The Corrupt and Counterfeit Conscience

Corrupt and Counterfeit Conscience

Anthony Burgess
Treatise on Original Sin
Part 3, chapter 2, sections 4-5.

“…their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another
(Romans 2:15).


The Corruption of Conscience in Accusing and Excusing.

The next is that even in those actions of conscience which are said to be accusation and excusing will appear wonderful pollution. Conscience is (as you heard) grossly defiled in application, and in bearing witness; now we may hold it grievously wounded also in regard of these actions: The Apostle, speaking of conscience, which is even in heathens themselves, saith it beareth witness with them, and thereupon their thoughts are accusing or excusing one another (Rom. 2:15). But if we consider how naturally conscience behaveth itself in these workings, we shall have cause to be astonished at all the evil which is come upon us.

1. Accusing.

In the duty of accusing is it not wholly silent? Do not men run into all excess of riot? Do they not embrace any wickedness suggested? Yet where is that murmuratio and remorsus, as they express it? Where is that regretting, that smiting of conscience which ought to be? Oh, how busy is the Devil (as when he possessed some bodies to make them dumb) so also to make thy conscience dumb!

It is judged by Divines to be an exceeding great mercy of God that he hath left a conscience in a man, for if it had not some actions, there would be no humane societies, the world would be like a chaos as it was at first. Only conscience is a bridle to men, and a curb to their impieties. But when this is so corrupted that it cannot do its office, though sins be committed, yet conscience will not accuse nor condemn, what hope doth then remain for such an one?

Conscience is called by Bernard, speculum animae, the soul’s looking glass. By beholding thy conscience thou mayest see what are thy sins, what are thy duties, what is to be repented of, what is to be reformed. Oh that those who look often into the glass for their bodily faces (so as to spy every spot and to mend an hair if it be not handsome), would more consult with this spiritual glass! Their conscience would shew those deformities, those corruptions that they are not willing to take notice of. Only here is the difference, the material glass will faithfully represent what thou art, it will not flatter. If thou art polluted, deformed, it will discover thy face as it is, it will not flatter thee, but conscience is a glass that may be corrupted to make thee appear fairer than thou art, yet if clean and pure, then it will not favour thee. But as it was with David, when he had numbered his people, presently his heart smote him (1 Chron. 21:8,13), such power it will also have over thee. This accusation is called smiting, because of the strong impression it maketh upon the soul.

Conscience is also called a book, and the Scripture may intend this as part, where at the Day of Judgement it is said, “books shall be opened” (Rev. 20:12), and the dead were to be judged according to what is written in those books. One of these books that must be opened, and by which men shall be judged, is conscience. That is the debt book, the doomsday book. There is no sin committed but there it is set down and registered, and one day it will be found there, though now for the present thou takest no notice of it. As conscience is a book, so as Bernard said (De Inferiori domo) “All books are to reform this book, all other books that are written, yea the Bible itself, they are to amend this book of conscience.” This book thou art to read every day, yea conscience is not only a book, but it’s the Writer, the Recorder also. Conscience is the soul’s Secretary, and faithfully sets down every sin. Item, this day such oaths, such lies; Item, such a drunken fit; Item, such omission of duties. Thus, conscience should do its work.

But oh, how negligent and sordid is conscience herein! What foul acts may be committed, and yet not the least sting or gripe of conscience? We have a remarkable instance of this in Joseph’s brethren, when they had so cruelly dealt with their brother, throwing him in a pit, and as to humane considerations, fully destroyed him, yet, saith the text, they sat down to eat and drink (Gen. 37:25). What presently after such an unnatural sin, to find no scorpions in their breasts, as it were, but to sit down and eat as if no evil had been perpetrated? What an adamant or rock were these men’s consciences turned into? And is not this the state of many men, even after the commission of such sins which even nature may condemn for?

2. Excusing.

And as from the second act, which is excusing; here we have large matter to treat upon, who can comprehend the length, and depth, and breadth of the evil of conscience in this very thing? To excuse, to clear, to justify a man’s self. Did not conscience thus in the Jews of old? Did not conscience thus in the Pharisees? Doth not conscience thus in the breasts of all civil and moral men? Whence is it that they can say, “God, I thank thee” I am not as this publican (Luke 18:11), I am no drunkard or swearer, and therefore bid their souls take all rest? Is not this because conscience is turned into a chameleon, to be like every object that it stands by? Thus it is with their conscience excusing all they do, flattering a man, saying his estate is good and secure, they are not such sinners as other men, whereas if conscience were well enlightened and informed out of God’s Word, instead of excusing it would impartially accuse and condemn.

3. Smiting.

Thirdly, conscience is polluted in a further acting which it hath, for when application, witnessing, and accusing will not do, then it terrifieth, which you heard was smiting. Conscience falls from words to blows. It is notably expressed in Acts 2:37 that they were pricked in heart, it was as if a dagger had been stabbed into them. Likewise it did work upon Felix, insomuch that it made him tremble. Thus, it did upon Cain and Judas. Now conscience naturally is greatly polluted in this thing, for either it doth not at all give any blows, or if it does, it is with slavish, servile, and tormenting thoughts that it maketh the sinner run from Christ, and doth indispose him for any mercy and comfort. But of this more in its time.

4. Judging.

Fourthly, conscience hath a further and ultimate work in a man, and that is to judge. It is a witness, an accuser, and a Judge also. There is a Tribunal that should be erected in every man’s heart where conscience is to sit as Judge, and this Court of conscience is daily to be kept. This is no more than when we are commanded to commune with our own hearts and be still (Ps. 4:4); when we are commanded to search and try our ways, or to judge ourselves that we be not judged (1 Cor. 11:31). This is the great duty which not only Heathens commended nosce te ipsum [know thyself], and tecum havita [live with yourself], and which another complaineth of the neglect thereof, in se nemo tentat descendere [no one is tempted to examine themselves], but it is very frequently commanded in the Scripture as the foundation and introduction into the state of conversion, as a constant duty in persons converted to prevent Apostasy. But who is there that doth keep a daily Court thus in himself? That which Pythagoras, Seneca, and Heathens have admired, to examine ourselves, what have I done today? Wherein have I sinned? In what have I exceeded? This Christians, though enlightened by God’s Word, are horribly slothful and careless about. When is this examination, this scrutiny set up? When are thy actions, thy thoughts called to the bar, and judgement given against them?

Now this judgement of conscience is seen about a twofold object, our actions, and our persons. Our actions are to be judged whether they be agreeable with the Word of God, or not. Whatsoever thou undertakest, and art not persuaded of in conscience as lawful, is a sin, “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14). Now examine thy actions, thou profane man; see whether they will bear the Touchstone or no. Doth thy conscience tell thee such ways are lawful? Art thou out of faith thus persuaded to do? Look over all thy thoughts, all thy words, thy actions, and weigh them in the balance of the Sanctuary. See whether they be chaff or wheat. Judge them before God cometh to judge them.

As our actions, so our persons, and the frame and constitution of our souls; and here conscience is more unable to do its work, than in the former. For actions (at least many of them) may be condemned by the light of nature, but when thou comest to search thy heart to judge it, here is much heavenly skill and prudence required. Did the hypocrite judge himself? Did the civil pharisaical man rightly judge himself? What a mighty change would you quickly see on those who now bless themselves in their good condition? Had Judas judged himself? Did hypocrites judge themselves? Oh, the amazement and astonishment they would be in to see themselves so soul and rotten in the bottom, when they were persuaded all had been well and happy with them!

Let conscience therefore set up her tribunal in thy heart, often call thyself before thyself, thy guilty self before thy condemning self, thy sinful self before thy judging self. For by reason of conscience a man cometh to have two selves. God hath placed it in man, as an Umpire, or an Arbitrator, to judge the matter impartially between God, and thy own soul, so that it may say that which Christ denied of himself (Luke 12:14): God hath made me a Judge and a divider, to give to man what belongs to him, to God what belongs to God But conscience being polluted, is not able to discharge this office. Hence it is that this Court ceaseth, conscience doth not keep any Assize at all. There is no judgement executed within this spiritual society. Therefore let us groan under the weight of original sin in this respect also.

5. Unwillingness to be Brought into the Light.

Fifthly, herein conscience is greatly defiled by original sin, that it is afraid of light, it is not willing to come to the Word to be convinced, but desireth rather to be in darkness so a man may sin the more quietly, and never be disquieted. Christ saith, “this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). As it is with the wicked man, he hateth the light because his works are evil (John 3:20). Truly thus it is, conscience being naught and rotten, therefore it is unwilling to be brought to the light. Hence it is the work of God’s Spirit to convince the world of sin (John 16:8); but this is that the natural conscience cannot abide, it is unwilling to be searched and tried, to be ransacked. This is why men are most pleased with a formal, drowsy, flattering Ministry, they rage at that which is powerful, particular, heart searching preaching. They do not love that conscience should be touched upon and have it say, “Thou art the man,” because conscience is afraid of any light or conviction to come upon it. For if it be enlightened, then thou canst not with that delight and security commit thy sins as thou wouldst do. Conscience then would be like Michaiah to Ahab. Thou wilt not abide it, because it always prophesieth evil to thee. Therefore this one thing may discover the vileness of every natural man’s conscience, in that it desireth to be in the dark, and that which the Church saith to Christ, “Awake not my Beloved till he please” (Song 8:4), they say to their conscience, “Let not that be awakened, it will take away my comfort, it will make me despair,” and thus because they willfully keep a veil over their conscience, it is no wonder if they die in their sins.

6. Counterfeit Conscience

Sixthly, herein conscience is naturally defiled, that it is subject to many multiform shapes and disguises, it doth appear under so many visors, that it is hard to know when it is conscience, or when it is something else far enough from conscience. Yet such is the guile and hypocrisy herein, that a man doth easily flatter himself with the name of conscience, when indeed it is corruption in him. It is good to discover that which is a counterfeit conscience, that which appeareth to be Samuel, and in Samuel’s clothes, but is indeed a Devil.


A Discovery of a Counterfeit Conscience.

1. Lust Disguised as Conscience.

First, it may not be conscientia, but cupiditas, not conscience, but even a sinful lust may put thee upon many things. Yet thou flatterest thyself with the sacred title of conscience, saying, it’s thy conscience, when if thou didst examine thyself, it would appear to be some corruption. A sad mistake and delusion it is to have conscience (and so God himself) abused, but yet it is very often so. We see it in Saul, when he sacrificed, and so was guilty of rebellion against God, yet he pretended conscience, that he had done well, and all was to serve God thereby. Absalom when he was contriving that unnatural rebellion against his father, he pretendeth a vow he had made, and so he must out of conscience perform that. Judas when he repined at the ointment poured out on Christ’s body pretended conscience and charity, but it was lust and covetousness moved him. Oh, then take heed of treachery herein, lest thou pretending conscience it appear to be thy lust only.

2. Imagination Disguised as Conscience.

Secondly, it may be thy fancy and imagination which persuadeth thee, and not thy conscience. Man consisting of a body as well as a soul, his imagination and fantasy hath great influence upon him. Especially when the body may be distempered, as you see in melancholy persons, when humbled for sins and greatly afflicted, it is hard to discern when it is their fancy, and when it is conscience that worketh in them. It is true, the prophasie ones of the world judge all the trouble and wounds of conscience for sin to be nothing but melancholy and a mere fancy, because they never found the Word of God kindly working upon them. Therefore they think there is no such thing in the world as a wounded spirit. But such will one day find that troubles of conscience are more than melancholy, that it is a worm always gnawing, yea that this is indeed Hell, for it is because of a tormented conscience, that Hell is so terrible. Yet though this be so, it cannot be denied that sometimes in humbled persons there may be conscience and melancholy working together, for the Devil loveth to move in troubled waters, and melancholy is called Balneum Diaboli [the Devil’s bath], but this may be cured and removed by medicinal helps, whereas conscience is only pacified and quieted by the blood of Christ.

3. Custom Disguised as Conscience.

Thirdly, custom, education, and prepossessed principles may work upon a man as if they were conscience. Many men are affected in religious things, not out of any conscience, but merely by custom. They have been used to such things, brought up in such a way of serving of God, and therefore they cry out to have such usages still, and all because custom hath prevailed over them. These and similar things may appear like conscience in a man. Our conscience must be greatly polluted when the very subject itself is not known, when we cannot discern whether it be conscience or corruption that doth instigate thee, when we cannot sentire illam, quae facit nos sentire [feel that which makes us feel]. Conscience that maketh us perceive other things that itself is difficulty perceived. For that it is not conscience, but some other corrupt principle that moveth a man, will easily appear in that it is mutable and changeable according to outward advantages. That which was thy conscience one month, is not the next, because there are outward changes. When Shechem would be circumcised, it was not for conscience, but for Dinah’s sake whom he loved. When Jeroboam erected an altar, it was not for conscience sake, but carnal policy. So that the mutability of thy soul, turning as advantages do, this argueth, it’s not conscience, but some other corrupt principle in thee, as when they cried “Hosanna” to Christ, and afterwards “Crucify him.”


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