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inasmuch as God is greater than our hearts,' his knowledge is of greater extent than ours, he knoweth all things. But, if our hearts condemn us not,' after close and impartial examination of our conduct, then have we,' with good reason, confidence towards God;' not doubting but that he will freely grant whatsoever we may properly ask of him, so long as we keep his commandments, doing those things that are pleasing in his sight. In discoursing further, it may be proper,
I. To state the nature and quality of a sure conscience, or clear conscience, or what we commonly call a good con- , science.
II. To set forth the advantage and comfort of it.
I. The nature of a sure or clear conscience ought to be first justly stated, lest we should mistake shadow for substance, appearances for realities, presumption and yain confidence for truth and soberness. The Apostle points out the general nature of a good conscience by this mark; that our hearts condemin us not,' and that we know that we are of the truth ;' know it by some certain rule, namely, by this, that we keep God's commandments, doing that which is pleasing in his sight. Here is a rule given, whereby we may first measure our conduct; and if our conduct be found, upon a just examination, to square with that rule, then our consciences are clear, and we may look up with a becoming confidence to God. This is a matter of great weight, and of the last importance: and yet there is no where more room for self-flattery, and self-deceit. It is extremely natural for a person to bring in a verdict in favour of himself, when he has made no examination at all, or a very superficial one, or however not so strict and severe a scrutiny as an affair of such delicacy, and withal of such moment, deserves. A man will often call it acting according to his conscience, when he acts according to his present persuasion, without ever examining how he came by that persuasion ; whether through wrong education, custom, or example; or whether from some secret lust, pride, or prejudice, rather than from the rule of God's written word, or from a principle of right reason. This cannot justly be called keeping a good conscience ; for, we ought not to take up false persuasions at all adventures, and then to make those persuasions our rule of life, instead of that rule which God hath given us to walk by. It may, perhaps, be said, that St. Paul himself has
warranted that way of speaking: for though he had once very wrongfully and grievously, under rash and false persuasion, persecuted the Church of God, yet he scrupled not to say, upon a certain occasion, afterwards, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God, until this day.' [Acts xxiii. 1.] But as there is no necessity of construing the words in that large sense, so there are good reasons to persuade us, that St. Paul hath no such meaning. How frequently does he charge himself in his Epistles, as having been a very grievous sinner, yea chief of sinners,' [1 Tim. i. 15], on account of his having once persecuted the Church of God? How then could he modestly pretend, or with truth say, that he had lived in all good conscience, all his life, to that day? At other times, whenever the same Apostle speaks of his having a good conscience, he constantly understood it with a view only to what he had done as a Christian, in his converted state. • Herein,' says he, do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men.' [Acts xxiv. 16.) This was said, in the way of answer to the false accusations of the Jews, like as the former, and occurs in the chapter next following: and the words plainly relate only to Christian conversation; not to his former Jewish one. He had lived in all good conscience, with respect to what the Jews had accused him of: for, neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple, neither yet against Cæsar, had he offended any thing at all,' [Acts xxv. 8,] from the time of his conversion to Christ. So, St. Paul's phrase of a good conscience did not mean merely the living up to one's persuasion, of whatever kind it were, but living up to a just and well-grounded persuasion of what is consonant to the will of God. If a person acts merely according to his present ill-grounded persuasion, which he never seriously and impartially examined into, he cannot be properly said to maintain a good conscience; because, if he has any self-reflection at all, his conscience must smite him, and his own heart condemn him, for not taking more care to inform himself better. Every person is in duty bound to prove all things, so far as, humanly speaking, in his circumstances, he may, in order both to admit and to hold fast that which is good.' [1 Thess. v. 21.] It is deceiving ourselves to imagine that we have a good conscience, when we have used no reasonable care in examining whether it be a right conscience, a wellgrounded persuasion that we proceed upon, or not.
There is another common method of self-deceit, when a person, who well enough understands the rule he is to go by, yet forgets to apply it to his own particular case, and so speaks peace to himself, all the while that he transgresses it. It is irksome and painful to make home reflections; and it is a much easier way to take it for granted, that we have done nothing amiss, than to be critical, and prying into our own bosoms. King Saul could say confidently, even after the prophet Samuel had reproved him, that he had obeyed the voice of the Lord, and had gone the way
which the Lord sent him.' (1 Sam. xv. 20.] He had done it indeed in part; and, under a kind of confusion of thought, (natural or artificial,) he was disposed to pass that part off, for the whole, till his mistake was pressed so close upon him, that there was no room for evasion. A much better man, David, after two very grievous transgressions, appeared to be under the like insensibility, and the like self-confidence, (either blinded by the height of his station, or the strength of his passions,) till the prophet Nathan, by an affecting parable, showed him his mistake, and then charged the matter home to him, by saying, Thou art the man.' 2 Sam. xii. 7. There is a kind of fascination in self-flattery, for the time, which makes a man blind to his own failings, and prompts him to speak peace to himself, when he has no foundation for it, but a fond presumption, or an overweening vanity.
But the way to have solid and abiding satisfaction, is first to examine ourselves, strictly and impartially, by the rule of God's commandments, in order to see clearly how far we have come up to it; or how far, and in what instances, we have transgressed it, or come short of it. If, after a strict scrutiny, we can pronounce assuredly, that our heart is right, and our ways good, (due allowances only made for sins of daily incursion, or human infirmities,) we may then presume to think, that we have a clear conscience in the main, and such as may embolden us to look up with a good degree of confidence towards God, as one that will mercifully accept of our prayers here, and of our souls and bodies hereafter. No doubt but a serious considerate man may know when he behaves as he ought to do, and may reap the comfort of it: and though we are none of us without sin, of one kind or other, but in many things we offend all, yea more than we know off; yet a good life is easily distinguished from the life of the ungodly, and a state of grace from a state of sin: and so is room enough left for the joy of a good conscience, where men live as becometh the gospel of Christ, perfecting holiness,' to such a degree as man can be perfect, in the fear of God.'
II. Having thus stated the vature, and cleared the meaning of a good conscience, I now proceed to discourse of the comforts of it. These are pointed out, in very expressive words, by the Apostle in the text If our hearts condemn us not, then have we confidence towards God; and whatsoever we ask, we receive of him.' What greater comfort can there be than conscious virtue, drawing after it the favour, the countenance, the friendship, of God, in whom all happiness centres, and upon whom all things entirely depend? If God be with us, who can be against us? What friends can we want, while in him we have all that is truly valuable? Or what blessings can we desire, but what he is both willing and able to shower down upon us, only leaving it to him to judge what is safest and most convenient for us? Whatsoever a good man asks in faith, if it be for his soul's health, that he is sure to receive; as the Apostle in the text inform us. Will he ask temporal blessings? He may, but with reserve and caution; not forgetting to add these or the like words: 'Yet not my will, but thine be done. Will he ask rather (as sure he will) spiritual blessings, as pardon and grace, holiness here, happiness hereafter? Those he may ask earnestly, absolutely, freely, and without reserve; and is sure to be heard in doing it, so long as he keeps God's commandments. There is no pleasure in life comparable to that which arises in a good man's breast, from the sense of his keeping up a friendly intercourse, a kind of familiar acquaintance, with God. I do not mean an irreverent familiarity, such as hath been seen in hypocrites or wild enthusiasts; and which is as different from the true filial reverence, as the affected cringings, or nauseous freedoms of a parasite, are from the open, decent, humble, deportment of a respectful admirer. The text expresses a good man's comfort, by his having confidence towards God:' and in the next ehapter, the same Apostle says, “ Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgement,'
or against the day of judgement: " because as he is, so are we in this world :? that is to say, We are in the same interests with him, are his retainers, and domestics of his family and house. hold. The Apostle adds, " There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.' 1 John iv, 17, 18. I have cited these other texts for the clearer apprehending of what the confidence towards God means. To make it still plainer, I may add, that, like as a dutiful and obedient child, conscious of a parent's love, and of the reciprocal affection there is between them, approaches not with fearful looks, or down-cast dread, but comes with smiles in his countenance, and joy in every gesture; so a truly good man appears in God's presence, under a joyous sense of the divine love towards him, and has none of those dreadful apprehensions which guilty men have, or ought to have, as often as they come before him. An awful distance there ought indeed to be between the creature and his Creator : but where a union of wills and affections has made us (as it were) one with Christ, who is essentially one with God, then that awful distance brings no torment with it, but rather fills the mind with inexpressible joy and admiration.
But the greater comfort of a good conscience is, the more solicitous ought we to be, that we proceed upon sure grounds, in the judgement which we make of ourselves; and that we mistake not presumption, or self-admiration, for true peace of mind. Many marks might be mentioned, whereby to distinguish ope from the other: but it may suffice to point out one which is the surest of any; namely, growth in goodness, growth in grace. The progress of the Christian life is gradual ; and our highest attainments here are å still growing perfection. Examine your title to the comforts of a good conscience by this rule, and you shall find it will not deceive you. If we are daily improving in wisdom and virtue, gaining ground of our vices or passions more and more ; if we find ourselves more patient under adversity, and less puffed up in the day of prosperity; if we perceive, that we can bear affronts or injuries with more calmness and unconcernedness, and are more disposed than formerly, to forget and forgive; if we have greater command over our appetites, and can take delight in temperance, soberness, and chastity; if instead of doing wrong to any man, we find ourselves more and more