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The Christian Conscience

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?

The conscience is an echo in the human mind of the verdict of the righteous Judge.

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?

Conscience binds a man with such authority that no created thing can release him from it

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.

Perkins taught that though a “remnant of God’s image” persists in man’s mind through “certain notions concerning good and evil,” mankind has fallen into much ignorance of the truth and inability to understand spiritual realities (1 Cor. 2:14), futility in not distinguishing truth from falsehood (Eph. 4:7; Prov. 14:12), and natural tendency to follow evil and lies (Jer. 4:22). This distorts the conscience, though it still retains a degree of its power to rebuke and restrain sin (Rom. 2:15). Fallen conscience tends to excuse inward wickedness if it is covered in outward worship (Mark 10:19–20). It also tends to falsely accuse a person when he fails to follow the traditions and doctrines of mere men (Col. 2:21–22). Sometimes conscience may accuse and terrify a person for his sins (Acts 24:26), and yet consciences may be seared to numbness by habits of sinning (Eph. 4:19; 1 Tim 4:2).

TC: Where might the Puritans warn us about our use or misuse of conscience?

JB: The Puritans warned against subjecting conscience to any ultimate authority besides the Bible. They particularly emphasized liberty of conscience in matters of religion. The Westminster divines wrote, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith and worship.” Similarly, the Particular Baptists wrote, “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.”

The Puritans also warned against resisting one’s conscience when it speaks according to the Word. Ames taught the unconverted to seriously consider the law so that it may convict him of sin, show him he cannot save himself, and bring him to grief, fear, and confession of specific sins. He must also renounce his own righteousness and fix his mind upon the righteousness of Christ crucified as presented in the promises of the gospel.

Christians too must not resist conscience. If a Christian finds his conscience accusing him, Ames counseled him to: first, feel the burden of sin (Matt. 11:28–29); second, detest all sin (Rom. 7:15); third, be careful not to fulfill his sinful lusts (Gal. 5:16); fourth, work to put those lusts to death (Rom. 8:13); fifth, to consider God’s promises, flee to Christ, and cling to Him more and more (Rom. 7:25; Phil. 3:9); and sixth, get rid of gross and heinous sins that shake their consciences and call into question their very salvation (Isa. 1:16–18).

TC: What can a Christian do to repair his conscience or to help his conscience overcome the effects of the fall?

JB: The restoration of the conscience is part of the process of sanctification that begins with regeneration and does not end until we enter glory. It is a work of God’s grace that we must seek in prayer. The most significant means is to place ourselves under the sound and searching preaching of both the law and the gospel. As Sibbes said, the steps to a good conscience are first to be troubled by our sins, second to find peace by trusting in Christ, and third to resolve to please God in all things. With these three elements active in our lives, we are positioned to grow more in a good conscience as we live by faith for God’s pleasure. The most important attitude is honesty and humility before God, for conscience always confronts us with the truth that God is Lord. For more details on restoring the conscience, see A Puritan Theology (pp. 919–25).

Next Week

If you are reading along with us, be sure to read Chapter 57 (“Puritan Casuistry”) by next Thursday. Then simply check in here to see what Dr. Beeke has to say about it.

Your Turn

The purpose of this project is to read classics together. Please feel free to leave a comment below or to provide a link to your own blog if you have discussed this week’s chapter there.

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