Pollution of the Conscience With Original Sin

Pollution of the Conscience With Original Sin

Anthony Burgess
Treatise on Original Sin
Part 3, chapter 2, section 6.

Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.
(Romans 2:1).


The Pollution of Conscience Discovered in Many More Particulars.

Although much hath been said to the discovering of every man’s polluted conscience by nature, yet because conscience is such an Abyss, a deep Sea, wherein are innumerable creeping things, many depravations and defilements; our work shall be still to make a further searching and diving into it. Whereas therefore the last particular mentioned of the natural pollution of conscience, was in regard of the multiformity of it, and divers resemblances of conscience, which yet were not conscience indeed, this bringeth in another particular defilement of some affinity with it.

1. Sinful Motives.

First, suppose that it be not lust or humor, but conscience indeed that putteth thee upon duties, and those commanded, yet how hardly are they done for conscience sake. It’s not any lust, but conscience maketh many men pray, hear, and perform such duties, yet it is not conscience that is the motive, it is some other sinister and unlawful reason that insinuateth itself; so that the same duties may be done out of conscience to God by some, and from corrupt sinful motives by others. The Apostle (Rom. 13:5) pressing obedience to Magistrates (because it might be thought that Christian liberty freed them from any such yoke) he urgeth it, not only for fear, but for conscience sake. So that if it had been only fear to lose their estates, to lose their lives, and not out of conscience to God’s ordinance, though they did obey, yet it was sinful and ungodly in them because of their motive thereunto.

This also the Apostle Peter speaketh of whence he instanceth a “conscience toward God” (1 Peter 2:19; c.f. 1 Peter 3:21). It is not to be understood subjectively, as if God had a conscience. Although God has infinite knowledge, and in that sense may be said to be conscious with our hearts of all the evil we have done, yea, knoweth more sin by us than we do by ourselves, yet we cannot attribute conscience to God, because the notion of that is to denote the sense and awe of some superior who beareth witness of our evil actions and is able to condemn for them. Conscience therefore is in Angels, because they have a superior, they are not to be a rule to themselves. Christ also had a holy & undefiled conscience, which yet because of our sins was greatly afflicted with the sense of God’s wrath. But God having no superior, hath indeed infinite knowledge, but not conscience. Hence when the Apostle calls it “conscience of God,” that is objectively a conscience which doth respect the will and authority of God, that doth not look to men’s applause and praise, but unto God. So that herein will appear an universal pollution naturally upon the consciences of all men, that the good things they do, the evil things they abstain from, is not from mere conscience to God, but because of human and earthly considerations.

How many come to our congregations? How many frequent the ordinances? Is it because of conscience to God, they have a reverential fear of him, they dare not displease him? No, but only the Laws of the Land, or some outward constraint maketh them do so, it’s not pure conscience. Thus also there are many devoted sons of Belial to all profaneness, that would with all their hearts run into all excess of rioting, into drunkenness and uncleanness, but they dare not, they are kept off as a dog from the bone with a whip. All their desire is towards it, but the penalty and justice which the Civil Magistrate will inflict upon him maketh him forbear. It’s far from any conscience towards God that doth restrain them. Oh then bewail the corruption of man in this kind! Never in any duties carried out for conscience sake, never abstaining from sin for conscience sake, but because of punishment and the judgment of others. Therefore, in private, though God seeth thee as well as if it were at the Market cross, they can run into all lewdness. Oh, if it were conscience to God, thou wouldst take heed of heart sins, as well as of bodily. Thou wouldst be afraid to sin in secret, as well as in public, because God is everywhere and knoweth all things, and thou hast a conscience towards him!

And no wonder if conscience be thus predominantly polluted in natural men, for even in the godly themselves, how often do they find proud, vain, self-seeking thoughts insinuate into them? So that it’s not only out of conscience to God they do their best duties. Do not some vain-glorious thoughts like so many thieves secretly creep into the heart, and are ready to rob thee of thy treasure? It is true indeed, to the gracious heart these are a burden, and therefore with Abraham, they drive away these flies from the sacrifice, yet they come again. They do repellendo tenere, and tenendo repellere, as Tertullian saith. They beat them back, and yet they hold them also. They strive with them, and yet embrace them. Thus many a sinful motion and vain thought, is like Bernard’s unclean suggestion, which he found, Blande onerosa displicendo placens, and Placendo displicens, kindly troublesome, and coming in with a displeasing pleasure. Insomuch that the godly themselves find the weight of original corruption upon their consciences in this respect, even till their last hour. They do not, they cannot find their consciences so purely and sincerely drawn out to God in the duties they perform, as they do desire. Paul indeed saith, “our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world” (2 Cor. 1:12). And again, “as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17). Here was conscience and pure conscience, as to any fundamental deficiency, yet not perfectly pure, for he saith, “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit,” so that wheresoever the Spirit is, there the flesh in some measure lusteth against it (Gal. 5).

Oh, then let even the most holy bewail original sin in their consciences, even in this respect! That council given by Paul to godly servants that what they did, they should do it in singleness of heart, fearing God; They should do it heartily, as unto God, not unto men (Col. 3:17-18). The same are all the people of God bound to do in their service to God: Oh how unworthy is it in religious duties to have an eye to man who will praise or dispraise! If conscience were the motive, thou wouldst neither care for good or bad report.

And this pure conscientious working is especially to be attended unto by such who are in public office; The Civil Magistrate, if he punish an offender, not because he deserveth it, but from malice, or other sinister respects. Though he cry out and pretend conscience and justice a thousand times over, yet God looketh upon him as an unjust Magistrate, though the thing he doth is just. Thus, it is also in the Ministers of the Gospel, if they preach the Word diligently and constantly, but the principal motives are either vain glory, or a mercenary respect unto the profit and temporal advantage more than the souls of people, and the glory of God, here also that is done which conscience requireth, but not upon conscientious motives. We do not these things as of God, in the sight of God. But I must not be too long in this point, although indeed we can never say enough herein, it is such a close insinuating sin into all men’s breasts.

2. Partial Conviction.

Secondly, the natural conscience is grievously polluted by original sin in regard of the limited and partial conviction, or illumination, that it is apt to receive. Conscience will receive light but at a little cranny or hole, it will be convinced to do some things especially if of no great consequence, but the greater and more weighty things they are apt to neglect. This dough baked conscience, that is hot on one side, and cold on the other, is the temper of most men. How seemingly religious and zealous in some particulars? And then for duties of greater concernment they are like clods of earth.

Our Saviour charged this partial conscience upon the Pharisees, they tithed mint and rue, but the things of mercy and judgement they neglected (Luke 11:42). Also the Chief Priests were afraid of defiling themselves by entering the common hall, and yet had no scruple about shedding the innocent blood of our Lord Christ? And what is more ordinary than this? May ye not observe many persons as much moved with rage upon the removal of any needless or superstitious ceremonies, as the Athenians were about their Diana, and yet for gross profaneness and all manner of excessive riot, they are never moved at that, they have no zeal for God’s glory, though iniquity abound in every place? Doth not all this discover the hypocrisy and rottenness of such a conscience?

Take heed then thy conscience is not like some creatures begotten of putrid matter, that in their former part have life, but in their later have nothing but earth or slime. So, in some part thy conscience is alive, and in other things it is dead. If thy conscience tell thee it’s thy duty to pray, to hear, to keep up family duties, and yet withal suffereth thee to do unjust, unclean, and other dishonest things of impiety; This is not right, it is not regenerated as yet. So on the other side, If conscience bid thee be just and upright in all thy dealings, be merciful and tender to fit objects of charity, and herein thou art ready, but thy conscience doth not at all press thee to the duties of the First Table, to sanctify the Sabbath, to keep up family duties, to walk contrary to the sinful course of the world, then it is plain that as yet thy conscience is in the gall of bitterness, it hath but some partial conviction, not a total and plenary one.

3. Hypocrisy.

Thirdly, the conscience of a natural man in this also is greatly polluted in that it is very severe and easily accusing of other men’s sins, but it is blind about its own. It seeth no evil in itself, while it can aggravate the sins of others. Thus conscience, as in other respects, so in this also, is like the eye which can see all other things but not itself. Such a corrupt conscience likewise our Saviour chargeth upon the Pharisees, when he calleth them Hypocrites, and biddeth them pull out the beam in their own, and then the more in other men’s (Matt. 7:3). The Apostle also beginneth Romans 2, “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.

What is more ordinary than this, to be eagle eyed and spy out the faults and sins of others while as blind as a mole about thyself? David was very zealous against that injurious man Nathan represented in a parable, and in the meanwhile did not think that he was the man, that this was his sin. Judah also was severe against Tamar, who had played the whore, till she sent him the staff and bracelets, that he might see he was the man. Thus, you see even godly men are greatly blinded about themselves. No wonder then if the natural man be wholly in darkness.

Oh, then pray, and again pray for light to shine into thy own heart! Let conscience turn its eyes inward once more, know the worst by thyself. Think with Paul, I am the greatest of all sinners, with Tertullian, peccator sum omnium natorum, a sinner with the brand and mark of all sins on me, at least in motion and inclination. Say, I see those sins in myself which the world doth not, none can judge and condemn me more than I can do myself. But the contrary is in every man’s natural conscience, he thinketh himself better than others. He blesseth himself in his good heart, and is a severe censurer of other men’s sins. Thus he hath those Lamiae of eyes that he taketh up when he goeth abroad, and layeth aside when he cometh home.

4. Laziness.

Fourthly, the conscience naturally is defiled because of the ease and security it hath, though if it were awakened, and could do its duty, it would not let thee have any rest day or night. And this is one of the main ways original sin discovers itself in the conscience. All life, all spiritual tenderness and apprehension is taken away, that whereas conscience is especially seen in the reflex acts of the soul. To know our knowledge, to judge the actions of the mind and the heart, yea and to judge those judgments. Now we can no more do these things than very beasts do, and because of this there is a great calmness and quietness upon the soul.

Dives, who had his soul take its ease found no gripes of conscience. And thus, it is the condition of all men, whereas conscience would or should pierce them through, and be like so many thorns, not in the side only, but all over the body, but now is fallen asleep, and the man is at rest in his sins, though he be on the borders of Hell. Thou mayest call this a good conscience, and bless thyself because it doth not trouble thee, it doth not accuse thee, whereas indeed it’s a senseless conscience, like a dead member that will feel no pain. If it were on the contrary, then it would be a good conscience. If it did accuse, bear witness, and condemn thee, then it would be a good conscience.

For this is a rule in Casuistical Divinity, conscience may be molestè mala, and yet honestè bona, and then on the other side, it may be peccatè bona, and yet honestè mala. Conscience in respect of its troubling and condemning may be evil, and yet in respect of its sanctification good, being awakened by God’s Spirit; and on the other side, it may be good, as sometimes we call it, that is quiet, not terrifying, yet in its constitution be dead and unregenerate. Do not then flatter thyself. That good conscience thou boastest of is a bad and evil one, a dead, a senseless one. Can that be good which is not enlightened nor regenerated? Oh, how much better were thy conscience if it did smite thee, terrify thee, make thee eat with trembling, and drink with trembling! This accusing conscience is far better and more preparatory to true peace, than that quiet secure conscience of thine. Thou art indeed to mourn over thy conscience as being dead within thee.

5. Insubordination and Inferiority.

Lastly, as was said of the understanding speculative, so also the same is true of it as practical, which is the conscience, it is grossly defiled originally, both because it hath lost its subordination to God and his Word, the true rule of conscience, and its superiority over the will and affections. So that if we look both ad supra and ad infra, it is greatly defiled.

Towards God it doth not keep its subordination, but naturally falls into two extremes. 1. Sometimes it taketh other rules than the Scripture; as we see in Popery, how horribly is conscience enslaved by the mere commandments of men where there is no Scripture? 2. Or else on the other side, rejecting the Word wholly as a rule, as those Libertines who do press it as a duty to be above conscience, and that a man is perfect when he can sin and his conscience never smite him for it. Many Volumes would not serve to enlarge sufficiently upon conscience its pollution, in both these extremes.

As for the affections and will, conscience hath now lost its power, it cannot rule these beasts, it cannot command these waves. Hence you see so many live in sins against conscience, their lusts are stronger than their conscience. They sin, and they know they sin, and yet are not afraid to commit them. How often in their addresses to sin doth conscience meet them as Abigail to David informing of the grief of heart. Yea the torments of Hell that will be hereafter, yet they will violently go forward! Thus conscience in the crowd of lusts is trodden down, as that lord was, when there was so much plenty.

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