Imatges de pàgina

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 forgiveness. 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, there

fore, 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 himself, 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 farther prosecution of our subject will be deferred to another season.

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HEBREWS x111. 18.

We trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly.

We have stated the general nature and office of conscienceshewn the qualifications of a good conscience-and examined whether, and how far an error of conscience can excuse a wrong conduct.

We proceed,

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

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