« PreviousContinue »
choose ; what punishment would I not rather bear; yea, into what a profound abyss of hell would I not rather enter, than to witness against my conscience ?” It is likely he had felt the terrors of it to be more bitter than death. How many have chosen strangling, rather than life, under the terrors of conscience. Wherever you go, conscience accompanies you ; whatever you say, do, or but think, it records, in order to the day of account. When all friends forsake thee, yea, when thy soul forsakes thy body, conscience will not, cannot forsake thee. When thy body is most weak, thy conscience is most vigorous and active. Never is there more life in the conscience than when death makes its nearest approach to the body. When it smiles, acquits, and comforts, O what a heaven does it create within a man. And when it frowns, condemns, and terrifies, how does it becloud, yea, benight all the pleasures and delights of this world. O conscience, how glad would the damned be to have taken their last farewell of thee, when they bade this world and its inhabitants farewell at death. And what had become of all the martyrs, when shut up from friends in dungeons, had it not been for the cheering cordials and comforts thou didst administer to support them? It is certainly the best friend or the worst enemy in the whole creation. This is conscience, these are its powers and offices.
II. Our next inquiry must be into the LIGHT OF CONSCIENCE, and the various kinds of that light. The Lord did not frame such an excellent structure as the soul of man, without windows to let in light, nor does he deny the benefit of light to any soul; but there is a twofold light which men have to inform and guide their consciences.
1. There is the common light of natural reason, called by Solomon, the candle of the Lord: “The spirit of Man is the candle of the Lord.” Prov. 20:27. This is affirmed by him who had an extraordinary portion of intellect, a brighter lamp of reason and wisdom than other men ; and
this is not only true of the soul in general, but of that special power of it which is called conscience, which is God's witness, and man's overseer. The heathen had this light shining in their minds and consciences; some of them, by the help of this natural light, made wonderful discoveries of the mysteries of nature; yea, they found its efficacy and power great in their consciences, to raise their hopes or fears, according to the good or evil they had done. Ovid says, “As is every man's conscience, so are his hopes and fears." And to the shame of many who are called Christians, some among the heathen paid great reverence to their own consciences. “Principally revere thyself,” says one; "tempted to any base action, dread thyself, even when there is no other witness.” The generality of the heathen, however, did not so, and are charged with this in the text; besides, this light can make no discoveries of Christ, and of the way of salvation by him. The most eagle-eyed philosophers among them were in the dark here. And therefore,
2. God has afforded men a more clear and excellent light to shine into their minds and consciences, even the light of the gospel, which compared with the light of natural reason, is as the light of the sun to the dim moonlight. “He showeth his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation; and as for his judgments, they have not known them. Praise ye the Lord.” Psa. 147 : 19, 20. Every creature has the name of God engraven on it, but he has magnified his word above all his name. Psa. 138:2. God, who best knows the value of his own mercies, accounts this a singular favor and privilege to any nation. Without revelation we could never have known the cause of our misery, the fall of Adam, or the only way of our recovery by Christ: by this a people are lifted up to heaven, Matthew 11:23, in respect to the means of salvation ; and consequently, the neglect of such light and love will plunge the guilty into
proportionable misery. “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.” John 3:19. . Moreover, God not only affords the light of reason and gospel revelation to some men in an eminent degree, but to these he adds the internal illumination of his Spirit, the clearest and most glorious light in the world. He shineth into their hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Cor. 4:6. These are the three sorts of light God makes to shine into the souls and consciences of men to guide them; the first a common and general light, the two last the most clear and transcendent in excellency, especially that of the Spirit with the gospel. For though the sun be risen, yet men may draw the curtains about them, and lie in darkness; but the Spirit enlightens the soul.
III. How this light shining into the consciences of men LEADS THEM TO OBEDIENCE, and how men's lusts struggle against the obligations of an enlightened conscience, is the next thing to be considered.
It is beyond all controversy, that an enlightened conscience lays strong and indispensable obligations on the soul to obedience; for the will of God is the supreme law; it is the will of “the only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords.” 1 Tim. 6:15. And the promulgation and manifestation of it binds the conscience to obedience, so that no authority on earth can loose the bands. For conscience, as God's vicegerent, in his name requires obedience, and the man that hears the voice of God from the mouth of his own conscience thereupon becomes a debtor, Rom. 1:14, and is put under a necessity. 1 Cor. 9:16.
Now conscience, by reason of the light that shines into it, feeling itself under such strong bands and necessities, stimulates and urges the soul to obedience, warns, commands, and presses the soul to its duty against the contrary
inclinations of the flesh; and hence arise those conflicts in the bosoms of men. Sometimes conscience prevails, and sometimes lusts and corruptions prevail, and that with great difficulty; for it is not alike easy to all men to shake off or burst the bands of their consciences. What a hard task had Saul to conquer his conscience. “I forced myself,” saith he, 1 Sam. 13:12; he knew it belonged not to him to offer sacrifice, his conscience plainly told him it would be sin; but the fear of the Philistines being stronger than the fear of God, he ventured upon it against the plain dictates of his conscience. Thus Herod gave sentence to put John to death : “ The king was sorry; nevertheless, for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.” Matt. 14:9. His honor weighed more than his fear of sin, his own word more than God's word. No man is so perplexed between two vices, but he may find an issue without falling into a third.
Pilate's conscience was convinced of Christ's innocence, Matt. 27: 18, 19, yet the fear of Cesar hurried him on to the greatest wickedness, even to give sentence against innocent blood, yea, the blood of the Son of God. Darius, in like manner, knew that Daniel was not only an excellent person, but that he was entra; ped by the nobles merely for his conscience, and that to put him to death was to sacrifice him to their malice. This he and his conscience debated, and many encounters he had with it; for the record saith, hę “was sore displeased with himself, and set his heart on Daniel to deliver him; and he labored till the going down of the sun to deliver him,” Dan. 6:14; but after a day's contest between him and conscience, sin prevailed against light and returned victor in the evening. So it was with poor Spira, a sad apostate ; he seemed to hear, as it were, an inward voice, Do not write, Spira, do not write. But the love of his estate, wife, and children, drew his hand to the paper, though conscience struggled hard to hold it back.
Thus, as the restless sea strives to beat down or break over its bounds, so do impetuous lusts strive to overbear light and conviction. As the Roman poet has said,
... "Video meliora proboque,
The wrong pursue." They know this or that to be sin, and that they hazard their souls by it; yet they venture on it, and rush into sin as the horse into the battle.
IV. I promised to give SOME INSTANCES OF THE CONFLICT BETWEEN MEN'S CONSCIENCES AND THEIR CORRUPTIONS, wherein conscience is vanquished and overborne, and by what weapons the victory over conscience is obtained. The convictions of men are twofold : general, respecting their state; and particular, respecting this or that action.
1. There are general convictions given to some men by their consciences, that their state of soul is neither right nor safe—that they want the main thing which constitutes a Christian, namely, regeneration, or a gracious change of heart. They hear and read the signs and effects of this change, but their consciences plainly tell them that these evidences are not to be found in them—that they enjoy the external privileges of the saints, but belong not to them—that something is still wanting, and that the main thing too. “O my soul, thou art not right; thou hast gifts, thou hast a name to live, but for all that thou art dead; some further work must be done upon thee, or thou art undone to eternity : thou passest for a good Christian among men, but woe to thee if thou die in the state thou art." These, and such as these, are the whispers of some men's consciences in their ears; and yet they cannot so yield themselves up into the hands of their convictions, as to confess and bewail their hypocrisy and gross mistake, and seek for a better foundation to build their hope on. Felix's conscience gave him such a