence Chaderton (1536-1640) who would disciple him and become a lifelong friend. Along with men like Richard Greenham and Richard Rogers, Perkins and Chaderton went on to form a spiritual brotherhood at Cambridge, regarded by many as the Puritan center of the day.

Perkins knew well the guilt and even the public shame of sin. Therefore he was a particularly wise source concerning the issue of temptation. According to J.I. Packer, the Elizabethan theologian became a “pioneer” for Puritan literature on everyday Christian living. (A Quest for Godliness, 41) Perkins defined theology as “the science of living blessedly forever.” (Golden Chaine) Due to the necessity for sanctification and godliness in the Christian life, it was incumbent upon the believer to approach temptation in a biblical manner. The Christian life could be divided into two chief actions: “mortification” and “vivification,” or putting to death the remaining sin of the flesh and living unto Christ by the Spirit. As Perkins demonstrates, temptation is one of the primary means through which Christ achieves this sanctifying process.

In his work The Combat between Christ and the Devil Displayed, taken from his sermons at Cambridge, Perkins scrupulously exegetes the Scriptures while also prescribing a way of righteousness for the sinner. For Perkins, Christ wasn’t simply our penal substitute; He was our perfect life: “But here Christ stood in our room and stead (as He did upon the cross) encountering with Satan for us, as if we in our own persons had been tempted.” (Works of William Perkins, Vol. 1, 97) The Christian looked to Jesus for his justification as well as his sanctification. This was axiomatic for Perkins’ view of Christianity. In his robust presentation of Christ’s desert trials, Perkins seeks to answer why the Spirit drove the Son of God into the wilderness to be tempted. Typical of Perkins’ Ramus logic, the Puritan divine produces three answers…

1. Christ Became a Better Adam by Overcoming Satan’s Assault.
For Perkins, the temptations of Christ in the wilderness should be interpreted against the temptations of Adam in the Garden. Only through biblical typology could Christ’s temptations find fuller meaning. According to Perkins, the Spirit moved Christ to be tempted “that He might foil the devil at his own weapon; for the devil overcame the first Adam in temptation, therefore Christ the second Adam would in temptation overcome him.” Just as Adam is the head of the human race, Christ is the head of a new humanity to be glorified at the resurrection. Without Christ’s conquering of Satan and complete abstinence from sin, this future hope isn’t realized. Our corrupt hearts “like tender do easily suffer corruption to kindle in us; but Christ’s most holy heart did presently like water quench the evil of Satan’s motions.” Jesus threw water on the sweltering darts of Satan’s arsenal. Christ is the guarantor of a better covenant built upon better promises. (Heb. 7:22, 8:6) This new covenant is established upon a sinless Savior who learned obedience and was made perfect through suffering. (5:8-9)

2. Christ Gives Us Insight into the Devil’s Schemes and How to Overcome Them.
According to Perkins, the Spirit cast the Son of God into the wilderness to be tempted “that in His example he might give us direction whereby to know the special temptations wherewith the devil assaults the church, as also how to withstand and repel the same.” Jesus teaches us how to endure temptation and trial, giving us the bigger picture of human suffering. For Perkins, this principle is especially important in deterring the ignorant notion that those who are tempted by the devil are necessarily in sin. Christ Himself was tempted! Perkins exhorts his readers to “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).” Christ’s temptation doesn’t compromise his deity; it confirms his suitability, sufficiency, and superiority as our Intercessor and High Priest “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 5:15) This leads naturally to number 3.

3. Jesus Is Now Our Compassionate High Priest.
Jesus walked in our shoes. Just as we are tempted, he was tempted…and then some. Perkins reminds his readers that “Christ was tempted, that He might be ‘a merciful high priest unto them that are tempted’ (Heb. 2:17-18), for Himself knowing the trouble and anguish of temptation, must needs in a more compassionate fellow-feeling of their miseries be ready to help and comfort His members when they are tempted.” As head over the church, Jesus doesn’t lord over us as a tyrant; instead He “comforts His members” as a ruler who understands and empathizes with His people. Our Priest-King came as a servant, and thus He has walked a mile in our shoes. Against the accusations of the Devil, this is a comfort to the sinner. According to Paul R. Schaefer Jr., “The issue of holy living, or sanctification, pervaded the writings of the Elizabethan theologian William Perkins and provides a basis for understanding a primary concern of his theology.” (The Spiritual Brotherhood, 49) With such a conviction for Christian piety, it’s no wonder Perkins marshaled his biblical and intellectual resources in order to guide the sinner through the vicissitudes of human temptation.

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