« PreviousContinue »
reason a sufficient sum of money would completely repair the damages, and settle the whole affair. But in the view of conscience, which discerns the moral quality of actions, all the gold of Ophir could not take away the sin or moral evil of lying. Hence it appears that conscience performs a part which no other faculty of the mind can perform.
Secondly. It is the proper office of conscience to give us a sense of moral obligation. We all feel that we ought to do some things, and ought not to do others. Our reason, however, knows nothing about ought and ought not, and can give us no sense of moral obligation. It is only our conscience, which tells us what is right and what is wrong, and at the same time makes us feel that we ought to do what is right, and ought not to do what is wrong. Reason can discover u the advantage of virtue, and the disadvantage of vice; but, it is conscience only which can make us feel our moral ob-m ligation to pursue the former, and to avoid the latter. Thus, for instance, reason tells us that eternal happiness is infinitely more valuable than temporal enjoyments, and therefore it will really be for our interest to give up temporal enjoyments for the sake of securing eternal happiness; but it is the part of conscience to us feel that we or that it is our m indispensable duty, to renounce the whole world rather than to lose our own souls.
Fourthly. It is the proper office of conscience to make men feel that they deserve to be rewarded or punished, according to their works. All mankind are capable of feeling their just deserts, though they are often unwilling to receive the due reward of their deeds. We have a remarkable instance of this in the case of Joseph's brethren, while they were suffering for their envy and cruelty under the correcting hand of God. "And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul when
he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us." Reason had suffered them to live year after year in carnal ease and stupidity; but when conscience awoke, it gave them a lively sense of guilt, and made them feel that they justly deserved the severest tokens of the divine displeasure. Thus it appears from the proper offices of conscience, and from various other considerations, that it is a peculiar and distinct faculty of the mind. The way is now prepared to show,
II. What we must do in order to keep a clear and inoffensive conscience.
The apostle tells us that he exercised himself "to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men." The connection of these words, and the occasion upon which they were spoken, may help us to discover their real import. Paul was making his defence before Felix. And, after a few introductory remarks, he freely owns that he had embraced that religion which his adversaries called heresy. But yet he pleads that he had acted an honest and upright part in adopting the peculiar doctrines of the gospel. And to confirm his declaration, he assures the governor that he had made it his practice to follow the dictates of conscience in the general course of his conduct respecting both God and man. In this connection, therefore, he must mean by a conscience void of offence, a conscience free from reproach or remorse. And such a conscience may be maintained. For our conscience can never reproach us so long as we faithfully obey its dictates. But the serious and practical question now is, what we must do to maintain the peace and approbation of conscience. This, the apostle intimates, requires great exertion. "Herein do I exercise myself to have always a conscience void of offence."
All the faculties of the mind are in some measure under the influence of the will. Though they are all distinct from the will, yet it depends upon the will whether they shall be freely and properly exercised. We have the power of perceiving external objects; but it depends upon the will whether we shall open or shut our eyes upon them. We have the power of reasoning upon various subjects; but it depends upon the will whether we shall improve or neglect to improve this noble faculty. So we have the power of discerning our duty, and the obligations we are under to do it; but it depends upon the will whether we shall exercise or stifle our moral discernment. All the natural faculties are talents, which the will can either use or abuse. Hence our own free and voluntary exertions are necessary, in order to maintain a conscience void of offence. We may, if we please, always have a pure and peaceable con
science; but in order to reach such a high and happy attainment, we must always exercise ourselves in the following respects.
1. We must give conscience full liberty to judge, before we act. It always stands ready to judge, and to judge infallibly right. It belongs to its office to inform us what we ought, and what we ought not to do. And if we would only allow it to do its office before we act, it would never reproach us after we have acted. But if we either neglect or refuse to consult conscience upon what we are going to do, and presume to act before we have obtained its approbation, it will certainly sooner or later condemn us for our rash and unwarrantable proceedings. Conscience claims a right of judging and dictating in all our moral conduct; and it is our indispensable duty in all cases, to give it full liberty of exercising this just and sacred right.
2. We must give conscience not only a full liberty, but also a fair opportunity of judging before we act. Conscience
always judges according to evidence; and if the evidence be Mu
false or partial, it will necessarily bring in a wrong verdict. We should be impartial in consulting conscience, and lay all the evidence of the case before it, that it may give a full and final decision. For, though we may impose upon conscience for a time, by false or partial evidence, yet it will finally discover the imposition, and condemn us for our folly and guilt.
person may have the approbation of conscience while he is acting, and yet afterwards feel self-condemned for what he has done. And this will always be the case, if we allow a corrupt heart to blind the conscience by false or partial evidence. Here lies the necessity of peculiar exertion, in order to have always a conscience void of offence. Though every instance of duty w be really a case of conscience, yet there are some more doubtful and difficult duties, which are more commonly and more emphatically called cases of conscience. And it is in these cases, more especially, that we ought to collect, compare and weigh evidence, in order to give conscience a fair opportunity of judging. In a thousand plain cases, it decides in a moment what is right or wrong; but in doubtful, difficult and important cases, it never gives a full and final decision, until all the evidence has been collected and exhibited. Herein, therefore, we ought to exercise ourselves, that conscience may have a fair opportunity of judging before we act.
3. We must cordially obey the dictates of conscience while we are acting. The dictates of conscience must be obeyed from the heart, as well as the divine commands. Men may, indeed, deceive themselves, and imagine they have acted
conscientiously, when they have paid a mere external obedience to the dictates of conscience. But whenever conscience shall review their conduct, it will condemn them for their undutiful spirit. Conscience tells every man that all real obedience or disobedience lies in the heart; and that he is worthy either of praise or blame, according to the motives which govern his conduct. We can never, therefore, satisfy the demands of conscience, unless we act agreeably to its dictates from an upright heart. But as long as we properly consult and cordially obey the dictates of conscience, it will approve our conduct, and afford us that inward peace which is the very balm of life. And this may well animate us to exercise ourselves to have always a conscience void of offence. But since there is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not, it is necessary to add,
4. That we ought to let conscience do its office after we have acted, as well as before. Conscience will be regarded sooner or later. If we neglect to consult or to obey it before we act, or while we are acting, it will claim a right to review our conduct and to condemn us for it. And since we are all liable to disregard and stifle conscience while we are pursuing the concerns of life, we ought to give it full liberty and a fair opportunity of reviewing our past actions, and of bringing in a true and faithful, though a disagreeable verdict. Self-examination is highly proper and necessary for such depraved and imperfect creatures as we are. And we cannot maintain a conscience void of offence, without frequently exercising ourselves in this serious and important duty. A number of instructive and useful inferences may now be fairly drawn from what has been said in this discourse.
1. It appears from the description which has been given of the nature and offices of conscience, that it is a superior faculty of the mind, and absolutely necessary in order to constitute us moral agents. There is an essential difference between agents, and moral agents; and it is conscience, which forms this difference between men and animals. All the lower species are They act under the influence of motives. They choose and refuse in the view of external objects. One species chooses to live in the water, and another chooses to live on the land. One species chooses to live in a warm climate, and another in a cold. One species chooses to feed on fruits, another on fish, and another on fowls. But though these and all other species of animals act voluntarily in the view of motives, yet they are not moral agents; because they can neither distinguish between right and wrong, nor feel any moral obligation either to act, or to refrain from acting. And were men
destitute of conscience, they would be equally incapable of feeling moral obligation, and of distinguishing the moral quality of actions. Neither perception nor reason could give them this moral discernment. It is conscience, therefore, which constitutes them moral agents, and raises them to the rank of Jaccountable beings.
2. If it be true that conscience is a distinct faculty of the soul, and necessarily constitutes a moral agent, then it is very' natural to conclude that infants are moral agents as soon as they are agents. Though they are born weak and helpless creatures, yet they very early discover not only motion, but action. When they are but a few days old, they appear to act voluntarily in the view of motives. They are pleased with some objects and displeased with others. They never fail, for instance, to prefer light to darkness and sweet to bitter. By such instances of choosing and refusing, they appear to be agents, or to act voluntarily in the view of motives. But we cannot suppose that they are mere agents, in these free, spontaneous, voluntary exertions. For if they were mere agents, they would not be men in miniature, nor be capable of becoming moral agents. Mere agents are utterly incapable of becoming moral agents. This has been demonstrated by all the experiments which have been made upon tamed animals. Though they have been taught to do many curious things, and to imitate a thousand human actions, yet they have never been taught to distinguish virtue from vice, nor to feel the force of moral obligation. They are by nature mere agents; and without a new nature they cannot be made, nor become moral agents. And if infants were at first mere agents, they could never be made, nor become moral agents. Neither experience, nor observation, nor instruction, could give them the faculty of moral discernment. We may use many means to strengthen and refine the mental powers of infants and children; but there are no means to be used to give them any new intellectual faculty. If conscience, therefore, be an essential faculty of the human mind, it must belong to it in infancy. And if infants possess this faculty of moral discernment, then they must of necessity become moral agents as soon as they become agents. There seems to be no way to avoid this conclusion, but to suppose that conscience cannot be exercised so early as the other faculties of the mind. But how does it appear that conscience cannot be exercised as early as any other intellectual faculty? It does not appear from experience. For every person knows that he has been able to distinguish right from wrong, and to feel a sense of guilt, ever since he can remember. It does not appear from observation; for infants discover plain marks of moral depravity, and appear