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God, that its power, advantages, and opportunities could afford it, is that internal judge, whose absolution is a rational and sure ground of confidence towards God: and so I pass to the second thing proposed. Which is to shew, How, and by what means, we may get our heart or conscience thus informed, and afterwards preserve and keep it
In order to which, amongst many things that might be alleged as highly useful, and conducing to this great work, I shall insist upon these four: as,
1. Let a man carefully attend to the voice of his reason, and all the dictates of natural morality, so as by no means to do any thing contrary to them. For though reason is not to be relied upon, as a guide universally sufficient to direct us what to do, yet it is generally to be relied upon and obeyed, where it tells us what we are not to do. It is indeed but a weak and diminutive light, compared to revelation ; but it ought to be no disparagement to a star, that it is not a sun. Nevertheless, as weak and as small as it is, it is a light always at hand, and though enclosed, as it were, in a dark lantern, may yet be of singular use to prevent many a foul step, and to keep us from many a dangerous fall. And every man brings such a degree of this light into the world with him, that though it cannot bring him to heaven, yet, if he be true to it, it will carry him a great way ; indeed so far, that if he follows it faithfully, I doubt not but he shall meet with another light, which shall carry him quite through.
How far it may be improved, is evident from that high and refined morality which shined forth both in the lives and writings of some of the ancient heathens, who yet had no other light but this, both to live and to write by. For how great a man in virtue was Cato, of whom the historian gives this glorious character; Esse quam videri bonus malebat! And of what an impregnable integrity was Fabricius, of whom it was said, that a man might as well attempt to turn the sun out of his course, as to bring Fabricius to do a base or a dishonest action! And then for their writings; what admirable things occur in the remains of Pythagoras, and the books of Plato, and of several other philosophers ! short, I confess, of the rules of Christianity, but generally above the lives of Christians.
Which being so, ought not the light of reason to be looked upon by us as a rich and a noble talent, and such an one as we must account to God for ? for it is certainly from him. It is a ray of divinity darted into the soul. It is the candle of the Lord, as Solomon calls it, and God never lights us up a candle either to put out or to sleep by. If it be made conscious to a work of darkness, it will not fail to discover and reprove it; and therefore the checks of it are to be revered, as the echo of a voice from heaven; for, whatsoever conscience binds here on earth, will be certainly bound there too; and it were a great vanity to hope or imagine, that either law or gospel will absolve what natural conscience condemns. No man ever yet offended his own conscience, but first or last it was revenged upon him for it.
So that it will concern a man to treat this great principle awfully and warily, by still observing what it commands, but especially what it forbids : and if he would have it always a faithful and sincere monitor to him, let him be sure never to turn a deaf ear to it; for not to hear it is the way to silence it. Let him strictly observe the first stirrings and intimations; the first hints and whispers of good and evil, that pass in his heart; and this will keep conscience so quick and vigilant, and ready to give a man true alarms upon the least approach of his spiritual enemy, that he shall be hardly capable of a great surprise.
On the contrary, if a man accustoms himself to slight or pass over these first motions to good, or shrinkings of his conscience from evil, which originally are as natural to the heart of man, as the appetites of hunger and thirst are to the stomach, conscience will by degrees grow dull and unconcerned, and, from not spying out motes, come at length to overlook beams; from carelessness it shall fall into a slumber, and from a slumber it shall settle into a deep and long sleep; till at last perhaps it sleeps itself into a lethargy, and that such an one, that nothing but hell and judgment shall be able to awaken it. For long disuse of any thing made for action will in time take away the very use of it. As I have read of one, who having for a disguise kept one of his eyes a long time covered, when he took off the covering, found his eye indeed where it was, but his sight was gone. He who would keep his conscience awake, must be careful to keep it stirring.
2. Let a man be very tender and regardful of every pious motion and suggestion made by the Spirit of God to his heart. I do not hereby go about to establish enthusiasm, or such fantastic pretences of intercourse with God, as Papists and fanatics (who in most things copy from one another, as well as rail at one another) do usually boast of. But certainly, if the evil spirit may, and often does suggest wicked and vile thoughts to the minds of men, as all do and must grant, and is sufficiently proved from the devil's putting it into the heart of Judas to betray Christ, John xiii. 2. and his filling the heart of Ananias to lie to the Holy Ghost, Acts v. 3. it cannot after this, with any colour of reason, be doubted, but that the holy Spirit of God, whose power and influence to good is much greater than that of the wicked spirit to evil, does frequently inject into, and imprint upon the soul many blessed motions and impulses to duty, and many powerful avocations from sin. So that a man shall not only, as the prophet says, hear a voice behind him, but also a voice within him, telling him which way he ought to go.
For doubtless, there is something more in those expressions of being led by the Spirit, and being taught by the Spirit, and the like, than mere tropes and metaphors; and nothing less is or can be imported by them, than that God sometimes speaks to, and converses with, the hearts of men, immediately by himself; and happy those, who by thus hearing him speak in a still voice, shall prevent his speaking to them in thunder.
But you will here ask, perhaps, how we shall distinguish in such motions, which of them proceed immediately from the Spirit of God, and which from the conscience? In answer to which, I must confess, that I know no certain mark of discrimination to distinguish them by; save only in general, that such as proceed immediately from God, use to strike the mind suddenly, and very powerfully. But then
I add also, that as the knowledge of this, in point of speculation, is so nice and difficult, so, thanks be to God, in point of practice it is not necessary.
But let a man universally observe and obey every good motion rising in his heart, knowing that every such motion proceeds from God, either mediately or immediately; and that whether God speaks immediately by himself to the conscience, or mediately by the conscience to the soul, the authority is the same in both, and the contempt of either is rebellion.
Now the thing which I drive at, under this head of discourse, is to shew, that as God is sometimes pleased to address himself in this manner to the hearts of men; so, if the heart will receive and answer such motions, by a ready and obsequious compliance with them, there is no doubt but they will both return more frequently, and still more and more powerfully, till at length they produce such a degree of light in the conscience, as shall give a man both a clear sight of his duty, and a certain judgment of his condition.
On the contrary, as all resistance whatsoever of the dictates of conscience, even in the way of natural efficiency, brings a kind of hardness and stupefaction upon it ; so the resistance of these peculiar suggestions of the Spirit will cause in it also a judicial hardness, which is yet worse than the other. So that God shall withdraw from such an heart, and the Spirit being grieved shall depart, and these blessed motions shall cease, and affect and visit it no more. The consequence of which is very terrible, as rendering a man past feeling: and then the less he feels in this world, the more he shall be sure to feel in the next. But,