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ACTS xxiv. 16. HEREIN DO I EXERCISE MYSELF, TO HAVE ALWAYS A CONSCIENCE
VOID OF OFFENCE TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD MEN.
In this chapter, St. Paul gives an account to Felix of the general course and demeanour of his former life; being accused by Tertullian, a flattering orator, as one who was profane and seditious. After that he had purged himself in sundry particulars, he comes, in the text, to shew, that he was far from those crimes that were laid to his charge; having made it his constant exercise, all his life-time, to keep a good conscience.
The words have little or no difficulty in them: and, therefore, instead of giving you an elaborate exposition, I shall only run them over with a brief Paraphrase.
Herein do I exercise myself: that is, I make it my constant care and employment, to have always a conscience void of offence : that is, to keep my conscience clear, that it may not justly accuse me of any offence done either against God or against men: that is, I labour conscientiously to practise, as well the duties of the Second, as the duties of the First Table; to be just towards men, as well as to be religious towards God; knowing, that the one without the other, to be without offence towards men only is but mere morality, and to be without offence only towards God is but vain hypocrisy.
Without farther explication, the words do, of their own accord, deliver to us this Doctrine :
THAT IT SHOULD BE OUR CONTINUAL CARE AND EMPLOYMENT, IN ALL THINGS, WHETHER RELATING TO GOD OR MAN, TO KEEP CLEAR AND INOFFENSIVE CONSCIENCES.
Conscience is nothing but a practical syllogism or argumentation; and always infers a personal conclusion, either excusing or accusing: and it hath Three offices.
First. It discovers to us what is Sin, and what is Duty; and the Reward, that is entailed upon both..
And thus it gives in its verdict according to that light that shines into it. If it hath only the twilight of nature to illustrate it, as the Heathens had no other, then it can pass judgment only upon natural duties and unnatural sins: thus the consciences of Heathens, through some remainders of original knowledge, informed them that worship was due to God and justice to men; and that all impieties against God and all injuries against men, should, in the end, be severely punished. But, if conscience enjoys the superadded light of Scripture, it judges then of those duties and those sins, that could only be known by Divine Revelation : hence it is, that conscience is enabled to form such a proposition as this: He, that believeth, shall be saved : he, that believeth not, shall be damned: this proposition it forms, not from natural light, but from the super-induced light of Scripture. This is the first direct act of conscience, whereby it pronounceth of men's works, whether they be sinful or not, and what the reward or punishment is that shall follow them, according as it finds it written in the dark and imperfect Law of Nature, or in the superadded Law of God.
Secondly. When conscience hath thus pronounced whether the action be good or bad, and what reward or punishment belongs to it, its next office is, to Witness and Depose, that we have done such or such actions
This is a reflex act, whereby, when conscience hath discovered what is sin and what is duty, it testifies, that, either we have performed the one, or that we have committed the other. The Scripture reveals, that faith shall be rewarded with eternal life, and unbelief punished with death eternal : hereupon conscience
makes reflection upon itself, and applies the proposition : “ But I believe, or I do not believe:" and that is its witnessing or deposing office.
Thirdly. It hath besides this, the office of a Judge, to acquit or condemn.
And this it doth, by inferring a comfortable or a terrifying conclusion from the former premises; applying the reward or punishment to ourselves, according as those actions have been ours to which they belong. If it hath proved us unbelievers, straight it pronounceth us condemned persons; or if it evi. dences our faith to us, presently it justifies and acquits us. Hence it is, that wicked men are haunted with pale fears and ghastly reflections; because they are always malefactors ar. raigned at a bar: a bar, that they carry about with them in their own breasts; where they hear a thousand witnesses sworn and examined; where they hear their judge, ten thousand times a day, pronouncing them cursed and damned. And hence it is, also, that there is sometimes diffused into the hearts of God's children such sweet joy, such solid peace, such calm stayedness, and some prelibations of heavenly bliss; because they carry in their breasts a court of judicature, where their Earthly Judge, Conscience, acquits them, and assures them that their Heavenly Judge will do so also.
This is Conscience: that faithful register in every man's bosom, that writes down the actions, discourses, and cogitations of every hour and minute.
This being premised concerning the Nature and Offices of Conscience, I shall come, in the next place, to inquire into these following particulars, into which I shall digest the method of this subject.
What it is, that doth Corrupt and Vitiate Conscience. . What it is, to have a Clear Conscience.. Of what Importance and Consequence it is, that our
Consciences be kept clear and void of offence: un.
der which, I shall give you the reasons of the point, Į shall lay down some Rules and Means, whereby we
may attain unto and keep a pure and clean Cona science,
I. WHAT IS IT, THAT DOTH CORRUPT AND VITI. ATE CONSCIENCE, IN EXECUTING ITS OFFICES.
This I shall couch under two particulars : and they are,
i. IGNORANCE corrupts the Conscience.
Conscience is the guide of life, and knowledge is the eye of conscience; and if this be darkened, the blind leads the blind till both fall into the ditch. Conscience is a guide, that leads apace; and, therefore, had need see its way before it: which some not being well able to discern, have wound themselves into inextricable wanderings; pursuing every glaring delusion; and running after every skipping light, that dances before it, till at last they have lost both themselves and their consciences too. How many are there, that have thus bewildered themselves in their own fancies and opinions; and so have fallen upon the precipice of damnable errors, and into bogs of mire and filthy lusts, only through an ignorant conscience and selfconceited pride that is always a companion of it! This ignorance fills the conscience with false presumptions, and draws it to wrong determinations and conclusions; which, though they seem to be but little mistakes in the notion, yet are most destructive and pernicious in a man's practice. As a small mistake, in the levelling of an arrow at the hand, makes a wide distance at the mark; so a small mistake, in the notion of truth, makes a wide error in the practice of godliness. A mis-persuaded conscience usually gives rise to misguided zeal : and zeal, without knowledge, is but a religious frenzy, that fashions out to itself strange shapes of sin and duty, of good and evil; and, usually, takes the one for the other, until it falls under that woe denounced by the prophet, Isa. v. 20. Woe unto them, that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.
Ignorance vitiates and corrupts the conscience two ways: either it makes it unnecessarily scrupulous; or, else, it makes it daringly presumptuous.
1. Ignorance fetters and binds up the conscience, either to the doing of or abstaining from that, concerning which God hath laid no law and obligation at all upon it.