God's Purpose for the Conscience
Matthew Mead, 1629-1699
"Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." Romans 2:14-15
That it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, will appear, if you consider that all the proceedings of God in the great day of judgment shall be suited to every man's CONSCIENCE. It shall be such as a man's own conscience shall fall in with, and justify the proceedings of God in. I must speak to this gradually.
1. There is in every man, such a thing as conscience. It is essential to the rational nature, therefore essential to all mankind. Every man has a conscience. It is most plain in Scripture. You read of conscience above thirty times in the New Testament, though not in the Old Testament the actual word conscience, but you find that which signifies the same thing. For the Hebrews have no word which signifies conscience, but it is expressed in other words, sometimes by the heart and spirit. As it is said, "David's heart smote him when he had numbered the people," (2 Samuel 24:10), that is, his conscience accused him. It is the work of conscience to reflect on the actions done, and to check for the evil ones. "You know all the evil that your heart was privy to," Solomon says to Shimei. That is, his conscience. There is therefore in every man a conscience.
2. Conscience is a thing that is inseparably united to the soul, and is essential to it.In what part of the soul this conscience is seated, has caused various sentiments among the learned. Some place it in the understanding, some in the will, and the like. I think the proper place of conscience in the whole soul, is what the philosophers say of the soul in reference to the body—that it is wholly in the whole, and wholly in every part. That may be truly said of conscience in reference to the soul, that it is not only a part of the whole, but wholly in every part.
Conscience is in the understanding and acts there.
It is in the will and checks there.
It is in the affections and governs there.
It is in the memory and records there.
Conscience makes the understanding practical, and the will obedient, the affections spiritual, and the memory faithful. These are all the workhouse of conscience. Here it sits, here it acts, and from here it sends forth its influences into all the actions of a man's life. It extends itself over the whole man, and is concerned in every interest, and every motion, from first to last.
Conscience! We may call it a universal spiritual sense, like feeling in the body, which is not confined to any particular organ, as other senses are. Seeing is confined to the eye, and hearing to the ear, tasting to the mouth. But this is a sense that runs through all the organs and members of the body. Every part cannot see and hear, but every part can feel—and truly such a thing is conscience, it runs through all our duties and practices. Faith looks to the promises,
fear looks to the threatenings,
obedience looks to the commands,
repentance looks to sins,
but conscience looks to all.
3. The office of conscience is very great.It is the greatest officer under Heaven. It is the next and immediate officer under God himself. It rides, as Joseph did, in the second chariot. It has a very high and solemn power. It has some offices respecting God; some, respecting others; some, ourselves; some offices to be done in time; and some in eternity. While a man lives, conscience officiates. When he dies, conscience officiates. When he comes to be judged, conscience still officiates. When a man is in his eternal state, conscience officiates then. It is never out of action. As Christ says in another case, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." John 5:17
(1). Conscience is God's repository, where the revealed will of God is kept and preserved. God wrote his law on tables of stone, and he writes it also on the fleshly tables of man's heart. This is the book of record. God never revealed more of his will, than he has written in conscience. The declaration of his will in the moral law, is no more than what was written on Adam's conscience. And the declaration of God's will in the covenant of grace, is no more than what is written in the believer's conscience. "I will write my Laws in their hearts," (Hebrews 8:10).
There is nothing in the Scripture to be believed or practiced, but it is impressed on the believer's conscience. He can say with David in the person of Christ, "Your law is within my heart." Conscience is a system of practical principles, written by the finger of God, for the furtherance and help of the soul in the ways of obedience. Yet how few men make it their work to look into their consciences. Many can read over great volumes written by other men, and yet never read one page in this book of conscience.
(2). Conscience is to directly inform us. Man has need of a guide, therefore God has appointed conscience to lead him. This is the reason of God's writing his law in the conscience, that a man might have a sure guide of his way. Solomon says, (Proverbs 20:27), "The spirit of a man is the candle of the Lord." And God lights this candle in us, that all his works may be done in the light. "The way of the wicked is darkness, they know not at what they stumble." And they do not know where it is, because they have extinguished the light of God in their souls. They have blown out God's candle by their sins. Therefore, no wonder if they walk in the dark and stumble and fall until at last they lie down in eternal sorrow!
What a happy world this would be, if man would act according to the guidance and direction of conscience. See what David says in Psalm 16:8, "I have set the Lord always before me," how so? "My thoughts instruct me in the night season. I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel." My thoughts instruct me, and I have set the Lord always before me. Conscience took counsel of God, and David took counsel of conscience, and that led him into the divine presence. The reason why men live without conscience in the world, is that they slight its guidance and leading. It is no wonder that they slight our ministry, when they slight the very ministry of conscience. How can we hope that they should hearken to us, when they will not hear the preacher within, the preacher God has set up in every man?
(3). Conscience has an impulsive and coercive power.
It has an impelling power to good. It does not only inform us what the will of God is, but it instigates to doing it. And the more holy and renewed a man's conscience is, the stronger are its instigations, that a man cannot but obey, "We cannot but speak the things that we have heard and seen," (Acts 4:20). As if they would say, God commands us, and conscience forces us, and who shall gainsay us? It is a blessed thing to have a conscience always prompting a man to good, stirring up the grace of God that is in him.
Conscience has a coercive power as to evil. It does not only inform us about it, show us what is evil—but cautions against it. It says to a man, as the angel to John, "See that you do not do it!" As Solomon to his son, "If sinners entice you, do not consent!" And wherever grace has made its entrance into the heart—the heart willingly comes under the constraint of conscience.
This made Joseph give that brave answer to his tempting mistress, "How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?" (Genesis 39:9). As if he should say, it is wickedness, and therefore God forbids it, and conscience restrains me—and therefore how can I do it?
Augustine tells of a woman, who being solicited by a lewd person to impurity, told him that he must then grant her one thing, to hold his hand in the fire one hour for her sake. He refused, saying that it was an unreasonable demand. She replied: Is it not more unreasonable that, to gratify your lust, I should burn soul and body in Hell forever?
O! the power and restraint of conscience where it reigns! Even the consciences of wicked men many times put forth a restraining force, unless man by sin has stifled, defiled, seared or hardened his conscience. Woe to him that dares sin against the authority of conscience, for he sins against the sovereignty of God. He who sins when conscience checks—he sins when God forbids him; therefore no bounds can hold that sinner who sins against the restraint of conscience.
4. Conscience takes notice of all a man's ways, and therefore one calls it, "God's residence in man's soul." There is nothing a man does in the world, but conscience takes notice of it! Every action, word and thought, is set down in the book of conscience. Wherever a man goes, he carries this with him. When he is in the dark, in secret—conscience observes him there. There is no sin any man does, but it is done in the sight of two witnesses, and they are, God and conscience.
We think when we sin in secret, that no eye sees us. But I tell you, God sees, he makes darkness light before him. And conscience sees, and writes down all. God knows the rottenness of a hypocrite, that his heart is not right in the sight of God. You who are a secret adulterer, and think that no eye sees you—does not conscience look on, and observe everything?
Therefore, take heed what you do. Do nothing now that you would not be willing to hear of again at the Day of Judgment—for most certainly you shall! It is said when Latimer was being examined for his life, and heard one behind him writing down all that he said—it made him very cautious of what he said.
In the same way, conscience writes down all, and this book God will open at the last day!
5. Conscience is deputed as God's witness, and this is the reason why it takes such exact notice of a man's state and way. It is in order to witness-bearing, that it may give evidence for or against a man according to the merit of his cause. Every man has a witness within. (1 John 5:10). "He who believes on the Son of God, has the witness in himself;" conscience witnesses to the work of grace, to the truth of his faith. So I may say that he who does not believe on the Son of God has the witness in himself. Conscience witnesses against him for unbelief, for refusing Christ, for making God a liar—because he does not believe the record that God has given of his Son.
Conscience is as a thousand witnesses. If conscience witnesses against us—it will be no comfort whoever applauds us. And if conscience clears us, we have matter of rejoicing—whatever charge others may bring against us. Job 27:5-6, "I will never concede that you are right; I will defend my integrity until I die. I will maintain my innocence without wavering. My conscience is clear for as long as I live." That is my conscience, shall not reproach me as long as I live.
Men may reproach me, but my conscience never shall. I will behave myself so that my conscience may witness for me, though all the world witnesses against me. This is one of the great offices of conscience, and one great end why God placed it in man—to be a witness hereafter. And indeed there is none so fit to be a witness between God and us in the great day, as a man's own conscience! This will appear if you consider three things:
(1). Conscience is a witness of God's own appointing. God has ordained it, and set it up to give evidence both to saints and lost sinners. It is a faithful witness that will not lie.
(2). Conscience stands indifferent between God and man, and therefore more fit to be a witness. Self-interest leads to partiality, but he who is indifferent, is the more likely to be for the equity of the case. Conscience is a thing between both parties; it is not so of God, but it has something of man. Nor so of man, but it has something of God in it, and therefore the fittest to give evidence.
(3). None can know so much of a man, as his own conscience does. The devil knows much of us, he knows every overt act of sin that ever we did. Yet there is very much he does not know of a man. I may say, there are many secret sins, inward sins, latent sins, sins of thought and affection—which Satan is no way privy to, nor can he be while they are hidden there, and therefore he can give no evidence concerning them. There are many sins which a man is guilty of in the secrets of his soul, which the devil knows nothing of until they come into act.
But conscience within knows all! The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord searching all the inward parts. 1 Corinthians 2:11, "What man knows the things of a man save the spirit of a man that is in him?" This is his conscience.
So that you see there is no witness so proper and fit as conscience to give evidence for or against a man in the great day of judgment. Therefore, God has told us in his Word that he will proceed in judgment with every man in the great day, according to the testimony of his own conscience. Saints and lost sinners, believers and unbelievers—shall all stand or fall by the evidences of their own consciences!
The process of that day will be according to what is charged and infallibly proved. God is a righteous judge, and the judgment of that day will be a righteous judgment. It is called the day of the righteous judgment of God, because then he will judge upon clear evidence, and will manifest his righteousness. Now, there can be no clearer evidence than the witness of a man's own conscience. So shall it be in the great day. And this, I think, is made plainly out in Revelation 20:12 where it is said, speaking of the great judgment day, "The dead stood before God, and the books were opened, and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works." What books are those out of which men shall be judged? The book of God's Omniscience, and the book of a man's own conscience. God will have one book, and man another—and both shall agree to every least tittle.
And where it is said the books were opened, it is to be understood of a divine irradiation—by which God enlightens the conscience to do its office in that day.
Sin now has blinded the sinner's conscience, so that he does not see the Hell of sin which is in his heart and nature. He makes a mock of sin, laughs at it, and knows no evil in it. But in that day the case will be altered! God will then so wonderfully enlighten the conscience, that all his past sins shall come into his view, and shall be plain and open before him.
It is a solemn and fearful consideration—that every sin is written in the book of conscience, and that book must be opened in the great day of judgment, and God will set every sin before a man! Psalm 50:21, "These things have you done, (speaking of their adultery and other wickedness,) and I kept silence—and you thought I was altogether such a one as yourself, (as if I approved and liked your sin—because I did not presently punish it;) but (God says) I will reprove you, and set them in order before your eyes!" There is not a sin ever committed, but God will bring it into remembrance, and the sinner shall have a full view of it! 1 Corinthians 4:5, "Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts." God will bring all our secret heart sins to light, and make them manifest.
This is that which men are to understand by opening the books. When God shall open conscience in that day, by letting in light—then the sinner shall see every sin, every lust, and every vile affection there!
The books shall be opened, and then it follows, the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. That is, they shall be judged by God's omniscience, and according to the witness of conscience so that every man at the great day shall stand and fall before God, by the evidence of his own conscience!
By this a man might know how it is likely to go with him in God's final judgment: if he would but look inward, and hold communion with his own conscience. If our hearts do not condemn us, the Apostle says, that is, our own consciences—if on due search they acquit us from hypocrisy and reigning sin, then have we confidence towards God. In this way we have liberty of access now, and boldness in the day of judgment hereafter.
A man may go to the bar of God with comfort, if his conscience speaks peace to him—if it does not condemn him. Again, he says, if our consciences condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. If conscience condemns us, God is greater and knows more, and then it follows he will condemn us much more. The Apostle in this scripture, does plainly intimate this much to us, that the voice of conscience is the very voice of God. "What it binds on earth, is bound in Heaven; and what it looses on earth, is loosed in Heaven." Conscience acquits or condemns us in the name of God—therefore God will acquit or condemn. If conscience speaks to us peace in the blood of Jesus applied by faith—then God will speak peace to us. But if conscience condemns us—then God will ratify the sentence of conscience.
Therefore, as the consolations of conscience are most sweet—so its condemnations are very terrible and dreadful.
6. Conscience is an inseparable companion.It is with us whatever we do, and goes with us wherever we go. It can no more be separated from a man, than the shadow can from the body. It accompanies us while we live, and when we die. Conscience is then with us, and is more active and vigorous than ever.
And after death when the soul and body part—the soul and conscience do not part. Wherever the soul goes, the conscience goes. If to judgment, conscience goes with it. If to Heaven or Hell, conscience goes with it. Conscience will be every man's companion in the eternal world forever. O! how glad would the damned be, if they might but leave their consciences behind them, when they leave this world, and go into eternity! But it cannot be, for,
7. Conscience is the seat and center of the wrath of God in all the damned.For look, as the toad leaves a filth and slime behind it—so all the corruptions and filth of sins settle upon the conscience: "their mind and conscience are defiled," (Titus 1:15).
This is the great privilege of all believers—that their consciences are purged from the guilt and filth of sin by Christ's blood, (Hebrews 9:14). By this they are so purified that they become the region of light and peace.
But all the guilt of an unbeliever's whole life, fixes and settles on the conscience. Conscience is not only engaged to God as a judge, but is a principal guide and direction of the soul in its whole course. Conscience is the bridle of the soul to restrain it from sin. Conscience is the eye of the soul to direct its way. Therefore conscience is principally chargeable with all the evils of life; and if it is so, then what a storehouse of guilt must be heaped up on the unbeliever's conscience! (Romans 2:5). He speaks of, "sinners treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath;" that is, by increasing and adding more guilt, for guilt and wrath are stored up together. For as guilt increases, so wrath increases—until the measure is full, and then God calls for an accounting!
8. The sinner carries all the guilt that is on his conscience to the judgment bar of God.For as conscience follows the sinner wherever he goes, so guilt follows the conscience, yes to the very grave, and to judgment! "His bones are full of the sins of his youth," (Job. 20:11). That is, his conscience is as full of sin, as his bones are of marrow. And in the next words it follows, they shall lie down with him in the dust. The meaning is, that sin shall never leave the wicked man, whether he is alive or dead; neither in this world nor in the next.
The sins of believers die before them—and that is comfortable. But the sins of unbelievers go to the grave with them—and that is dreadful. Believe this: unless a man dies to sin while he lives—his sin shall live with him when he is dead! They go down into the grave with him, and to judgment, and to Hell with him! He and his sins shall never part. As the graces of a believer, so the sins of unbelievers follow the soul wherever it goes. Therefore as the Holy Spirit says, (Revelation 14:13). "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors, and their works follow them," follow them to judgment, to Heaven, and eternal glory.
So I may say, cursed are the dead who do not die in the Lord—for their sins follow them, and they must necessarily keep them; for nothing but pardoning grace can remove guilt, and without faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, there can be no pardoning grace—therefore their guilt remains. As Christ says, "Because you believe not—you shall die in your sins!" (John 8:23).
O! how glad would lost sinners be, if they might go to the grave—and sin not go with them! But you shall die in your sins! Christ says—that is, they shall never leave you, but shall follow you to judgment, and shall lie on your conscience to eternity! For though acts of sin pass—yet the guilt of it abides.
9. Conscience will be the sinner's tormentor in the next world.Guilt followed with wrath is tormenting. And conscience, which now is the center of guilt, shall then be the center of wrath—and being filled with the wrath of God, O! how will it torment the sinner. Therefore it is called, "a worm, a never-dying worm," (Mark 9:44)—to set out the greatness, and inwardness, and everlastingness of its gnawing torments. It is one of the greatest miseries in Hell.
The torments which a man bears in Hell from the charges of his own conscience, are the greatest misery of Hell. By this raging of conscience in this world, we have a hint of it. In the midst of all our sins and pleasures—a tormenting conscience is a very Hell on earth; as you see by the woeful examples of Cain and Judas. And if it is so, that conscience is such a dreadful thing, when it rages in a man here on earth—then what will it be when it shall be filled up with the wrath of God in Hell? Pangs of conscience here, are but as the first-fruits of Hell. It will then be very dreadful, especially in four things:
(1). By reflecting and looking back on what is past. This will heighten the punishment of loss:
When in this way the lost sinner considers the Heaven, the glory and happiness that he is forever deprived of, and that by his own folly.
When he shall consider, upon what fair terms salvation by the blood of Christ, was offered to him—how much time he had to work out his own salvation. What opportunities God put into his hands. What variety of means God afforded him. For what trifling matters, he lost his immortal soul.
And again, besides this punishment of loss, he shall find by sad experience, what before he would not believe—what a dreadful place Hell is, what a terrifying thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God!
How often he was warned to flee from the wrath to come, what offers were made to him in the name of Christ—yet none would prevail.
Again, when he shall consider that he himself was the cause of his own ruin—that he has destroyed himself by his own hands! He is now lashed by cords of his own twisting, and tormented by a fire of his own kindling.
And when to all he shall add this, that this Hell, and wrath, and misery, was through his own choice! God and his ministers set before him life and death, Heaven and Hell—and he refused Heaven and eternal life for the sake of his base lusts! Who can imagine what the terrors of such a reflection as this will be?
(2). All the charges and reflections of conscience shall then be so clear and self-evident, as shall leave the sinner destitute of all manner of excuse. For when conscience convinces and condemns—there is no standing before it.
Every sinner is now a self-destroyer, and in that day he shall be a self-condemner. When God condemns—then conscience will condemn too, and so it will justify the righteous judgment of God. Every mouth shall then be stopped—as the man that had not the wedding garment was speechless. He was convinced of the righteous judgment of God, and of his own sin.
(3). Conscience will be always upbraiding the sinner in Hell—with his own willfulness and obstinacy against Christ, and his madness in sinning, as the cause of all. This will be like a continual rubbing of a fresh wound with salt and vinegar. The upbraidings of conscience will make it a worm indeed!
(4). Lastly, add to all this, that conscience shall be still looking forward to all that is to come. And the dreadful expectation of wrath without end makes it a never-dying worm.
The guilt of past sins, and the sense of present torments, and the dread of their everlasting continuance which will then fill the soul—will make conscience a most insufferable tormentor!
The sinner shall in that day be his own executioner. As God inflicts punishment—so shall conscience. He shall be tormented by conscience, as by a worm that never dies. And this makes it evident, that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, because the proceedings of God in the day of judgment with lost sinners shall be suited to the ministry of a man's own conscience; such as his own conscience shall fall in with, and justify all the proceedings of God.