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Reading Classics Together

September 25, 2014

We do not sin with impunity. We cannot sin without consequence. Once the Holy Spirit reveals sin within us, we cannot simply ignore that sin and expect that our spiritual lives will continue to grow and thrive. In his great work Overcoming Sin and Temptation, John Owen lists six evil effects of sin—sin that we identify but refuse to destroy.

In chapter four of his book, Owen wants the reader to think about this: A God-honoring life is one in which we constantly wage war against sin. He says it like this: “The life, vigor and comfort of our spiritual life depend much upon our mortification of sin.” I take life to be the existence of spiritual life, vigor to be the extent of it, and comfort to be the Holy Spirit’s assurance of its existence. All of these are imperiled by the existence of sin. He will give six consequences of sin in our lives, but first he has a couple of foundational points to make.

The first foundation point Owen makes is that putting sin to death is necessary for a secure and comfortable Christian life, and yet they are not a guarantee of it. I find this important as a Christian and as a pastor: “A man may be carried on in a constant course of mortification all his days; and yet perhaps never enjoy a good day of peace and consolation. The use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours; the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative.” In other words, God does not owe us anything for putting sin to death; it is our duty and we must do it out of love and loyalty to him. However, under ordinary circumstances, he rewards such action with life, vigor and comfort.

The second foundational point is that we must not confuse mortification of sin with the gospel. “In the ways instituted by God to give us life, vigor, courage, and consolation, mortification is not one of the immediate causes of it. … Adoption and justification … are the immediate causes.” Spiritual life, comfort, and vigor are not ultimately the fruit of mortification, but of justification.

With those matters aside, he now offers a series of six evil effects of refusing to do battle with sin:

  1. Sin deprives us of spiritual strength and comfort. “Every unmortified sin will do two things: it will weaken the soul and deprive it of its vigor. It will darken the soul and deprive it of its comfort and peace.”
  2. Sin weakens the soul and deprives it of its strength. “An unmortified lust will drink up the spirit and all the vigor of the soul, and weaken it for all duties.” When he speaks of duties, he speaks of the ordinary means of grace, and particularly reading Scripture, praying and gaining the spiritual benefit that comes from doing these things.
  3. Sin becomes the delight of the heart. “It diverts the heart from the spiritual frame that is required for vigorous communion with God; it lays hold on the affections, rendering its object beloved and desirable, so expelling the love of the Father.” Unmortified sin becomes our delight, and we come to love it and rejoice in it.
  4. Sin becomes the meditation of our minds. “Thoughts are the great purveyors of the soul to bring in provision to satisfy its affections; and if sin remain unmortified in the heart, they must ever and anon be making provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.” When sin goes untouched, it becomes the meditation of our heart, taking the place that should be filled with the Lord.
  5. Sin hinders our spiritual walk. “The ambitious man much be studying, and the worldling must be working or contriving, and the sensual, vain person providing himself for vanity, when they should be engaged in the worship of God.” Sin steals the time, attention and affection that we need to maintain our communion with God.
  6. Sin darkens the soul. “It is a cloud, a thick cloud, that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favor. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption; and if the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them.” When we continually choose sin over godliness, sin destroys the comfort that the Holy Spirit seeks to provide. Our souls become darkened to his goodness and to the privileges of our adoption.

The solution to all of this is to put sin to death. Here is how Owen says it: “Mortification prunes all the graces of God and makes room for them in our hearts to grow. The life and vigor of our spiritual lives consists in the vigor and flourishing of the plants of grace in our hearts.” 

As we continue read Overcoming Sin and Temptation, we will soon come to instructions on actually putting sin to death.

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the fifth chapter of the book. We have only just begun so there is still plenty of time for you to get the book and to read along.

Your Turn

I would like to know what you gained from this chapter. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Do not feel that you need to say anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or what gave you pause or what confused you. Let’s make sure we’re reading this book together.

September 18, 2014

We are sinful people. We are sinful, forgiven people, who long to live in a way that pleases God. And there are few better tools for battling and overcoming sin than a close reading and application of John Owen’s classic work Overcoming Sin and Temptation. I have been reading through the book and came this week to a chapter on the critical importance of the Holy Spirit. 

Owen’s purpose in this chapter is both simple and clear: He wants his reader to know that sin is put to death only by the power of the Holy Spirit. There may be other ways we suppress sinful behavior, but true mortification always depends upon the Holy Spirit.

Here is a brief outline of his argument:

  1. Other remedies are sought in vain
    1. Because they use means God has not appointed for the work
    2. Because they do not properly use the means God actually has appointed for the work
  2. Why mortification is the work of the Spirit
    1. God promises us that Spirit for this very purpose
    2. All mortification is from the gift of Christ, and all the gifts of Christ are communicated to us and given us by the Spirit of Christ
  3. How the Spirit mortifies sin
    1. By causing our hearts to abound in grace and the fruits that are contrary to the flesh
    2. By a real physical efficiency on the root and habit of sin
    3. By bringing the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith
  4. If the Spirit alone mortifies sin, why are we are exhorted to put sin to death?
    1. Because all graces and good works which are in us are his
    2. Becase it is still an act of our obedience

Those who read the chapter with me will have seen that much of what Owen writes here is meant to oppose Roman Catholicism, the chief enemy of true faith in his day. But the main points of the chapter remain easily applicable. While I may not be Catholic, I still feel the temptation to allow my man-centered desires to interfere with God’s gracious work. Maybe this is what Owen means when he writes of “the natural popery in man.” I may not wear rough garments or take vows and orders as an attempt to destroy sin, but I may still look to myself and my homespun remedies rather than to God and his remedies. Just as Catholicism has invented ways of putting sin to death, I may also invent ways and means, and find them just as powerless to bring about true and lasting change.

I was struck by what Owen taught about attempting to put sin to death by means God has not appointed for that purpose, and then what he taught about misusing or ignoring the means God actually has appointed. Here is the challenge: I may ignore the means that has appointed for the purpose of putting sin to death. When I do this, I appear to put sin to death, but do not actually do it. He says, “They have sundry means to mortify the natural man, as to the natural life here we lead; none to mortify lust or corruption.” This is the mistake of men ignorant of the gospel, and too often it is the mistake I make. As Owen says, “Duties are excellent food for an unhealthy soul; they are no [remedy] for a sick soul. He that turns his meat into his medicine must expect no great operation.” There is a lot to think about in those words. Do I misuse the means of grace God has given, thinking that they can mortify my sin when really they are meant to feed me, but not to cure me? Am I trying to “sweat out a distemper with working?”

Let me leave you with this fascinating and thought-provoking quote: “He does not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience. The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.”

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the fourth chapter of the book. We have only just begun so there is still plenty of time for you to get the book and to read along.

Your Turn

I would like to know what you gained from this chapter. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Do not feel that you need to say anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or what gave you pause or what confused you. Let’s make sure we’re reading this book together.

September 11, 2014

If you read what I’ve written here today, it will deepen your hatred for sin and spark your love for holiness. At least, I think it will. All I’ve done is summarize chapter two of John Owen’s classic Overcoming Sin and Temptation, a book that has been precious to generations of Christians as they have battled sin and pursued holiness. Read on!

Here is Owen’s thesis for the chapter: “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify [“kill” or “put to death”] the indwelling power of sin.” In other words, Christians battle sin and put it to death. They battle sin every day until the day they die. They never stop. They never let up.

And so Owen asks you:

“Do you mortify?
Do you make it your daily work?
Be always at it while you live.
Cease not a day from this work.
Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

And then he gives 6 reasons you must keep putting sin to death.

1. Indwelling Sin Always Lives On
Until the day you die or the day the Lord returns, you will always have sin within you. “We have a ‘body of death’ (Rom. 7:24), from whence we are not delivered but by the death of our bodies (Phil. 3:20). Now, it being our duty to mortify, to be killing of sin while it is in us, we must be at work. He that is appointed to kill an enemy, if he leave striking before the other ceases living, does but half his work.”

2. Indwelling Sin Continues to Act
This indwelling sin continues to act upon you and against you through your entire life. “Sin does not only still abide in us, but is still acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh. When sin lets us alone we may let sin alone; but as sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep when they are still, so ought our contrivances against it to be vigorous at all times and in all conditions, even where there is least suspicion.”

“Sin is always acting, always conceiving, always seducing and tempting. Who can say that he had ever anything to do with God or for God, that indwelling sin had not had a hand in the corrupting of what he did?”

“There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on.”

3. Indwelling Sin Produces Soul-Destroying Sin
This remaining, indwelling sin is no trifling matter, but will continue to try to utterly destroy you all throughout your life. “Sin will not only be striving, acting, rebelling, troubling, disquieting, but if let alone, if not continually mortified, it will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins.” And then, perhaps the most important thing I’ve ever learned from Owen: “Sin always aims for the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin of that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head.”

September 04, 2014

I have invited the people who visit this blog to read a classic of the Christian faith with me: John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin or Overcoming Sin and Temptation. We are reading one short chapter per week, and then returning here each Thursday to discuss it. Hundreds are participating and I trust we will be blessed as we read together. If you’d like to join in, you are only one chapter (5 pages) behind—just track down a copy of the book and read along with us.

The Mortification of Sin is all about putting sin to death (or what Owen refers to as “mortifying” sin). Through 13 chapters Owen will show the necessity of putting sin to death, then define what it means to put sin to death, and give direction on how to do it. The book is deeply theological but also eminently practical and deals with a problem that is common to every one of us. It is somewhat difficult to read, but worth every bit of the effort.

Here is a short summary of the first chapter. Even if you have not read the book, you will benefit just from reading the summary. Let it be a teaser that helps convince you to read the book!

The Foundation of Mortification

Owen bases this chapter, and really his whole book, on Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death [mortify] the deeds of the body, you will live.” Within this verse is a great challenge and a great promise that extends to every Christian. In those few words from Romans, Owen finds a condition, a kind of person, a means, a duty, and a promise. Let me explain.

  • The condition. The verse begins with a condition: if. If you do one thing, you will receive the benefit. He says there is a clear connection between putting sin to death and receiving life: “if you use this means, you shall obtain that end; if you do mortify, you shall live.” It is that simple: if you put sin to death, you will obtain eternal life.
  • The persons. Owen says “If you…” and in this case the “you” refers to believers, the people to whom the Apostle Paul has written this great letter. Whatever Owen describes and prescribes in his book will be for the unique benefit of Christians.
  • The means. The cause or the means of putting sin to death is the Holy Spirit. We put sin to death only by and through his power. So Owen can say, “The principle efficient cause of the performance of this duty is the Spirit … All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit.”
  • The duty. The duty described in Romans 8:13 is the duty of mortification, or putting sin to death. Paul says, “put to death the deeds of the body.” The body refers to human depravity, to indwelling sin. The deeds of the body are those acts that flow out of our inner corruption. And, finally, putting a sin to death entails destroying its power, life, vigor, and its strength to produce its negative effects.
  • The promise. The great promise to those who put to death the deeds of the body is that they shall live. This life refers not only to eternal life, but also to the joy, comfort and vigor of a pure life in Christ, free from the power of besetting sins.

And all of this leads here: “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.” In the chapters to come, Owen will prove this, and show how to do it.

Reflection

I have read this book several times now, and every time I read it I am struck by something different. This time I was struck by the sheer distance between the church and the world—between Christians and unbelievers.

Owen says that Christians—the choicest Christians—hate sin and pursue it to its death. Could there be a conclusion that is farther from the world around us? The world, the flesh, and the devil tell us to pursue our sin, to enjoy our sin, to go deeper and deeper into our sin, to identify ourselves by our sin, to become our sin. God’s Word tells us to identify our sin, to hate our sin, to destroy our sin. And by God’s grace we can do that very thing. He can give us a revulsion toward our sin, and then empower us to kill it. Praise God!

Let me leave you with a few choice quotes:

  • “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”
  • “The vigor, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.”
  • “All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit.”

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the second chapter of the book. We have only just begun so there is still plenty of time for you to get the book and to read along.

Your Turn

I would like to know what you gained from this chapter. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Do not feel that you need to say anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or what gave you pause or what confused you. Let’s make sure we’re reading this book together.

August 28, 2014

I hate sin. Sin is destructive. Sin is insane. Sin is maddening. Sin is just plain stupid. Yet sin is also so alluring, so tempting, and always so close at hand. Even while we fight sin, sin fights us.

There are many strategies to identify and destroy sin, and one of the best is to read great books on the subject. There is no better book than John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin (or Overcoming Sin and Temptation). I plan to begin reading it next week and would love you to read it with me—and hundreds of other people—in a program I call “Reading Classics Together.”

Will you read it with me?

Here is how the program works: Each week we will read one chapter. Then, on Thursdays (beginning next week—September 4), visit my site and I will have an article on that chapter along with a place for you to add your comments or a place for you to link to your own blog (or Facebook or any other place you have been discussing it). The idea is to read the book together, so we can benefit from one another’s insights and have mutual accountability as we press on in our reading.

How do you participate? Simply by getting a copy of the book and reading along. You don’t need to register, you don’t need to comment, you don’t need to do anything other than read one chapter per week.

Buying the Book

OSAT

I am going to read Overcoming Sin and Temptation, a slight modernization of the work, edited by Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic. This edition maintains the unabridged text, but provides useful introductions and editorial assistance. For example, the editors footnote difficult or obscure words, update archaic language (i.e. they change “thee” to “you”), transliterate words that Owen provided in the original biblical languages, and so on. They also add helpful introductions to the sections. They maintain the full impact of Owen’s words while removing some of the hindrances experienced by the modern reader.

However, if you would like to read the original, you are more than welcome to do so and will benefit just as much. Here is where you can track down the book:

Let’s Get Started

I plan to post an article on chapter one on September 4, and continue every Thursday after that. There are 14 chapters, meaning the program will last for 14 weeks. All you need to do is obtain a copy of the book and read chapter one prior to September 4.

Why don’t you leave a comment below if you plan to join the program (or if you’ve got any questions).

August 14, 2014

Many times over the years I have invited readers of this blog to join me in a reading project, mostly as part of a program I’ve called Reading Classics Together. We’ve read some incredible books together—Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Christianity & Liberalism by Gresham Machen, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, The Cross of Christ by John Stott, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by Thomas Brooks, and a whole lot more.

I think it’s time to begin another classic. In this case, I’d like to return to one of the very first we read together. Of all the ones we have read, it remains my favorite, and certainly the one that has made the deepest impact in my life. It is John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin (or Overcoming Sin and Temptation). It is the absolute best book available on the life-long challenge of putting sin to death. Unless you’ve completely eradicated sin in your life, I know you’ll benefit from reading it.

Will you read it with me?

John Owen is known as being one of the greatest theologians in the history of the church and one who offered penetrating analysis of the human condition. Though his works are reputed as being difficult to read, they always prove worth the effort. Jerry Bridges says, “To read Owen is to mine spiritual gold.” Mark Dever says, “Sin is tenacious, but by God’s grace we can hate it and hunt it. John Owen provides the mater guide for the sin-hunter.” And Phillip Ryken insists that, “John Owen is a spiritual surgeon with the rare skill to cut away the cancer of sin and bring gospel healing to the sinner’s soul. Apart from the Bible, I have found his writings to be the best books ever written to help me stop sinning the same old sins.” Are you getting the theme there?

Here is how the program works: Each week we will read one chapter. Then, on Thursdays, visit my site and I will have an article on that chapter along with a place for you to add your comments or a place for you to link to your own blog (or Facebook or any other place you have been discussing it). The idea is to read the book together, so we can benefit from one another’s insights and have mutual accountability as we press on in our reading.

How do you participate? Simply by getting a copy of the book and reading along. You don’t need to register, you don’t need to comment, you don’t need to do anything other than read one chapter per week.

Buying the Book

OSAT

I am going to read Overcoming Sin and Temptation, a slight modernization of the work, edited by Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic. This edition maintains the unabridged text, but provides useful introductions and editorial assistance. For example, the editors footnote difficult or obscure words, update archaic language (i.e. they change “thee” to “you”), transliterate words that Owen provided in the original biblical languages, and so on. They also add helpful introductions to the sections. They maintain the full impact of Owen’s words while removing some of the hindrances experienced by the modern reader.

However, if you would like to read the original, you are more than welcome to do so and will benefit just as much. Here is where you can track down the book:

Let’s Get Started

I plan to post an article on chapter one on September 4, and continue every Thursday after that. There are 14 chapters, meaning the program will last for 14 weeks. All you need to do is obtain a copy of the book and read chapter one prior to September 4.

Why don’t you leave a comment below if you plan to join the program (or if you’ve got any questions).

November 07, 2013

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, the last week of the program, we read chapter 59 which discusses practical lessons from Puritan theology today. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and some of the lessons we ought to allow them to teach us.

TC: As you near the conclusion of A Puritan Theology, you suggest that a dedication to Puritan writings will serve us by helping maintain biblical balance in preaching. Are many of today’s preachers out-of-balance? What is a biblical balance and why do we need to maintain it?

JB: I do not know how many preachers are out-of-balance, but every preacher must keep watch over himself because we all have a tendency to go astray, both in theology and personality (1 Tim. 4:16).

Balance in preaching includes a healthy mixture of biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical ingredients. There are as many different approaches to preaching as there are cakes, but like cakes our preaching must always be a mixture of certain basic ingredients.  

The biblical ingredient means we must “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2), giving an exposition of the meaning of one or more biblical texts and rooting all we say in Scripture. Without this our preaching has no divine authority. The doctrinal ingredient means we must declare the “form of doctrine” (Rom. 6:17), including “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) in distinct teachings, especially those teachings summarized so beautifully in the Reformed confessions and catechisms. This gives our preaching clarity. The experiential ingredient brings biblical doctrine to bear on the hearts of sinners—the heart being the source of all our activity (Prov. 4:23). That begins with the heart of the preacher so that he can preach from his heart to the hearts of his listeners. By this means our sermons are simultaneously idealistic, realistic, and optimistic about the Christian life. The practical ingredient brings biblical doctrine to bear on specific matters of direction, exhortation, self-examination, warning, and comfort depending on a person’s spiritual condition. Such preaching aims at calling people to a new life.

If God permits, I hope to publish a book on Reformed experiential preaching sometime in the next few years that will address this very subject, with examples drawn from history.

TC: The Puritans emphasized the importance of catechizing. I grew up in a tradition that largely emphasized the memorization and recitation of catechisms. Is this the heart of catechesis? If not, what is? What do we stand to gain if we recover this emphasis?

October 31, 2013

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 58 which discusses the Puritans and zeal. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and this word that seems to have fallen into disuse today.

TC: When the Puritans spoke of zeal, what were they referring to?

JB: By zeal they meant the fruit of the Spirit, especially love, exercised to a high level in the soul and activity of life. Thomas Manton said that godly zeal is “a higher degree of love,” indeed the burning of divine love. Manton wrote, “Zeal will readily set us a-work to do all we do willingly, freely, and cheerfully” (2 Cor. 9:2). It is distinguished from “carnal zeal” by its lack of hatred and bitter envy (James 3:14), its direction by a true knowledge of God’s Word (Rom. 10:2), and its keeping its focus on piety of the heart instead of superstitious externals (Matt. 23:23; Rom. 14:17). Yet zealous love does include a holy “indignation” because when we love something strongly then we hate all that is against it. The strength of zealous love moves Christians to deny themselves and press on despite resistance. It fills them with “holy grief and anger” whenever God’s truth, God’s worship, or God’s servants are violated.” For example, David wrote, “My zeal hath consumed me, because mine enemies have forgotten thy words. Thy word is very pure: therefore thy servant loveth it. I am small and despised: yet do not I forget thy precepts” (Ps. 119:139–141).

TC: Zeal seems to have been an important concept and an important component of Christian character to the Puritans. What has happened to zeal? Have we simply replaced the word with another, or have we lost the whole concept and emphasis?

JB: Zeal can never completely disappear from true Christianity, for it is, as Manton said, “a fruit of Christ’s death” (Titus 2:14), partly because the marvelous display of Christ’s love inflames His people to love Him, and partly because Christ purchased the gift of the Spirit to make us zealous to serve Him (Titus 3:5–6).

People may use different words for zeal. I hear some Evangelicals use the word passion in a way similar to how the older writers spoke of zeal. The Bible does not use this word in this manner (“passion” in Scripture refers to either suffering or out-of-control desires), but it seems to me that they aim to communicate a similar idea. The older generation would talk of being on fire for the Lord, which is really the meaning of the biblical word “fervent” (Acts 18:25; Rom. 12:11). So the concept is still there.

The danger we face today is that the courage, strength, activism, and resolve of zeal offend our culture of feminized men and tyrannical tolerance.

October 25, 2013

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 57 which discusses the Puritans and casuistry. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and this strange word that I had never encountered before.

TC: I guess we need to begin here: What is casuistry and why did the Puritans focus on it?

JB: Casuistry is teaching people how to know what God wants them to do in specific situations, and how to live with peace of conscience before God. It addresses particular “cases of conscience” or ethical and spiritual questions. The Reformation of the sixteenth century brought a renewed understanding of justification by faith alone and sanctification by the Holy Spirit, but these very doctrines raised questions such as, “How do I know if I have justifying faith?” or, “What does it mean to please God at my job?” Therefore the Puritans, as heirs of the Reformation, developed answers to such questions based upon the Word of God.

TC: What was the place of counseling for the Puritans? Was it something they did primarily in the corporate worship service or was it done one-on-one and in private?

JB: The answer is both. William Perkins, who wrote a foundational treatise on preaching, said that the preacher must apply the law and the gospel to the several specific spiritual conditions in which people find themselves. Someone who is ignorant and unteachable needs far different treatment than someone broken under the guilt of sin. Some listeners need milk, and others strong meat. Fifty years later the Westminster Assembly, in the Directory for the Publick Worship of God, said the minister “is not to rest in general doctrine,” but “to bring it home” in specific applications, including teaching the truth, refuting errors, exhorting for obedience, warning against sin, applying comfort, and directing self-examination. As a result of such an approach to preaching, Puritan sermons were full of practical counseling.

At the same time, the Puritans recognized that a pastor must counsel families and individuals in a more personal way. Some Puritans did more of this than others. John Owen said some people in a church will face particular spiritual difficulties, such as “the terror of the Lord” on those convicted but not yet converted, backsliding into sin after conversion, great and long-term afflictions, feeling abandoned by God, and horrible temptations from Satan. It is part of a pastor’s calling to understand their cases and the right spiritual medicines to heal them, to give such people attention and concern with patience and tenderness. Personal work is very fruitful both for comfort and rebuke. Richard Baxter said, “I have found by experience, that an ignorant sot that hath been an unprofitable hearer so long, hath got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten year’s public preaching.” Preaching the Word is the primary means of grace, but personal counseling plays a significant role as well.

October 17, 2013

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?

JBThe 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.

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