A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

“And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye” (Luke 6:41-42).

Conscience is something uniquely human. All adults have it in one form or another. Little children do not have conscience, but, like animals, act according to their nature. They follow their will without consideration of consequences. As a child grows and learns, he learns obedience first, that is, he learns that if he does something forbidden, he will be punished and so refrains from doing it again from fear. It is the love of self that forms the basis for the first obedience. As the child continues to gather information about the world around him and the way other people react to him, he comes more and more into the ability to judge whether or not to do something for himself. In this way he learns to distinguish between actions that are “right” or “wrong” in the context of his own life and situation, but it is not yet conscience.

This is illustrated by the fact that Moses was able to make the judgment between the Hebrew and Egyptian who were fighting, a situation where right and wrong were clearly apparent, but he was not able to make a judgment when two Hebrews were fighting. Such a decision about the gray areas of right and wrong cannot be made without an adult conscience. (See AC 6761 ff.)

The men of the Most Ancient Church (in its purity) did not have conscience, nor did they need it, for their will and understanding were united, their will was nothing but good, their understanding nothing but truth. They were free to do anything they wanted to do, because they only desired heavenly things. Theirs was the freedom of heaven. They enjoyed immediate revelation from the Lord, and perceived a general knowledge of what was good and true which they confirmed by their observations of their world. When they heard something, they immediately perceived its truth, received it into their will, and began to live according to it.

The Lord foresaw that the human race could not continue in the character of the Most Ancient Church, but that men would begin to separate faith from love to the Lord. He saw that this would become faith in doctrine by itself, and such a faith, without the life of charity, would mean universal damnation. However, the Lord provided that the will and understanding be separated in such a way that through faith, men could receive charity from the Lord. (See AC 597)

When love to the Lord ceased, so did the perception that served to guide the men of the Most Ancient Church in their daily lives. Perception was replaced by conscience. Briefly, perception tells what is true, while conscience tells whether or not it is true. (See AC 371, 393) However, such perception is not possible at this day with men on earth (although it continues with angels) because man’s will and understanding are not united, and because of hereditary evils which cause the good and truth flowing in from the Lord to be reflected or perverted. (See AC 4317:5)

In order to be saved a man has to have some means of learning truth, and then applying it to his own life as if of himself. Now that hereditary evil and the separation of the will and understanding are facts of life, the Lord has provided conscience as the means by which man may be saved, the means by which a man may bring his will under the control of those things that he knows to be true whether he likes them or not.

Conscience is formed by the Lord from the truths that a man learns from his teachers and parents while he is a child, and from the truths from the Word that he seeks out for himself when he is an adult. The degree to which he applies these truths to his life determines how the Lord will be able to build a conscience in him, and what kind it will be. (See AC 895, 1002, 2831, 9113)

There are several degrees of conscience, and the highest degree is called “True” conscience. True conscience can only be formed in man by the Lord if the man hears, acknowledges and believes the truths of faith. The man who has a True conscience is the man who will be regenerated by the Lord while still living in this world.

There are degrees of the True conscience, for those who have conscience

“speak from the heart what they speak, and do from the heart what they do. Such also have an undivided mind, for they act in accordance with what they believe to be true and good, and in accordance with what they understand. Consequently a more perfect conscience is possible with those who are more enlightened than others in the truths of faith, and who are in clearer perception than others, than is possible with those who are less enlightened, and who are in an obscure perception” (AC 9114).

The Heavenly doctrines further teach that

“There are many things in the conscience of the man of the internal church, because he knows many things from the internal sense of the Word; but there are fewer things in the conscience of the man of the external church, because he knows few things from the internal sense of the Word” (AC 1098).

The next degree of conscience is called “Spurious,” and is the conscience formed in those who merely follow the religion they have been born into. These may believe falsities to be true, because they are taught by the church, and they are lived as if true. In this way, these people are prepared to receive genuine truth when they enter the state of instruction in the other world, and so may receive a True conscience when prepared to enter heaven. Spurious conscience resides in the plane of the external natural mind, and contains especially those things which the man has learned to accept as just and equitable in the moral and civil sense.

The lowest degree of conscience is called “False”, and it is not really conscience at all, for False conscience only regards what it good for the sake of self, that is, it would remind the man that he should not do a thing because it would be damaging to his reputation by revealing the evils that lay hidden within to other men. This False conscience is formed in the outermost plane of man’s mind by the Lord for the sake of the preservation of order in human society, for it prevents men from committing many overt acts of violence and evil, but it does not serve for a man’s eternal salvation, for as said above, this kind of person regards himself in all his actions and thoughts. (See AC 978, 1023, 1077, 4167:2, 1033)

The Lord governs all men by means of these three degree or planes of conscience. The man who is regenerated by the Lord has the internal or True conscience, the man who is not yet regenerated, but to whom regeneration remains possible is ruled by the external, or spurious conscience, while all other men are ruled by the outermost, or false conscience. (See AC 4167:2)

When the Most Ancient Church fell, the Lord separated the will and the understanding of man so that the corrupt will would not necessarily pervert the understanding, and it was provided that a new will would be made in man according to the wisdom in his understanding. This new will, formed by the Lord on the plane of the man’s interior natural mind from the truths that he learned during life in the world, is the conscience. The Lord then insinuates charity into it, and into the charity He insinuates innocence, and in this way He is able to conjoin Himself with man by means of His own things in the man. (See AC 863, 1023)

In the process of regeneration by the Lord, the corrupt hereditary will is to be put off entirely and replaces by a new will from the Lord. This must take place gradually, as the man learns as if of himself the truths of the Word. Finally, the new will becomes strong enough that the man no longer wishes to act according to the old, corrupt will, for the loves of his life have been changed, and he is horrified to even remember his former ways. This new will is the conscience, or rather, the conscience is the new will making itself known to the man. (See AC 9115)

Each year, the changing seasons and their holidays serve as natural milestones that help to remind us of many important spiritual milestones in our lives. We have just spent a number of weeks thinking about and preparing for the celebration of the Lord’s Advent. Now with that behind us, we prepare to celebrate the arrival of a new year. It is true that one day is really just like any other, but there is something about putting out a fresh calendar or buying a new diary that invites us to think about the year that has just passed and encourages us to decide to make certain changes in our natural and spiritual lives with the beginning of the new year. These holidays are powerful reminders of important spiritual things, they help us turn our attention away from the demands of daily life to thoughts of eternal things.

The Lord wants us to make new beginnings, He wants us to examine the course of our past lives and to decide to improve the way we conduct our lives on the basis of the things we have learned during the year. But the hells hate it when we turn away from them, and they use every devious trick they have to turn us back to the old habits, the old ways, the unhappy, unsuccessful routines we have locked ourselves into; for as sure as flies breed in garbage, hellish loves breed in our states of discontent.

Holidays should turn out thoughts to the Lord, but the hells find ways to distract us at every turn. They turn our attention to material possessions at Christmas, and cause us to make New Year’s resolutions into a joke. It is the hells that cause us to laugh at how quickly people break their resolutions, or what is the same thing, until they fail in their attempt to amend their life and fall back into former states of evil, thus confirming them. We have to realize that such backsliding is particularly delightful to the hells, for when we see an evil in ourselves, recognize that it is a sin against God, and shun it, the Lord is helping us remove that hellish influence from our lives. However, if we waiver, if we fall back, we have created an attitude in our own minds that we cannot defeat this evil even with the Lord’s help. Even if we try again, we have the memory of the previous failure to shake our confidence, to make our job that much harder. Eventually, if our resolve is broken a sufficient number of times, we may give up even trying to amend our lives, and give ourselves up to hell.

For this reason it is important that we realize that the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions is important to our spiritual lives, and should not be made into a joke or a some kind of contest to see who will give in first, for it reminds us to take the time to examine our lives, to find the faults there, and to remove them with the Lord’s help. We are told in the Heavenly Doctrines that if we do this but once or twice each year, it is sufficient to put us on the path to heaven! Such resolutions should not be taken lightly, for they can become the means to eternal spiritual life in heaven. At the same time we must realize that to joke about another person’s resolutions, to tease them, to try to tempt them to break their resolve is to do the work of the hells.

The New Year’s holiday should serve to remind us to listen to our conscience, to turn away from some of the things that our conscience warns us about, to spend some time looking to the state of own lives instead of being so quick to judge the states of others. As our text suggests, it is our conscience that helps us to turn our attention inward so that we can see the plank in our own eye and remove it before we give our neighbor the benefit of our opinion of the conduct of his life.

As the New Year’s Holiday approaches, our thoughts will naturally turn to amending what has gone before, and making a fresh start in the new year. Let us remember to take these new beginnings as the valuable spiritual acts they are, to support our friends and family in their efforts to change their lives for the better. Let us further take this as an opportunity to listen to the voice of our conscience, God’s presence with us, and take the time to make a spiritual inventory, to carefully examine the interiors of our hearts so that we can see one or two of the many “planks” in our own “eyes”, and to try to avoid being so interested in the “specks” in the “eyes” of our friends and fellows in the church.

Let us begin the new year by taking stock, by asking the Lord for forgiveness and beginning anew. Let us do this not only as individuals, but as a church society. As the new year begins, let us resolve to go forward together in charity to work towards the establishment of the Lord’s New Church on earth, forgiving the offenses of the past, looking forward to new uses performed with new energy. As the Lord taught us in the book of Revelation, “Behold, I make all things new” (21:5). AMEN.

First Lesson: Exodus 2:1-15

(EXO 2:11-15) Now it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brethren and looked at their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. {12} So he looked this way and that way, and when he saw no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. {13} And when he went out the second day, behold, two Hebrew men were fighting, and he said to the one who did the wrong, “Why are you striking your companion?” {14} Then he said, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” So Moses feared and said, “Surely this thing is known!” {15} When Pharaoh heard of this matter, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh and dwelt in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well. Amen.

Second Lesson: Luke 6:27-42

(Luke 6:39-42) {39} And He spoke a parable to them: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into the ditch? {40} “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher. {41} “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye? {42} “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye.

Third Lesson: AC 9113-9119

9113. Conscience in a member of the Church is formed by the truths of faith received from the Word, or from religious teachings drawn from the Word, according to his acceptance of them in his heart. For when a person has a knowledge of the truths of faith and understands them in his own particular way, and then wills and does them, conscience takes shape in him. Acceptance in the heart is acceptance in the will, for a person’s will is what is called the heart.

9114. So it is that when people who have conscience speak they speak from the heart, and when they act they act from the heart. They also have an undivided mind, since they act in accordance with what they believe to be true and good, indeed in accordance with what they understand to be so. Consequently those who are more enlightened than others in the truths of faith and whose perception is clearer can be endowed with a more perfect conscience than those who are less enlightened and whose perception is dim.

9115. The people with conscience are those who have received a new will from the Lord. That will itself is their conscience; therefore acting contrary to conscience is acting contrary to their new will. And since the good of charity composes the new will it also composes conscience.

9116. Since conscience is formed by the truths of faith, as stated above in 9113, even as the new will and charity are formed by them, it also follows that acting contrary to the truths of faith is acting contrary to conscience.

9117. Since faith and charity that come from the Lord compose a person’s spiritual life, it also follows that acting contrary to conscience is acting contrary to that life.

9118. Now since acting contrary to conscience is acting contrary to the new will, contrary to charity, and contrary to the truths of faith, consequently contrary to the life that comes to a person from the Lord, it is evident that a person feels calm and at peace, experiencing inner bliss, when he acts according to conscience, but uneasy, indeed anguished when he acts contrary to conscience. This feeling of anguish is what is called the pangs of conscience.

9119. Human conscience involves a sense of what is good or a sense of what is right. A sense of what is good is conscience as it exists with the internal man, while a sense of what is right is conscience as it exists with the external man. The sense of what is good consists in being moved by an inward affection to act in accordance with what faith prescribes, whereas the sense of what is right consists in being moved by an outward affection to act in accordance with civil and moral laws. Those having a sense of what is good have as well a sense of what is right; but those having merely a sense of what is right possess the ability to acquire a sense of what is good, and do also acquire it after instruction. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s