The GOSPEL TRUTH
CHAPTER 9. CONSCIENCE
ACTS XXIV. 16.--"And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men."
PERHAPS there is no complaint more frequently on the lips of those who mourn over leanness of soul than this; "My faith is so weak: I want more faith;" and doubtless a weak faith is the secret of a great deal of the barrenness and misery of many Christians; but it never seems to occur to them to ask why their faith is weak? why they find themselves powerless to appropriate the promises of God? "Yes," said a dying backslider to a man of God who was trying to comfort him by quoting the promises; "yes, I believe they are true, but somehow they won't stick!" The fault was in the state of his own heart. He could not appropriate the promises, because he knew that he was not the character to whom they were made.
Now it seems to me that a great deal of failure in faith is simply the result of a defiled conscience, and if those who find themselves weak and sickly in spiritual life would turn their attention to the condition of their consciences, they would soon discover the reason for all their failure. The fact is, we have a great deal of so-called Christianity in these days which dispenses with conscience altogether. We sometimes meet with persons who tell us that they are not under the law, but under grace, and therefore they are not condemned, do what they will.
Now the question is, Does the Gospel contemplate such a state? Does it propose to depose or abjure conscience, or to purify and restore it to sovereign control?
I. Let us define conscience.
Conscience is that faculty of the soul which pronounces on the character of our actions (Rom. ii. 15). This faculty is a constituent part of our nature, and is common to man everywhere and at all times. All men have a conscience; whether enlightened, or unenlightened, active or torpid, there it is: it cannot be destroyed. Therefore Christianity cannot propose to dispense with it, as God in no case proposes to destroy, but to sanctify, human nature.
There has been much philosophising as to the exact position of conscience in the soul--whether it be a separate faculty, as the will and the understanding, or whether it be a universal spiritual sense pervading and taking cognisance of all the faculties, as feeling in the body. It matters little which of these theories we accept, seeing that the vocation of conscience remains the same in both.
II, Let us glance at the office which conscience sustains to the soul.
This office is to determine or pronounce upon the moral quality of our actions--to say whether this or that is good or bad. Conscience is an independent witness standing as it were between God and man; it is in man, but for God, and it cannot be bribed or silenced. Some one has called it "God's Spirit in man's soul." Another, "God's vicegerent in the soul of man;" and certainly it is the most wonderful part of man. All other of our faculties can be subdued by our will; but this cannot; it stands erect, taking sides against ourselves whenever we transgress its fiat: something in us bearing witness against us when we offend its integrity. Now it is a question of vital importance to our spiritual life whether the Gospel is intended to deliver us from this reigning power of conscience, and make us independent of its verdict; or whether it is intended to purify and enlighten conscience, and to endow us with power to live in obedience to its voice. Let us examine a few passages on this point. First, let us see what is done with conscience in regeneration. Heb. ix. 14: "How much more shall the blood of Christ, who, through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" See also Heb. x. 22. Second, let us see the office which conscience sustains in regenerate men. I Tim. i. 19: "Holding faith and a good conscience, which some, having put away, concerning faith have made shipwreck." Romans ix. 1:1 "I say the truth in Christ; I lie not; my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost." See 1 Tim. iii. 9 and Acts xxiii. 1. We have also set forth the consequences of allowing conscience to become defiled. I Tim. iv. 2: "Speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their conscience seared with a hot iron." Also Titus i. 15.
There are many other texts quite as much to the point, but these are abundantly sufficient to show that Paul had no idea of a wild, lawless faith, which ignored the tribunal of conscience and talked of liberty, while leaving its possessor the bond-slave of his own lusts. The Apostles clearly show that true Christianity no more dispenses with conscience, than it does with the great moral law by which conscience is set, and to which it is amenable. Hence Paul tells us in our text, that be exercised himself to have always a conscience void of offence.
III. We want to point out what is implied in having a conscience void of offence.
This implies--First, a "purged" conscience, made clean; conscience must be made clean, before it can be kept clean. The residuum of all sin settles on the conscience, and, as all have sinned, there can be no consciences clean by nature. There is only one way by which consciences can be purified--purged from guilt and made ready for new service. Heb. ix. 14: "From dead works" from all pollution, uncleanness, sterility. Conscience is not only polluted by sin, but outraged, incensed, made angry; it needs to be pacified as well as purged, and this can only be done by the blood of atonement. Every believer remembers the precious sense of purity and peace which spread over his soul, when first he realised a saving interest in the blood of Christ; how sweet it was to feel that all the stains left by the sins of a past life were washed out--to realise that the anger and vengeance of an aggrieved conscience were appeased--that God, having accepted the Lamb as a sufficient atonement, conscience accepted Him also, and was pacified! The offence and condemnation of past sin is washed away, and now the conscience is void of offence--clean, and ready to serve the LIVING God. There is a beautiful significance in the word "living" in this connection; it seems to intimate that there is a fitness, an appropriateness, between the character of the Being to be served, and the quality of that faculty of the soul which has specially to preside over His service. It is now not only made clean, but light, quick, tender, ready to detect and reject everything old, rotten, impure, unholy, and to keep it out of the sanctuary of the believer's soul, as unfit for the service of the living God, who sees every thought, motive, and desire. And oh, how true is conscience to its trust, if only the soul would exercise itself always to obey!
The Apostle laboured to have always a conscience void of offence. This must have been possible, or he could not have exercised himself to maintain it; he was too good a philosopher for that. What unpardonable and wilful mistakes are made about Paul's experience! His personification of the ineffectual struggles of a convicted sinner in the words, "Oh, wretched man that I am," have been wrested from their explanatory connection and set in solitary and mocking contradiction to every exposition of his experience from the hour of his conversion to that of his martyrdom. Paul was either a sanctified man, "more than conqueror," "doing all things through Christ strengthening him." Counting all things but "loss and dung" "knowing nothing amongst men save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified;" or he was the greatest egotist that ever lived. Neither was he honest, for we have not a word about failure or defeat after he once attained the liberty wherewith Christ Jesus made him free; and yet no Apostle gives us so much of his personal experience as Paul. He continually exhorts the churches to follow his example, to walk as he walked; and tells Agrippa, that he would both he and all that heard him were altogether such as he was, save his bonds. He continually challenged his enemies to point out a single selfish or inconsistent action, declaring that whatever he did, or wherever he went, or whatever he suffered, it was all for the interests of his Redeemer's kingdom; and when his work was done, like some mighty conqueror about to seize the crown of victory, he stretches forth his hand and cries. "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course; I have kept the faith." Surely Paul had found it possible to maintain a conscience void of offence! And so may we; but this implies, Secondly, systematic obedience to the dictates of conscience. Being made pure, light and quick, and set on the throne of the soul to communicate the light and truth of God, and to witness impartially whether it is obeyed or not, of course there can be but one way to keep this conscience void of offence, and that is by so acting as not to offend, grieve, or incense it again! Yon see, if the soul--nay, the whole being--refuses to be in subjection to it--will not obey it--then conscience must needs take offence again, because it cannot be cheated, or bribed, or silenced. To be kept void of offence it must be obeyed with promptness; to parley is to defile. How many a soul has dated its ruin to temporising with a suggestion, which conscience asserted ought to have been put down at once!
Thirdly, to keep a conscience void of offence requires unremitting effort, exertion, "exercise," determination; a bringing up, so to speak of all the other powers and faculties of the being; "herein do I exercise myself," the whole man, soul, mind, body--myself.
Here is need for 'exercise" indeed; this signifies no child's play, no mere effervescing emotion, expending itself in sentimental songs or idle speculations. Here is "the fight of faith," the faith of the saints, which can dare, and do, and suffer anything rather than defile its garments Only those who thus fight, have the Apostle's kind of faith. Satan knows this) and he waylays such souls with every temptation possible to them. He tries considerations of ease, interest, honour, reputation, friends, fashion, health, life! and sometimes puts all these in one scale at the same time, over against a pure conscience in the other. Alas! How many for such considerations "have put away a good conscience, and concerning faith have made shipwreck."
It is no uncommon thing to meet with people in this condition, who, "having built again the things they once destroyed, have made themselves transgressors." Conscience is defiled and incensed, and demands that the evil shall be put away and repented of, and the soul cast afresh on the blood of atonement for pardon and healing. Instead of doing this, however, we are constantly meeting with people who try to cling on to what they call faith, and who quibble and reason to try to make it out that they are right; but between their sentences we fancy we can hear their consciences mutter, 'You know you are wrong, you know you are guilty; confess, and forsake your sin.' I know a young lady, a professing Christian, who was deeply convinced by the Spirit of God that the business in which she was engaged was inconsistent with her profession, and also with her becoming a real follower of Jesus. After much controversy she took three days to debate with conscience as to whether she should give it up or not. Minister, friends, everybody but conscience, said, No. She yielded, and "put away a good conscience" in order to keep a good business. Shortly after she married a young man with the same sort of religion as her own; they rushed into imprudent and extravagant expenditure; he soon failed, and now she is in seas of trouble and sorrow. Surely "Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee."
IV. To keep a conscience void of offence requires the subjection of the whole being to the will. As conscience is the reigning power of the soul, the will is the executive, and in order to keep a pure conscience the will must act out its teaching. When inclination lures, when the flesh incites to that which conscience condemns, the will must say, No! and be firm as adamant, counting all things but dung and dross. When Satan takes us up to the pinnacle and says, "All these things will I give thee" if thou wilt do this or that, the will must say, No! and repel the tempter. This is just the point where human nature has failed from the beginning. Our first parents fell here. Their consciences were on the right side, but their wills yielded to the persuasions of the enemy. This is sin. The committal of the will to unlawful self-gratification. Joseph's conscience thundered the right path, and his will acted it out. Pilate's conscience also thundered the right course, but his will failed to carry it out. In one we behold a hero, in the other a traitor!
Young man, when you have got the fiat of your conscience act on it. At all costs carry it out. Better be counted a fool, and die poor, than be damned as a traitor to God and righteousness!
Young woman! what says your own conscience about accepting that unconverted lover? I entreat you, obey! Never mind what friends say--what inclination says--what apparent interest says; they all lie, if they contradict God! And miserable comforters will they all prove when His chastisements overtake you. Let your will be firm, though it slay you. Man of business! conscience intrudes even on the arena of trade. You hear its voice about this and that practice, or such and such a scheme. Does your will carry out its dictates? Do you resolutely say, I will not "do this thing and sin against God?" This is the test of faith. Real faith dares trust God with consequences; a spurious faith must look after consequences itself! It must save its life whatever becomes of a good conscience. Judge ye how much it is worth!
V. To keep a pure conscience requires great vigilance, lest by surprise or inattention we defile it.
"What I say unto you, I say unto all--watch." Our enemy is always watching to put an occasion of stumbling in our way. He knows the power of surprise. He lays many a snare to take us unawares; many a nicely-laid plot; many carefully-adjusted circumstances to catch us by guile. Oh, what need for vigilance! If by subtlety we ever get overcome, what must we do? Lie down in guilt and despair--allow conscience to remain polluted and incensed? No! up and confess, and forsake, and wash again.
VI. To keep a pure conscience requires patience.
Often necessitates our walking in an isolated path-taking a course which men condemn. Men judge from outward appearance; they do not see the intricacies of individual experience. The very course which they condemn, may be that which conscience insists on, and which must be done or suffered, or conscience and God be grieved and offended.
Patience will wait till God, by time and providence, justifies our course. Paul said it was a small matter with him to be judged of man's judgment. Why? Because his conscience acquitted--justified, and God witnessed that he was right. Such a soul can go on with all the world up in arms against it. This is just what the martyrs did--nothing more, nothing less.
Lastly. A pure conscience is its own reward.
No matter who condemns, if it approves, there is peace and sunshine in the soul. And whatever our trials or persecutions, we can draw near to God without wavering, for "If our heart condemn us not, then we have confidence towards God; and whatsoever we ask we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight" (1 John iii. 21, 22). As a clean conscience is its own reward, so an offended conscience is its own punishment. Conscience frequently offended soon becomes "seared" mark, not destroyed; quick and raw enough underneath, ready to be probed and fretted by the worm that dieth not, and scorched by the fire that never goes out but seared on the surface, of no use for present service; numbed, dark, useless. People with their consciences in this state often tell us they do not feel condemned for dispositions and practices, which are evidently forbidden by the Word of God, nor for things which they once would have trembled to do. Poor things, they do not see that their consciences are seared. A lady once told us that early in her religious experience, she would have felt very much condemned if she had gone to a theatre, but now she could go there, and feel that she was sitting with Christ in heavenly places at the same time! She had got such an increase of light, or rather darkness, that the godless entertainment, the worldly multitude, the flippant jokes, and pot-house songs, did not strike her as inconsistent with the teaching and profession of Him who said, "They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." Truly, it is an awful thing to have a seared conscience! There is but one step between that soul and everlasting death. Is there one of this class here? My friend, make haste back to the foot of the cross, confessing and forsaking your sins, and get your "conscience purged (again) from dead works to serve the living God." For "I without holiness no man shall see the Lord!"
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