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The abuses of Conscience considered.
HEBREW s, xiii. 18.
For we trust we have a good conscience..
-Trust we have a good conscience!Surely, you will say, if there is any thing in this life which a man may depend upon, and to the knowledge of which he is capable of arriving, upon the most indisputable evidence, it must be this very thing,—Whether he has a good conscience or no.
If a man thinks at all, he cannot well be a stranger to the true state of this account :-He must be privy to his own thoughts and desiresHe must remember his past pursuits, and know certainly the true springs and motives, which, in general, have governed the actions of his life.
In other matters, we may be deceived by false appearances; and, as the wise man complains, Hardly do we guess aright at the things that are upon the earth, and with labor do we find the things that are before us.▬▬▬▬▬ -But here, the mind has all the evidence and facts within herself ;scious of the web she has wove ;texture and fineness, and the exact share which every passion has had in working upon the several designs which virtue or vice has planned before her.
-is con-knows its
Now, as conscience is nothing else but the knowledge which the mind has within itself of this; and the judgment, either of approbation or censure, which it unavoidably makes upon the successive actions of our lives,—it is plain, you will say, from the very terms of the proposition, whenever this inward testimony goes against a man, and he stands self-accused,- -that he must
necessarily be a guilty man. Ard on the contrary, when the report is favorable on his side, and his heart condemns him not,-that it is not a matter of trust, as the apostle intimates, but a matter of certainty and fact, that the conscience is good, and that the man must be good also.
At first sight, this may seem to be the true state of the case ;-and I make no doubt but the knowledge of right and wrong is so truly impressed upon the mind of man, that, did no such thing ever happen, as that the conscience of a man, by long habits of sin, might (as the scripture assures us it may) insensibly become hard; and, like some tender part of his body, by much stress and continual hard usage, lose, by degrees, that nice sense and perception with which GoD and nature endowed it :-Did this never happen ;-or, was it certain that self-love could never hang the least bias upon the judgment ;-or, that the little interests below, could raise up and perplex the faculties of our upper regions, and encompass them about with clouds and thick darkness:-Could no such thing as favor and affection enter this sacred court-Did WIT disdain to take a bribe in it, or was ashamed to show its face as an advocate for an unwarrantable enjoyment :- —Or, lastly, were we assured, that INTEREST stood always unconcerned whilst the cause was hearing,—And that PASSION never got into the judgment seat, and pronounced sentence in the tead of reason, which is supposed always to preside and determine upon the case :-Was this truly so, as the objection must suppose, no doubt, then the religious and moral state of a man would be exactly what he himself esteemed it ;—and the guilt or innocence of every man's life could be known, in general, by no better measure than the degrees of his own approbation or censure.
I own, in one case, whenever a man's consci
ence does accuse him (as it seldom errs on that side) that he is guilty; and, unless in melancholy and hypochondriac cases, we may safely pronounce, that there are always sufficient grounds for the accusation.
But the converse of the proposition will not hold true,namely, That wherever there is guilt, the conscience must accuse; and, if it does not that, a man is there fore innocent,―This is not fact: -So that the common consolation which some good christian or other is hourly administering to himself- -That he thanks GOD his mind does not misgive him ;-and that, consequently, he has a good conscience, because he has a quiet one As current as the inference is, and as infallible as the rule appears at first sight, yet when you look nearer to it, and try the truth of this rule upon plain facts,-you find it liable to so much error, from a false application of it; the principle on which it goes, so of ten perverted the whole force of it lost, and sometimes so vilely cast away, that it is painful to produce the common examples from human life which confirm this account.
A man shall be vicious, and utterly debauched in his principles ;-exceptionable in his conduct to the world-Shall live shameless,-in the open commission of a sin which no reason or pretence can justify;-a sin, by which, contrary to all the workings of humanity within, he shall ruin, for ever, the deluded partner of his guilt,-rob her of her best dowry ;-and not only cover her own head with dishonor, but involve a whole virtuous family in shame and sorrow for her sake.Surely, you will think, conscience must lead such a man a troublesome life :~He can have no rest, night or day, from its reproaches.
Alas! conscience had something else to do, all this time, than break in upon him; as Elijah res
proached the god Baal, this domestic god was either talking, or pursuing, or was in a journey, or peradventure he slept and could not be awoke.-Perhaps he was gone out in company with HONOR, to fight a duel;-to pay off some debt at play,— or dirty annuity, the bargain of his lust.-Perhaps, conscience, all this time, was engaged at home, talking aloud against petty larceny, and executing vengeance upon some such puny crimes as his fortune and rank in life secured him against all temptation of committing ;-so that he lives as merrily, sleeps as soundly in his bed,--and, at last, meets death with as much unconcern,--perhaps, much more so than a much better man.
Another is sordid, unmerciful ;--a strait-hearted, selfish wretch,-incapable either of private friendships, or public spirit.-Take notice how he passes by the widow and orphan in their distress; and sees all the miseries incident to human life, without a sigh or a prayer.-Shall not conscience rise up and sting him on such occasions? No.- -Thank GoD, there is no occasion. I pay every man his own;-I have no fornication to answer to my conscience ;'faithless vows or promises to make up ;-I have ' debauched no man's wife or child.―Thank God, 'I am not as other men, adulterers, unjust, or ' even as this libertine, who stands before me.'
A third is crafty and designing in his nature.— View his whole life, it is nothing else but a cunning contexture of dark arts and unequitable subterfuges, basely to defeat the true intent of all laws, plain-dealing, and the safe enjoyment of our several properties.-You will see such a one, working out a frame of little designs upon the ignorance and perplexities of the poor and needy man;-shall raise a fortune upon the inexperience of a youth, or the unsuspecting temper of his friend, who would have trusted him with his life.
-When old age comes on, and repentance calls him to look back upon this black account, and state it over again with his conscience- -conscience looks into the Statutes at Large,-finds, perhaps, no express law broken by what he has done, perceives no penalty or forfeiture incurred, sees no scourge waving over his head
or prison opening its gate upon him.--What is there to affright his conscience?-Conscience has got safely entrenched behind the letter of the law, sits there invulnerable, fortified with cases and reports so strongly on all sides,that it is not preaching can dispossess it of its hold.
Another shall want even this refuge,shall break through all this ceremony of slow chicane; scorns the doubtful workings of secret plots and cautious trains to bring about his purpose.-See the barefaced villian, how he cheats, lies, perjures, robs, murders-Horrid! But indeed, much better was not to be expected in this case.poor man was in the dark!. -his priest had got the keeping of his conscience, and all he had let him know of it was, That he must believe in the Pope;—go to mass ;-cross himself; tell his beads; -be a good Catholic; and that this in all conscience was enough to carry him to heaven. What if he perjures? Why,
he had a mental reservation in it. But if he is so wicked and abandoned a wretch as you represent him,if he robs, or murders, will not conscience, on every such act, receive a wound itself?Ay-but the man has carried it to confession, the wound digests there, and will do well enough,--and in a short time be quite healed up by absolution.
O Popery! what hast thou to answer for ?when, not content with the too many natural and fatal ways through which the heart is every day thus treacherous to itself above all things.