And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void to offense toward God, and toward men.
I. That we may rightly understand this matter, we must consider a little WHAT IT IS TO HAVE A CONSCIENCE VOID OF OFFENCE, which was the ground of the apostle's plea. The office of conscience is two fold: to direct one in acting, and then to pass a censure upon his actions. Before the thing is done, conscience serves as a tutor to advise and teach; and after the fact is over it serves as a judge, either to acquit or to condemn him for it. So that to have a conscience void of offence is, in the apostle's sense, to be powerfully governed by one's conscience in the faithful discharge of his duty, and so to follow the light which is in his understanding, as not to fall into any known sin, nor to act anything which will wound his mind in the consequence. This the apostle protested now in open court was his constant exercise. But this must be understood chiefly of the time after his conversion to Christianity. For while he was yet a Jew and a zealous Pharisee his conscience was not void of all offence. We know what his sins were, and with what penitence and freedom he lamented them afterwards. But when he came to be thoroughly enlightened by the Sun of Righteousness, and his conscience was set to rights, it was his fixed endeavour to keep it more charity than the apple of his eye. As a man that has once broken his bones by chance is very careful lest he slip again, so was the apostle, after his conversion, industriously bent upon keeping his conscience from the least wound or blow. He valued no stripes as long as they did not touch that tender part. And this shows us all what ought to be the great care and business of our whole life; for whether conscience be well or ill kept, a man shall be sure to hear of it at last; he will certainly find the effects of it at home; let him take what course he pleases, his conscience will bear him company, and in the end prove his comfort or his plague. 'Tis true a man's conscience may not accuse him or fly upon him presently. How evil soever it be, it may lie quiet for a time. For a time it may be still and quiet, like a clock that stands when the weights are down, but one time or other the hand of God will wind it up again, and then every wheel and movement will stir to purpose. We should not trust, no, not our own hearts, because in the end our worst enemy will be that in our own bosom.
II. BUT THERE ARE THREE CASES ESPECIALLY WHEREIN IT HIGHLY CONCERNS MEN TO HAVE A CONSCIENCE VOID OF OFFENCE.
1. First, in case of public dangers, when the face of the world looks uncomfortable and dismal. Seldom do the things of this life continue at a stay. However, some are so hardy as to scoff at religion, and strive to wear out of their minds the sense of God, yet nothing can carry a man out in the day of trial but holy principles. And whoever he be that relieth upon these principles, and upon examining his actions, finds good reasons to believe that his heart is sincere and upright, he must needs be danger proof in a very high degree. You have an instance here in St. Paul, though the Jews had bound themselves under a curse that they would kill him; though Ananias used his authority and Tertullus his eloquence against him; though men and devils conspired to destroy him; yet his rejoicing was this, that his constant exercise was to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man. Such evil days and times of danger every one of us is very apt to put far off from himself by reason of the uncertainty of them.
2. Secondly, there is another case which every day occurs against which a wise man will be well provided — the case of sickness, when we should have little else to do but to trim up our lamps and exercise our graces, and so to repose ourselves in the bosom of a faithful God and a merciful Redeemer. Now, he that makes a conscience of his ways, and studies to carry himself without offence toward God and man, will at that time have nothing in comparison to do but to wait God's pleasure, for as he foresees that such a day will come, so he prepares for it beforehand.
3. There is another case yet which I must mention, because from the highest to the lowest we must every one of us come to it in our order, for it is appointed unto all men once to die, and after death to go to judgment. What is it to die? Of what infinite importance is it to die well? What will become of us when we are dead and gone? Such religious meditations would prove very powerful restraints to keep men within the compass of their duty; for how slightly soever some have spoken of morality, I am confident no man ever yet repented of it on his death bed, nor can anything be a greater comfort to a man at the last than to consider that the care of his life has been to keep a conscience void of offence. It is a comfort that will stick to him to endless ages.
II. TO OFFER BRIEFLY THESE FEW THINGS, THE POINT BEING ALTOGETHER PRACTICAL.
1. That we give all moral diligence to inform our consciences rightly of the lawfulness of all we do. This was the fault of St. Paul before his conversion, that he took things upon trust and went upon presumptions. Therefore to have a conscience void of offence, it is absolutely necessary to use all proper means for the removing and curing of mistakes, such as unprejudiced meditation, reading of good books, conference with skilful and upright teachers, and the like.
2. Our endeavours being thus honestly employed, the next way to have a conscience void of offence is to follow its dictates. Great is the power which everyone's conscience hath over him. It hath by the appointment of God Himself the immediate government of us, so that the very Word of God doth not otherwise guide us than by the light which it affords the conscience. Though the Divine will be the supreme rule, yet conscience is the inward and immediate measure of our actions; and on that account the command is so peremptory that everyone is to be fully persuaded in his own mind, and the determination is so positive that whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
3. To despise the world when it stands in competition with our duty is another sure way to keep one's conscience void of offence, because nothing is more apt to corrupt men's minds and to rifle them of their integrity than the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.
4. And so to resist the first temptations unto Bin; to get such a mastery over our own wills as to arm ourselves with firm purposes against it; to pray daily and heartily unto God not to lead us into temptation; and, above all, to have God always before our eyes.
(E. Pelling, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men.