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with those places these from Paul and John: "As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” “He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed : for he that biddeth him Godspeed, is partaker of his evil deeds.” The principle involved in these apostolic words is adopted by multitudes who care not for orthodox Christianity; for whatever latitude they may claim or allow on other points, they cannot endure atheism, free love, Mormonism, and a long list of doctrines which, in their judgment, undermine all pure and wholesome morals. What is the principle? The reply is ready, that in the one set of cases men differed on comparatively trivial points, and in the other on the most vital and momentous; but we wish to draw out the moral principle which justifies or excuses those who err in certain respects, if sincere, and does not allow sincerity as a defense in other cases. Shall we not follow our own reason and conscience in grave matters, as in slight? Do not the importance and obligation of taking them as guides rise with the gravity of the issues ? The question is worth studying.
1. Sincerity of opinion does not affect the objective rule of right. There is a standard, a law of righteousness, outside our thinking, independent of us, superior to us. A merchant whose yard-stick is short does not give good measure, however ignorant he may be of its defect. My thinking that suicide is justifiable as an escape from incurable disease or rooted sorrow does not make it right. Eminent writers, even in our day, have taught that truth is what one thinks, that right is what one believes or feels he ought to do. But this doctrine is too shocking to need refutation ; indeed, all the refutation possible or desirable is a clear statement of the position, and an appeal to the intuitive convictions of every mind. All our judgments, true or false, imply a standard of truth, a reality external to and independent of our opinions and reasonings, with which they should agree; all our moral sentiments imply a law of righteousness apart from and supreme over our conscience. This law, in its essential principles, is one, changeless, eternal, though human creeds and codes are many, varia
ble, conflicting. Either there are many gods, or One, or none; all these views have been maintained, but they are not, cannot be, equally true, equally false; one must be true, the others false. Either dueling is right under some circumstances, or it is always wrong; the principle does not alter, however opinions and customs may. That empiricism, skepticism, or agnosticism, which denies or doubts that there is any right or wrong except a notion, or a feeling, or both, puts out the eyes of the soul and dwells in thick darkness.
2. Sincerity does not prevent the mischievous effects of false teaching and wrong practice on others. At this point apply many analogies which, we shall hereafter show, are illogically employed to prove that to be sincere is not to be guiltless. Poison is not less fatal because the person administering it believes it to be innocent and medicinal. The shot will not fail to kill because he who pulled the trigger in sport knew not that the gun was loaded. A man may ignorantly drop a spark on gunpowder or nitro-glycerine, and the disaster be as great as if it were intentional. So, if he teach error honestly, he will mislead; if he inflame passion and incite insurrection, the consequences may be terrible despite his persuasion that he only opposed grievances which should not be borne and advocated rights which should be maintained; if he persecute believing that he does God service, the sufferings that result are not less real and severe. Abhorrence and terror at pernicions doctrines and immoral conduct are not lessened by the plea, though true, that their advocates are sincere.
3. Sincerity does not neutralize the evil effect of wrong views and practice-wrong, we mean, by the absolute or objective standard—on the spirit and habits of those adopting the opinions and course. We are now discussing, not innocence and guilt, but the state of the heart, the dispositions which are cherished and obeyed. It is not morally indifferent what men think and how they act, provided they be conscientious. The savage believes that revenge is noble and obligatory; that not to avenge insult and injury proves weakness, cowardice, and obtuse sensibility; that is a bounden duty to visit severe retribution, swiftly, if possible, but even after the lapse of years if opportunity do not sooner serve, not only on the offenders, but also on their families and kin. He fans the wrath in his own breast and in his comrade's, and rejoices to spoil, maim, and slay his foes without shame or self-reproach, but rather with a judgment and feeling of merit before gods and men. The Christian considers both the spirit and act of revenge wicked and vile, and cultivates and exercises forbearance and forgiveness. Let us concede, for the sake of the argument, that they are equally honest in their opinions, that each follows his own light, that they are both guiltless ; nevertheless, the savage cultivates the temper and habit of vindictiveness and hate, the Christian of generous, unselfish, all-conquering love; one allies himself to demons, the other to angels and to God. If men understand not the sanctity of marriage, but indulge their lusts without restraint, they wax more and more sensual and bestial, they sow to the flesh, though unwittingly, and of the flesh they reap corruption, while chaste love and a happy home refine and elevate.
Does sincerity, then, count nothing in the formation of character? Indeed, it is of great worth. There can be no worse habit than insincerity. To be honest and conscientious is a large and essential element of moral excellence. In the cases supposed, there is not the ruinous moral effect of violating the sense of duty, of committing willful sin. This distinction is fundamental and momentous; he who does wrong ignorantly does not suffer the same demoralization, the same perversion and wrenching of his moral nature, as the enlightened transgressor. Yet simple following of conscience, without respect to its contents—to what conscience enjoins—is not the whole means of spiritual improvement; it cannot save those who violate the law of justice, purity, and love, ignorantly and in unbelief, as did Saul of Tarsus, from the reaction of the evil course on their own hearts. He was a sincere Pharisee then, as later he was a sincere Christian. We shall presently investigate the question of his innocence or criminality in those days when he breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of Jesus; but however that question may be decided, it is evident that despite all his conscientiousness he was debasing, hardening, brutalizing his own nature, he was cultivating pride, bigotry, hate, and cruelty. What a contrast is presented by his later life, when his heart expanded and warmed with the noble and spiritual religion of Christ, and,
with a world-embracing charity kindled by the love of Jesus, he rejoiced to preach the unsearchable riches of grace to Jew and Greek, high and low, bond and freel Then he sowed to the Spirit, and of the Spirit reaped the blessed harvest of all that is true and just and pure and lovely and good, in moral character.
We pause here to note the vast practical significance of this truth as a motive to search diligently for that faith which is pure and undefiled, for that ethical code which most hallows and exalts; and, further, as a motive to evangelize all nations. The missionary power of this motive we would emphasize, because it is needed to refute the sophistries by which professed believers would excuse themselves from the obligation to propagate their faith, or else to kindle in their cold hearts enthusiasm for this great cause. The argument is still heard that the heathen are sincere in their worship and low system of morals, and therefore not guilty, not exposed to punishment; that there is no call, therefore, to disturb their ease and security by pouring the light of the Gospel on the darkness in which they lie. We say nothing at this point on what Richard Watson styles the “ doting and toothless theology” that teaches the safety of the pagan world; the reply we now make to the miserable plea of selfish ease and unbelief is that the heathen, however honest in their errors, are degraded and corrupted by the lies they believe and the vices they indulge, and that it is our plain duty to purify and uplift them by the glorious Gospel of the blessed God. Independently of all considerations of sincerity it does matter whether we are heathen, Mohammedan, Jew, or Christian ; whether Romanist or Protestant; whether skeptics or believers; whether fatalists or libertarians; whether we hold that virtue consists in following pleasure, or general utility, or the sovereign authority of essential right. When the excuse is made in behalf of round dances, card-playing, horseracing, and other amusements, that though they be objectionable by the strict code of Christianity, yet they are innocent to the large numbers who see no evil in them, we answer that the demoralizing tendency of these sports is a proved fact, apart from the question whether or not the participants in them understand their injurious effect. If our children attend the theater without scruple of conscience, they are not, indeed,
fighting conscience, but they do expose themselves to the dangerous influences of the play and the associations.
4. The most difficult point remains to be discussed, Does sincerity justify? It does not make an act right, it does not prevent the mischievous effects of our wrong conduct on others; it does not neutralize its demoralizing tendency on our own heart; but is a man guiltless who does what he believes to be his duty, however defective and even positively erroneous his views? Can he be justly blamed and punished for an evil deed if he verily thought in himself that he ought to do it? Shall he not rather be commended for obeying conscience, though an unenlightened and sadly mistaken conscience?
We often meet loose reasoning, false analogies, on this point, in works of great ability. “If men say it would be unjust in God to punish them for violating his law when they did not believe, or did not certainly know, that it was his law, we point them to the fact that this holds of physical laws—that he who takes poison will be killed, even though he did not know, or did not believe, that it was poison.” The fact to which the writer points cannot be disputed. The fatal effect of strychnine does not depend on the knowledge, belief, or intention of him who takes or him who gives it. The hostess may poison her family and guests by dishing out soup which she believes to be wholesome food; the mother may force an unpalatable dose down the throat of her resisting babe, and if the druggist sent her poison instead of the proper drug, the life of the child will not be saved by his own reluctance or the good intention of the mother. Knowledge, motive, and free will, need not enter into the account; the poison works its natural effects“this holds of physical laws.” But shall we affirm whatever belongs to physical laws of moral laws also ? Is the housewife guilty as well as the cook who, with murderous intent, poisoned the soup? Is the mother guilty as well as the cruel or careless druggist? Is the babe justly punishable for the crime of self-murder? In the sphere of morals it is material whether the offender knows or believes that he is breaking the law of God. Responsibility involves intelligence and liberty. The physical consequences of an act do not depend on its being voluntary or involuntary, but when the question concerns desert of punishment, no just person can refuse to con