We come now, as was proposed, to observe, Thirdly,(474) That faith unfeigned is the only thing which gives the answer of a good conscience towards God. Conscience, in general, is nothing else but a practical knowledge of the rule a man should walk by, and of himself in reference to that rule. It is the laying down a man's state, and condition, and actions beside the rule of God's word, or the principles of nature's light. It is the chief piece of a man. The man is as his conscience is. It is a man's lord. As a wing to a bird, or as a rudder to a ship, so is conscience to a man in all his ways. The office of conscience is ordinarily comprehended in three styles it gets. It is a law or rule, a witness, and a judge, or a light, a register, and a recorder, and an executioner. For the conscience its first act is some principle of nature's light, obliging it as a rule to walk by, or some revealed truth of God, whereof the conscience is informed. Now the conscience, in the second place, comes to examine itself according to the rule, and there it bears witness of a man's actions or state, and faithfully records and depones.(475) And at length the conscience pronounces the sentence upon the man, according as it has found him, either accusing or excusing, condemning or absolving. Now a good conscience is diversely taken in scripture, I. A good conscience is an honest clean conscience, bearing testimony of integrity and uprightness in walking, such as Paul had, 2 Cor. i.12, "Our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity, and godly sincerity, we have had our conversation in the world." Heb. xiii.18, "We trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly." Acts xxiv.16, "Herein do I exercise myself in having a conscience void of offence, towards God and man." 1 Pet. iii.16, "Having a good conscience, that whereas they speak evil of you, as of evil doers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ." II. A good conscience is a conscience calmed and quieted, that hath gotten an answer to all challenges, the blood and resurrection of Jesus, 1 Pet. iii.21. And this we take to be meant here. The good conscience is the conscience that is sprinkled with Christ's blood, from dead works, to serve the living God, Heb. ix.14. For the guilty man that comes to Christ, and washes in the fountain opened for sin, hath no more conscience of sins, Heb. x.2. And therefore it is called a pure and clean conscience, 2 Tim. i.3, "I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers, with a pure conscience," &c.; the stain of guilt is taken away. Now I say, faith only gives the answer of a good conscience. The man that comes to Christ hath an ill conscience, when he hath examined himself according to the law, and given out faithful witness of his own state and condition, and accordingly pronounced sentence, -- a sentence condemnatory. He finds himself lying under God's curse, and so the conscience from a judge turns a tormentor, and begins to anticipate hell, and prevent(476) the execution of wrath. All the world cannot answer this challenge, or absolve from this sentence, until faith come and give a solid answer, that may be a ground of peace. And its answer is good and sure, because it dips the conscience in the blood of the Son of God. For the blood of bulls and of goats could not do it, the redemption of the soul was precious. Faith puts the soul over head and ears in the fountain opened, and it comes out like snow, or wool, though it were like scarlet or crimson. The law condemned, and the conscience subscribed itself sinful, and concluded itself lost in sin; but faith in Christ pleads before mercy's throne, where judgment and justice also sit. It pleads its cause over again, and gets the former sentence repealed. The conscience gave in the charge against the man, but faith sits down and writes the discharge; and so he is as free as if all his debt was paid, or never contracted. Faith puts the Cautioner in the creditor's hand, and goes free. As the law writes down a charge of sin and curses, faith sets against it as many sufferings in Christ, as many blessings in the Blessing of all nations. And when the conscience that condemned itself by faith again absolves itself, O what a calm, what a perfect peace is it then kept in! What a continual feast doth it enjoy! Prov. xv.15. Make him never such a great man in the world, he would utterly despise it, and count himself more blessed in the pardon of sin, and the friendship of God, than all the enjoyments of this world. He is better in some respect than if he had never sinned, for his sin is, as it were, not before God. And withal he hath got not only acquittance from guilt, but acquaintance with Jesus Christ, the Blessing of the nations, and the Desire of all the families of the earth. Now may he triumph and boast in Christ Jesus. Who shall condemn? It is God that justifies, it is Christ that died, and is risen again. He may say with David, "I will not fear, though my iniquities compass me about;" and with Job, "If he cause quietness, who can give trouble?" We observe then that,
I. Before a man come to Christ, he has an ill conscience; for either he is at peace with himself, and absolves himself, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the abominations of my heart, Deut. xxix.19; or he also says, "Because I am innocent," therefore God will turn away his wrath, Jer. ii.35. He cries peace, peace, when there is no peace, (Ezek. xiii.10.) and that is but a desperate condition, and a bad conscience, if any can be so called. This is the secure and seared conscience, that either doth not judge itself, because a man hath beaten it flint hard, or is constantly absolving itself upon false grounds. That is the conscience that in all the creation is nearest the desperate conscience, that shall never have a good answer. His sin is but lying at the door like Cain's, and shall enter in when judgment comes. He is but flattering himself in his own eyes, till his iniquity be found hateful, and till sudden destruction comes as an armed man. Look upon Deut. xxix.20, and see such a man's case. There is no peace for him, the Lord will not pity nor spare him, but pour upon him all the curses of the law, even when he blesses himself in his own eyes. In short, he is such as is awakened to see where he is, and condemns himself according to the word; and that is a better and a more hopeful conscience than the former, yet it is but an ill conscience. Conscience doth act its part aright, and in so far it is good, but the man is but in a miserable condition. Withal it gives such a wound to the soul, as none can bear it. All the sad affections which take up men's spirits come in, and this is the worm which never dies in hell, and the fire which shall never be quenched. Anger, grief, hatred, despair, always dwell with an ill conscience. This is both the resemblance of hell, and the sparks which come from that devouring fire. But, II. When the troubled conscience, tossed up and down, and looking upon all hands for help, and all refuge failing them, and no person caring for their soul, when it gets once a look of Jesus, and roweth unto his shore, O what a change! He commands the winds to calm, and the waves to cease, and says unto him, Son, be of good comfort, thy sins are forgiven. Faith finds in Jesus ample grounds of answering all challenges, of silencing all temptations, of overcoming all enemies, and commands the soul to go into its place of refuge. "Return unto thy rest, O my soul, for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee," &c. Psal. cxvi.7-9.
We shall now shut up all with the application in some uses. Use I. We may learn hence how few have a good conscience. Faith is a rare thing, but a good conscience is much rarer. And here we may notice, 1. That the conscience which is dead and sleeping, is not a good conscience: every quiet and calm conscience is not a good one. Ye may dream over your days with the foolish virgins, and take rest in a pleasing delusion, and cry peace, peace, and yet the end of it will be worse than the beginning. A conscience that acts not at all, nor judges itself, is, as it were, no conscience; either ignorance hath blinded it, and keeps it in the dark, or wickedness hath stopped its mouth. You think your conscience good because it tells you few of your faults, it troubles you not; but that conscience must once speak, and do its office, it may be in a worse time for you.2. It is not a good conscience that always speaks good, and absolves the man. God may condemn when it absolves. When ye walk according to false principles and grounds, and either take a wrong rule, or know not how to apply the rule to yourselves, shall God approve of false judgment? Your conscience is erring and deludes you. But, 1. The good conscience is not only a quiet conscience, but a quieted conscience. It not only hath peace, but peace after trouble. Ye then that have no peace, but what ye had all your days, it is but a mere fancy. The answer of a good conscience quiets the distempered mind, it comes by the sprinkling and washing of Christ's blood. He that hath peace on solid grounds with God, hath once taken up his enmity against him.2. The good conscience hath been once an evil conscience, when it met with the command. The man has once been under the law, before he came to faith, and examined himself, and his conscience condemned him as not righteous, and out of Christ. Ye then that never examined your state, according to the perfect and holy law, and never judged yourselves, ye cannot believe in Jesus, and so can have no good conscience.3. The good conscience flows nearest from faith answering the challenges of the law. Some have had sore distempers of conscience, and puddling exercises of terror. But how they were eased or quieted they cannot tell, but their spring-tide ebbed, and they bubbled no more. It went away at will, and did wear out with time. This is not a good conscience, that knows not distinctly the grounds of faith to oppose to the law's condemnation. Some turn to build cities with Cain, and pass the time pleasantly, or in some business, that they may beguile their challenges. But this is not the conscience that faith makes good. Now, set apart all these who do not examine themselves at all, nor judge themselves, but live in a golden dream, who have never been arraigned before God's tribunal, or summoned by his deputy to appear before his judgment-seat; and join unto these all persons who, judging themselves, take other rules of absolution than the word gives, who after trial absolve themselves, and withal those, who, condemning themselves, yet flee not unto this city of refuge, this blood of sprinkling, to get a solid answer in the word to all their challenges, and O how few are behind! It is but as the gleaning after the vintage. Nay, many believers have not a good conscience, though they have a right to it, because they settle not themselves on the grounds of faith, and go not on from faith to faith. There must be some sense of faith, before faith answer rightly, and give peace to the mind.
Use II. Ye see the way to get a good conscience. Believe much, and maintain your faith. It is as simple and poor a mistake as can befall a soul. Ye think because ye have not peace after your believing, therefore it was not unfeigned and true faith: and therefore ye will not believe, because ye cannot get peace. But believe that ye may have a good conscience. Would ye know your sins are pardoned before ye believe? How precious should faith be unto you, when by faith ye may not only overcome the world, but, as it were, overcome God in judging, that the soul may be justified when it is judged? Ye will not get challenges(477) answered by your own integrity and uprightness, or by your performing of duties. No, no, these cannot be sufficient grounds of your peace. Lay down the solid and satisfying grounds of faith, of imputed righteousness, and of salvation by Jesus Christ, and this shall be a foundation of lasting peace. Sense makes not a good conscience, there is much lightness and vanity in it, and the rule it proceeds by is changeable, but faith establishes the soul, and makes it not ashamed.