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society, have little or no concern in it. But this is entirely a mistake. Splendid fortune, and high birth or rank, afford, beyond doubt, the strongest and most frequent temptations to the loose indulgence of every enjoyment. But throughout all ranks the danger extends, of being misled by pleasure in some of its forms. In this country, where wealth and abundance are so much diffused over all stations; where it is well known
s that the inferior orders of men are perpetually pressing upon those who are above them, and following them in their manners, a life of dissipation is perhaps not less frequent among the middle, than among the higher classes of society. The modes of amusement may not be so refined. The entertainments and pleasures may be of a grosser kind. But in many an inferior circle, there prevails as much love of pomp and show, as much proportional extravagance in expense, as much rivalry in the competition of passions and pleasures, as in the most fashionable and courtly assemblies. Sober reflections are as much laid aside; the gratification of vanity, and the indulgence of pleasure, are pursued with equal eagerness. Let us, therefore, my brethren, in whatever rank of
, life we are placed, proceed upon this as our great principle, that to serve God, to attend to the serious cares of life, and to discharge faithfully the duties of our station, ought to be the first concern of every man who wishes to be wise and happy; that amusement and pleasure are to be considered as the relaxation, not the business of life; and that if from those sentiments we depart, and give ourselves up to pleasure as our only object, even in laughter the heart shall be sorrowful, and the end of our mirth shall be heavi
Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence, toward God and toward men.
THESE words were spoken by the Apostle Paul
, in the course of that manly and spirited defence which he made for himself, when accused of sedition and impiety before Felix, the Roman Governor. He vindicates himself from the charges brought against him ; but boldly avows his principles, conceals no part he had acted, gives up no doctrine he had taught, and with the firm consciousness of innocence, appeals to his enemies themselves for the unblemished integrity of his life and character.
To maintain always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men is a degree of virtue to which, in its full extent, none can lay claim. For who is there among the sons of men that can pretend, on every occasion, throughout his whole life, to have preserved a faultless conduct ? How few days, indeed, go over our heads wherein something does not pass, in which our behaviour has not been altogether correct, or free from every offence? In the present imbecility and fallen state of human nature, he is the worthiest person who is guilty of the fewest offences towards God or towards man. But though
the character referred to in the Text be not attainable by us in a complete degree, it is the character to which we must all study to approach ; to come as near to it as the weakness of our nature admits; so that neither in piety towards God, nor in social duties towards men, we may be found remarkably deficient. You will observe, that this great Apostle does not boast of having fully attained to a conscience void of
every offence. His words are, that herein he exercised himself; that is, this was his object and his study, to this he formed and trained himself, to have always a conscience void of offence towards Goil and
Assuredly, there is nothing in human life, more amiable and respectable than such a character. Wherever it appears, it commands universal reverence in every station, whether high or low. It is indeed what all men would wish to gain ; at least they wisho that others should believe them to possess it. Even the most corrupt look to it, from afar, with a sigh; and however obliged to condemn themselves for having fallen short of it, cannot help esteeming and respecting others who are dignified by the attainment of it. Let us then, consider, first, what is implied in exercising or forming ourselves to maintain the conscience void of offence; and next, what the effects will be of having, in some degree, attained it.
I. In exercising ourselves for this purpose our first care must be to have our conscience well informed, or properly instructed, as to what is, or is not, real ground of offence towards God, or towards men. Conscience is the guide, or the enlightening and directing principle of conduct; and as our Saviour has warned us, If the light which is in thee be darkness,
how great will that darkness be ?* If that which should guide us be itself misled, how widely must we wander astray?- There are two extremes here, to each of which different sets of men are apt erroneously to incline. One set of men are apt to be minutely scrupulous about matters of smaller importance; tithing, as the Scripture describes them, mint, anise, and cumin, while they neglect the weightier matters of the law. Punctual in their observance of all the forms and ceremonies of religion, they hope by this means to compensate for allowing themselves in unlawful pleasures or unrighteous gains. Another, and perhaps a more numerous set of men err from loose casuistry in matters of moral duty. They admit the obligation they are under to virtuous practice; but they lay the whole stress of virtue on some particular good dispositions to which their temper inclines them. On these they highly value themselves; but breaches of other parts of duty, they are apt to consider as small and venial transgressions.
They have balances of their own, in which they weigh every transgression ; and if any of the offences they have committed, either against God or their neighbour, weigh light in the scale of fashion or general practice, they appear to them as scarcely any offences at all. - Both these extremes we must carefully guard against: and study to regulate our conduct by the pure unsophisticated laws of God; resting our character neither on a strict observance merely of the external forms of religion, nor on a partial regard to its moral duties; but attending to
: all that God has required from us as men and Chris
* Matth. vi. 23.
tians. - The truth is, such errors as I have pointed out, always have their source in some corruption of the heart. It is not from inability to discover what they ought to do, that men err in practice. It is from some oblique regard to their interests or their pleasures, to their reputation or their gain, that they deviate into by-paths, while they affect to assume some appearance of principle. Fairness and uprightness of mind are the chief requisites for directing our conscience how to avoid offences towards God or
He who, with an honest intention, seeks in every case to know what it is his duty to do, will seldom or never be at a loss to discover it.
In the next place, it belongs to every one who studies to attain to a conscience void of offence, to make reparation for whatever wrong he is conscious of having formerly done. This is the most difficult, but at the same time the most satisfactory test, of our sincerity in desiring to have a clear conscience before God and man. How can he be sincere in this desire, who allows himself to remain quiet while loaded with the sense that all he now enjoys has been obtained by injustice and fraud? If he continues, without remorse, to fatten upon the gains of uprighteousness; to feast on the spoils of the industrious ; to revel in luxuries purchased by oppression or treachery; dare he hold up his face, and utter the name of Conscience? Woe to him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong. In the midst of his stately habitation, the stone, in the ex.pressive language of Scripture, shall cry out of the
* Jerem. xxii. 13.