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Now for the further prosecution of the words, I shall do these four things.
1. I shall shew, how the heart or conscience ought to be informed, in order to its founding in us a rational confidence towards God.
2. I shall shew, how and by what means we may get it thus informed, and afterwards preserve and keep it so.
3. I shall shew, whence it is that the testimony of conscience thus informed, comes to be so authentic, and so much to be relied upon : and,
4thly and lastly, I shall assign some particular cases or instances, in which the confidence suggested by it does most eminently shew and exert itself.
1. And first for the first of these, how the heart or conscience, &c. It is certain, that no man can have any such confidence towards God, only because his heart tells him a lie; and that it may do so, is altogether as certain. For there is the erroneous, as well as the rightly informed conscience; and if the conscience happens to be deluded, and thereupon to give false directions to the will, so that by virtue of those directions it is betrayed into a course of sin : sin does not therefore cease to be sin, because a man committed it conscientiously. If conscience comes to be perverted so far, as to bring a man under a persuasion, that it is either lawful, or his duty, to resist the magistrate, to seize upon his neighbour's just rights or estate, to worship stocks and stones, or to lie, equivocate, and the like, this will not absolve him before God; since error, which
; is in itself evil, can never make another thing good. He who does an unwarrantable action through a false information, which information he ought not to have believed, cannot in reason make the guilt of one sin the excuse of another.
Conscience therefore must be rightly informed, before the testimony of it can be authentic in what it pronounces concerning the estate of the soul. It must proceed by the two grand rules of right reason and scripture; these are the compass which it must steer by. For conscience comes formally to oblige, only as it is the messenger of the mind of God to the soul of man; which he has revealed to him, partly by the impression of certain notions and maxims upon the practical understanding, and partly by the declared oracles of his word. So far therefore as conscience reports any thing agreeable to, or deducible from these, it is to be hearkened to as the great conveyer of truth to the soul; but when it reports any thing dissonant to these, it obliges no more than the falsehood reported by it.
But since there is none who follows an erroneous conscience, but does so because he thinks it true; and moreover thinks it true, because he is persuaded that it proceeds according to the two forementioned rules of scripture and right reason; how shall a man be able to satisfy himself, when his conscience is rightly informed, and when possessed with an error? For to affirm, that the sentence passed by a rightly informed conscience gives a man a rational confidence towards God; but, in the mean time, not to assign any means possible by which he may know when his conscience is thus rightly informed, and when not, it must equally bereave him of such a confidence, as placing the condition upon which it depends wholly out of his knowledge.
Here therefore is the knot, here the difficulty, how to state some rule of certainty, by which infallibly to distinguish when the conscience is right, and to be relied upon; when erroneous, and to be distrusted, in the testimony it gives about the sincerity and safety of a man's spiritual condition.
For the resolution of which, I answer, that it is not necessary for a man to be assured of the rightness of his conscience, by such an infallible certainty of persuasion, as amounts to the clearness of a demonstration ; but it is sufficient, if he knows it upon grounds of such a convincing probability, as shall exclude all rational grounds of doubting of it. For I cannot think, that the confidence here spoken of rises so high as to assurance.
And the reason is, because it is manifestly such a confidence as is common to all sincere Christians; which yet, assurance, we all know, is not.
The truth is, the word in the original, which is traponoia, signifies properly freedom or boldness of speech; though the Latin translation renders it by fiducia, and so corresponds with the English, which renders it confidence. But whether fiducia or confidence reaches the full sense of mapinoia, may very well be disputed. However it is certain, that neither the word in the original, nor yet in the translation, imports assurance. For freedom or boldness of speech, I am sure, does not; and fiducia, or confidence, signifies only a man's being actually persuaded of a thing, upon better arguments for it, than any that he can see against it; which he may very well be, and yet not be assured of it.
From all which, I conclude; that the confidence here mentioned in the text amounts to. no more
than a rational well-grounded hope. Such an one as the apostle tells us, in Rom. v. 5. maketh not ashamed.
And upon these terms, I affirm, that such a conscience, as has employed the utmost of its ability to give itself the best information and clearest knowledge of its duty that it can, is a rational ground for a man to build such an hope upon; and, consequently, for him to confide in.
There is an innate light in every man, discovering to him the first lines of duty, in the common notions of good and evil, which, by cultivation and improvement, may be advanced to higher and brighter discoveries. And from hence it is, that the schoolmen and moralists admit not of any ignorantia juris, speaking of natural moral right, to give excuse to sin. Since all such ignorance is voluntary, and therefore culpable, forasmuch as it was in every man's power to have prevented it, by a due improvement of the light of nature, and the seeds of moral honesty sown in his heart.
If it be here demanded, whether a man may not remain ignorant of his duty, after he has used the utmost means to inform himself of it ; I answer, that so much of duty as is absolutely necessary to save him, he shall upon the use of such a course come to know; and that which he continues ignorant of, having done the utmost lying in his power that he might not be ignorant of it, shall never damn him. Which assertion is proved thus: The gospel damns nobody for being ignorant of that which he is not obliged to know ; but that which upon the improvement of a man's utmost power he cannot know, he is not obliged to know; for that
otherwise he would be obliged to an impossibility; since that which is out of the compass of any man's power, is to that man impossible.
He therefore who exerts all the powers and faculties of his soul, and plies all means and opportunities in the search of truth, which God has vouchsafed him, may rest upon the judgment of his conscience so informed, as a warrantable guide of those actions, which he must account to God for. And if by following such a guide, he falls into the ditch, the ditch shall never drown him, or if it should, the man perishes not by his sin, but by his misfortune. In a word, he who endeavours to know the utmost of his duty that he can, and practises the utmost that he knows, has the equity and goodness of the great God to stand as a mighty wall or rampart between him and damnation, for any errors or infirmities, which the frailty of his condition has invincibly, and therefore inculpably, exposed him to.
, And if a conscience thus qualified and informed, be not the measure by which a man may take a true estimate of his absolution before the tribunal of God, all the understanding of human nature cannot find out any ground for the sinner to pitch the sole of his foot upon, or rest his conscience with any assurance, but is left in the plunge of infinite doubts and uncertainties, suspicions and misgivings, both as to the measures of his present duty, and the final issues of his future reward.
Let this conclusion therefore stand as the firm result of the foregoing discourse, and the foundation of what is to follow; that such a conscience as has not been wanting to itself, in endeavouring to get the utmost and clearest information about the will of