On The Conscience
And herein do I exercise myself, to have always
a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men. Acts
What is conscience, in the Christian sense?
It is that faculty of the soul which, by the assistance of the grace
of God, sees at one and the same time,
1. Our own tempers and lives, the real nature and quality
of our thoughts, words, and actions;
2. The rule whereby we are to be directed; and,
3. The agreement or disagreement therewith.
To express this a little more largely: Conscience
First, the faculty a man has of knowing himself; of discerning,
both in general and in particular, his own tempers, thoughts, words,
But this it is not possible for him to do, without the assistance
of the Spirit of God. Otherwise, self-love, and, indeed, every other
irregular passion, would disguise and wholly conceal him from himself.
Secondly, a knowledge of the rule whereby he is to be directed
in every particular; which is no other than the written word of
God. Conscience implies,
Thirdly, a knowledge that all his thoughts, and words, and actions
are conformable to that rule.
In all the offices of conscience, the "unction of the Holy One" is
indispensably needful. Without this, neither could we clearly discern
our lives or tempers; nor could we judge of the rule whereby we are
to walk, or of our conformity or disconformity to it.
This is properly the account of a good conscience; which may
be in other terms expressed thus: A divine consciousness of walking
in all things according to the written word of God. It seems,
indeed, that there can be no conscience which has not a regard to
God. If you say, "Yes, there certainly may be a consciousness of having
done right or wrong, without any reference to him;" I answer, This
I cannot grant: I doubt whether the very words, right and wrong, according
to the Christian system, do not imply, in the very idea of them, agreement
and disagreement to the will and word of God. If so, there is no such
thing as conscience in a Christian, if we leave God out of the question.
In order to the very existence of a good conscience, as well as
to the continuance of it, the continued influence of the Spirit of
God is absolutely needful. Accordingly, the Apostle John declares
to the believers of all ages, "Ye have an unction from the Holy One,
and ye know all things:" All things that are needful to your having
a "conscience void of offense toward God and toward man." So he adds,
"Ye have no need that any one should teach you," otherwise "than as
that anointing teacheth you." That anointing clearly teacheth us
those three things, First, the true meaning of Gods word;
Secondly, our own tempers and lives; bringing all our thoughts, words,
and actions, to remembrance, and, Thirdly, the agreement of all with
the commandments of God.
Proceed we now to consider, in the Second place,
The several sorts of conscience
A Good Conscience
A good conscience has been spoken of already. This St. Paul expresses
various ways. In one place he simply terms it, a "good conscience
toward God;" in another, "a conscience void of offense toward
God and toward man." But he speaks still more largely in the text:
"Our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that
in simplicity," with a single eye, "and godly sincerity, we have had
our conversation in the world." 2Cor 1:12 Meantime he observes,
that this was done, "not by fleshly wisdom," commonly called prudence,
(this never did, nor ever can produce such an elect,) "but by the
grace of God;" which alone is sufficient to work this in any child
Nearly allied to this (if it be not the same placed in another view,
or a particular branch of it) is
A Tender Conscience
One of a tender conscience is exact in observing any deviation
from the word of God, whether in thought, or word, or work; and immediately
feels remorse and self-condemnation for it. And the constant cry
of his soul is,
O that my tender soul may fly
The first abhorrd approach of ill,
Quick as the apple of an eye
The slightest touch of sin to feel!
A Scrupulous Conscience
But sometimes this excellent quality, tenderness of conscience,
is carried to an extreme. We find some who fear where no fear
is; who are continually condemning themselves without cause;
imagining some things to be sinful, which the Scripture nowhere condemns;
and supposing other things to be their duty, which the Scripture nowhere
enjoins. This is properly termed a scrupulous conscience,
and is a sore evil. It is highly expedient to yield to it
as little as possible; rather it is a matter of earnest prayer,
that you may be delivered from this sore evil, and may recover a sound
mind; to which nothing would contribute more, than the converse of
a pious and judicious friend.
But the extreme which is opposite to this is far more dangerous.
A Hardened Conscience
Is a thousand times more dangerous than a scrupulous one:
That can violate a plain command of God, without any self-condemnation;
either doing what he has expressly forbidden, or neglecting what he
has expressly commanded; and yet without any remorse; yea, perhaps
glorying in this very hardness of heart! Many instances of this
deplorable stupidity we meet with at this day; and even among people
that suppose themselves to have no small share of religion. A person
is doing something which the Scripture clearly forbids. You ask, "How
do you dare to do this?" and are answered with perfect unconcern,
"O, my heart does not condemn me." I reply, "So much the worse.
I would to God it did! You would then be in a safer state than you
are now. It is a dreadful thing to be condemned by the word of
God, and yet not to be condemned by your own heart!" If we can
break the least of the known commands of God, without any self-condemnation,
it is plain that the God of this world hath hardened our hearts.
If we do not soon recover from this, we shall be "past feeling,"
and our consciences (as St. Paul speaks) will be "seared
as with a hot iron."
I have now only to add a few Important Directions. The first great
point is this:
Suppose we have A Tender Conscience, How shall we preserve it?
I believe there is only one possible way of doing this, which
is, to obey it. Every act of disobedience tends to blind and deaden
it; to put out its eyes, that it may not see the good and the
acceptable will of God; and to deaden the heart, that it may not feel
self-condemnation when we act in opposition to it. And, on the contrary,
every act of obedience gives to the conscience a sharper and stronger
sight, and a quicker feeling of whatever offends the glorious majesty
of God. Therefore, if you desire to have your conscience always
quick to discern, and faithful to accuse or excuse you, if you would
preserve it always sensible and tender, be sure to obey it at
all events; continually listen to its admonitions, and steadily follow
them. Whatever it directs you to do, according to the word
of God, do; however grievous to flesh and blood. Whatever it forbids,
if the prohibition be grounded on the word of God, see you do it not;
however pleasing it may be to flesh and blood. The one or the other
may frequently be the case. What God forbids may be pleasing to our
evil nature: There you are called to deny yourself, or you deny your
Master. What he enjoins may be painful to nature: There take up your
cross. So true is our Lords word: "Except a man deny himself,
and take up his cross daily, he cannot be my disciple."
I cannot conclude this discourse better, than with an extract from
Dr. Annesleys Sermon:
Be persuaded to practice the following directions,
and your conscience will continue right.
1. Take heed of every sin; count no sin small; and obey
every command with your might. Watch against the first rising
of sin, and beware of the borders of sin. Shun the very appearance
of evil. Venture not upon temptations or occasions of sin.
2. Consider yourself as living under Gods eye:
Live as in the sensible presence of the jealous God. Remember, all
things are naked and open before him! You cannot deceive him; for
he is infinite wisdom: You cannot fly from him; for he is every where:
You cannot bribe him; for he is righteousness itself! Speak as
knowing God hears you: Walk as knowing God besets you on every side.
The Lord is with you while you are with him; that is, you shall
enjoy his favorable presence while you live in his awful presence.
3. Be serious and frequent in the examination of your heart
and life. There are some duties like those parts of the body,
the want of which may be supplied by other parts; but the want of
these nothing can supply. Every evening review your carriage through
the day; what you have done or thought that was unbecoming your character;
whether your heart has been instant upon religion, and indifferent
to the world. Have a special care of two portions of time; namely,
morning and evening; the morning to forethink what you have to
do, and the evening to examine whether you have done what you ought.
4. Let every action have reference to your whole life, and
not to a part only. Let all your subordinate ends be suitable
to the great end of your living. Exercise yourself unto godliness.
Be as diligent in religion, as thou wouldest have thy children that
go to school be in learning. Let thy whole life be a preparation for
heaven, like the preparation of wrestlers for the combat.
5. Do not venture on sin because Christ hath purchased a
pardon; that is a most horrible abuse of Christ. For this very
reason there was no sacrifice under the law for any willful sin; lest
people should think they knew the price of sins, as those do who deal
in Popish indulgences.
6. Be nothing in your own eyes: For what is it, alas!
that we have to be proud of? Our very conception was sinful, our birth
painful, our life toilsome, our death we know not what! But all this
is nothing to the state of our soul. If we know this, what excuse
have we for pride?
7. Consult duty, not events. We have nothing to do but
to mind our duty. All speculations that tend not to holiness are among
your superfluities; but forebodings of what may befall you in doing
your duty may be reckoned among your sins; and to venture upon
sin to avoid danger is to sink the ship for fear of pirates. O how
quiet, as well as holy, would our lives be, had we learned that single
lesson, to be careful for nothing, but to do our duty, and
leave all consequences to God! What madness for silly dust to
prescribe to infinite wisdom! to let go our work, and meddle with
Gods! He hath managed the concerns of the world, and of every
individual person in it, without giving cause of complaint to any,
for above these five thousand years. And does he now need your counsel?
Nay, it is your business to mind your own duty.
8. What advice you would give another, take yourself:
The worst of men are apt enough to lay burdens on others, which if
they would take on themselves they would be rare Christians.
9. Do nothing on which you cannot pray for a blessing. Every
action of a Christian that is good, is sanctified by the word and
prayer. It becomes not a Christian to do anything so trivial,
that he cannot pray over it. And if he would but bestow a serious
ejaculation on every occurrent action, such a prayer would cut off
all things sinful, and encourage all things lawful.
10. Think, and speak, and do what you are persuaded Christ
himself would do in your case, were he on earth. It becomes a
Christian, rather to be an example, than to follow one. But by imitating
Christ, you become an example to all, who was, and is, and ever will
be, our absolute pattern. O Christians, how did Christ pray, and redeem
time for prayer! How did Christ preach, out of whose mouth proceeded
no other but gracious words? What time did Christ spend in impertinent
discourse? How did Christ go up and down, doing good to men, and what
was pleasing to God?
Beloved, I commend to you these four memorials:
(1.) Mind duty:
(2.) What is the duty of another in your case, is your own:
(3.) Do not meddle with anything, if you cannot say, The blessing
of the Lord be upon it:
(4.) Above all, sooner forget your Christian name, than forget to
Whatever treatment you meet with from the world, remember him and
follow his steps, who did no sin, neither was guile found in
his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; but committed
himself to him that judgeth righteously.