On Secret Faults

Samuel Stanhope Smith

Smith was born in Pennsylvania in 1750, a son of the manse. He studied at the College of New Jersey, at Princeton, under John Witherspoon, whose eldest daughter he marred. While pastoring Presbyterian congregations in southern Virginia, he helped to found Hampden-Sydney College. In 1779 he returned to Princeton to teach moral philosophy, and became professor of divinity in 1783. He was president of the college from 1795 to 1812. In 1797, George Washington spoke of him as the most capable college president in the nation. Smith died at Princeton in 1819. This discourse is taken from his Sermons, published at Newark, New Jersey, in 1799.

“Cleanse thou me from secret faults!” Psalm 119:12.

Human nature is covered with imperfection. Conscience daily denounces to us errors and follies in our conduct, the guilt of which is so strongly marked, that we cannot forbear to acknowledge and condemn them. But, a much greater number, in the hasty and superficial glance which, in the midst of business, or of pleasure, we throw on life, escape our observation — many, when we come to look back upon our own history, and examine our conduct, have passed from our remembrance — and many more are covered from the censure of our own minds by that partiality to whatever is attached to ourselves even by a remote relation, that is among the most dangerous weaknesses of human nature. — Sins of this kind, forgotten, unobserved, or justified and covered by self-love, are, by the sacred writer in the text, denominated secret faults.

As it is of high importance to lay open, as far as possible, every source of humility that should affect a good man at the throne of grace, and to expose to all men the hidden and unsuspected errors of their lives, I shall endeavor, in the present discourse, to disclose their principal causes and springs. From each of these we may derive many facts and truths that may be profitably applied for the examination of our hearts, and the regulation of our conduct. They may be comprised under the heads of ignorance — of a corrupted state of public manners — of vicious habits — and of false principles.

I. In the first place ignorance is a fruitful source of faults that from their very cause must be unknown to ourselves. In an uninformed mind, the passions, uncontrolled by principle, will be continually gathering strength — and every criminal impulse hastens to its object, freed from those holy and powerful restraints which can be imposed upon it only by an enlightened conscience. Ignorance, as I here speak of it, respects the laws of duty, and the system of divine truth contained in the holy scriptures. For whatever science a man may possess, if his knowledge of these is defective, his heart is, in the same proportion, laid open to the influence of temptation, and subjected to the dominion of its passions. Sound principles of divine truth early received, and permanently fixed in the mind, furnish the most effectual motives to duty, and form the strongest fences of virtue. — Ignorance enfeebles and prostrates both the one and the other. It infallibly leads to vice. Make for it the most favorable supposition that it is the subject of religious impression — it is liable to the false fervors, and the crimes of fanaticism which it exalts into virtues, or it sinks into a vain discharge of the absurd and useless rites and penances of superstition, which it makes the substitutes of duty, and the expiation of its sins. If it is without religious impression, it is prone to plunge into the gulf of profligacy, and to abandon itself to the unrestrained indulgence of every vice, to which propensity, example, or habit invites. Is not a great part of the reproachful idleness, the gross profanity, the shameless intemperance and obscenity that so often disgrace the inferior orders of society, and offend our eyes, and wound our ears even in the public streets, to be ascribed to that defect of principle and instruction that leaves the mind without a clear light to guide its conduct, or a faithful monitor to restrain its excesses? Those who are least informed, indeed, cannot be wholly ignorant of the evil of these vices, but, unacquainted with the holiness and extent of the divine law, the high degree of their criminality is, in a great measure, unknown to them. They are covered with the guilt of secret faults, and are sinking into perdition, unconscious of the load that is pressing them down. Will ignorance, according to the false hopes of sinners, exculpate the conscience? Invincible ignorance might; but ignorance of duty in the midst of our lights, arising, as it does, from a criminal abuse of reason, or a criminal neglect of the means of information, can only aggravate the guilt of our offences. But sins of ignorance, and this is a truth that, in a particular manner, claims the attention of every serious mind, are not chargeable on the profligate and uninstructed alone, but, from the imperfection of human nature, adhere, in a degree, to the best of men, and furnish a subject of humility to the most eminent saints — sins that spring from infirmity or neglect by which a thousand fugitive thoughts escape attention, a thousand habitual ideas and emotions rise in the heart and pass away again without ever being examined, or compared with the great standard of duty in the word of God. Sins that arise from partial and limited views of the extent and sanctity of the divine law, and finally, sins that arise from mingling with the law of God the errors of our own reason, or the prejudices of a mistaken education. “Who can understand his errors?” The veil that covers the heart is sometimes lifted up, and we discern in ourselves evils that we had not suspected. But when we have seen all that human weakness ever sees, innumerable vain thoughts will still lodge within us undiscovered, and form a subject of daily humility and repentance at the throne of grace.

II. Another source of secret faults is found in the dangerous influence of self-love.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?” Its deceitfulness has been a subject of complaint to good men in all ages. Hardly is there a foible, or a vice of character which it is not able to palliate, or to conceal. Daily we see it exemplified in the discourses and conduct of others, and they, doubtless, perceive it in us. But, in innumerable instances, its effects are so subtle that neither they nor we discern them. — Every propensity of nature, in proportion to its strength, furnishes us with proofs of this influence; but, of all the principles of self-deceit pleasure is the most powerful, and opens the widest field for those impositions which men are daily passing upon themselves. They are easily deceived where they already wish to be deceived. Whatever yields them pleasure they are studious to justify. All the fallacies of reason are mustered up to defend the favorite indulgence, and to overcome those scruples that fill the mind, and oppose themselves to the first approaches of vice. And no conclusions ought we to suspect more than those which after much thought and attention, we finally drew on the side of our inclinations. The greater pains we have taken, the more various the lights to which we have turned the favorite idea, and the more subtlety and refinement we have used in framing our ultimate judgment on the case, the farther, perhaps, we have erred from the truth. These anxious researches, these ingenious reasonings, instead of being a fair and candid inquiry after truth, may be nothing more than the efforts which self-love is making to justify indulgence. There is scarcely any degree of guilt which this principle will not cover or excuse. “All the ways of a man are right in his own eyes.” Hence the science of self-knowledge is rendered above all others difficult and obscure: and however deeply we may penetrate the mystery of iniquity in our hearts, an unfathomable abyss will still remain in the errors and the blindness of a dishonest self-love, which we can never sufficiently explore.

III. General example, likewise, frequently contributes to render our faults secret, and unknown to ourselves, by taking off from the mind that impression of guilt, or abating that sentiment of abhorrence which vice is apt to produce when it is more rarely seen.

In consequence of that mysterious sympathy by which men are drawn together, and formed on each other’s character and model, they slide insensibly into manners that are continually presented to view in the public example. Custom they confound in their ideas with propriety. And, in a thousand instances, we daily see folly lose its impertinence, and frivolity, deformity, and even vice cease to disgust when recommended and justified by fashion. The best of men frequently perceive their zeal for the glory of God, and the highest interests of human nature, languish through the lukewarmness and formality that have invaded the great body of their fellow Christians. They contract some taint in their own manners from the general license in the midst of which they live. “Because iniquity abounds the love of many waxes cold.” If they have been accustomed to see the Sabbath violated, do they not with less scruple themselves infringe upon its holy rest? If they are surrounded by scenes of levity and dissipation, frequented by those with whom, on other grounds, they are in the habits of intimacy, are they not liable to suffer from the contagion of that contaminated society? If they habitually hear the sacred name of the Majesty of Heaven insulted and profaned, is not the horror of the customary impiety lessened in their esteem? Is not the spirit of the world, by the force of numbers and example, making daily inroads upon the pure and heavenly spirit of piety? The conscience is rendered less scrupulous and tender by the frequency of seeing vice. Indulgences that will not bear the rigorous test of reason and the word of God come at last to be regarded merely as innocent compliance with the manners of the world. Numbers and fashion become a kind of pledge for the innocence of every practice upon which they impress their stamp. Mankind are prone to judge of the truth of opinions, and the propriety of conduct more from custom than from reason — more from the example of others than from the results of their own serious investigation, and the intimate conviction of their own breasts. — From this error good men are not wholly exempted; and example becomes even to them, and much more to others, a fruitful source of secret faults. “Evil communication corrupts good manner,” and, at the same time, hides the corruption from the eye of conscience. The greater part of the world follow just as they are led — active minds prevail over the indolent, and the daring over the weak — and the multitude of sinners resign their conscience and their conduct to the direction of men more criminal than themselves. Ah! it is not by the customs of men but by the law of God that we should judge our hearts. How many sins, that are now hidden from our view by the predominant influence of custom and example, will be disclosed to us by affliction that strips the false and seductive coloring from the world — by the approach of death that draws forth from beneath every covering and disguise the inmost principles of the heart — by the penetrating light of eternity that, shed upon the soul in the article of dying, searches and reveals its deepest and its darkest recesses. Oh! how vain are the opinions and examples of men, which are made the encouragement and justification of so many faults, when weighed against the law and the judgment of God. A good man, sensible of his frailty and his danger, will daily confess and deplore the evils that may be concealed from his view by this unhappy influence, and will studiously disentangle truth from the vain fashions of opinion, and of manners with which it is combined, and by which it is distorted. But sinners, resting upon the multitude of their fellow sinners, are contented to wrap themselves up in a fatal security till God comes at length to rend the veil that covers their crimes, and to shed upon them the dreadful and consuming light of his justice.

IV. Another cause of secret faults may be found in the effects of habit.

Propensities or actions that have become habitual we are apt to confound with the original tendencies of nature, and, equally, to ascribe them to the author of our being. They operate almost without our thinking of them; and men seldom take the pains to examine their rectitude, or their relations to the divine law. If any faults, therefore, have gradually grown up with them, and become incorporated into their manners, they are rarely and with difficulty cured — they are hardly seen as faults.

Habits advance by such insensible degrees that it is difficult to remark their progress. They steal us imperceptibly away from the fountain of truth and the standard of perfection. And when once we begin to yield to the tendencies of corrupted nature, or to the stream of fashionable vice, even good men may sometimes be borne far down the silent and contaminated current before they are aware, till some palpable miscarriage awaken their sleeping conscience, and oblige them to remount to the source of the evil in order to purify it. David could not have passed at once from those sublime and pious fervors that glow in his sacred compositions, and still animate the devotions of the church, to that act of gross sensuality and injustice that was the stain of his life, and embittered to him the remainder of his days: gradually he must have yielded to the temptations of his fortune — the habits of pleasure must have insensibly stolen upon him, till, in an unsuspecting moment, they plunged him into the gulf, and, by his miseries, recalled him to himself, and restored the obliterated sentiments of duty on his heart.

Habit has likewise a passive influence upon the soul that greatly contributes to this dangerous effect. Of this influence every day furnishes us with innumerable proofs. Customary appearances attract little attention, and customary actions are performed almost without thought. Hence vices, which are common in society, and which enter into the character and manners of a people, come, at length, to be viewed with a kind of indifference even by a good man, which may expose him, at some times, to be betrayed into criminal compliances with them. Hence faults that have entered into our own habits are slightly remarked, if they are remarked at all, and they speedily pass into an oblivion from which they are never recalled. These forgotten sins, however, leave upon the conscience an indelible taint; and, not improbably, prove the cause of many of those strokes and chastisements in the course of divine providence of which we do not discern the immediate cause nor the end.

V. Another and much more pernicious source of faults of this kind is to be found in false principles.

The innocence of error, says a great writer (Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester), is the master prejudice of the present age. And a false and dangerous maxim, has, perhaps, been too generally received, that it is of small moment what principles in morals and religion men may embrace, it is conduct alone which we are to regard; as if conduct could be safely, or was in reality ever separated from principles. It is a truth established upon the soundest reason, and demonstrated by constant experience, that practice and principles have a close and intimate relation, and a powerful influence upon one another. Whole nations have had their character and manners formed by the spirit of their legislation, and the maxims of their education. And certain doctrines are daily, among the wise and learned, vindicated or refuted by the consequences that are supposed to result from them. Do we not see that loose manners and licentious opinions tend to beget one another? The corruption of manners among the Greeks and Romans, in the decline of their republics, gave universal extension to the dissolute doctrines of the Epicurean philosophy — and it is acknowledged by their own writers that the prevalence of that philosophy hastened and augmented the degeneracy of the public morals. (See particularly Polybius, book vi, for an account of its effect among the Greeks.) The same voluptuous principles, with little variation, have been revived in modern times, and the same pernicious effects have resulted from them. Judge ye what manners will be produced by that system which represents man as being merely an organized system of matter made to perish and be reproduced under other forms like successive crops of vegetables, the sole end of whose being, and the only reasonable object of whose pursuit is sensual pleasure (Helvetius). Every restraint is, by such doctrines, removed from the passions, every encouragement is given to vice. To what purpose are the self-denials of virtue if we perish forever at death, and if we shall meet, beyond the grave, with no reward worthy of its sacrifices? If appetite alone furnishes the chief good of man, how should honor, friendship, justice, or religion, stand in the way of its gratification? Such false and pernicious principles tend, not only to promote vice; they cover and protect it likewise from the censure of our own conscience. Would you see in its extent the criminal conduct that may spring from a brutal philosophy that thus sensualizes the soul? — Examine the history of those men who have been its most zealous and distinguished advocates. Gross and shameful often is their public conduct; but their secret history presents scenes of vice, from which piety and virtue must turn away with horror. Nothing can exceed the licentiousness, the hypocrisy, the baseness, the treachery, the cruelty, the total dereliction of humanity and virtue, of which many of the adepts of an impious philosophy have shown themselves to be capable. Yet, in their principles do they find the justification of their crimes, and they seem to possess the fatal art of persuading themselves of their own innocency. As one example, let me call to you recollection a work but too well known, and yet, amongst the least criminal of those efforts that have lately been made to corrupt all moral principles — I mean the Confessions of Rousseau. They exhibit to us innumerable follies, the eternal caprices of a restless, fickle, and ungovernable temper, the culpable fruits of passions always excessive, many very low, and many very shameful vices. Yet, we see him, in the introduction of that extraordinary recital, presume, with an audacity that shocks the pious mind, to present the history of his infamy at the throne of the eternal, and to justify his crimes to his creator and his judge who had given him his passions. “Let the last trumpet,” saith he, “sound when it will, I will advance with this book in my hand, to present myself before the supreme judge — I will boldly say, Behold what I have done! Here is what I thought! This is what I have been!” — This man’s principles must have formed to him the justification of so many crimes — They must, at least, have concealed from him their turpitude and guilt, or he could not have dared, with such shameless honesty, to blazon his disgrace before the face of the world.

Men, who are not seeking apologies for their vices, may, under a mistaken sense of duty, be guilty of high offences against piety and against humanity. “The time shall come,” saith the Savior to his disciples, “when he that killeth you shall think that he doth God service.” And the apostle Paul, speaking of himself before he had embraced the faith of the gospel, says, “I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” Much more are they liable to errors in their conduct of inferior moment from the false principles which the frailty of reason and the prejudices of education frequently mingle with the religious systems of the best of men. — They maintain, perhaps, the basis of divine truth; but they erect upon it a superstructure, in many instances, incorporated with errors of greater or less magnitude. In whatever degree such errors exist, in the same proportion is the spirit of their piety impaired, and the system of their virtues rendered imperfect. According to the figure of the apostle, if they build on the solid foundation of the gospel, wood, hay, stubble, that is, any erroneous principles that lead to an unholy practice, their works shall be burnt, but themselves shall be saved yet so as by fire — the fire shall consume all the false additions that have been made to this rock of ages which supports the faith and hope of every real believer. Yet, till the day when the fire shall try them, the mistaken professors of the gospel may not only remain blind to the imperfections of their own character, but even flatter themselves with the idea of their innocence or their merit. — Ah! who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults!

As the class of evils of which I have been treating is capable of being so much increased by ignorance of our duty, and of the innumerable and delicate relations which we sustain to our Creator and to one another, permit me, in the remarks which I design to make, in the conclusion of this discourse, to call your attention, in the first place, to the importance of early instruction upon these necessary subjects. — Men, in the beginning of life, and before their habits are formed, more frequently fail in their duty from want of information, than from any natural malignity of heart. It is only a mind that has already made considerable progress in vice that can deliberately violate its own clear and certain sentiments of right and wrong. An enlightened conscience imposes the most effectual restraints upon the passions, which are the principles of evil in man. It unfolds the law on each case of conduct as it arises, and adds to the prescriptions of duty the most powerful motives of obedience. Hence it is that faith, not, as the enemies of religion assert, a blind belief of uncertain facts and unintelligible mysteries, but a clear understanding and firm persuasion of the truths of the gospel, is laid, by the apostles, at the foundation of a good life, and thereby made the condition of our salvation. The most intimate relations subsist between duty and truth — And the principal value of truth is that it leads to duty.

This course of education should commence from our earliest years. The human character is forming from the first moment the senses begin to act. And it is of high consequence that nothing but the most just ideas, and the purest principles of truth should be instilled into the minds of children, and the most amiable examples of virtue exhibited before them. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” “The word of God will be a light to his feet and a lamp to his path.” “It is like a fire, and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces” — it will dissolve it and mould it into any shape.

The defect of early instruction in the principles of piety and virtue is productive of great and innumerable evils. The prophet Hosea attributes to it the corruption of manners in the nation of Israel; and, after an affecting enumeration of their crimes (Hosea 4:1-6), he adds, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” — Both age and youth which would make progress in the honorable course of virtue, and finally attain to perfect holiness in the fear of God, should diligently search the scriptures, and study, by all means, to enlarge their acquaintance with these pure and infallible oracles of truth. Let them be your meditation all the day; and, from their precious stores of knowledge and instruction draw all the rules of your conduct.

2. The tendency of self-love to deceive us in the estimate which we make of our own character, and to cover many errors in our conduct, renders it necessary that we should often enter profoundly into the principles of the heart, and the motives of our actions, and that we should be able to discriminate the characters of genuine piety from all the false pretences, and plausible appearances of virtue with which we are prone to confound them. By a candid and faithful examination of ourselves we may be able to discover and correct many secret faults that would otherwise defile the conscience. For this purpose, often retire apart from the world where self-love is strengthened by every object that awakens the passions, and where cares and pleasures continually call us out of ourselves. Frequently seek that holy solitude, in order to converse with your hearts, where none shall be present besides God and yourselves. — Strengthen there your own honesty in this important duty by the consciousness of his pure and inspecting eye, and by the recollection of the account which we must render at his bar. Judge yourselves with the same spirit with which you shall be judged. It is a duty prescribed by reason, as well as enjoined by the word of God. Know thyself was the most famous maxim of ancient wisdom. The holy scriptures press and repeat it again and again — “Examine yourselves whether you be in the faith — prove your own selves — know ye not your own selves how that Jesus Christ is in you except ye be reprobates?” It is a duty absolutely requisite in order to understand our secret faults, and to remove that mask from the heart by which the power of self-deceit is able to conceal from men their true character. Search and try your ways — and, in fulfilling this great duty, remember that you shall shortly be tried at a higher bar by the righteous judge of quick and dead. And do thou O Lord mercifully reveal to us the faults that will still be covered from our own view! “Search us, and know our hearts, try us, and know our thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in us, and lead us in the way everlasting.”

3. The reflections to which you have attended admonish you likewise to be on your guard against the dangerous influence of fashion and example. Fashion draws after it manners and opinions by a silent and powerful charm. And each age has its peculiar modes of thinking and acting. Whatever, therefore, is recommended by general example we ought to examine with peculiar scrupulosity, not only because we are prone to slide into the imitation of it with an incautious facility, but because general manners, in the present age, have departed far from the purity and simplicity of the gospel. The stream of fashion seems, indeed, to a certain distance, to coincide with that of piety and virtue; but then insensibly separating from it, it bears away those who, without caution, commit themselves to its current. Scrutinize all your actions, not by what others do, or permit, but by the word of God, which is the infallible test of rectitude and truth. — Ah! how often, in this period of general license, and relaxation of morals, hath a secret infection reached your hearts from that contaminated influence in the midst of which you live? How often hath the spirit of the world, carried into your most holy devotions, left the heart still barren and cold at the throne of grace? How often have criminal, or doubtful compliances with its manners left a secret taint upon the conscience, and invited others to receive with indifference or contempt a religion that departed so little from their own habits? — Learn then to fear the infectious commerce of the world — Retire from the midst of that example, and of those societies which you find by experience to impair the holiness and integrity of your walk with God. — Do you ask where is the forbidden limit? for, to a certain degree, we may innocently conform to the world. It is difficult to ascertain it by any universal rule — One criterion however is sufficiently sure, the moment that you perceive the fervor of your affections towards your Creator, your Savior, and the objects of your duty beginning to abate, the moment that you find yourself obliged to excuse, or beginning to make apologies to your own hearts for certain liberties, that moment you have already gone too far.

If the contagion of fashion, and sympathy with the public manners, are able sometimes to lead established Christians into sin, much more are youth, thoughtless, gay, easily attracted by every object of pleasure, and susceptible of dangerous impressions from every companion with whom they meet, liable to corruption from the ill examples that are everywhere presented to their view. Seduced by a contagious sympathy with such associates, enflamed with dissolute pleasure they are hurried on in a thoughtless career; or, if they ever think, it is only to invent apologies for their vices, and to find means to hide their real character from themselves. They envelope themselves in the mists of their passions, and think they are concealed also from the eye of God. Ah! the thunders of divine justice are collecting above that dark cloud that intercepts your sight, and, in the moment of your greatest security they may burst forth — “When you are saying peace and safety! sudden destruction shall come upon you.” In the judgment of God, your secret faults shall appear to be manifest crimes, and all the deceitfulness of sin shall be stripped off before this holy and impartial tribunal.

With one more admonition I conclude this discourse. Beware of false principles in religion. I speak not now of those atrocious doctrines in philosophy that prostrate all religion, and cover the most enormous vices under an appearance of reason. I speak only of principles adopted by the friends of piety that spring out of the errors of their own understanding, but, mingled with the purity and simplicity of the gospel, tend to corrupt it. From the prejudices of education, and from a vain confidence in the powers of reason they are prone to confound certain notions and abstractions of their own minds with the plain and simple doctrines of revelation, and out of the whole to compose one heterogeneous mass. Their own speculations, they too often make the basis of their system; and instead of conforming their reasonings with the divine word, they bend this sacred standard into a compliance with their preconceived ideas. This spirit has introduced various corruptions into the Christian church, and, by the ascendancy which it has given to the vain and arrogant pretensions of reason beyond its proper sphere, has hastened the extension of an impious philosophy. For, the moment that reason forsakes the guidance of revelation, and those obvious and universal sentiments and feelings of human nature upon which the evidence of revelation is founded, there is no point of rest till it has destroyed all truth, and arrived at a frightful atheism. — Every departure from the divine simplicity of the gospel, every mixture of false science with its pure and heavenly light, tends to obscure its luster, and to impair its sanctifying effect upon the heart. Blind and erring as we are, and subject to innumerable prejudices, arising chiefly from the influence of the passions, every addition which we make to the simple word of God will, too probably, become the nurse of some vice, or foible of character, and mar the beauty and consistency of our Christian profession — it covers, under the mask of a profession, many secret faults. And according as the various sects of religion approach, or decline from this standard we see them distinguished from one another by the different degrees of their sanctity, by the spirit of their morals, and even by their manners.

Finally, from the whole view which we have taken of this subject, let me recall to your most serious consideration the profound humility that becomes us before the throne of grace on account of our manifold and secret imperfections. The language of the holy Psalmist, will be that of every sincere and penitent believer — “Innumerable evils have compassed me about — mine iniquities have taken hold upon me so that I am not able to look up — they are more than the hairs of my head, therefore my heart faileth me.” — How many sins have escaped our knowledge or observation, even in the moment of committing them? How many, on a review of life, have escaped our recollection? How many have been overlooked through the imposing influence of custom and general example? How many have been covered by the deceitfulness of self-love? How many have passed for innocent conformities with the laws of nature, or have even been mistaken for virtues through the effect of false principles? Ah! Who can understand his errors? We are altogether as an unclean thing! Our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away! Cleanse us, O Lord, from secret faults! Keep back thy servants also from presumptuous sins!

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