« From the Apostles to the Seekers | Main | Early Quakers, Version I »

William Penn on salvation

Last week I started writing on early Quaker views of salvation, Thomas Hamm described differences between the earlier Quaker perspective and the more traditional Protestant view of Joseph John Gurney and Quakers who followed him, differences that aren't often described.

The early Quaker view is - rightly, I find - different, but it's also fascinating to see how Quakers came to that view while remaining within the framework of salvation by grace, with only Christ as saving. Direct access to the Inner Light changes the Quaker description of how salvation works while retaining the same recognition that Christ is saving.

In his introduction to Fox's Journal, William Penn gives a brief overview of how he saw this working in the 1690s:

Two things are to be briefly touched upon, the doctrine they taught, and the example they led among all people. I have already touched upon their fundamental principle, which is as the corner stone of their fabric; and indeed, to speak eminently and properly, their characteristic, or main distinguishing point or principle, viz. the light of Christ within, as God's gift for man's salvation. This, I say, is as the root of the goodly tree of doctrines that grew and branched out from it, which I shall now mention in their natural and experimental order.

The Light, unsurprisingly, is central to Penn's view of salvation. Next Penn describes the operation of that Light. Note the opening "repentance from dead works to serve the living God", clearly echoing Protestants since Luther, and "forgiveness of the sins that are past through Christ, the alone propitiation". Justification is here, but as a three-step process, with no statement that it happens just once as the believer accepts Christ.

First, repentance from dead works to serve the living God, which comprehends three operations. First, a sight of sin. Secondly, a sense and godly sorrow for it. Thirdly, an amendment for the time to come. This was the repentance they preached and pressed, and a natural result from the principle they turned all people unto. For of light came sight; and of sight came sense and sorrow; and of sense and sorrow came amendment of life. Which doctrine of repentance leads to justification; that is, forgiveness of the sins that are past through Christ, the alone propitiation; and the sanctification or purgation of the soul from the defiling nature and habits of sin present; which is justification in the complete sense of that word, comprehending both justification from the guilt of the sins that are past, as if they had never been committed, through the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus; and the creature's being made inwardly just through the cleansing and sanctifying power and spirit of Christ revealed in the soul, which is commonly called sanctification.

Sanctification, "being made inwardly just", is here connected to the process of justification. Sanctification for the early Quakers especially led to a further doctrine that didn't go over so well with their fellow Christians:

From hence sprang a second doctrine they were led to declare, as the mark of the prize of the high calling to all true christians, viz. perfection from sin, according to the scriptures of truth, which testify it to be the end of Christ's coming, and the nature of his kingdom, and for which his spirit was and is given. But they never held a perfection in wisdom and glory in this life, or from natural infirmities or death, as some have with a weak or ill mind imagined and insinuated against them.

This they called a redeemed state, regeneration, or the new birth, teaching every where, according to their foundation, that unless this work was known, there was no inheriting the kingdom of God.

A "born again" Quaker in this sense is not merely forgiven, but actually perfected, arriving in the kingdom of God, if not in this life. Penn's claim that "they never held a perfection in wisdom and glory in this life" probably doesn't stand up against Quaker claims in the 1650s, as Richard Bailey's "The Making and Unmaking of a God" in New Light on George Fox finds, but it does seem to accurately describe their position when Penn was writing.

Thirdly, this leads to an acknowledgment of eternal rewards and punishments, as they have good reason; for else of all people, certainly they must be the most miserable, who for above forty years have been exceeding great sufferers for their profession, and in some cases treated worse than the worst of men, yea, as the refuse and off-scouring of all things.

"Eternal rewards and punishments" aren't a common topic in Quaker discussions, but Penn acknowledges them here, without spending much time on it.

The last paragraph (before Penn starts describing doctrines more specific to the Quakers) makes clear that Penn sees this perspective as what Christians have believed to be true, but which was lost as they followed their own wills rather than the will of God or the mind of Christ.

This was the purport of their doctrine and ministry, which, for the most part, is what other professors of Christianity pretend to hold in words and forms, but not in the power of godliness, which, generally speaking, has been long lost by men's departing from that principle and seed of life that is in man, and which man has not regarded, but lost the sense of, and in and by which he can only be quickened in his mind to serve the living God in newness of life. For as the life of religion was lost, and the generality lived and worshipped God after their own wills, and not after the will of God, nor the mind of Christ, which stood in the works and fruits of the holy spirit; so that which they pressed was not notion but experience, nor formality but godliness; as being sensible in themselves, through the work of God's righteous judgments, that without holiness no man should ever see the Lord with comfort. (xiii-xiv)

That last phrase - "without holiness no man should ever see the Lord with comfort" - is an admonition both frightening and alluring. It's possible to read Penn here - like many of his Puritan contemporaries - as setting a high bar indeed for salvation. At the same time, though, I think his fellow Quakers, who had experienced the operation of the Light within themselves and its transforming power - would not likely be so worried.


Penn's writing remind me to something I heard once during Bible-study:

'A faith that isn't growing is dead.'

Seems like protestants and Quaker aren't that far from each other, if it comes to the question of salvation.

Presbyterian Girlfriend, I agree that "a faith that isn't growing is dead," but do you really think it's fair to say this is the traditional Protestant view?

It seems a pretty modern thing among Protestants to me, aligned with either "emergent" tendencies (which are recent) or Pentecostal ones (which are dubiously Protestant). And it seems like any kind of gradual/progressive concept of salvation is much opposed in classical, anti-emergent Protestant quarters, for example this anti-emergent blog, which has posted many anti-Quaker articles.

Zach: do you really think it's fair to say this is the traditional Protestant view?

Well, several Protestants I know hold this view.

Actually, most Christians I know, no matter which particular Church they are attending, describe their life with God as a long-term process of God slowly by slowly leading them on to become/live more and more like His children. This faith journey tends to be rather bumpy for most of us, bringing us repeatedly in the need of being forgiven newly acquired sins. - The later aspect seems to be the one Quaker tend to describe as a gradual salvation process.