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SERMON XXV.

A good Life the surest Title to a good Conscience.

i John iii. 21, 22.

Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence to

ward God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.

of a good conscience, and the comforts of it. The Apostle had been before speaking of assuring our hearts before God by the strongest evidences possible, by a true and unfeigned love of the brethren. “Hereby," says he, "we know that we are of the “ truth, and shall assure our hearts,” that is, pacify our consciences,

“ before him.” Then he adds, “ For if our own hearts “ condemn us,” God will much more condemn us : 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 toward “ God;" not doubting but that he will freely grant whatsoever we may properly ask of him, so long as “we keep his command

ments, doing those things that are pleasing in his sight.” Such appears to be the tour or turn of the Apostle's sentiments,

collected from the text and context. 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 conscience. 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 vain confidence for truth and soberness.

The Apostle points out the general nature of a good conscience by this mark; that “ our hearts condemn 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 selfflattery 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 be justly 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 daya." But as there is no

· Acts xxiii. I.

necessity of construing the words in that large sense ; so there are good reasons to persuade us, that St. Paul had no such meaning. How frequently does he charge himself, in his Epistles, as having been a very grievous sinner, yea, “ chief of sin

ners b," 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 mene." 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 fol lowing: and the words plainly relate only to his 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 alld,” 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 e.” 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 well-grounded 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

bı Tim. i. 15.

c Acts xxiv. 16.

d Acts xxy. 8.

e 1 Thess. v. 21.

66 the

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 way

which the Lord sent him f.” 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 than he, (I mean 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, shewed him his mistake, and then charged the matter home to him by saying, “ Thou art the man g." There is a kind of fascination in selfflattery, 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.

I am aware of a difficulty which may arise from some words of St. Paul, which at first hearing may appear to clash with the doctrine of the text, as I have been expounding it. St. Paul says, “I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by “ myself ; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth ó me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, s until the Lord come,” &c. h Do not these words sound, as if

i Sam. xv. 20.

8 2 Sam. xii. 7.

h

1 Cor. iv. 3, 4, 5

no certain judgment could or ought to be made by any man of his own spiritual state to Godwards? And if so, what becomes of the comfort of a good conscience ? Or how can we have that “ confidence toward God” which the text speaks of? In answer to the seeming difficulty, I may observe, first, that it is certain St. Paul could not mean to detract from the joyous comfort of a good conscience, since he more than once declared expressly, that it was what he himself enjoyed, and he was fully assured of it: besides that no man ever expressed a more satisfactory assurance of his own final justification than he once did, in these words; “ I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have

kept the faith : henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of “ righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give

me at that day.” So far St. Paul: how then could he say, Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come,” if that were his meaning, that a man might not judge of his own spiritual state beforehand, nor speak peace to himself upon the strength of a clear conscience ? Those two suppositions are evidently contradictory to each other, and can never stand together. Wherefore we must of necessity look out for some other meaning of what St. Paul says, concerning the impropriety of judging any thing of ourselves before the final day of judgment. He was there speaking of the fulfilling the “work of the “ministry” with the utmost exactness; and he would have no man presume to judge beforehand that he had so fulfilled it : for though he should be able to espy nothing in himself wherein he had been to blame, had no sin to charge himself with on that head; yet that would not suffice to clear him perfectly, that is, to justify him in the strictest sense, because God might see faults, either of omission or commission, which the man himself might not be aware of : therefore, says the Apostle, “judge nothing" as to your faithful fulfilling your duty in every point,“ before “ the time:" presume not so far : God only can judge whether you have been altogether free from blame in that article. So the meaning of the Apostle, in that place, was only to check vain presumption, and to prevent proud boasting: and it comes almost to the same with what St. James says, “ In many things we “ offend all k ;” and what St. John says, “ If we say that we have

no sin, we deceive ourselves,” &c.': or to what the Psalmist

i 2 Tim. iv. 7, 8.

i James ill. 2.

1 i John i. 8.

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