Topic - Conscience Sermon 17. The Testimony of Conscience Seasons - Epiphany

"Our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-ward." 2 Cor. i. 12.

[Note 1] {237} IN these words the great Apostle appeals to his conscience that he had lived in simplicity and sincerity, with a single aim and an innocent heart, as one who was illuminated and guided by God's grace. The like appeal he makes on other occasions; when brought before the Jewish council he says, "Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day." [Acts xxiii. 1.] And in his Second Epistle to Timothy he speaks of having served God from his forefathers "with pure conscience." [2 Tim. i. 2, 3.]

And in the text he expressly says, what he implies, of course, whenever he appeals to his conscience at all, that he is able to rejoice in this appeal. He was given to know his own sincerity in such measure, that he {238} could humbly take pleasure in it, and be comforted by it. "Our rejoicing is this," he says, "the testimony of our conscience." In like manner he says to the Galatians, "Let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another." [Gal. vi. 4.] And so also speaks St. John: "If our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence towards God." [1 John iii. 21.] Such was the confidence, such the rejoicing of St. Paul and St. John; not that they could do anything acceptable to God by their unaided powers, but that by His grace they could so live as to enjoy a cheerful hope of His favour, both now and evermore.

The same feeling is frequently expressed in the Psalms: a consciousness of innocence and integrity, a satisfaction in it, an appeal to God concerning it, and a confidence of God's favour in consequence. For instance, "Be thou my judge, O Lord," says David; he appeals to the heart-searching God, "for I have walked innocently; my trust hath been also in the Lord, therefore shall I not fall." He proceeds to beg of God to aid him in this self-knowledge: "Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try out my reins and my heart," that is, lest he should be deceived in thinking himself what he was not. He next enumerates the special points in which God had enabled him to obey: "I have not dwelt with vain persons; neither will I have fellowship with the deceitful; I have hated the congregation of the wicked, and will not sit among the ungodly ... As for me, I have walked innocently; O deliver me, and be merciful unto me. My foot standeth {239} right; I will praise the Lord in the congregations." [Ps. xxvi. 1, 2, &c.] In this and other passages of the Psalms two points are brought before us: that it is possible to be innocent, and to have that sense of our innocence which makes us happy in the thought of God's eye being upon us. Let us then dwell on a truth, of which Apostles and Prophets unite in assuring us.

What the text means by "simplicity and sincerity," I consider for all practical purposes to be the same as what Scripture elsewhere calls "a perfect heart;" at least this latter phrase will give us some insight into the meaning of the former. You know that it is a frequent account of the kings of Judah in the Sacred history, that they walked or did not walk with God, with a perfect heart. In contrast with this phrase, consider what our Saviour says of the attempt made by the Pharisees to serve God and mammon, and St. James's account of a double-minded man. A man serves with a perfect heart, who serves God in all parts of his duty; and, not here and there, but here and there and everywhere; not perfectly indeed as regards the quality of his obedience, but perfectly as regards its extent; not completely, but consistently. So that he may appeal to God with the Psalmist, and say, "Examine me, O Lord, and prove me: and seek the ground of my heart," with the humble trust that there is no department of his duty on which Almighty God can put His hand, and say, "Here thou art not with Me:" no part in which he does not set God before him, and desire to please Him, and to be governed by Him. And something like {240} this seems to be St. James's meaning, when he says, on the other hand, that "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all;" [James ii. 10.] for such a one is of imperfect heart, or double-minded.

Again, such seems to be our Saviour's meaning when He uses the word hypocrite. A hypocrite is one who professes to be serving God faithfully, while he serves Him in only some one part of his duty, not in all parts. The word is now commonly taken to mean one who uses a profession of religion as a mere instrument of gaining his worldly ends, or who wishes to deceive men into thinking that he is what he is not. This is not exactly its Scripture sense, which seems rather to denote a person who would (if I may use the words) deceive God; one who, though his heart would tell him, were he honest with it, that he is not serving God perfectly, yet will not ask his heart, will not listen to it, trifles with his conscience, is determined to believe that he is religious, and (as if to strengthen himself in his own false persuasion, and from a variety of mixed motives difficult to analyse) protests his sincerity and innocence before God, appeals to God, and thus claims as his own the reward of innocence.

Now then to attempt to describe that state of heart, which Scripture calls simple and sincere, or perfect, or innocent; and which is such, that a man may know he has it, and humbly rejoice in it.

We are by nature what we are; very sinful and corrupt, we know; however, we like to be what we are, and for many reasons it is very unpleasant to us to {241} change. We cannot change ourselves; this too we know full well, or, at least, a very little experience will teach us. God alone can change us; God alone can give us the desires, affections, principles, views, and tastes which a change implies: this too we know; for I am all along speaking of men who have a sense of religion. What then is it that we who profess religion lack? I repeat it, this: a willingness to be changed, a willingness to suffer (if I may use such a word), to suffer Almighty God to change us. We do not like to let go our old selves; and in whole or part, though all is offered to us freely, we cling hold to our old selves. Though we were promised no trouble at all in the change, though there were no self-denial, no exertion in changing, the case would not be altered. We do not like to be new-made; we are afraid of it; it is throwing us out of all our natural ways, of all that is familiar to us. We feel as if we should not be ourselves any longer, if we do not keep some portion of what we have been hitherto; and much as we profess in general terms to wish to be changed, when it comes to the point when particular instances of change are presented to us, we shrink from them, and are content to remain unchanged.

It is this principle of self-seeking, so to express myself, this influence of self upon us, which is our ruin. I repeat, I am speaking of those who make a profession of religion. Others, of course, avowedly follow self altogether; they indulge the flesh, or pursue the world. But when a man comes to God to be saved, then, I say, the essence of true conversion is a surrender of himself, an unreserved, unconditional surrender; and this is a {242} saying which most men who come to God cannot receive. They wish to be saved, but in their own way; they wish (as it were) to capitulate upon terms, to carry off their goods with them; whereas the true spirit of faith leads a man to look off from self to God, to think nothing of his own wishes, his present habits, his importance or dignity, his rights, his opinions, but to say, "I put myself into Thy hands, O Lord; make Thou me what Thou wilt; I forget myself; I divorce myself from myself; I am dead to myself; I will follow Thee." Samuel, Isaiah, and St. Paul, three Saints in very different circumstances, all instance this. The child Samuel, under Eli's instruction, says, "Speak, Lord; for Thy servant heareth." [1 Sam. iii. 9.] The prophet Isaiah says, "Here am I: send me." [Isa. vi. 8.] And still more exactly to the point are St. Paul's words, when arrested by the miraculous vision, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" [Acts ix. 6.] Here is the very voice of self-surrender, "What wilt thou have me to do? Take Thy own way with me; whatever it be, pleasant or painful, I will do it." These are words worthy of one who was to be to after-ages the pattern of simplicity, sincerity, and a pure conscience: and as he spake, so he acted; for in his own narrative of what happened, he goes on to say, "I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision."

Now to give some instances in illustration.

1. One very common case, though it is not one in which men have any pretensions to be considered as sincere, is when they determine to repent more fully by and by, or to be more strict in their mode of living {243} by and by. However, it will serve to explain what I would say. Alas! so common is it, that I should not wonder if some persons here present, were they but honest, would confess it of themselves, that they dare not put themselves into God's hands, lest He should make them what they love not. Here then is the absence of a perfect heart, a shrinking from the absolute surrender and sacrifice of self to God.

2. Again, in a number of cases want of perfectness is shown in their keeping away, as they obstinately do, from the Lord's Supper. I am not speaking of the case of open sinners. Of course, it is well that they should feel reluctant; it would be dreadful indeed if they did not. Nor do I mean to say that many are not kept away by fears, which they ought not to have, which are mistaken. But still there are a great number, who have good words in their mouth, who profess all reverence, all service towards God, acknowledge His power and love, believe in what Christ has done for them, and say they desire to be ruled by Him, and to die the death of the righteous, who yet are quite unmovable on this particular point. Why is this? I fear, for this reason. They dare not profess in God's sight that they will serve Him. They dare not promise; they dare not pray to Him. They dare not beg Him to make them wholly His. They dare not ask Him to disclose to them their secret faults. They dare not come to an Ordinance, in which God meets them face to face. As many a man will tell an untruth who dare not swear it, so there are many men who make random professions of obedience, who dare not put themselves in circumstances when perhaps {244} they may be taken at their word. And as cowards disguise from themselves their own cowardice, till brought into danger, so do these their hypocrisy, till obliged to take a side. They profess vaguely; but they dare not definitely and solemnly say, "And here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto Thee."

3. Another instance of insincerity is set before us in the conduct of the young man in the Gospel, who came running to Christ, and saying, "Good Master." He did not justly know himself, and he flattered himself that he was perfect in heart when he had a reserve in his obedience. You will observe he was even forward and rude in his manner; and here we seem to gain a lesson. When young persons address themselves to religious subjects without due reverence and godly fear, when they rush towards them impetuously, engage in them hotly, talk about them vehemently, and profess them conspicuously, they should be very suspicious of themselves, lest there be something or other wrong about them. Men who are quite honest, who really wish to surrender themselves to Christ, have counted the cost. They feel it is no slight sacrifice which they are making; they feel its difficulty and its pain; and therefore they cannot make an impetuous offer of their services. They cannot say, "Lord, I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest;" it is too great a profession. They dare not say, "All these have I kept from my youth up;" lest, after all, they discover something in themselves lacking. They have no heart to say, "Good Master," in a familiar, light manner, before him who stands to {245} them instead of God, and whose words involve duties. The young ruler came running, not waiting till Christ should look on him or call—not fearing, but intruding himself. Christ exposed what was in his heart, and he who ran to accost Him, stole away sorrowing.

4. And here perhaps we shall understand something of the contrast between St. Peter's first and second profession of service to Christ. He made the first of his own accord. Christ had said, "Whither I go, thou canst not follow Me now." [John xiii. 33.] He answered, "Lord, why cannot I follow Thee now? I will lay down my life for Thy sake." Now, we may indeed say that his fall was merely an instance of weakness;—so it may have been;—yet it does seem likely too, that, at the time he said it, he had not that perfect devotion to Christ which he had afterwards. Let it not be imagined that on that former occasion, when "he forsook all and followed" Christ, or again, when he went to meet Him on the sea, the holy Apostle did not act out of the fulness of a perfect heart; but may we not reverently suppose that till Pentecost his state of mind was variable, and sometimes had more of heaven in it than at other times? We may surmise that he, who first said, "Thou art the Christ," and next, "Be it far from Thee, Lord," earning blessing and rebuke almost in one breath, on this occasion came short of the sincerity which he showed before and afterwards. We may surmise that his fault was not merely self-deception,— but, in a measure, a reserved devotion; that there was one corner (as it were) of his heart, which at that moment was not {246} Christ's; for the more that is the case, the louder men commonly talk, in order to beat down the risings of conscience. When a man half suspects his own honesty, he makes loud professions of it. Contrast, with this, St. Peter's words after our Lord's resurrection. First, he waits for Christ to say, "Follow Me;" next, observe his answer to Christ, "Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee." [John xxi. 15.] Then he felt that he dare appeal to his heart-searching Judge, in witness that he was making an unreserved surrender of himself. He did not thus speak before.

5. Another illustration may be drawn from the state of mind which not unfrequently is found in a person who has been injured or insulted, and is bound in duty to forgive the offenders. I am supposing a well-meaning and religious man; and he often lies under the temptation to forgive them up to a certain point, but at the same time to make a reserve in favour of his own dignity, or to satisfy his sense of justice, and thus to take the matter in part into his own hands. He cannot get himself honestly to surrender every portion of resentment, and to leave his cause simply to God, as remembering the words, "Vengeance is Mine; I will repay." [Rom. xii. 19.] This reluctance is sometimes seen very clearly under other circumstances, in the instance of children, who, whether they be out of temper, or obstinate, or otherwise what they should not be, cannot bring themselves to do that very thing which they ought to do, which is enough, which comes up to the mark. They are quite conscious that they are wrong, and they wish {247} to be right; and they will do a number of good things short of what is required of them; they will show their wish to be at one again with the parties who are displeased with them; they will go round about their duty,—but from pride, or other wrong feeling, they shrink from going close to it, and, as it were, embracing it. And so again, if they have been in fault, they will make excuses, or half confess; they will do much, but they cannot bring themselves to do a whole deed, and make a clean breast of it.

6. Lastly may be mentioned, the case of persons seeking the truth. How often are they afraid or loth to throw themselves on God's guidance, and beg Him to teach them! how loth to promise in His sight that they will follow the truth wherever it leads them! but whether from fear of what the world will say, fear of displeasure of friends, or of ridicule of strangers, or of triumph of enemies, or from entertaining some fancy or conceit of their own, which they are loth to give up, they hang back, and think to gain the truth, not by rising and coming for it, but, as it were, by a mere careless extension and grasp of the hand, while they sit at ease, or proceed with other work that employs them. Much might be said on what is a very fertile part of the subject.

In all these ways, then, to which many more might be added, men serve God, but do not serve Him with a perfect heart, or "in simplicity and sincerity." And in explaining what I consider Scripture to mean by perfectness of purpose, I have explained also in a measure how it is that a person must know if he has {248} it. For it is a state of mind which will not commonly lie hid from those who are blest with it. Not more different is ice from the flowing stream, than a half purpose from a whole one. "He bloweth with His wind, and the waters flow." So is it when God prevails on a heart to open itself to Him, and admit Him wholly. There is a perceptible difference of feeling in a man, compared with what he was, which, in common circumstances, he cannot mistake. He may have made resolves before, he may have argued himself into a belief of his own sincerity, he may have (as it were) convinced himself that nothing can be required of him more than he has done, he may have asked himself what more is there to do, and yet have felt a something in him still which needed quieting, which was ever rising up and troubling him, and had to be put down again. But when he really gives himself up to God, when he gets himself honestly to say, "I sacrifice to Thee this cherished wish, this lust, this weakness, this scheme, this opinion: make me what Thou wouldest have me; I bargain for nothing; I make no terms; I seek for no previous information whither Thou art taking me; I will be what Thou wilt make me, and all that Thou wilt make me. I say not, I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest, for I am weak; but I give myself to Thee, to lead me anywhither. I will follow Thee in the dark, only begging Thee to give me strength according to my day. Try me, O Lord, and seek the ground of my heart; prove me, and examine my thoughts; look well if there be any way of wickedness in me;" search {249} each dark recess with Thy own bright light, "and lead me in the way everlasting,"—what a difference is this! what a plain perceptible change, which cannot be mistaken! what a feeling of satisfaction is poured over the mind! what a sense that at length we are doing what we should do, and approving ourselves to God our Saviour! Such is the blessedness and reward of confession. "I said I will confess my sins unto the Lord, and so Thou forgavest the wickedness of my sin." It matters little whether it is a resolve for the future or a confession of the past; the same temper is involved in both. If a person does not confess with a desire of amendment, it is not a real confession; but he who comes to God to tell before Him sorrowfully all that he knows wrong in himself, is thereby desiring and beginning what is right and holy; and he who comes to beg Him to work in him all that is right and holy, does thereby implicitly condemn and repent of all that is wrong in him. And thus he is altogether innocent; for all his life is made up either of honest endeavour or of honest confession, exactness in doing or sorrow for not doing, of simplicity and sincerity, repentance being on the one side of it, and obedience on the other. Such is the power divinely vouchsafed in the Gospel to an honest purpose. It either does, or blots out what is not done; or rather by one act, and in itself which is one, it both performs part, and blots out the rest.

And here it is obvious to point out the bearing of what has been said on the subject of Justification. We know that faith justifies us; but what is the test of {250} true faith? Works are its evidence; but they are so on the whole, after a sufficient period of time, to others, and at the judgment of the last day. They scarcely can be considered an evidence definite and available for a man's own comfort at any moment when he seeks for one. He does some things well, some ill; and he is more clear-sighted and more sensitive in the instance of his failings than of his successful endeavours. If what he does well be an evidence of faith, what he does ill will be to him a more convincing proof that he has not faith; and thus he cannot conclusively appeal to his works. Now, I suppose, absolute certainty about our state cannot be attained at all in this life; but the nearest approach to such certainty which is possible, would seem to be afforded by this consciousness of openness and singleness of mind, this good understanding (if I may use such an expression) between the soul and its conscience, to which St. Paul so often alludes. "Our rejoicing is this," he says, "the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity we have had our conversation in the world." He did not rejoice in his faith, but he was justified by faith, because he could rejoice in his sincerity. Perfectness of heart, simple desire to please God, "a spirit without guile," a true and loyal will, where these are present, faith is justifying; and whereas those who have this integrity will more or less be conscious of it, therefore, after all exceptions duly made on the score of depression of spirits, perplexity of mind, horror at past sins, and the like, still, on the whole, really religious persons {251} will commonly enjoy a subdued but comfortable hope and trust that they are in a state of justification. They may have this hope more or less; they may deserve to have it more or less; at times they may even be unconscious of it, and yet it may secretly support them; they may fancy themselves in perfect darkness, yet it may be a light cheering them forward; they may vary in their feelings about their state from day to day, and yet, whether or not they can collect evidence to satisfy their reason, still if they be really perfect in heart, there will be this secret sense of their sincerity, with their reason or against reason, to whisper to them peace. And on the other hand, it never will rise above a sober trust, even in the most calm, peaceful, and holy minds. They to the end will still but say, "Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief." They still will say, in St. Paul's words, "I am conscious to myself of nothing, yet am I not hereby justified, but he that judgeth me is the Lord." "Judge me, O Lord; examine me; search the ground of my heart; judge Thou me, who art the sole Judge; I judge not myself. I do but say, Thou knowest me; I say not, I know." It was but the Pharisee that said, "Lord, I thank Thee I am not as other men are." We can but "gird up the loins of our minds, be sober, and hope to the end, and pass the time of our sojourning here in fear," [1 Pet. i. 13-17.] though "the day has dawned, and the day star has arisen in our hearts." [2 Pet. i. 19.]

One more remark must be made. It may be objected, that, if the feeling of a good conscience be the evidence {252} to us of our justification, then are persons in a justified state who are external to the Church, provided they have this feeling. I reply briefly,—for to say much here would be out of place,—that every one will be judged according to his light and his privileges; and any man who has really the testimony of a good conscience is acting up to his light, whatever that is. This does not, however, show that he has always so acted; nor determine what his light is; nor what degree of favour he is in; nor whether he might have been in greater, had his past actions been other than they have been. It but shows that he is accepted in that state in which he is, be it one of greater favour or less, heathenism [Note 2], schism, superstition, or heresy; and that, because his faults and errors at present are not wilful. And in like manner, in the case of members of the Church, a good conscience evidences God's acceptance, according to that measure of acceptance which He gives in His Church,—that is, it evidences their justification; whereas what privileges attach to bodies or creeds external to the Church we do not know. No inward feeling can do more than what is here assigned to it, unless an inward feeling can be the evidence of an external revelation.

But here I am speaking to members of the Church; to those who, if they serve God with a perfect heart, are justified. Let us then, since this is our privilege, attempt to share in St. Paul's sincerity, that we may share in his rejoicing. Let us endeavour to become friends of God and fellow-citizens with the saints; not {253} by sinless purity, for we have it not; not in our deeds of price, for we have none to show; not in our privileges, for they are God's acts, not ours; not in our Baptism, for it is outward; but in that which is the fruit of Baptism within us, not a word but a power, not a name but a reality, which, though it can claim nothing, can beg everything;—an honest purpose, an unreserved, entire submission of ourselves to our Maker, Redeemer, and Judge. Let us beg Him to aid us in our endeavour, and, as He has begun a good work in us, to perform it until the day of the Lord Jesus.

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1. Epiphany.
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2. Acts x. 35.
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