The Way Made Plain

By James H. Brookes

Chapter 4




That man is responsible for his belief is the distinct testimony of consciousness. The process of reasoning by which this proposition may be established is simple, but direct and conclusive. That he is conscious of responsibility for his actions is almost universally admitted, and is fully attested by the sacrifices and superstitions, by the penances and prayers, by the terrors and remorse, that have marked his history in all ages and in all lands. That he is also conscious of responsibility for the dispositions of his heart is equally obvious, for they alone give moral character to his conduct; and if they are left out of view, he is no more accountable for his deeds than are the brutes that perish. Hence, if he flies into an unreasonable rage at the bidding of an unsubdued temper, when the calm of sober reflection has succeeded the storm of passion he condemns himself not only for what he has done, but for what he has felt. And our opinion with regard to moral truth being largely under the control of our dispositions, and intimately associated, as has been proved, with our moral actions, a consciousness of responsibility for our belief inevitably follows; and the moment we are awakened from the deep sleep of sill and spiritual death by the quickening voice of the Son of God, we pass judgment upon our belief as wrong, no less than upon our conduct.

The Saviour, describing the work of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of men, says He will convince "of sin, because they believe not on me";1 and the first experience, perhaps, of the enlightened and regenerated soul is to see that his unbelief for so many years is the most aggravated of all his iniquities. It is certain, then, that with the millions of Christians who have lived there has been a clear consciousness of responsibility for belief; and if it is not so with others, it only proves that they have fallen under the spell of a dreadful sorcery which has locked them fast in spiritual insensibility. There are multitudes who have no consciousness of sin for their conduct; but this fact, instead of showing that they are not sinners, only reveals the depth of ruin into which they are plunged. If they are ever raised out of that ruin by the exceeding greatness of God's power, they will not only perceive that they are sinful in their outward actions, but will pass an immediate sentence of condemnation against themselves for the long-cherished sin of unbelief.

Thus the apostle Paul, referring to the character of his belief before he was a Christian, says: "I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which things I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them."2 Again, he writes to the Galatians: "Ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it; and profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers."3 But the sincerity of his attachment to the religious system under which he was educated, and the ardor of his zeal in upholding it, did not excuse him even at the bar of his own conscience when he received a knowledge of the truth; for years after he was saved he speaks of himself as the chief of sinners, and '' the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God."4 In the light from heaven that flashed around him on the road to Damascus he saw that his conduct had been fearfully wrong; and as his conduct was the natural and necessary result of his belief, he saw that his belief had been equally wrong, and was worthy of no slighter censure than the cruelties to which it led. So will it be with you, dear reader, if God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, shines in your heart " to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."5


It is the judgment of mankind that we are responsible for our belief, and they hold us account able for it both to civil governments and at the bar of public opinion. A criminal is never acquitted on the ground that he sincerely believed the law which he had violated to be wrong, or that he sincerely believed it had been repealed, or that he sincerely believed its penalty would not be enforced. The law goes on the presumption that its subjects are acquainted with its provisions and punishments, and it requires them to answer not only for what they know, but for what they might know. It does not lay its arrest upon the idiotic or the insane to treat them as culprits, but where the moral faculty exists, associated with even a low degree of intelligence, it demands obedience to its authority under pain of its avenging justice.

Let us suppose that a law is enacted by the legislative department of the government, declaring that on and after a certain day the crime of theft shall be punished with death instead of imprisonment. Let us suppose further that this law has received the approval of the Executive and the sanction of the highest judicial decision pronouncing it to be constitutional in all its features; and, still further, that it has been fully promulgated through the press and placarded on the streets and highways. If a thief should be arrested, tried, and found guilty under this law, it would avail him little to plead that he sincerely believed it had not been decreed, or that he sincerely believed its penalty was unreasonably severe, or that he sincerely believed it would remain a dead letter on the statute-book. It is probable that all the thieves in the community would sympathize with his feelings, and claim that there was some force in his defence; but surely every honest man would say that he was responsible for his belief and should be held to a strict account for his felony. If it can be shown that he might have informed himself of the existence of the law and the consequences of its violation, no good citizen would urge that his ignorance or his mistake should form the ground of extenuating, much less of justifying, his offence.

There are some things which a man may believe or disbelieve without receiving either commendation or censure, because the will and the dispositions of the heart are not called into exercise in accepting them as true or in rejecting them as false. We do not say that he deserves praise for believing that two and two make four; or for refusing to believe that two and two make five; or for crediting the evidence of his senses; or for relying upon the testimony of his own consciousness. In such cases the action of his mind is involuntary, so to speak, and does not depend upon his inclination or power of choice. He is obliged to believe as he does; or if, owing to some rare eccentricity, he believes otherwise, his condition is justly regarded as demanding pity rather than blame. But there are other subjects which cannot be reached by mathematical reasoning, nor perceived by the senses, nor known by intuition, and when these subjects embrace moral truth, they at once determine man's responsibility for his belief, because his belief here depends upon his will and the state of his heart.

I do not assert that he is responsible for believing without sufficient evidence; but as evidence cannot be weighed without attention, and as the attention is subject to his control, he is responsible for directing his thoughts dispassionately, earnestly, and without prejudice, to questions that claim his regard, and that may at least affect his eternal destiny for weal or for woe. There are duties, for example, which arise from the various relations we sustain to our fellow creatures; and those who are too indifferent to inquire into the nature of these duties, or too depraved to care for them, or too selfish to perform them, we hold responsible for being in a condition that prevents the discharge of their social obligations. Nor is it enough to say that they are responsible merely for their conduct; because a moment's reflection will convince you that our judgment of them goes back to the state of mind or dispositions out of which their conduct naturally flows. If we know of a man who sincerely believes that he has a right to take his neighbor's property, although he may not actually steal; or of one who sincerely believes he has a right to take his neighbor's life on some slight provocation, although he may not actually kill; or of one who sincerely believes he has a right to use his neighbor's name, although he may not actually commit forgery,—we do not hesitate to say that his very belief is wrong; and we could not employ this term unless we held him responsible for his principles as well as his actions. Or if you deny this, then I immediately fasten you upon the other horn of the dilemma by showing that you cannot, with the least degree of consistency, hold such a man responsible for his actions, which necessarily spring out of his principles; and thus this wretched theory which I am opposing, if left to work out its legitimate results, would undermine the foundations of human government and destroy the entire structure of human society.

But it is a noteworthy fact that the warmest advocates of this delusive and dangerous opinion do not pretend to apply it except in man's relations to God. None are more unsparing than they in their denunciations of what they conceive to be his erroneous political belief, or his wrong views of the standard of integrity that should be observed in business transactions, or even his religious convictions when they differ from their own. If man is not responsible for his belief, there is nothing whatever to justify them in so persistently assailing those of us who hold that he is responsible; since, according to their own notion, it is of no consequence what we believe, provided we are sincere; and if he is responsible, what becomes of their shallow conceit that he is not responsible? This alone is sufficient to condemn them; for why are they so prompt to recognize man's responsibility for his belief of the truth, save when they come to the infinitely important truth contained in the Sacred Scriptures? Does not their position confirm the testimony of the Bible when it declares that "the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be "?6 Does it not prove that they have taken counsel together "against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us"?7 Alas! their astounding inconsistency in holding man responsible for his opinions to themselves, while stoutly denying his responsibility for unbelief towards Christ, only reveals a guilty conscience full of fears, or a wicked purpose to throw the reins upon the neck of the transgressor and encourage him in a career of unrestrained sin.


An argument from analogy is suggested by the admitted fact that man is made responsible for his belief by the physical laws of his being. He sees, for example, a white powder which he sincerely believes to be harmless; but if it is arsenic, and he is rash enough to act upon his belief by swallowing it, his sincerity will not prevent excruciating pain, and probably death. An intelligent and conscientious physician may inform him that his continued dissipation will result in disease and drag him down prematurely to the grave; and although he may sincerely believe that his medical adviser is mistaken, his sincerity cannot avert the consequences of his folly and crime. He may be correctly told that a remedy has been discovered for some fearful plague which has laid its grasp upon him; but sincerely believing that his informant is mistaken, and preferring to follow the counsels of his own judgment, he may decline to act upon the testimony he has received, and yet his sincerity will not stay for a single moment the approach of the fell destroyer. He may be warned by friends that a vessel in which he intends to make a voyage is not seaworthy; but sincerely believing that the warning is the expression of unreasonable prejudice or unmanly fear, he may confidently set sail, and yet his sincerity cannot deliver him from going down with a shriek into the yawning depths when the storm is let loose in its fury upon his frail craft. Without citing other illustrations of a truth so obvious that none will have the hardihood to call it in question, it may be asked why a merciful God does not respect the sincerity of His creatures in such cases, and save them from the sufferings which they bring upon themselves. If it be replied that they violate certain fixed laws, and therefore receive the merited penalty, I answer that they also violate a certain and fixed law who refuse to believe the testimony of the Son of God; and we have already proved that the Almighty will no more interfere to arrest the penalty in one instance than in the other.

No one can assert that the law of gravitation is more thoroughly established in the natural world than is the great law, as I here term it, of the spiritual world, which says, "He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life."8 The glorious Being who ordained both in their different spheres possesses the same adorable and unchangeable perfections whether we view Him as the God of nature or of revelation; and those, who imagine that because they are sincere they may with impunity reject or neglect the unalterable expression of His will, however made known, will surely discover that they have been woefully deceived. It is childish, therefore, for the objector to cavil at the harshness of the doctrine I am advocating until he first finds fault with God for the facts that occur in our daily experience and observation. If, however, he is disposed to insist that in the natural world man is responsible, not for his opinions, but for his acts, it is sufficient to remind him of what I have already shown, that it is impossible to hold religious opinions without an expression of them in acts of obedience or disobedience that at once place him among the friends or the foes of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

If any of the Hebrews on that terrible night of the passover in Egypt had sincerely believed that the blood of a slain lamb sprinkled on the door-posts of their houses could not save them from the stroke of the destroying angel, or that the Almighty was too merciful to inflict the threatened vengeance, their belief would have certainly manifested itself in their conduct, and they would have certainly perished with their enemies. If any of them, when bitten of the fiery serpents in the wilderness, had argued that there was no remedial or restorative power in looking at a piece of brass, and hence had sincerely believed that there was more wisdom in expecting help from some other source, they would have refused, of course, to obey the Divine direction; and of course they would have miserably perished because of their unbelief, however sincere they might have been.


Another argument to prove man's responsibility for his belief might be derived from the constitution of the human mind. As I do not wish to extend this chapter to an undue length, I shall throw out only a hint or two, which, with the blessing of God, may be profitable to the awakened soul. Even the heathen philosophers of ancient times clearly perceived that the mind is the organ of truth, as the eye is the organ of vision and the ear the organ of hearing. The jaundiced eye can impart a sickly yellow appearance to the pure white snow, and the deaf ear is dull to the most entrancing melody; but, for all that, no one doubts that they were originally constituted to be the proper organs of sight and sound. And although it is written that "the wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies,"9 yet they were created at first with reference to truth as much as to any other end of their existence. Their minds have become sadly diseased and perverted from the use for which they were so wonderfully organized; but this fact proves their responsibility, because it is the introduction of sin which has wrought the change.

A careful observation will convince you that the vast majority of men are so absorbed in their worldly pursuits and pleasures that they are profoundly indifferent to religious truth; or they are so entirely the slaves of prejudice that they will not impartially investigate it; or they are so anxious to escape persecution and reproach in an apostate world that they are not prepared to suffer for it; or they are so blinded under the delusive influence of Satan that they do not perceive its divine beauty and inestimable value. In other words, it is manifest that they are led by the dispositions of our corrupt nature; and surely for this they are responsible, if they are responsible for anything. But they turn away from the commands of God with contemptuous unconcern, or with proud reliance upon their own wisdom, or with a fixed purpose to admit nothing as an article of faith which will abase them as helpless sinners at the cross of Calvary.

Just here their guilt comes in; for as our Lord said of the unbelieving world, " If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin; but now they have no cloak [or, as it is in the margin, no excuse] for their sins."10 In His blessed grace. He did not ask those to whom He presented Himself as the promised Messiah to receive Him without exhibiting His credentials, so to speak; for He says, "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works."11 A few like Nicodemus recognized the validity of the credentials, and said to Him, "We know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him;"12 but the great mass, offended by His lowly appearance and soul-humbling doctrines, refused to give to His claims even a candid examination. The result was, they could not believe because they would not; and they were brought to a terrible account for their rejection of Christ, even when they thought they did God service in despising His overtures of mercy. " Ye will not come to me," was His sad complaint, " that ye might have life;"13 and this will not, which was the root of unbelief, as it still is, made them responsible for their opinions, however sincere their plea that they were unable to accept the evidences of His Messiahship. If God should command us to look at a beautiful landscape which He had created to glorify Himself and to gratify us, and we should deliberately put out our eyes, our blindness would be no excuse for disobeying His requirement. And so if we have wronged our souls and injured our minds by sin until the wonderful organ of truth which He bestowed on man at first can no longer perform its proper functions, we have ourselves to blame for groping in darkness.

"But what is Truth? 'Twas Pilate's question put
To Truth itself, that deigned him no reply.
And wherefore? Will not God impart His light
To them that ask if? Freely: 'tis His joy,
His glory, and His nature to impart.
But to the proud, uncaudid, insincere.
Or negligent inquirer, not a spark."

And now, dear reader, I leave what is here written to your reflections; praying that (however imperfect the discussion of this great subject in these pages) the Lord will lead you to see the hollowness of Satan's crafty device when he would persuade you that man is not responsible for his belief. Depend upon it, this is the devil's lie and not God's truth. Even under the Levitical law an offering was provided for sins of ignorance; and in the Gospel of the grace of God it is written, " How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?"14 although we may be perfectly sincere in our neglect. The great Bacon has well said, "Truth and goodness differ but as the print and seal; for truth prints goodness," and holiness is obedience to the truth. If man, therefore, is responsible for anything, he is surely responsible for his opinions, since they necessarily determine whether his outward life is in accordance with truth and holiness or with error and unrighteousness. "God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil."15 "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."16 "O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my down-sitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether."17



1) John xvi. 9.

2) Acts xxvi. 9, 10.

3) Gal. i. 13, 14.

4) 1 Cor. xv. 9.

5) 2Cor. iv. 6.

6) Rom. viii. 7.

7) Ps. ii. 3.

8) 1 John v. 12.

9) Ps. lviii. 3.

10) John xv. 22.

11) John x. 37, 38.

12) John iii. 2.

13) John v. 40.

14) Heb. ii. 3.

15) Eccles xii. 14.

16) Gal. vi. 7.

17) Ps. cxxxix. 1-4.