« ÎnapoiContinuați »
statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes: the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and the honey-comb. Moreover, by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.”*
After this account of the Scriptures, the general truth of which has not been disputed among Protestants, you will be surprised to be told that they are not an adequate rule of conscience. So bishop Sanderson asserts, in his celebrated treatise De Obligatione Conscientiæ ; and I know not how many others. The word, adequate, signifies in English, and in Latin from which it is derived, equal, proportioned, and conveys the idea of something fully adapted to its end. It therefore sounds strangely in our ears to affirm, that the Scriptures are not an adequate rule, and we are curious to learn the reasons. The first is, that an adequate rule supersedes the necessity of any other; but there is another rule, namely, the light of nature, which is a law to the heathens. According to this wonderful reasoning, no system of rules, however perfect, can be adequate to direct us in practising an art, if there should happen to be another system, although greatly inferior to it. Perhaps this writer affixed a new and unusual meaning 10 the term, or rather, he seems to have confounded two words which are totally distinct-only and adequate. It is not true that the Scriptures are the only rule of conscience, because those “ who have not the written law, are a law to themselves ;' but it is true that they are an adequate rule, because they contain a perfect revelation of the will of God respecting our duty. Another reason is taken from the design of the Scriptures, which is to make us wise unto salvation; to direct us to spiritual ends; to excite us to perform those things which nature dictates, from the higher principles of love to God, and faith in Christ; whereas the office of conscience, it is said, is to consider actions, not as spiritual, but as moral; and to inquire, not whether they are performed from charity, and to a spiritual end, but whether they are good or evil, lawful or unlawful. From the latter part of this argument, it would appear that conscience has to do with our actions, but not with our motives, than which nothing is more manifestly false; and the former part of it, although brought forward with an opposite design, actually proves that the Scriptures are an adequate rule, because they carry morality to the greatest possible perfection. It is unnecessary to attend to his other reasons, as you are, I presume, satisfied with the specimen which you have heard. It will naturally occur to you, that there must have been some cause which led a man esteemed wise and learned, to argue so inconclusively; and he has not been at pains to conceal it. If the Scriptures are the adequate rule of conscience, it will follow, that nothing is binding upon conscience which is not expressly or virtually enjoined in them. But this limitation would not have answered the purposes of his Church, which claims authority to decree rites and ceremonies in religion. If the Scriptures are an adequate, and consequently the only rule of conscience to those who enjoy them, these decrees will not be binding; but, if you can contrive to show that the Scriptures are sufficient only for certain ends, and that there are other things for which a different rule is wanted, you may succeed in subjecting Christians to the doctrines and commandments of men. Thus even great men, under the influence of prejudice and self-interest, do not regulate their opinions by the Scriptures, but pervert and misrepresent them to favour their opinions. And thus, even among Protestants there remains not a little of the spirit of Popery; for the steps which make way for the admission of the authority of the Church to enjoin any thing as necessary in
Ps. xix. 7-11.
religion, which God has not commanded, led by degrees to the establishment of the antichristian system, under which the traditions of the fathers, the decrees of councils, and the bulls of the Popes, were exalted to a level with the commands of Christ and his apostles.
The word of God is a rule, and, to speak properly, the only rule of conscience to Christians; other rules, which are obligatory, deriving all their authority from it. To this rule we are bound to yield unhesitating obedience; and when we comply with its duties, we do what is acceptable to God. But here a question arises, Whether the commands of conscience are binding, not only when it is enlightened by the Scriptures, but when it errs, and calls good evil, and evil good? This point requires to be treated with great caution; but, however strange it may at first appear, we do not see how
we can come to any other conclusion but this, that men ought to act according to its dictates at all times, when there is no doubt or suspense in their minds; if the case is not clear, it is evident that they should wait till, by the due use of means, they have ascertained what is their duty. If conscience should pronounce any thing to be a sin which is not a sin, they ought to abstain, because they do not know the judgment to be erroneous, and would not be guiltless if they should act in opposition to it. The reason is, that supposing, as they do, the voice of conscience to be the voice of God, they could not transgress its orders, without expressly rebelling against what appeared to them to be the authority of God. “I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean."'* The apostle is speaking of an action which was not sinful in itself, and yet he declares that it was sinful to the man whose conscience pronounced it to be such. The judgment of conscience does not change the nature of actions, but it changes them to us; because the authority of God seems to us to be interposed either to command or to forbid. In the case to which Paul referred, the sin did not consist properly in the action itself, but in doing it in the persuasion that it was sinful. The judgment of conscience may be false, but we think it true; and in disregarding it, we disregard the Lord of conscience.
The observation, that the judgment of conscience does not change the nature of actions, paves the way for the resolution of the question, whether the general obligation to obey the dictates of conscience, will exculpate us, when the action which conscience enjoins is in itself unlawful. Conscience, let it be remembered, is only a subordinate rule, to which we are properly under a moral obligation to yield obedience, only when it is conformable to the supreme rule; and the obligation of which we speak, results solely from the supposition of its conformity. It is not, as has been said, regula regulans, but regula regulata. An appeal may be always made from its decisions to the word of God; and as soon as a difference is discovered between its dictates and those of Scripture, the sentence which it has pronounced is made void. Hence it is plain, that the plea of conscience will not avail to exempt us from guilt and punishment. And this, we may observe, is the unhappy situation of those whose consciences are not duly enlightened, that they sin whatever they do, in disregarding the voice of conscience and in obeying it; a consideration which should excite every man to use the greatest diligence to ascertain what is his duty, and to pray for the Divine Spirit, who is promised to lead us into all truth. If I have made use of the word, obligation, in the present case, from the remarks connected with it there is no danger of mistaking its import. It does not, and cannot mean, that an erring conscience will justify us in doing what is morally wrong. The law of God is immutable. Our views
* Rom. xiv. 14.
of it may be incorrect; but no man would suppose, in any similar case, that misapprehension of the law could exempt a transgressor from the penalty. Paul, before his conversion, “ verily thought that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus,” being persuaded that Jesus was an impostor, and his disciples were apostates from the true religion. What he did, he did from conscience; yet he declares that he was a “ blasphemer, a persecutor, and an injurious person," who needed forgiveness, and was pardoned only through the mercy of God.*
There are persons to whom what has now been said would appear highly objectionable. What, they would ask, should a man act according to the dictates of an erring conscience? No; he ought to disobey it, and to regulate his conduct by the law of God. There are, however, some sayings which have an imposing sound, but when they come to be examined, are found to have little or no meaning, and this, I apprehend, is one of them. Those who have it most frequenily in their mouths, it is to be presumed have never considered it. If they have any meaning, which is questionable, it must be this, that, if a man knows that his conscience is in an error, he ought not to obey it. But here they have no antagonists, and the case supposed is impossible, because, as soon as the error is discovered, it is corrected. To suppose a man's conscience to prescribe to him any action, after he knows it to be wrong, is absurd. What else do they mean? Is it that a man ought not to obey his conscience, although he believes its dictates to be right? What is this, but entirely to subvert its authority? No; they will reply, we only assert that it should not be obeyed when it is contrary to the law of God. But, in the mean time, we are persuaded that it is agreeable to the law, and yet we are told that we should pay no respect to its commands. We entertain no doubt, and yet should refrain from acting. We believe that God is speaking to us, but should sit still and fold our hands, because, in reality, he is not speaking, and we have mistaken another voice for his. But, if this reasoning, which is in reality devoid of meaning, be admitted, I am at a loss to conceive in what case we should obey conscience; for we never can be more sure of our duty than we at present are, although we may be sure on better grounds. The conviction, however, is the same, and must therefore either bind, or leave us at liberty in both cases.
Upon the whole, it appears that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in every thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith and worship.” Such is the doctrine of our Confession of Faith, and of sound reason; for nothing can be sin or duty, with which alone conscience is concerned, but what is such in virtue of the law of the moral Governor of the universe. It
may be questioned, whether the Confession is consistent with itself, when it ascribes to the civil magistrate a power “to call to account, and proceed against those who publish opinions contrary to the known principles of Christianity,"S and "to take order that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God be duly settled, administered, and observed.”l! These passages would require an ample commentary ; but, in the close of this lecture, I have only time to remark, that a power is given to the magistrate to restrain and punish not only crimes against the peace of society, but opinions contrary to the truth, that is, to what he conceives to be the truth. What then can be plainer, than that he is constituted Lord of the consciences of his subjects? It belongs to him to tell them what they should believe and profess. If it be said
Acts xxvi. 9.
+ Tim. i. 13.
Conf. chap. xx. & 2.
that he is to exercise this power according to the word of God, I answer, that it is according to the word interpreted by himself and his advisers; and consequently, their dogmas are the rule of our faith. If it be said again, that he does not interfere with conscience itself, but with our profession and practice, I answer, in the first place, that he cannot interfere directly with conscience itself, which, being an internal principle, is beyond his reach, and we owe him no thanks for not doing what is impossible; and, in the second place, that, to interfere with our profession is to interfere with conscience, because conscience calls us to avow what we believe to be true, and to act conformably to it; and this he will not allow. Such is a specimen of the shuffling methods by which it has been attempted to defend the Confession of Faith against the charge of contradicting itself, and taking away with the one hand what it has given with the other. I must add, however, that while the Church of Scotland holds the Confession, without explanation, the Church to which we belong has cleared herself from this inconsistency, by expunging from her creed every expression which imports the power of using compulsory measures in religion. We can honestly maintain, that God alone is Lord of the conscience, while we hold that our faith, and worship, and obedience, are to be regulated, not by the decrees of councils, and the edicts of magistrates, but by the supreme and infallible standard of Scripture.
ON CONSCIENCE; PEACE OF CONSCIENCE; AND SPIRITUAL JOY.
Different States in which Conscience may Exist–Peace of Conscience, distinguished from
mere Security, founded on Justification, and proportioned to the growth of Sanctification -Spiritual Joy: its sources; means of securing it.
My remarks upon conscience have extended farther than I expected, and I am therefore under the necessity of resuming the subject in this lecture, as there are several things not yet noticed, which are worthy of attention. Conscience is essentially the same in all men; but, like our other faculties, it exists in different states, and under a variety of modifications. I shall proceed to point out the distinctions which are commonly mentioned.
First, Conscience is distinguished into antecedent and consequent. Antecedent conscience is this faculty exercising its office in reference to actions to be performed, and pronouncing them to be lawful or unlawful. In this view, it is called a light within us, a law engraven on the heart, an impression made by the hand of God. Consequent conscience is the faculty exercising its office in reference to actions when they are past. It then pronounces them to be good or bad, worthy of praise or of blame, of reward or of punishment. In this view it is called an accuser, a witness, a judge. The design of the two epithets is to specify the two provinces assigned to conscience in the soul of man; namely, to warn him against sin, and excite him to his duty; and to approve of him or condemn him, according as he has regarded or disregarded its voice.
Secondly, Conscience is distinguished into enlightened or right, and erring. A right or enlightened conscience is properly instructed in the nature and ex. tent of our duty, and its judgments are conformable to truth. I need hardly remark, that the source of the light which shines in it, is the Word of God. An erring conscience is mistaken in its judgments, and calls good evil and evil good. We have an example of an erring conscience in Paul before his conversion, who, “verily thought,” or whose conscience dictated to him, that he should oppose the religion and persecute the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth; and an example also in all the unbelieving Jews, who had “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge."* The errors of conscience arise from ignorance of Scripture, from misapprehension of its meaning, from the adoption of human opinions as the standard of conduct, and from the influence of the appetites and passions, by which the understanding is blinded and perverted. To this subject the following words of our Saviour refer: “If the light which is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness !”+ The light which is in us, is conscience; and if it be darkened by error, our condition is truly pitiable, as we shall then wander into devious paths, and at the same time proceed with the greatest confidence, being fully persuaded that it is directing us aright.
In the third place, Conscience is distinguished into firm or assured, and doubting. By the former, we understand a conscience which has a clear perception of duiy, and is embarrassed with no difficulties respecting the decision to which it ought to come. We have seen, indeed, that an erring conscience may be fully assured, and it often happens that men are never more confident than when they are egregiously wrong; but we are speaking at present of a conscience which proceeds upon the footing of clear, unquestionable evidence. There is no room for doubt, whether we should sanctify the Sabbath, obey our parents, pay our just debts, and relieve the necessities of the poor. But occasions occur when the mind has nothing to guide its decisions but conjectures and probabilities; occasions, when the equality of the reasons on both sides of a question leaves it in a state of suspense; occasions, when the arguments on one side preponderate, but some little difficulty, to which greater importance is attached than it deserves, hinders the mind from coming to a satisfactory conclusion. In all these cases, conscience is subject to doubt, more or less strong, according to the degree of the evidence for and against. And here I may take notice of what is called a scrupulous conscience, or a conscience which is in constant perplexity, making objections to every thing, startling at shadows, suspecting evil in what is perfectly innocent, and never able to decide whether what it does is lawful or unlawful. It arises from weakness of intellect, from melancholy of temperament, from gloomy ideas of religion, from the spirit of superstition, from the prejudices of education which have established an arbitrary standard of morality, and from associating with the timid and narrowminded. It is a cause of torment to the person himself, and a plague to those around him, who are perpetually in danger of offending him, and upon whose liberty he is incessantly endeavouring to encroach.
In the fourth place, Conscience may be distinguished into timid and delicate. These terms are sometimes confounded, but they convey different ideas. A timid conscience is easily alarmed, acts with hesitation, and is full of suspicions that there is something wrong in our actions. It must therefore disquiet the bosom in which it resides. A delicate, or tender conscience, is not a troublesome inmate, but a vigilant guide amidst the snares and dangers of life. It is feelingly alive to the calls of duty, and recoils even from the appearance of evil. It shrinks with instinctive sensibility from the touch of pol. lution. It is like a polished surface, on which the slightest breath is seen; it is like the eye, which is hurt by a mote, and makes an instantaneous effort to eject it. Tenderness of conscience does not resemble the soreness of a dis. eased part, but the nice discrimination of those organs which are most amply
* Acts xxvi. 9. Rom. x. 2. Vol. II.-35
+ Matt. vi. 23.