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self to oppose it in plainer instances; and repeated opposition will terminate in absolute hardness.
A tender conscience checks men's first approaches to evil; it forbids suspicious actions; it feels a quick remorse at the remembrance of sin, and a deep concern to recover the favor of God. Peter, though his conscience neglected its office, when he was tempted to deny his Lord, felt its rebukes in the recollection of his conduct. When his Lord turned and looked upon him, struck with a sense of his baseness, he went out and wept bitterly.
6. A good conscience has a powerful and commanding influence, in distinction from one that is impotent, and subject to fleshly control.
A conscience which dictates only what pleases the corrupt inclinations, and which is studious to invent, or ready to admit, excuses for every evil action, is perverted and enslaved; it has lost, if not its discernment, yet, at least, its dominion. A good conscience acts with dignity, and asserts its power; it controls all subordinate principles, and will, itself, be controled by none of them; it will be reverenced and obeyed in its place, and not dethroned and trampled down, by passion and lust. A blind conscience can neither direct the conduct, nor give peace to the mind. An impotent conscience, prescribing duty, without ensuring compliance, may produce remorse ; but, still, it leaves the soul under guilt. It leads men to see what is good, but allows them to follow what is evil; and, though it has not power to command obedience, it has the justice to condemn transgression. Hence there is no peace to the wicked, but they are as a troubled sea which cannot rest. Borne away by the lusts and passions, it goes over to their interest, and pleads in their excuse : but, when these subside, it rises in sharp reproaches, which give pain, but effect no repentance. It was thus with Herod : when his false sense of honor urged him to behead the baptist, his conscience, though it feebly remonstrated at first, was soon bribed to justify the action under pretence of the religious obligation of a previous oath. But his conscience could not leave him quiet under this pretext.
Some time after, when his passions were cooled down, hearing of the miracles which Jesus was working in the country, his conscience rose from its slumbers, and goaded him with the terrors of guilt. He said, “This is John whom I have beheaded. He is risen from the dead.”
7. From these properties of a good conscience, will result peace and self-approbation, Great peace have they who love God's law. The work of righteousness is peace, and the effect of righteousness is quietness and assurance for ever. The rejoicing of the good christian is the testimony of his conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, he has had his conversation in the world.
We proceed, as was proposed,
III. To enquire, whether, and, if at all, how far an error of conscience excuses a wrong conduct.
That an error, in some cases, may mitigate, and yet not wholly excuse the evil conduct, which proceeds from it, is manifest from scripture.
Our Lord prays for his crucifiers, “ Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is here implied, that their conscience was misguided; “They knew not what they did.” But still they were guilty, for they needed forgiveness—“Father, forgive them.” But their error, or ignorance, was some extenuation of their guilt: it was not so highly aggravated, as if they had crucified the Saviour directly in the face of conscience. Hence their ignorance is pleaded as a reason for their obtaining forgive
Paul says of himself, “ He verily thought, that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus”—and, in pursuance of this false persuasion," he persecuted, imprisoned, and gave his voice to murder the saints.” But, though he acted according to a real persuasion of mind, still he was guilty before God. He calls himself, “ a persecuter, a blasphemer, injurious, the chief of sinners, less than the least of all saints, not worthy of the name of an apostle;" because he vexed the saints and was mad against them. His error, however, was a mitigation of his guilt, “ for he obtained mercy, because he did this ignorantly in unbelief." The Jews were deemed murderers, because they crucified the Lord of glory: but the apostles bear them witness, that
they did this through ignorance;" and that “they had a zeal of God, though not according to knowledge;" and, therefore, they exhort them to a repentance of this awful conduct. The exhortation, being grounded on a concession, that they did it through an ignorant and mistaken zeal, imports, that their hope of forgiveness was greater, than it could have been, if they had adopted the same conduct in opposition to knowledge then existing in their minds. The reason of the case is obvious. To do a wrong action, under the influence of an erroneous persuasion, does not discover the same obstinacy and perverseness, as to do the same against the existing light of the mind, and the actual remonstrance of the conscience: but, that this error, or misconception, should wholly excuse is unreasonable ; because an error of judgment, in an important point of duty, supposes some fault, defect, or obliquity in the will; such as prejudice, lust, negligence, or want of enquiry.
The guilt in following, or, rather, perhaps, in having an erroneous conscience, will be proportionable to the faultiness of the cause, from which it proceeds. If it proceeds from mere obstinacy and perverseness, in rejecting the means of information, it can hardly be supposed to abate the guilt at all; for a wilful rejection of the known' means of information, is much the same thing as opposition to duty after information. Total incapacity to obtain, or to apply the means, will, doubtless, wholly excuse.
They, to whom Christ has not spoken, have not the sin of unbelief. For external disadvantages, proportionable allowance, in the Divine estimation of guilt, will, undoubtedly, be made. Of men it is required according to what they have. As there is much, or little, given to them, much, or little, must be accounted for. The ignorance, or error, which proceeds from negligence, inattention, and the prejudice of custom, is certainly criminal, for the causes of it are so; but, it is not so criminal as if it arose from direct obstinacy; for the former do not indicate so criminal a temper, or incurable a state, as the latter. The conduct, therefore, proceeding from the latter, stands in the most heinous light. This seems to be the case stated and decided by our Saviour, when he says, " The servant, who knew his Lord's will, and prepared not bimself, shall be beaten with many stripes ; but he who knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For, to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more."
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