COMMENTS ON CONSCIENCE
The doctrine of Romans 14.
1. The fellowship of the saints is not to be broken for unessential matters; in other words, we have no right to make any thing which is compatible with piety a bar to Christian communion. Paul evidently argues on the principle that if a man is a true Christian, he should be recognized and treated as such. If God has received him, we should receive him, vers. 1-12.
2. The true criterion of a Christian character is found in the governing purpose of the life. He that lives unto the Lord, i.e. he who makes the will of Christ the rule of his conduct, and the glory of Christ his constant object, is a true Christian, although from weakness or ignorance he may sometimes mistake the rule of duty, and consider certain things obligatory which Christ has never commanded, vers. 6-8.
3. Jesus Christ must be truly God, 1. Because He is the Lord, according to whose will and for whose glory we are to live, vers. 6-8. 2. Because He exercises a universal dominion for the living and the dead, ver. 9. 3. Because He is the final judge of all men, ver. 10. 4. Because, passages of the Old Testament which are spoken of Jehovah are by the apostle applied to Christ, ver. 11. 5. Because, throughout this passage, Paul speaks of God and Christ indiscriminately, in a manner which shews that he regarded Christ as God. To live unto Christ is to live unto God; to stand before the judgement seat of Christ is to give an account unto God; to submit to Christ is to bow the knee to Jehovah.
4. The gospel does not make religion to consist in external observances. “Meat commendeth us not to God; for neither if we eat are we the better neither if we eat not are we the worse,” vers. 6, 7.
5. Though a thing may be lawful, it is not always expedient. The use of the liberty which every Christian enjoys under the gospel is to be regulated by the law of love; hence it is often morally wrong to do what, in itself considered, may be innocent, vers. 15, 20, 21.
6. It is a great error in morals, and a great practical evil, to make that sinful which is in fact innocent. Christian love never requires this or any other sacrifice of truth .Paul would not consent, for the sake of avoiding offence, that eating all kinds of food, even what had been offered to idols, or disregarding sacred festivals of human appointment, should be made a sin; he strenuously and openly maintained the reverse. He represents those who thought differently, as weak in faith, as being under an error, from which more knowledge and more piety would free them. Concession to their weakness he enjoins on a principle perfectly consistent with the assertion of the truth, and with the preservation of Christian liberty, vers. 13-23.
7. Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. It is wrong to do anything which we think to be wrong. The converse of this proposition, however, is
not true. It is not always right to do what we think to be right. Paul, before his conversion, thought it right to persecute Christians; the Jews thought they did God service when they cast the disciples of the Saviour out of the synagogue. The cases, therefore, are not parallel. When we do what we think God has forbidden, we are evidently guilty of disobedience or contempt of the divine authority. But when we do what we think He has required, we may act under a culpable mistake; or, although we may have the judgment that the act in itself is right, our motives for doing it may be very wicked. The state of mind under which Paul and other Jews persecuted the early Christians was evil, though the persecution itself they regarded as a duty. It is impossible that a man should have right motives for doing a wrong action; for the very mistake as to what is right vitiates the motives. The mistake implies a wrong state of mind; and, on the other hand, the misapprehension of truth produces a wrong state of mind. There may, therefore, be a very sinful zeal for God and religion (see Rom. 10. 2); and no man will be able to plead at the bar of judgment, his good intention as an excuse for evil conduct, ver. 23.
Remarks on Romans 14.
1. Christians should not allow anything to alienate them from their brethren who afford credible evidence that they are the servants of God. Owing to ignorance, early prejudice, weakness of faith, and other causes, there may and must exist a diversity of opinion and practice on minor points of duty. But this diversity is no sufficient reason for rejecting from Christian fellowship any member of the family of Christ. It is, however, one thing to recognise a man as a Christian, and another to recognise him as a suitable minister of a church, organized on a particular form of government and system of doctrines, vers. 1-12.
2. A denunciatory or censorious spirit is hostile to the spirit of the gospel. It is an encroachment on the prerogatives of the only Judge of the heart and conscience; it blinds the mind to moral distinctions and prevents the discernment between matters unessential and those vitally important; and it leads us to forget our own accountableness, and to overlook our own faults, in our zeal to denounce those of others, vers. 4-10.
3. It is sinful to indulge contempt for those whom we suppose to be our inferiors, vers. 3-10.
4. Christians should remember that, living or dying, they are the Lord’s. This imposes the obligation to observe His will and to seek His glory; and it affords the assurance that the Lord will provide for all their wants. This peculiar propriety in his own people, Christ has obtained by His death and resurrection, vers. 8, 9.
5. We should stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and not allow our consciences to be brought under the yoke of bondage to human opinions. There is a strong tendency in men to treat as matters of conscience, things which God has never enjoined. Wherever this disposition has been indulged or submitted to, it has resulted in bringing one class of men under the most degrading bondage to another; and in the still more serious evil of leading them
to disregard the authority of God. Multitudes who would be shocked at the thought of eating meat on Friday commit the greatest moral offence without the slightest compunction. It is, therefore, of great importance to keep the conscience free; under no subjection but to truth and God. This is necessary, not only on account of its influence on our own moral feelings, but also because nothing but truth can really do good. To advocate even a good cause with bad arguments does great harm, by exciting unnecessary opposition; by making good men, who oppose the arguments, appear to oppose the truth; by introducing a false standard of duty; by failing to enlist the support of an enlightened conscience, and by the necessary forfeiture of the confidence of the intelligent and well informed. The cause of benevolence, therefore, instead of being promoted, is injured by all exaggerations, erroneous statements, and false principles, on the part of its advocates, vers. 14, 22.
6. It is obviously incumbent on every man to endeavour to obtain and promote right views of duty, not only for his own sake, but for the sake of others. It is often necessary to assert our Christian liberty at the expense of incurring censure, and offending even good men, in order that right principles of duty may be preserved. Our Saviour consented to be regarded as a Sabbath-breaker, and even a “wine-bibber and friend of publicans and sinners;” but wisdom was justified of her children. Christ did not in these cases see fit to accommodate His conduct to the rule of duty set up, and conscientiously regarded as correct by those around him. He saw that more good would arise from a practical disregard of the false opinions of the Jews, as to the manner in which the Sabbath was to be kept, and as to the degree of intercourse which was allowed with wicked men, than from concession to their prejudices. Enlightened benevolence often requires a similar course of conduct, and a similar exercise of self denial on the part of His disciples.
7. While Christian liberty is to be maintained, and right principles of duty inculcated, every concession consistent with truth and good morals should be made for the sake of peace and the welfare of others. It is important, however, that the duty of making such concessions should be placed on the right ground, and be urged in a right spirit, not as a thing to be demanded, but as that which the law of love requires. In this way success is more certain and more extensive, and the concomitant results are all good. It may at times be a difficult practical question, whether most good would result from compliance with the prejudices of others, or from disregarding them. But where there is a sincere desire to do right, and a willingness to sacrifice our own inclinations for the good of others, connected with prayer for divine direction, there can be little danger of serious mistake. Evil is much more likely to arise from a disregard of the opinions and the welfare of our brethren, and from a reliance on our own judgment than from any course requiring self-denial, vers. 13, 15, 20, 21.
8. Conscience, or a sense of duty, is not the only, and perhaps not the most important principle to be appealed to in support of benevolent enterprises. It comes in aid, and gives its sanction to all other right motives, but we find the sacred writers appealing most
frequently to the benevolent and pious feelings; to the example of Christ; to a sense of our obligations to Him; to the mutual relation of Christians, and their common connection with the Redeemer, &c., as motives to self-denial and devotedness, vers. 15, 21.
9. As the religion of the gospel consists in the inward graces of the Holy Spirit, all who have these graces should be recognised as genuine Christians; being acceptable to God, they should be loved and cherished by His people, notwithstanding their weakness or errors, 17, 18.
10. The peace and edification of the church are to be sought at any sacrifice except truth and duty; and the work of God is not to be destroyed or injured for the sake of any personal or party interests, vers. 19, 20.
11. An enlightened conscience is a great blessing; it secures the liberty of the soul from bondage to the opinions of men, and from the self-inflicted pains of a scrupulous and morbid state of moral feeling;
it promotes the right exercise of all the virtuous affections, and the right discharge of all relative duties, ver. 22.
Comments on 1 Corinthians 8. 12-13
12. But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.
We sin against our brethren when we wound their weak conscience. The one phrase explains the other. To wound a man’s conscience is to give it the pain of remorse. When we bring on him a sense of guilt we inflict on him the greatest evil in our power; not only because a wounded spirit is worse than a wounded body; but also because a sense of guilt alienates us from God and brings us under the power of Satan. He who thus sins against his brother, sins against Christ. This is true in two senses. An injury done to a child is an injury to the parent, both because proper regard for the parent would prevent one from injuring his child; and also because the parent suffers in the child. They are so united that the injury of the one is the injury of the other. So also it is a manifestation of want of love to Christ, an insult and injury to Him, to injure His people; and moreover, He and they are so united that whatever of good or evil is done to them is done also to Him. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” Matt. 25, 40. If we believed this aright it would render us very careful not to wound our fellow Christians, and make us also feel it to be an honour to relieve their wants.
13. Wherefore, if meat make my brother offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.
The word skandalizo means either to offend, or to cause to offend. That is, either to provoke, or to cause sin. The English word is also used in both these senses. Matt. 17, 27, “That we may not offend them,” i.e. provoke them. Matt. 5, 29, “If thy eye offend thee,” i.e. cause thee to sin; and Matt. 18, 6, “Whoso shall offend (i.e. cause to sin) one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a mill-stone were hanged about his neck, and
that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” This last quoted passage shows how serious a matter our Lord considers it to lead even the weakest Christian into sin. It is still worse to lead him into error, for error is the mother of many sins. It shows also how great an evil sin is, and justifies the strong language of the apostle that he would never eat flesh rather than cause his brother to offend. It is morally obligatory, therefore, to abstain from indulging in things indifferent, when the use of them is the occasion of sin to others. This is a principle the application of which must be left to every man’s conscience in the fear of God. No rule of conduct, founded on expediency, can be enforced by church discipline. It was right in Paul to refuse to eat flesh for fear of causing others to offend; but he could not have been justly exposed to discipline, had he seen fit to eat it. He circumcised Timothy, and refused to circumcise Titus. Whenever a thing is right or wrong according to circumstances, every man must have the right to judge of those circumstances.