Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.
This week we read chapter 56 which discusses the Puritans and conscience. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and the way they understood matters of conscience.
TC: In order to ensure we are all on the same page, can you define conscience? What exactly is it the Puritans were talking about when they discussed matters of conscience?
JB: The conscience is an echo in the human mind of the verdict of the righteous Judge. William Perkins said that “conscience is a part of the understanding” that sets itself either for or against their actions. William Ames, a student of Perkins, wrote that conscience is “a man’s judgment of himself, according to the judgment of God of him.” Regardless of what we love with our affections or choose with our will, there is a part of our understanding that judges us and makes gives us a sense of moral approval or guilt according to our understanding of right and wrong. So when the Puritans considered cases of conscience, they were discussing questions about how to know what is pleasing to God in specific situations, and most importantly how to know that the divine Judge accepts you as righteous in His sight.
TC: What would the Puritans identify as the function of conscience? Why do we need it and what does it do for us?
JB: Conscience impresses a man’s mind with the moral authority of God, and as a result produces a sense of anxiety and misery, or peace and joy, that anticipates eternity. Ames said that conscience binds a man with such authority that no created thing can release him from it Though our conscience may be misinformed, still it speaks with a divine authority that we may disobey but we find difficult to ignore. It reminds us that God sees all we do, and that He is either delighted or angry with our persons, and pleased or displeased with our deeds.
Much Puritan literature aimed to direct people to find peace of conscience through the blood of Christ, and to walk in good conscience day by day. Richard Rogers said that his purpose in his Seven Treatises of spiritual guidance was to show a person how to live such that “he may find a very sweet and effectual [powerful] taste of eternal happiness, even here.” Richard Sibbes said that a good conscience is “a continual feast,” because knowing that God is pleased with us, has forgiven our sins, and delights in our obedience, enables us to suffer and even to die with comfort, freedom, and joy.
TC: What would the Puritans want us to know about the effect of the fall into sin on man’s conscience?
JB: The fall of man brought us under the condemning wrath of God and the enslaving darkness of sin. The first disturbs and terrifies the conscience insofar as it senses the coming judgment. The latter disorders and confuses the conscience.