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and yet, secondly, such as that their want of being sensible of them does not excuse or make them cease to be sins. All this, in truth, is no other than the regular effect of sinful habits. Such is the power of
. custom over our consciences, that there is, perhaps, hardly any bad action, which a man is capable of committing, that he may not commit so often as to become unconscious of its guilt, as much as of the most indifferent thing which he does. If some very great and atrocious crimes may be thought exceptions to this observation, and that no habit or custom can by any possibility reconcile them to the human conscience, it is only because they are such as cannot, from their very nature, be repeated so often, by the same person, as to become familiar and habitual : if they could, the consequence would be the same; they would be no more thought of by the sinner himself than other habitual sins are. But great outrageous crimes against life, for instance, and property and public safety, may be laid out of the question, as not falling, I trust and believe, within the case of any one who hears me, and as in no case whatever capable of being so common as to be fair experiments of the strength of our observation. These are not what compose our account with God. A man may be (as indeed most men are) quite free from the crimes of murder, robbery, and the like, and yet be far from the kingdom of God. I fear it may be said, of most of us, that the class of sins which compose our account with God are habitual sins; habitual omissions and habitual commissions. Now it is true, of both these, that we may have continued in them so long, they may have become so familiar to us by repetition, that we think nothing at all of them. neglect any duty till we forget that it is one: we may neglect our prayers, we may neglect our devotion; we
may neglect every duty' towards God, till we become so unaccustomed and unused to them as to be insensible that we are incurring any omission, or contracting, from that omission, any guilt which can hurt; and yet we may be, in truth, all the while "treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath.” thousands, for instance, by omitting to attend the sacrament, have come not to know, that it forms any part of Christian obligation : and long disuse and discontinuance would have the same effect upon any other duty, however plain might be the proof of it when the matter came to be considered.
It is not less so with sins of commission. Serious minds are shocked with observing with what complete unconcern and indifference many forbidden things are practised. The persons who are guilty of them do not, by any mark or symptom whatever, appear to feel the smallest rebuke of conscience, or to have the least sense of either guilt or danger or shame in what they do; and it not only appears to be so, but it is so. They are, in fact, without any notice, consciousness, or compunction, upon the subject. These sins, therefore, if they be such, are secret sins to them. But are they not therefore sins ? That becomes the next great question. We must allow, because fact proves it, that habit and custom can destroy the sense and perception of sin. Does the act then, in that person, , cease to be any longer a sin? This must be asserted by those who argue that nothing can be a sin but what is known and understood, and also felt and perceived to be so, by the sinner himself at the time, and who, consequently deny that there are any secret sins in our sense of that expression. Now mark the consequences which would follow from such an opinion. It is then the timorous beginner in wicked courses who alone is to be brought to account.
Can such a
doctrine be maintained ? Sinners are called upon by preachers of the Gospel, and over and over again called upon, to compare themselves with themselves, themselves at one time with themselves at another ; their former selves, when they first entered upon sinful allowances, and their present selves since they have been confirmed in them.-- With what fear and scruple and reluctance, what sense and acknowledgment of wrong, what apprehension of danger, against what remonstrance of reason, and with what opposition and violence to their religious principle, they first gave way to temptation! With what ease, if ease it may be called, at least with what hardness and unconcern, they now continue in practices which they once dreaded! in a word, what a change, as to the particular article in question at least, has taken place in their moral sentiments! Yet, notwithstanding this change in them, the reason, which made what they are doing a sin, remains the same that it was at first: at first they saw great force and strength in that reason; at present they see none; but, in truth, it is all the while the same. Unless, therefore, we will choose to say that a man has only to harden himself in his sins (which thing perseverance will always do for him), and that with the sense he takes away the guilt of them, and that the only sinner is the conscious, trembling, affrightened, reluctant sinner; that the confirmed sinner is not a sinner at all; unless we will advance this, which affronts all principles of justice and sense, we must confess that secret sins are both possible and frequent things; that, with the habitual sinner, and with every man, in so far as he is, and in that article in which he is, an habitual sinner, this is almost sure to be the case.
What then are the reflections suitable to such a case? First, to join most sincerely with the Psalmist in his prayer to God, “O cleanse thou me from my secret faults.” Secondly, to see, in this consideration, the exceedingly great danger of evil habits of all kinds. It is a dreadful thing to commit sins without knowing it, and yet to have those sins to answer for ; that is dreadful ; and yet is no other than the just consequence and effect of sinful habits. They destroy in us the perception of guilt: that experience proves. They do not destroy the guilt itself : that no man can argue, because it leads to injustice and absurdity.
How well does the Scripture express the state of an habitual sinner, when he calls him, “dead in trespasses and sins!” His conscience is dead: that, which ought to be the living, actuating, governing principle of the whole man, is dead within him: is extinguished by the power of sin reigning in his heart. He is incapable of perceiving his sins, whilst he commits them with greediness. It is evident that a vast alteration must take place in such a man before he be brought into the way of salvation.
It is a great change from innocence to guilt, when a man falls from a life of virtue to a life of sin; but the recovery from it is much greater ; because the very secrecy of our sins to ourselves, the unconsciousness of them, which practice and custom and repetition and habit have produced in us, is an almost insurmountable hinderance to an effectual reformation.
SERIOUSNESS OF DISPOSITION NECESSARY.
LUKE, iii. 15. But that on the good ground are they, who in an
honest and good heart, having heard the word,
keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience. Іт may
be true that a right religious principle produces corresponding external actions, and yet it may not be true that external actions are what we should always or entirely or principally look to for the
purpose of estimating our religious character; or from whence alone we should draw our assurance and evi. dence of being in the right way.
External actions must depend upon ability, and must wait for opportunity. From a change in the heart, a visible outward change will ensue: from an amendment of disposition an amended conduct will follow; but it may neither be so soon, nor so evident, nor to such a degree, as we may at first sight expect, inasmuch as it will be regulated by occasions and by ability. I do not mean to say (for I do not believe it to be so that there is any person so forlorn and destitute as to have no good in his power : expensive kindnesses may not; but there is much kindness which is not expensive; a kindness of temper, a readiness to oblige, a willingness to assist, a constant inclination to promote the comfort and satisfaction of all who are about us, of all with whom we have concern or connexion, of all with whom we associate or con