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A further Account of the Nature and Measures
of Conscience :
ON I JOHN III. 21.
PREACHED BEFORE THE UNIVERSITY,
AT CHRIST-CHURCH, OXON,
OCTOBER 30, 1692.
1 JOHN iii. 21. 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 get 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, was still carefully to be attended to
by 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,
I 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,
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 greatest 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 when 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
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 himself, 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