Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Conscience Powerful and Impotent
By William Sherlock (1641?1707)
From A practical Discourse concerning a Future Judgment
A MANS own conscience cannot deceive him in this. Every man must know, whether he carefully avoid all known and wilful sins; whether he discharge all essential parts of his duty to God and men; especially, when he does any eminent services for God, and becomes an example of piety and virtue. A man, whose conscience gives this testimony to him, may securely hope and rejoice in God; for whatever other defects the pure eyes of God may see in him, they are all within the Grace and Mercy of the Gospel, and therefore cannot hinder his pardon, or his reward.
Thus we see, that when conscience absolutely condemns, or when without any doubt and hesitancy it commends, acquits, and absolves, its sentence is a Divine oracle, and assures us what our judgment shall be at the last day, if we be then found in such a state. But there is a middle state between these two, which deserves to be considerd; when men are neither so wicked, as to be absolutely condemnd by their own consciences, nor so good, as to be acquitted and absolved; which is an uncertain state between hope and fear. This is the case of those men who have been guilty of very great sins, which they had lived in many years; and tho they are very sensible of their past wickedness, and heartily sorry for their sins, and seriously resolved by the grace of God to forsake them; yet they are not satisfied of the sincerity of their repentance, because they have not (with all their sorrow and resolutions) conquered their inclinations to sin, nor broken the habits of it; but are guilty of frequent relapses, and fall into the commission of the same sins again; and then repent and resolve again; and as time wears off their sorrow for their last offence, their old inclinations revive, and a new temptation conquers again. Now such mens consciences neither absolutely condemn, nor absolutely acquit them, for the event is doubtful: they are not conquerors yet, and it is uncertain whether ever they will conquer; and therefore their consciences cannot yet speak peace to them: And yet they are not perfect slaves and captives to sin, but contend for their liberty, and therefore their consciences do not absolutely condemn them; but as they prevail or yield, so their hopes or fears increase.
And this also is the case of those men, who if they commit no notorious wickedness, yet do very little good, nothing that their consciences can commend them for: who worship God rather in compliance with the custom of the place they live in, than from a vital sense and reverence of God, and therefore are not for any works of supererogation. And little will content them; and they are glad of any excuse to lessen that little; and all men, who pretend to greater devotion, they suspect of hypocrisy, and some secular interests.