Article of the Month
The First Branch: Matthew 5:3-12
by William Perkins
Thus much of the preface. Now we come to the matter of this sermon, beginning at the third verse of this chapter, and so continuing to the twenty-eighth verse of the seventh chapter. And it may be divided into twelve heads or places of doctrine: the first whereof concerns true happiness or blessedness from the second verse of this chapter to the thirteenth,1 wherein are propounded sundry rules directing men to attain thereunto. The scope of them all must be considered, which in general is this: our Savior Christ had now preached two years among the people, and thereby had won many to become His disciples, and among the rest, His twelve apostles, to all whom He promised happiness and life everlasting, if they would continue in the faith and obedience of His Word. Now though they believed in Him, yet they still remained in the same state for outward things, and became more subject to outward miseries than before, so as if they judged of happiness by their present outward estate, they might easily suspect the truth of Christ’s doctrine, and think He had deceived them, because He promised them happiness, and yet for outward things their case was far worse than before they knew Him. This our Savior Christ considering does here go about to remove this false conceit out of their minds.
And for this purpose He delivers this doctrine unto them, in the first general head of His sermon: that true happiness before God is ever joined, yea covered many times, with the cross in this world. Whereby He strikes at the root of their carnal conceit, who placed true happiness in outward things, and looked for outward peace and prosperity upon the receiving of the gospel.
The Use. As this is the scope of the doctrine following, so it stands us in hand to learn the same, and to find experience hereof in our own hearts, that true comfort and felicity is accompanied with manifold miseries in this life. Indeed, carnal wisdom deems them happy that enjoy outward peace, wealth, and pleasure. But this conceit must be removed, and Christ’s doctrine embraced, who joins true happiness with the cross. Secondly, this serves to teach us patience in affliction, for it is God’s will to temper happiness and the cross together. Now this puts life into an afflicted soul, to think that Christ will have His felicity enjoyed and felt in outward misery. Thus much of this head of doctrine in general, now we come to the branches thereof.
First Rule of Happiness
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3). Here is Christ’s first rule concerning happiness, wherein observe two points: first, the parties blessed, “the poor in spirit”; secondly, wherein this blessedness consists, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Before we come to these parts severally, note in a word the form of speech here used. They that are led by human reason will rather say, “blessed are the rich for theirs are the kingdoms of the world,” but Christ here speaks the flat contrary, saying, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” which is infinitely better than all the kingdoms of the world. Whereby we may see that the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, and the ordinary conceit of man is flat opposite to the saving doctrine taught by Christ.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The word translated “poor”2 does properly signify a beggar, one that has no outward necessaries, but by gift from others. But here it is more largely taken, not only betokening those that want outward riches (for Saint Luke opposes these poor to the rich in this world [6:20, 24]), but also those that are any way miserable, wanting inward or outward comfort. And such a one was Lazarus, “that lay begging at Dives’ gates” [16:20-21].
What is meant by “poor in spirit” is plainly expounded in Isaiah 66:2 where the Lord says, “I will look to him that is poor, and of a contrite spirit, and that trembleth at my words.” Christ’s meaning then is this: that those poor are blessed, who by means of their distress, through want of outward comforts, are brought to see their sins and their miseries thereby, so as finding no goodness in their hearts, they despair in themselves, and fly wholly to the mercy of God in Christ for grace and comfort, as Lazarus did to Dives’ gates for outward release.
The Use. Seeing Christ does thus set out the person that is truly blessed, let us see whether we be in the number of these poor ones.3 Indeed we have many poor among us: some that by excess and riot have spent their substance, and others that through idleness increase their want, as the wandering beggars, a sinful and disordered people, who join themselves to no church. But none of these can by their poverty make just claim to true felicity. The blessed poor are poor in spirit, and this poverty we must find in our hearts, if we would know ourselves to be truly happy. But after trial, this will be found much wanting.
For first, if men live outwardly civil, and keep themselves from gross sins, this thought of pride takes place in their hearts, that they are righteous, and they persuade themselves with the “young man” in the Gospel [Matt. 19:20] that they can keep God’s commandments. Secondly, let worldly wants befall men in body, goods, or name, and they are grieved; yea, their souls are full of sorrow. But for spiritual wants, as blindness of mind, hardness of heart, unbelief, and disobedience, their hearts are never touched. Now whence comes this but from that pride of heart, whereby they bless themselves in their estate, and think all is well with them in respect of their souls? So that true it is, poverty of spirit is hard to be found. We therefore must search ourselves, and labor to feel our spiritual wants. And look how Lazarus lay for his body at Dives’ gates, so must we lie at God’s mercy-gate in Christ for our souls, abandoning this pride of heart, and acknowledging that there is no goodness in us of ourselves, for the strait gate of heaven cannot receive a swelling heart that is puffed up with pride. And to induce us unto this good duty, let us consider the gracious promises made to them that be poor in spirit. They are called “God’s poor” [Ps. 72:2]. “He thinketh on them” [Ps. 40:17]. Though “heaven be God’s throne, and the earth his footstool, yet will he look to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit” [Isa. 66:2]. “The Lord will dwell with him that is of a contrite and broken heart” [Isa. 57:15]. Christ came “to preach the glad tidings of the gospel to the poor” [Luke 4:18]. “The Lord filleth the hungry (that is, the poor and hungry soul) with good things, but the rich he sends empty away” [Luke 1:53]. Let these and many such favors with God, which they enjoy, provoke us to become poor in spirit.
Secondly, are they blessed that be poor in spirit? Then here all poor and wretched persons in the world may learn to make good use of their wants and distresses.4 They must consider them as the hand of God upon them, and thereby be led to the view of their sins; and by the consideration of their sins, be brought to see their misery in themselves, the true ground of this spiritual poverty. Now, when they are once poor in spirit, they are in a blessed state in the judgment of Christ. If a man bleeds dangerously at the nose, the best way to save his life is to let him bleed elsewhere, and so turn the course of the blood another way. Even so, when a man is oppressed with worldly calamities, he cannot find any comfort in them, for in themselves they are God’s curses, yet if thereby he can be brought to see his spiritual poverty, then of curses they become blessings unto him. And therefore when we are in any distress, we must not only fix our eyes upon the outward cross but, by means of that, labor to see the poverty of our souls. And so will the cross lead us to happiness.
Thirdly, they that abound with worldly wealth, must hereby learn to become poor, if they would be saved.5 Poor I say, not in goods, but in soul and spirit. This indeed is hard to flesh and blood, for naturally every rich man blesses himself in his outward estate, and persuades himself that God loves him, because He gives him wealth. But such conceits must he strive against, and learn of God “to rejoice in this, that he is made low” (James 1:10).
Fourthly, on this saying of Christ, that the poor are blessed, the popish teachers (observing the word translated “poor” to betoken outward poverty) go about to build their vow of voluntary poverty,6 whereby men renouncing their wealth and possessions of this world, do betake themselves to some monastery, there to live a poor and solitary life.7 But their voluntary poverty will not agree with this text, for Christ’s poor here pronounced blessed are such as by reason of their poverty are miserable and wretched, wanting outward comforts, as we showed out of Luke [6:20, 24], where Christ opposes them to the rich, who abound with all worldly delights. But to undergo the popish vow of voluntary poverty is no estate of misery or distress, for who do live in greater ease or enjoy more freedom from the crosses and vexations of this life than their begging friars? Again, if their vowed poverty had any ground in this text, then Christ should pronounce such poor blessed as made themselves poor. But that He does not, for then in the next verse He should pronounce such mourners blessed, as voluntarily cause themselves to mourn. For that verse depends on this, as a more full explanation of this first rule. But no man will say that they that mourn without a cause are there called blessed; and therefore popish vowed poverty has no ground on this place. And thus much of the persons.
Wherein the blessedness of these poor consists; namely, in having a right to the kingdom of heaven, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” By “kingdom of heaven” (for the better conceiving of this blessedness) we must understand a state or condition of man, whereby he is in God’s favor, and has fellowship with God. The truth of this description is evident by the tenor of the New Testament. Now this estate of man is called a “kingdom,” because herein God rules as King, and man obeys as God’s subject. For no man can be in God’s favor, nor enjoy His fellowship, unless God be his King, ruling in his heart by His Word and Spirit, and he be God’s subject resigning himself to be ruled by Him; for this happy estate consists in God’s gracious ruling of man, and man’s holy subjection unto God. Indeed, few do see any great happiness in this estate, but the truth is man’s whole felicity stands herein: “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). Here the apostle teaches us three things; namely, that when God’s Spirit rules in a man’s heart, then first, he is justified, there is righteousness; secondly, he has peace with God, even that peace of conscience which passes all understanding; thirdly, the joy of the Holy Ghost, which is an unspeakable comfort, passing all worldly joy whatsoever. And these three do notably set out the state of a happy man, which will yet more plainly appear by their contraries in Judas, who being a wretched sinner, unrighteously betrayed his Master, and thereupon fell into the misery of a guilty accusing conscience, which was the cause of his desperate death, and also that his body burst asunder, and his bowels gushed out. Now if an evil conscience be so fearful, then how blessed an estate is the peace and joy of a good conscience which a man then has when God by His Word and Spirit rules in his heart? Again, this estate is called “the kingdom of heaven,” because that man in whom Christ rules by His Word and Spirit is already himself in heaven, though in body he be yet on earth. For heaven is like a city with two gates, through both of which a man must pass, before he obtains the full joys thereof. Now so soon as God by His Word and Spirit, rules in any man’s heart, he is already entered the state of grace, which is the first gate; the other remains to be passed through at the time of death, which is the gate of glory, and then he is in full possession.
The Use. Does true happiness consist in this estate, where Christ rules and man obeys?8 Then here behold the error of all philosophers and wise men of this world touching happiness, for some have placed it in pleasure, some in wealth, and others in civil virtue, and some in all these. But the truth is, it stands in none of these. A natural man may have all these, and yet be condemned, for the civil virtues of the heathen, were in them but glorious sins.
Our Savior Christ has here revealed more unto us than all the wise men of the world did ever know, and hereby we have just occasion to magnify the books of Scripture, far above all human writings, because they do fully set out unto us the nature and estate of true felicity, which no human works could ever do. We must therefore account of them, not as the word of man, but of the ever-living God; yea, this must persuade us to maintain the books of Scripture against all devilish atheists, that deny the same to be the Word of God.
Secondly, hereby we are taught, from the bottom of our hearts, to make that petition for ourselves, which Christ teaches in His holy prayer;9 namely, that He would let His kingdom come; that is, not suffer sin, Satan, or the world to reign in us, but by His Word and Spirit to rule in our hearts, giving us grace to be guided thereby in all our ways. We affect nothing more than happiness, and therefore we must oftentimes most seriously make this request to God, preferring this estate with God, before all pleasures and happiness in this world, and use all good means to feel in our hearts the power of Christ’s kingdom.
Thirdly, this should move us to hear God’s Word with all fear and reverence, for by this means, the kingdom of Christ is erected in us. When the Word of Christ takes place in our hearts by faith, and brings forth in our lives the fruits of righteousness, and true repentance, then may we truly say, the kingdom of heaven is in us.
Lastly, Christ ascribing this happy title of His heavenly kingdom to them that be poor, and of a contrite heart, does herein minister a sovereign remedy against all temptations, from outward poverty and distress.10 Doubtless poverty is a grievous cross, not only in regard of the want of bodily comforts, but especially because of that contempt and reproach, which in this world does hang upon it. Whereupon many do esteem their poverty, as a sign of God’s wrath against them, and thereby take occasion to despair, thinking the kingdom of darkness belongs unto them. But here consider you poor, this sentence of Christ, where He plainly teaches, that if a man in outward distress, can be brought to feel his spiritual poverty, and the wretchedness of his soul, by reason of his sins, then he is so far from having just cause to despair of God’s favor, by reason of his poverty, that on the contrary, he may gather to his soul a most comfortable assurance, from the mouth of Him that cannot lie, that the kingdom of heaven belongs unto him.
William Perkins (1558–1602) was an influential English cleric and Cambridge theologian, receiving both a B.A. and M.A. from the university in 1581 and 1584 respectively, and also one of the foremost leaders of the Puritan movement in the Church of England during the Elizabethan era. Although not entirely accepting of the Church of England's ecclesiastical practices, Perkins conformed to many of the policies and procedures imposed by the Elizabethan Settlement. He did remain, however, sympathetic to the non-conformist puritans and even faced disciplinary action for his support.
Perkins was a prolific author who penned over forty works, many of which were published posthumously. In addition to writing, he also served as a fellow at Christ's College and as a lecturer at St Andrew's Church in Cambridge. He was a firm proponent of Reformed theology, particularly the supralapsarian theology of Theodore Beza and John Calvin. In addition, he was a staunch defender of Protestant ideals, specifically the five solae with a particular emphasis on solus Christus and sola Scriptura.
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