“Counsels of the Aged to the Young” – XIV. Conscience


14. Keep a good CONSCIENCE. If wickedness had no other punishment than the stings of conscience which follow evil actions, it would be reason enough to induce every considerate man to avoid that which is productive of so much pain. No misery of which the human mind is susceptible, is so intolerable and so irremediable as remorse of conscience. The pain of conscience is liable to be renewed as often as the guilty action is distinctly recollected. It is true, the conscience, by means of error and repeated resistance to its dictates, may become callous—”seared as with a hot iron”; (1 Tim 4:2) but this apparent death of moral sensibility is no more than a sleep. At an unexpected time, and in circumstances the most inconvenient, conscience may be aroused, and may exert a more tremendous power than was ever before experienced. The increasing guilt of sins committed, while no notice seemed to be taken of them—now demand and enforce consideration.

Joseph’s brethren seemed to have almost forgotten their unnatural and cruel conduct in selling him as a slave into a foreign country; but when many years had elapsed, and they found themselves environed with difficulties and dangers in that very land, the remembrance of their crime painfully rushed upon their minds, and extorted from them mutual confessions of their guilt. “God,” said they, “has found out the iniquity of your servants.” (Gen 44:16) “And they said one to another, we are very guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore has this distress come upon us.” (Gen 42:21)

Men often endeavor to escape from the stings of a guilty conscience by a change of place, but the remedy is ineffectual. The transgressor may traverse the widest ocean, transcend the loftiest mountains, and bury himself in the dark recesses of the desert—but he cannot fly so far, nor conceal himself so effectually, as to escape from his tormentor. In some cases the agonies of remorse have been so intolerable, that the guilty perpetrator of great wickedness has preferred strangling and death, to the miserable life with a guilty conscience, and the suicide has rushed uncalled into the presence of his Judge! And in other cases, men guilty of bloody crimes have found the pangs of remorse so intolerable that they have voluntarily given themselves up to justice; and by a voluntary confession, have convicted themselves, when no human witnesses were competent to prove their guilt.

But what man is there who has not committed sins, the recollection of which gives him sensible pain? And such acts often stand out in sharpness, in the retrospect of the past. No effort can obliterate such things from the memory. We may turn away our eyes from the disagreeable object—but the painful idea will return again. And thus men whose consciences are not seared, are haunted by guilt as by a troublesome spirit; and often their sins find them out, and stare them in the face, when danger threatens, or when calamity has overtaken them. Why moral sensibility should be so much more exquisite at some times than others cannot be easily explained, but the fact is certain, and is probably familiar to the consciousness of all.

There may indeed exist a morbid susceptibility, an unreasonable scrupulousness and terror of conscience, which is a real and distressing disease, and which yields only to physical remedies judiciously applied. Melancholy is not the effect of religious impressions; but is a state of mind of a most unhappy kind, produced by a derangement of the physical system, and which leads the subject of it to fix his thoughts on those things which are most dreadful and gloomy. The same is true in regard to insanity. Many people entertain strong prejudices against experimental religion, because they wrongly think that it endangers the reason, and drives the timid and weak-minded into mania.

Now it is no doubt true that any strong emotion or passion may, when there exists a predisposition to the disease, disturb the regular exercise of reason; but that this danger is greater to people deeply exercised about religion than to others, is utterly without foundation. Fanaticism, it may be conceded, has a tendency to insanity. Indeed, it has long appeared to me that fanaticism, especially in its mildest forms, is nothing else than a species of insanity. I have upon no other hypothesis been able to account for the opinions and conduct of some people who have been led away into the excesses of enthusiasm.

But what is the most effectual preservative from this kind of mental derangement? Is it irreligion, vice, and infidelity? By no means. People who take refuge in such things find them to be “refuges of lies”. (Isa 28:17) The only effectual remedy against the misery of a disturbed mind and a guilty conscience, is true religion. For this wound, the ,balm of Gilead, is the only medicine which is proved by experience to be efficacious. He who is able to cherish a lively hope of happiness beyond the grave, who can look up to God as a reconciled Father, and who feels good will to all men—has surely within him the ingredients of a settled peace of mind.

When I counsel you, my young friends, to keep a good conscience, I mean that you should, in the first place, endeavor to obtain this inestimable blessing by an application to “the blood of sprinkling”. (Heb 12:24) Until the soul is justified and sin pardoned—there can be no true peace of conscience. While the law remains unsatisfied for us, and denounces vengeance against us for our sins, what in the universe can give us peace? But when by faith the soul apprehends the atonement, and sees that it is commensurate to all the demands of the law, and that in the cross, justice is not only satisfied, but gloriously illustrated—it is at once relieved from the agony of guilt, and the peace of God which passes understanding pervades the soul. The great secret of genuine peace is, therefore, living faith in the blood of Christ. But if you would preserve your conscience pure and enjoy peace, you must not only obtain forgiveness for the past, but must be very careful to sin no more in future. The law of God is exceeding broad and strict, and if we would preserve peace of conscience, we must conform our actions to its precepts with assiduous and holy diligence.

A good conscience is always an enlightened conscience. Through error, a man may believe that he is doing God service—when he is persecuting His people; but such a conscience is not good. Men may act conscientiously and yet act very wickedly. I suppose that all the devotees of the most absurd and impious superstitions, act according to the dictates of conscience, even when they sacrifice human beings, and expose to death their own offspring, or themselves; but who would say that such a conscience was good? The correct knowledge of truth, therefore, lies at the foundation of a good conscience. Nothing is more important to man, than the truth; therefore “buy the truth and sell it not”. (Prov 23:23)

But too often conscience is not regarded when it correctly dictates what should be done or avoided. Amidst the cravings of sinful appetite, the storm of the passions, and the incessant bustle of the world—the whispers of conscience are not heeded. In multitudes of instances, where people do wrong, they have a premonition of the evil; or at least a suggestion that it is proper to inquire and consider what justice and duty demand. Some people are conscientious in great matters, who, in comparatively small concerns, seem to have no moral discernment.

The habit of consulting the moral sense in all things, is of great importance. Before you act, consider; and beware of the false coloring which passion and self-interest throw around the subjects of duty. Lean to the safe side. Where an action is of dubious character, do not venture upon it. Be fully persuaded in your own mind, “for whatever is not of faith is sin”. (Rom 14:23) Some people are conscientious and punctilious about little things, but careless about the weightier matters of the law. This is the conscience of a hypocrite. Others have a mind ill at ease, because the festering wound of guilt has never been thoroughly probed and cleansed, but merely externally healed. Their repentance has not been deep enough, nor universal enough; or some secret sin is still too much indulged. Now while these are the facts, a good conscience is an impossible thing. Sincere penitence, humiliation and confession—are God’s prescribed remedy. Where these are lacking, the conscience will not be at peace.

Now whatever may be the infirmity or moral defect which cleaves to us, it is odious in the sight of God, and tends to grieve the Holy Spirit. In just judgment, we are left to darkness, barrenness, and misery, because we have not sufficiently desired deliverance from sin; but have made vain excuses for our own faults. I would then counsel you, especially, to nourish the motions of the Holy Comforter. By His divine influences alone, a good conscience can be maintained. And if you are sensible that you have grieved the Spirit, so that you are left comfortless, never rest until you again experience the peace and joy which is the fruit of His indwelling.

– Archibald Alexander; Counsels of the Aged to the Young (See here for more info)

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