And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void to offense toward God, and toward men.
A conscience is one of those terms which are common in the world, but of a very doubtful and uncertain, and sometimes of a dangerous signification. Some men understand nothing by it but a blind and hardy zeal for the opinion they espouse, which perhaps they have been confirmed in by the prejudice of education, or have taken up out of some motive of worldly interest or vanity. Others mean nothing by it but a scrupulous tenderness about things of little or no moment; things which, considered in themselves, are not of the substance, but only to be looked upon as decent circumstances of religion; which yet conscience is many times more nice and tender about, than the most weighty and important of religious duties. Thus we see conscience, according to the different tempers, passions, and prejudices of men, is made to signify very different things. And whereas it is the character of a good and well-informed conscience, to be void of offence towards God and towards man; as some persons understand conscience, nothing is more injurious or offensive, either to God or man.
I. As to the first inquiry, WHAT IS MEANT BY A CONSCIENCE VOID OF OFFENCE TOWARDS GOD AND TOWARDS MAN? We may easily come to a resolution if we do but consider what is the rule of conscience, or how we ought to proceed in regulating the judgments we make of our own actions. For not only the reason of the thing, but the very word conscience, in its proper signification, imports that there ought to be some law by which our conduct is to be tried, and the error or rectitude of it determined. When we know that our actions have been conformable to such a rule, we have a good and well-informed and inoffensive conscience; but if we depart from our rule, how specious soever our pretences may be, of a good intention or zeal for God's service and the interests of religion, in order to palliate or the better to set off a sinful action; yet the principle upon which we act cannot properly be called conscience; for conscience, in the proper sense of the word, always supposes a conformity between the rule and the action. It is therefore only private judgment or opinion upon which we proceed in such cases; and, strictly speaking, can no more be called conscience than I can be said to concur with another person in any design or action wherein I directly oppose him. Yet it must be granted that as men are willing to impose upon themselves by false names and appearances, and to call that conscience wherein they act in direct opposition to their rule; the apostle is sometimes pleased to express himself in compliance with this ordinary but improper way of speaking (1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15). There is a necessity indeed of this distinction, concerning conscience in a strict and in a popular and a large sense, to account for that very plea of our apostle (Acts 23:1). For it is evident, if we are to understand conscience according to its genuine signification, of a man's acting agreeably to a known and certain rule, the apostle, in this sense, could not be said to have had a good conscience in persecuting the Church of God, because in so doing his zeal was not according to knowledge, but he acted ignorantly, and beside his rule. By conscience, therefore, he could here intend no more than his private judgment or opinion, which, though in some measure, and in proportion to our weakness or ignorance, it may excuse an irregular or sinful action, yet will by no means justify it (1 Corinthians 15:6; Titus 1:13). Whatever pretensions men make to religion, how conscientious soever they apprehend themselves to be, or would appear to others, yet if they do not regulate their actions by the law of God, we may, notwithstanding, say of them, according to the fore-cited words of the apostle, that their very mind and conscience is defiled. Now this law of God, by which our actions are to be regulated, may be considered either as that natural law written on the table of our hearts; or else it may be understood of the revealed will of God discovered to us in the Holy Scriptures. In most cases, indeed, we need only put the question to our own hearts, and they will direct us what we are to do and what to forbear. The great lines of our duty towards God and man are so plain and visible to the eye of natural reason that those who do not see them must be sunk into the last degree of corruption or given up to a judicial blindness of mind. The apostle. observes this concerning the heathens, who had no other light to direct them but that of their own minds (Romans 2:14, 15). But because in this degenerate state of human nature the faculties of our souls are disordered, so that we do not always see the truths of religion in a clear light or reason justly concerning them, therefore God has been pleased to make a plain and standing revelation of His will to us in the Holy Scriptures. So that upon the whole matter, to have a conscience void of offence is to act conformably and knowingly according to that law which God has prescribed as the rule of our actions. If upon examining our conduct by this law we find there is a good agreement between them, then we may safely conclude we have done what we ought and that our own minds have no offence to reproach us for either towards God or towards men.
II. SOME RULES AND DIRECTIONS IN ORDER TO OUR OBTAINING SUCH A CONSCIENCE.
1. The first thing I would recommend to this end is a careful and diligent reading of the Holy Scriptures. For if the Scriptures be the rule by which our judgments in matters of conscience are to be informed and directed, and from which we cannot depart, then the only way to have a conscience void of offence is to consult and apply this rule to our particular cases and circumstances. And they are not only a rule to instruct men in their duty, but a powerful means to persuade them to a conscientious discharge of it. As the saving truths and principles of religion are only to be learned from them, so they furnish us with the most strong and invincible arguments to enforce the practical duties we owe both to God and man (Psalm 19:7, 8). And this power of the Holy Scriptures to open the hearts as well as the understanding of men, discovers itself in the good effects it often has, even upon those persons who are the least disposed to comply with it. We cannot fail, if we do not shut our eyes against the light or wilfully reject the motions of God's grace, to have, with St. Paul, always a conscience void of offence towards God and towards men.
2. In the next place, if we take care of the very first motions and beginnings of sin. For in this corrupt state of human nature our innocence is so weakly guarded, that it is for the most part much safer to prevent a siege than to run the hazard of an attack. Or if we happen to be attacked, which is sometimes unavoidable, what we have to do is to repel the enemy with all the vigour we can. If we give way in the least to him, we know not what further advances he may make.
3. I shall but lay down one direction more in order to our having and preserving a conscience void of offence; and it is this: That we should frequently state accounts between God and our consciences, and inquire what sins we have committed and what duties we have done or omitted to do.
III. SOME PROPER MOTIVES AND ARGUMENTS.
1. With respect to this world there is nothing can afford us any true, solid, or lasting satisfaction without a good conscience. The pleasures of sin are always dashed with one impure bitter ingredient or other, besides that they are of a short duration, and go off with an ungrateful relish. But the pleasures, on the other hand, arising from the conscience of our having done what we ought, as they are pure and unmixed, so they last as long as the remembrance of those actions which occasioned them. Had we with this blessed apostle a conscience void of offence, it would be an unspeakable comfort to us under all the troublesome accidents and disappointments of this life. Whatever our condition might be in it, we might then say with him (2 Corinthians 1:12). And indeed if we can sincerely say this, we ought not to be much concerned at what befalls us in a life which is not designed for a perfect state of happiness, but only to prepare and train us up for it; and if God in His wisdom sees fit that through much tribulation we should enter into His kingdom, I am sure we shall at the last have no reason to complain.
2. But this leads me to represent to you in the next place the great blessing and advantage of a good conscience with respect to another world, and that both as it is a condition of our future happiness and a necessary qualification for it.
(1) As it is a condition, and an indispensable one too, of our future happiness. In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, we and the whole world must be tried before Him for our actions done in the body, whether good or evil, and be acquitted or condemned according as our consciences bear witness for or against us (Romans 2:15, 16). But do we indeed duly consider what these two different sentences, which the Judge of the world will then pronounce, severally import? What it is to go away into everlasting punishment, and what into life eternal? Oh! most certainly such a reflection duly improved would never suffer us to take any ease or repose in our own mind till we had with the apostle exercised ourselves to have always a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man. Especially —
(2) If we farther consider that to have a conscience void of offence is not only a condition, but a necessary qualification for heaven. What satisfaction would it be to a man in a violent fit of the gout or stone to be laid upon a bed of roses? As little satisfaction would a sinner take in the pure and spiritual joys of heaven without a heavenly temper and disposition of mind.
(R. Fiddes, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men.
WEB: Herein I also practice always having a conscience void of offense toward God and men.