And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void to offense toward God, and toward men.
That there is no cause so bad, but some will plead it; no man so good, but some will slander him; no case so clear, but some will question it; nothing so false, but some will swear it. Judges, then, had need to do as their ancients did, first sacrifice, then sentence. Thus the context: for the text, every man must chiefly look to this, that his conscience be not offended. Men, be they pleased or not pleased, conscience must not be displeased. This is the main, and for our briefer despatch of this point, this order will be taken, first, the terms must be unfolded, next the proposition confirmed, and then applied. In St. Paul's action and our proposition, three things come to be considered — the subject, object, end. For the first, no more but this: we infer from Paul's exercise each man's duty. It is true he was a preacher, but he is not now considered as a preacher, but as a man; and in my text his life is mentioned, not his faith or function. For the second it is conscience, a word of great latitude and infinite dispute. For the first, I take conscience to be both a faculty, and a distinct faculty, too, of the soul. The schools reject that, others this; but besides reason, the written Word bends most that way (1 Timothy 1). It is distinguished from the will (Titus 1:15), from the mind, and if we mark it, conscience is so far from being one of both, or both in one, as that there is between them first a jealousy, then an open faction; the other powers of the soul, taking conscience to be but a spy, do what they can first to hide themselves from it, next to deceive it, after to oppose it, and lastly to depose it. Conscience, on the other side, laboureth to hold its own, and, till it be blinded or bribed, proceeds in its office in despite of all oppositions, it cites all the powers of Nature, sits upon them, examines, witnesseth, judges, executes. Hereof come those λόγομοις self conferences, or reasonings, as St. Paul terms them (Romans 2.), thence those mutual apologies, and exceptions amongst themselves, when conscience sits. I know the words are otherwise carried; but μεταξὺ ἀλλήλων will hardly brook any other bias that is set upon them. For the second, the common subject of conscience is the reasonable soul. The third thing is its end and office. It is set in man to make known to man in what terms he stands with God, thence its name; therefore fitly termed the soul's glass, the understanding's light. Conscience therefore is a prime faculty of the reasonable soul, there set to give notice of its spiritual estate, in what terms it stands with God. Now secondly, it is taken sometimes more generally, sometimes for the whole court and proceedings of conscience, by the fathers; sometime for the whole soul of man, either stooping to conscience, or reflecting upon itself. The third followeth, without offence. It is the conscience that carries the soul as the foot the body, through all ways and weather, therefore St. Paul would be as chary of this as the traveller of that. Conscience should not be offended lest it should offend in its fit constitution and working, or managing of its proper actions, which as Paul delivers them are —
4. And now accidentally since the fall, accusing and tormenting.And for its constitution it stands in clearness, tenderness, quietness, and when it is either so blinded or dazzled, feared, lamed, that it cannot do its office, then it is said to be offended. Every Christian must be carefully watchful that his soul, spirit, or conscience be no way grieved by sins. Now follows the proof, and that is most easy. First, from precept. Above all keepings keep thy heart, saith Solomon (Proverbs 4:23). Next, from example. We have a cloud of witnesses, prophets, apostles, martyrs, who would hazard themselves upon the angry seas, lions, flames, rather than upon a displeased conscience. Thirdly, from reason. First, for God's cause we should make much of conscience, that being His officer, and therein standing the chiefest of His image and man's excellency. The perfection of man is his knowledge; the perfection of knowledge is the knowledge thereof, which is conscience. Secondly, for our peace sake, conscience being like a wife, the best of comforts if good, the worst of naughts if bad. For first deal friendly with conscience, and it proves the best of friends, next God. First the truest, that will never flatter, but make thee know thyself. Secondly, the surest, that will never start, it lies with thee, it sits with thee, it rides with thee, it sleeps with thee, it wakes with thee, it walks with thee in every place beyond all times. Thirdly, it is the sweetest friend in the world. If natural cheerfulness be so good a housekeeper to a good man, that it feasts daily, as Solomon saith, oh, then what be the banquets of conscience sanctified and purified! what joys those which will carry a man above ground, and make him forget the best of Nature's comforts? Secondly, offend conscience, and it will prove as the inmost, so the utmost enemy. First, unavoidable; do what thou canst, thou canst not shake it off; when thou goest it goes, when thou fleest it runs. It meets thee in the dark, and makes thee leap; it meets thee in the day, and makes thee quake; it meets thee in thy dreams, and makes thee start, in every corner. Secondly, insufferable, it strips one of all comforts at one time; if a sick stomach will make one weary of chairs, beds, meats, drinks, friends, all, oh, what will a sick conscience do! Next, it puts one to intolerable pains, it racks the memory, and makes it run backward twenty years, as Joseph's brethren; yea, it twinges for sins of youth, as Job complains, it racks the understanding, and carries it forward beyond the grave, and makes it feel the very bitterness of death and hell before it sees them; it racks the phantasy, and makes it see ghosts in men. And shall such a thing as this, so near, so great a neighbour be offended?Use 1. We have done with proofs, we now apply. Wherein, first, shall we chide or weep, to see the wickedness of these times, and the infinite distance betwixt Paul and us? Oh, Paul, thou art almost alone; thou studiest conscience, we of this age craft; thou didst gauge thine own, we other men's; thy care was to please conscience, we the times; thine to walk evenly before God and man, ours to serve ourselves on both; thou everywhere was for conscience, we almost nowhere; thou wouldst see conscience take no wrong, now wit out reasons it, wealth outfaces it, money outbuys it, might overmatches it, all undervalue it.Use 2. As for you present, be entreated to two things: First, talk with your hearts alone, and in case conscience be angry with you once, agree, else never safe; nor field, nor town, nor bed, nor board, nor life, nor death, nor depth, nor grave can render you secure. Secondly, be of Paul's mind. First, set conscience at a high price, consider what it will be worth in the day of trouble, of death, of judgment, and resolve to beg, starve, burn, die over a thousand deaths to save conscience's life. Next, use Paul's means, look to God and man. For God; first, with Paul, we must believe what is written. Faith and conscience are embarked in the same ship (1 Timothy 1:5, and 1 Timothy 3:9). Secondly, for man; if we have given our voice or hand against the innocent, with St. Paul, we must retract it.Use 3. Now we have some special errands yet to deliver. First, to you of lower rank. Do you stand in the face of judgment this day with Paul's conscience? Though my house and land be yours, yet whilst I breathe, I will be none but mine own and God's. But I cannot live without Him. But thou canst die without Him; and it is better to die a thousand deaths than to stab one conscience. Whatever becomes of your places or estates, so walk, so go, as may be for your peace. Next, to you of higher rank I have a double suit. First, that you will have some mercy on ether men's consciences; next, on your own. Secondly, we in the ministry are in places of trust, the gospel is committed to us, as to St. Paul. Oh happy we, if we can say after him, "We preach not as pleasing men, but God which tries the heart." We are men of conscience, let conscience rule and master us.
(Robert Harris, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men.