It was an uncompromising conscience that compelled Luther to stand alone in courageous faith before the mightiest people of the day. This was where he stood 500 years ago on 18 April 1521. He was not driven by personal hubris but constrained by something higher. His conscience, he declared, was captive to the Word of God. And it is “neither safe nor advisable to do anything against conscience”. It would have been easy to outsource his conscience blindly to the teaching authorities in the Church, even when he understood them to contradict Scripture. In our generation there are many influencers in society and media seeking to shape a collective conscience. Suddenly people trip over themselves to signal their newly-discovered virtues. Brands now have a conscience that they must advertise. It is easy to allow our conscience to be formed by all kinds of authorities and individuals, whether they have the hard power of government or the soft power of influence. We can even relinquish our consciences to other Christians in certain matters rather than having them bound to the Word of God. It is vitally important to know how to nurture rather than outsource our conscience.
What do we mean by outsourcing conscience? After all we yield our consciences to God and His Word. Outsourcing in general is when we hand over our responsibilities or tasks to others who will do them on our behalf. In terms of outsourcing conscience this means not taking responsibility for cultivating conscience and exercising it in the right way through having it properly informed by God’s will. We simply hand over this responsibility to others to do it for us. In the following updated and abridged extract, the Covenanter preacher John Carstairs shows what it means to maintain our conscience in a God-glorifying way.
1. A Truly Nurtured Conscience Has Been Renewed
Above all things make sure to have a good conscience, not only morally (when it submits to God’s revealed will for its rule and constrains a person to act and will according to it that rule) but also graciously. This presupposes a state of regeneration when the heart by faith (the gift of God) seeks to have the blood of sprinkling which both purges and pacifies, cleanses and calms the conscience. It speaks better things than the blood of Abel and can out-cry the loudest cries of the most clamorous and guilty conscience (Hebrews 12:24). It is the only way for all accusations for sins to be safely put to silence and so drowned that they will never surface again to the final sorrow and shame of those who are led by grace. Any other way of silencing such accusations of conscience will most certainly end in their rising again at last to speak loudly against them, never any more to hold their peace from grievously bitter and gnawing accusations. For to the unclean and unbelieving nothing is pure, but even the mind and conscience is defiled (Titus 1:15).
2. A Truly Nurtured Conscience Must Be Maintained
If the conscience has been made good in this way we must endeavour by all suitable means to keep it so. This will give us good grounds to say with the apostle that we have a good conscience in all things, willing to live honestly (Hebrews 13:18). The conscience of the Christian may, however, become defiled and wounded by newly contracted pollution and guilt. When accusations begin to arise and disturb the peace and sweet rest of the soul we must at all times make fresh believing application to the blood of sprinkling. The heart may be sprinkled from an evil conscience and the conscience purged from dead works to serve the living God (Hebrews 10:22) in this way. Renewed endeavours should be made in the strength of grace to walk more tenderly without offence toward God and men (Acts 24:16).
3. A Truly Nurtured Conscience Must be Well-Informed
We must strive to have our conscience well and thoroughly informed. This means intimate acquaintance with the mind and will of God revealed in the Scriptures of truth as to all things that we are called to believe and do. This makes conscience able to discharge its office and duty aright, whether in prescribing, testifying, or judging. An ill-informed conscience (especially where there is any zeal or forwardness) strongly pushes and furiously drives people to many dangerous and destructive practices. Has this not driven men to kill the servants of Christ (as He himself foretold) and in doing so to think that they did God service? Did this not hurry on Paul, before his conversion, to persecute those who called on the name of the Lord Jesus and make havoc of the Church, by dragging the disciples (both men and women) bound to prison and by cruel persecution compelling them to blaspheme?
4. A Truly Nurtured Conscience Has Only One Lord
We must seek to have the conscience deeply impressed with a due and deep veneration, awe and dread of the majesty of God who is the supreme Lord of and great Law-giver to the conscience. Only His laws and commands properly, directly and immediately in themselves oblige it to obey. The consciences and souls of men are properly subject to God alone. The law of God written in the hearts of men and in the Scriptures is the only rule of conscience. No one else can immediately judge the conscience and know its secret operations. Only He can inflict spiritual punishment on the sinning conscience. All human laws and commands (in whatever capacity) only oblige the conscience to obey indirectly. They are obligatory only in so far as they are consistent, compliant and agreeable with the laws and commands of the absolutely supreme law-giver, or not opposed to them.
God has not permitted any power on earth, civil or ecclesiastical, to annul His commands or to require obedience to commands that are contrary to, or inconsistent with His own. His commands are inviolably binding on the consciences of authorities even though they are the greatest rulers on earth as well those subject to them. All without exception are subject to Him. All human laws that enforce or declare the commands and law of God and provide for them to be conserved and observed are obligatory on the conscience. This is because such laws derive from the nature and force of divine law.
The law of God commands us to be subject to those powers in authority over us. There may be unjust laws and those that are opposed to or inconsistent with divine laws. If we must refuse obedience, we must not do so out of any contempt for lawful authority. Such contempt of lawful authority would be a stumbling block to others and both of these are sins against the law of God that we must avoid. But we must remember that no mere human laws bind the conscience directly, immediately and in themselves. God has not given a power to any of the powers and authorities on earth to require obedience to commands that are opposed to His own injunctions, which all are obliged to obey by necessity.
We cannot yield our conscience without question to be ruled by the public conscience or laws of the Commonwealth. This would suppose that the public conscience is always infallible. Absolute obedience and resigning oneself entirely to the conduct of another in matters of faith and conscience is a duty that we cannot lawfully render to anyone except God. He is the first truth and the first principle of all justice and none can claim these without usurping the just right of God. The conscience is immediately subject to God and His will, it cannot subject itself to any creature without idolatry. To do otherwise would be the quickest way to drive all conscience out of the world. It would mean that Christians are not at all to trouble themselves to search the Scriptures to inform their consciences and be fully persuaded in their mind or conscience (explicitly required in John 5:39. and Romans 14:5).
As Edward Leigh says in his book Body of Divinity, this would make “subjects beasts and the magistrate [ruler] God”. It would imply that authority can require anything of us and we are free from the guilt of any sin because it was only done in obedience to authority. The divinely inspired apostle teaches us entirely differently that we must all appear (or be made manifest) before the judgement seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body (whether commanded by superiors or not) according to what they have done, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10). Every one of us shall give an account of himself (not another for him) to God (Romans 14:12, see also Galatians 6:4-5 and 1 Corinthians 3:8).
5. A Truly Nurtured Conscience is Sensitive
Do not carelessly neglect and slight the rebukes and accusations of conscience in lesser things, or in matters of comparatively smaller significance. Conscience is as much concerned with these as in all our moral actions. This can weaken the voice and rebukes of conscience in more momentous matters and may incline it to be careless in those too.
The accusations of conscience may be smothered for the time being yet may rise up again many years afterwards. This was so with Joseph’s brothers, it was twenty years at least after their pitiless, cruel, unnatural and inhuman treatment of their poor innocent younger brother. God may be provoked to leave our conscience to be silent for a while in relation to our sins. A silent bad conscience is amongst the worst of bad consciences, in some ways it is worse than a roaring bad conscience because it inclines the soul to think that God is silent too and has forgotten these sins. Even the godly themselves may by something of this guilt, raise great storms of trouble and disquiet in their own consciences.
6. A Truly Nurtured Conscience is Respectful
By all means guard against going contrary to the plain dictates of your consciences, especially when clearly informed by the Word. This is a daring, despising and disowning of God’s deputy; violently removing conscience from the judge’s bench. This hardens conscience and makes a person bold against God in sinning, it makes the heart harder than an adamant. Such will not be ashamed or so much as blush.
7. A Truly Nurtured Conscience is Fully Persuaded
Do not do anything with an unclear, hesitant and doubting conscience. Anything not done in faith is sin (Romans 14:23); anything must be done in the faith and persuasion that it is right to do so. If our conscience is mistaken it must be well informed so that the error is realised. But if we do not have our conscience rightly informed, it will still be sinful to go against an erring conscience.
The consciences of others are no rule to ours, their conscience is not infallible. God has put a conscience in everyone as His deputy. We are to pay careful heed to its dictates. God has not made the conscience of any one individual or group of individuals His deputy over all the consciences of other people. Those who are more spiritual and conscientious than ourselves may be clear in their consciences that such and such a practice is permissible. We are then called to impartially examine the reasons for their clarity and examine our own hesitation or lack of clarity carefully. We must be much in earnest prayer to God for light and guidance. But if despite all this my doubt still remains and other godly individuals are also doubtful and unclear I cannot surrender to be blindly ruled by the conscience of others, whoever they are or whatever my respect for them. I cannot act with a doubting conscience without sin. If I can do this why may I not do another more serious thing doubtingly and then another and another. Where will I stop? In things that are doubtful it is safest to abstain.
8. A Truly Nurtured Conscience is Sensitive to the Conscience of Others
Although we may be clear and fully persuaded of our own Christian liberty in certain things that are indifferent, we must be very sensitive towards the consciences of others who are not. We do not want to offend and wound their conscience. By nature we are ready insensitively and uncharitably to give and to take offence. Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8, 9 and 10 are uniquely useful chapters in restraining us from this.
9. A Truly Nurtured Conscience Does Not Pretend to Have Scruples
Believers should not pretend it is a matter of conscience to abstain from certain practices if it is just because there has been a long custom of doing so, or because they are following the example of others or do not want to displease them. Are you ready to undergo any considerable suffering for what you claim is a matter of conscience. If not when we forsake it we will bring great reproach to true religion and conscientious godliness. If conscience is pretended in petty things but not the weightier things of religion, we are like the Pharisees. We are like them also when we appeal to conscience for tenaciously adhering to human traditions.
10. A Truly Nurtured Conscience is Not Rash
Do not rashly enter into any action (especially if it is of great moment) before seriously consulting conscience and endeavouring to have it well informed by the Word. This can either result in an accusing conscience or the temptation to bypass conscience and justify whatever we have done. The only person who walks surely, is the one that walks uprightly, in unbiased compliance with the dictates of the Spirit of God in the Scriptures and their own conscience informed by that.
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