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SUMMARY OF DISCOURSE XXXV.
PSALM XIX.-VERSE 12.
Self examination, the only method of obtaining a distinct knowlege of our sins: hence the frequency of exhortation to undertake it. As in temporal concerns, men whose prodigality has reduced them to extreme poverty and distress, find themselves unable to state their accounts, and come to an exact knowlege of their affairs; so in spiritual matters, those that have been long acquainted with vice and strangers to reflexion, when they begin seriously to repent, know in general that they have a heavy weight of sin on their souls, though the particulars they are able to recollect fall very short of the sense which they have of their condition : thus, not being able to satisfy themselves that their repentance is perfect, they do not always enjoy that peace and tranquillity which they expected as the fruit of it.
The holy Psalmist had this sense of his condition when he expressed himself in the words of the text, and addressed God as his only refuge. The great comfort to be derived from God's wisdom, in setting before us the examples of good men in their lowest and most imperfect state, considered. The words of the text, considered without regard to the person who spoke them, do not admit of such consolatory conclusions, as when they are considered to have been uttered by David, of whose repentance and acceptance we do not doubt ; for in this point of view they afford us two propositions : I. that the security and efficacy of repentance do not depend on a particular recollection of all our errors : II. that for such errors as we cannot recollect, a general confession and repentance will be sufficient.
* These two propositions contain the plain doctrine of the text: but that we may not mistake in the application of it to ourselves, and suppose that a wilful ignorance of our sins will ensure forgiveness, it is necessary to examine the nature of what may fairly be called secret sins. And—I. we may reckon among them those for which our liturgy has taught us to ask repentance and forgiveness, under the general names of negligences and ignorances'; for neglect of our duty, and negligence in discharging it, are two different things, the one arising from aversion to the work, and consent of the mind, the other from want of thought and resolution. The best men often complain that, in the midst of their devotion, some chance object, some favorite care, diverts their attention, and distracts their thoughts : offences of this kind are so frequent in every part of our duty, that it is impossible to bring every single act to our remembrance. Secondly, sins of ignorance are like wise secret sins: where there is no law, says the Apostle, there is no transgression. But when men venture boldly on actions, conscious that they know not whether they are going right or wrong, their sin is presumption, and not ignorance : repentance for this not to be reckoned with that for our secret sins : for if a man thinks virtue and vice so indifferent, that he may venture to follow them blindfold, this is a proof that his heart is not right with God. But though this ignorance may be presumptuous and incur responsibility, the
follies and sins it leads to may be unknown to us; and these, -though aggravated by circumsiances, can only be lamented
under the character of secret sins. Thirdly, nothing shows corruption of heart more than confirmed habits of sinning; and yet in this perfection of vice we lose the very sense of sin : instance of this effect of habit in profane swearers : but when such sinners call themselves to judgment, they can only tell that they have grievously offended : they know not the measure of their iniquity, nor the aggravations of it: the utmost therefore that a penitent in this case can do is to lament the offences of his heart and tongue, and pray that God would blot out the remembrance of them.
Fourthly, the Apostle has advised us not to be partakers of other men's sins; which shows that when others sin through our example or encouragement, we share their guilt. How far our influence in this respect extends, is more than we can tell, yet not more than we shall answer for. The higher our station and the greater our authority, the more reason have we to fear being involved in this kind of guilt. Power, honor, and riches contrasted with this (in a digression) as great means of salvation in the hands of a wise man.
Fifthly, the great measure of folly and vanity and self-love in our best actions is what seldom falls under our notice ; and yet who is free from such errors? How much of our virtue and religion arises from regard to our own credit and reputation ? and when we are most eager in pursuit of some good end, how often are we only gratifying some private passion? To this account may be added the many vain imaginations which are conceived in the heart, though never brought into action: as those of the ambitious man; of the sensualist; and of the revengeful man. Lastly, when we come to repent of our sins, many of them may be secret to us merely through the weakness and imperfection of memory: these, although we may have been heretofore conscious of them, are with respect to our repentance as secret as if we had never known them, and can only be confessed and lamented in general terms. These then are the several kinds of our secret sins : of all which there is one general character, that they are such as we cannot, not such as we will not, remember.
II. In the second place we are to consider what guilt we contract by our secret sins, lest it should be thought that the
sins which escape our knowlege ought not to burden our conscience. Where there is no guilt, there needs no remission; and if we cannot be justly charged with our secret sins, there is no sense in the Psalmist's petition, cleanse thou me from my secret faults: in another place also he tells us that God sets our secret sins in the light of his countenance. In the instances already given we may observe that our secret sins are sometimes the most heinous : thus it is in the case of habitual sins; we are too well acquainted with them to take notice of them : but shall this plead their excuse ? shall only fearful sinners and modest beginners be punished, whilst that iniquity which is become void of shame and sense of sin, escapes judgment ? This is not consistent with any rule of equity. The same might be made to appear in other instances : for every idle word, how soon soever it slips out of the
vain imagination, how soon soever it vanishes away, we shall give an account at the day of judgment: for the guilt of sin arises not from the power of our memory, and is extinguished not by the weakness of it. If we forget, there is One before whom our iniquities are ever present.
Conclusion : since many of our sins are secret to us, they can only be repented of in general ; and since many are very heinous, they must be repented of seriously. By general repentance then we are not to understand a slight or superficial repentance only. The petition of the Psalmist proceeded from a heart deeply affected with the sense of its guilt, and does not express the sentiments of one who was excusing or lessening his faults.
PSALM XIX.-VERSE 12.
Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret
The only method of coming to the distinct knowlege of our sins, and to a due sense of them, is self-examination; and therefore it is, that you are so frequently exhorted to enter into yourselves, to converse with your own hearts, and to search out the evil which is in them. But often it happens that this method, after the sincerest and most laborious inquiry, leaves men under great dissatisfaction of mind, and subject to the frequent returns of doubts and misgivings of heart; lest something very bad may have escaped their search, and, for want of being expiated by sorrow and repentance, should remain a debt on their souls at the great day of account. As in temporal concerns, men often know that, by a long course of prodigality and many expensive vanities, they have contracted a great debt on their estates, and have brought themselves to the very brink of poverty and distress, and yet, when they try to think and consider of their condition, find themselves utterly unable to state their accounts, or to set forth the particulars of the debt they labor under ; but the more they endeavor to recollect, the more they are convinced that they are mere strangers at home, and ignorant of their own affairs : so in spiritual concerns likewise, men who have been long acquainted with vice, and long strangers to thought and reflexion, when they come to be sensible of the danger of their condition, and to set themselves seriously to repent, know in general that they have a heavy weight of sin and guilt on their souls; but yet the particulars, though many and heinous, which they are able