In God’s restoration of His image in the soul, He also restores the conscience. This takes place in awakening the conscience by preaching, informing the conscience by Scripture, healing the conscience by the gospel, and exercising the conscience in self-examination.
1. Conscience must be awakened by preaching.
One mark of a powerful preacher, according to the Puritans, was the way he would “rip up” men’s consciences to show them what was at the bottom of their hearts. 1Packer, Quest for Godliness, 48. The Westminster Directory for Public Worship says application is difficult for the preacher, for it requires “much prudence, zeal, and meditation, and to the natural and corrupt man will be very unpleasant.” Yet application is necessary so that a preacher’s listeners “may feel the Word of God to be quick and powerful, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart; and that, if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his heart made manifest and give glory to God.” 2Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994), 380.
2. Conscience must be informed by Scripture.
If conscience is not guided by Scripture, it will still function, but according to inadequate standards. It will fail to condemn when it should, it will justify things that ought not to be justified. The Westminster Confession (20.2) said that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Richard Baxter (1615–1691) explained, “Make not your own judgments or consciences your law, or the maker of your duty; which is but the discerner of the law of God, and of the duty which he maketh you, and of your own obedience or disobedience to him…. It is not ourselves, but God that is our lawgiver.”3Baxter, Works, 2:336. See Swinnock, Works, 5:64. The purpose of conscience is to make us continually aware of the presence of the holy God. Vincent wrote, “A good conscience will make men set themselves as before God continually.”4Vincent, Heaven on Earth, 277.
3. Conscience must be healed by the Spirit applying the gospel.
William Gurnall said, “Peace of conscience is nothing but the echo of pardoning mercy.”5Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, 1:534. The gospel announces peace and forgiveness for all who trust in Christ who was crucified for sinners. It is by the Holy Spirit that the conscience lays hold of the gospel by faith in Christ’s blood, finds peace with God, and has growing assurance of salvation. Perkins said, “The principal agent and beginner thereof is the Holy Ghost, enlightening the mind and conscience with spiritual and divine light: and the instrument in this action is the ministry of the gospel whereby the word of life is applied in the name of God to the person of every hearer and this certainty is by little and little conceived in a form of reasoning or practical syllogism framed in the mind by the Holy Ghost.”6Perkins, Works, 1:547. See Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, 1:525; Fenner, The Souls Looking-Glasse, 134; and also Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance, 131–42, 259–62.
4. Conscience must be exercised by regular self-examination.
Thomas Watson wrote, “Self-examination is the setting up a court in conscience and keeping a register there, that by strict scrutiny a man may know how things stand between God and his own soul…. A good Christian begins as it were the day of judgment here in his own soul.”7Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Soli Deo Gloria, 1992), 30. Self-examination is especially important, Watson said, in preparation for the Lord’s Supper.8Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (1692; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), 230–36.
Contrary to some caricatures, the Puritans did not glory in guilt. They gloried in Christ. An awakened conscience served to drive men to Christ. A good conscience enabled men to walk with Christ. Therefore they accepted the conscience as a gift of the Creator, diagnosed the conscience in its disorders from the Fall of man into sin, and worked to restore the conscience to its healthy functioning through the Word of Christ. This treasuring of a good conscience before God led the Puritans into a quest to answer specific cases of conscience, or the science of casuistry, which is my second main topic in this paper.
Puritan Reformed Journal – July 2012
Volume 4 • Number 2
Excerpt from The Puritans on Conscience and Casuistry
By Joel Beeke