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THE EXTENT AND GROUNDS OF CHRISTIAN OBEDIENCE
Romans 14:7-45.14.9. None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.
TO exercise Christian forbearance is no small attainment. There is continual need of it in the Christian world: there are many things of an indifferent nature, which we are at liberty either to do or forbear; but all do not see their Christian liberty with equal clearness: hence the weak are apt to judge the strong, and the strong to despise the weak. Thus the Jews and Gentiles at Rome disputed respecting the use of certain meats, and the observance of certain days. The Apostle shews, that, though the two parties differed in their conduct, they were equally accepted of God. He grounds his assertion on the idea that both of them acted from a conscientious desire to please and honour God.
The extent of Christian obedience—
If we were to judge from the practice of mankind, we should think that very little was required of us; but we must judge by the unerring standard of God’s word. Both the Law and the Gospel require the obedience of the heart, and in this the Christian labours to approve himself to God—
He renounces self—
[Self is the idol of the unregenerate world; they study only to please and exalt self in every part of their life; they have no higher view in courting or shunning death. But the Christian sees the sinfulness of thus idolizing self. He therefore endeavours to suppress its workings, and mortify its desires; he determines never to make the indulgence of self his chief aim.]
He devotes himself to the Lord—
[He studies to do his will, and gain his approbation: he seeks to glorify his name in every action of life: he considers that he is the Lord’s property, both by creation and redemption: he strives therefore to honour him with every faculty of body and soul.]
This is not a mere theory, but a living picture of Christianity—
[The Apostle lays down an universal rule to this effect [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:31.]: he himself conformed to it in an eminent degree [Note: Philippians 1:20.]: every true Christian, according to his measure, conforms to it; “none of us,” &c.]
Such obedience, however, will not spring from any but evangelical principles—
The grounds of it—
All possible obedience is due from us to God by creation; but God has acquired a new right over us by redemption.
Christ has died, risen, and revived—
[He died to make atonement for our guilt: he rose for our justification before God: he revived, and lives to carry on the work.]
He has done this with an express view to reduce us to allegiance—
[He undertook to save men from their sins, and not in them. Paul repeatedly declares this to have been the end of our Lord’s death [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:15.Titus 2:14; Titus 2:14.]; Peter speaks to the same effect [Note: 1 Peter 2:24.], and our Lord himself also confirms this truth [Note: John 17:19.]. The same was also the end of his resurrection and ascension [Note: Philippians 2:9-50.2.11.]; and in all that he is now doing, he keeps the same object in view.]
What he has done is therefore the proper ground of our obedience—
[We are still as much as ever bound by the laws of our creation; but we should be particularly affected with redeeming love: this should stir us up to the most unreserved obedience. The Apostle requires such obedience, on this very ground [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:19-46.6.20.]. We shall surely render it, if we have any interest in redemption [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:14.].]
How few real Christians are there in the world!—
[If living to ourselves were Christianity, there would be Christians without number: but nothing less than an entire devotedness to God can entitle us to the name. How few then are there to be found! The text might be reversed in almost every assembly of professing Christians [Note: Philippians 2:21.]. Let us judge ourselves by this criterion: let us rest in no partial or hypocritical services: let us cry to God for his Spirit to renew us in our inward man.]
How reasonable is the Christian life!—
[Christian obedience is often ridiculed as preciseness, and needless scrupulosity: it is deemed a mark of a weak and enthusiastic mind. But it is justly called a reasonable service [Note: Romans 12:1.]. Who can ever estimate the obligation arising from the death of Christ? Who can sufficiently praise him for what he is now doing for us in heaven? Is it reasonable that we should defeat the ends of all his love? Ought we not rather to requite it to the utmost of our power? Should we account any thing too much to do for him? Let all then confess the reasonableness of being devoted to Christ. Let every Christian exert himself more and more, disregarding ridicule and contempt [Note: 1 Corinthians 15:58.].]
THE FUTURE JUDGMENT
Romans 14:10-45.14.12. We shall all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
THERE is in the morality of the Gospel a sublimity of which even the godly themselves have a very indistinct perception. We are apt to lay down broad principles of action, without taking into consideration other principles which should influence us in the application of them. For instance; where the calls of duty seem to interfere with each other, we are apt to lean to one side or the other with an exclusive preference, instead of studying how the two may be made to harmonize, in just order and mutual subordination. To most persons it would appear an unquestionable truth, that if one thing be right, its opposite must be wrong; whereas, if an action be in itself indifferent, the doing or forbearing of it may be equally right, and equally acceptable to God. This was the case with regard to the eating of meats forbidden by the Jewish law, and the observance of particular days which had been held sacred under the Mosaic dispensation. There was nothing morally good or evil in these enactments: they depended on the will of Him who had imposed them: and, when they were abrogated, they remained as purely matters of indifference, as if nothing had ever been enjoined respecting them. But the contending parties in the Church at Rome could not see this: those who had been educated in Jewish habits, not only maintained their own forms, but judged and condemned the Gentiles who rejected them: those, on the contrary, who knew that those ordinances were abrogated by the Christian dispensation, not only asserted their own liberty, but held in contempt the persons who were yet in bondage to their forms. Now, both of these parties acted right in complying with the dictates of their own conscience; but wrong, in presuming to sit in judgment upon each other. To mark the true line of duty in this matter, was the Apostle’s object in this part of his epistle. He shews, that, provided a man endeavoured in such matters to approve himself to God, doing only what he really judged to be right, God accepted him; and that, whilst we commend ourselves to the judgment of our God, we should also leave to his judgment those who differ from us; assured, that in the last day he will dispense to all, not according to our narrow views, but according to what he knew to be the real disposition of their minds.
Leaving, for the present, the primary subject of the chapter, namely, candour in judging one another, I shall draw your attention to that which is here incidentally introduced; namely, the certainty and awfulness of the future judgment.
There shall be a day of future retribution—
[Reason itself might tell us this: for how else are the inequalities of the present state of things ever to be rectified? At present, “all things come alike to all;” or rather, the ungodly triumph, and the godly are oppressed. But can we suppose, that God will never recompense to his servants the troubles they sustain for his sake, or to their enemies the injuries they inflict? No: there shall be a time when God will deal with men in a way of perfect equity; and he has fixed a day for “the revelation of his righteous judgment.” To this the Scriptures bear ample testimony. They even declare, with great precision, the very mode in which the judgment shall be administered. They declare that Jesus Christ shall be the Judge; (for “the Father hath committed all judgment to the Son [Note: John 5:22.]:”) that, at a period fixed in the Divine counsels, “he will come in his own glory, and in the glory of his Father, with myriads of his holy angels,” and will sit upon the throne of his glory; and that “before him shall be gathered all nations [Note: Matthew 25:31-40.25.32.]:” that “the books,” in which the transactions of the whole human race are recorded, “shall be opened,” and “every one be judged according to his works [Note: Revelation 20:11-66.20.15.]:” that, for this end, “all who were in their graves shall come forth” in their own proper bodies; “some to a resurrection of life, others to a resurrection of damnation [Note: John 5:28-43.5.29.].”]
Of this God has assured us, with a most solemn oath—
[The Apostle quotes a passage from the prophecies of Isaiah. This passage speaks of the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Apostle tells us, and as the whole context in the prophet clearly shews. The person spoken of in that passage is He to whom we are to “look for salvation;” He “in whom alone a sinner can have either righteousness or strength;” and “in whom all the seed of Israel must be justified, and shall glory [Note: Isaiah 45:22-23.45.25.].” To him shall all submit, either voluntarily in this present life, or involuntarily at that great and awful day. His dominion shall extend over all. But many resist it now: and therefore there must be a day when they shall be able to resist it no longer; and when those who would not bow to the sceptre of his grace “shall be broken in pieces by him, as a potter’s vessel, with a rod of iron [Note: Revelation 2:27.].” This has God declared with an oath. And here I cannot but notice how clearly and indisputably this passage declares the Godhead of Christ. Again and again does the prophet proclaim the proper Deity of the person of whom he is speaking:— “Look unto me, and be ye saved! for I am God; and there is none else. I have sworn by myself, the word is gone forth in righteousness, and shall not return, that unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. Surely shall one say, In the Lord (Jehovah) have I righteousness and strength; unto him shall men come; and all that are incensed against him shall be ashamed. In the Lord shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory.” Let these expressions be compared with the application made of them in my text, and it is impossible to avoid the conclusion, that Christ is God; and no subordinate kind of Deity, but “God over all, blessed for evermore.” Hear then Almighty God pledging his own life and immortal perfections, that such a day shall arrive, and that such shall be the issue of it; every creature that has ever existed being summoned before the Lord Jesus; and being constrained, whether willing or not, to acknowledge Christ as his rightful Lord, and as the only Saviour of the world.]
Such is the certainty of that day. Let us next consider,
In that day, “every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” Not one shall be absent; not one be able to resist, or elude, the summons. The most formidable monarchs will then be on a footing with the meanest beggar: and every one shall, not merely be reminded of the things which he has done, but shall confess them, and “give an account of” them,
Generally, as to his demeanour on the whole—
[Then shall we give an account of our time. It ought to have been dedicated altogether to the Lord, and not consumed in sloth or vanity. The use we have made of it will form a subject of most serious inquiry: not a day or an hour passes, but it shall be then reviewed. Our talents, too, our property, our station, our intellectual powers, our influence of every kind, must then be accounted for. They were the Lord’s; and ought neither to have been wasted, nor hid in a napkin, but to have been augmented by a diligent application of them. And what shall I say of our advantages, particularly the unspeakable advantage of a preached Gospel? Must not those also be accounted for? Yes, verily, they are most signally noted by Almighty God, and will form a very important ground of approbation or displeasure, according as they have been neglected or improved. Our habits altogether will then come under the strictest scrutiny; whether we have abounded in the exercises of prayer and praise; or whether we have passed over in a formal way the duties of the closet, finding no delight in communion with God: whether we have put away all our besetting sins; or have “retained iniquity in our hearts” unmortified and unsubdued. Every thing, even every idle word, will come under review, to receive its appropriate reward [Note: Matthew 12:36.]: nor shall so much as a secret thought escape the sentence of our God [Note: Ecclesiastes 12:14.]; for “he will bring every secret thing into judgment, and make manifest the counsels of the heart [Note: 1 Corinthians 4:5.],” as subjects of praise or dispraise, according to their intrinsic quality.]
Particularly, as to his conduct towards the Lord Jesus Christ—
[It will be remembered, that the passage cited by the Apostle refers, in the first instance, to the dominion of Christ, which shall be established over every child of man: but, forasmuch as that is not accomplished now, it shall be accomplished hereafter, when all “his enemies shall become his footstool.” Hence the Apostle justly quotes them, as declarative of a future judgment: and hence we conclude that our submission to him will be a subject of special inquiry. Then shall it be clearly seen whether we have “looked unto Christ for salvation;” whether we have sought “in him our righteousness and strength;” and whether we have “gloried in him” as “all our salvation and all our desire.” These things are disregarded by us now, as of small moment; and we make little account of any thing, except of our conduct towards our fellow-men. But we may be perfectly assured that our conduct towards the Lord Jesus Christ will not be found a point of secondary importance then. It is not so light a matter to “trample under foot the Son of God, and to do despite to the Spirit of his grace,” that it should be overlooked in that day. Let me therefore most affectionately remind you all, that every one of us, without one single exception, shall give account of himself to God, and especially respecting his treatment of the Saviour, whom to disregard is death, and “whom to know is life eternal.”]
St. Paul, speaking of the day of judgment, says, “Knowing, therefore, the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men.” Permit me then to improve the subject, and to persuade you,
In reference to the main subject of the context—
[We have before observed, that the Apostle is speaking respecting candour in judging; and, of moral subjects, there is scarcely any that is of greater importance than that. Our blessed Lord enjoins us strictly in relation to it: “Judge not, that ye be not judged; for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again [Note: Matthew 7:1-40.7.2.].” Think for yourselves, and act for yourselves; and regard not the uncharitable judgment of others, when you are “fully persuaded in your own mind.” But concede to others the liberty which you claim for yourselves. Leave others to exercise their own discretion: and, instead of sitting in judgment upon them, leave them to the infallible judgment of their God. Believe that they may be right, as well as you; and that they may be right, though they differ from you. You yourselves, as well as those whom you judge, will shortly appear before the judgment-seat of Christ: there will every man receive according to his works. On the side of charity you may safely err: but if you indulge uncharitableness towards others, you can expect nothing but what God has expressly declared; that they “who have shewed no mercy shall themselves have judgment without mercy [Note: James 2:13.].”]
In reference to the passage we have been insisting on—
[You have seen that Christ will surely triumph at the last. Respecting those who pertinaciously reject him, he will say, “Bring hither those mine enemies who would not that I should reign over them, and slay them before me.” Lay down, then, the weapons of your rebellion, and humble yourselves before him. Think not that he will forget his oath: for he will surely fulfil it. He is able so to do; and he “will not repent” of any word that he hath spoken. “Hath he said, and shall he not do it? Has he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” Seek then, without delay, to have his whole work accomplished in you; and be assured, that, if you serve him faithfully, according to his word, the time is not far distant when he will address you from his throne of glory, “Well done, good and faithful servants; enter ye into the joy of your Lord.”]
PRACTICAL CHRISTIANITY ILLUSTRATED
Romans 14:17-45.14.19. The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.
TO have a clear view of Christian doctrines is necessary; but to have a just apprehension of the Christian spirit and temper is no less necessary: and it is much to be regretted, that where the doctrines are well understood, the Christian temper is often grievously overlooked: nay, the very importance of the doctrines is often made a pretext for exercising tempers most repugnant to vital Christianity. People are not willing to distinguish between the essentials, and the non-essentials, of religion. There is in every man a disposition to exalt some favourite sentiment of his own, and to press it upon others beyond what its relative importance requires; whereas the spirit of Christianity calls rather for mutual forbearance in relation to things indifferent, and mutual concessions, in order to the preservation of peace and harmony.
The scope of the chapter before us is to mark out a line of conduct for Christians in relation to this matter: and in this view it deserves the most attentive consideration. To present the subject before you in all its most important bearings, we shall,
Shew wherein practical Christianity consists—
[The Jewish religion consisted much in the observance of rites and ceremonies, which were marked with great precision, and enjoined under the severest penalties. The forbearing the use of certain kinds of food, the keeping as sacred certain times and seasons, and the complying with certain ordinances, were commanded with all the same authority as the decalogue itself. But those things were to cease with that dispensation [Note: Hebrews 9:10.]: they were appointed only “till the times of reformation:” and now they are to be observed no longer [Note: Colossians 2:16-51.2.22.]. “The kingdom of God,” that is, the kingdom of Christ established in the heart, does not consist in them; “it is not in meat and drink,” but in something more substantial, more excellent, more spiritual; namely, “in righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”
Many interpret these words as importing faith in the “righteousness” of the Lord Jesus Christ, and “peace” through the blood of his cross, and “joy in the Holy Ghost” as the fruit of our acceptance with God. But we apprehend that these words relate rather to holy and heavenly dispositions, as contrasted with the spirit that is generated by an undue attachment to rites and ceremonies. We understand by them an universal love of righteousness, as opposed to a zeal for forms; a peaceful state of mind, as opposed to the irritation that is cherished, and the dissensions that are occasioned, by a contentious spirit; and a joy in God, as opposed to the self-complacency which is fostered by a self-righteous compliance with prescribed forms. The scope of the whole context seems to point to this interpretation, and to direct our thoughts into the channel marked out for us by the words of Balaam to Balak [Note: Micah 6:6-33.6.8.]; or by those of our Lord to the self-righteous Pharisees, “who paid tithe of mint, and anise, and cummin, but neglected the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith [Note: Matthew 23:23.].”
In these things vital Christianity consists. The turning of the whole heart to the observance of God’s laws, is the great promise of the Gospel, and the certain effect of it, wherever it is received in truth: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments to do them [Note: Ezekiel 36:26-26.36.27.].” And again, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts [Note: Jeremiah 31:33.]” — — — Nor is a peaceful disposition less certainly imparted by the Gospel: for love is the necessary fruit of faith [Note: Galatians 5:6.], and forms the most striking feature in the character of every true believer [Note: 1 John 3:14.] — — — Joy also in the Holy Ghost will invariably accompany these holy dispositions: for the Holy Ghost delights to dwell where God is honoured, and man is loved for God’s sake. In the hearts of such believers “he will glorify the Lord Jesus, and will shed abroad the Father’s love: he will fill them with joy unspeakable and glorified” — — — Such righteousness, such peace, and such joy, are the fruits and evidences of the reign of Christ in the soul: and in them, rather than in forms of any kind, does his kingdom consist.]
Having thus marked the nature of practical Christianity, we shall,
Point out its peculiar excellence—
The ordinances relative to meats and drinks were mere “beggarly elements:” they had no value at all, except as “shadows of good things to come.” But these holy dispositions are truly valuable: and every man who cultivates them,
Is accepted of God—
[The observers of forms and ceremonies were not at all accepted, unless their services were accompanied with a suitable and corresponding frame of mind [Note: Isaiah 1:11-23.1.14.]; yea rather, they were hateful, even as the offering of swine’s blood, or as murder itself [Note: Isaiah 66:3.]. But not so the services of which we have been speaking: they are truly pleasing in the sight of God; and the dispositions exercised are in his sight “an ornament of great price.” Yes, “the righteous Lord loveth righteousness,” and “will meet him who rejoiceth in working it [Note: Isaiah 64:5.].” There is no token of his love which he will not vouchsafe to those who cultivate a loving spirit, and seek all their happiness in him. “He will set his love upon them; and will hear and answer all their petitions: he will be with them in trouble: he will deliver them and honour them: with long life also will he satisfy them, and will shew them his full and complete salvation [Note: Psalms 91:14-19.91.16.],”]
Is approved of men—
[Those who spend their zeal on the externals of religion may be commended by partisans, but they will never be respected by those who differ from them, nor indeed by their own party. The dispositions exercised by such persons are unamiable, and therefore they can never generate love in the breasts of any. But the holy man of God, who labours to fulfil all righteousness, and to promote the happiness of all around him, and to live in the constant enjoyment of his God, he, I say, has a testimony in the breasts of all, even of those who differ from him in things of less importance: and though from circumstances they may keep at a distance from him, they honour him in their hearts, and have an inward persuasion “that God is with him of a truth.” The ungodly world indeed may hate him, just as they hated the Apostles and our Lord himself: but yet even they will feel an awe in his presence, and, at the very time that they revile and persecute him, have oftentimes the secret thought in their hearts, “If I were dying, I should be glad to be found in your state.”]
We must not however overlook that which gives to these services their chief excellence—
[It is supposed that the person who performs these services is already Christ’s subject, and servant, having through Divine grace been converted to God, and “translated out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son:” and that, in performing them, he is not attempting to establish a righteousness of his own, but to “serve and glorify the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is necessary that he keep this end in view; and that all that he does be done for Christ, that is, from a regard to his authority, and with a view to his glory. Indeed faith in Christ, and love to his name, are the only principles that will operate to the production of the dispositions before mentioned. A man may have the semblance of them without faith in Christ; but the reality he cannot have. In the mind of the unbeliever, the circumstantials of religion will have an undue weight: in the believer only will the essentials have their full scope and paramount ascendency. When therefore we speak of these dispositions as accepted of God and approved of men, it is supposed that in them “we serve Christ,” by whose grace alone we can do them, and through whom alone they can ever be accepted.]
Having now shewn the nature and excellence of practical Christianity, we shall, in conclusion,
Give some directions for the exercise of it—
The general direction in our text is, to “follow after the things that make for peace, and things whereby one may edify another.” But that the whole scope of the chapter may be brought more fully into view, we will descend somewhat more to particulars.
Lay not an undue stress on things indifferent—
[As amongst the Jews there were many who laid more stress on the washing of pots and cups than on obedience to God’s commandments [Note: Mark 7:8-41.7.9.], so now there are many whose zeal has respect to little else than the circumstantials of religion. The Papists are ready to confine salvation to those who are within the pale of their Church: and almost every distinct sect of Protestants is ready to arrogate to itself the same exclusive privilege. It is grievous to think what mutual aversion has been created among Christians, by the circumstance of worshipping with, or without, a form of prayer, or by differences still less important. But things ought not so to be. We should lay no more stress on any thing than we find laid on it in the Scriptures of truth. The fundamental doctrines of religion must be held fast, and sacrificed to none. The plain duties also of religion must be executed with a firmness that is immoveable: but whatever interferes not with these, should be left to the judgment and the conscience of every individual; neither being imposed on him as of necessity, nor exacted of him with rigour, nor made a ground of alienation from him. We should concede to others the liberty we claim for ourselves; and be more anxious to preserve an union of heart, than by dictation to produce an uniformity of sentiment. “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike.” And what says St. Paul to this? Let the more powerful of the two compel the other to adopt his views? No: but, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind [Note: ver. 5.].”]
Be tender in judging those who differ from you—
[Those who saw their Christian liberty, despised their weaker brethren, for scrupling to eat what had been offered to an idol; whilst, on the other hand, they who doubted the lawfulness of eating such things, condemned their stronger brethren, as presumptuously disregarding the commands of God. A similar disposition to despise or condemn each other exists among the advocates for certain doctrines which have for ages divided the Church of God. Those who think they have a deeper insight into the Divine decrees, look down with pity and contempt on their less enlightened brethren; whilst these, on the other hand, feel embittered against the others, and load them with all manner of obloquy. Alas! alas! when shall the professed members of Christ’s body cease to exercise such dispositions towards each other, and agree to cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance? When shall men cease to dogmatize, as if they were infallible? The probability is, that the truth lies not exclusively with either of these parties, but is found rather with those who receive with meekness, and interpret with diffidence, the apparently opposite declarations of God, and wait his time for the fuller explication of them. No man is in the exclusive possession of all truth; nay, persons may in some things pursue an opposite conduct, and yet both be right, because the things wherein they disagree may be matters of pure indifference [Note: ver. 6.]: therefore, whilst every man should seek to acquire the most correct sentiments, every man should leave others to “stand or fall to their own master [Note: ver. 4.].”]
Be cautious in the exercise of your liberty—
[An action may be good in itself, yet it may become bad by being done in the presence of another who doubts its lawfulness, and may by means of it be induced to violate the dictates of his own conscience in following the example. This is a point well worthy of our attention. We should have respect to the consciences of others, and be careful “not to lay a stumbling-block or an occasion to fall in our brother’s way.” As we should not presume to force him to act contrary to his conscience, so neither should we tempt him to do so, lest we lead him into sin, and thereby destroy his soul. Our blessed Lord laid down his life to save such persons; and shall we not forego a trifling gratification for their welfare? Yea, shall we, for the sake of some small indulgence, risk the plunging them into everlasting ruin? Shocking impiety! In so acting, we sin against Christ, and greatly endanger the salvation of our own souls. And rather than be guilty of such wickedness, we should deny ourselves the most innocent gratification in the world: “If meat make our brother to offend, we should eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest we make our brother to offend [Note: ver. 21. with 1 Corinthians 8:9-46.8.13.].”]
Be anxious, not to proselyte to a party, but to edify your brother in love—
[Here almost all classes of the Christian world are greatly to blame. If a brother begin to have his conscience awakened, the first object of the generality is to bring him over to their own particular party. For this end they set before him those particular points which may lead his mind into the particular channel which they wish. But St. Paul expressly forbids such hateful conduct: “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations [Note: ver. 1.].” How many hopeful blossoms have come to nought in consequence of their being thus blighted by the breath of vain dispute! How many, instead of coming fully to Christ, and devoting themselves entirely to him, have been led to rest in the adoption of some particular creed, an union with some particular party, or a submission to one particular rite! Verily, they who, by such an use of their influence, keep back an inquiring soul, have much to answer for. To build up a brother in faith and love should be our only object; and, whether he belong to our particular party or not, it should satisfy us to see that he “grows in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Instead of labouring to proselyte him to our party, we should forget that we ourselves are of any party [Note: 1 Corinthians 9:9-46.9.22.]: or, if of a party we must be, let it be of that which Moses approved, and which comprehends the universal Church,—“the Lord’s side [Note: Exodus 32:26.].” To unite each other unto him, and build up each other in his faith and fear, is the only proper exercise of Christian love, and Christian influence.]
REGARD TO CONSCIENCE RECOMMENDED
Romans 14:22. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.
IT is well known that there is a great diversity of opinion amongst good men respecting the principles of religion. Nor are they altogether agreed upon the subject of moral duty. Some have a clearer insight into the nature and extent of Christian liberty, whilst others are in bondage to superstitious rites; and some are ready to plead for a degree of latitudinarian indulgence, which others feel themselves by no means authorized to admit. There is, however, one point in which all are agreed; and that is, the necessity of following the dictates of our own conscience. The man who violates his own principles, whether he be right or wrong in his judgment, stands condemned in his own mind: whilst, on the other hand, as the Apostle tells us in our text, “he is happy, who condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.”
The subject of conscience needs to be treated with extreme delicacy and care; lest we wound a weak brother, and make the heart of the righteous sad.” It is however a subject of such vital importance, that we must of necessity enter upon it, and prosecute it, with all fidelity. Let me, then, state to you,
The office of conscience—
The proper office of conscience is admonition. It is not given to instruct us in any thing new, but to regulate us according to some fixed principles in the mind. It is given us,
As a secret monitor—
[In every man there is something which has within him the force of a law. Those who possess not the knowledge of God’s revealed will have yet some principles of action, which they regard as binding, and in accordance with which the voice of conscience speaks. Having no other law, “they are a law unto themselves [Note: Romans 2:14.]:” and the office of conscience is, to testify, when they fulfil, and when they violate, this law. Nor does this testimony refer to their actions merely, but to their motives also: respecting which, none but themselves can form any correct judgment. This is the view which the Scripture gives of conscience: “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly [Note: Proverbs 20:27.].” Not that it waits for the execution of an act: it testifies beforehand respecting the quality of the act proposed; and operates as a stimulus, if the act be good; or as a check, if it be evil. Its influence indeed is, for the most part, proportioned to the desire which a man feels to be governed by it: if a man disregard its motions, it may be reduced to utter silence: but if he desire to act agreeably to its dictates, it will be a most kind and faithful monitor on all occasions. It will say to us what no fellow-creature could venture to say; and it will take the same freedom in the bosom of a king as in the meanest of his subjects. It is rarely very clamorous, except after some enormous transgression: its testimony is, for the most part, delivered in a still small voice, which none but the person himself can hear. Yet, on some occasions, it will betray its operation in the mind, especially when it reproves for something amiss, and for something which the man himself would be ashamed to have known: it will then suffuse his cheek with a blush, or perhaps cast over his countenance a pallid hue, which a wise observer cannot easily misinterpret.]
As an authoritative judge—
[But it is not as a monitor only that conscience acts, but as a judge also: and in this respect it is God’s vicegerent in the soul. It erects a tribunal there! and summons a man to appear before it, and to give an account of his conduct: and then it passes judgment, “either excusing or accusing him [Note: Romans 2:15.],” as the occasion warrants; and acquitting or condemning him, as God himself will do at the future judgment. Sometimes it exercises its authority immediately; as when it declared to Adam, in Paradise, that he was despoiled of the divine image in which he had been created [Note: Genesis 3:10.]: or, as when it caused David’s heart to smite him for numbering the people [Note: 2 Samuel 24:10.]: or, as when it caused the acccusers of an adulteress to go out from the presence of our Lord [Note: John 8:9.]. At other times, it delays till some occasion arise to draw forth its judgment: thus it did in the case of Joseph’s brethren, whom it made to feel the injustice and the cruelty which, some years before, they had exercised towards him [Note: Genesis 42:21.]. Sometimes it delivers its sentence in a way to produce becoming humiliation, as in the case of Peter: and sometimes in a way to drive to utter despondency, as in the case of Judas; whom it impelled to suicide, as the only refuge from its poignant reproaches.]
Let us now contemplate,
Our duty in reference to it—
Men have a duty towards their minds generally, to cultivate them and improve them in knowledge, and to fit them for the better discharge of all the functions of life. But towards their conscience they have obligations of the highest order, on account of the pre-eminent authority with which it is invested, and the influence which it exercises over our whole man. We ought, then,
To get it well informed—
[We have before observed, that conscience prescribes no rule to us, but only gives its testimony according to a rule which has previously existed in the mind. Nor does any man ever commit sin by following its dictates. St. Paul, when he persecuted the saints, supposed that in so doing he was discharging a duty to God; for “he thought that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus.” Doubtless in this he sinned: but his sin consisted, not in following the dictates of his own conscience, but in having his conscience so ill-informed. Had he studied the Scriptures with more humility of mind, and sought instruction from God, he would have been kept from the fatal errors into which he fell. Indeed, he himself assigns as an extenuation of his guilt, that he had contracted it “ignorantly, and in unbelief [Note: 1 Timothy 1:13.]:” for had he known what evil he was committing, and yet persisted in it, there was reason to fear he would never have obtained mercy at the Lord’s hands. If we would have conscience perform its office aright, we must take the law of God for the standard whereby it shall judge. We must not go to men to instruct us in the principles of the world, which are altogether founded in error; but must look to God, to “guide us into all truth,” according to his unerring word, and through the influences of his good Spirit. Nor must we hastily imagine that our views are correct: for there is a film upon our eyes, and we are far from seeing things so distinctly as we ought. We should maintain a godly jealousy over ourselves, lest “Satan beguile us,” or our own heart deceive us. We should take care that “the light which is in us be not darkness:” for if it be, how great must that darkness be! But, “if our eye be single, then will our whole body be full of light [Note: Matthew 6:22-40.6.23.],” and the testimony of conscience be in perfect accordance with the mind of God.]
To consult it on all occasions—
[We should not go on blindfold, but should endeavour to see our way clear before we enter upon any course of action. To act first, and afterwards make inquiries, is almost a certain way to involve ourselves in guilt [Note: Proverbs 20:25.]. To make conscience a pretext for doing a thing to which we are previously inclined, is indeed a horrible delusion; and not less common than it is hateful. But, on the other hand, to do any thing without a careful inquiry into the quality of the action proposed, is presumptuous in the extreme, and shews that we have not really the fear of God before our eyes. Nor is the testimony of conscience easily obtained. Sometimes, indeed, it speaks instantly, and without much previous consultation: and in that case its testimony is almost always according to truth; and a man will do well in paying especial respect to such spontaneous motions of the monitor within him. But, for the most part, it requires time to make a fair statement of the circumstances of which the conscience is to judge: and in such cases, if they have respect to God only, we should consider attentively the conduct of our blessed Lord and his Apostles on similar occasions: or, if they have respect to man, then should we in all cases change places, as it were, with the person concerned; that so we may judge with more candour than we are likely to exercise, if we stand altogether on our own ground; because our judgment is but too likely to be warped by self-love and sinful partiality. We should never forget, that, “if we doubt of the lawfulness of any thing, we are self-condemned if we do it; since whatsoever is not of faith, is sin [Note: ver. 23.].” We should pause therefore, and deliberate, till we see our way clear; and determine, if possible, not to do any thing till “we are fully persuaded in our own minds [Note: ver. 5.].”]
To keep it upright and tender—
[Conscience may easily be warped, yea, and silenced too; so that it shall give no testimony whatever, till it is awaked by some flagrant enormity, or by some peculiar occurrence. If we go and consult worldly advisers, they will of course justify the ways which they wish us to follow: and if we listen to the voice of interest or inclination within us, we may soon be furnished with reasons enough for prosecuting the line which they would prescribe. They will tell us, that the object for which they plead is commonly approved by all in our circumstances: that we need not give way, except on this or that particular occasion: that to hold out against the wishes and solicitations of our friends can be ascribed to nothing but spiritual pride, and will give just offence to those whom we are bound to please; and that, in fact, our preciseness will only offend those whom we ought rather to conciliate, and make religion hateful to those whose eternal welfare we wish rather to promote. A thousand arguments of this kind will be presented to our minds, either by our worldly friends, or by our own carnal hearts; and by them we may persuade conscience to alter its sentence, and to sanction our ways: and, after a time, we may so blind and sear our conscience, that it shall no longer perform its proper office. But to effect this, is to inflict an irreparable injury on our own souls, and to seal, I had almost said, our eternal condemnation. The utmost possible caution, therefore, should be used on this head. No standard should be referred to, but that which God himself will approve; and according to his written word should every sentiment and every act be tried. “Whoever speaks not according to this word, there is no light in him [Note: Isaiah 8:20.];” and his advice, if followed, will only cause our feet to stumble to our ruin. Taking that for our guide on all occasions, and under all circumstances, we should say with holy Job, “My heart shall not reproach me so long as I live [Note: Job 27:6.].”]
Those who consult not their conscience, nor are troubled by it—
[Though there is no man without a conscience, yet the greater part of the world live as if they had no such faculty to controul them. Whatever be the life which they have chosen for themselves, they walk in it without much thought, or any remorse. The lovers of pleasure, the votaries of gain, the formal religionist, all conceive their respective lines to be, on the whole, such as they are at liberty to follow, and such as shall issue well in the end. As for trying themselves by the test of Scripture, they think not of it: they stand self-approved; and they conceive that God will confirm the testimony of their own minds. But I must remind all such persons, that there is a future judgment; and that God will judge, not by the laws which men establish for themselves, but by the law which he himself has given in his written word. By that shall the whole universe be judged, and according to that shall every man’s eternal doom be fixed [Note: 1 Corinthians 4:4-46.4.5.] — — —]
Those whose consciences are weak and troubled—
[If your minds be troubled, see whether there be not just occasion for them so to be: and when you have found out the accursed thing, put it away from you with abhorrence, and implore mercy at the hands of God for your sin in having ever indulged it. And if it be but a mote in the eye, let conscience never cease to weep, till it has wept it out. There are, it is true, circumstances which may well admit of doubt: and, under such circumstances, you will do well to consult some one of known piety and deep experience; and at the same time to seek direction from God, through the influence of his Holy Spirit. Whilst your doubts remain, it will be well to pause: for, “if a man esteem any thing unclean, to him it is unclean [Note: ver. 14.].” Yet it is by no means advisable to rest without obtaining satisfaction to your mind. It is a painful state in which to be; and you should use all proper means to obtain deliverance from it [Note: Galatians 6:4.]: but, till that deliverance come, take my text for your guide: “Happy is he who condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.” “If once you make sacrifice of a good conscience, you are in the way to make an utter shipwreck of your faith [Note: 1 Timothy 1:19.].”
Yet I must say, Do not judge those who see not with your eyes, and walk not in your path. Another person may have a fuller insight into the nature of Christian liberty than you: and “to his own Master must every man stand or fall.” Be you contented with approving your own selves to God; and leave to others the latitude which you claim for yourselves [Note: ver. 4, 5.].]
Those who enjoy the testimony of a good conscience—
[This is a most exalted privilege, and, whether in life [Note: 2 Corinthians 1:12.] or death [Note: 2 Kings 20:3.], a source of unutterable joy. Be thankful for it: and, at the same time, be washing your very best actions, no less than those which are more faulty, in the fountain of your Redeemer’s blood: for, if He “bear not the iniquity of your holy things [Note: Exodus 28:38.],” your most righteous acts will condemn you. Take care, at the same time, that your liberty be never so used as to become a stumbling-block to your weaker brethren. It were better to forbear any gratification whatever, than, by indulging yourselves in it, to make it an occasion of offence to any [Note: 1 Corinthians 8:9; 1 Corinthians 8:13.]. Let your whole conduct shew the excellence of the principles by which you are governed: and let it be “the one labour of your lives to maintain a good conscience both towards God and towards man [Note: Acts 24:16.].”]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Romans 14". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany