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. 48:11.

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 erroneous.

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 are:

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 heart?

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 a lion."

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 providences."

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 even preferences.

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 mercy.

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 in Christ.

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!"