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An Account of the Nature and Measures of Conscience:
ON 1 JOHN III. 21.
PREACHED BEFORE THE UNIVERSITY,
AT CHRIST-CHURCH, OXON.
The first preached on the 1st of Nov. 1691.
Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have confidence toward God.
AS nothing can be of more moment, so few things, doubtless, are of more difficulty, than for men to be rationally satisfied about the estate of their souls, with reference to God and the great concerns of eternity. In their judgment about which, if they err finally, it is like a man’s missing his cast when he throws dice for his life; his being, his happiness, and all that he does or can enjoy in the world, is involved in the error of one throw. And therefore it may very well deserve our best skill and care, to inquire into those rules, by which we may guide our judgment in so weighty an affair, both with safety and success. And this, I think, cannot be better done, than by separating the false and fallacious from the true and certain. For if the rule we judge 164by be uncertain, it is odds but we shall judge wrong; and if we should judge right, yet it is not properly skill, but chance; not a true judgment, but a lucky hit: which, certainly, the eternal interests of an immortal soul are of much too high a value to be left at the mercy of.
First of all then: he who would pass such a judgment upon his condition, as shall be ratified in heaven, and confirmed at that great tribunal from which there lies no appeal, will find himself wofully deceived, if he judges of his spiritual estate by any of these four following measures: as,
1. The general esteem of the world concerning him. He who owes his piety to fame and hearsay, and the evidences of his salvation to popular voice and opinion, builds his house not only upon the sand, but, which is worse, upon the wind; and writes the deeds, by which he holds his estate, upon the face of a river. He makes a bodily eye the judge of things impossible to be seen; and humour and ignorance (which the generality of men both think and speak by) the great proofs of his justification. But surely no man has the estate of his soul drawn upon his face, nor the decree of his election wrote upon his forehead. He who would know a man throughly, must follow him into the closet of his heart, the door of which is kept shut to all the world besides, and the inspection of which is only the prerogative of omniscience.
The favourable opinion and good word of men, (to some persons especially,) comes oftentimes at a very easy rate: and by a few demure looks and affected whines, set off with some odd, devotional postures and grimaces, and such other little arts of 165dissimulation, cunning men will do wonders, and commence presently heroes for sanctity, self-denial, and sincerity, while within perhaps they are as proud as Lucifer, as covetous as Demas, as false as Judas; and, in the whole course of their conversation, act and are acted, not by devotion, but design.
So that, for ought I see, though the Mosaical part of Judaism be abolished amongst Christians, the Pharisaical part of it never will. A grave, staunch, skilfully managed face, set upon a grasping, aspiring mind, having got many a sly formalist the reputation of a primitive and severe piety, forsooth, and made many such mountebanks pass admired, even for saints upon earth, (as the word is,) who are like to be so nowhere else.
But a man who had never seen the stately outside of a tomb, or painted sepulchre, before, may very well be excused, if he takes it rather for the repository of some rich treasure, than of a noisome corpse; but should he but once open and rake into it, though he could not see, he would quickly smell out his mistake. The greatest part of the world is nothing but appearance, nothing but shew and surface; and many make it their business, their study, and concern, that it should be so; who, having for many years together deceived all about them, are at last willing to deceive themselves too; and by a long, immemorial practice, and, as it were, prescription of an aged, thoroughpaced hypocrisy, come at length to believe that for a reality, which, at the first practice of it, they themselves knew to be a cheat. But if men love to be deceived and fooled about so great an interest as that of their spiritual estate, it must be confessed that they cannot take a surer and more effectual 166course to be so, than by taking their neighbour’s word for that which can be known to them only from their own hearts. For certainly it is not more absurd to undertake to tell the name of an unknown person by his looks, than to vouch a man’s saintship from the vogue of the world, founded upon his external behaviour.
2. The judgment of any casuist, or learned divine, concerning the estate of a man’s soul, is not sufficient to give him confidence towards God. And the reason is, because no learning whatsoever can give a man the knowledge of another’s heart. Besides, that it is more than possible that the most profound and experienced casuist in the world may mistake in his judgment of a man’s spiritual condition; and if he does judge right, yet the man cannot be sure that he will declare that judgment sincerely and impartially, (the greatest clerks being not always the honestest, any more than the wisest men,) but may purposely sooth a man up for hope or fear, or the service of some sinister interest; and so shew him the face of a foul soul in a flattering glass: considering how much the raising in some men a false hope of another world, may, with others, serve a real interest in this.
There is a generation of men, who have framed their casuistical divinity to a perfect compliance with all the corrupt affections of a man’s nature; and by that new-invented engine of the doctrine of probability, will undertake to warrant and quiet the sinner’s conscience in the commission of any sin whatsoever, provided there be but the opinion of one learned man to vouch it. For this, they say, is a sufficient ground for the conscience of any unlearned 167person to rely and to act upon. So that if but one doctor asserts that I may lawfully kill a man to prevent a box on the ear, or a calumny, by which he would otherwise asperse my good name, I may with a good conscience do it; nay, I may safely rest upon this one casuist’s judgment, though thousands, as learned as himself, yea, and the express law of God besides, affirm the quite contrary. But these spiritual engineers know well enough how to deal with any commandment, either by taking or expounding it away, at their pleasure.
Such an ascendant have these Romish casuists over scripture, reason, and morality; much like what is said of the stupid, modern Jews, that they have subdued their sense and reason to such a sottish servitude to their rabbies, as to hold, that in case two rabbies should happen to contradict one another, they were yet bound to believe the contradictory assertions of both to be equally certain, and equally the word of God: such an iron-digesting faith have they, and such pity it is, that there should be no such thing in Judaism as transubstantiation to employ it upon.
But as for these casuists whom I have been speaking of; if the judgment of one doctor may authorize the practice of any action, I believe it will be hard to find any sort or degree of villainy which the corruption of man’s nature is capable of committing, which shall not meet with a defence. And of this I could give such an instance from something wrote by a certain prelate of theirs, cardinal and archbishop of Beneventum, as were enough, not only to astonish all pious ears, but almost to unconsecrate the very church I speak in.168
But the truth is, the way by which these Romish casuists speak peace to the consciences of men, is either by teaching them that many actions are not sins, which yet really are so; or by suggesting some thing to them, which shall satisfy their minds, not withstanding a known, actual, avowed continuance in their sins: such as are their pardons and indulgences, and giving men a share in the saints merits, out of the common bank and treasury of the church, which the pope has the sole custody and disposal of, and is never kept shut to such as come with an open hand. So that according to these new evangelists, well may we pronounce, Blessed are the rich, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But God deliver the world from such guides, or rather such hucksters of souls, the very shame of religion, and the shame less subverters of morality. And it is really matter both of wonder and indignation, that such impostors should at all concern themselves about rules or directions of conscience, who seem to have no consciences to apply them to.
3. The absolution pronounced by a priest, whether Papist or Protestant, is not a certain, infallible ground, to give the person so absolved confidence towards God; and the reason is, because, if absolution, as such, could of itself secure a man, as to the estate of his soul, then it would follow, that every person so absolved should, by virtue thereof, be ipso facto put into such a condition of safety, which is not imaginable.
For the absolution pronounced must be either conditional, as running upon the conditions of faith and repentance; and then, if those conditions are not found in the person so absolved, it is but a seal to a 169blank, and so a mere nullity to him. Or, the absolution must be pronounced in terms absolute and unconditional: and if so, then the said absolution becomes valid and effectual, either by virtue of the state of the person to whom it was pronounced, as being a true penitent, or by virtue of the opus operatum, or bare action itself of the priest absolving him. If it receives its validity from the former; then it is clear, that although it runs in forms absolute, yet it is indeed conditional, as depending upon the qualification of the person to whom it is pronounced; who therefore owes the remission of his sins, not properly to the priest’s absolution, but to his own repentance, which made that absolution effectual, and would undoubtedly have saved him, though the priest had never absolved him.
But if it be asserted, that the very action of the priest absolving him has of itself this virtue; then we must grant also, that it is in the priest’s power to save a man who never repented, nor did one good work in all his life; forasmuch as it is in his power to perform this action upon him in full form, and with full intention to absolve him. But the horrible absurdity, blasphemy, and impiety of this assertion, sufficiently proclaims its falsity without any further confutation.
In a word, if a man be a penitent, his repentance stamps his absolution effectual. If not, let the priest repeat the same absolution to him ten thousand times, yet for all his being absolved in this world, God will condemn him in the other. And consequently, he who places his salvation upon this ground, will find himself like an imprisoned and condemned malefactor, who in the night dreams that he is released, 170but in the morning finds himself led to the gallows.
4thly and lastly, No advantages from external church-membership, or profession of the true religion, can themselves give a man confidence towards God. And yet perhaps, there is hardly any one thing in the world, which men, in all ages, have generally more cheated themselves with. The Jews were an eminent instance of this: who, because they were the sons of Abraham, as it is readily acknowledged by our Saviour, John viii. 37. and because they were entrusted with the oracles of God, Rom. iii. 2. together with the covenants, and the promises, Rom. ix. 4. that is, in other words, because they were the true church, and professors of the true religion, (while all the world about them lay wallowing in ignorance, heathenism, and idolatry,) they concluded from hence, that God was so fond of them, that, notwithstanding all their villainies and immoralities, they were still the darlings of heaven, and the only heirs apparent of salvation. They thought, it seems, God and themselves linked together in so fast, but withal so strange a covenant, that, although they never performed their part of it, God was yet bound to make good every tittle of his.
And this made John the Baptist set himself with so much acrimony and indignation to baffle this senseless, arrogant conceit of theirs, which made them huff at the doctrine of repentance, as a thing below them, and not at all belonging to them, in Matt. iii. 9. Think not, says he, to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father. This, he knew, lay deep in their hearts, and was still in their mouths, and kept them insolent and impenitent 171under sins of the highest and most clamorous guilt; though our Saviour himself also, not long after this, assured them, that they were of a very different stock and parentage from that which they boasted of; and that whosoever was their father upon the natural account, the devil was certainly so upon a moral.
In like manner, how vainly do the Romanists pride and value themselves upon the name of Catholics, of the catholic religion, and of the catholic church! though a title no more applicable to the church of Rome, than a man’s finger, when it is swelled and putrefied, can be called his whole body: a church which allows salvation to none without it, nor awards damnation to almost any within it. And therefore, as the former empty plea served the sottish Jews; so, no wonder, if this equally serves these, to put them into a fool’s paradise, by feeding their hopes without changing their lives; and, as an excellent expedient, first to assure them of heaven, and then to bring them easily to it; and so, in a word, to save both their souls and their sins too.
And to shew how the same cheat runs through all professions, though not in the same dress; none are more powerfully and grossly under it than an other sort of men, who, on the contrary, place their whole acceptance with God, and indeed their whole religion, upon a mighty zeal, or rather outcry, against popery and superstition; verbally, indeed, uttered against the church of Rome, but really against the church of England. To which sort of persons I shall say no more but this, and that in the spirit of truth and meekness; namely, that zeal and noise against popery, and real services 172for it, are no such inconsistent things as some may imagine; indeed no more than invectives against Papists, and solemn addresses of thanks to them, for that very thing, by which they would have brought in popery upon us. And if those of the separation do not yet know so much, thanks to them for it, we of the church of England do; and so may they themselves too, in due time. I speak not this by way of sarcasm, to reproach them, (I leave that to their own consciences, which will do it more effectually,) but by way of charity, to warn them: for let them be assured, that this whole scene and practice of theirs is as really superstition, and as false a bottom to rest their souls upon, as either the Jews alleging Abraham for their father, while the devil claimed them for his children; or the Papists relying upon their indulgences, their saints merits and supererogations, and such other fopperies, as can never settle, nor indeed so much as reach, the conscience; and much less recommend it to that Judge, who is not to be flammed off with words, and phrases, and names, though taken out of the scripture itself.
Nay, and I shall proceed yet further. It is not a man’s being of the church of England itself, (though undoubtedly the purest and best reformed church in the world; indeed so well reformed, that it will be found a much easier work to alter than to better its constitution;) I say, it is not a man’s being even of this excellent church, which can of itself clear accounts between God and his conscience. Since bare communion with a good church can never alone make a good man: for if it could, I am sure we should have no bad ones in ours; and much less such as would betray it.173
So that we see here, that it is but too manifest, that men of all churches and persuasions are strangely apt to flatter and deceive themselves with what they believe, and what they profess; and if we throughly consider the matter, we shall find the fallacy to lie in this: that those religious institutions, which God designed only for means, helps, and advantages, to promote and further men in the practice of holiness, they look upon rather as a privilege to serve them instead of it, and really to commute for it. This is the very case, and a fatal self-imposture it is certainly, and such an one as defeats the design and destroys the force of all religion.
And thus I have shewn four several uncertain and deceitful rules, which men are prone to judge of their spiritual estate by.
But now, have we any better or more certain, to substitute and recommend in the room of them? Why, yes; if we believe the apostle, a man’s own heart or conscience is that which, above all other things, is able to give him confidence towards God. And the reason is, because the heart knows that by itself, which nothing in the world besides can give it any knowledge of; and without the knowledge of which, it can have no foundation to build any true confidence upon. Conscience, under God, is the only competent judge of what the soul has done, and what it has not done; what guilt it has contracted, and what it has not; as it is in 1 Cor. ii. 11. What man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Conscience is its own counsellor, the sole master of its own secrets: and it is the privilege of our nature, that every man should keep the key of his own breast.174
Now for the further prosecution of the words, I shall do these four things.
1. I shall shew, how the heart or conscience ought to be informed, in order to its founding in us a rational confidence towards God.
2. I shall shew, how and by what means we may get it thus informed, and afterwards preserve and keep it so.
3. I shall shew, whence it is that the testimony of conscience thus informed, comes to be so authentic, and so much to be relied upon: and,
4thly and lastly, I shall assign some particular cases or instances, in which the confidence suggested by it does most eminently shew and exert itself.
1. And first for the first of these, how the heart or conscience, &c. It is certain, that no man can have any such confidence towards God, only because his heart tells him a lie; and that it may do so, is altogether as certain. For there is the erroneous, as well as the rightly informed conscience; and if the conscience happens to be deluded, and there upon to give false directions to the will, so that by virtue of those directions it is betrayed into a course of sin: sin does not therefore cease to be sin, because a man committed it conscientiously. If conscience comes to be perverted so far, as to bring a man under a persuasion, that it is either lawful, or his duty, to resist the magistrate, to seize upon his neighbour’s just rights or estate, to worship stocks and stones, or to lie, equivocate, and the like, this will not absolve him before God; since error, which is in itself evil, can never make another thing good. He who does an unwarrantable action through a 175false information, which information he ought not to have believed, cannot in reason make the guilt of one sin the excuse of another.
Conscience therefore must be rightly informed, before the testimony of it can be authentic in what it pronounces concerning the estate of the soul. It must proceed by the two grand rules of right reason and scripture; these are the compass which it must steer by. For conscience comes formally to oblige, only as it is the messenger of the mind of God to the soul of man; which he has revealed to him, partly by the impression of certain notions and maxims upon the practical understanding, and partly by the declared oracles of his word. So far therefore as conscience reports any thing agreeable to, or deducible from these, it is to be hearkened to as the great conveyer of truth to the soul; but when it reports any thing dissonant to these, it obliges no more than the falsehood reported by it.
But since there is none who follows an erroneous conscience, but does so because he thinks it true; and moreover thinks it true, because he is persuaded that it proceeds according to the two forementioned rules of scripture and right reason; how shall a man be able to satisfy himself, when his conscience is rightly informed, and when possessed with an error? For to affirm, that the sentence passed by a rightly informed conscience gives a man a rational confidence towards God; but, in the mean time, not to assign any means possible by which he may know when his conscience is thus rightly informed, and when not, it must equally bereave him of such a confidence, as placing the condition upon which it depends wholly out of his knowledge.176
Here therefore is the knot, here the difficulty, how to state some rule of certainty, by which infallibly to distinguish when the conscience is right, and to be relied upon; when erroneous, and to be distrusted, in the testimony it gives about the sincerity and safety of a man’s spiritual condition.
For the resolution of which, I answer, that it is not necessary for a man to be assured of the rightness of his conscience, by such an infallible certainty of persuasion, as amounts to the clearness of a demonstration; but it is sufficient, if he knows it upon grounds of such a convincing probability, as shall exclude all rational grounds of doubting of it. For I cannot think, that the confidence here spoken of rises so high as to assurance. And the reason is, because it is manifestly such a confidence as is common to all sincere Christians; which yet, assurance, we all know, is not.
The truth is, the word in the original, which is παῤῥησία, signifies properly freedom or boldness of speech; though the Latin translation renders it by fiducia, and so corresponds with the English, which renders it confidence. But whether fiducia or confidence reaches the full sense of παῤῥησία, may very well be disputed. However it is certain, that neither the word in the original, nor yet in the translation, imports assurance. For freedom or boldness of speech, I am sure, does not; and fiducia, or confidence, signifies only a man’s being actually persuaded of a thing, upon better arguments for it, than any that he can see against it; which he may very well be, and yet not be assured of it.
From all which, I conclude; that the confidence here mentioned in the text amounts to no more 177than a rational well-grounded hope. Such an one as the apostle tells us, in Rom. v. 5. maketh not ashamed.
And upon these terms, I affirm, that such a conscience, as has employed the utmost of its ability to give itself the best information and clearest knowledge of its duty that it can, is a rational ground for a man to build such an hope upon; and, consequently, for him to confide in.
There is an innate light in every man, discovering to him the first lines of duty, in the common notions of good and evil, which, by cultivation and improvement, may be advanced to higher and brighter discoveries. And from hence it is, that the schoolmen and moralists admit not of any ignorantia juris, speaking of natural moral right, to give excuse to sin. Since all such ignorance is voluntary, and therefore culpable, forasmuch as it was in every man’s power to have prevented it, by a due improvement of the light of nature, and the seeds of moral honesty sown in his heart.
If it be here demanded, whether a man may not remain ignorant of his duty, after he has used the utmost means to inform himself of it; I answer, that so much of duty as is absolutely necessary to save him, he shall upon the use of such a course come to know; and that which he continues ignorant of, having done the utmost lying in his power that he might not be ignorant of it, shall never damn him. Which assertion is proved thus: The gospel damns nobody for being ignorant of that which he is not obliged to know; but that which upon the improvement of a man’s utmost power he cannot know, he is not obliged to know; for that 178otherwise he would be obliged to an impossibility; since that which is out of the compass of any man’s power, is to that man impossible.
He therefore who exerts all the powers and faculties of his soul, and plies all means and opportunities in the search of truth, which God has vouchsafed him, may rest upon the judgment of his conscience so informed, as a warrantable guide of those actions, which he must account to God for. And if by following such a guide, he falls into the ditch, the ditch shall never drown him, or if it should, the man perishes not by his sin, but by his misfortune. In a word, he who endeavours to know the utmost of his duty that he can, and practises the utmost that he knows, has the equity and goodness of the great God to stand as a mighty wall or rampart between him and damnation, for any errors or infirmities, which the frailty of his condition has invincibly, and therefore inculpably, exposed him to.
And if a conscience thus qualified and informed, be not the measure by which a man may take a true estimate of his absolution before the tribunal of God, all the understanding of human nature cannot find out any ground for the sinner to pitch the sole of his foot upon, or rest his conscience with any assurance, but is left in the plunge of infinite doubts and uncertainties, suspicions and misgivings, both as to the measures of his present duty, and the final issues of his future reward.
Let this conclusion therefore stand as the firm result of the foregoing discourse, and the foundation of what is to follow; that such a conscience as has not been wanting to itself, in endeavouring to get the utmost and clearest information about the will of 179God, that its power, advantages, and opportunities could afford it, is that internal judge, whose absolution is a rational and sure ground of confidence towards God: and so I pass to the second thing proposed. Which is to shew, How, and by what means, we may get our heart or conscience thus informed, and afterwards preserve and keep it so.
In order to which, amongst many things that might be alleged as highly useful, and conducing to this great work, I shall insist upon these four: as,
1. Let a man carefully attend to the voice of his reason, and all the dictates of natural morality, so as by no means to do any thing contrary to them. For though reason is not to be relied upon, as a guide universally sufficient to direct us what to do, yet it is generally to be relied upon and obeyed, where it tells us what we are not to do. It is indeed but a weak and diminutive light, compared to revelation; but it ought to be no disparagement to a star, that it is not a sun. Nevertheless, as weak and as small as it is, it is a light always at hand, and though enclosed, as it were, in a dark lantern, may yet be of singular use to prevent many a foul step, and to keep us from many a dangerous fall. And every man brings such a degree of this light into the world with him, that though it cannot bring him to heaven, yet, if he be true to it, it will carry him a great way; indeed so far, that if he follows it faithfully, I doubt not but he shall meet with another light, which shall carry him quite through.
How far it may be improved, is evident from that high and refined morality which shined forth both in the lives and writings of some of the ancient 180heathens, who yet had no other light but this, both to live and to write by. For how great a man in virtue was Cato, of whom the historian gives this glorious character; Esse quam videri bonus malebat! And of what an impregnable integrity was Fabricius, of whom it was said, that a man might as well attempt to turn the sun out of his course, as to bring Fabricius to do a base or a dishonest action! And then for their writings; what admirable things occur in the remains of Pythagoras, and the books of Plato, and of several other philosophers! short, I confess, of the rules of Christianity, but generally above the lives of Christians.
Which being so, ought not the light of reason to be looked upon by us as a rich and a noble talent, and such an one as we must account to God for? for it is certainly from him. It is a ray of divinity darted into the soul. It is the candle of the Lord, as Solomon calls it, and God never lights us up a candle either to put out or to sleep by. If it be made conscious to a work of darkness, it will not fail to discover and reprove it; and therefore the checks of it are to be revered, as the echo of a voice from heaven; for, whatsoever conscience binds here on earth, will be certainly bound there too; and it were a great vanity to hope or imagine, that either law or gospel will absolve what natural conscience condemns. No man ever yet offended his own conscience, but first or last it was revenged upon him for it. So that it will concern a man to treat this great principle awfully and warily, by still observing what it commands, but especially what it forbids: and if he would have it always a faithful and sincere monitor to him, let him be sure never 181to turn a deaf ear to it; for not to hear it is the way to silence it. Let him strictly observe the first stirrings and intimations; the first hints and whispers of good and evil, that pass in his heart; and this will keep conscience so quick and vigilant, and ready to give a man true alarms upon the least approach of his spiritual enemy, that he shall be hardly capable of a great surprise.
On the contrary, if a man accustoms himself to slight or pass over these first motions to good, or shrinkings of his conscience from evil, which originally are as natural to the heart of man, as the appetites of hunger and thirst are to the stomach, conscience will by degrees grow dull and unconcerned, and, from not spying out motes, come at length to overlook beams; from carelessness it shall fall into a slumber, and from a slumber it shall settle into a deep and long sleep; till at last perhaps it sleeps itself into a lethargy, and that such an one, that nothing but hell and judgment shall be able to awaken it. For long disuse of any thing made for action will in time take away the very use of it. As I have read of one, who having for a disguise kept one of his eyes a long time covered, when he took off the covering, found his eye indeed where it was, but his sight was gone. He who would keep his conscience awake, must be careful to keep it stirring.
2. Let a man be very tender and regardful of every pious motion and suggestion made by the Spirit of God to his heart. I do not hereby go about to establish enthusiasm, or such fantastic pretences of intercourse with God, as Papists and fanatics (who in most things copy from one another, as well 182as rail at one another) do usually boast of. But certainly, if the evil spirit may, and often does suggest wicked and vile thoughts to the minds of men, as all do and must grant, and is sufficiently proved from the devil’s putting it into the heart of Judas to betray Christ, John xiii. 2. and his filling the heart of Ananias to lie to the Holy Ghost, Acts v. 3. it cannot after this, with any colour of reason, be doubted, but that the holy Spirit of God, whose power and influence to good is much greater than that of the wicked spirit to evil, does frequently inject into, and imprint upon the soul many blessed motions and impulses to duty, and many powerful avocations from sin. So that a man shall not only, as the prophet says, hear a voice behind him, but also a voice within him, telling him which way he ought to go.
For doubtless, there is something more in those expressions of being led by the Spirit, and being taught by the Spirit, and the like, than mere tropes and metaphors; and nothing less is or can be imported by them, than that God sometimes speaks to, and converses with, the hearts of men, immediately by himself; and happy those, who by thus hearing him speak in a still voice, shall prevent his speaking to them in thunder.
But you will here ask, perhaps, how we shall distinguish in such motions, which of them proceed immediately from the Spirit of God, and which from the conscience? In answer to which, I must confess, that I know no certain mark of discrimination to distinguish them by; save only in general, that such as proceed immediately from God, use to strike the mind suddenly, and very powerfully. But then 183I add also, that as the knowledge of this, in point of speculation, is so nice and difficult, so, thanks be to God, in point of practice it is not necessary. But let a man universally observe and obey every good motion rising in his heart, knowing that every such motion proceeds from God, either mediately or immediately; and that whether God speaks immediately by himself to the conscience, or mediately by the conscience to the soul, the authority is the same in both, and the contempt of either is rebellion.
Now the thing which I drive at, under this head of discourse, is to shew, that as God is sometimes pleased to address himself in this manner to the hearts of men; so, if the heart will receive and answer such motions, by a ready and obsequious compliance with them, there is no doubt but they will both return more frequently, and still more and more powerfully, till at length they produce such a degree of light in the conscience, as shall give a man both a clear sight of his duty, and a certain judgment of his condition.
On the contrary, as all resistance whatsoever of the dictates of conscience, even in the way of natural efficiency, brings a kind of hardness and stupefaction upon it; so the resistance of these peculiar suggestions of the Spirit will cause in it also a judicial hardness, which is yet worse than the other. So that God shall withdraw from such an heart, and the Spirit being grieved shall depart, and these blessed motions shall cease, and affect and visit it no more. The consequence of which is very terrible, as rendering a man past feeling: and then the less he feels in this world, the more he shall be sure to feel in the next. But,184
3. Because the light of natural conscience is in many things defective and dim, and the internal voice of God’s Spirit not always distinguishable, above all, let a man attend to the mind of God, uttered in his revealed word. I say, his revealed word. By which I do not mean that mysterious, extraordinary (and of late so much studied) book called the Revelation, and which perhaps the more it is studied the less it is understood, as generally either finding a man cracked, or making him so: but I mean those other writings of the prophets and apostles, which exhibit to us a plain, sure, perfect, and intelligible rule; a rule that will neither fail nor distract such as make use of it. A rule to judge of the two former rules by: for nothing that contradicts the revealed word of God, is either the voice of right reason or of the Spirit of God: nor is it possible that it should be so, without God’s contradicting himself.
And therefore we see what high elogies are given to the written word by the inspired penmen of both Testaments. It giveth understanding to the simple, says David, in Psalm cxix. 130. And that, you will say, is no such easy matter to do.
It is able to make the man of God perfect, says St. Paul, 2 Tim. iii. 17. It is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit; and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart, Heb. iv. 12. Now what a force and fulness, what a vigour and emphasis is there in all these expressions! Enough, one would think, to recommend and endear the scriptures, even to the Papists themselves. For if, as the text says, they 185give understanding to the simple; I know none more concerned to read and study them than their popes.
Wherefore since the light and energy of the writ ten word is so mighty, let a man bring and hold his conscience to this steady rule; the unalterable rectitude of which, will infallibly discover the rectitude or obliquity of whatsoever it is applied to. We shall find it a rule, both to instruct us what to do, and to assure us in what we have done. For though natural conscience ought to be listened to, yet it is revelation alone that is to be relied upon: as we may observe in the works of art, a judicious artist will indeed use his eye, but he will trust only to his rule.
There is not any one action whatsoever which a man ought to do or to forbear, but the scripture will give him a clear precept or prohibition for it.
So that if a man will commit such rules to his memory, and stock his mind with portions of scripture answerable to all the heads of duty and practice, his conscience can never be at a loss, either for a direction of his actions, or an answer to a temptation: it was the very course which our Saviour himself took, when the devil plied him with temptation upon temptation. Still he had a suitable scripture ready to repel and baffle them all, one after another: every pertinent text urged home, being a direct stab to a temptation.
Let a man therefore consider and recount with himself the several duties and virtues of a Christian. Such as temperance, meekness, charity, purity of heart, pardoning of enemies, patience. (I had almost said passive obedience too, but that such old-fashioned 186Christianity seems as much out of date with some, as Christ’s divinity and satisfaction.) I say, let a man consider these and the like virtues, together with the contrary sins and vices that do oppose them; and then, as out of a full armory or magazine, let him furnish his conscience with texts of scripture, particularly enjoining the one, and for bidding or threatening the other. And yet I do not say that he should stuff his mind like the margent of some authors, with chapter and verse heaped together, at all adventures; but only that he should fortify it with some few texts, which are home, and apposite to his case. And a conscience thus supplied will be like a man armed at all points; and always ready either to receive or to attack his enemy. Otherwise it is not a man’s having arms in his house; no, nor yet his having courage and skill to use them; but it is his having them still about him, which must both secure him from being set upon, and defend him when he is.
Accordingly, men must know, that without taking the forementioned course, all that they do in this matter is but lost labour; and that they read the scriptures to as little purpose as some use to quote them; much reading being like much eating, wholly useless without digestion; and it is impossible for a man to digest his meat, without also retaining it.
Till men get what they read into their minds, and fix it in their memories, they keep their religion as they use to do their Bibles, only in their closet, or carry it in their pocket; and that, you may imagine, must improve and affect the soul, just as much as a man’s having plenty of provision only in his stores, will nourish and support his body. When men forget 187the word heard or read by them, the devil is said to steal it out of their hearts, Luke viii. 12. And for this cause we do with as much reason, as propriety of speech, call the committing of a thing to memory, the getting it by heart. For it is the memory that must transmit it to the heart; and it is in vain to expect, that the heart should keep its hold of any truth, when the memory has let it go.
4. The fourth and last way that I shall mention for the getting of the conscience rightly informed, and afterwards keeping it so, is frequently and impartially to account with it. It is with a man and his conscience, as with one man and another; amongst whom we use to say, that even reckoning makes lasting friends; and the way to make reckonings even, I am sure, is to make them often. Delays in accounts are always suspicious; and bad enough in themselves, but commonly much worse in their cause. For to defer an account, is the ready way to perplex it; and when it comes to be perplexed and intricate, no man, either as to his temporal or spiritual estate, can know of himself what he is, or what he has, or upon what bottom he stands. But the amazing difficulty and greatness of his account will rather terrify than inform him; and keep him from setting heartily about such a task as he despairs ever to go through with. For no man willingly begins what he has no hope to finish.
But let a man apply to this work by frequent returns and short intervals, while the heap is small, and the particulars few, and he will find it easy and conquerable; and his conscience, like a faithful steward, shall give him in a plain, open, and entire 188account of himself, and hide nothing from him. Whereas we know, if a steward or cashier be suffered to run on from year to year without bringing him to a reckoning, it is odds but such a sottish forbearance will in time teach him to shuffle; and strongly tempt him to be a cheat, if not also to make him so: for as the account runs on, generally the account ant goes backward.
And for this cause some judge it advisable for a man to account with his heart every day; and this, no doubt, is the best and surest course; for still the oftener the better. And some prescribe accounting once a week; longer than which it is by no means safe to delay it: for a man shall find his heart deceitful, and his memory weak, and nature extremely averse from seeking narrowly after that which it is unwilling to find; and being found, will assuredly disturb it.
So that upon the whole matter it is infinitely absurd to think, that conscience can be kept in order without frequent examination. If a man would have his conscience deal clearly with him, he must deal severely with that. Often scouring and cleansing it will make it bright; and when it is so, he may see himself in it: and if he sees any thing amiss, let this satisfy him, that no man is or can be the worse for knowing the very worst of himself.
On the contrary, if conscience, by a long neglect of, and disacquaintance with itself, comes to contract an inveterate rust or soil, a man may as well expect to see his face in a mud-wall, as that such a conscience should give him a true report of his condition; no, it leaves him wholly in the dark, as to the greatest concern he has in both worlds. He can 189neither tell whether God be his friend or his enemy, or rather he has shrewd cause to suspect him his enemy, and cannot possibly know him to be his friend. And this being his case, he must live in ignorance and die in ignorance; and it will be hard for a man to die in it, without dying for it too.
And now, what a wretched condition must that man needs be in, whose heart is in such a confusion, such darkness, and such a settled blindness, that it shall not be able to tell him so much as one true word of himself! Flatter him it may, I confess, (as those are generally good at flattering, who are good for nothing else,) but, in the mean time, the poor man is left under the fatal necessity of a remediless delusion: for in judging of a man’s self, if conscience either cannot or will not inform him, there is a certain thing called self-love that will be sure to deceive him. And thus I have shewn, in four several particulars, what is to be done, both for the getting and keeping of the conscience so informed, as that it may be able to give us a rational confidence towards God. As,
1. That the voice of reason, in all the dictates of natural morality, ought carefully to be attended to by a strict observance of what it commands, but especially of what it forbids.
2. That every pious motion from the Spirit of God ought tenderly to be cherished, and by no means checked or quenched either by resistance or neglect.
3. That conscience is to be kept close to the rule of the written word.
4thly and lastly, That it is frequently to be examined, and severely accounted with.190
And I doubt not but a conscience thus disciplined, shall give a man such a faithful account of himself, as shall never shame nor lurch the confidence which he shall take up from it.
Nevertheless, to prevent all mistakes in so critical a case, and so high a concern, I shall close up the foregoing particulars with this twofold caution.
First, Let no man think that every doubting or misgiving about the safety of his spiritual estate, overthrows the confidence hitherto spoken of. For, as I shewed before, the confidence mentioned in the text, is not properly assurance, but only a rational, well-grounded hope; and therefore may very well consist with some returns of doubting. For we know, in that pious and excellent confession and prayer, made by the poor man to our Saviour, in Mark ix. 24, how in the very same breath in which he says, Lord, I believe; he says also, Lord, help my unbelief. So that we see here, that the sincerity of our faith or confidence will not secure us against all vicissitudes of wavering or distrust; indeed no more than a strong athletic constitution of body will secure a man always against heats, and colds, and rheums, and such like indispositions.
And one great reason of this is, because such a faith or confidence as we have been treating of, resides in the soul or conscience as an habit. And habits, we know, are by no means either inconsistent with, or destroyed by, every contrary act. But especially in the case now before us, where the truth and strength of our confidence towards God does not consist so much in the present act, by which it exerts itself, no, nor yet in the habit producing this act, as it does in the ground or reason which this 191confidence is built upon; which being the standing sincerity of a man’s heart, though the present act be interrupted, (as, no doubt, through infirmity or temptation it may be very often,) yet, so long as that sincerity, upon which this confidence was first founded, does continue, as soon as the temptation is removed and gone, the forementioned faith, or affiance, will, by renewed, vigorous, and fresh acts, recover and exert itself, and with great comfort and satisfaction of mind give a man confidence towards God. Which, though it be indeed a lower and a lesser thing than assurance, yet, as to all the purposes of a pious life, may, for ought I see, prove much more useful; as both affording a man due comfort, and yet leaving room for due caution too; which are two of the principal uses that religion serves for in this world.
2. The other caution, with reference to the fore going discourse, is this; Let no man, from what has been said, reckon a bare silence of conscience in not accusing or disturbing him, a sufficient argument for confidence towards God. For such a silence is so far from being always so, that it is usually worse than the fiercest and loudest accusations; since it may, and for the most part does, proceed from a kind of numbness or stupidity of conscience, and an absolute dominion obtained by sin over the soul; so that it shall not so much as dare to complain or make a stir. For, as our Saviour says, Luke xi. 21. While the strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace. So, while sin rules and governs with a strong hand, and has wholly subdued the conscience to a slavish subjection to its tyrannical yoke; the soul shall be at peace, such a false peace as it is; but for that very cause worse a great 192deal, and more destructive, than when, by continual alarms and assaults, it gives a man neither peace nor truce, quiet nor intermission. And therefore it is very remarkable, that the text expresses the sound estate of the heart or the conscience here spoken of, not barely by its not accusing, but by its not condemning us, which word imports properly an acquitment or discharge of a man upon some precedent accusation, and a full trial and cognizance of his cause had thereupon. For as condemnation, being a law term, and so relating to the judicial proceedings of law courts, must still presuppose an hearing of the cause, before any sentence can pass; so likewise in the court of conscience, there must be a strict and impartial inquiry into all a man’s actions, and a thorough hearing of all that can be pleaded for and against him, before conscience can rationally either condemn or discharge him: and if indeed upon such a fair and full trial he can come off, he is then rectus in curia, clear and innocent, and consequently may reap all that satisfaction from himself, which it is natural for innocence to afford the person who has it. I do not here speak of a legal innocence, (none but sots and Quakers dream of such things,) for, as St. Paul says, Galat. ii. 16. by the works of the law shall no flesh living be justified: but I speak of an evangelical innocence; such an one as the economy of the gospel accepts, what soever the law enjoins; and though mingled with several infirmities and defects, yet amounts to such a pitch of righteousness, as we call sincerity. And whosoever has this, shall never be damned for want of the other.
And now, how vastly does it concern all those who shall think it worth their while to be in earnest 193with their immortal souls, not to abuse and delude themselves with a false confidence? a thing so easily taken up, and so hardly laid down. Let no man conclude, because his conscience says nothing to him, that therefore it has nothing to say. Possibly some never so much as doubted of the safety of their spiritual estate in all their lives; and if so, let them not flatter themselves, but rest assured that they have so much the more reason a great deal to doubt of it now. For the causes of such a profound stillness are generally gross ignorance, or long custom of sinning, or both; and these are very dreadful symptoms indeed to such as are not hell and damnation proof. When a man’s wounds cease to smart, only because he has lost his feeling, they are nevertheless mortal for his not seeing his need of a chirurgeon. It is not mere, actual, present ease, but ease after pain, which brings the most durable and solid comfort. Acquitment before trial can be no security. Great and strong calms usually portend and go before the most violent storms. And therefore, since storms and calms (especially with reference to the state of the soul) do always follow one another; certainly of the two it is much more eligible to have the storm first and the calm afterwards: since a calm before a storm is commonly a peace of a man’s own making; but a calm after a storm, a peace of God’s.
To which God, who only can speak such peace to us, as neither the world nor the devil shall be able to take from us, be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for ever more. Amen.194
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