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Conscience: The Soul’s Looking Glass

Category Articles
Date December 30, 2002

The primary bond of the conscience derives from special revelation and the secondary bond from providential and voluntary arrangements. God alone has the power to bind the conscience

by Geoff Thomas

At the Westminster Conference in London in Westminster Chapel on 10th December 2002 Philip Craig of Dunwoody near Atlanta, Georgia, gave a paper on the Puritan, William Fenner. In 1651, after Fenner’s death, a work of his on the conscience was published under the title, "The Soul’s Looking Glass."

William Fenner was born in the year 1600 and educated at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, taking his degree in divinity at Oxford. He became a pastor in Sedgely in Staffordshire where his labours were signally blessed. On his arrival he discovered that ignorance, apathy about religion and immorality were widespread. By his example and clear preaching he had in four years made an impact upon the community. Many became Christians, but he also stirred up much opposition and was forced out of the parish.

From early on in his Christian ministry his speciality was cases of conscience, and many resorted to him for advice, from the poorer people to the upper classes – such as the Earl of Warwick who become his special friend and patron. In 1629 Fenner became a rector in Rochford, Essex where he continued as pastor for eleven more years until his death in 1640. He was succeeded by Edward Calamy who was ejected in 1662.

Fenner’s writings are plain, fresh and awakening, and especially his "Soul’s Looking Glass." Fenner excelled as a casuist examining cases of troubled conscience. His reputation was as ‘a physician of the soul.’ Conscience is the judgment of man upon himself, and the main text for the working of conscience is Romans 2:14&15: "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another." The primary bond of the conscience derives from special revelation and the secondary bond from providential and voluntary arrangements. God alone has the power to bind the conscience.

The essential attributes of conscience are that conscience is universal (everyone has it to serve God’s justice and to restrain man’s sin), unsuppressable (Joseph’s brethren could remember their sin in selling their brother into slavery twenty years earlier), is informed by knowledge (the law of God is its light and power. The conscience cannot do its work without the Spirit and the Word), its authority is supreme (because it is the voice of God) and it is privy (that is, it is intimate to us like a spy in our very bosoms). So conscience judges out actions in the past, and like a court reporter takes down every detail of our lives and never forgets them, and like a judge passes judgment on us.

An enlightened conscience understands God’s law; a tender conscience sees the odiousness of sin, and a faithful conscience does good rigorously. A dysfunctional conscience has erroneous views of God’s law; a doubting conscience will flee from actions if it is not confident; a scrupulous conscience will seek greater light from Scripture; an enlightened conscience will disable a person exceedingly if it has anything against him; an unfaithful conscience will go along with any actions like a rider giving reins to his mount; a seared conscience lacks sensitivity and sins without remorse.

Two major tests of a peaceful conscience are, are you converted, that is, does God speak peace to you? Do you take delight in the full counsel of God? There is no news from God to the Christian but good news, and so the warnings of the New Testament are given to restrain sin and they are indispensable for believers themselves. They show us the majesty of Jesus Christ; they keep us in trials assuring us that the gospel’s enemies must face Christ; they serve to deliver us from God’s wrath and they strike terror into our hearts and keep our familiarity with the Lord turning into contempt. They will kill the weeds of sin and pull out our corruptions.

In the 21st century we Reformed Christians have become more accountable because we have more gospel light. Too many preachers unconsciously assume that all who come regularly to their congregations must be Christians. Our standards of examining the marks of grace in people are woefully weak, especially in children. We fail to preach the threatenings of the Gospel, so there is a shocking evangelical deadness in many churches. Much of our mission field in fact is within our own congregations. Consider the example of the apostle Paul warning people with tears for three years by night and day (Acts 20:31).

This kind of paper will pay great dividends to the reader when it appears in the published six addresses of this Conference in the summer of 2003.

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