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THE BAD CONSCIOUSNESS TAKEN AWAY.
“Because that the worshipers, once purged, should have had no more conscience of sins.”—Heb. x, 2.
The reading is not, you observe, “conscience of no more sins,”—as if the sins were stopped, but “no more conscience of sins,”—as if the conscience of sins already past were somehow extirpated, or else the sins taken quite away from it and forever extirpated themselves, as facts, or factors of the life. And the allegation is, that while the old sacrifices of the law had power to accomplish no such thing, it is accomplished by the wonderful, seemingly impossible, efficacy of the gospel sacrifice. Those older sacrifices could not make the comers thereunto perfect—perfect, that is, as pertaining Ito the conscience—and therefore they must needs be renewed as remembrances of sin every year; but the offering of the body of Jesus, once for all, was sufficient; allowing us forever after to have no more conscience of sins. Now it is this practical wonder, this: seeming impossibility accomplished by the cross, to which I invite your attention on the present occasion. 294 It is what our apostle elsewhere calls—The mystery of faith in a pure conscience.
I fell in company, some years ago, with a college acquaintance—not a minister of religion, but a remarkably subtle, closely scientific thinker, and withal a devout Christian—who said to me, in a manner and tone of sensibility I can never forget—My great trial in religion is, to find how a clean bosom, in regard to sin, is ever possible. I can, not see how my sin can ever be really gotten away; indeed I fall into such darkness on this point, when I undertake to solve it, that I quite lose my faith in the possibility of a real deliverance, and feel obliged to say with David—“my Sin is ever before me.” He went on to state his difficulty more fully, but as I have it on hand to make an exposition of the whole subject, the ground of his difficulty will be covered with much other ground beside. How then is it, or how is it to be imagined, that Christ, by his sacrifice, takes away the condemning conscience, or the felt dishonor of transgression? This is the question we are to consider, and, if possible, answer; in doing which I will—
I. Go over, as briefly as may be, certain supposed answers, that do not appear to reach the real point of the question; and—
II. Will endeavor to exhibit and support by sufficient illustrations what appears to be the true scriptural answer.
I. The supposed answers that are not sufficient. 295 They are various and very unlike among themselves; they still fall short, all of them, at the same point; viz., in the fact that they do not touch, or take away at all from the mind, or memory, or conscience, the fact and shame of wrong-doing. Be the remedy this or that, still the man, as a man, is none the less consciously guilty, none the less really dishonored, shamed, damned, before himself. There stands the fact, unmoved and immovable forever, that he is a malefactor soul, none the better for being safe, or forgiven, or justified.
Thus, when it is conceived that Christ has borne our punishment, that, if it were true, might take away our fear of punishment, but fear is one thing, and mortified honor, self-condemning guilt, self-chastising remorse, another and Very different thing; and that will be only the more exasperated, that divine innocence itself has been put to suffering on its account.
Neither will it bring any relief to show that the justice of God is satisfied. Be it so; the transgressor is none the better satisfied with himself—his own self-damning justice is as far from being satisfied as before.
Is it then conceived that what has satisfied the justice of God, has also atoned the guilty conscience? Will it then make the guilty conscience less guilty, or say sweeter things of itself, that it sees innocence, purity, goodness divine, put to suffering for it? If any thing could exasperate, even insupportably, the sense of guilt, it should be that.
Is it then brought forward to quell the guilt of the conscience that Christ has evened our account legally by 296 his sacrifice, and that we are even justified of God, for Christ’s sake? But if God, in this manner, and by a kind of benevolent fiction, calls us just, do we any the less certainly disapprove and damn ourselves even to eternity? Nothing it would seem can save us from it, but to lose the integrity of our judgments!
Forgiveness taken as a mere release of claim, or a negative letting go of right against transgression, brings, if possible, even less help to the conscience. Christ had forgiven his crucifiers in his dying prayer, but it was the very crime of the cross, nevertheless, that pricked so many hundreds of hearts on the day of pentecost. Christ bad forgiven them, but their consciences had not!
But Christ renews the soul itself, it will be said, and makes it just within; when, of course, it will be justified. That does not follow. If Judas at the very point where he confessed—“I have betrayed the innocent blood,” could have been instantly transformed into an angel of beauty, his purified sensibility would have been shaken, I think, with a greater horror even of his crime than before.
But the fatherhood of God—the disciple of another and different school will take refuge under that, and say, that here, at least, there is truly no more conscience of sins. Would it not be strange, if a tolerably good father can forgive and forget, and God can not? But who is God, and what most fitly represents him? a mortal father who is able, just because of his weakness, to forgive and forget, or to forgive without forgetting, 297 or to forget without forgiving, or the transgressor’s own everlasting immutable conscience, which can neither forgive nor forget? What is this conscience, in fact, but God’s throne of judgment in the man? Why, if God, in his fatherhood, were such a kind of being, dealing in laxities and fond accommodations, having no care for his rectoral honor, as the defender of right and order, we certainly are not such to ourselves. A conscience that can say, “no matter, God is rather loose and very easy with his children, therefore I will be to myself as good as good in my sin, and let the matter go,?”—I certainly, for one, whatever may be said by others, have no conscience that can go in that loose gait. I love my conscience because it is the one thing in me that goes true and will unalterably, inevitably damn my wrongs, even if God should let them go. Nay, if God be such a God, it would even set me in a shudder, to find how easily I might sigh for a being whom I can more sufficiently respect.
You perceive in this recital, my friends, how great a matter we have undertaken, and how very obstinate, or intractable, our difficulty is. Doubtless a foul vessel may be washed, a fracture mended, a personal injury redressed, a sick body restored to health and soundness, and dressed in a new covering of flesh; nay, there is a clear possibility of raising the dead to life, but to conceive a sinner so wrought in as to obliterate the fact of his sin, leaving no more conscience of it, is a very different matter, and if the possibility were not really: shown by the gospel itself, we must certainly give up 298 the question, as one that we can not solve, by any faculty that God has given us. We come then—
II. To the question as it is, and the answer given it by the scriptures of God.
The great question meeting us at this point is, whether it is possible, or how far possible; to change the consciousness of a soul, without any breach of its identity? In this manner, we shall find, the gospel undertakes to remove, and assumes the fact of a removal of, the dishonor and self-condemnation of sin. But we shall conceive the matter more easily and naturally, if we notice, before going into the scripture inquiry, certain analogies discoverable in our human state, which may serve as approaches to the proper truth of the question.
Thus a thoroughly venal, low-principled man, elected President of the United States, will undergo, not unlikely, an inward lifting of sentiment and impulse, corresponding with the immense lift of his position. The great honor put upon him makes him willing to honor himself. He wants to deserve his place and begins to act in character in it. He is the same man, regarding his personal identity, but he is raised, even to himself, in the grade he occupies. His old natural consciousness has a kind of Presidential consciousness superinduced, which holds a higher range of quality. He lives, in fact, Presidentially, and is dignified inwardly by the dignities of his position.
How many thousand soldiers, who before were living in the low, mean vices, lost to character and self-respect, 299 have been raised, in like manner, in our armies, to quite another grade of being. It has given them a wholly different sense of themselves, that their dear, great country has come upon them in so great power. They are consciously ennobled, in the fact that they have borne themselves heroically in the field; and are so become another kind of man even to themselves. They are the same, yet by a vast reach of distance not the same. A certain great something has come into their feeling. They stand more firmly, and bear themselves more erectly; and it gives them an-exultant feeling even, that their discouraged and miserably forlorn consciousness is gone—supplanted by the sense of self-respect, and manly honor.
The same, again, is true in a different way, of all the gifted ones in art and speech and poetry, when they are taken by the inspirations of genius. When such a soul, that was down upon the level of uses, torturing itself into production for applause, or even for bread, begins to behold God’s signatures upon his works, and worlds, and the magnificent discipline he gives us; discovering in objects ideas, in facts the faces of truth; catching also the fires of a Promethean heat from all subtlest moods and hardest flints of experience;—then it is become, to itself, quite another creature. It is as if the grub-state were gone by, and the winged life had broken loose, to try the freedom of the air. In that finer element he ranges at will, lifted by his etherial seership, to move in altitudes hitherto invisited; consciously another and different being—another, yet still the same.300
In these and other like examples, afforded us in the field of our natural life, we are made familiar with the possibility of remarkable liftings in the consciousness of men, such as make them really other to themselves, and set them in a higher range of being; and, by these examples, we are prepared, as it were beforehand, to that more wonderful ascent above ourselves which is accomplished in Christ, when he takes us away from the conscience of sins. He does it—this is the general, or inclusive truth that covers the whole ground of the subject—by so communicating God, or himself as the express image of God, that he changes, in fact, the plane of our existence. Without due note of this, we do not understand Christianity; the very thing it proposes is to bring us up into another level, where the consciousness shall take in other matter, and have a higher range. Thus, when the apostle says—“And hath raised us up together and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus,” he is speaking of a change purely internal, a conscious lifting to another grade of life, and a higher range of joy. The word places, here occurring, belongs to the English only, and it is put in to fill out the plural of the neuter adjective heavenlies, used here as a noun. But sitting in the heavenlies, does not mean, of necessity, sitting in other localities. It means sitting in heavenly things, as well; above the world, that is, and the flesh and sin, in the serene, pure element of God’s eternal love and glory, there to be folded in harmony, raised in- consciousness, filled to the full with all God’s heavenlies, even as his 301 angels are; no more to be shamed forever by the little, defiled consciousness that is henceforth overspread, submerged, and drowned by the sea-full of God’s infinite worthiness and righteousness wafted in upon it.
Now it must not be imagined that this one passage of scripture stands by itself in asserting such a sentiment. The whole New Testament is full of it. “If ye then be risen with Christ seek those things which are above where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God,”—“Hath made us kings and priests unto God,”—“A chosen generation—a royal priesthood,”—“Partakers of the divine nature,”—“Sons of God,”—In all such modes of expression, and a hundred others that might be cited, we have the same thought breaking out on our discovery; that Christ is lifting us out of shame and condemnation, into a higher plane and a footing of conscious affiliation with God.
But you will not conceive how very essential this idea of a raising of the consciousness may be, if you do not bring up distinctly the immense fall of our mortal consciousness, in the precipitation of our sin. In their true normal condition, as originally created, human souls are inherently related to God, made permeable and inspirable by him, intended to move in his divine impulse forever. A sponge in the sea is not more truly made to be filled and permeated by the water in which it grows, than a soul to be permeated and possessed by the Infinite Life. It is so made that, over and above the little, tiny consciousness it has of itself, it may have 302 a grand, all-inclusive consciousness of God. In that consciousness it was to be, and be lifted and blessed evermore. The senses it should have of God, always present, were to be its dignity, its base of equilibrium, its everlasting strength, and growth, and majesty, and reigning power in good.
But this higher consciousness, the consciousness of God, is exactly what was lost in transgression, and nothing was left of course but the little, defiled consciousness of ourselves, in which we are all contriving how to get some particles of good, or pleasure, or pride, or passion, that will comfort us. The great, inspirable, and divinely permeable faculty, is closed up. We do not know God any more, we only know ourselves. We have the eyes, and the ears, that were given us, but we are too blind to see, too deaf to hear—“Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, through the ignorance that is in us because of the blindness of our heart.” The true normal footing or plane of our humanity was thus let down, and it is exactly this which Christ undertakes to restore. And until that restoration is accomplished, the soul occupies a plane of mere self-knowing, and self-loving, and is, in fact, a lower order of being. It lives in the conscience of sins, a guilty, self-denouncing, and miserably shamed life. But as soon as it is opened to God, by the faith of Jesus Christ, and is truly born of God, it begins to be the higher creature God meant it to be—the same yet another. It is no more like the sponge stuck fast on some dry rock, but like the same, filled and vitalized 303 by its own proper element, and spreading itself in its possessorship, so to speak, of the sea!
It is of course to be admitted that the disciple, raised thus in his plane, has the same conscience, and remembers the same sins, and is the very same person that he was before; but the consciousness of God, now restored, makes him so nearly another being to himself, that the old torment of his sin will scarcely so much as ripple the flow of his peace. It takes, in fact, a considerable rock, a little way out from the shore, to do more than dimple or curl the tide-swell coming in; and the sea, at the full, will simply bury it. and hide it from the sight, in the depths of its own stillness. Or we may imagine, without much danger of extravagance, that when a soul is really filled with the higher consciousness, moving wholly in the divine movement, so great a lifting of character, and quality, and action, will carry it above the old range so completely, as to let the wrong and shame quite drop away; even as the insect creatures hovering on wings about us, flitting in swift motion, and playing with the air and the light, remember probably no more the cold, slow worms they were, when crawling, but a week ago, in the ground.
You will understand, of course, that if Christ is purging thus men’s consciences, by lifting them above themselves, into a higher range of life, the conception will appear and reappear, in many distinct forms, and weave itself, in so many varieties, into the whole texture of Christianity. Notice then three distinct forms, not to speak of others, in which this change of grade or 304 personal consciousness comes into view as a mighty gospel fact.
As the first of these, I name justification, or justification by faith. The grand last point or final. effect of Christian justification is, “no more conscience of sins;” for, having that accomplished, it is inconceivable that God should condemn us. when we do not condemn ourselves, and having it not accomplished, but condemning still ourselves, no justification by God will do us any good. But in this matter of justification, the less we make of the old standing alternative the better; what if it should happen that, while we are debating which of two conceptions is the true one, they are neither of them true? And so I think it will sometime be found. According to the scripture, which is very plain, gospel justification turns on no such mere objective matter as the squaring of an account; nor on any such subjective matter as our being made inherently righteous; but it turns on the fact of our being so invested with God, and closeted in his righteous impulse, that he becomes a felt righteousness upon us. Our consciousness is so far changed, in this manner, by the river-flood of God’s character upon us, that, as long as our faith keeps the connection good, and permits the river to flow, we are raised above all condemnation and have no more conscience of sins. Inherently speaking we are not righteous; our store is in God not in ourselves; but we have the supply traductively from him, just as we do the supply of light from the sun. But the new divine consciousness in which we live is continually conforming 305 us, more and more deeply, and will settle us, at last, in its own pure habit. In this manner, faith is counted to us for righteousness, because it holds us to God, in whom we have our springs of supply.
See how beautifully and simply Paul sets forth this true Christian idea of justification—“But now the righteousness of God, without the law, is manifested, even the righteousness of God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ, unto all and upon all them that believe.” It is not righteousness for us in a book, nor in us by inherent character, but righteousness unto us and upon us, in its own living flow, as long as we believe. It is a higher consciousness which God generates and feeds, and as long as he does it there is no more conscience of sins.
This same truth of a raising of our plane appears in another form, in what is called the witness of the Spirit. “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God; and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Here the conception is that, as being spirit, we are permeable by the divine Spirit, and that he has a way of working in our working, so as to be consciously known as a better presence in our hearts. And so we have the confidence of children or sons, raised in our before low-bred nature, and dare to count ourselves God’s heirs—fellow heirs with Christ our brother. Nothing is said of sins in this connection, but we can see for ourselves that, being thus ennobled by the inflowing Spirit, we shall be too much raised in the confidence of our dignity, to be troubled, 306 or shamed by the past. And this same lifting, or ennobling-of our spirit, is put in other forms of assertion; as when Christ, promising the Comforter, says—“At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.” To be thus interlocked with the Father and the Son in a firm knowledge of the fact, revealed by the witnessing Spirit, is to have a consciousness opened that is dignity itself and glory begun. The same thing is put more practically, by the apostle, when he says—“Walk in the Spirit and ye shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.” Keep fast in the higher element, where the senses of God and his joy are lifting the mind into liberty, and the lower and more carnal impulses will be left behind and forgot.
Once more this grand fact of the gospel, the raising of our plane of being, is presented in a still different manner in what is said of the conscious inhabitation of Christ. “Christ in you the hope of glory,”—“But ye see me,”—“bide in me,”—“Until Christ be formed in you.” But the great apostle to the Gentiles, himself a Christian man, all through, having that for his sublime distinction, declares himself, on this point, out of his very consciousness—“I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” It is, you perceive, as if his being itself were taken well nigh out of its identity by Christ revealed in it. The old sin—he does not think of it. The old I—why it is gone—“yet not I.” He was going to say that he Paul was alive, but he did not like to say so much as that, and so he puts down his negative on it, and says he does not live. But 307 O, the living, all-quickening Christ—that is boasting enough—“Christ liveth in me; for the life I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” How great a fact was the lifting of this man’s plane, which took him, demonized by bigotry and hate, and made him the hero and strangely Christed propagator of the cross. Then he was Saul, now he is Paul; but the change touches more than a letter—he is raised even in his own feeling to quite another order of being. The conscience of sins—it may be that he has it in a sense; for, being an eternal fact, he must eternally know it; but the Christ-consciousness in him ranges so high above the self-consciousness, that he lives in a summit of exaltation, which the infinitesimal disturbances of his human wrong and shame can not reach.
Here then, my friends, you have opened to view one of the greatest triumphs of Christianity, perhaps the very greatest of all. To bring a clean thing out of: an unclean is a much easier matter than to make a good conscience out of an evil or accusing conscience. Here the difficulty appears to be a. kind of metaphysical impossibility. Indeed there is no philosopher, who would not say, beforehand, that such a thing is even demonstrably impossible. For if the accusing conscience accuses rightly, then it must either be extirpated, which decomposes the man, or else it must be suborned to give a lying testimony, when of course it will even condemn itself. But our gospel is able to look so great 308 a difficulty in the face, and, what is more, turns it by a method so very simple as to be even sublime. When once you have conceived the possibility of raising a soul into a higher grade and order, where the consciousness shall take in more than the mere self, the body of God’s own righteousness, and love, and peace, the problem is solved and that in a way so plain, yet so easily ennobling to our state of shame, that it proves itself by its own self-supporting evidence. This we say instinctively ought to be and must be true.
Only the more strange is it that, when this way of remedy is, and no other can be, sufficient, we so easily fall out of our faith, and begin to put ourselves on methods of purgation that only mock our endeavor. Having the grand possibilities of a good conscience opened to us in Christ, and nothing given us to do but just to receive by faith the manifested righteousness of God, we begin to work, in the lower level of our shame, upon the shameful unclean matter, as if going to purge it ourselves. One will mend himself up in a way of self-correction; which, if he could do, would, alas, not even touch the conscience of his old sins. Another goes to the work of self-cultivation, where he may possibly start some plausible amenities on the top of his bad conscience, even as flowers will sometimes be induced to grow upon a glacier. Another will pacify his bad conscience by his alms and philanthropic sacrifices, when an avalanche on its way could as well be pacified by the same. Others will make up a purgation by their repressive penances and voluntary humiliations, when 309 the very thing their consciences complain of is, that they are too miserably shamed and humiliated already. Multitudes also will expect much from purgatorial fires hereafter, as if being duly chastised could make a good conscience! or as if these supposed fires would not rather burn in the brand of sin than burn it out! Now these poor scanty methods of delusion, unlike as they are to each other, are just as good one as another, because they are all equally worthless. Who could believe that rational beings, having so grand a way open to the new footing of sons of God, and having once conceived that way, could yet subside into these wretched futilities?
Worthier of sympathy but scarcely more worthy of the gospel name, are those hapless souls, who have fallen under their bad conscience to be forever harrowed and tormented by it. They have no faith to believe in a concrete, personal grace, and are only haunted by the nightmare of their moral convictions. They mope along their pathway therefore, looking always shamefully down; as if the sky above were paved with condemnations. If they bear the Christian name, they have yet no real peace, no sweet element of rest and confidence. They seem ever to be saying, “mine iniquities have taken hold upon me so that I am not able to look up.” Or sometimes there is a trouble more specific—some one sin, the shame, the inward mortification, or damnation of which, follows them, day and night, and even year by year; a crime unknown to the world, but for which they inwardly blush, or choke with guilty 310 pain, whenever it meets them alone. They seem to be even everlastingly dishonored before themselves. Perhaps they are, and fitly should be; but, my friends, there is a medicine for all such torments. Looking down upon your sins, or your particular sin, you can be, must be, everlastingly shamed; but if you can look away to Christ, take hold of Christ and rise with him, you shall go above your trouble, you shall be strong, and free, and full, and even righteous; established in all glorious confidence, because your very consciousness is lifted and glorified, by, what comes into it from God’s eternal concourse and friendship.
And here, just here, in fact, we strike the culminating point of wonder and glory in what Christ, by his more perfect offering, has been able and was even required to accomplish, to put us on a footing of complete salvation; viz., a restoration, forever, of the soul’s lost honor. We could not take our place among the pure angels of God, and be really united to their blessedness, when we are inwardly self-disgusted, shamed, and even to be eternally stigmatized, by our condemning consciences. Nothing sufficiently restores us, which does not restore the mind’s honor. And this, exactly, is our confidence; “that we are to be found unto praise, and honor, and glory, at the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are even called to “seek for honor, and glory, and immortality.” What dishonor, what possible shame, can be our torment, when our very consciousness is robed in the righteousness of God? There is to be no more condemnation, no more conscience of sins; simply because we are so 311 raised in the plane of our sentiment, and life, that we may think of ourselves, without any sense of dishonor upon us. We go in—heirs, sons, princes of God—joining ourselves boldly to all the royalties and sublime honors of the kingdom.
Are there none of us, my friends, that have many times sighed after just this hope, nay, that are sighing for it now? You have lost forever, you say, the chastity of your nature, you are and must forever be a guilty man; how then can you ever think of yourself without mortification? Getting into heaven itself, what can you ever do with so many bad facts upon you, and a bad conscience in you testifying eternally against them? No! no! There is even to be given back the sense of honor that was lost. You shall go in, not to hang your head, but to hold it up in praise and confidence. Now that mighty word is fulfilled according to its utmost meaning—“raised up together to sit in the heavenlies.” We are there “together” in the common fold, we “sit” there in a titled security, the “heavenlies” are all ours—the honor, the confidence, the peace, the praise. O my God, what reverence shall every creature have for every other, when thou puttest honor upon all! gathering in before thee, nothing which defileth, or abideth in shame, but only such as Christ hath raised to eternal honor, before both thee and—themselves!312
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