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CHRISTIAN DUTY TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD MAN, RESPECTIVELY, ILLUSTRATED BY THE EXAMPLE
OF ST. PAUL.
ACTS xxiv. 16.
Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men.
THIS is a declaration of St. Paul, pleading before Felix. "I have hope toward God," he says, "that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, "both of the just and unjust; and herein"-by reason of this blessed hope-" do I exercise myself "to have always a conscience void of offence "toward God and toward men."
This great prevailing Christian motive, however, which is set forth as influencing the Apostle's conduct here, is not the thing of which I now desire to speak. The topic to be handled now (which will succeed in natural order to the conclusion of the last discourse) is, not the motive for endeavouring to keep a clear conscience, but the
distinction here implied in the Apostle's words, between things "acceptable to God" and "
proved of men'." Our business is with the respective clearness of the conscience " toward "God" and "toward men," and with the evident admission that St. Paul considered both deserving of a Christian's care and pains. It has been said, that such a fellowship of spiritual and social excellence is what the Gospel has in view, and claims from every true disciple; and that the frequent severing of the two is one of the most ruinous defects in Christian practice. My present aim will be to shew, from the example of St. Paul, that it is surely possible to join the two together. What was an earnest object of his care, ought certainly to be the same of ours; if he felt bound to" exercise himself" to keep his reckoning straight in both these branches, so certainly ought we to labour diligently to the same end.
Before however we advance further, let it be noticed in the outset, how here-as every wherethe Scripture speaks in truth and soberness, and in consistence with itself. Mark what the object set before us is; viz. to have a conscience void of offence, both toward God and toward men. We do not hear St. Paul saying, "I exercise myself
to please both God and men. So far from any thing like that, we find him upon one occasion making the express challenge, Do I seek to
please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should "not be the servant of Jesus Christ"." And let it not be said or thought that this is a distinction without a difference. A few plain words will show both that there is a great difference between the two expressions, and also what it is.
The words of the Apostle in the text have no such meaning, as might supply an inference that it is possible for any man to pass through life, and through the duties of his Christian calling, without ever giving offence to men, in the sense of incurring displeasure. That (it must be feared) is not possible. It is as sure that some will be offended by a strict discharge of Christian duty, as that the wise and good will be displeased by neglect of it. We are not therefore bid to shape our conduct with a view to please all men and every man, and to give offence to none. A Christian might as well attempt to guide his course by every shifting of the wind as by the breath of men's opinions, or for the sake of their praise. The spirit of that warning surely meets us in the way of any such attempt as this, in which our Saviour
Gal. i. 10.
says to his disciples, "Woe unto you, when all "men shall speak well of you!" It is not this that could secure to us the conscience which the Apostle means. The conscience which he means is that in which, he tells us, he himself rejoiced; "that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with
fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we "have had our conversation in the world";" the being sure we have done nothing wilfully, that need make others stumble; and therefore, being so far guiltless toward all our brethren. "A con
"science void of offence toward men" is one that may be free from any sense of having led them to offend, not from any possible (or even painful) sense of having displeased them. It is an answer to be given to ourselves, and not unto the world. It is to be obtained by doing Christian duty, and not by either any love of men's praise, or fear of their displeasure. If present praise shall chance to follow such discharge of duty, well; that is a favourable turn, which we may properly be thankful for: but whether it so chance or not, the conscience may be equally kept clear, and it is equally a duty so to keep it.
These words of caution having been premised, let us proceed now with our subject.