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Puritan Casuistry

Category Articles
Date August 11, 2014

An interview with Tim Challies by Joel Beeke

1. What is casuistry and why did the Puritans focus on it?

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.

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

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 counselling.

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 counselling plays a significant role as well.

3. Casuistry was a major emphasis for the Puritans, but it is not just the word that has faded – so has the practice. What have we lost? What would we gain if we recovered it?

We have nearly severed experience and practice from biblica1 doctrine. On the one hand, this has sometimes resulted in preaching that rests content in mere teaching or only the most general of applications. Congregations become teaching centres, producing Christians who are informed but do not know how to relate their experiences and particular battles for sanctification to the Word. A return to Puritan casuistry would make preaching much more practical. It would also display more of God’s wisdom, as people feel that ‘Aha! That’s me!’ because their hearts resonate with how the Bible describes various spiritual experiences.

On the other hand, this divorce between the Christian heart and the Christian head has sometimes resulted in counselling that is not grounded in the sound doctrines of Scripture but instead follows secular psychology (with a few verses thrown in). Such counselling can become little more than affirming whatever someone feels, instead of speaking with authority to a person’s sorrows and sins. Puritan casuistry would make counselling more biblical. It would also display more of God’s authority and power, for he not only sympathizes, but also commands, judges, and sets the captives free. A Puritan example of such casuistical counselling can be found in William Bridge, A Lifting Up for the Downcast.1

4. One application you draw out is ‘be a preacher of the Word, not a prober of feelings.’ Why is this so important? How can a pastor ensure he is doing this?

Certainly a pastor should ask questions about a person’s experiences, actions, and circumstances. He would be a fool to speak before he listens. But the pastor must never allow the world’s expectations of unconditional positive regard (or his own desire to please people) to make him into a sycophant and flatterer. Rather, the pastor is a messenger of the Lord of hosts (Mal. 2:7).He must command people to repent and believe the gospel because the kingdom of God is coming (Mark 1:15). He should ask himself, ‘Do my preaching and counselling apply both the law and the gospel? Is Christ the substance of it and supreme over all? Am I preparing souls for Judgment Day?’ The idea that just talking about feelings brings resolution to difficulties is deeply mistaken. Repentance and faith must be exercised in the details or little changes.

5. If a pastor or anyone else wanted to be counselled by the Puritans on casuistry, what would be the best books to turn to?

Beginners could start with Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices,2 a great help regarding specific cases of temptation, and, as I previously mentioned, William Bridge, A Lifting Up for the Downcast. A broad view of Puritan casuistry for the Christian life may be found in Robert Bolton, General Directions for a Comfortable Walking with God. More advanced readers who are ready to tackle seventeenth-century print would benefit from reading the classic Puritan text by William Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof (digital or in print).

The summa of Puritan casuistry is Richard Baxter, The Christian Directory (out of print, but available in digital format), but one must read Baxter with watchfulness because he is in error in his views of the atonement and justification. I highly recommend the regular reading of Puritan sermons such as those by Thomas Manton on Hebrews 11.3 One can learn a lot about biblical counselling simply by paying special attention to the applications (‘uses’) in each sermon.

Joel Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He will be speaking on the topics of Puritans and the Priority of Preaching and Puritan Preaching: A Paradigm? at this year’s US Ministers’ Conference (May 30 – June 01).


  1. Manton’s sermons on Hebrews can be found in volumes 13, 14, and 15 of the 22-volume set of his Works (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1870-75 and reprints; also available in digital format).

Taken with permission from The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, July/August 2014. Notes added.

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