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that Gentiles, to whom no special' revelation has been made, are yet furnished with a power of moral discernment;-a rule, which is actually applied, in a greater or less degree, both to their own behavior, and to that of others. That it was applied to their own actions, appears from these words, “ Their consciences also bearing them witness; and that it was applied to the actions of others, is shown in what immediately follows, “ Their thoughts, the mean while, accusing, or else excusing one another.” By praising some actions, as virtuous, and condemning others as vicious, they implicitly acknowledge a difference between virtue and vice,—and that the one was of good, and the other of ill desert.
My present object is to consider the nature and power of that principle in man, which is usually denominated conscience, or the moral sense.
First, we shall inquire into the nature of this principle. That we may do this the more successfully, let me request you to direct your attention, for a few moments, to that difference, which is acknowledged to exist in human actions.
Some actions, you well know, are thought worthy of approbation; and others, of blame. This difference does not depend on the casual result of such actions; but on the intention, with which they are supposed to be performed. Were a person to exert himself for a long time, and with much industry, to advance the interest of his neighbors, or that of the public, and should be frustrated in his designs, by some casualty, which no sagacity could foresee, he could never blame himself for the event, nor reflect on his intentions and efforts with other feelings, than those of approbation; in both which respects, the feelings and judgment of all persons of sober reflection would correspond with his own. They could not but feel, that his endeavors had been such, as to entitle him to esteem. And, as for the unforeseen issue, they could no more contemplate that with censure, than he could with remorse. On the other hand, should a man form purposes, either of treachery, or treason,
and, by a seasonable discovery, or some unexpected occurrence, real good should result to those, who were to have been the victims of his crime, his own character, both to him self and others, must appear precisely the same, as if his purposes had been executed.. The emotions, with which the mind contemplates virtue or vice, are entirely different from those, with which it contemplates advantage or disadvantage, pleasure or pain. Men never seel remorse for misfortunes, as such, or for things, which are unavoidable. But, consequent on the perpetration of a crime, there is remorse, shame, self reproach, a sense of unworthiness. No man is afraid to meet himself, because he has been unfortunate; but thousands have dreaded solitude, after the performance of an impious, dishonest, cruel, or malignant action. Misfortunes may produce grief; but nothing but the consciousness of crime is followed by remorse.
The existence of these facts, as they fall within the observation of all men, will hardly be denied. From the rational nature, which God has given us, we perceive, a difference between virtue and vice as readily and as unavoidably, as between a mountain and a valley, between a crooked line and a straight one, between the light of day and the darkness of midnight. You never can bring the mind to judge of falsehood, injustice, ingratitude, and selfishness in general, as right, and worthy of praise ; nor of kindness, benevolence, and honesty, as wrong. This moral discernment of a difference in hunan actions; this judgment, which we forin of human conduct, whether or own, or that of others, requires neither long deliberation, extraordinary intellectual powers, nor a high degree of mental refinement. That ingratitude towards benefactors, and a cold indifference to the wants and sufferings of others, are qualities of ill desert and character, is as clearly apparent to the mind of a cottager, as to the apprehension of a statesman or prince.
Though the general distinction between virtue and vice may be considered, as intuitively apparent, and universally acknowledged, there may, doubtless, be an individual action,
whose circumstances and relations are such, as to render questionable its moral denomination. Such, in the apostolic age, was the eating of meals, which had been offered to idols; and the observance of particular days. So likewise may passion, or self interest, prevent men from judging rightly of their own deportment, on particular occasions, when the case itself involves no real difficulty.
That king David's moral discernment, as it respected human actions in general, was not impaired during the time of his apostacy and impenitence, appears by the promp decision, which he made in reference to the unfeeling oppressor, whose cruelty was portrayed in Nathan's parable. His own more aggravated offence, was viewed at the same time, without uneasiness or self reproach. As self interest may blind a judge, who, in ordinary cases, discerns with accuracy, and forms righteous decisions ; so may conscience be seduced to remain silent, or yield her assent to the claims of passion. “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God." Paul, before his conversion," verily thought, that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of the Lord Jesus.” The time has been, when other persecutors of truth have thought, that they were doing God service. But in none of these cases, can we suppose, that there was any physical inability to discern the will of God, and the consequent path of duty. No man sins through unavoidable ignorance. It may, perhaps, be considered, as universally true, that moral discernment never fails, but in consequence of a disordered heart..
This power of moral discernment, of which we are speaking is attended with present consequences of great moment,
, and has the most interesting relation to the retributions of another life. No sooner do we discern a right and wrong in human actions, than the one is approved, and the other condemned.
The actions of others may be condemned without pain to ourselves. But when this moral discernment is applied to our own actions, feeling, and character, the effects are sensibly felt. We are so constituted, that we
cannot, without uneasiness, see the right and follow the wrong. When reason and character are at variance; when acknowledged propriety and duty are on one side, and inclination and actions are on the other, a man finds himself unhappy, just in proportion as this disagreement is discerned and regarded. This dissatisfaction and self reproach is a punishment immediately consequent on his violating the law in the mind;-a punishment, which is increased, whether he contemplates God, who is the author of this law, or his fellow men, who, he knows, have the same law, and cannot but condemn every quality, or action, by which it is violated. Hence we see, with what propriety, this law in the mind has been said to be of such an extraordinary nature, as to execute itself. The sinner not only perceives, that there is a law; but he feels the effects of it. He is not only condemned, but punished by a tribunal cstablished in his own breast.
Besides, if we perceive a difference between right and wrong, it is certain, not only, that God must see the same difference; but that it is He, who enables us to perceive it. It may be considered, therefore, as a law, which has a divine author, and by which we are required to govern ourselves. The sinner, therefore, not only condemns himself, but is conscious of being under the condemnation of God; who sees far more distinctly than he can, the beauty and worth of virtue, and the deformity and turpitude of vice. Consequently, in addition to his self reproach, he has well grounded apprehensions of “ danger, a fearful looking for of judg. ment,” at a tribunal, whose decisions will not only confirm those of his own mind, but be followed by consequences of more dreadful import.
Perhaps conscience has been rightly defined, “as nothing more, than our own opinion, or judgment, of the moral rectitude, or pravity of our own actions.” Whether ' it is reason, or a distinct principle of our nature, which leads us to form this judgment, is not material. Certain it is, that something within us does sit in judgment on our
selves : and that the decision, which this something inclines us to make, is generally speaking, though not invariably, a right decision. Hence it is common to make appeals to the conscience, the reason, the judgment, even of vicious men; in whom it is believed, that the moral sense, though in some measure benumbed, or perverted, is noi extinct.
We now proceed to notice some instances, in which the power of conscience has been displayed. When Adam, first after his defection, heard the voice of God, he concealed “ himself among the trees of the garden.” He was reproached, not only by the expostulation of his Maker but by his own mind. He knew that the displeasure of God was just, and that therefore, no adequate, no reasonable defence could be made. Pharaoh, on several occasions, felt remorse, when reflecting on his perfidious impiety. “ The Lord is righteous, said he; but I and my people are wicked." Saul, during all the latter part of his life, was rendered an object of compassion by the habitual checks and forebodings of conscience. He knew, and sometimes acknowledged, that his rival was divinely designated to fill the throne of Israel. Yet his malignant passions impelled him to persecute this rival with unremitting industry. Ahab had sent into all lands to apprehend the prophet Elijah, under pretence, that the latter had brought the judgments of God on the nation. At their first interview, the king accosts the prophet thus, “ Art thou he that troubleth Israel ?" To which the prophet hodly replies, “ I am not he that troubleth Israel : but thou and thy father's house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord.” The prophet was now in the king's power. Why then was he not punished, as had been intended ? Evidently for this reason, Ahab was not less condemned by his own mind, than he was by the prophet's reply. He was, in truth, more afraid of the prophet, than the prophet was of him.
When Judas had betrayed Christ, and had received the stipulated recompense, the terrors of his own conscience arrayed themselves against him. The language of the evan