Page images
[ocr errors]

to act wrong as soon as they begin to act. And it does not
appear from scripture; for the Bible represents infants as sinful,
guilty creatures, as soon as they are born; which plainly implies
that they are moral agents. In a word, scripture, reason, obser-
vation and experience, are all in favor of the moral agency of
infants. And if we do not admit that moral agency com-
mences in infancy, it is impossible to determine, or even to form
a probable conjecture, when it does commence.

3. If conscience be the only faculty of the mind which gives
us a sense of moral obligation, then its dictates are always to
be followed. Though all allow that we ought to follow the
dictates of conscience when it is rightly informed, yet some
suppose we ought not to follow its dictates when it is misin-
formed and erroneous. As this is a question concerning duty,
so we are obliged to refer it to the decision of conscience. But
if we refer it to conscience, it will instantaneously determine that
we ought always to follow its dictates. Conscience never fails to
lay us under moral obligation to regard its precepts and prohi-
bitions. If it tells us that a certain mode of conduct is right,
it equally tells us that we ought to pursue it; or if it tells us
that a certain mode of conduct is wrong, it equally tells us that
we ought to avoid it. As conscience always speaks with equal
authority whether enlightened or unenlightened, so we are
always bound to obey it, whether enlightened or unenlightened.
There is no occasion to dispute the authority of conscience, or
propriety in doing it, since it will always bear us out in obey-
ing its dictates from a sincere intention. For if conscience
ever discovers that we have submitted to it when it dictated
wrong, it will justify our cordial submission, and pronounce it
an act of duty. It is indeed impossible to put a case, in which
it would be right to counteract conscience. For it is extremely
absurd to suppose that we both ought and ought not to do the
same action. If there could be an instance in which we ought
not to obey the dictates of conscience, it is evident that in such
an instance we ought not to follow any other guide. To sup-
pose, therefore, that we ought not to follow the dictates of an
erroneous conscience, is to suppose that whenever our con-
science becomes erroneous, we cease to be under moral obliga-
tion, and of course cease to be moral agents.

4. It appears from what has been said upon a clear conscience, that men may be highly criminal in doing those things which they imagine conscience really requires. They often consult conscience with great partiality. They consult it with respect to their external conduct, without consulting it with respect to their internal motives. And in all such cases, they may externally obey the voice of conscience, while they inter

[ocr errors]

nally disobey it. This appears to have been the ground of Paul's deception while he was persecuting the church of Christ. He said to Agrippa, " I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem; and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities." While Paul was doing these things, his conscience seemed to justify his conduct; but it afterwards condemned him for being such a vile and malevolent persecutor. The truth of the case appears to be this. Paul considered Christ as a real impostor, and his followers as deluded fanatics, who were endeavoring to subvert the laws and religion of their country. And so long as he viewed them in this light, he verily thought it was his duty to oppose and destroy them, agreeably to the law respecting idolaters. But he never consulted conscience, with respect to the motives of his conduct, or the temper of mind from which he acted. And this was the sole cause of his deception. Had he inquired of conscience whether he ought to oppose and persecute christians from a cruel and malevolent spirit, his conscience would have forbidden him to act from such a selfish and malignant heart. He deceived himself by imposing upon conscience. And mere moralists at this day deceive themselves in the same manner. They verily think they are conscientiously doing their duty, while they are pursuing their honest callings, and externally obeying the divine commands. They have the testimony of conscience that they are doing those things which they ought to do. But if they would only consult conscience with respect to the selfish motives of their conduct, it would condemn every thing they do as altogether criminal and displeasing to God. It is therefore wholly · owing to the partial manner of their consulting conscience, that they vainly imagine they are doing God service, while they are living in the habitual commission of sin. This great and dangerous delusion Solomon describes, as a solemn warning to all those who are walking in a serious and conscientious road to destruction. "Every way of man," says he, "is right in his own eyes; but the Lord pondereth the hearts." And again he says, "There is a way that seemeth right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death."

5. If conscience be entirely distinct from the heart and every other power of the mind, then sinners grow worse instead of better, under the strivings of the Spirit. The Spirit of God in


striving with sinners, only sets their natural faculties in motion,
and awakens conscience to do its office. But while the con-
science convinces sinners of their guilt and danger, their hearts
naturally rise in direct and sensible opposition to God. This
was the experience of Paul, under the convictions of conscience,
according to his own account. "I had not known sin but by
the law; for I had not known lust, except the law had said,
Thou shalt not covet. But sin taking occasion by the com-
mandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For
without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the
law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived and I
died." While Paul was under the strivings of the Spirit, he only
saw his past sinfulness, but found that his corrupt heart took
occasion from the light and conviction of conscience to rise
into higher and more sensible opposition to God. Sin revived,
and he died. Nor was this a singular case.
All sinners ap-
pear to themselves to sin faster under conviction, than they
ever did in a state of spiritual ignorance and stupidity. And
this appearance is no vain delusion, but a most alarming
reality. For the light and conviction of conscience, instead of
restraining and softening their hearts, only serve to draw forth
their corruptions, and aggravate their guilt. And though an
increasing sense of danger and guilt makes them earnestly seek
to please God by every outward act of duty and devotion, yet
their hearts continually wax worse and worse, until they are
effectually subdued by special grace..

6. If conscience be a distinct and essential faculty of the
mind, then no sinner is beyond the reach of conviction. Some
sinners appear to be entirely stupid, and seem to bid defiance
to the arrows of conviction. But though they have stifled, yet
they have not destroyed conscience. They still carry that
faithful witness in their breast, which is able to discover all their
guilt, and to destroy all their peace. God can easily awaken
their conscience to do its office; and whenever he does com-
mand his vicegerent to speak in his name, they will find them-
selves to be in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity. All
sinners, therefore, are equally liable to conviction. Those who
sin in secret, where they imagine no eye can see them, are
constantly exposed to the reproach and condemnation of con-
science, which alone is instead of a thousand witnesses. Those
who deny the divinity of the scriptures, the existence of the
Deity, and even the moral and immutable distinction between
virtue and vice, cannot always maintain their criminal stupid-
ity; but must sooner or later find themselves to be men, and
feel the remorse of a guilty conscience. And those who stifle
and impose upon conscience by the outward appearances of

[ocr errors]

virtue and religion, may be thoroughly convinced of their real hypocrisy and total corruption of heart. Though sinners of this class seem to be the most out of the reach of conviction, yet they have sometimes been awakened to see their delusion, and to realize their danger and guilt. Here Paul naturally occurs as a remarkable instance. For a long time he deceived and pacified conscience by the purity of his life. For, as touching the righteousness of the law, he was entirely blameless. But when the commandment came, sin revived, and he died. His awakened conscience condemned him, not only for his injurious conduct towards Jesus of Nazareth and his faithful followers, but for all his shining virtues and self-righteousness, which had well-nigh proved his ruin. His conviction was extremely sudden, unexpected and pungent. From the highest pitch of false zeal and self-confidence, it threw him helpless and hopeless at the foot of divine sovereignty. This is a solemn warning to all sinners, and more especially to self-righteous sinners, not to deceive and impose upon conscience. For the longer they resist and stifle its monitions, the more power they will give it to disturb their peace, destroy their hopes, and fill their souls with insupportable anguish and distress.

7. If it be the proper office of conscience to reprove all evil exercises and sinful actions, then it is impossible that sinners should live an easy and quiet life. As they never have a conscience void of offence, so they never have a solid foundation for inward peace and serenity of mind. Though they are surrounded with the blessings of providence, and enjoy the esteem and applause of fallible men, yet they are continually subject to inward reproach and self-condemnation. Their heart and conscience are always at variance. And though they endeavor to stifle the voice of conscience, yet it often assumes its sovereign right to accuse and condemn them, in spite of their hearts. Hence they live a most unhappy and restless life. They travel with pain all their days. A dreadful sound is in their ears. A fire not blown consumeth them. In the midst of laughter, their hearts are sorrowful. Yea, there is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked. They are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.

8. If conscience will always approve of a sincere and upright heart, then those who live a virtuous and holy life must necessarily be happy. Accordingly we read, "A good man shall be satisfied from himself." And again, the ways of wisdom "are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace." Those who live in the practice of virtue and religion, have a conscience void of offence, which yields them that peace which the world cannot give, and which the world cannot

take away. Though the apostles and primitive christians were generally despised and opposed, yet they found a perpetual source of comfort and joy in the peace and approbation of their own conscience. And if we only live the same holy and devout life which they lived, we may also humbly and confidently say as they said: "Our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world." Amen.

« PreviousContinue »