How effectively do we tell the difference between right and wrong?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
7 Dec, 2023

Conscience is our ability to decide whether something is morally right or wrong according to some standard. Conscience needs information in order to judge accurately, but we are not always good at evaluating the information available to us, or indeed assessing whether we have done right or wrong ourselves, so as to take legitimate peace and comfort for well-doing and appropriate shame and trouble for evil-doing. Samuel Annesley published a sermon on the conscience with the aim of helping people come to the peace which comes from a good conscience. Conscience is basically either ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ but Annesley provides a further breakdown of different kinds of conscience. The four kinds discussed in the following extract from his sermon can belong to either the converted or the unconverted. Helpfully, Annesley provides an analysis of what causes each of these problems and how the troubling conscience can be remedied.

The erring conscience

An erring conscience is one which judges otherwise than the thing is. Conscience is sometimes deceived through ignorance of what is right, by taking a false rule for a true, or an error for the will of God, and sometimes through ignorance of the fact, by misapplying a right rule to a wrong action.

A wrongly informed conscience takes human traditions and false doctrines, put forward under the guise of divine authority, to be the will of God. A famous instance of this is the case of Jeroboam, who was afraid that if the people went up to sacrifice at Jerusalem, he would lose his kingdom. So a council is called, flattering prophets come, and they have dreams and visions suitable to their purpose. A decree is made: “You have in the past gone up to Jerusalem, but now, behold your gods! These calves are just like the cherubim of the sanctuary!” This seems to the people to be a satisfactory warrant for them to readily follow the king’s commandment.

Much discussion has been had over whether we are bound to follow our erring conscience. The plain truth is that error cannot bind us to follow it. An erring conscience may bind us in such a way that it may be a sin to go against it, but it can never bind in such a way that it is a virtue to follow it. The violation of conscience is always evil, and the following of an erring conscience is evil, but there is a middle way that’s safe and good, and that is, to have conscience better informed by God’s Word, and to follow it accordingly.

What causes an erring conscience?

Of course there is original sin, which blinds the understanding, and there is also the just judgement of God on persons who do not receive, obey, and love the truth as it is in Jesus. But here are three causes besides these.

Negligence about learning the will of God, through slothfulness, and love of ease, and low esteem of the ways of God (Ecclesiastes 4:5–6).

Being too proud to consult others and to be taught by them. Even the sincerely conscientious are not free from a kind of ‘proud modesty,’ in being too shy to make inquiry into practical cases. The ungodly arrogate so much to their own judgment, that they know as much as anyone can teach them.

Having inordinate affection about things of which we are ignorant. This warps our consideration, for anyone who seeks truth with a bias will run counter to it when he comes near it, and not find it though he comes within striking distance of it.

What is the remedy for an erring conscience?

You may gather the remedies from the opposites to these causes of error. Be industriously diligent to know your duty — be humbly willing to receive instruction — and do not let your affections outrun your judgment.

There is one further rule I shall commend. Do what you know to be your present duty, and God will acquaint you with your future duty when it comes to be present. Make it your business to avoid known omissions, and God will keep you from feared commissions. See the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 25:4–5 ‘Show me thy ways, O Lord …’ and the answer in verse 9, ‘The meek will he guide in judgment …’

The doubting conscience

A doubting conscience is one which with trouble and anxiety suspends its judgment, not knowing which way to determine. It is an ambiguity of mind which consists in a standing (or rather, a wavering) balance, neither assenting nor dissenting.

In fact, strictly speaking, a doubting conscience is not really a functioning conscience at all, because by definition conscience actually judges what has been done, or what is to be done, but where there is no assent, there is no judging.

When the apostle says, ‘whatsoever is not of faith is sin,’ by ‘faith’ there we must understand that persuasion and security of mind by which we believe and judge that this thing either pleases or displeases God (it does not refer to justifying faith). In all duties we must be unweariedly diligent to perceive the truth, so as to drive away doubtfulness, for the more certain our knowledge of the things we do, the more confident we may be in doing them, and the more joyful afterwards.

What causes doubting?

Lack of reasons, or equally weighted reasons, so that when we weigh things most impartially, yet we are not able to come to a determination, but the mind is still in suspense.

Specific reasons. General reasons are not sufficient to make a conscientious doubt; the mind must be fixating on some particular reasons that need to be duly weighed. A doubting conscience is bad anyway, but people make it worse when their doubts lurk in generals — they only have some cloudy notions from without, or foggy mists from within, and they take no due course to clear any of them.

How can you answer a doubting conscience?

About lesser matters, take the safest course. In doubtful things, ordinarily one way is clear, so take that. But this rule will not reach all cases.

So, secondly, establish where your doubt lies. Be sure that it really is a case of conscience — not of self-interest, or of prejudice, but of conscience, such that you are unreservedly willing for it to be resolved, and you can in prayer bring God a blank cheque to write whatever He pleases. Pare off all those quibbling demurs and worldly reasonings which may puzzle you, but can never satisfy you.

Then, write down your case as plainly as you can, with the reasons for your hesitation. Make two columns. On the one side write those reasons you judge cogent in favour; on the other side, put the reasons you judge weighty against. Weigh these impartially. You will find that your perplexed thoughts look different when written down than when floating, and that your own ink will ordinarily kill this fetter.

If this does not resolve your doubts, it will at least make you ready for advice. When you consult others, ask with sincerity what was said to Jeremiah, ‘Pray for us, that the Lord thy God may show us the way wherein we may walk …’ (Jer. 42:2–6), and request of them especially scriptures and reasons. One case thoroughly resolved like this will be singularly useful for scattering all future doubts in all other cases.

The scrupulous conscience

A scrupulous conscience determines that a thing is lawful, yet scarcely to be done, lest it should be unlawful. There is anxiety, reluctancy and fear in the determination. A scruple in the mind is like gravel in your shoe, vexing and hurting the conscience, and disturbing the soul in performance of duties.

What causes scrupulousness?

I shall name only two causes (forbearing to mention our ignorance and pride).

Natural disposition. Some people are naturally timorous or fearful and their imagination takes a sad view of things, making the person timid.

Temptations. This is the chief cause. If Satan cannot keep the heart a secure prisoner, he will do his utmost to overwhelm it with fears and suspicions, and he suits his temptations according to our natural temperament. He does not tempt the riotous with rewards, nor the glutton to the glory of abstinence.

How can we help a scrupulous conscience?

Firstly, while you should not be discouraged with your scruples, yet I plead with you, do not indulge them. Scruples naturally tend to do much spiritual damage. They are occasions of sin; they make the ways of God seem too restrictive; they hinder the work of grace; they hinder cheerfulness in the service of God; they quench the Spirit; and they unfit us for duty. These are all reasons to strive against them.

But yet, do not be discouraged, for God through His over-powering grace can make good use of them — to further the mortification of sin in us; to restrain us from worldly vanities; to abate pride; to make us more watchful; to make us strive to be more spiritual; and to almost force us to live more on Christ.

But, secondly, if you want to have these benefits, you must use this other remedy. Do what you possibly can to get rid of your scruples. If you cannot get rid of them, act against them. It is not only lawful but necessary to go against a scrupulous conscience, otherwise you will never have neither grace nor peace. Should you avoid praying, or receiving the sacrament, every time your scrupulous conscience tells you that it’s better to omit the duty than perform it in such a manner? You would soon find to your sorrow the mischief of your scruples. Be resolute therefore, and tell the devil that as you do not perform your duty at his command, so neither will you omit it at his bidding. By performing your duties, your scrupulous fears will vanish. Meanwhile act against them by disputing them down, and opposing their reasons, and not hearkening to them.

The trembling conscience

The trembling conscience is disquieted and distressed with the (perceived) hazard of the soul’s condition, and does nothing but accuse and condemn and frighten the soul.

What causes a trembling conscience?

The twin cause of a trembling conscience is sense of sin and fear of wrath. ‘Never was there sin like mine! Never a heart like mine! Never a case like mine!’ Such are the constant complaints of a troubled spirit.

What is the cure for a trembling conscience?

It goes without saying, never take the devil’s advice. Break through all carnal reasonings to acquaint yourselves with some faithful spiritual physician, or experienced Christian, who may show you the methods of divine grace, and what has been successfully done by others who have been just in your condition.

In the midst of your saddest complaints, bless God that your conscience has been awakened while there is still hope of a cure. We should not be too quick in administering comforts, but we cannot be too quick in provoking ourselves to thankfulness. If you can at present be thankful that you are out of hell, you shall before long be thankful for assurance of heaven. This rule may seem strange, but (by experience) practicing it will show the excellency of it.

Observe that it is God’s usual method to bring the soul through these perplexities to the most solid spiritual peace. Augustine excellently expressed his spiritual conflict, how God followed him with severe mercy, till He made him insistent on thorough holiness. Believe it, Christian, God is now storing you with experiences which will be a useful treasury throughout your life. Only hold on in the vigorous use of all the means of grace.

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