Perkins categories of hearer

Wed, 27/09/2006 - 16:28 -- James Oakley

I’m always trying to find these. So to save me hunting, I’ll put them somewhere.

(William Perkins, chapter 7 of The Art of Prophesying, entitled “Use and Application”)

What do I notice when I read what Perkins is actually saying (as opposed to what people imagine him to be saying)? He’s saying:

  • Different people need to hear different things. So choose your text according to who you are talking to
  • Everyone needs the law, and everyone needs the gospel. What changes is the use to which they are put
  • We often are addressing gathered churches containing a variety of people, not individuals. So in these cases we need to make clear who is addressed when we give uses for a text. Otherwise we risk saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.
  • In other words, he is not saying that we need to make sure there is something for everyone. (Some like the prawn dishes, others like crispy duck, so make sure there’s a varied menu). Instead he’s saying we need to make clear what is for whom. (Some are allergic to prawn, and some are allergic to duck. So make sure you tell people which items on the table are meant for them).

In summary:

“1. Those who are unbelievers and are both ignorant and unteachable. These must first of all be prepared to receive the doctrine of the Word… When there is some hope that they have become teachable and prepared, the message of God’s Word is to be given to them, usually in basic terms concentrating on general points.”

Then try more detail. Then give up for lost and move onto others. [Not many who quote Perkins’ categories tell you that he says this!]

“2. Those who are teachable, but ignorant. We should instruct such people by means of a catechism. ... Here it is important to recognise the difference between ‘milk’ and ‘strong meat’. These categories refer to the same truth; the difference between them lies in the manner and style of the teaching.”

“3. There are those who have knowledge, but have never been humbled. Here we need to see the foundation of repentance stirred up in what Paul calls godly sorrow (1 Cor. 7:8-10). Godly sorrow is grief for sin simply because it is sin.”

To which end, choose the most apposite sections of the law, and preach them, aiming for godly sorrow not worldly sorrow. The law’s sanctions may be needed in the more hard-hearted cases.

“4. Those who have already been humbled. Here we must carefully consider whether the humbling that has already taken place is complete and sound or only just begun and still light or superficial. “

So continue to teach the law and the need of repentance as you preach gospel-comfort.

“5. Those who already believe. We must teach them:

(i) The gospel…

(ii) The law: but as it applies to those who are no longer under its curse…

(iii) Although someone who is righteous and holy in the sight of God should not be threatened with the curse of the law, the opposition of the law to their remaining sin should still be stressed.”

“6. Those who have fallen back. Some may have partly departed from the state of grace, either in faith or in lifestyle… In this situation, the specific doctrine which counteracts their error should be expounded and taught.”

“7. Churches with both believers and unbelievers. This is the typical situation in our congregations. Any doctrine may be expounded to them, either from the law or from the gospel, so long as its biblical limitations and circumscriptions are observed.”

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