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THE CAUSES OF AN EVIL, AND THE MEANS OF OBTAINING A GOOD
HEBREWS X111. 18.
We trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live
We have stated the general nature and office of conscience shewn the qualifications of a good conscience-and examined whether, and how far an error of conscience can excuse a wrong conduct.
IV. To enquire into the causes and springs of an erroneous and evil conscience. In this enquiry will more fully appear the insufficiency of the plea of a deceived conscience, in ordinary cases, to excuse men's vices.
Even the heathens could not avail themselves of this plea, so far as to be guiltless in the sight of God. They could not allege the want of capacity to discern, or the absolute want of means to learn the great lines of their duty, and the reasonableness of a future judgment. In regard of natural capacity they were equal to other men. In arts and sciences they discovered ingenuity and invention, which few moderns can boast of, and which, if applied to religion, might there have made considerable improvements. They were endowed with the principle of conscience as well as the faculty of reason. Though they had not the written law, yet, the apostle says, “ They were a law to themselves, and shewed the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also witnessing with them.” And of the means of knowledge they were not wholly destitute. The apostle says, “ That which might be known of God was manifest to them, for God had shewed it to them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made, even his eternal power and godhead; so that they were without excuse, because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened, and they changed the truth of God into a lie, and gave themselves up to all kinds of iniquity.” And besides this natural light, they certainly might have had, and many of them really had some assistance from the revelations which God, at sundry times, and in divers manners, made to the world. These revelations, though first made to particular persons, families, or nations, were by tradition, or communication conveyed to many others. And the noble sentiments, which some of the heathen philosophers have expressed concerning the character of God and the nature and obligations of virtue, may probably be ascribed, in some measure, to information obtained from this source. Though the light of nature has, in fact, proved insufficient to lead men to the knowledge of all the important parts of duty, and must be insufficient to instruct them in those truths, which relate to the redemption of sinners, yet, with such aids as have attended it, it has taught men the existence of a Deity, and given them some apprehensions of his character and their own accountableness to him, and of their obligation to practise virtue and abstain from vice. Hence the apostle says, “ They were without excuse.” They had sinned without law, but against their conscience. Such was the state of the heathens.
Now since God has given to us a written revelation, which has not only stated our duty in all its branches, but enforced it by the
most solemn sanctions—since this revelation is in our hands and open to our inspection and examination, and since we have the common principles of reason and conscience, and these greatly improved by an education under the advantages of superior light; our errors and misapprehensions concerning religious truth and moral obligation must, in a much higher sense, be without excuse. If we plead ignorance, or mistake in excuse for our sins, it can be only such ignorance, or mistake, as is criminal in itself, and therefore will not exculpate us in a criminal conduct.
There are, it is true, some less important cases, which seem doubtful in their nature. And new cases may occur, which we have never had occasion to examine, and in which we must act before we have time for much deliberation. In such cases, if we gain the best information, and form the best judgment we can, and, divesting ourselves of passion and prejudice, act agreeably to this judgment, no doubt the honest intention will be accepted ; for if we err, it is not for want of integrity to choose right; but for want of capacity to judge right. In these cases, however, there is generally a safe and unsuspected side. This we may take without fear of guilt, and this a good conscience will prefer. But if we cannot determine, which is the safer side, the intention to act right will be approved, though the act should be different from that, which, on better information, we might have chosen. An object, for instance, presents himself to us in the appearance of misery and impotence, and solicits our beneficence : we pity him, and, on such information as we have, we feel an obligation to relieve him, and we act accordingly. It afterward appears, that his pretensions were deceitful, and our charity was misapplied. Still our charity is approved in heaven, because the intenLion was, pious, and the information all we could then obtain. Our Şaviour, sending forth his seventy disciples to preach in the cities of Judea, told them, when they entered into any city, to enquire, who in it was worthy—who was friendly and hospitable, and in this respect worthy of their company and blessing, and going into his house, to say, “ Peace be to this house.” “ If the house be worthy,” says he, “your peace shall rest upon it;" or the blessing which you wish to it shall be bestowed upon it. “But if it be not worthy, your peace shall return to you." Though the house should prove unworthy of the blessing, yet you shall receive the reward of your benevolence. But cases of this nature, which respect only occasional, or single actions, are very different from those which respect a course of actions, or an habitual conduct. We may, in certain instances, be in doubt, and finally misjudge, what truth, justice, charity, or prudence requires; but no honest man can ever be at a loss, whether truth, justice, charity and prudence are duties; and the contrary are vices. One may, through temptation, or mistake, do an action which is not conformable to one, or other of these virtues, and yet be a virtuous man; but a course of actions contrary to these virtues, shews one to be in his heart a vicious man. His conduct proceeds not from an error of judgment, but from a love of wickedness.
Since then it may be presumed, that those errors of conscience, which men, under the light of revelation, frequently plead in defence of their wrong conduct, usually proceed from some faulty disposition of heart, it is important to enquire, what the causes of these errors may be.
1. Some are led to mistake the truth by their manner of examining it. They are not wholly void of thought; but they think superficially, and conclude hastily. They judge according to the first appearance, without taking a full view of their subject. They enquire a little, and presume much, and thus work themselves into a persuasion false in its nature, and vicious in its tendency.
They conclude, that such an action may in them be innocent, because they see no ill consequences which will probably ensue from it; but never contemplate the consequences of a general allowance of similar actions. They never stop to consider, that every other man has the same right which they have, to claim this liberty of acting; that this liberty every where indulged, would throw the world into confusion; and that a principle, which, carried into general operation, would produce misery and, vice, must be false and immoral. They think only for themselves, and therefore think partially, which is little better-sometimes worse than not to think at all; because their chief object in think
ing is to obtain for themselves a greater liberty of acting. This superficial enquiry is unbecoming the dignity of rational beings, who, in all matters of importance—in matters which concern their highest interest, ought to proceed with caution and deliberationnot with rashness and presumption. And the man who embraces error, only because he has not diligently sought for truth, can never avail himself of that error as an excuse for his sins.
2. Indifference and carelessness is another cause of error.
A great part of mankind have little sense of the importance of religion, and little concern to understand what it is, or to learn whether there be any such thing. Hence they are inattentive to the means and negligent of the opportunities of gaining a right knowledge in the case. In this indolent and easy state of mind, they suffer their judgments to be wholly swayed by their inclinations, or by the opinions of others, and especially by the reasoning of the licentious and profane. And instead of subduing their passions into obedience to their conscience, they yield up conscience to the direction of passion. Instead of judging for themselves what is right, they are content, that any man should judge for them, if he will only give them an agreeable latitude, and not impose any uneasy restraints.
3. Pride is another spring of error. This leads men into error in various ways, according to the various forms which it assumes.
It sometimes gives men an affectation of singularity, and excites in them an ambition to be thought wiser than their neighbors. Under the influence of this foolish vanity, they disdain to think with the vulgar and adopt common opinions; and they run blind and headlong into error only for the sake of appearing independent and being thought very knowing. When we see the learned thus turning infidels, or hereticks, in mere ostentation, we lament, that their pride should pervert their talents. But when we see those who have read little and thought less-have read perhaps a wicked pamphlet, but not the serious answer,
aping the pride and self-importance of the infidel, with all our - pity, we cannot withhold our contempt.
Some persist in their ignorance, or error, because they despise instruction, and think it humiliating to submit to correction from