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A further Account of the Nature and Measures of Conscience:
ON 1 JOHN III. 21.
PREACHED BEFORE THE UNIVERSITY,
AT CHRIST-CHURCH, OXON,
OCTOBER 30, 1692.
Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have confidence toward God.
I HAVE discoursed once already upon these words in this place. In which discourse, after I had set down four several false grounds upon which men, in judging of the safety of their spiritual estate, were apt to found a wrong confidence towards God, and shewn the falsity of them all; and that there was nothing but a man’s own heart or conscience, which, in this great concern, he could with any safety rely upon; I did, in the next place, cast the further prosecution of the words under these four following particulars.
1. To shew, How the heart or conscience ought to be informed, in order to its founding in us a rational confidence towards God.
2. To shew, How, and by what means, we may 195get our conscience thus informed, and afterwards preserve and keep it so.
3. To 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, To assign some particular cases or instances, in which the confidence suggested by it, does most eminently shew and exert itself.
Upon the first of which heads, to wit, How the heart or conscience ought to be informed, in order to its founding in us a rational confidence towards God, after I had premised something about an erroneous conscience, and shewn both what influence that ought to have upon us, and what regard we ought to have to that in this matter, I gathered the result of all into this one conclusion; namely, That such a conscience as has not been wanting to itself, in endeavouring the utmost knowledge of its duty, and the clearest information about the will of God, that its power, advantages, and opportunities could afford it, is that great internal judge, whose absolution is a rational and sure ground of confidence towards God. This I then insisted upon at large, and from thence proceeded to the
Second particular, which was to shew, How, and by what means, we might get our conscience thus informed, and afterwards preserve and keep it so.
Where, amongst those many ways and methods which might, no doubt, have been assigned as highly conducing to this purpose, I singled out and insisted upon only these four. As,
1st, That the voice of reason, in all the dictates of natural morality a was still carefully to be attended to 196by a strict observance of what it commanded, but especially of what it forbad.
2dly, That every pious motion from the Spirit of God was tenderly to be cherished, and by no means quenched or checked, either by resistance or neglect.
3dly, That conscience was still to be kept close to the rule of God’s written word; and,
4thly and lastly, That it was frequently to be examined, and severely accounted with.
These things also I then more fully enlarged upon; and so closed up all with a double caution, and that of no small importance as to the case then before us: as,
First, That no man should reckon every doubting or misgiving of his heart, about the safety of his spiritual estate, inconsistent with that confidence towards God which is here spoken of in the text: and secondly, That no man should account a bare silence of conscience in not accusing or disturbing him, a sufficient ground for such a confidence. Of both which I then shew the fatal consequence. And so, not to trouble you with any more repetitions than these, which were just and necessary to lay before you the coherence of one thing with another, I shall now proceed to the third of those four particulars first proposed; which was to shew, Whence it is that the testimony of conscience (concerning a man’s spiritual estate) comes to be so authentic, and so much to be relied upon.
Now the force and credit of its testimony stands upon this double ground.
1st, The high office which it holds immediately from God himself, in the soul of man; and,197
2dly, Those properties or qualities which peculiarly fit it for the discharge of this high office, in all things relating to the soul.
1. And first, for its office. It is no less than God’s vicegerent or deputy, doing all things by immediate commission from him. It commands and dictates every thing in God’s name, and stamps every word with an almighty authority. So that it is, as it were, a kind of copy or transcript of the divine sentence, and an interpreter of the sense of Heaven. And from hence it is, that sins against conscience (as all sins against light and conviction are, by way of eminence, so called) are of so peculiar and transcendent a guilt. For that every such sin is a daring and direct defiance of the divine authority, as it is signified and reported to a man by his conscience, and thereby ultimately terminates in God himself.
Nay, and this vicegerent of God has one prerogative above all God’s other earthly vicegerents; to wit, that it can never be deposed. Such a strange, sacred, and inviolable majesty has God imprinted upon this faculty; not indeed as upon an absolute, independent sovereign, but yet with so great a communication of something next to sovereignty, that while it keeps within its proper compass, it is controllable by no mortal power upon earth. For not the great est monarch in the world can countermand conscience so far, as to make it condemn where it would otherwise acquit, or acquit where it would otherwise condemn; no, neither sword nor sceptre can come at it; but it is above and beyond the reach of both.
And if it were not for this awful and majestic character which it bears, whence could it be, that the stoutest and bravest hearts droop and sneak 198when conscience frowns: and the most abject and afflicted wretch feels an unspeakable, and even triumphant joy, when the judge within absolves and applauds him. When a man has done any villainous act, though under countenance of the highest place and power, and under covert of the closest secrecy, his conscience, for all that, strikes him like a clap of thunder, and depresses him to a perpetual trepidation, horror, and poorness of spirit; so that, like Nero, though surrounded with his Roman legions and Pretorian bands, he yet sculks, and hides him self, and is ready to fly to every thing for refuge, though he sees nothing to fly from. And all this, because he has heard a condemning sentence from within, which the secret forebodings of his mind tell him will be ratified by a sad and certain execution from above: on the other side, what makes a man so cheerful, so bright and confident in his comforts, but because he finds himself acquitted by God’s high commissioner and deputy? Which is as much as a pardon under God’s own hand, under the broad seal of Heaven, (as I may so express it.) For a king never condemns any whom his judges have absolved, nor absolves whom his judges have condemned, whatsoever the people and republicans may.
Now from this principle, that the authority of conscience stands founded upon its vicegerency and deputation under God, several very important inferences may, or rather indeed unavoidably must, ensue. Two of which I shall single out and speak of; as,
First, We collect from hence the absurdity and impertinence; and,
Secondly, The impudence and impiety of most of those pretences of conscience, which have borne such 199a mighty sway all the world over, and in these poor nations especially.
1. And first, for the absurdity and impertinence of them. What a rattle and a noise has this word conscience made! How many battles has it fought! How many churches has it robbed, ruined, and reformed to ashes! How many laws has it trampled upon, dispensed with, and addressed against! And, in a word, how many governments has it over turned! Such is the mischievous force of a plausible word, applied to a detestable thing.
The allegation or plea of conscience ought never to be admitted barely for itself: for when a thing obliges only by a borrowed authority, it is ridiculous to allege it for its own. Take a lieutenant, a commissioner, or ambassador of any prince; and, so far as he represents his prince, all that he does or declares under that capacity has the same force and validity, as if actually done or declared by the prince himself in person. But then how far does this reach? Why, just so far as he keeps close to his instructions: but when he once balks them, though what he does may be indeed a public crime or a national mischief, yet it is but a private act; and the doer of it may chance to pay his head for the presumption. For still, as great as the authority of such kind of persons is, it is not founded upon their own will, nor upon their own judgment, but upon their commission.
In like manner, every dictate of this vicegerent of God, where it has a divine word or precept to back it, carries a divine authority with it. But if no such word can be produced, it may indeed be a strong opinion or persuasion, but it is not conscience: and 200no one thing in the world has done more mischief, and caused more delusions amongst men, than their not distinguishing between conscience, and mere opinion or persuasion.
Conscience is a Latin word, (though with an English termination,) and, according to the very notation of it, imports a double or joint knowledge; to wit, one of a divine law or rule, and the other of a man’s own action: and so is properly the application of a general law to a particular instance of practice. The law of God, for example, says, Thou shall not steal; and the mind of man tells him, that the taking of such or such a thing from a person lawfully possessed of it is stealing. Whereupon the conscience, joining the knowledge of both these together, pronounces in the name of God, that such a particular action ought not to be done. And this is the true procedure of conscience, always supposing a law from God, before it pretends to lay any obligation upon man: for still I aver, that conscience neither is nor ought to be its own rule.
I question not, I confess, but mere opinion or persuasion may be every whit as strong, and have as forcible an influence upon a man’s actions as conscience itself. But then, we know, strength or force is one thing, and authority quite another. As a rogue upon the highway may have as strong an arm, and take off a man’s head as cleverly as the executioner. But then there is a vast disparity in the two actions, when one of them is murder, and the other justice: nay, and our Saviour himself told his disciples, that men should both kill them, and think that in so doing they did God service. So that here, we see, was a full opinion and persuasion, and a very zealous 201one too, of the high meritoriousness of what they did; but still there was no law, no word or command of God to ground it upon, and consequently it was not conscience.
Now the notion of conscience thus stated, if firmly kept to, and thoroughly driven home, would effectually baffle and confound all those senseless, though clamorous pretences of the schismatical opposers of the constitutions of our church. In defence of which, I shall not speak so much as one syllable against the indulgence and toleration granted to these men. No, since they have it, let them, in God’s name, enjoy it, and the government make the best of it. But since I cannot find that the law which tolerates them in their way of worship (and it does no more) does at all forbid us to defend ours, it were earnestly to be wished, that all hearty lovers of the church of Eng land would assert its excellent constitution more vigorously now than ever: and especially in such congregations as this; in which there are so many young persons, upon the well or ill principling of whom, next under God, depends the happiness or misery of this church and state. For if such should be generally prevailed upon by hopes or fears, by base examples, by trimming and time-serving (which are but two words for the same thing) to abandon and betray the church of England, by nauseating her pious, prudent, and wholesome orders, (of which I have seen some scurvy instances,) we may rest assured, that this will certainly produce confusion, and that confusion will as certainly end in popery.
And therefore, since the Liturgy, rites, and ceremonies of our church have been, and still are so much cavilled and struck at, and all upon a plea of conscience, 202it will concern us, as becomes men of sense, seriously to examine the force of this plea, which our adversaries are still setting up against us as the grand pillar and buttress of the good old cause of nonconformity. For come to any dissenting brother, and ask him, Why cannot you communicate with the church of England? “Oh,” says he, “it is against my conscience; my conscience will not suffer me to pray by a set form, to kneel at the sacrament, to hear divine service read by one in a surplice, or to use the cross in baptism,” or the like.
Very well; and is this the case then, that it is all pure conscience that keeps you from complying with the rule and order of the church in these matters? If so, then produce me some word or law of God for bidding these things. For conscience never commands or forbids any thing authentically, but there is some law of God which commands or forbids it first. Conscience (as might be easily shewn) being no distinct power or faculty from the mind of man, but the mind of man itself applying the general rule of God’s law to particular cases and actions. This is truly and properly conscience. And therefore shew me such a law; and that, either as a necessary dictate of right reason, or a positive injunction in God’s revealed word: (for these two are all the ways by which God speaks to men nowadays:) I say, shew me something from hence, which countermands or condemns all or any of the forementioned ceremonies of our church, and then I will yield the cause. But if no such reason, no such scripture can be brought to appear in their behalf against us, but that with screwed face and doleful whine they only ply you with senseless harangues of conscience against carnal ordinances, 203 the dead letter, and human inventions on the one hand, and loud outcries for a further reformation on the other; then rest you assured that they have a design upon your pocket, and that the word conscience is used only as an instrument to pick it; and more particularly as it calls it a further reformation, signifies no more, with reference to the church, than as if one man should come to another and say, “Sir, I have already taken away your cloak, and do fully intend, if I can, to take away your coat also.” This is the true meaning of this word further reformation; and so long as you understand it in this sense, you cannot be imposed upon by it.
Well, but if these mighty men at chapter and verse can produce you no scripture to overthrow our church ceremonies, I will undertake to produce scripture enough to warrant them; even all those places which absolutely enjoin obedience and submission to lawful governors in all not unlawful things: particularly that in 1 Pet. ii. 13. and that in Heb. xiii. 17. (of which two places more again presently,) together with the other in 1 Cor. xiv. last verse, enjoining order and decency in God’s worship, and in all things relating to it. And consequently, till these men can prove the forementioned things, ordered by our church, to be either intrinsically unlawful or undecent, I do here affirm by the authority of the foregoing scriptures, that the use of them, as they stand established amongst us, is necessary; and that all pretences or pleas of conscience to the contrary, are nothing but cant and cheat, flam and delusion. In a word, the ceremonies of the church of England are as necessary as the injunctions of an undoubtedly lawful authority, the practice of the primitive church, 204and the general rules of decency, determined to particulars of the greatest decency, can make them necessary. And I would not for all the world be arraigned at the last and great day for disturbing the church, and disobeying government, and have no better plea for so doing, than what those of the separation were ever yet able to defend themselves by.
But some will here say perhaps, If this be all that you require of us, we both can and do bring you scripture against your church ceremonies; even that which condemns all will worship, Col. ii. 23. and such other like places. To which I answer, first, that the will worship, forbidden in that scripture, is so termed, not from the circumstance, but from the object of religious worship; and we readily own, that it is by no means in the church’s power to appoint or choose, whom or what it will worship. But that does not infer, that it is not therefore in the church’s power to appoint how and in what manner it will worship the true object of religious worship; provided that in so doing it observes such rules of decency as are proper and conducing to that purpose. So that this scripture is wholly irrelative to the case before us; and as impertinently applied to it, as any poor text in the Revelation was ever applied to the grave and profound whimsies of some modern interpreters. But secondly, to this objection about will worship, I answer yet further; that the forementioned ceremonies of the church of England are no worship, nor part of God’s worship at all, nor were ever pretended so to be; and, if they are not so much as worship, I am sure they cannot be will worship. But we own them only for circumstances, modes, and solemn usages, by which 205God’s worship is orderly and decently performed: I say, we pretend them not to be parts of divine worship; but, for all that, to be such things as the divine worship, in some instance or other, cannot be without: for that which neither does nor can give vital heat, may yet be necessary to preserve it: and he who should strip himself of all that is no part of himself, would quickly find, or rather feel the inconvenience of such a practice; and have cause to wish for a body as void of sense as such an argument.
Now the consequence in both these cases is perfectly parallel: and if so, you may rest satisfied, that what is nonsense upon a principle of reason, will never be sense upon a principle of religion. But as touching the necessity of the aforesaid usages in the church of England, I shall lay down these four propositions.
1. That circumstantials in the worship of God (as well as in all other human actions) are so necessary to it, that it cannot possibly be performed with out them.
2. That decency in the circumstantials of God’s worship is absolutely necessary.
3. That the general rule and precept of decency is not capable of being reduced to practice, but as it is exemplified in, and determined to, particular instances. And,
4thly and lastly, That there is more of the general nature of decency in those particular usages and ceremonies which the church of England has pitched upon, than is or can be shewn in any other whatsoever.
These things I affirm; and when you have put them all together, let any one give me a solid and 206sufficient reason for the giving up those few ceremonies of our church, if he can. All the reason that I could ever yet hear alleged by the chief factors for a general intromission of all sorts, sects, and persuasions into our communion is, that those who separate from us are stiff and obstinate, and will not submit to the rules and orders of our church, and that therefore they ought to be taken away. Which is a goodly reason indeed, and every way worthy of the wisdom and integrity of those who allege it. And to shew that it is so, let it be but transferred from the ecclesiastical to the civil government, from church to state; and let all laws be abrogated, which any great or sturdy multitude of men have no mind to submit to. That is, in other words, let laws be made to obey, and not to be obeyed; and, upon these terms, I doubt not but you will find that kingdom (or rather that common wealth) finely governed in a short time.
And thus I have shewn the absurdity, folly, and impertinence of alleging the obligation of conscience, where there is no law or command of God mediate or immediate to found that obligation upon. And yet, as bad as this is, it were well if the bare absurdity of these pretences were the worst thing which we had to charge them with. But it is not so. For our second and next inference from the foregoing principle of the vicegerency of conscience under God, will shew us also the daring impudence and downright impiety of many of those fulsome pleas of conscience, which the world has been too often and too scandalously abused by. For a man to sin against his conscience, is doubtless a great wickedness. But to make God himself a party 207in the sin, is a much greater. For this is to plead God’s authority against God’s very law; which doubles the sin, and adds blasphemy to rebellion. And yet such things we have seen done amongst us. An horrid, unnatural, civil war raised and carried on; the purest and most primitively reformed church in the world laid in the dust; and one of the best and most innocent princes that ever sat upon a throne, by a barbarous unheard of violence, hurried to his grave in a bloody sheet, and not so much as suffered to rest there to this day; and all this by men acting under the most solemn pretences of conscience, that hypocrisy perhaps ever yet presumed to outface the world with.
And are not the principles of those wretches still owned, and their persons sainted by a race of men of the same stamp, risen up in their stead, the sworn mortal enemies of our church? And yet, for whose sake some projectors amongst us have been turning every stone to transform, mangle, and degrade its noble constitution to the homely, mechanic model of those republican, imperfect churches abroad; which, instead of being any rule or pattern to us, ought in all reason to receive one from us. Nay, and so short sighted are some in their politics, as not to discern all this while, that it is not the service but the revenue of our church which is struck at; and not any passages of our Liturgy, but the property of our lands which these reformers would have altered.
For I am sure no other alteration will satisfy dissenting consciences; no, nor this neither very long, without an utter abolition of all that looks like order or government in the church. And this we 208may be sure of, if we do but consider both the inveterate malice of the Romish party, which sets these silly, unthinking tools a-work, and withal that monstrous principle or maxim, which those who divide from us (at least most of them) roundly profess, avow, and govern their consciences by; namely, That in all matters that concern religion or the church, though a thing or action be never so indifferent or lawful in itself; yet if it be commanded or enjoined by the government, either civil or ecclesiastical, it becomes ipso facto, by being so commanded, utterly unlawful, and such as they can, by no means, with good conscience comply with.
Which one detestable tenet or proposition, carrying in it the very quintessence and vital spirit of all nonconformity, absolutely cashiers and cuts off all church government at one stroke; and is withal such an insolent, audacious defiance of Almighty God, under the mask of conscience, as perhaps none in former ages, who so much as wore the name of Christians, ever arrived to or made profession of.
For to resume the scriptures afore quoted by us; and particularly that in 1 Pet. ii. 13. Submit your selves to every ordinance of man, says the Spirit of God, speaking by that apostle. But say these men, If the ordinance of man enjoins you the practice of any thing with reference to religion or the church, though never so lawful in itself, you cannot with a good conscience submit to the ordinance of man in that case: that is, in other words, God says, they must submit; and they say, they must not.
Again, in the forementioned Heb. xiii. 17. The apostle bids them (and in them all Christians what soever) to obey those who have the rule over them; 209speaking there of church rulers; for he tells them, that they were such as watched for their souls. But, says the Separatist, If those who have the rule over you, should command you any thing about church affairs, you cannot, you ought not in conscience to obey them; forasmuch as, according to that grand principle of theirs, newly specified by us, every such command makes obedience to a thing otherwise lawful, to become unlawful; and consequently, upon the same principle, rulers must not, cannot be obeyed: unless we could imagine, that there may be such a thing as obedience on the one side, when there must be no such thing as a command on the other; which would make pleasant sense of it indeed, and fit for none but a dissenting reason, as well as conscience, to assert. For though these men have given the world too many terrible proofs of their own example, that there may be commands, and no obedience; yet, I believe, it will put their little logic hard to it, to prove, that there can be any obedience where there is no command. And therefore it unanswerably follows, that the abetters of the forementioned principles plead conscience in a direct and barefaced contradiction to God’s express command.
And now, I beseech you, consider with yourselves; (for it is no slight matter that I am treating of;) I say, consider what you ought to judge of those insolent, unaccountable boasts of conscience, which, like so many fireballs or mouth-granadoes, as I may so term them, are every day thrown at our church. The apostle bids us prove all things. And will you then take conscience at every turn, upon its own word? upon the forlorn credit of every bold imposter 210who pleads it? Will you sell your reason, your church, and your religion, and both of them the best in the world, for a name? and that a wrested, abused, misapplied name? Knaves, when they design some more than ordinary villainy, never fail to make use of this plea; and it is because they always find fools ready to believe it.
But you will say then, What course must be taken to fence against this imposture? Why truly, the best that I know of, I have told you before; namely, that whensoever you hear any of these sly, sanctified sycophants, with turned up eye and shrug of shoulder, pleading conscience for or against any thing or practice, you would forthwith ask them, what word of God they have to bottom that judgment of their conscience upon? Forasmuch as conscience, being God’s vicegerent, was never commissioned by him to govern us in its own name; but must still have some divine word or law to support and warrant it. And therefore call for such a word; and that, either from scripture or from manifest universal reason, and insist upon it, so as not to be put off without it. And if they can produce you no such thing from either of them, (as they never can,) then rest assured that they are errant cheats and hypocrites; and that, for all their big words, the conscience of such men is so far from being able to give them any true confidence towards God, that it cannot so much as give them confidence towards a wise and good man, no, nor yet towards themselves, who are far from being either.
And thus I have shewn you the first ground upon which the testimony of conscience (concerning a man’s spiritual estate) comes to be so authentic, and so much 211to be relied upon; to wit, the high office which it holds, as the vicegerent of God himself in the soul of man: together with the two grand inferences drawn from thence. The first of them shewing the absurdity, folly, and impertinence of pretending conscience against any thing, when there is no law of God mediate or immediate against it: and the other, setting forth the intolerable blasphemy and impiety of pretending conscience for any thing, which the known law of God is directly against, and stands in open defiance of.
Proceed we now to the second ground, from which conscience derives the credit of its testimony in judging of our spiritual estate; and that consists in those properties and qualities which so peculiarly fit it for the discharge of its forementioned office, in all things relating to the soul. And these are three.
First, The quickness of its sight.
Secondly, The tenderness of its sense; and,
Thirdly and lastly, Its rigorous and impartial way of giving sentence.
Of each of which in their order. And first for the extraordinary quickness and sagacity of its sight, in spying out every thing which can any way concern the estate of the soul. As the voice of it, I shew, was as loud as thunder; so the sight of it is as piercing and quick as lightning. It presently sees the guilt, and looks through all the flaws and blemishes of a sinful action; and on the other side, observes the candidness of a man’s very principles, the sincerity of his intentions, and the whole carriage of every circumstance in a virtuous performance. So strict and accurate is this spiritual inquisition.
Upon which account it is, that there is no such 212thing as perfect secrecy, to encourage a rational mind to the perpetration of any base action. For a man must first extinguish and put out the great light within him, his conscience, he must get away from himself, and shake off the thousand witnesses, which he always carries about him, before he can be alone. And where there is no solitude, I am sure there can be no secrecy.
It is confessed indeed, that a long and a bold course of sinning may (as we have shewn elsewhere) very much dim and darken the discerning faculty of conscience. For so the apostle assures us it did with those in Rom. i. 21. and the same, no doubt, it does every day; but still so, as to leave such persons, both then and now, many notable lucid intervals; sufficient to convince them of their deviations from reason and natural religion; and thereby to render them inexcusable; and so, in a word, to stop their mouths, though not save their souls. In short, their conscience was not stark dead, but under a kind of spiritual apoplexy or deliquium. The operation was hindered, but the faculty not destroyed. And now, if conscience be naturally thus apprehensive and sagacious; certainly this ought to be another great ground, over and above its bare authority, why we should trust and rely upon the reports of it. For knowledge is still the ground and reason of trust; and so much as any one has of discernment, so far he is secured from error and deception, and for that cause fit to be confided in. No witness so much to be credited as an eyewitness. And conscience is like the great eye of the world, the sun, always open, always making discoveries. Justly therefore may we by the light of it take a view of our condition.213
2dly, Another property or quality of conscience, enabling it to judge so truly of our spiritual estate, is the tenderness of its sense. For as, by the quickness of its sight, it directs us what to do, or not to do; so, by this tenderness of its sense, it excuses or accuses us, as we have done or not done according to those directions. And it is altogether as nice, delicate, and tender in feeling, as it can be perspicacious and quick in seeing. For conscience, you know, is still called and accounted the eye of the soul: and how troublesome is the least mote or dust falling into the eye! and how quickly does it weep and water, upon the least grievance that afflicts it!
And no less exact is the sense which conscience, preserved in its native purity, has of the least sin. For as great sins waste, so small ones are enough to wound it; and every wound, you know, is painful, till it festers beyond recovery. As soon as ever sin gives the blow, conscience is the first thing that feels the smart. No sooner does the poisoned arrow enter, but that begins to bleed inwardly; sin and sorrow, the venom of one and the anguish of the other, being things inseparable.
Conscience, if truly tender, never complains with out a cause; though, I confess, there is a new-fashioned sort of tenderness of conscience, which always does so: but that is like the tenderness of a bog or quagmire; and it is very dangerous coming near it, for fear of being swallowed up by it. For when conscience has once acquired this artificial tenderness, it will strangely enlarge or contract its swallow, as it pleases; so that sometimes a camel shall slide down with ease, where, at other times, even a gnat may chance to stick by the way. It is indeed 214such a kind of tenderness, as makes the person who has it generally very tender of obeying the laws, but never so of breaking them. And therefore, since it is commonly at such variance with the law, I think the law is the fittest thing to deal with it.
In the mean time, let no man deceive himself, or think, that true tenderness of conscience is any thing else but an awful and exact sense of the rule which should direct, and of the law which should govern it. And while it steers by this compass, and is sensible of every declination from it, so long it is truly and properly tender, and fit to be relied upon, whether it checks or approves a man for what he does. For from hence alone springs its excusing or accusing power: all accusation, in the very nature of the thing, still supposing, and being founded upon, some law: for where there is no law, there can be no transgression: and where there can be no transgression, I am sure there ought to be no accusation.
And here, when I speak of law, I mean both the law of God, and of man too. For where the matter of a law is a thing not evil, every law of man is virtually, and at a second hand, the law of God also: forasmuch as it binds in the strength of the divine law, commanding obedience to every ordinance of man, as we have already shewn. And therefore all tenderness of conscience against such laws is hypocrisy, and patronized by none but men of design, who look upon it as the fittest engine to get into power by; which, by the way, when they are once possessed of, they generally manage with as little tenderness as they do with conscience: of which we have had but too much experience already, and it would be but ill venturing upon more.215
In a word, conscience, not acting by and under a law, is a boundless, daring, and presumptuous thing: and for any one, by virtue thereof, to challenge to himself a privilege of doing what he will, and of being unaccountable for what he does, is in all reason too much either for man or angel to pretend to.
3dly, The third and last property of conscience which I shall mention, and which makes the verdict of it so authentic, is its great and rigorous impartiality. For as its wonderful apprehensiveness made that it could not easily be deceived, so this makes that it will by no means deceive. A judge, you know, may be skilful in understanding a cause, and yet partial in giving sentence. But it is much otherwise with conscience; no artifice can induce it to accuse the innocent, or to absolve the guilty. No; we may as well bribe the light and the day to represent white things black, or black white.
What pitiful things are power, rhetoric, or riches, when they would terrify, dissuade, or buy off conscience from pronouncing sentence according to the merit of a man’s actions! For still, as we have shewn, conscience is a copy of the divine law; and though judges may be bribed or frightened, yet laws cannot. The law is impartial and inflexible; it has no passions or affections, and consequently never accepts persons, nor dispenses with itself.
For let the most potent sinner upon earth speak out, and tell us, whether he can command down the clamours and revilings of a guilty conscience, and impose silence upon that bold reprover. He may perhaps for a while put on an high and a big look; but can he, for all that, look conscience out of countenance? And he may also dissemble a little forced 216jollity; that is, he may court his mistress, and quaff his cups, and perhaps sprinkle them now and then with a few Dammees; but who, in the mean time, besides his own wretched, miserable self, knows of those secret, bitter infusions which that terrible thing, called conscience, makes into all his draughts? Believe it, most of the appearing mirth in the world is not mirth, but art. The wounded spirit is not seen, but walks under a disguise; and still the less you see of it, the better it looks.
On the contrary, if we consider the virtuous person, let him declare freely, whether ever his conscience checked him for his innocence, or upbraided him for an action of duty; did it ever bestow any of its hidden lashes or concealed bites on a mind severely pure, chaste, and religious?
But when conscience shall complain, cry out, and recoil, let a man descend into himself with too just a suspicion that all is not right within. For surely that hue and cry was not raised upon him for nothing. The spoils of a rifled innocence are borne away, and the man has stolen something from his own soul, for which he ought to be pursued, and will at last certainly be overtook.
Let every one therefore attend the sentence of his conscience: for he may be sure it will not daub nor flatter. It is as severe as law, as impartial as truth. It will neither conceal nor pervert what it knows.
And thus I have done with the third of those four particulars at first proposed, and shewn whence, and upon what account it is, that the testimony of conscience, concerning our spiritual estate, comes to be so authentic, and so much to be relied upon: 217namely, for that it is fully empowered and commissioned to this great office by God himself; and withal, that it is extremely quicksighted to apprehend and discern; and moreover very tender and sensible of every thing that concerns the soul. And lastly, that it is most exactly and severely impartial in judging of whatsoever comes before it. Every one of which qualifications justly contributes to the credit and authority of the sentence which shall be passed by it. And so we are at length arrived at the fourth and last thing proposed from the words; which was to assign some particular cases or in stances, in which this confidence towards God, suggested by a rightly informed conscience, does most eminently shew and exert itself.
I shall mention three.
1. In our addresses to God by prayer. When a man shall presume to come and place himself in the presence of the great searcher of hearts, and to ask something of him, while his conscience is all the while smiting him on the face, and telling him what a rebel and a traitor he is to the majesty which he supplicates; surely such an one should think with himself, that the God whom he prays to is greater than his conscience, and pierces into all the filth and baseness of his heart with a much clearer and more severe inspection. And if so, will he not likewise resent the provocation more deeply, and revenge it upon him more terribly, if repentance does not divert the blow? Every such prayer is big with impiety and contradiction, and makes as odious a noise in the ears of God, as the harangues of one of those rebel fasts, or humiliations in the year forty-one; invoking the blessings of Heaven upon such 218actions and designs as nothing but hell could reward.
One of the most peculiar qualifications of an heart rightly disposed for prayer is, a well grounded confidence of a man’s fitness for that duty. In Heb. x. 22. Let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, says the apostle. But whence must this assurance spring? Why, we are told in the very next words of the same verse: having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: otherwise the voice of an impure conscience will cry much louder than our prayers, and speak more effectually against us than these can intercede for us.
And now, if prayer be the great conduit of mercy, by which the blessings of heaven are derived upon the creature, and the noble instrument of converse between God and the soul, then surely that which renders it ineffectual and loathsome to God, must needs be of the most mischievous and destructive consequence to mankind imaginable; and consequently to be removed with all that earnestness and concern, with which a man would rid himself of a plague or a mortal infection. For it taints and pollutes every prayer; it turns an oblation into an affront; and the odours of a sacrifice into the exhalations of a carcass. And, in a word, makes the heavens over us brass, denying all passage, either to descending mercies or ascending petitions.
But on the other side, when a man’s breast is clear, and the same heart which indites does also encourage his prayer, when his innocence pushes on the attempt, and vouches the success; such an one goes boldly to the throne of grace, and his boldness is not greater than his welcome. God recognises 219the voice of his own Spirit interceding within him; and his prayers are not only followed, but even prevented with an answer.
2dly, A second instance, in which this confidence towards God does so remarkably shew itself, is at the time of some notable trial or sharp affliction. When a man’s friends shall desert him, his relations disown him, and all dependencies fail him, and, in a word, the whole world frown upon him; certainly it will then be of some moment to have a friend in the court of conscience, which shall, as it were, buoy up his sinking spirits, and speak greater things for him than all these together can declaim against him.
For as it is most certain, that no height of honour, nor affluence of fortune, can keep a man from being miserable, nor indeed contemptible, when an enraged conscience shall fly at him, and take him by the throat; so it is also as certain, that no temporal adversities can cut off those inward, secret, invincible supplies of comfort, which conscience shall pour in upon distressed innocence, in spite and in defiance of all worldly calamities.
Naturalists observe, that when the frost seizes upon wine, they are only the slighter and more waterish parts of it that are subject to be congealed; but still there is a mighty spirit, which can retreat into itself, and there within its own compass lie secure from the freezing impression of the element round about it. And just so it is with the spirit of a man, while a good conscience makes it firm and impenetrable. An outward affliction can no more benumb or quell it, than a blast of wind can freeze up the blood in a man’s veins, or a little shower of 220rain soak into his heart, and there quench the principle of life itself.
Take the two greatest instances of misery, which, I think, are incident to human nature; to wit, poverty and shame, and I dare oppose conscience to them both.
And first for poverty. Suppose a man stripped of all, driven out of house and home, and perhaps out of his country too, (which having, within our memory, happened to so many, may too easily, God knows, be supposed again,) yet if his conscience shall tell him, that it was not for any failure in his own duty, but from the success of another’s villainy, that all this befell him; why then, his banishment becomes his preferment, his rags his trophies, his nakedness his ornament; and so long as his innocence is his repast, he feasts and banquets upon bread and water. He has disarmed his afflictions, unstung his miseries; and though he has not the proper happiness of the world, yet he has the greatest that is to be enjoyed in it.
And for this, we might appeal to the experience of those great and good men, who, in the late times of rebellion and confusion, were forced into foreign countries, for their unshaken firmness and fidelity to the oppressed cause of majesty and religion, whether their conscience did not, like a fidus Achates, still bear them company, stick close to them, and suggest comfort, even when the causes of comfort were invisible; and, in a word, verify that great saying of the apostle in their mouths; We have nothing, and yet we possess all things.
For it is not barely a man’s abridgment in his external accommodations which makes him miserable; 221but when his conscience shall hit him in the teeth, and tell him, that it was his sin and his folly which brought him under these abridgments. That his present scanty meals are but the natural effects of his former over-full ones. That it was his tailor, and his cook, his fine fashions, and his French ragouts, which sequestered him; and, in a word, that he came by his poverty as sinfully as some usually do by their riches; and consequently, that Providence treats him with all these severities, not by way of trial, but by way of punishment and revenge. The mind surely, of itself, can feel none of the burnings of a fever; but if my fever be occasioned by a surfeit, and that surfeit caused by my sin, it is that which adds fuel to the fiery disease, and rage to the distemper.
2dly, Let us consider also the case of calumny and disgrace; doubtless, the sting of every reproachful speech is the truth of it; and to be conscious, is that which gives an edge and keenness to the invective. Otherwise, when conscience shall plead not guilty to the charge, a man entertains it not as an indictment, but as a libel. He hears all such calumnies with a generous unconcernment; and receiving them at one ear, gives them a free and easy passage through the other: they fall upon him like rain or hail upon an oiled garment; they may make a noise indeed, but can find no entrance. The very whispers of an acquitting conscience will drown the voice of the loudest slander.
What a long charge of hypocrisy, and many other base things, did Job’s friends draw up against him! but he regarded it no more than the dunghill which 222he sat upon, while his conscience enabled him to appeal even to God himself; and, in spite of calumny, to assert and hold fast his integrity.
And did not Joseph lie under as black an infamy, as the charge of the highest ingratitude and the lewdest villainy could fasten upon him? Yet his conscience raised him so much above it, that he scorned so much as to clear himself, or to recriminate the strumpet by a true narrative of the matter. For we read nothing of that in the whole story: such confidence, such greatness of spirit, does a clear conscience give a man; always making him more solicitous to preserve his innocence, than concerned to prove it. And so we come now to the
Third, and last instance, in which, above all others, this confidence towards God does most eminently shew and exert itself; and that is at the time of death. Which surely gives the grand opportunity of trying both the strength and worth of every principle. When a man shall be just about to quit the stage of this world, to put off his mortality, and to deliver up his last accounts to God; at which sad time, his memory shall serve him for little else, but to terrify him with a sprightful review of his past life, and his former extravagances stripped of all their pleasure, but retaining their guilt. What is it then, that can promise him a fair passage into the other world, or a comfortable appearance before his dreadful Judge, when he is there? Not all the friends and interests, all the riches and honours under heaven, can speak so much as a word for him, or one word of comfort to him in that condition; 223they may possibly reproach, but they cannot relieve him.
No, at this disconsolate time, when the busy tempter shall be more than usually apt to vex and trouble him, and the pains of a dying body to hinder and discompose him, and the settlement of worldly affairs to disturb and confound him; and, in a word, all things conspire to make his sick bed grievous and uneasy: nothing can then stand up against all these ruins, and speak life in the midst of death, but a clear conscience.
And the testimony of that shall make the comforts of heaven descend upon his weary head, like a refreshing dew or shower upon a parched ground. It shall give him some lively earnests and secret anticipations of his approaching joy. It shall bid his soul go out of the body undauntedly, and lift up its head with confidence before saints and angels. Surely the comfort, which it conveys at this season, is something bigger than the capacities of mortality; mighty and unspeakable, and not to be understood, till it comes to be felt.
And now, who would not quit all the pleasures, and trash, and trifles, which are apt to captivate the heart of man, and pursue the greatest rigours of piety and austerities of a good life, to purchase to himself such a conscience, as, at the hour of death, when all the friendships of the world shall bid him adieu, and the whole creation turn its back upon him, shall dismiss his soul, and close his eyes with that blessed sentence, Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord!
For he, whose conscience enables him to look 224God in the face with confidence here, shall be sure to see his face also with comfort hereafter.
Which God of his mercy grant to us all; to whom be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.225
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