The Law of God, as Contained in the Ten
Commandments, Explained and Enforced
By William S. Plumer, 1864
Rules for Conscience
In morals and religion, conscience holds a prominent
place. Curious questions on this subject are unprofitable. The practical
views of the matter are far the most important. The word conscience
means joint or double knowledge. There is a knowledge of the law, which
binds us, and a knowledge of the fact, that we have kept or broken the law.
For present purposes it is sufficient to say that conscience is the
judgment of a man concerning the moral character of his thoughts, words and
deeds. Because its decisions are accompanied by peculiar sensations of
approbation or remorse, it is often called the moral sense. It is the office
of conscience to judge and decide on the morality of all our acts.
Conscience is the soul of man sitting in judgment upon his moral conduct,
condemning or justifying as the case may be. The decisions of conscience
are never theoretical but always practical. It accuses, it excuses; it
afflicts, it consoles; it terrifies, it gives joy. Nothing produces such
consternation, nothing imparts such boldness. As conscience determines the
right or wrong of acts before they are committed, we speak of it as a light
or a law. As it respects guilt or innocence in a given matter, we speak of
it as a judge pronouncing, or a witness testifying.
Its process is simple. It says: "The soul that sins it
shall die." That is the law. "I have sinned." That is the fact. "I am
therefore exposed to death." Or, "You shall not covet anything that is your
neighbor's." "I have coveted my neighbor's prosperity. Therefore I have
broken the tenth commandment."
The rule by which the conscience is to be governed is the
whole will of God, however made known. The heathen learn God's will by the
law of nature. Every man knows that murder, theft and ingratitude are
wicked. But in the Bible we have the whole will of God revealed for our
guidance. There all is clear and plain. This binds the conscience. It
obliges everyone to obey its teachings.
God alone is Lord of the conscience. He alone can bind
it. Blindly to follow the teachings of any creature is an act of wickedness.
It is giving to a worm, a prerogative of God. To assert a right to control
the conscience of another, except by reason and Scripture, is an atrocious
offence. It is the foundation of all diabolical persecutions.
In a sense conscience impels us to duty, that is, it is
accompanied by a strong sense of moral obligation. Thus Paul says, "Woe is
me if I preach not the gospel;" the meaning is, that he had so strong, so
controlling a sense of duty that he knew he would be guilty if he kept
silence. Conscience is a safe guide so far as it is informed of the will
of God, and is not perverted by sin, error or ignorance. Whatever falls
short of supreme love to God, or equal love to our neighbor as to ourselves,
whatever violates the letter or spirit of the commandments, burdens an
enlightened conscience. Simple questions of morality are easily solved. It
is on complex matters that we are most liable to err. We should therefore
study with a teachable spirit, the whole word of God, and impartially
scrutinize our own acts, ends and motives.
The extreme evil of an erring conscience is, that
it always involves us in guilt. If we follow it, we sin, as did Saul of
Tarsus in persecuting the church. If we violate it, we are guilty of doing
what we believe to be wrong. An erring conscience is almost invariably the
result of a gross lack of the love of truth. If your conscience is not
clear, stand still. "Happy is he who condemns not himself in that thing
which he allows." The great duty of those having erring consciences is to
seek for light. A doubting conscience is one that is not clear respecting
duty. Here too we must stand still, until we are resolved. It may be one's
duty to preach the gospel, but not while he prevailingly doubts his call to
the sacred office. "He who doubts is guilty if he eats." But let not one
with a doubting conscience be idle. Let him diligently seek to know the will
of God in every matter of duty.
A doubting conscience not enlightened and not
resolved, is very apt to end in an over-scrupulous conscience. The habit of
doubting in questions of morality grows by indulgence. Scrupulousness is
evinced by doubts in clear cases, by a morbid fearfulness of doing wrong,
and so life is wasted in considering vexed and vexatious questions. A
scrupulous conscience is like a diseased eye, which weeps if air, or water,
or light reaches it. It is very favorable to the temptations of the devil.
Hearty prayer, an honest search after truth, holding fast great principles,
and an earnest performance of all known duties—are the chief remedies for a
scrupulous conscience. It has been found very useful also to abound in acts
of kindness to the poor and afflicted. Such a conscience is well called
"weak," and it will probably be best strengthened by vigorous exercise in
what it admits to be plain duty.
Conscience is said to be evil when it is guided by
wrong principles, when it decides contrary to known truth, or when it is
burdened with a load of guilt. Thus the consciences of all unregenerate men
are greatly defiled. They do not give ready and hearty assent to the duty of
loving God supremely, and their neighbor as themselves. They see not the
iniquity or the danger of rejecting the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the
greatest sin of the impenitent in Christian lands. Such have, indeed,
misgivings, qualms, or even terrors—but these lead to no thorough amendment.
Some consciences seem wholly blind. They call good
evil and evil good. This darkness is followed by stupidity. If such hold the
truth, it is in unrighteousness. Even the most pungent words of God do not
properly move their affections. Their lives are unrestrained by the most
sacred laws of Heaven. Their minds are inflated with delusive opinions of
their own worth. If they have zeal in religion, it is not according to
knowledge, or wisdom or meekness. Sometimes such a conscience whispers,
all is not right; and sometimes it thunders. When a great calamity is
feared or felt, when some truth is brought home with power, when death seems
to be near, the anguish of such a conscience is often dreadful. The terrors
of God then become consuming.
The most usual manifestations of an evil conscience among
reputable people in Christian communities are obtuseness and dullness.
Convince some men that a course is wholly agreeable to the will of God, and
you have in effect done nothing towards their right behavior. They may go as
far as Agrippa, and say, "You almost persuade me to be a Christian," or,
like Saul, they may lift up the voice and weep and make some confession of
sin—and then go and be as carnal, as sensual, as unbelieving, as abominable,
yes—as devilish as ever. Their case is described by the prophet: "Moab has
been at ease from his youth, and he has settled on his lees, and has not
been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither has he gone into captivity;
therefore his taste remained in him, and his scent is not changed." Jer.
Carnal security is the ruin of most men, who lose their
souls under the preaching of the gospel. The great source of such stupor is
practical infidelity and the habit of sinning, which takes away a sense of
guilt. Of all habits, that of sinning is the hardest to conquer. It is the
only habit that hardens the heart. A seared conscience is one that can be
moved by nothing, not even by the most atrocious sins. It is commonly found
in those, who have been much enlightened but have resisted the calls of
mercy, and given themselves over to a wicked life. "What they know
naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves." He,
whose conscience is seared, gives these signs of his sad state: he rejoices
in iniquity; he has pleasure in others, who openly practice wickedness; he
obstinately perseveres in doing evil, whatever may be God's dealings with
him; and he gives himself up to what he knows to be sins.
An evil conscience, a conscience defiled, polluted, or
seared—is the great source of heresy. As every man has a standard, he must
either bring his life up to his standard—or bring his standard down to his
life. The latter is much the more easy, and is therefore commonly done. Of
such Paul says, that having put away a good conscience, concerning faith
they have made shipwreck. Their lives being wrong, their creed soon becomes
Henry Smith, a good writer who lived about the middle of
the seventeenth century says, "There is a warning conscience, and a gnawing
conscience. The warning conscience comes before sin, and the gnawing
conscience follows after sin. The warning conscience is often lulled asleep;
but the gnawing conscience wakens her again. If there be any hell in this
world, they, who feel the worm of conscience gnaw upon their hearts, may
truly say that they have felt the torments of hell. Who can express that
man's anguish but himself? Nay, what horrors are there which he cannot but
express himself? Sorrows are met in his soul as at a feast; and fear,
thought, and anguish divide his soul between them. All the furies of hell
leap upon his heart as on a stage. Thought calls to fear; fear whistles to
horror; horror beckons to despair, and says, 'Come and help me to torment
this sinner.' One says she comes from this sin; and another says that she
comes from that sin; and so he goes through a thousand deaths, and yet he
cannot die. Irons are laid upon his body like a prisoner. All his lights are
put out at once. He has no soul fit to be comforted. Thus he lies, as it
were, upon the rack, and says that he bears the world upon his shoulders,
and that no man suffers that which he suffers. So let him lie, says God,
without ease, until he confesses and repents, and calls for mercy."
All this is the more striking when compared with a good
conscience. The properties of a good conscience
1. It is enlightened. It knows the will of God,
the entrance of whose word gives light. A good conscience delights in
knowing the whole mind of God. It hates darkness. It rejoices in the truth.
It comes to the light that its deeds may be reproved. It approves what God
approves. It condemns what God condemns. It judges true judgment. It holds
fast correct principles. It hates every lie.
2. It is firm and decided. It does not
waver like a wave of the sea. It has stability in knowledge and principle.
To it truth is not a notion, but a law. It is grounded and settled in the
revealed will of God. He, who has it, is fully persuaded in his own mind. He
will probably yield many of his own rights to serve and please others; but
he will not yield a single claim of God. In his own cause he may show all
amiable compliance. In his Master's cause, he dare not surrender anything.
3. So far as any conscience is good, it is also tender.
He who possesses it is ashamed to think before God what he would be ashamed
to speak before men; and to meditate before God, what he would be afraid to
do before the world. Sibbes: "All scandalous outbreakings into sin—are but
thoughts at the first. Evil thoughts are as little thieves, which, creeping
in at the window, open the door to greater sins. Thoughts are seeds of
actions." Thus the true Christian judges. No man ever had a good
conscience, who did not hate vain thoughts, idle words, and little sins; for
to a godly man no sin is absolutely little. A tender conscience is
distinguished from a scrupulous conscience in this; that the former makes no
difficulties where God makes none; whereas the latter perplexes itself with
needless refinements and endless questions. An eye may be tender and
delicate, may be stimulated by the least light, may perceive the nicest
shades and faintest lines in a picture. This is a good eye. But to have an
eye that is pained at the least light, or confused with much light so as not
distinctly to see anything, is to have the visual organ in an unhealthy
state. A good conscience is not a dull and stupid thing, but it is wakeful
and lively. It has a ready perception, is of quick understanding, and the
more plainly it sees the path of duty, the better it is pleased.
4. A good conscience is sincere and simple.
It seeks not pretenses, excuses and subterfuges. It abhors cunning,
craftiness and delusive refinements. It delights in "simplicity and godly
sincerity." It is not governed by "fleshly wisdom." It is fair, candid and
truthful. To it subtlety and artifice are revolting. Wherever such a
conscience is found, it is proof of a great change of character, for by
nature the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. There
never was sin without deceit. The greater the sin, the more the deceit.
5. A good conscience is accompanied by the spirit of
obedience. "We trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to
live honestly." Heb. 13:18. Where there are not right dispositions, and
honest intentions to do the will of God, there cannot be a good conscience.
Wrong affections will soon disorder any conscience; and how can any
conscience be good, if it has not power to direct the life and control the
6. No conscience is good until it is sprinkled with
the blood of Christ. It draws its sweetness from the cross of the
Redeemer. A great defect of the law of sacrifices among the Jews was that it
"could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the
conscience." But "the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit
offered himself without spot to God, purges our consciences from dead works
to serve the living God." "Those, who are thus purified from guilt, have no
more conscience of sin." They therefore "draw near with a true heart, having
their hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and their bodies washed with
pure water." The most enlightened and burdened conscience demands no other
atonement, no more perfect sacrifice than that of Christ. Its sufficiency is
as completely satisfactory to him, who fully believes, as it is to God,
whose law was broken. Nor can any man, with an enlightened mind, find ease
for a troubled conscience anywhere else than in precious atoning blood.
7. God's Spirit is also poured upon all who believe, and
their consciences are good in a very high sense. Speaking of the Gentiles,
Peter said: "God, which knows the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the
Holy Spirit, even as he did unto us." Acts 15.
8. To the Ephesians, Paul says: "And you also were
included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your
salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised
Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the
redemption of those who are God's possession--to the praise of his glory."
Eph. 1:13, 14.
He who is thus has a good conscience, and in it a source
of unfailing gladness. "This is our rejoicing, the testimony of our
conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom,
but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world." This
kind of a merry heart does good like a medicine. It is a continual feast. He
who has it has so far terminated the fearful war within his own heart, that
he has crucified his evil passions, has enthroned his conscience in his own
bosom, and breathes benevolence towards men, and piety towards God. He
rejoices in the mighty work of grace begun in him. He no longer shudders at
a sight of himself. His designs are approved by the vicegerent of God in his
soul. Harmony reigns in his bosom. He esteems God his Father. He no longer
trembles at the thought of meeting his Maker. "The righteous are as bold as
There is no shield to repel sharp arrows like that of a
good conscience. Such a good conscience will be a passport and a fortress in
the severest trials. It will disarm death of its sting. It will give
boldness in the day of judgment. All the wealth, honors and pleasures of
earth are not to be compared to it. A man may be full of them, and yet full
of misery. The more he has of them, the less of a man may he be. But with a
good conscience a man is a man, yes, he is a great man under all the
accumulated ills of life. Nothing can infect him with cowardness. But how
different it is with the wicked. They "flee when no man pursues." "They come
out against the righteous one way, and flee before them seven ways."
So dreadful are the torments of an evil conscience that
in many periods of human history, men, who knew not the evil of sin, have
held that it was adequately punished in this life. The fears of the wicked,
especially at times when it is peculiarly desirable to be unshaken, are
oftentimes overwhelming. "Conscience makes cowards of us all." A heathen
left this petition inscribed on a pillar in the temple of his god: "Save me
from my enemies." One coming after him wrote: "Save me from my friends." It
seems to have occurred to no one to write: "Save me from myself." Yet unless
a man heartily offers such a prayer, and is rescued from his passions, his
prejudices, his sinful desires, and the lashings of his guilty conscience,
he is eternally undone. "There is no peace, says my God, to the wicked."
This is true in time. It is more fearfully true in eternity.
Directions for keeping a good conscience
1. Put a high value upon such a blessing. Never be
satisfied without it. It is worth more than all the kingdoms of the world
and the glory of them.
2. Labor diligently to secure it. It comes not to the
careless and indolent. Paul says: "Herein do I exercise myself, to have
always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men."
3. Especially maintain in your heart a strong and
constant sense of the goodness, authority, majesty, and holiness of God. "Be
in the fear of the Lord all the day long." "The fear of the Lord is a
fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death." "Those who fear God
least—have reason to fear him most."
4. Meditate on God's law day and night. Study both tables
with care and diligence. Let it dwell in you richly.
5. Set the Lord always before you. If you can honor and
please him—that is enough.
6. As far as possible avoid confusion of mind respecting
duty. Gurnall: "There are three kinds of straits, wherein Satan loves to
entrap the believer; needless questions, obscure Scriptures and dark
7. Beware of all tortuous ways of proceeding. When you
find your course demanding craftiness, be alarmed. Be honest and frank with
yourself, with your neighbor, and with God.
8. Beware of the least sins. They are the little foxes
which spoil the tender grapes. Avoid every form of evil.
9. Guard with all possible care against secret sins. You
have no worse enemies.
10. Watch against the sins of the times. If there is
great heat in the public temper, be doubly careful to keep cool. If all
around you are eager or violent, let your moderation appear.
11. Ever watch against easily besetting sins, those to
which your constitution, education, habits, or calling incline you. You
cannot be too guarded against old sins.
12. Never venture on any course of doubtful propriety.
"Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind."
13. In all cases of doubt, decide against self-will,
self-interest, and self-indulgence; against your passions, prejudices, and
14. If overtaken in a fault, do not deny it, or excuse it
before God or man—but sincerely confess and forsake it. So shall you find
15. Fervently pray to God to keep you. Beg him not to
take his Holy Spirit from you, and not to leave you to yourself. That was a
good prayer of David: "Hold me up—and I shall be safe."
16. If you strongly suspect that you are wrong, you
probably are wrong; and if conscience is against you, you may know that God
is also against you. "If our heart condemn us—God is greater than our heart,
and knows all things."
17. Be not afraid of knowing the worst of your case. Your
discovery of your own vanity, imperfection and nothingness, so far from
being a bad sign, will be a token for good—if it leads you to trust wholly
18. Choose your company with care and in God's fear. "He
who walks with wise men shall be wise; but the companion of fools shall be
destroyed." Loose companions, freely chosen, will give a loose conscience.
19. Die unto the world. Let its charms fade from your
view. Freely consent to be a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth. Seek for
heavenly-mindedness. Owen: "Unless we can arrive at a fixed judgment that
all things here below are transitory and perishing, reaching only to the
outward man, the body; and that the best of them have nothing substantial
and abiding in them—it is impossible but we must spend our lives in fears,
sorrows, and worry."
20. Be not faithless, but believing. Trust God in the
darkest hour. He "will either keep his saints from temptations by his
preventing mercy, or in temptations by his supporting mercy, or
find a way for their escape from temptation by his delivering mercy."
"He who loves you into sorrow—will love you through sorrow."
21. "Resist the devil and he shall flee from you." Give
place to him, no, not for an hour. He is mighty, but he is not almighty. He
is cunning, but he has no wisdom.
22. Beware of attempting to be wise above what is
written, yet humbly pray to be taught up to what is written.
23. In every new enterprise undertaken for God's glory,
look out for sharp trials. "My son, if you come to serve the Lord, prepare
yourself for temptation." As our Lord himself entered on his public
ministry, he had long and fearful conflicts with the adversary.
24. When God is humbling you, try to humble yourself.
"With the lowly is wisdom." "Be not high-minded, but fear." "He who is down
needs fear no fall." Dyer: "He who lives without fear, shall die without
hope." "Pride goes before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction."
25. If you have a great fight of afflictions, remember
that "it is a worse sign to be without chastisement, than to be under
chastisement; and that all you suffer is not hell, yet it is all the hell
you shall suffer," provided your heart is right with God.
26. Often come to the fountain opened for sin and
uncleanness, and wash away all guilt contracted in life. The blood of Christ
is both the purifier and the preserver of a good conscience. Dyer: "Christ
with his cross—is better than the world with its crown. Study more how to
adorn the cross than how to avoid it." Miller: "If God's people fall into
sin, it is not while they are eyeing the perfection of Christ's
righteousness, but when they lose sight of it."
27. Think often of death, judgment, heaven, hell, and
eternity. Keep your latter end in view. "The time is short." "The Judge
stands at the door!"