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A true State and Account of the Plea of a tender Conscience:
PREACHED AT CHRIST-CHURCH IN OXFORD,
BEFORE THE UNIVERSITY,
IN MICHAELMAS TERM, 1672.
But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.
I SHALL, by God’s assistance, from these words debate the case of a weak, or (as some improperly enough call it) a tender conscience: and with what evidence I can, shew both what it is, and what privileges it may justly claim from this and such other places of scripture. One great one we have here set down, and that indeed so great, that it looks more like a prerogative than a privilege; namely, that to wound or sin against it, is no less a crime than to sin against Christ himself.
Our apostle in two places of his Epistles treats professedly of this argument; to wit, in the 14th of the Romans, and in this 8th of the 1 Cor. For the 351better understanding of his design and meaning in both which places, it will be requisite to give some brief account of the subject-matter and occasion of them. In the 14th chapter of the Romans he speaks of such as had been converted from Judaism to Christianity; some of which being but new converts, were not yet so perfectly and entirely Christians, but that they still observed the ordinances of the Mosaical law, as supposing it still in force. Others, on the contrary, being more confirmed and grown up in the knowledge of their Christian liberty, and thereby being fully satisfied that the ceremonial part of the Mosaic law was abolished and took away, observed not that difference of days and meats which was prescribed in that law, but looked upon one day as another, and indifferently ate any kind of meats, being persuaded in their conscience, that Christ had took away all such distinction, and made the use of all lawful. Nevertheless, the former sort of converts, not understanding that it was the design of Christianity to abrogate any thing once established by Moses, had their consciences still in bondage to a religious observation of whatsoever had been enjoined in his law. And thereupon, though they owned Christ, yet if any meat prohibited by Moses was set before them, they held themselves bound rather to fast, or to eat only herbs, than by eating such meat, to break the law, (as they thought,) and thereby to defile themselves. This was their case.
But in this 8th chapter of 1 Cor. St. Paul speaks of persons newly converted from idolatry, and that touching the lawfulness or unlawfulness of eating meats offered to idols. Concerning which offerings 352we must know, that besides what was eaten of them in the idol’s temple; (which eating was an act of religious worship and communion with the idol, as our eating the bread in the sacrament is a communion with Christ;) besides this, I say, there was a certain portion of those sacrifices which fell to the priests, and which they having no use of, sold to those who afterwards exposed it to sale promiscuously amongst other meat upon the shambles; from whence it was accordingly bought up, and spent in private families, without any distinction whether it had or had not been offered to idols. Now, as for the former way of eating meats thus offered, namely, in the idol’s temple, this the apostle utterly disallows as absolutely unlawful; but the latter only under some circumstances. For he allows that it might be lawfully bought amongst other meat in the market, and being so bought, might be eaten in any private house without the least sin: only with this caution, that whereas there were some, who well understood that meat could have no defiling quality imprinted upon it by its consecration to an idol; and others, on the contrary, having not so much knowledge, supposed that the consecration of it to the idol left upon it such a polluting quality and near relation to the idol, as defiled the eater: the former sort might freely and innocently eat such meats in private families, provided it was not before those of the latter sort; who through weakness having an opinion of the unlawfulness of such meats, might nevertheless be induced to use the same liberty, though their consciences, in the mean time, having quite another judgment in this matter, esteemed the eating them little better than idolatry. Now the argument by 353which the apostle abridges the liberty of the former sort of converts, in condescension to those of the latter sort, proceeds upon the strength of this assertion; that the lawfulness of men’s actions depends not solely either upon the lawfulness of their subject-matter, nor yet upon the conscience of the doers of them considered in itself, but as considered with reference to the consciences of others, to whom by the law of charity they stand bound so to behave themselves, as by none of their actions to give them occasion of sin: and this was the case of the persons here treated of by the apostle in this chapter. Which historical account of the subject-matter of the words being thus premised, I shall cast the prosecution of them under these three heads:
1. I shall shew what a weak conscience is.
2. What it is to wound or sin against it.
3. I shall lay down some conclusions or assertions, naturally resulting from the foregoing particulars.
And first, for the first of these, what a weak conscience is. I said at first, that such a conscience was improperly called tender; which, in the sense it commonly bears, is an expression of our own framing, and nowhere to be met with in the scriptures; tenderness, applied to the conscience, properly imports quickness and exactness of sense, which is the perfection of this faculty, whose duty it is to be a spiritual watch, to give us warning of whatsoever concerns us. It is indeed the eye of the soul; and though the eye is naturally the most tender and delicate part of the body, yet it is not therefore called weak, so long as its sight is quick and strong. Con science, the more sensible it is to accuse or excuse, 354(which is its office,) and to spy out every little thing which may annoy or defile the soul, so much the more tender it is to be accounted, but not therefore so much the more weak; which sufficiently shews weakness and tenderness of conscience to be in strictness of speech two different things. And the same appears yet further from those contraries to which they stand respectively opposed. A tender conscience being opposed to a hard or seared conscience, such a one as either wholly or in a great measure has lost the distinguishing sense of good and evil, honest and dishonest. But a weak conscience is opposed to a strong; which very strength, we shew, consisted in the tenderness or quickness of its discerning or perceptive power; whereupon we read of strong men and babes in Christ; which denominations take their rise from the strength or weakness of the conscience: for such as the conscience is, such must be the Christian.
And here let none think my insisting upon the distinction of these terms either nice or needless: for it is no small artifice of fraud to prepossess the minds of men, by representing a bad thing under a good name, and calling weakness of conscience, which is a defect, by the name of tenderness, which is a perfection. Words govern the generality of the world, who seldom go so deep as to look into things: and impostors well know how likely their cause is to succeed, if their terms can but once be admitted.
As for the place now before us, it is evident that the weakness of conscience here spoken of is opposed to faith: so that in Rom. xiv. such an one is said to be weak in the faith, and verse 2, one [believeth 355that he may eat all things; another, who is [weak,] eateth herbs. Where observe, that he who believeth is opposed to him who is weak. Now by faith here is not meant that act or quality by which a man is justified, but signifies the same with knowledge. As 1 Cor. viii. 10. If any man see thee which hast [knowledge] sit at meat in the idol’s temple,, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to do so too? And in ver. 7, Howbeit there is not in every man that [knowledge:] for some with conscience of the idol eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being [weak] is defiled. So that, as in that chapter to the Romans weakness of conscience is opposed to faith, here, in this chapter to the Corinthians, the same weakness is opposed to knowledge; which, from the identity of the case treated of in both places, together with other circumstances, evidently demonstrate faith and knowledge to be here taken for the same thing. In short therefore, the faith here spoken of is a clear knowledge of what is unlawful, and what only indifferent, together with a firm persuasion of the lawful use of such indifferent things, all circumstances being duly observed in the using of them. And therefore, on the other side, the weak conscience is such an one as judges otherwise of the nature of things than indeed it is, supposing that to be unlawful in itself which really is not so, and thereupon abstaining from the use of it, as of a thing unlawful.
From whence it follows, that weakness of conscience implies in it these three things:
First, An ignorance of the lawfulness of some certain thing or action.356
Secondly, A suspicion ensuing thereupon of its unlawfulness.
Thirdly, A religious fear to use or practise it, grounded upon that ignorance or suspicion.
And first, for the first of these ingredients, ignorance; which is indeed the chief and principal of all the three, as being the original of the other two. Concerning this we must (as the groundwork of all) observe, that it ought by all means to be such an ignorance as may, in propriety of speech and sense, bear the denomination of weakness; which it is certain that every sort of ignorance neither does nor can. For since weakness is properly the privation or absence of power, that ignorance only can receive this name, which is not founded upon any vicious action or omission of the will. I say action or omission: for a man may either positively design and will the ignorance of a thing, by studiously avoiding all means to inform himself of it; much like the shutting of one’s eyes against the light, or refusing to come to church: or it may be founded upon some omission; as when the will, though it does not designedly avoid and put from it the means of knowledge, yet neglects to look after them. Now the ignorance which is occasioned either of these ways is willing, and consequently sinful: though usually, for distinction sake, the former is with more emphasis termed, not only willing, but wilful; as being the direct object of an act of volition, and upon that account stamped with an higher aggravation.
That ignorance therefore that renders and denominates the conscience weak, must be such an one 357as is not willing; which is evident upon a double account:
First, Because it must be such an one as renders it in some degree excusable; but, so far as any defect is resolved into the will, it is in that degree inexcusable.
Secondly, Because it must be such an ignorance as renders the person having it the object of pity and compassion. But no man pities another for any evil lying upon him which he would not help, but which he could not. One is his burden, the other his choice; virtually at least, since he might have chosen its prevention. So that it must be such an ignorance as is not (all circumstances considered) under the present power of a man’s will to remedy. And consequently it must be resolved into one of these two causes:
First, The natural weakness of the understanding faculty.
Secondly, The want of opportunities or means of knowledge.
Either of which makes ignorance necessary; as it is impossible for him to see who wants eyes, and equally impossible for him who wants light; the former being the organ, the other the means of seeing. But as touching the natural weakness or disability of the understanding faculty, we must observe, that this may be either total, as in case of idiotism, phrensy, or the like, which wholly deprives a man of the use of his reason: but persons in this condition fall not under the present consideration. Or secondly, this disability of the under standing may be only in part, and as to a certain degree of its exercise. From whence it is, that one 358man apprehends the same thing under the same ad vantages of proposal much more slowly and difficultly than another. Which defect being in no man’s power to prevent, but coming with him into the world, all that ignorance which is inevitably caused by it, neither can nor ever shall be charged upon the will. But then withal, as this defect does not wholly deprive a man of the power of knowing, but only of the readiness, easiness, and quickness of it; (upon which account knowledge becomes more difficult to him in the acquisition;) so this weakness, dulness, or slowness of a man’s intellectual powers, can never totally excuse him for being ignorant of what it was his duty to know; since it was in the power of his will by labour and industry to have supplied, and, as it were, to have pieced up these failures in his apprehension; and so at length to have acquired the knowledge of that by study and pains, which he could not by the slowness of his understanding take in at first.
But then this must be also confessed, that, by reason of this diversity in the quickness or slowness of men’s understandings, one man may be sooner in excusable for his ignorance of the same thing than another. For God will allow a man of slower parts to be ignorant of a thing longer than a person endued with more quick and pregnant sense. He expects from men only according to the proportions of his giving to them; still making an equality and commensuration between a man’s obligations and his powers. And thus much for the first and grand ingredient of weakness of conscience, which is ignorance.
Secondly, The second is a suspicion of the unlawfulness 359of any thing or action: and this is manifestly something more than a bare ignorance of its lawfulness. Though indeed such an ignorance is of itself enough to make the forbearance of any thing or action necessary: forasmuch as nothing ought to be done but in faith; that is, in a full persuasion of the lawfulness of what we do; which he can be no more said to do, who is ignorant of the lawfulness of what he goes about, than he who suspects it to be unlawful. Howbeit this suspicion adds to the guilt of the action, in case it be done during its continuance; because all suspicion is grounded upon some arguments, which leave not the opinion of the lawfulness or unlawfulness of a thing equal, as in case of mere ignorance, but rather incline us to a belief that it is unlawful. For it is one thing not to know whether a thing be lawful, another to doubt, and shrewdly to suspect that it is not so. Now this indeed is the usual concomitant of weakness of conscience, as being the natural product of ignorance, which seldom stops in itself: men in the dark being generally fearful, and apt to suspect the worst. But yet this suspicion is not essentially requisite to make a conscience weak; though where it is so, it makes that weakness greater, and more troublesome. For ignorance is properly that in which this weakness consists: ignorance makes the sore, suspicion in flames it.
Thirdly, The third and last thing that goes to the making up of this weakness of conscience, is a religious abstinence from the use of that thing, of the lawfulness whereof it is thus ignorant or suspicious. It brings a man to that condition in the 2d of Coloss. and the 21st verse, of touch not, taste not, 360 handle not. It lays a tie and a restraint upon his practice, and enslaves him to the prejudice of a mistaking conscience, under no less a penalty than that of the divine wrath and eternal damnation; bonds not to be shook off, and fences not to be broke through, by any one who values the eternal welfare of his soul.
Now from these three things put together, I conceive we may collect this full description of a weak conscience; namely, that it is such an one as obliges a man to forbear any thing or action, from a suspicion that it is unlawful, or at least an ignorance that it is lawful; which suspicion or ignorance was not caused or occasioned by his own will, but either by the natural weakness of his understanding, or the want of such means of knowledge as were absolutely necessary to inform him.
This description ought well to be observed and remembered in the several parts of it; as being that which must give light into all the following particulars.
And thus much for the first thing proposed, which was, to shew what this weak conscience is. I proceed now to the
Second, which is, to shew what it is to wound or sin against it. It implies, I conceive, these two things:
First, To grieve, afflict, or discompose it; or, in a word, to rob it of its peace. For there is that concernment for God’s honour dwelling in every truly pious heart, which makes it troubled at the sight of any action by which it supposes God to be dishonoured. Rivers of tears, says David, run down my eyes, because men keep not thy statutes; 361and am I not grieved with those who rise up against thee? Every sin directly strikes at God, but collaterally the scandal of it reaches all about us. And as piety commands us not to offend God, so charity enjoins us not to grieve our neighbour.
Secondly, The other thing implied in the wounding of a weak conscience, is, to encourage or embolden it to act something against its present judgment or persuasion: which is, in other terms, to of fend, or cast a stumblingblock before it; that is, to do something which may administer to it an occasion of falling, or bringing itself under the guilt of sin. So that as the former was a breach upon the peace, this is properly a wound upon the purity of the conscience.
Now the conscience may be induced to act counter to its present persuasion two ways:
1st, By example. 2d, By command.
First. And first for example; which is the case here expressly mentioned, and principally intended. According to that of the apostle in the 10th verse of this 8th of 1 Cor. where he says, that the conscience of him who is weak is emboldened to eat things offered unto idols, by seeing him who has knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple: so that it is the seeing of another do so, which makes the weak person conclude that he may do so too. Now the reason of that persuasive force which is in example, is from a kind of implicit faith in the goodness and lawfulness of another’s actings, grounded upon a supposal of his piety and judgment, which, in the weak conscience of one who beholds him, naturally frames such a kind of ratiocination as this: “I, for my part, by the best of my understanding, can be 362no way satisfied of the lawfulness of my doing such an action; nevertheless, such an one, whom I esteem a person truly pious and more judicious than myself, makes no scruple of doing it at all, which surely he would, if it were indeed unlawful: and therefore, if it be lawful for him to do thus and thus, why may it not be so likewise for me, albeit my own reason, I confess, would persuade me otherwise?”
So that here is the force of example to persuade, and thereby, in this case, to wound; in that it induces a man to act by an implicit faith in the private judgment of another, against the express dictates and persuasions of his own; a thing directly against the law of God and nature, which has ap pointed every man’s reason or conscience to be the immediate guide or governor of his actions.
Secondly. The second way by which the conscience may be induced to act contrary to its present persuasion, is by command; as when a person in power enjoins the doing something, of the lawfulness of which a man is not persuaded: but concerning this, these two things are to be observed:
First, That it is not so clear that a mere command can wound the conscience this way; that is, by emboldening it to act against its present persuasion: for so to embolden it, is to make it willing to act in this manner; but a command as such, makes not a man willing to do the thing commanded, but lays only an obligation upon the action that is to be done. Nevertheless, since a command seldom comes proposed naked in itself, but with the conjunction of reward upon performance of the thing commanded, or of penalties upon the omission; one whereof 363works upon a man’s hopes, the other upon his fears; by both of which ways the will of man is apt to be prevailed upon; therefore in this sense a command enjoining a man to do something against his judgment, may be said to wound his conscience: not as a bare command, (for so it has nothing to allure or gain the will, and it is certain that it cannot force it,) but as a command attended with those things which are apt to entice and gain upon it. Add to this also, that a command coining from a person noted for his piety and knowledge has the force of an example; forasmuch as the reputation of the person derives the same credit upon his law.
Secondly, The other thing here to be observed is, that a command may be considered two ways:
First, As descending from one private person upon another, as from a father upon a son, from a master upon his servant, from a guardian upon his pupil, or the like. And I question not but the principal design of the apostle in this chapter extends not beyond private persons; but directly proposes rules only for the charitable and inoffensive deportment of one private person towards another. Nevertheless, since by manifest analogy of reason the case of magistrates or public persons may here come into consideration; therefore, in the
Second place, a command may be considered as descending from a magistrate or public person upon persons under his jurisdiction. And so I affirm that the supreme magistrate, in the making of laws, or giving out commands, stands not under any obligation from his office to frame those laws to the good or advantage of any particular persons, but only of the community or majority of the people, which are 364properly the trust committed to him. So that if his reason or conscience, upon the best information he can get, tells him that the making of such or such a law tends to the good of these, and that so apparently, that without it they would be unavoidably hurt in matters of the greatest moment; if this law now becomes an occasion of sin to some particular persons, its being so is wholly accidental and extrinsic to the design of the law, and consequently concerns not the civil magistrate, nor makes him charge able with those sins in the least: for surely where the public good of all or most of the people comes into competition with the private good of some particulars, so that both cannot possibly be served by the same means, there charity, as well as bare reason, will teach, that the private must stoop to the public, rather than the public be made a sacrifice to the private. In God’s government of the world, it is the public concern of mankind, that there should be summer and winter in their respective seasons, and yet there are millions of sick and weak persons to whose distempers the approach of either of those seasons will prove certainly mortal. Is it now, think we, rational, that God should suspend a summer or a winter only to comply with the distemper of those crazy, bodily-weak brethren, and thereby to incommode all the world besides?
The case is much alike here: however this indeed must be confessed, that if the magistrate or supreme power should make a law which he knew would be a direct occasion of sin to the generality or majority of his people, the making of such a law would be in him a sin, and a breach of his trust; but still I affirm, that his office obliges him only to provide for the 365good of the main body of his people; and if it so falls out, that particulars come to have an interest distinct from, or opposite to that, he is not, during such its opposition, at all bound to regard or provide for it, nor to answer for the inconveniences which may attend such persons, either in their civil or spiritual concerns.
And thus much concerning the second thing proposed, which was to shew what it is to wound or sin against a weak conscience; namely, that it is either to grieve it, or to embolden it to sin. And if it be now objected against this, that the text calls a sinning against a weak conscience, a sinning against Christ, to whom we can no ways properly be said to administer any occasion or inducement to sin; I answer, that this expression of [sinning against] being applied to Christ, imports only a grieving or disobeying him: though, as it is applied to the weak conscience, it signifies the other thing too; it being not unusual in scripture for the same word to be repeated in the very same sentence under a diverse signification. Having thus finished the two first things, I come now to the
Third and last, which is to set down those conclusions which, by way of consequence and deduction, naturally result from the foregoing particulars. Which conclusions are these:
1. That no man having been brought up, or for any length of time continued in the communion of a church teaching and professing the true religion, if he have but also the common use of his reason, can justly plead weakness of conscience in the sense in which it was here used by the apostle.366
2. That as such weakness of conscience can upon no sufficient ground be actually pleaded, so upon much less can it be continued in.
3. That supposing it might be both pleaded and continued in, yet the plea of it ought by no means to be admitted by the civil magistrate in prejudice of any laws either actually made or to be made by him for the general good of his people. Of each of which in their order.
First. And first, for the first of these, That no man, &c. This conclusion is of so much force and use, rightly applied, that it is a wonder it has not been more insisted upon against those who disturb the church with this plea, forasmuch as it would wholly cashier and pluck it up by the very roots. And men mistake the method of disputing with these pretenders to weak consciences nowadays; not considering that the very supposition that they either have or can have a weak conscience ought by no means to be granted them; nor are we to debate with them how far and to what degree this their weakness ought to be yielded to, but absolutely to deny, that amongst us, and under our circumstances, there is any such thing.
St. Paul indeed speaks of such a conscience in those first times of preaching the gospel, and accordingly urges a compliance with it; but where the cases are wholly different, there the privileges applicable to both cannot be the same. In both these places in which this apostle treats of this matter, I shew that the persons to whom he addresses himself were but new converts; some of which were just converted and come off from Judaism, whose reverence 367to the law of Moses had been sucked in by them with their very milk, and been still kept up in the minds of all that people, to that strange height almost of adoration, that it is no wonder if their opinion of the continuance of that law even after Christ’s death, and their ignorance of its abrogation, were for a time invincible. And for the other sort of new converts, they were such as had been converted from heathenism and idolatry, and consequently looked upon every thing in use amongst those heathens with a suspicion and a jealousy so strong, that, considering the weakness of human nature, it was impossible presently to remove it; and therefore they were in charity for some time to be complied with. For as the prejudices and prepossessions of education are exceeding hardly removed and broke, so being once broke, the aversions of the mind from them, running into the other extreme, are altogether as impetuous, and as hardly governable by impartial reason; whereupon shadows are oftentimes mistook for substances, whilst men, through immoderate fearfulness, first create to themselves appearances of evil, and then fly from them.
But what is all this to the case of those nowadays amongst us? who from their cradle have or might have had the principles of true religion instilled into them; who have still grown up in a church which protests against idolatry and superstition, and enjoins nothing that has any just appearance of such things upon it, but offers to vindicate every thing practised and enjoined by it from any such imputation: these men surely can have no reason to entertain those jealousies and prejudices which possessed men who had been bred up all their days in Judaism 368or idolatry, and were but newly converted from it; especially if we add this also, that the goodness of God makes nothing our duty either to believe or practise, but what lies plain and obvious to any common apprehension which will not be wanting to itself. Which things, since the church inculcates to all within it, teaching them to know, by all the ordinary means of knowledge, whatsoever it is their duty to know; it is evident, that no man amongst us can justifiably plead weakness of conscience in that sense in which their consciences were weak, whom St. Paul deals with, either in that epistle of his to the Romans, or in this to the Corinthians. For can any man living in the church allege any tolerable cause why he should be ignorant of his Catechism, a thing so short and plain, and yet so full as to all things necessary to be believed or practised by a Christian, that common sense and common industry may make any one a master of it?
The sum of all therefore is this, that he only can plead weakness of conscience upon scripture grounds, who is excusably ignorant of some point of duty or privilege. He only is excusably ignorant, whose ignorance is not the effect of his will. That ignorance only is not so, which is caused either by want of ability, of understanding, or of opportunities and means of knowledge. But he who has the common use of reason has sufficient ability, and he who lives in a church professing the true religion has sufficient opportunity and means of knowing whatsoever concerns him either to know or do.
From a joint connexion and an unavoidable coherence of which propositions one with another, it clearly appears, that it is not weakness, but want of 369conscience, which is the true distemper of those persons who at this day disturb the church.
Secondly. The second assertion or conclusion was this; That as such weakness of conscience can upon no sufficient ground be actually pleaded, so upon much less can it be continued in. This must needs be confessed by all, that a weak conscience, in the apostle’s sense, is an imperfection, and consequently ought by all means to be removed or laid down. For as certainly as growth and proficiency in knowledge under the means of grace is a duty, so certainly is it a duty not to persist in this weakness of conscience, which has its foundation only in the defect of such knowledge. So that St. Paul himself, who is here willing that for the present it should be complied with, elsewhere upbraids and reprehends men sharply for continuing under it. As in the 1st of Cor. the 3d chap, and the 1st, 2d, and 3d verses, he calls such babes, and such as were to be fed with milk, and not with meat. And to shew yet further the imperfection of this estate, he says, that upon this account he could not treat them as spiritual persons, but as carnal. The same reprehension he repeats in Heb. v. where he again upbraids them with this appellation of babes, telling them, that whereas for the time they ought to have been teachers of others, they continued in their spiritual childhood so long, that they had need that one taught them again which were the first principles of the oracles of God. And to shew that these were such weak consciences as we are here discoursing of, in the 14th verse he opposes them to such as were of full age, and that by reason of use had their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. 370The want of which discernment is properly that thing wherein this weakness of conscience does consist. Whereupon the apostle in the next chapter calls upon such to go on to perfection; which surely implies, that this their present condition was not the perfection which they were to rest in.
And it were worth the while, in our contest with the pretenders to weak or tender consciences amongst us, to inquire of them how long they think it fit for them to continue weak? And whether they look upon their weakness and ignorance as their freehold, and as that which they resolve to keep for term of life, and to live and die babes in the knowledge of the religion they profess, to grow up into childhood, and at length go out of the world infants and weaklings of threescore or fourscore years old?
This certainly they must intend; for so far are they from looking upon that weakness or tenderness of conscience which they plead, as an imperfection, and consequently to be outgrown or removed by them, that they own it as a badge of a more refined and advanced piety, and of such a growth and attainment in the ways of God, that they look down upon all others as Christians of a lower form, as moral men, and ignorant of the mystery of the gospel: words which I have often heard from these impostors, and which infallibly shew, that the persons whom St. Paul dealt with, and those whom we contend with, are not the same kind of men; forasmuch as they own not the same duty. But that, it seems, which was the infancy and defect of those persons, must pass for the perfection, and really is the design of these. And whereas St. Paul said to the former, 371that if they doubted they were damned if they eat, these (for ought appears) account it damnation not to doubt, where doubting of their duty may prove a serving of their interest.
I proceed now to the third and last conclusion, which is this: That supposing this weakness of conscience might be both pleaded and continued in, yet the plea of it ought by no means to be admitted by the civil magistrate in prejudice to any laws either actually made or to be made by him for the general good of his people. This was sufficiently manifest in what I laid down before; to wit, that the magistrate is no ways obliged to frame his laws to the good of any particular persons, where it stands separate from the good of the community or majority of the people: which consideration alone, though it be sufficient to discharge the magistrate from any obligation to admit of such pleas, yet there are other and more forcible reasons why they are by no means to be admitted. I shall assign two in general.
First. The first taken from the ill and fatal consequences which inevitably ensue upon their admission.
Secondly. The other taken from the qualification and temper of the persons who make these pleas.
As for the ill consequences springing from the ad mission of them, though according to the fertile nature of every absurd principle they are indeed innumerable, yet I shall insist only upon these three.
First. The first is, That there can be no bounds or limits put to this plea, nor any possibility of defining the just number of particulars to which it may extend. For it being founded in ignorance and 372error, (as has been shewn,) it is evident, that it may reach to all those things of which men may be ignorant, and about which they may err: so that there is no duty, but men may doubt and scruple the doing of it, pretending that their consciences are not satisfied that it is a duty, or ought to be done. Nor is there any action almost so wicked and unjust, but they may pretend, that their consciences either prompt them to it as necessary, or allow them in it as lawful. As there was one, in the late blessed times of rebellion and reformation, who murdered his own mother for kneeling at the sacrament, alleging that it was idolatry, and that his conscience told him it was his duty to destroy idolaters. And let any man living, if he can, state exactly how far conscience will doubt, and be unsatisfied; and give me any reason, I say any solid reason, why, if it may plead dissatisfaction in this or that thing, it may not upon the same principle plead it in any other thing whatsoever. And so, if the obligation of our laws must then only begin when this plea shall end, I fear we shall never see either the end of one or the beginning of the other.
Secondly. The second ill consequence is this; that as there can be no bounding of this plea in respect of the particulars about which it may be made; so when it is made, there can be no possible evidence of the sincerity of it. For all the evidence producible must be the word of him who makes this plea; forasmuch as he only can be judge of his own thoughts and conscience, and tell whether they be really under such a persuasion and dissatisfaction, or no. But where men may pretend conscience in the behalf of interest, I see no reason why their word should be 373taken in behalf of their conscience. And yet, if we hold to the principle upon which this plea relies, no other proof of it can be had; which if it be admitted, I suppose there needs no other argument to demonstrate, that this and the former consequence together are of that absurd nature and malign influence, that they must forthwith open the flood gates to all confusion, and like a mighty torrent bear down before them all law, right, justice, and whatsoever else the societies of mankind are settled by and supported with. But to proceed to yet a farther and more destructive consequence. In the
Third place, the admission of this plea absolutely binds the hands of the magistrate, and subjects him to the conscience of those whose duty it is to be subject to him. For let the civil power make what laws it will, if conscience shall come and put in its exception against them, it must be heard, and exempt the person who makes the exception from the binding power of those laws. For since conscience commands in the name of God, the issue of the question must be, whether God or the magistrate is to be obeyed, and then the decision is like to be very easy. This consequence is so direct, and withal so strong, that there is no bar against it. So that whereas heretofore the magistrate passed for God’s vicegerent here on earth, the weak conscience is now resolved to keep that office for itself, and to prefer the magistrate to the dignity of being its under-officer: for the magistrate must make only such laws as such consciences will have made, and such laws only must be obeyed as these consciences shall judge fit to be obeyed. So that upon these terms, it is not the king, but the tender conscience that has got the 374negative voice upon the making of all our laws, and which is more, upon the observing them too, when they are made.
I dare affirm, that it is as impossible for any government or politic body, without a standing force, to subsist or support itself in the allowance of this principle, as it is for the natural body to live and thrive with a dagger sticking in its vitals. Nor can any thing be fuller of contradiction and ridiculous paradox, than to think to reconcile the sovereignty of the magistrate, and the safety of government, with the sturdy pleas of dissenting consciences. It being all one, as if the sceptre should be put into the subject’s hand, in order to his being governed by it.
I could add yet further, that, considering things and persons barely in themselves, it is ten to one but God rather speaks in the conscience of a lawful Christian magistrate making a law, than in the conscience of any private persons whatsoever dissenting from it.
And thus much for the first general reason against admitting the pleas of weak, or, as some falsely call them, tender consciences. The
Second general reason shall be taken from those qualities which usually accompany the said pleas; of which there are two:
First, Partiality. Secondly, Hypocrisy.
First. And first, for partiality. Few make this plea themselves, who, being once got into power, will endure it in others. Consult history for the practices of such in Germany, and your own memories for the practices of the late saints in England. In their general comprehensive toleration, you know, prelacy stood always joined with popery, and both 375were excepted together. Nor was there any toleration allowed for the liturgy and established worship of the church of England, though the users of it pleaded conscience never so much for its use, and the known laws of God and man for the rule of that their conscience.
But those zealots were above that legal ordinance of doing as they would be done by; nor were their consciences any longer spiritually weak, when their interest was once grown temporally strong; and then, notwithstanding all their pleas of tenderness, and outcries against persecution, whoever came under them, and closed not with them, found them to be men whose bowels were brass, and whose hearts were as hard as their foreheads.
Secondly, The other qualification, which generally goes along with this plea, and so renders it not fit to be admitted, is hypocrisy. Divines generally agree upon this as a certain evidence of the sincerity of the heart, when it has an equal respect unto all God’s commands, and makes duty, as duty, one of the principal reasons of its obedience; the consequence of which is, that its obedience must needs be universal. Now upon the same ground, if conscience be really, even in their own sense, tender, and doubts of the lawfulness of such or such a practice, because it carries in it some appearance and semblance of evil, though yet it dare not positively affirm that it is so; surely, it must and will be equally afraid of every other practice which carries in it the same appearance of evil; and utterly abhor and fly from those practices which the universal consent of all nations and religions condemns as evidently wicked and unjust.376
But the tenderness we have to deal with is quite of another nature, being such an one as makes men scruple at the lawfulness of a set form of divine worship, at the use of some solemn rites and ceremonies in the service of God; but makes them not stick at all at sacrilege, which St. Paul equals to idolatry; nor at rebellion, which the prophet makes as bad as witchcraft; nor at the murder of their king, and the robbing and undoing their fellow-subjects; villainies, which not only Christianity proscribes, but the common reason of mankind rises up against, and by the very light of nature condemns. And did not those who plead tenderness of conscience amongst us do all these things? Nay, did they not do them in the very strength of this plea?
In a word, are the particulars alleged true, or are they not? If not, then let shame and confusion, and a just judgment from God light upon those who make such charges where they are not due. But if all which has been alleged be true, then, in the name of the God of truth, let not those pass for weak, and much less for tender consciences, which can digest such horrid, clamorous impieties. Nor let them abuse the world nor disturb the Church by a false cry of superstition, and a causeless separation from her thereupon; especially if they will but calmly and seriously consider, whose ends by all this they certainly serve, whose work they do, and whose wages they have so much cause to dread.
In fine, the result of the whole discourse is this: that since the weakness of conscience spoken of by St. Paul is grounded upon some ignorance, for the present excusable; and since none amongst us enjoying the means of knowledge daily held forth by 377the Church, together with the common use of his reason, can be excusably ignorant of any thing which he is concerned to know; the plea of such weakness can have no place amongst us, much less can it be allowably continued in, and least of all can it be suffered to control the civil magistrate either in the making or the execution of laws, but ought wholly to be rejected, as well for its pernicious consequences, to wit, that it is boundless, and that the truth of it is no ways discoverable, and withal that it subjects the sovereign power to those who are to be subject to it and governed by it: as also for the partiality and cruelty of its pleaders, who deny that to others which they claim to themselves; together with their hypocrisy in stopping at molehills and leaping over mountains, in practising things notoriously unjust, while they stick at things indifferent, and at the most but doubtful.
From all which it follows, that how much soever such pretenders may beguile factious and unstable minds, deceiving others and being deceived themselves; and how much soever they may mock the powers of this world, yet God is not mocked, who searches the heart, and looks through the pretence, and will reward every man according to his work, whatsoever may be his profession.
To which God be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.378
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