top of page

"A Reformed Catholic", William Perkins (2) On Free Will.

Perhaps no doctrine is more hotly debated amongst and by Evangelicals than that of ‘Free Will’, and perhaps no doctrine is more misunderstood. Some err on one side by precluding from man all freedom, which would “…in effect make him a very beast” (Ussher, Answer to a Jesuit, page 445), for this freedom is the very difference between reasonable and unreasonable creatures. But that man is endued with reason may not be disputed.

The errors of others come in giving man too large a freedom in both strength and ability. It is on this side that the Reformed depart from Rome.

As we now proceed to Perkins exposition of the matter in A Reformed Catholic it is useful to note that he purposely chose to begin his treatise with the point of free will, not because it was the principal contention with Rome, but rather that a misunderstanding of man and his abilities spoils all doctrines related to him.


1. Our Consent with Rome

Free will both by them and us, is taken for a mixed power in the mind and will of man; whereby discerning what is good and what is evil, he does accordingly choose or refuse the same.

Conclusion 1

Man must be considered in a four-fold estate: (i) as he was created; (ii) as he was corrupted; (iii) as he is renewed; (iv) as he shall be glorified.

In the first estate, we ascribe to man's will liberty of nature in which he could will or nill either good or evil: in the third, liberty of grace: in the last, liberty of glory. All the doubt is of the second estate: and yet therein also we agree, as the conclusions fol∣lowing will declare.

Conclusion 2

The matters where about free will is occupied are principally the acti∣ons of men, which be of three sorts, natural, human, spiritual. Natural actions are such as are common to men with beasts, as to eat, drink, sleep, hear, see, smell, taste, and to move from place to place: in all which we join with the Papists, and hold that man has free will, and even since the fall of Adam by a natural power of the mind does freely perform any of these actions or the like.

Conclusion 3

Human actions are such as are common to all men good and bad, as to speak and use reason, the practise of all mechanical and liberal arts, and the outward performance of civil and ecclesiastical duties, as to come to the Church, to speak, and preach the word, to reach out the hand to receive the sacrament, and to lend the ear to listen outwardly to that which is taught. And here we may refer the outward actions of civil virtues; as namely, justice, temperance, gentleness, liberality. And in these also we join with the Church of Rome, and say (as experience teaches) that men have a natural freedom of will, to put them or not to put them in execution. Paul says Rom. 2. 14. The Gentiles that have not the law do the things of the law BY NATURE, that is, by natural strength: and he says of himself, that before his conversion touching the righteousness of the law, he was blameless, Phil. 3. 6. And for this external obedience, natural men receive reward in temporal things. Matt. 6. 5, Ezech. 29. 19. And yet here some caveats must be remembered:

(I) That in human actions, man's will is weak and feeble, and his understanding dim and dark; and thereupon he often fails in them. And in all such actions with Augustine I understand the will of man to be only wounded or half dead.

(II) That the will of man is under the will of God, and therefore to be ordered by it; as Jeremiah says, chap. 10. v. 23. O Lord I know that the way of man is not in himself: neither is it in man to walk or direct his steps.

Conclusion 4

The third kind of actions are spiritual more nearly concerning the heart and conscience, and these be two fold: they either concern the kingdom of darkness, or else the kingdom of God. Those that concern the kingdom of darkness are sins properly: and in these we likewise join with the Papists and teach, that in sins or evil actions man has freedom of will. Some peradventure will say, that we sin necessarily, because he that sins can not but sin: and that freewill and necessity can not stand together. Indeed the necessity of compulsion or co-action, and freewill can not agree: but there is another kind of necessity which may stand with freedom of will: for some things may be done necessarily and also freely. A man that is in close prison, must needs there abide and cannot possibly get forth and walk where he will; yet can he move himself freely and walk within the prison: so likewise, though man's will be chained naturally by the bonds of sin, and therefore cannot but sin: and thereupon sins necessarily, yet doth it also sin freely.

Conclusion 5

The second kind of spiritual actions or things, concern the kingdom of God; as repentance, faith, the conversion of a sinner, new obedience, and such like: in which we likewise in part join with the Church of Rome and say, that in the first conversion of a sinner, man's freewill concurs with God's grace, as a fellow or coworker in some sort. For in the conversion of a sinner three things are required: the word, God's spirit, and man's will: for man's will is not passive in all and every respect, but hath an action in the first conversion and change of the soul. When any man is converted, this work of God is not done by compulsion, but he is converted willingly: and at the very time when he is converted, by God's grace he wills his conversion. To this end said Augustine, He which made thee without thee, will not save thee without thee. Again, that is certain, that our will is required in this, that we may do any good thing well: but we have it not from our own power but God works to will in us. For look at what time God gives grace, at the same time he gives a will to desire and will the same grace: as for example when God works faith, at the same time he works also upon the will causing it to desire faith and willingly to receive the gift of believing. God makes of the unwilling will a willing will: because no man can receive grace utterly against his will, considering will constrained is no will. But here we must remember, that howsoever in respect of time the working of grace by God's spirit, and the willing of it in man go together: yet in regard of order, grace is first wrought, and man's will must first of all be acted and moved by grace, and then it also acts, wills, and moves itself. And this is the last point of consent between us and the Roman church touching free will: neither may we proceed further with them.

2. Our Dissent or Difference with Rome

The point of difference stands in the cause of the freedom of man's will in spiritual matters, which concern the kingdom of God. The Papists say, man's will concurs and works with God's grace in the first conversion of a sinner by itself, and by its own natural power; and is only helped by the Holy Ghost. We say, that man's will works with grace in the first conversion, yet not of itself, but by grace. Or thus; They say, will has a natural co-operation: we deny it, and say it has co-operation only by grace, being in itself not active but passive; willing well only as it is moved by grace, whereby it must first be acted and moved, before it can act or will.

And that we may the better conceive the difference, I will use this comparison: The Church of Rome sets forth the estate of a sinner by the condition of a prisoner, and so do we: mark then the difference. Rome supposes the said prisoner to lie bound hand and foot with chains and fetters, and withal to be sick and weak, yet not wholly dead but living in part: it supposes also that being in this case, he stirs not himself for any help, and yet has ability and power to stir. Hereupon if the keeper come and take away his bolts and fetters, and hold him by the hand and help him up, he can and will of himself stand and walk and go out of prison: even so (say they) is a sinner bound hand and foot with the chain of his sins; and yet he is not dead but sick, like to the wounded man in the way between Jericho and Jerusalem. And therefore does he not will and affect that which is good; but if the Holy Ghost come and do but untie his bands, and reach him his hand of grace, then can he stand of himself and will his own salvation, or any thing else that is good.

We in like manner grant, that a prisoner fitly resembles a natural man, but yet such a prisoner must he be, as is not only sick and weak but even stark dead; which cannot stir though the keeper untie his bolts and chains, nor hear though he sound a trumpet in his ear; and if the said keeper would have him to move and stir, he must give him not only his hand to help him, but even soul and life also: and such a one is every man by nature; not only chained and fettered in his sins but stark dead therein; as one that lies rotting in the grave, not having any ability or power to move or stir: and therefore he cannot so much as desire or do any thing that is truly good of himself, but God must first come and put a new soul into him, even the spirit of grace to quicken and revive him: and then being thus revived, the will begins to will good things at the very same time, when God by his spirit first infuses grace. And this is the true difference between us and the Church of Rome in this point of free will.

3. Our Reasons

Now for the confirmation of the doctrine we hold, namely, that a man wills not his own conversion of himself by nature either in whole or in part, but by grace wholly and alone; these reasons may be used.

First Reason

The first is taken from the nature and measure of mans corruption, which may be distinguished into two parts. The first is the want of that original righteousness, which was in man by creation: the second is, a proneness and inclination to that which is evil, and to nothing that is truly good. This appears Gen. 8. 21. The frame of man's heart (saith the Lord,) is evil even from his childhood: that is, the disposition of the understanding, will, affections, with all that the heart of man devises, forms, or imagines, is wholly evil. And Paul says, Rom. 8. 7. The wisdom of the flesh is ENMITY against God. Which words are very significant: for the word φρόνημα translated wisdom, signifies that the best thoughts, the best desires, affections, and endeavours that be in any natural man, even those that come most near to true holiness, are not only contrary to God, but even enmity itself. And hence I gather, that the very heart itself, that is, the will and mind, from whence these desires and thoughts do come, are also enmity unto God. For such as the action is, such is the faculty whence it proceeds; such as the fruit is, such is the tree; such as the branches are such are the roots. By both these places it is evident, that in man there is not only a want, absence, or deprivation of original righteousness, but a proneness also by nature unto that which is evil, which proneness includes in it an inclination not to some few, but to all and every sin; the very sin against the Holy Ghost not excepted. Hence therefore I reason thus:

  • If every man by nature do both lack original justice, and be also prone unto all evil, then lacks he natural free will to will that which is truly good.

  • But every man by nature wants original justice, and is also prone unto all evil.

  • Ergo: Every man naturally lacks free will, to will that which is good.

Second Reason

1. Cor. 2. 14. The natural man PERCEIVETH NOT the things of the spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him, neither CAN HE KNOW them, because they are spiritually discerned. In these words St. Paul sets down these points:

(I) That a natural man does not so much as think of the things revealed in the Gospel.

(II) That a man hearing, and in mind conceiving them; can not give consent unto them and by natural judgement approve of them, but contrariwise thinks them to be foolishness.

(III) That no man can give assent to the things of God, unless he be enlightened by the spirit of God. And hence I reason thus.

  • If a man by nature does not know and perceive the things of God: and when he shall know them, can not by nature give assent unto them: then has he no power to will them.

  • But the first is evidently true. Ergo.

  • For first the mind must approve and give assent, before the will can choose or will: and when the mind has not power to conceive nor give assent, there the will has no power to will.

Third Reason

The Holy Ghost avouches, Eph. 2:1, and Col. 2. 13. that all men by nature are dead in sins and trespasses: not as the Papists say, weak, sick, or half dead. Hence I gather, that man lacks natural power not to will simply, but freely and frankly to will that which is truly good. A dead man in his grave cannot stir the least finger, because he lacks the very power of life, sense, and motion: no more can he that is dead in sin, will the least good nay if he could either will or do any good, he could not be dead in sin. And as a dead man in the grave, cannot rise but by the power of God; no more can he that is dead in sin rise, but by the power of God's grace alone, without any power of his own.

Fourth Reason

In the conversion and salvation of a sinner, the scripture ascribes all to God, and nothing to man's free will. John 3. 3. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Eph. 2. 10. We are his workmanship CREATED in Christ Jesus to good works. And Ch 4. vs 24. the new man is CREATED to the image of God. Now to be born again, is a work of no less importance than our first creation; and therefore wholly to be ascribed to God as our creation is. Indeed Paul, Philip. 2:12, 13, bids the Philippians work out their salvation with fear and trembling: not meaning to ascribe unto them a power of doing good by themselves. And therefore in the next verse he adds, It is God that works both the will and the deed: directly excluding all natural free will in things spiritual: and yet in addition he acknowledges, that man's will has a work in doing that which is good, not by nature but by grace. Because when God gives man power to will good things, then he can will them: and when he gives him a power to do good, then he can do good, and he does it. For though there be not in man's conversion a natural co-operation of his will with God's spirit, yet is there a supernatural co-operation by grace, enabling man when he is to be converted, to will his conversion: according to which St. Paul says, 1. Cor. 15. 10. I have laboured in the faith: but least any man should imagine, that this was done by any natural power: therefore he adds yet not I, that is, not I by any thing in me, but God's grace in me, enabling my will to do the good I do.

Fifth Reason

The judgement of the ancient Church.


The will of the regenerate is kindled only by the Holy Ghost: that they may therefore be able because they will thus: and they will thus, because God VVORKS IN THEM TO VVILL (August. de correp. & grat. c. 12.)And, We have LOST OUR FREEWILL to love God by the greatness of our sin. (Epist. 105.)


Serm. 2. on the words of the Apostle. Man when he was created, received a great strength in his free will: but by sinning HE LOST IT (Fulgent. lib. Brad.)

God gives grace freely to the unworthy, whereby the wicked man being justified is enlightened, WITH THE GIFT OF GOOD WILL, and with a FACULTY OF DOING GOOD: that by mercy preventing him, he may BEGIN TO WILL WELL, and by mercy coming after he may doe the good he will.


Bernard saith, it is WHOLLY THE GRACE OF GOD that we are created, healed, saved (Council. Arausic. 2. cap. 6). To believe and to will is GIVEN from above by INFUSION, and inspiration of the Holy Ghost. (Bernard. l. de libiro arbitrio)

More testimonies and reasons might be alleged to prove this conclusion, but these shall suffice: now let us see what reasons are alleged to the contrary.


Objections of Papists Answered

Objection 1

First they allege that man by nature may do that which is good, and therefore will that which is good: for none can do that which he neither wills nor thinks to do, but first he must will and then do. Now (say they) men can do good by nature, as give alms, speak the truth, do justice, and practise other duties of civil virtue: and therefore will that which is good.


That a natural man may do good works for the substance of the outward work: but not in regard of the goodness of the manner: these are two divers things. A man without supernatural grace may give alms, do justice, speak the truth, &c, which be good things considered in themselves as God has commanded them; but he cannot do them well. To think good things and to do good things are natural works: but to think good things in a good manner, and to do them well, so as God may accept the action done, are works of grace. And therefore the good thing done by a natural man is a sin, in respect of the doer: because it fails both for his right beginning, which is a pure heart, good conscience, and faith unfeigned; as also for his end which is the glory of God.

Objection 2

God has commanded all men to believe and repent: therefore they have natural free will, by virtue whereof (being helped by the spirit of God) they can believe and repent.


This reason is not good: for by such commandments God shows not what men are able to do; but what they should do, and what they cannot do. Again, the reason is not well framed, it ought rather to be thus: Because God gives men commandment to repent and believe, therefore they have power to repent & believe, either by nature or by grace: & then we hold with them. For when God in the Gospel commands men to repent and to believe, at the same time by his grace he enables them both to will or desire to believe and repent, as also actually to repent and believe.

Objection 3

If man have no freewill to sin or not to sin, then no man is to be punished for his sins: because he sins by a necessity not to be avoided.


The reason is not good: for though man can not but sin, yet is the fault in himself, and therefore he is to be punished: as a bankrupt is not therefore freed from his debts, because he is not able to pay them: but the bills against him stand in force, because the debt comes through his own default.


Single post: Blog_Single_Post_Widget
bottom of page