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that we may preserve a good conscience-and the importance of such a conscience in all things.
I. We are, first, to consider, what the conscience is. This, in the common acceptation of the word, is our judgment, discernment and reflection, in regard of our moral obligations and conduct. The difference between the judgment and conscience is chiefly this; the former is more general, and extends to every thing concerning which we form an opinion; the latter is personal and moral, and is the judgment which we form, and the sense which we feel of our own obligations and actions. It is that principle, or faculty, by which we judge of right and wrong, and determine what, as moral and accountable beings, we ought to choose and refuse, to pursue and avoid.
The office of conscience consists of two branches; the first is to point out our obligations and direct our conduct; the second is to reflect upon our past conduct, and approve, or disapprove it, as it has been right, or wrong.
The first office of conscience is, to stand as a guide of our actions, and to dictate what ought, and what ought not, to be done, in our relations and circumstances. We must not imagine, that this is the law which determines our actions to be good, or evil. If it was the law, then every action would be good, which we thought to be so, and there could be no such thing as an erroneous conscience. The supreme law of our actions is the will of God, in some way, or other, made known to us; and conscience is the principle within us, which, by this law, determines what things are agreeable to the will of God, and by his authority binding upon us; and what things are contrary to his will, and to be avoided by us. This office of conscience is described by St. Paul; “The Gentiles, who have not the law, do, by nature, the things contained in the law. These, having not the law, are a law to themselves, which shew the work of the law written on their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness.” The apostle here asserts, that conscience is a natural principle in men, and that, without an external, written law, it is able, by such discoveries and communications as God has otherwise made, to judge, in many cases, what is right, and what is wrong. It is represented
as having the force of a law, because the works of the law are written upon it; and hence it bears witness to men concerning their duty. Had human nature retained its primitive perfection, men, probably, would not have needed a standing, written revelation to guide them; but, the law, written on the conscience, and strengthened by occasional communications, would have been sufficient. But, by the prevalence of the flesh, and the subjection of the mind to it, the light of conscience is so obscured, and its power so debilitated, that it is no longer sufficient to guide us into the knowledge of duty, or to engage our compliance with duty, where it is known. Hence it needs a written law, enforced by solemn sanctions, to give it both light and power; and its business now is, to judge of our moral obligations by those rules which God, in his word, has prescribed.
Secondly, the other office of conscience is, to review our past. conduct, and justify, or condemn it, as it is agreeable, or contrary to the rules divinely prescribed. It is to judge, not only what we ought to do, but what we have done. Having pointed out our obligations, it is, next, to enquire whether we have complied with them. It is to reflect and pass sentence on our conduct and the principles and motives which have influenced us—to check, admonish, upbraid and condemn us, when we do evil—to acquit, approve, justify and applaud us, when we do well. This office of conscience the apostle mentions in the passage before referred to. “The Gentiles shew the work of the law written on their hearts, and their conscience also beareth witness, their thoughts, the mean-while," or by turns, “accusing, or excusing within themselves.”
The necessity of such a principle, in human nature, is obvious. Without it, no law, however promulged, could have any force; we could neither understand its meaning, nor feel its authority. God's giving us a rule of conduct, supposés a principle within us, which constitutes us moral agents—a principle capable of discerning between good and evil, and of feeling an obligation to choose the one, and reject the other.
II. We are to consider the properties of a good conscience, in distinction from an evil one ; for the scripture speaks of both. Though natural conscience is a principle common to mankind, yet in some it operates as an evil, in others as a good principle. It will, therefore, be necessary to consider the qualifications of a good conscience-such an one as the apostle was confident he had. These may all be comprised in such a disposition as the apostle professed, a willingness, or purpose, in all things to live honestly.
1. The first and leading property of a good conscience is light, or right information. This distinguishes it from a blind and deceived heart, which turns men aside. The Jews, having a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge, crucified the Lord of glory. Being ignorant of God's righteousness, they went about to establish their own. Paul once did, and thought that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus; and though he acted in this persecuting business, with what he then called a good conscience, yet, as this conscience was deceived, it învolved him in guilt. He afterward condemned himself as a blasphemer and injurious for doing that which he before had ap
If conscience is to be the immediate guide of our actions, it must be well informed; for, otherwise, it will lead us astray. If it makes false reports concerning the will of God, it ceases to be his voice; its authority is usurpation, and obedience to it is presumption.
A well informed conscience is free, both from ignorance and error. If it be uninformed, it cannot direct us at all; and the consequence will be, that doubt and uncertainty will always attend us, or passion, lust and prejudice will assume the full command of us. And as our wrong actions will involve us in guilt, because they are evil in themselves, and we might have known them to be such; so our right actions, if we happen to perform any that are materially right, will be unacceptable to God, because they proceed not from a good principle in the heart. And so far as the conscience is misinformed, it will call evil, good, and good, evil; it will frame iniquity as by a law, and will harden us against repentance. It will repel, as impertinent, every Divine warning, and when we are admonished to return to God, it will embolden ụs to demand, “ Wherein shall we return?”
2. Another qualification of a good conscience is integrity, or a universal regard to rectitude and virtue, in distinction from a conscience which respects only particular branches of duty.
The apostle had a good conscience in all things : he exercised himself to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and men. You may see some men who are extremely nice and scrupulous in particular branches of religion-in things of little importance in matters which have but a remote relation, and perhaps no relation to true godliness; but in duties of real consequence and solid weight, they are as easy and indifferent, as those who make no pretensions at all, to religion. Their stomachs, like those of the Pharisees, will be disgusted at a gnat, but can absorb and digest a camel. They are exact and critical about mint, anise and cummin; but regardless of mercy, justice, truth and the love of God. Balaam's conscience forbad him to assist the destruction of the Israelites by the formal ceremony of execration. In this he would not go beyond the word of the Lord to do less, or more. But he seems to have had no hesitancy in advising Balack to seduce them into fornication and idolatry, which he knew would provoke God to destroy them. Herod was afraid to violate a rash oath; but he would venture to commit deliberate murder. There are some, who plead in excuse for their neglect of stated prayer, or sacramental communion, that they apprehend themselves to be unregenerate men, and that the sacrifices of such are abomination ; and yet they seem to have no concern to obtain deliverance from their supposed state, as if they thought, that no wickedness was abomination to God, but what they call sacrifice. They are afraid to attend on two, or three particular duties, lest these duties should, in them, become sins; but are very little afraid of retaining that inward corruption, which, they suppose, will turn these duties into sins. And, I cannot say, but that some think they are really conscientious in their fears and scruples. But the truth is, the authority of God injoins every duty, and forbids every sin, one as well as another; and that iš
mot an honest and upright conscience, which remonstrates against this, or that sin, only, and tolerates others; or which urges to a few particular duties, and allows the omission of all the rest which are required. Such a conscience is not subject to the Divine law, but claims an impious superiority. And to them, whose conscience is thus defiled, is nothing pure.
3. An essential property of a good conscience is impartiality in opposition to selfishness.
Under the influence of such a conscience, we shall view our own sins, and our own obligations, in the same light, as we view those of other men: we shall not excuse a sin, because we have done it, nor diminish an obligation, because it relates to us; but shall judge of the latter by the authority of God's law, and of the former by its opposition to this authority. It is too common a defect of conscience, that it indulges a partial respect to self, admits excuses for its own faults, which it would reject in the case of another, and is swayed in the representations of duty, by personal inclination and interest. David's conscience, for a time, seems to have made no remonstrance against his injustice and cruelty in slaying Uriah and taking his wife; but at the recital of the story of a rich man, who had taken a poor neighbor's only lamb, to make an entertainment for a friend, it rose in high indignation. There was a great disparity in the crimes; but one was his own. This could be excused; the other could not.
4. A good conscience is deliberate and faithful-not rash and heedless.
Paul says, that while he was a Pharisee, he had lived in all good conscience, and, as touching the righteousness in the law, had been blameless. According to the ceremonial strictness, but lax morality of the day, he exhibited an uncensurable behaviour, and possessed an unupbraiding conscience. He was alive without the law. But when the commandment came—when it was applied to his conscience in its purity and spirituality, then sin revived, and he died. He saw himself to be a transgressor and under condemnation. There are many who acquire a general knowledge of religion, observe the external forms of devotion, and