The apostle Paul is a very keen and cogent reasoner. Like a powerful logician who is confident that he has the truth upon his side, and like a pureminded man who has no sinister ends to gain, he often takes his stand upon the same ground with his opponent, adopts his positions, and condemns him out of his own mouth. In the passage from which the text is taken, he brings the Jew in guilty before God, by employing the Jew's own claims and statements. "Behold thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish. Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest that a man should not steal, dost thou steal? thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonorest thou God?" As if he had said: "You claim to be one of God's chosen people, to possess a true knowledge of Him and His law; why do you not act up to this knowledge? why do you not by your character and conduct prove the claim to be a valid one?"
The apostle had already employed this same species of argument against the Gentile world. In the first chapter of this Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul demonstrates that the pagan world is justly condemned by God, because, they too, like the Jew, knew more than they practised. He affirms that the Greek and Roman world, like the Jewish people, "when they knew God, glorified him not as God, neither were thankful;" that as "they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind;" and that "knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things" as he had just enumerated in that awful catalogue of pagan vices "are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them." The apostle does not for an instant concede, that the Gentile can put in the plea that he was so entirely ignorant of the character and law of God, that he ought to be excused from the obligation to love and obey Him. He expressly affirms that where there is absolutely no law, and no knowledge of law, there can be no transgression; and yet affirms that in the day of judgment every mouth must be stopped, and the whole world must plead guilty before God. It is indeed true, that he teaches that there is a difference in the degrees of knowledge which the Jew and the Gentile respectively possess. The light of revealed religion, in respect to man's duty and obligations, is far clearer than the light of nature, and increases the responsibilities of those who enjoy it, and the condemnation of those who abuse it; but the light of nature is clear and true as far as it goes, and is enough to condemn every soul outside of the pale of Revelation. For, in the day of judgment, there will not be a single human creature who can look his Judge in the eye, and say: "I acted up to every particle of moral light that I enjoyed; I never thought a thought, felt a feeling, or did a deed, for which my conscience reproached me."
It follows from this, that the language of the apostle, in the text, may be applied to every man. The argument that has force for the Jew has force for the Gentile. "Thou that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest that a man should not steal, dost thou steal?" You who know the character and claims of God, and are able to state them to another, why do you not revere and obey them in your own person? You who approve of the law of God as pure and perfect, why do you not conform your own heart and conduct to it? You who perceive the excellence of piety in another, you who praise and admire moral excellence in your fellow-man, why do you not seek after it, and toil after it in your own heart? In paying this tribute of approbation to the character of a God whom you do not yourself love and serve, and to a piety in your neighbor which you do not yourself possess and cultivate, are you not writing down your own condemnation? How can you stand before the judgment-seat of God, after having in this manner confessed through your whole life upon earth that God is good, and His law is perfect, and yet through that whole life have gone counter to your own confession, neither loving that God, nor obeying that law? "To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin." (James iv.17.)
The text then, together with the chains of reasoning that are connected with it, leads us to consider the fact, that a man may admire and praise moral excellence without possessing or practising it himself; that the approbation of goodness is not the same as the love of it.
I. This is proved, in the first place, from the testimony of both God and man. The assertions and reasonings of the apostle Paul have already been alluded to, and there are many other passages of Scripture which plainly imply that men may admire and approve of a virtue which they do not practise. Indeed, the language of our Lord respecting the Scribes and Pharisees, may be applied to disobedient mankind at large: "Whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do ye not after their works: for they say, and do not." (Matt, xxiii.3.) The testimony of man is equally explicit. That is a very remarkable witness which the poet Ovid bears to this truth. "I see the right," -- he says, -- "and approve of it, but I follow and practise the wrong." This is the testimony of a profligate man of pleasure, in whom the light of nature had been greatly dimmed in the darkness of sin and lust. But he had not succeeded in annihilating his conscience, and hence, in a sober hour, he left upon record his own damnation. He expressly informed the whole cultivated classical world, who were to read his polished numbers, that he that had taught others had not taught himself; that he who had said that a man should not commit adultery had himself committed adultery; that an educated Roman who never saw the volume of inspiration, and never heard of either Moses or Christ, nevertheless approved of and praised a virtue that he never put in practice. And whoever will turn to the pages of Horace, a kindred spirit to Ovid both in respect to a most exquisite taste and a most refined earthliness, will frequently find the same confession breaking out. Nay, open the volumes of Rousseau, and even of Voltaire, and read their panegyrics of virtue, their eulogies of goodness. What are these, but testimonies that they, too, saw the right and did the wrong. It is true, that the eulogy is merely sentimentalism, and is very different from the sincere and noble tribute which a good man renders to goodness. Still, it is valid testimony to the truth that the mere approbation of goodness is not the love of it. It is true, that these panegyrics of virtue, when read in the light of Rousseau's sensuality and Voltaire's malignity, wear a dead and livid hue, like objects seen in the illumination from phosphorus or rotten wood; yet, nevertheless, they are visible and readable, and testify as distinctly as if they issued from elevated and noble natures, that the teachings of man's conscience are not obeyed by man's heart, -- that a man may praise and admire virtue, while he loves and practises vice.
II. A second proof that the approbation of goodness is not the love of it is found in the fact, that it is impossible not to approve of goodness, while it is possible not to love it. The structure of man's conscience is such, that he can commend only the right; but the nature of his will is such, that he may be conformed to the right or the wrong. The conscience can give only one judgment; but the heart and will are capable of two kinds of affection, and two courses of action. Every rational creature is shut up, by his moral sense, to but one moral conviction. He must approve the right and condemn the wrong. He cannot approve the wrong and condemn the right; any more than he can perceive that two and two make five. The human conscience is a rigid and stationary faculty. Its voice may be stifled or drowned, for a time; but it can never be made to titter two discordant voices. It is for this reason, that the approbation of goodness is necessary and universal. Wicked men and wicked angels must testify that benevolence is right, and malevolence is wrong; though they hate the former, and love the latter.
But it is not so with the human will. This is not a rigid and stationary faculty. It is capable of turning this way, and that way. It was created holy, and it turned from holiness to sin, in Adam's apostasy. And now, under the operation of the Divine Spirit, it turns back again, it converts from sin to holiness. The will of man is thus capable of two courses of action, while his conscience is capable of only one judgment; and hence he can see and approve the right, yet love and practise the wrong. If a man's conscience changed along with his heart and his will, so that when he began to love and practise sin, he at the same time began to approve of sin, the case would be different. If, when Adam apostatised from God, his conscience at that moment began to take sides with his sin, instead of condemning it, then, indeed, neither Ovid, nor Horace, nor Rousseau, nor any other one of Adam's posterity, would have been able to say: "I see the right and approve of it, while I follow the wrong." But it was not so. After apostasy, the conscience of Adam passed the same judgment upon sin that it did before. Adam heard its terrible voice speaking in concert with the voice of God, and hid himself. He never succeeded in bringing his conscience over to the side of his heart and will, and neither has any one of his posterity. It is impossible to do this. Satan himself, after millenniums of sin, still finds that his conscience, that the accusing and condemning law written on the heart, is too strong for him to alter, too rigid for him to bend. The utmost that either he, or any creature, can do, is to drown its verdict for a time in other sounds, only to hear the thunder-tones again, waxing longer and louder like the trumpet of Sinai.
Having thus briefly shown that the approbation of goodness is not the love of it, we proceed to draw some conclusions from the truth.
1. In the first place, it follows from this subject, that the mere workings of conscience are no proof of holiness. When, after the commission of a wrong act, the soul of a man is filled with self-reproach, he must not take it for granted that this is the stirring of a better nature within him, and is indicative of some remains of original righteousness. This reaction of conscience against his disobedience of law is as necessary, and unavoidable, as the action of his eyelids under the blaze of noon, and is worthy neither of praise nor blame, so far as he is concerned. It does not imply any love for holiness, or any hatred of sin. Nay, it may exist without any sorrow for sin, as in the instance of the hardened transgressor who writhes under its awful power, but never sheds a penitential tear, or sends up a sigh for mercy. The distinction between the human conscience, and the human heart, is as wide as between the human intellect, and the human heart. We never think of confounding the functions and operations of the understanding with those of the heart. We know that an idea or a conception, is totally different from an emotion, or a feeling. How often do we remark, that a man may have an intellectual perception, without any correspondent experience or feeling in his heart. How continually does the preacher urge his hearers to bring their hearts into harmony with their understandings, so that their intellectual orthodoxy may become their practical piety.
Now, all this is true of the distinction between the conscience and the heart. The conscience is an intellectual faculty, and by that better elder philosophy which comprehended all the powers of the soul under the two general divisions of understanding and will, would be placed in the domain of the understanding. Conscience is a light, as we so often call it. It is not a life; it is not a source of life. No man's heart and will can be renewed or changed by his conscience. Conscience is simply a law. Conscience is merely legislative; it is never executive. It simply says to the heart and will: "Do thus, feel thus," but it gives no assistance, and imparts no inclination to obey its own command.
Those, therefore, commit a grave error both in philosophy and religion, who confound the conscience with the heart, and suppose that because there is in every man self-reproach and remorse after the commission of sin, therefore there is the germ of holiness within him. Holiness is love, the positive affection of the heart. It is a matter of the heart and the will. But this remorse is purely an affair of the conscience, and the heart has no connection with it. Nay, it appears in its most intense form, in those beings whose feelings emotions and determinations are in utmost opposition to God and goodness. The purest remorse in the universe is to be found in those wretched beings whose emotional and active powers, whose heart and will, are in the most bitter hostility to truth and righteousness. How, then, can the mere reproaches and remorse of conscience be regarded as evidence of piety?
2. But, we may go a step further than this, though in the same general direction, and remark, in the second place, that elevated moral sentiments are no certain proof of piety toward God and man. These, too, like remorse of conscience, spring out of the intellectual structure, and may exist without any affectionate love of God in the heart. There is a species of nobleness and beauty in moral excellence that makes an involuntary and unavoidable impression. When the Christian martyr seals his devotion to God and truth with his blood; when a meek and lowly disciple of Christ clothes his life of poverty, and self-denial, with a daily beauty greater than that of the lilies or of Solomon's array; when the poor widow with feeble and trembling steps comes up to the treasury of the Lord, and casts in all her living; when any pure and spiritual act is performed out of solemn and holy love of God and man, it is impossible not to be filled with sentiments of admiration, and oftentimes, with an enthusiastic glow of soul. We see this in the impression which the character of Christ universally makes. There are multitudes of men, to whom that wonderful sinless life shines aloft like a star. But they do not imitate it. They admire it, but they do not love it. The spiritual purity and perfection of the Son of God rays out a beauty which really attracts their cultivated minds, and their refined taste; but when He says to them: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart; take up thy cross daily and follow me;" they turn away sorrowful, like the rich young man in the Gospel, -- sorrowful, because their sentiments like his are elevated, and they have a certain awe of eternal things, and know that religion is the highest concern; and sorrowful, because their hearts and wills are still earthly, there is no divine love in their souls, self is still their centre, and the self-renunciation that is required of them is repulsive. Religion is submission, -- absolute submission to God, -- and no amount of mere admiration of religion can be a substitute for it.
As a thoughtful observer looks abroad over society, he sees a very interesting class who are not far from the kingdom of God; who, nevertheless, are not within that kingdom, and who, therefore, if they remain where they are, are as certainly lost as if they were at an infinite distance from the kingdom. The homely proverb applies to them: "A miss is as good as a mile." They are those who suppose that elevated moral sentiments, an aesthetic pleasure in noble acts or noble truths, a glow and enthusiasm of the soul at the sight or the recital of examples of Christian virtue and Christian grace, a disgust at the gross and repulsive forms and aspects of sin, -- that such merely intellectual and aesthetic experiences as these are piety itself. All these may be in the soul, without any godly sorrow over sin, any cordial trust in Christ's blood, any self-abasement before God, any daily conflict with indwelling corruption, any daily cross-bearing and toil for Christ's dear sake. These latter, constitute the essence of the Christian experience, and without them that whole range of elevated sentiments and amiable qualities, to which we have alluded, only ministers to the condemnation instead of the salvation of the soul. For, the question of the text comes home with solemn force, to all such persons. "Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking of the law, dishonorest thou God?" If the beauty of virtue, and the grandeur of truth, and the sublimity of invisible things, have been able to make such an impression upon your intellects, and your tastes, -- upon that part of your constitution which is fixed and stationary, which responds organically to such objects, and which is not the seat of moral character, -- then why is there not a corresponding influence and impression made by them upon your heart? If you can admire and praise them, in this style, why do you not love them? Why is it, that when the character of Christ bows your intellect, it does not bend your will, and sway your affections? Must there not be an inveterate opposition and resistance in the heart? in the heart which can refuse submission to such high claims, when so distinctly seen? in the heart which can refuse to take the yoke, and learn of a Teacher who has already made such an impression upon the conscience and the understanding?
The human heart is, as the prophet affirms, desperately wicked, desperately selfish. And perhaps its self-love is never more plainly seen, than in such instances as those of that moral and cultivated young man mentioned in the Gospel, and that class in modern society who correspond to him. Nowhere is the difference between the approbation of goodness, and the love of it, more apparent. In these instances the approbation is of a high order. It is refined and sublimated by culture and taste. It is not stained by the temptations of low life, and gross sin. If there ever could be a case, in which the intellectual approbation of goodness would develop and pass over into the affectionate and hearty love of it, we should expect to find it here. But it is not found. The young man goes away, -- sorrowful indeed, -- but he goes away from the Redeemer of the world, never to return. The amiable, the educated, the refined, pass on from year to year, and, so far as the evangelic sorrow, and the evangelic faith are concerned, like the dying Beaufort depart to judgment making no sign. We hear their praises of Christian men, and Christian graces, and Christian actions; we enjoy the grand and swelling sentiments with which, perhaps, they enrich the common literature of the world; but we never hear them cry: "God be merciful to me a sinner; O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant me thy peace; Thou, O God, art the strength of my heart, and my portion forever."
3. In the third place, it follows from this subject, that in order to holiness in man there must be a change in his heart and will. If our analysis is correct, no possible modification of either his conscience, or his intellect, would produce holiness. Holiness is an affection of the heart, and an inclination of the will. It is the love and practice of goodness, and not the mere approbation and admiration of it. Now, suppose that the conscience should be stimulated to the utmost, and remorse should be produced until it filled the soul to overflowing, would there be in this any of that gentle and blessed affection for God and goodness, that heartfelt love of them, which is the essence of religion? Or, suppose that the intellect merely were impressed by the truth, and very clear perceptions of the Christian system and of the character and claims of its Author were imparted, would the result be any different? If the heart and will were unaffected; if the influences and impressions were limited merely to the conscience and the understanding; would not the seat of the difficulty still be untouched? The command is not: "Give me thy conscience," but, "Give me thy heart."
Hence, that regeneration of which our Lord speaks in his discourse with Nicodemus is not a radical change of the conscience, but of the will and affections. We have already seen that the conscience cannot undergo a radical change. It can never be made to approve what it once condemned, and to condemn what it once approved. It is the stationary legislative faculty, and is, of necessity, always upon the side of law and of God. Hence, the apostle Paul sought to commend the truth which he preached, to every man's conscience, knowing that every man's conscience was with him. The conscience, therefore, does not need to be converted, that is to say, made opposite to what it is. It is indeed greatly stimulated, and rendered vastly more energetic, by the regeneration of the heart; but this is not radically to alter it. This is to develop and educate the conscience; and when holiness is implanted in the will and affections, by the grace of the Spirit, we find that both the conscience and understanding are wonderfully unfolded and strengthened. But they undergo no revolution or conversion. The judgments of the conscience are the same after regeneration, that they were before; only more positive and emphatic. The convictions of the understanding continue, as before, to be upon the side of truth; only they are more clear and powerful.
The radical change, therefore, must be wrought in the heart and will. These are capable of revolutions and radical changes. They can apostatise in Adam, and be regenerated in Christ. They are not immovably fixed and settled, by their constitutional structure, in only one way. They have once turned from holiness to sin; and now they must be turned back again from sin to holiness. They must become exactly contrary to what they now are. The heart must love what it now hates, and must hate what it now loves. The will must incline to what it now disinclines, and disincline to what it now inclines. But this is a radical change, a total change, an entire revolution. If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is a new creature, in his will and affections, in his inclination and disposition. While, therefore, the conscience must continue to give the same old everlasting testimony as before, and never reverse its judgments in the least, the affections and will, the pliant, elastic, plastic part of man, the seat of vitality, of emotion, the seat of character, the fountain out of which proceed the evil thoughts or the good thoughts, -- this executive, emotive, responsible part of man, must be reversed, converted, radically changed into its own contrary.
So long, therefore, as this change remains to be effected in an individual, there is and can be no holiness within him, -- none of that holiness without which no man can see the Lord. There may be within him a very active and reproaching conscience; there may be intellectual orthodoxy and correctness in religious convictions; he may cherish elevated moral sentiments, and many attractive qualities springing out of a cultivated taste and a jealous self-respect may appear in his character; but unless he loves God and man out of a pure heart fervently, and unless his will is entirely and sweetly submissive to the Divine will, so that he can say: "Father not my will, but thine be done," he is still a natural man. He is still destitute of the spiritual mind, and to him it must be said, as it was to Nicodemus: "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." The most important side of his being is still alienated from God. The heart with its affections; the will with its immense energies, -- the entire active and emotive portions of his nature, -- are still earthly, unsubmissive, selfish, and sinful.
4. In the fourth, and last place, we see from this subject the necessity of the operation of the Holy Spirit, in order to holiness in man.
There is no part of man's complex being which is less under his own control, than his own will, and his own affections. This he discovers, as soon as he attempts to convert them; as soon as he tries to produce a radical change in them. Let a man whose will, from centre to circumference, is set upon self and the world, attempt to reverse it, and set it with the same strength and energy upon God and heaven, and he will know that his will is too strong for him, and that he cannot overcome himself. Let a man whose affections cleave like those of Dives to earthly good, and find their sole enjoyment in earthly pleasures, attempt to change them into their own contraries, so that they shall cleave to God, and take a real delight in heavenly things, -- let a carnal man try to revolutionize himself into a spiritual man, -- and he will discover that the affections and feelings of his heart are beyond his control. And the reason of this is plain. The affections and will of a man show what he loves, and what he is inclined to. A sinful man cannot, therefore, overcome his sinful love and inclination, because he cannot make a beginning. The instant he attempts to love God, he finds his love of himself in the way. This new love for a new object, which he proposes to originate within himself, is prevented by an old love, which already has possession. This new inclination to heaven and Divine things is precluded by an old inclination, very strong and very set, to earth and earthly things. There is therefore no starting-point, in this affair of self-conversion. He proposes, and he tries, to think a holy thought, but there is a sinful thought already in the mind. He attempts to start out a Christian grace, -- say the grace of humility, -- but the feeling of pride already stands in the way, and, what is more, remains in the way. He tries to generate that supreme love of God, of which he has heard so much, but the supreme love of himself is ahead of him, and occupies the whole ground. In short, he is baffled at every point in this attempt radically to change his own heart and will, because at every point this heart and will are already committed and determined. Go down as low as he pleases, he finds sin, -- love of sin, and inclination to sin. He never reaches a point where these cease; and therefore never reaches a point where he can begin a new love, and a new inclination. The late Mr. Webster was once engaged in a law case, in which he had to meet, upon the opposing side, the subtle and strong understanding of Jeremiah Mason. In one of his conferences with his associate counsel, a difficult point to be managed came to view. After some discussion, without satisfactory results, respecting the best method of handling the difficulty, one of his associates suggested that the point might after all, escape the notice of the opposing counsel. To this, Mr. Webster replied: "Not so; go down as deep as you will, you will find Jeremiah Mason below you." Precisely so in the case of which we are speaking. Go down as low as you please into your heart and will, you will find your self below you; you will find sin not only lying at the door, but lying in the way. If you move in the line of your feelings and affections, you will find earthly feelings and affections ever below you. If you move in the line of your choice and inclination, you will find a sinful choice and inclination ever below you. In chasing your sin through the avenues of your fallen and corrupt soul, you are chasing your horizon; in trying to get clear of it by your own isolated and independent strength, you are attempting (to use the illustration of Goethe, who however employed it for a false purpose) to jump off your own shadow.
This, then, is the reason why the heart and will of a sinful man are so entirely beyond his own control. They are preoccupied and predetermined, and therefore he cannot make a beginning in the direction of holiness. If he attempts to put forth a holy determination, he finds a sinful one already made and making, -- and this determination is his determination, unforced, responsible and guilty. If he tries to start out a holy emotion, he finds a sinful emotion already beating and rankling, -- and this emotion is his emotion, unforced, responsible, and guilty. There is no physical necessity resting upon him. Nothing but this love of sin and inclination to self stands in the way of a supreme love of God and holiness; but it stands in the way. Nothing but the sinful affection of the heart prevents a man from exercising a holy affection; but it prevents him effectually. An evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit; a sinful love and inclination cannot convert itself into a holy love and inclination; Satan cannot cast out Satan.
There is need therefore of a Divine operation to renew, to radically change, the heart and will. If they cannot renew themselves, they must be renewed; and there is no power that can reach them but that mysterious energy of the Holy Spirit which like the wind bloweth where it listeth, and we hear the sound thereof, but cannot tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth. The condition of the human heart is utterly hopeless, were it not for the promised influences of the Holy Ghost to regenerate it.
There are many reflections suggested by this subject; for it has a wide reach, and would carry us over vast theological spaces, should we attempt to exhaust it. We close with the single remark, that it should be man's first and great aim to obtain the new heart. Let him seek this first of all, and all things else will be added unto him. It matters not how active your conscience may be, how clear and accurate your intellectual convictions of truth may be, how elevated may be your moral sentiments and your admiration of virtue, if you are destitute of an evangelical experience. Of what value will all these be in the day of judgment, if you have never sorrowed for sin, never appropriated the atonement for sin, and never been inwardly sanctified? Our Lord says to every man: "Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt." The tree itself must be made good. The heart and will themselves must be renewed. These are the root and stock into which everything else is grafted; and so long as they remain in their apostate natural condition, the man is sinful and lost, do what else he may. It is indeed true, that such a change as this is beyond your power to accomplish. With man it is impossible; but with God it is a possibility, and a reality. It has actually been wrought in thousands of wills, as stubborn as yours; in millions of hearts, as worldly and selfish as yours. We commend you, therefore, to the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit. We remind you, that He is able to renovate and sweetly incline the obstinate will, to soften and spiritualize the flinty heart. He saith: "I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you an heart of flesh; that ye may walk in my statutes, and keep mine ordinances, and do them; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God." Do not listen to these declarations and promises of God supinely; but arise and earnestly plead them. Take words upon your lips, and go before God. Say unto Him: "I am the clay, be thou the potter. Behold thou desirest truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden parts thou shalt make me to know wisdom. I will run in the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart. Create within me a clean heart, O God, and renew within me a right spirit." Seek for the new heart. Ask for the new heart. Knock for the new heart. "For, if ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him." And in giving the Holy Spirit, He gives the new heart, with all that is included in it, and all that issues from it.
[Footnote 1: See, upon this whole subject of conscience as distinguished from will, and of amiable instincts as distinguished from holiness, the profound and discriminating views of EDWARDS: The Nature of Virtue, Chapters v. vi. vii.]
[Footnote 2: Compare, on this distinction, the AUTHOR'S' Discourses and Essays, p.284 sq.]
[Footnote 3: The reader will recall the celebrated panegyric upon Christ by Rousseau.]