Being an Interaction with the Text of
Cases of Conscience
by William Perkins
For Practical Divinity (TH510), Master of Divinity Program
The North American Reformed Seminary
May 6th in the Year of Our Lord 2014
In my previous book report on William Perkins, I dealt with his work The Art of Prophecie, a book detailing the pastor’s duties of prayer and preaching. Prior to that, I reported on Perkins’ Golden Chain, dealing with the doctrine of salvation. In this report, however, I discuss Perkins’ work on Christian conscience, Cases of Conscience.1 In this work, Perkins has three books, the first discussing man’s conscience with respect to himself; the second discussing man’s conscience toward God; the third discussing man’s conscience toward his neighbor.
In reading Conscience, as is my custom, I collected quotations from the various chapters, and grouped them into topics. I collected 41 major topics in Conscience, as broad ranged as charity, recreations, the Sabbath, clemency, virtues, assurance, worship, and more. In each of these, Perkins sought to assist the Christian conscience in dealing with cases that affect himself, his relation to God, and his relation to his neighbor. I will focus my efforts on six of the most frequently collected topics, embracing around 38% of the total quotations I collected: repentance, worship, sacraments, clemency, charity and recreations. I will discuss these topics in order of the particular book in which they appear, handling the topic from the first book first, those from the second book second, etc.
In the first place, Perkins discusses man’s conscience in relation to himself. This first book encompasses an edifying treatment of confession, sin, reconciliation to God, humbling one’s self, faith, obedience, afflictions, temptation to sin, and distresses from the soul and body of man. Though each of the cases of conscience among these topics would prove an edifying study in itself, yet I have chosen to focus my attention on Perkins’ treatment of repentance.
In order to resolve man’s conscience in relation to himself, the first step is reconciliation to God. Among the evangelical graces by which a sinner is reconciled to God stands repentance, “The man that would stand in the favor of God and be saved, must do four things: first, humble himself before God; secondly, believe in Christ; thirdly, repent of his sins; fourthly, perform new obedience unto God.”2 Repentance is one component, joined with humility, faith and obedience. These four, Perkins asserts, bring salvation with them.
Repentance, as we see testified in Scripture, must be of particular sins. For example, in Acts 2 Peter points out the particular sins of the Jewish people and their rulers, calling upon them to repent and turn to Christ. Nathan the prophet points out David’s particular sins against Uriah and God. The call of repentance is particular. Nevertheless, there are sins of which God’s people are ignorant, or which find acceptance among their particular society, and in such cases, when a particular repentance is not possible due to the infirmity of the flesh, the mercy of God is manifest. “And herein does the endless mercy of God notably appear, that he vouchsafes to accept of our repentance when we repent, though not in particular as we ought to do. Nevertheless, this must not encourage or embolden any man to live in his sins, without turning unto God.”3 We live by laws, not by examples, and therefore the historic instances of the patriarchs’ polygamy, though never repented of, do not afford us encouragement to follow their evil example, but rather demonstrate the endless mercy of God.
This general repentance, however, must follow particular repentance and self examination:
when a man has searched himself diligently, and by a serious examination passed through all the commandments of God, and yet after such examination and search made, his particular offenses yet hidden, and not revealed unto him, so as he cannot call them to remembrance; then the general repentance is accepted. For this is answerable to David’s practice, who after long search, when he could not attain to the knowledge of his particular slips, then he addresses himself to a general humiliation, saying ‘Who knoweth the errors of this life? Cleanse me Lord from my secret faults,’ Psal. 19:21, and upon this he was no doubt accepted.4
Thus repentance is particular, yet with the limitations of creatureliness taken into account, in which case it is general.
Repentance is induced in the renewed heart by the goodness of God. Though objectively, God’s goodness leads all men to repentance, yet this is particularly the case with those sanctified by the Spirit. Once convicted of the mercy of God, we see our wretched estate, “Next after this settled assurance and persuasion of mercy, follows a stirring up of the heart to evangelical sorrow, according to God, that is, a grief for sin, because it is sin, and because God is offended; and then the Lord works repentance, whereby the sanctified heart turns itself unto him.”5 Thus, true repentance is not of the same character as despair, by which the impious feel the sting of the law without the balm of the gospel.
Perkins distinguishes gospel sorrow from that of the unrepentant:
Furthermore, we must distinguish this kind of purpose from the mind and purpose of carnal men, thieves, drunkards, harlots, usurers; for they will confess their sins, and be sorry for them, yea, and shed some tears, wishing they had never sinned as they have. In these men indeed there is a wishing will for the time, but no settled purpose. And it is a property of nature to avoid evil; but to have a constant resolution of not sinning is a gift of grace, and for this it is that we must labor, otherwise our repentance is no true and sound repentance.6
Thus, not only does the unrepentant sinner have no apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, but he likewise lacks a constant resolution based upon that apprehension. This lack of constant resolution also overcomes any will to change his ways, leaving him sunk in the pit of despair from which he sought to set out.
As a result of the unrepentant sinner’s failure to believe in the mercy of God, and be firmly persuaded of it, and his resulting lack of firm resolution to live a life of new obedience, he is finally damned. “For as in the Militant Church men are excommunicate, not so much for their offense, as for their obstinacy, so shall it be in the Church triumphant; the kingdom of heaven shall be barred against men, no so much for their sin committed, as for their lying therein without repentance.”7 There is a real difference between the saint and the sinner with regard to their resolution to new obedience. The sinner refuses to embrace the mercy of God while forsaking his sin; the saint refuses to embrace his sin, and thus forsake the mercy of God.
The saint’s godly sorrow is like the bitter herbs of the Passover,8 and is joined together with the sweet blood of the Lamb in his redemption. Thus when a man is troubled with worldly concern for his sins, care must be taken to turn his conscience toward the sorrow according to God. “The like order is to be taken with men that are troubled with worldly sorrow in their distress; and that is, to turn the course of their grief, by causing them to grieve, not for worldly respects, or only in consideration of the punishment due unto them for their sins, but principally for the very offense of God, in and by their sins committed.”9 God, the glorious Creator, the sovereign Redeemer, the beneficent Sustainer of all things has his declarative glory marred by the clouds of sin. Thus, the principal sorrow in repentance is for the offense of God. We are His image bearers, and must faithful represent our Original. Falling short of His glory, then, is matter for sorrow without end. To mourn the mere loss of worldly comforts, goods, or other things is folly itself.
Yet the saint’s conscience may entertain doubts about his mourning for sin. What if he cannot humble himself in his repentance as he would wish? What if he finds himself with dry cheeks, and a deadened spirit? Perkins skillfully advises:
What must a man do, that finds himself hard hearted, and of a dead spirit, so as he cannot humble himself as he would? Answer: Such persons, if they humble themselves, they must be content with that grace which they have received. For if you be truly and unfeignedly grieved for this, that you cannot be grieved, your humiliation shall be accepted. For that which Paul says of alms, may be truly said in this case, that ‘if there be a ready mind, a man shall be accepted according to that he hath, and not according to that he hath not,’ 2 Cor. 8:12.10
The compassion of the Lord prevents our total destruction, and His compassion moves Him to accept what we have, and not what we do not have.
In a similar vein, Perkins continues handling the case of the dry cheeked saint:
Whether it be necessary in humiliation, that the heart should be smitten with a sensible sorrow? Answer: 1. In sorrow for sin there are two things: first, to be displeased for our sins; secondly, to have a bodily moving of the heart, which causes crying and tears. The former of these is necessary, namely, in heart to be deeply displeased with ourselves; the latter is not simply necessary, though it be commendable in whomsoever it is, if it be in truth; for Lydia had the first, but not the second… 3. Sometimes the complexion will not afford tears, and in such there may be true humiliation, though with dry cheeks.11
The particular example of Lydia and the general doctrine of Scripture concerning the compassion and wisdom of God wean us from reliance of mere bodily motions. The body, when the soul truly moves it, may freely weep, but the act of weeping is no more a mark of grace than other bodily motions. God has not designed all men with similar emotional complexions and, therefore, we must not confuse nature with grace.
To further aid in the resolution of this case of conscience, Perkins offers a working definition of inward sorrow:
The inward sorrow is, when a man is displeased with himself for his sins. The outward, when the heart declares the grief thereof by tears, or such like signs. And sorrow in this case, called a godly sorrow, is more to be esteemed by the first of these, than by the second. The property of this sorrow is to make us to be displeased with ourselves for our sins directly, because they are sins and do displease God. If there were no judge, no hell, nor death, yet we must be grieved, because we have offended so merciful a God, and so loving a Father.12
Often, in light of this definition, I find that my own sorrow is worldly and outward. Yet, God calls us to inward and godly sorrow. A sorrow not to be repented of, which draws us before the judgment seat of Christ, to a sober contemplation of the glory of God, from which we have fallen.
In summary, Perkins seeks to help resolve cases of conscience respecting man’s self. The topic among these cases that I collected the most quotations from was that respecting the biblical teaching on repentance. Repentance is to be of particular sins, though general due to human infirmity. We are induced to repentance by the goodness of God, and a renewed heart will firmly resolve, not merely to have a worldly and external sorrow, but to sorrow inwardly, according to God. This repentance will issue in new obedience to the commandments of God. Thus much concerning the first book of cases of conscience.
The second book of Conscience deals with man’s conscience, as it stands in relation to God Himself. Some of the themes that I gathered the most quotations from in this book were worship and the sacraments. These two edifying topics assist the reader to properly frame his heart toward God in true piety.
As a general principle, Perkins states that worship, in its nature, consists of the internal acts of the soul, rather than the external acts of worship. This does not repudiate the necessity of the external, commanded acts of worship, but it sets the priorities. The external acts exist for the sake of the internal acts. Perkins explains, “Now to conclude this point touching inward worship, we must remember that it alone is properly, simply, and of itself the worship of God; and the outward is not simply the worship of God, but only so far forth as it is quickened by the inward, and grounded upon it. For God is a Spirit, and therefore the true worship that is done unto him must be performed in spirit and truth, John 4:24.”13 Thus, the conscience must focus its primary attention on the inward and spiritual worship of God.
In accordance with the Scripture’s emphasis on spiritual worship, as required by the Second Commandment and grounded upon the nature of God Himself, Perkins discusses how we must conceive of God in our minds:
God must be conceived of us, not by his nature, but by his attributes and works. By his attributes, as that he is infinite in mercy, justice, goodness, power, etc. By his works of creation, and government of the world, of redemption, etc. Thus, the Lord reveals himself to Moses in Exodus 6:15, ‘I AM hath sent me unto you.’ That is, one which has his being in himself, and of himself, that gives being to all creatures by creation, and continues the same by his providence; one that gives a being and accomplishment to all his merciful promises.14
Since we are mere creatures, the infinite nature of God is beyond the limits of our finite comprehension. As such, God commands us to know Him in what our minds can grasp: His works, Word, and attributes. “The LORD, the LORD, merciful and gracious, etc.” The glory of the Almighty is revealed in a way that man may comprehend, not in a way that would plunge him into an unfathomable labyrinth.
Also in accordance with the spiritual worship required in Scripture is the prohibition of idolatry, or the worship of God by images. Perkins explains, “When we are to pray, or to worship God, we must not conceive him in the form of any earthly or heavenly body, or spiritual creature whatsoever; for thus not to conceive him, is a degree of conceiving him aright.”15 Though we may not conceive of God in His pure, infinite nature, yet we may not fall back upon gross and finite images to prop up our finite understanding. Rather, the image of God requires that we not perceive God as our equal or inferior by wrapping His deity in the works of men’s hands.
Regarding an excuse for bowing before the work of men’s hands, Perkins tackles a rather common excuse made by the heathens and later repeated by the papal rabble:
First, that when he worships, he intends not to worship the image, but God in the image. To this we answer, that it matters not what his meaning is. For let him intend what he will, if God detests that manner of worship, it is not to be tendered unto him in any sort. The Israelites worshiped not the calf itself, but God in the calf, Exod. 32:8, yet then Moses says that they worshiped an idol.16
Thus, spiritual worship prohibits fair pretenses, and vain excuses to shield superstition and idolatry. God is a Spirit, and those that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth. Moreover, as Perkins here points out, the outward worship, because it must serve the spiritual worship, must not be carnal, lawless or superstitious.
Perkins also points out that Scripture alone is the standard for the conscience as it relates to God. Worship, being commanded by God, is not a matter of indifference: “we have liberty of conscience in Christ to use, or not to use, all indifferent things. Now God’s worship is not a thing of that nature, but absolutely necessary.”17 We must use the worship of God, and are bound to use it as God Himself directs:
The second rule is propounded by Paul in Acts 24:14, ‘To believe all things that are written in the law and the Prophets,’ and that is, to hold and embrace the same faith, which was embraced by the saints and servants of God in ancient times, and which was written by Moses and the Prophets. Again, in all reverence to subject himself to the true manner of worshiping and serving God, revealed in his word, and not to depart from the same doctrine and worship, either to the right hand, or to the left.18
God’s lawful worship is not a matter of preferences (“the right hand, or or the left”), but a matter of divine, law giving prerogative. This is the clear import of Deuteronomy 12:30-32.
Not only does the prohibition of worshiping according to our own devices and desires descend from the days of Moses, but is a natural obligation carrying forward to the New Testament. A New Testament instance of such a prohibition occurs in the gospels of Matthew and Mark:
Christ says of the Pharisees, that ‘they worshiped him in vain, teaching for doctrines, the commandments of men.’ He therefore that will do a work tending to the worship of God, must do that which God commands. Now actions expressly commanded, are the duties of the moral Law. Actions generally commanded, are all such as serve to be helps and means to further the said moral duties.19
Divine law is the standard for our worship; a law inspired and governed by the sovereign God, Creator of the ends of the earth. Thus, our worship of God must be inspired by the same Spirit that inspired the words of Scripture, and agreeable to those words. Thus much concerning Perkins’ treatment of worship in general.
From the general doctrine of Christian worship, and its relation to the renewed conscience, Perkins descends to the particular cases related to the sacraments. One very common case of conscience relates to those baptized in the papal church, and who have anguish in their conscience about the status of their baptism. This quandary is occasioned by the status of Rome as an apostate church, and the fact that Christ has entrusted the sacraments to the true church of Christ. The reasoning goes that since Rome is not a part of the true church, therefore her administration of the sacraments is null and void ab initio.
However, Perkins reasons otherwise from Scripture:
First, the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacrament are all one in substance. For in the one the will of God is seen, in the other heard. Now the word preached by heretics is the true word of God, and may have this effect. The Scribes and Pharisees, great doctors of the Jews, were not all of the tribe of Levi, but descended from other tribes. Again, even the principal of them lived by extortion and bribery, and were wicked men, yea heretics, and apostates, deposed and excommunicated persons. And yet because they occupied the places of good teachers, and sat in the chair of Moses, that is, read the doctrine of Moses’ Law, Christ bids his disciples ‘to hear them,’ Matt. 23:3, provided only that they took heed to the leaven of their false doctrine and wicked life.20
The requirement to listen to those in Moses’ seat confirms the doctrine, or preaching, of apostates to be valid, with certain caveats against their falsehoods. By logical extension, the visible word is embraced in this reasoning. What may also serve to confirm this point is the fact that the apostate Jewish church, soon to crucify Jesus Christ, still performed valid circumcisions prior to that rite’s abrogation.
From this and related passages, Perkins deduces that Scripture teaches that heretics and other apostates may stand in the room of lawful pastors, administering the sacrament for the sake of the remnant among the apostates. He states, “By this doctrine they are justly to be blamed, who would have their children re-baptized which were baptized by the popish priests; because the sacrament, though administered by a papist, if he stand in the room of a true pastor, and keep the form thereof, is a true sacrament.”21 The ultra-purity argument, while having plausible grounds, does not meet the test of Scripture.
Perkins also handles several sticky questions of conscience related to the necessity of sacraments, such as the state of infants who die without benefit of baptism, and other such cases. In order to make these cases more plain and easy to understand, Perkins discusses what kinds of necessity exist in the dispensation of God:
A thing is said to be necessary two manner of ways; either absolutely or simply, or in part. Absolutely necessary is that, which is in all respects necessary, and the contrary whereof is utterly unnecessary. Necessity in part is that which in some respects, or upon certain causes and considerations is necessary. This distinction premised, I answer:
First, that baptism is necessary the second way in part and respectively, that is, in divers and sundry regards.
1. As the lawful use thereof is a note, whereby the true church of God is discerned and distinguished from the false church. Not that the church of God cannot be a church without the sacrament; for it may want baptism for a time, and yet remain a true church, as well as the church of the Jews in ancient times wanted circumcision for the space of forty years, Josh. 5:6, and yet ceased not to be a true church and loved of God.22
Necessity, then, is the hinge on which such cases of conscience turn.
Perkins discusses more respecting why the necessity of sacraments is only in part, and upon certain considerations, “Secondly, I answer that baptism is not absolutely or simply necessary, so as the party that dies without it remains in the state of damnation, and cannot be saved. My reasons are these: 1. Baptism is appointed by God to be no more but a seal annexed unto, and depending upon the covenant; therefore we must put a difference between it and the covenant.”23 Christ is the heart and soul of the covenant, and the covenant is a means by which we come into fellowship with the Triune God. A sign and seal of such a covenant could not be elevated to a position of absolute necessity without gross idolatry and superstition. Put another way, Perkins says “Neither is baptism of force to make a Christian, but only to signify and declare a man to be a Christian, by being within the covenant of grace.”24
On the other side, Perkins discusses the absolute necessity of the covenant of grace and our being in Christ:
The covenant of grace, and our being in Christ is absolutely necessary; for no man, woman or child can be saved, unless they have God for their God. But the sign thereof is not. For look as to the essence of a bargain, the consent and agreement of the parties alone is of mere necessity required; and this being yielded, the bargain is a bargain, though it be neither sealed, subscribed, nor confirmed by witnesses; so likewise a man may be saved, if he be within the covenant of grace, though he have not received the seal and sign thereof, the sacrament of baptism.25
Union with Christ, our living Head, is indispensable, and its opposite is utterly unnecessary. Outside of Christ, we are fit for the rubbish pile, to be burned with the flames of divine wrath. The bargain is struck by God, and received by faith in Jesus Christ, and the seal serves as confirmation of the previously struck bargain.
Nevertheless, though the sacraments are not to be elevated superstitiously, yet neither are they to be atheistically emptied of all comfort and power. Perkins discusses the biblical use of the sacrament of baptism as providing a lifeline to the shipwrecked, peace for the body of Christ, and strength to the warrior. “Secondly, baptism is indeed (as has been said) the sacrament of repentance, and (as it were) a plank or board to swim upon when a man is in danger of the shipwreck of his soul. Therefore if a man repent, and be heartily sorry for his sins committed, he may have recourse to his baptism, wherein was sealed unto him the pardon of all his sins past, present, and to come; he standing to the order of his baptism, believing and repenting.”26 Thus the Lord condescends to our weakness to provide us with a plank to swim on in our time of need.
Our baptism is also part of the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace. Perkins explains:
Thirdly, it causes us to labor to keep and maintain peace and unity with all men, but especially with God’s people. For baptism is a solemn testimony of the bond of mutual love and fellowship, both of Christ with his members, and of the members one with another. To this end Paul says, ‘that we are all by one spirit baptized into one body,’ 1 Cor. 1:13, yea, and baptism is one of those things whereby the ‘unity of the spirit is preserved in the bond of peace.’27
The body and her bonds of peace are tied up in the sign and seal of faith; our pledge of mutual fidelity, due to our common head, Christ. Perkins also discusses mortification and baptism on the same page.28 Thus much concerning the second book, and the cases of conscience in regard to man’s relation to God.
In the last place, Perkins discusses man’s conscience in relation to others. Though Perkins uses the classical categories of virtues, he defines virtue very differently. He states that “Virtue is a gift of the Spirit of God, and a part of regeneration, whereby a man is made apt to live well,” also stating that this definition contradicts the heathen, who considered virtue to be “habit of the mind, obtained and confirmed by custom, use and practice.”29 Yet with those basic categories, Perkins drops heavenly dew on his readers’ minds, inculcating charity and virtue toward our neighbor.
Perkins discusses the conscience, and its relation to the various thoughts, affections and choices we make. For example, he discusses the virtue of clemency, by which the revenging power is restrained and put to its proper function. In restraining the revenging power, there are various degrees of clemency. In the first degree of clemency, we must “not so much as to take notice of these slight offenses, but to let them pass, and bury them in oblivion. Solomon says, ‘A man’s understanding defers his anger, and it is a credit to pass by an offense,’ Prov. 19:11.”30
Perkins goes on to discuss the second degree of clemency:
Now the second degree of meekness is to take notice of these, but withal to forgive them and put them up. The reason is, because greater care must always be had of peace and love than our own private affairs. Read the practice hereof in John 8:49. It was objected to Christ wrongfully that he was a Samaritan and had a devil. Christ takes knowledge of the wrong and says, ‘you have reproached me,’ but withal he puts it up, only denying that which they said, and clearing himself, ‘I have not a devil, but I honor my Father.’31
In certain situations, clemency involves completely overlooking an offense. This overlooking of offenses would always be done, except that God requires that we love and clear our good name as necessity demands. Hereby peace is likewise pursued by clearing our own name, while not stirring up hatred with grievous words. Perkins also discusses a third degree of clemency, which encounters a danger to our lives or estates. This, too, should be forgiven, but it requires a lawful defense of whatever is endangered.32
To engage in a lawful defense, Perkins argues, requires that we conceive of anger properly. Perkins asserts that “we must understand that in just and lawful anger there are three things, a right beginning or motive, a right object, and a right manner of being angry.”33 Unpacking this helps resolve a great many cases of conscience. For example, concerning the beginning of anger, Perkins demonstrates that lawful anger in Scripture begins upon just and weighty occasions. Keeping the manna until the next day in Exodus 16, and the idolatry of the golden calf in Exodus 32 illustrate such just occasions for Moses’ anger.
Not only must the occasion of our anger be suitable, but our anger must begin properly:
It is required that anger be conceived upon counsel and deliberation. Proverbs 20:18, ‘Establish thy thoughts by counsel.’ If thoughts must be established by counsel, then the affections, and so our anger also. And the Apostle says in James 2:19, ‘Be slow to wrath.’ Now the reason is plain, counsel ought to be the foundation of all our actions, and therefore much more of our affections, which are the beginnings of our actions.34
This admonition is true, yet convicting. We are often tempted to think of our passions as unruly and ungovernable. Yet Scripture requires that we rule our passions rather than permitting them to rule us. Therefore, our passions should be subject to counsel, just as our thoughts should be.
The beginning of anger must have a suitable occasion. It must also begin upon counsel. Moreover, anger must begin with good and holy affections, lest mere human anger work unrighteousness. Perkins explains:
just and lawful anger must be kindled and stirred up by good and holy affections, as namely, by desire to maintain the honor and praise of God, by the love of justice and virtue, by hatred and detestation of vice, and of all that is evil. One says well to this purpose, that anger must attend upon virtue, and be stirred up by it against sin, as the dog attends upon the shepherd, and waits upon his eye and hand, when to follow him, and when to pursue the wolf.35
Clemency, then, is not the complete denial of the just demands of the revenging power of the will, but is rather a tempering of the revenging power with prudence and meekness.
Perkins illustrates this tempering of the revenging power by reference to God’s own vengeance, “The third thing in good anger is the right manner of conceiving it. Wherein these cautions are to be observed. First, that our anger be mixed and tempered with charity and love. It is the property of God himself, ‘in wrath to remember mercy,’ Hab. 3:2, and herein we must be like unto him.”36 Thus, charity and love must always be present with our anger. Love is the bond of perfection, even in our anger. The Lord Himself perfectly illustrates this virtue for us.
If, however, charity and love are lacking from the revenging power, then we are nothing but sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. Thus, if we despise our neighbor, God’s image, we will likewise be disabled from any inward acts of piety. Perkins demonstrates that “in rash anger we can do no part of God’s worship that is pleasing to him, we cannot pray. For he that prays must lift up pure hands without wrath (1 Tim. 2:8). We cannot be good hearers of the word, for St. James wishes us to be swift to hear, and ‘slow to wrath,’ because the wrath of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God.”37 God has inseparably linked the first table of the law, piety, with the second table, charity.
Not only does charity serve to moderate our anger, but should also govern how we think and speak of others. As Perkins explains, our lack of charity often occasions needless anger in ourselves. Since “we are ignorant of men’s minds in speaking and doing; we know not the manner and circumstances of their actions. And experience teaches that much anger comes upon mistaking and misconstruing them. Whereas contrariwise, if they were thoroughly known, we would not be so much incensed against men as commonly we are.”38 We all want others to know us; but we are often remiss in returning the favor. Rather, God’s law of love, enshrined in the Ninth Commandment, requires that we moderate our judgments with charity.
Even God, in anthropomorphic terms, assists us in this duty by setting His example before us. Just as God, “we must be rightly and truly informed in the matter before we give judgment. This was God’s own practice, who came down to see whether the sin of Sodom was answerable to the cry, Gen. 18:21.”39 If Almighty God would condescend to be rightly and truly informed before judgment, who is man, this heap of dust and ashes, to cast about judgments with partial knowledge?!
Perkins helps resolve the conscience on this point by demonstrating that properly judging others, in a way that demonstrates both piety and charity, begins by judging ourselves. Perkins counsels that “a man must always in the presence of God judge himself in regard of his sins, both of heart and life, 1 Cor. 11:31, ‘If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.’ And this judgment of a man’s self must not be partial, but sharp and severe, with true humiliation and lowliness of heart. For this is a true ground of all charitable judgment of others.”40 The fear of God brings our sins before our eyes, and this piety, in turn, humbles us before God and man.
Perkins applies the saying of Christ to the resolution of the conscience on this point. “First, he that will give sentence of another man, must in the first place purge and reform himself. To this purpose Christ commands, ‘first to pluck the beam out of our own eye, and then shall we see clearly to cast out the mote out of our brother’s eye,’ Mat. 7:5. And he that will not do this in judging another, he condemns himself, Rom. 2:1.”41 Charity springs naturally from piety, as the love for the image comes from the love of the original.
This sense of piety and charity begins by recognizing and praising the gifts of God in our neighbor, and being quick to receive and recognize good reports about our neighbor. Perkins states that “if we know any good thing by any man, whether virtue or action, we are willingly to speak of it, to commend it, and glorify God’s name in it, and for it. Thus Paul affirms that the Churches of Judea, when they heard the word which he preached, ‘glorified God for him alone,’ Gal. 1:23.”42 Though it appears that fallen human nature is often reluctant to receive good reports, while all too friendly to evil reports, the virtues of God’s Spirit work to an entirely different end.
Moreover, we must not only recognize, willingly receive and praise the good, but we must suspend our judgment in doubtful matters. Perkins explains how charity interacts with words or actions that could be taken in various ways:
When a man’s speech or action is doubtful, and may be taken either well or ill, we must always interpret it in the better part. When Christ was brought before Caiaphas the High Priest, there came two witnesses against him, who affirmed something of him which he had spoken, but because they changed and misconstrued his words, turning them to a wrong sense, therefore they are called by the Holy Ghost, to their perpetual shame and reproach, ‘false witnesses,’ Matth. 26:60. Again, the Apostle says that ‘Love thinks no evil,’ 1 Cor. 13:5, therefore love takes every speech and action in the better sense.43
We must avoid the crime of theocides, devils and wicked men, who take every doubtful matter in the worst part. This, in turn, fulfills the royal law, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Charity never fails.
But what of a situation in which we know some evil of our neighbor, without any doubt? Perkins explains the Scripture’s rules on this point:
our love and charity must order and direct, both our speech and our judgment of others, that we speak not of them without deliberation. For he that upon hatred reports the evil he knows by another, is a back-biter. When Doeg the Edomite came and showed Saul that David was gone to the house of Ahimelech, he told no more than the truth, and yet because it proceeded from an evil mind, therefore David accuses him of hatred, back-biting, slandering, and unrighteousness, Psal. 52:1-2.44
We must speak the truth in love. Though truth-speaking may be an action good in itself, yet God judges the intention as well as the action. Thus, our truth-speaking must be deliberate, upon just occasion, with good motivation, and aimed at the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.
Charity and speaking the truth in love also direct how we speak of ourselves. Some boast of themselves, and others needlessly censure themselves. Perkins, skillfully handling Scripture, condemns both, “before men a man must suppress his judgment of himself, and be silent. No man is bound either to praise or dispraise, to excuse or accuse and condemn himself before others. And grace must teach him thus much, not vainly to commend or boast of his own gifts and actions, but rather to bury them in silence, and refer them to the judgment of others.”45 What often passes as humility is to be suppressed along with boastful pride.
Perkins’ conclusion to this section on charitable speech and thought concerning our neighbor is powerful and relevant, even over 400 years after he first delivered these thoughts:
Now to conclude this point: The doctrine delivered is most necessary for these times. For the fashion of most men is to give rash and sinister judgment of others, but themselves they will commend, and that highly. If any thing be evil said or done, all men must have notice of it. If a thing be doubtful, it is always construed in the worse part. If a thing be done of weakness and infirmity, we aggravate it, and make it a double sin. We are curious in searching and inquiring into the lives of others, that we may have something to carp and find fault with. But let this be remembered, that as we judge, so we shall be judged; first, of God by condemnation, and then by hard and unequal judgment from others.46
Perkins sounds like he was reading some social media website before penning these words. Truly, nothing is new under the sun.
Finally, I will conclude my review of Perkins third book of Conscience by discussing recreations. Perkins sets recreations in its relation to labor, as a subservient action to the main action of labor. In other words, contrary to the hedonistic notion of many, recreations are not the main point of work, but work is the main point of recreations. We do not work so that we can have enough money to pursue our recreations, but we pursue our recreations so that we can have the strength of mind and body to work.
As such, Perkins handles the questions of conscience related to the Sabbath and recreations in that light. “That which is the more principal and necessary, namely, labor in the execution of a man’s calling, is forbidden; recreation therefore which is with labor, must cease on that day when labor ceases.”47 As an aide and support to the work of our callings, recreations are forbidden along with their principal.
Recreations, Perkins argues, are not to be of matters commanded or forbidden. In other words, recreations may not make light of sin, nor treat holy things as subjects for common works of recreation. Perkins lays down this premise, “I will first lay down this ground, that all lawful recreation is only in the use of things indifferent, which are in themselves neither commanded nor forbidden. For by Christian liberty, the use of such things for lawful delight and pleasure, is permitted unto us.”48 The explicit teaching of Scripture is that we may not take God’s Name in vain, nor name the shameful practices of the ungodly among the saints.
Thus, Scriptures themselves are not fitting matter for recreations, as in plays, jests, etc. Perkins explains:
Recreations may not be in the use of holy things; that is, in the use of the Word, Sacraments, Prayer, or any act of religion. For these things are sacred and divine, they do stand by God’s express commandment, and may not be applied to any common or vulgar use. For this cause it is well provided, that the pageants which have been used in sundry cities of this land are put down, because they were nothing else but either the whole or part of the history of the Bible turned into a play. And therefore the less to be allowed, considering that the more holy the matter is which they represent, the more unholy are the plays themselves.49
Modern man needs to regain a sense of the holy and divine. Our senses are so dulled that we generally think of God as our equal, and lack in sense of the majesty and glory of God. Making Scripture a matter for recreation is certainly part of this vice.
Not only recreations such as plays, but also jokes and other such vulgar speech may not be in the realm of the sacred:
Again, all such jests as are framed out of the phrases and sentences of the Scripture are abuses of holy things, and therefore carefully to be avoided. The common saying may teach us thus much, It is no safe course to play with holy things. Lastly, upon the former conclusion, we are taught that it is not meet, convenient, or laudable, for men to move occasion of laughter in sermons.50
Holy things are not to be played with, and Scripture is certainly a holy thing. God’s glory and majesty are revealed in the phrases and sentences of Scripture, and man must humbly bow before them, rather than pompously spew forth blasphemy and sacrilege for the sake of recreation.
Yet, Perkins’ definition of recreations as permissible in indifferent matters, strongly argues for the freedom of Christian men to participate in such recreations. Perkins argues based on Christian liberty that “we are allowed to use the creatures of God, not only for our necessity, but also for meet and convenient delight. This is a confessed truth; and therefore to them which shall condemn fit and convenient recreation (as some of the ancient Fathers have done, by name Chrysostom and Ambrose) it may be said, ‘Be not too righteous, be not too wise,’ Eccl. 7:16.”51 God’s bounty extends to our recreations, yet always with the exception of piety and reverence for God’s Word.
In conclusion, in reading Conscience, I have been edified by Perkins’ discussion of the various relations man’s conscience sustains to himself, to God, and to his neighbor. In particular, I have been helped by his discussions of questions related to repentance, worship, sacraments, clemency, charity and recreations. This book is a useful manual of the Christian life and conscience, and I would recommend it for any earnest Christian.
1 William Perkins, The Whole Treatise of The Cases of Conscience, Distinguished into three Bookes. Taught and Delivered by M. W. Perkins in his Holiday-Lectures. Examined by his owne Briefes, and published for the common good, by Thomas Pickering Bachelour of Divinitie, in The Works of That Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the Universitie of Cambridge, M. William Perkins, Volume 2 (London: Printed by John Legatt, 1631). This work will be cited as Conscience in the text and footnotes. Note: spelling, capitalization, punctuation and formatting have been modernized, as deemed appropriate.
6 Conscience, 16.
7 Conscience, 10.
8Cf. Conscience, 28.
9 Conscience, 23.
16 Conscience, 85.
17 Conscience, 97.
28 Cf. Ibid.
32 Cf. Conscience, 118.