How to be guided by conscience
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.
4 Apr, 2024

Following our conscience is the right thing to do when our conscience is well-informed and characterised by the integrity that comes from being purged by the blood of Christ. We want neither a stupefied or seared conscience on one hand, nor a doubting, over-scrupulous conscience on the other hand. As Samuel Annesley shows in the following updated extract from his sermon on conscience, the sense of sin and the receiving of forgiveness need to be in the right balance. Then we will be equipped to navigate through life in a consistently Christian way.

How to get a reliable conscience

1. Get your conscience awakened from its natural lethargy.
2. Preserve your conscience tender from being seared.
3. Rectify its errors as you would get cure of blindness.
4. Resolve its doubts as you would a claim to your lands.
5. Break from your scruples as you would from thieves on the road.
6. Lay your head in Christ’s bosom to cure your trembling.

How to keep a reliable conscience

And then for the integrity and quiet of your conscience, observe these proposals, as meticulously as you would a doctor’s prescription in a tedious sickness.

1. Avoid sinning as you would a train of gunpowder.
2. Be as quick in your repentance as in the cure of a pleurisy.
3. Live under the felt presence of the jealous God.
4. Examine your heart, as princes sift out treason.
5. Pray for the grace you need, as starving persons cry for food.
6. Let every action be like an arrow shot at a mark.
7. Think of God as a wise physician.
8. Be as vile in your own esteem as you are in the eyes of the most hypercritical enemy.
9. Live on Christ, as the child in the womb lives on the mother.
10. Love God (as near as possibly you can) as God loves you.

Landmarks to use on the journey

But you may find these rules, even though I have condensed them, to be too many, and too long to be always remembered. So, to ensure that you will not be overburdened with things which should never be forgotten, I shall commend to you some directions, which may be to your souls in your pilgrimage towards heaven, as ship provisions in a sea voyage — generally sufficient, when others cannot be had.

Plainly practise these reminders of direction in all your conscientious walking.

Consult duty, not events

There’s nothing in the world for us to do, but to mind our duty. Curious speculations, that do not tend towards holiness, are one thing: but misgivings based on predictions of what may or will happen to you when you do your duty, may be reckoned among your grosser iniquities. To venture to sin in order to avoid danger, is to sink the ship for fear of pirates, and must be reckoned amongst your greatest follies, your worst of sins.

Some argue, in effect, “This way of duty will probably bring down some people’s displeasure on me, and therefore to prevent that, I’ll take the course which will certainly bring down God’s displeasure.” Is not their reason dangerously distempered? Unquestionably their conscience is. Besides, by-ways will not lead you to the place you aim at.

On the contrary, keep your consciences from being violated, and you cannot be miserable. How calm and quiet, as well as holy and heavenly, would our lives be, if we had only learnt this single lesson, to care about nothing but to know and do our duty, and to leave all effects, consequences and events to God!

The truth is, it is a daring boldness for silly dust to prescribe to infinite wisdom, and to let go our work, to meddle with God’s. He has managed the concernments of the world, and of every individual person in it, without giving occasion to any one to complain, for more than the past five thousand years, and does He now need advice from you? Therefore let it be your only business to mind your duty.

Aye, but how shall I know my duty? Take a second reminder.

The advice you would give to someone else, take yourself

The worst kinds of people are apt enough to lay such burdens on other folk’s shoulders, that if they would take them on their own, they would be rare Christians indeed. The outcry made by those who revile godliness, when they nitpick and dissect the misdeeds of Christians! Even they expect that those who make a profession of religion should be blameless beyond exception; and even they scorn those who fall away at all from their professed strictness. On the other side, those who are holy expect that even graceless persons should bear reproof, receive instruction, and change the course of their lives.

In middle cases, then, between these extremes, what exactness will serious Christians require from themselves, where the bias of their own corruptions does not misguide them? David was twice surprised to pass sentence against himself by parables in the abstract, where he did not realise he was implicated himself.

Where this rule is too short, add a third.

Do nothing on which you cannot pray for a blessing

Where prayer does not lead, repentance must follow. It is a desperate venture to sin on hopes of repentance. Every action of a Christian that is good, is sanctified by the Word and prayer. It is unseemly for a Christian to do anything, however trivial, that he can’t pray over. If Christians only but bestow a serious exclamatory prayer on every action, they would find that such prayers would cut off all things sinful, demur all things doubtful, and encourage all things lawful. Therefore do nothing but what you can preface with prayer.

But these rules are all defective, so I’ll close with an example that’s infinitely above defects.

Think, speak, and do what you are persuaded Christ Himself would do in your situation, if He were on the earth

The heathen kept in their view the best examples they had, and therefore let us follow the best of ours. There are many remarkable examples in Scripture, but I propose neither great nor small, but the King of Saints. It is better for a Christian to be an example, than to follow one. But by imitating Christ, you will come as near as possible to the best, for your fellowship shall be with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit of holiness, the only one who can teach you what it is to abide in Christ, who was, and is, and ever will be our absolute copy.

O Christians! How Christ prayed, and redeemed time for prayer! How Christ preached, out of whose mouth proceeded nothing but gracious words, so that His enemies could not but admire Him! How little Christ valued the world, when He renounced it Himself and taught us to renounce it too! What time Christ spent in conversation, when He made the hearts of those who He happened to fall into company with burn within them! How Christ went up and down doing good to man, and always those things that were pleasing to God!

Four last reminders

Beloved, to summarise, I commend to you these four reminders, to be so many scarlet threads on every finger of your right hand, so that you would never put your hand to any action, but these reminders would be in your eye.

1. Mind duty.
2. What’s another’s duty in your situation, is yours.
3. When you can’t say, “The blessing of the Lord be on it,” do not meddle with it.
4. But above all, as you would never renounce your name as a Christian, never forget to look to Christ. Whatever treatment you meet with from the profane world, remember Christ your Exemplar, and follow His steps. “He did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth, who when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered he threatened not, but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.”

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