Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 59


The Law of Christian Conscience

Preached January 25, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

“How be it there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; and through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” - I Corinthians 8:7-13


We have already divided this chapter into two branches-the former portion of it containing the difference between Christian knowledge and secular knowledge, and the second portion containing the apostolic exposition of the law of Christian conscience. The first of these we endeavored to expound last Sunday, but it may be well briefly to recapitulate the principles of that discourse in a somewhat different form.

Corinth, as we all know and remember, was a city built on the sea-coast, having a large and free communication with all foreign nations; and there was also within it, and going on amongst its inhabitants, a free interchange of thought, and a vivid power of communicating the philosophy and truths of those days to each other. Now it is plain, that to a society in such a state, and to minds so educated, the Gospel of Christ must have presented a peculiar attraction, presenting itself to them, as it did, as a law of Christian liberty. And so in Corinth the Gospel had “free course and was glorified,” and was received with great joy by almost all men, and by minds of all classes and all sects; and a large number of these attached themselves to the teaching of the Apostle Paul as the most accredited expounder of Christianity-the “royal law of liberty.” But it seems, from what we read in this epistle, that a large number of these men received Christianity as a thing intellectual, and that alone-and not as a thing which touched the conscience, and swayed and purified the affections. Thus this liberty became to them almost all--they ran into sin or went to extravagance-they rejoiced in their freedom from the superstitions, the ignorances, and the scruples which bound their weaker brethren; but had no charity-none of that intense charity which characterized the Apostle Paul, for those still struggling in the delusions and darkness from which they themselves were free.

More than that, they demanded their right, their Christian liberty, of expressing their opinions in the church, merely for the sake of exhibiting the Christian graces and spiritual gifts which had been showered upon them so largely; until by degrees those very assemblies became a lamentable exhibition of their own depravity, and led to numerous irregularities which we find severely rebuked by the Apostle Paul. Their women, rejoicing in the emancipation which had been given to the Christian community, laid aside the old habits of attire which had been consecrated so long by Grecian and Jewish custom, and appeared with their heads uncovered in the Christian community. Still further than that, the Lord’s Supper exhibited an absence of all solemnity, and seemed more a meeting for licentious gratification, where “one was hungry, and another was drunken”-a place in which earthly drunkenness, the mere enjoyment of the appetites, had taken the place of Christian charity towards each other.

And the same feeling-this love of mere liberty-liberty in itself-manifested itself in many other directions. Holding by this freedom, their philosophy taught that the body, that is, the flesh, was the only cause of sin; that the soul was holy and pure; and that therefore, to be free from the body would be entire, perfect, Christian emancipation. And so came in that strange, wrong doctrine, exhibited in Corinth, where immortality was taught separate from, and in opposition to, the doctrine of the resurrection. And afterwards they went on with their conclusions about liberty, to maintain that the body, justified by the sacrifice of Christ, was no longer capable of sin; and that in the evil which was done by the body the soul had taken no part. And therefore sin was to them but as a name, from which a Christian conscience was to be freed altogether. So that when one of their number had fallen into grievous sin, and had committed fornication, “such as was not so much as named among the Gentiles,” so far from being humbled by it, they were “puffed up,” as if they were exhibiting to the world an enlightened, true, perfect Christianity-separate from all prejudices.

To such a society and to such a state of mind the Apostle Paul preached, in all its length, breadth, and fullness, the humbling doctrines of the cross of Christ. He taught that knowledge was one thing-that charity was another thing; that “knowledge puffeth up, but charity buildeth up.” He reminded them that love was the perfection of knowledge. In other words, his teaching came to this: there are two kinds of knowledge; the one the knowledge of the intellect, the other the knowledge of the heart. Intellectually, God never can be known. He must be known by love-for, “if any man love God, the same is known of Him.” Here, then, we have arrived in another way at precisely the same conclusion at which we arrived last Sunday. Here are two kinds of knowledge, secular knowledge and Christian knowledge; and Christian knowledge is this-to know by love.

Let us now consider the remainder of the chapter, which treats of the law of Christian conscience. You will observe that it divides itself into two branches-the first containing an exposition of the law itself, and the second the Christian applications which flow out of this exposition.

1. The way in which the apostle expounds the law of Christian conscience is this:-Guilt is contracted by the soul, in so far as it sins against and transgresses the law of God by doing that which it believes to be wrong: not so much what is wrong as what appears to it to be wrong. This is the doctrine distinctly laid down in the seventh and eighth verses. The apostle tells the Corinthians-these strong-minded Corinthians-that the superstitions of their weaker brethren were unquestionably wrong. “Meat,” he says, “commendeth us not to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, neither if we eat not are we the worse. “He then tells them further, that “there is not in every man that knowledge; for some, with conscience of the idol, eat it as a thing offered unto an idol.” Here, then, is an ignorant, mistaken, ill-formed conscience; and yet he goes on to tell them that this conscience, so ill-informed, yet binds the possessor of it: “and their conscience being weak, is defiled.” For example-there could be no harm in eating the flesh of an animal that had been offered to an idol or false god; for a false god is nothing, and it is impossible for it to have contracted positive defilement by being offered to that which is a positive and absolute negation. And yet if any man thought it wrong to eat such flesh, to him it was wrong; for in that act there would be a deliberate act of transgression-a deliberate preference of that which was mere enjoyment, to that which was apparently, though it may be only apparently, sanctioned by the law of God. And so it would carry with it all the disobedience, all the guilt, and all the misery which belongs to the doing of an act altogether wrong; or as St. Paul expresses it, the conscience would become defiled.

Here, then, we arrive at the first distinction-the distinction between absolute and relative right and wrong. Absolute right and absolute wrong, like absolute truth, can each be but one and unalterable in the sight of God. The one absolute right-the charity of God and the sacrifice of Christ-this, from eternity to eternity must be the sole measure of eternal right. But human right or human wrong-that is, the merit or demerit of any action done by any particular man-must be measured, not by that absolute standard, but as a matter relative to his particular circumstances, the state of the age in which he lives, and his own knowledge of right and wrong. For we come into this world with a moral sense; or to speak more Christianly, with a conscience. And yet that will tell us but very little distinctly. It tells us broadly that which is right and that which is wrong, so that every child can understand this. That charity and self-denial are right-this we see recognized in almost every nation. But the boundaries of these two-when and how far self-denial is right-what are the bounds of charity-this it is for different circumstances yet to bring out and determine.

And so it will be found that there is a different standard among different nations and in different ages. That, for example, which was the standard among the Israelites in the earlier ages, and before their settlement in Canaan, was very different from the higher and truer standard of right and wrong recognized by the later prophets. And the standard in the third and fourth centuries after Christ, was truly and unquestionably an entirely different one from that recognized in the nineteenth century among ourselves.

Let me not be mistaken. I do not say that right and wrong are merely conventional, or merely chronological or geographical, or that they vary with latitude and longitude. I do not say that there ever was or ever can be a nation so utterly blinded and perverted in its moral sense as to acknowledge that which is wrong-seen and known to be wrong-as right; or on the other hand, to profess that which is seen and understood as right, to be wrong. But what I do say is this: that the form and aspect in which different deeds appear, so vary, that there will be forever a change and alteration in men’s opinions, and that which is really most generous may seem most base, and that which is really most base may appear most generous. So, for example, as I have already said, there are two things universally recognized-recognized as right by every man whose conscience is not absolutely perverted-charity and self-denial. The charity of God, the sacrifice of Christ-these are the two grand, leading principles of the Gospel; and in some form or other you will find these lying at the roots of every profession and state of feeling in almost every age. But the form in which these appear will vary with all the gradations which are to be found between the lowest savage state and the highest and most enlightened Christianity.

For example, in ancient Israel the law of love was expounded thus:-“Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.” Among the American Indians and at the Cape, the only homage, perchance, given to self-denial, was the strange admiration given to that prisoner of war who bore with unflinching fortitude the torture of his country’s enemies. In ancient India the same principle was exhibited, but in a more strange and perverted manner. The homage there given to self denial, self-sacrifice, was this-that the highest form of religion was considered to be that exhibited by the devotee who sat in a tree until the birds had built their nests in his hair-until his nails, like those of the King of Babylon, had grown like birds’ talons-until they had grown into his hands-and he became absorbed into the Divinity.

We will take another instance, and one better known. In ancient Sparta it was the custom to teach children to steal. And here there would seem to be a contradiction to our proposition-here it would seem as if right and wrong were matters merely conventional; for surely stealing can never be any thing but wrong. But if we look deeper we shall see that there is no contradiction here. It was not stealing which was admired; the child was punished if the theft was discovered; but it was the dexterity which was admired, and that because it was a warlike virtue, necessary, it may be, to a people in continual rivalry with their neighbors. It was not that honesty was despised and dishonesty esteemed, but that honesty and dishonesty were made subordinate to that which appeared to them of higher importance, namely, the duty of concealment. And so we come back to the principle which we laid down at first. In every age, among all nations, the same broad principle returns, but the application of it varies. The conscience may be ill-informed, and in this sense only are right and wrong conventional-varying with latitude and longitude, depending upon chronology and geography.

The principle laid down by the Apostle Paul is this:-A man will be judged, not by the abstract law of God, not by the rule of absolute right, but much rather by the relative law of conscience. This he states most distinctly-looking at the question on both sides. That which seems to a man to be right is, in a certain sense, right to him; and that which seems to a man to be wrong, in a certain sense is wrong to him. For example: he says in his Epistle to the Romans (ver. 14) that, “sin is not imputed when there is no law,” in other words, if a man does not really know a thing to be wrong, there is a sense in which, if not right to him, it ceases to be so wrong as it would otherwise be. With respect to the other of these sides, however, the case is still more distinct and plain. Here, in the judgment which the apostle delivers in the parallel chapter of the Epistle to the Romans (the xivth), he says, “I know, and am persuaded of the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” In other words, whatever may be the abstract merits of the question-however in God’s jurisprudence any particular act may stand-to you, thinking it to be wrong, it manifestly is wrong, and your conscience will gather round it a stain of guilt if you do it.

In order to understand this more fully, let us take a few instances. There is a difference between truth and veracity. Veracity-mere veracity-is a small, poor thing. Truth is something greater and higher. Veracity is merely the correspondence between some particular statement and facts-truth is the correspondence between a man’s whole soul and reality. It is possible for a man to say that which, unknown to him, is false; and yet he may be true: because if deprived of truth he is deprived of it unwillingly. It is possible, on the other hand, for a man to utter veracities, and yet at the very time that he is uttering those veracities, to be false to himself; to his brother, and to his God. One of the most signal instances of this is to be seen in the Book of Job. Most of what Job’s friends said to him were veracious statements. Much of what Job said for himself was unveracious and mistaken. And yet those veracities of theirs were so torn from all connection with fact and truth, that they became falsehoods; and they were, as has been said, nothing more than “orthodox liars” in the sight of God. On the other hand, Job, blundering perpetually, and falling into false doctrine, was yet a true man-searching for and striving after the truth; and if deprived of it for a time, deprived of it with all his heart and soul unwillingly. And therefore it was that at last the Lord appeared out of the whirlwind to confound the men of mere veracity, and to stand by and support the honor of the heartily true.

Let us apply the principle further. It is a matter of less importance that a man should state true views, than that he should state views truly. We will put this in its strongest form. Unitarianism is false-Trinitarianism is true. But yet in the sight of God, and with respect to a man’s eternal destinies hereafter, it would surely be better for him earnestly, honestly, truly, to hold the doctrines of Unitarianism, than in a cowardly or indifferent spirit, or influenced by authority, or from considerations of interest, or for the sake of lucre, to hold the doctrines of Trinitarianism.

For instance: Not many years ago the Church of Scotland was severed into two great divisions, and gave to this age a marvellous proof that there is still amongst us the power of living faith-when five hundred ministers gave up all that earth holds dear-position in the Church they had loved; friendships and affections formed, and consecrated by long fellowship, in its communion; and almost their hopes of gaining a livelihood-rather than assert a principle which seemed to them to be a false one. Now, my brethren, surely the question in such a case for us to consider is not this, merely-whether of the two sections held the abstract right-held the principle in its integrity-but surely far rather, this: who on either side was true to the light within, true to God, true to the truth as God had revealed it to his soul.

Now it is precisely upon this principle that we are enabled to indulge a Christian hope that many of those who in ancient times were persecutors, for example, may yet be justified at the bar of Christ. Nothing can make persecution right-it is wrong, essentially, eternally wrong in the sight of God. And yet, if a man sincerely and assuredly thinks that Christ has laid upon him a command to persecute with fire and sword, it is surely better that he should, in spite of all feelings of tenderness and compassion, cast aside the dearest affections at the command of his Redeemer, than that he should, in mere laxity and tenderness, turn aside from what seemed to him to be his duty. At least, this appears to be the opinion of the Apostle Paul. He tells us that he was “a blasphemer and a persecutor and injurious,” that “he did many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth,” that “being exceedingly mad against the disciples, he persecuted them even unto strange cities.” But he tells us further, that “for this cause he obtained mercy, because be did it ignorantly in unbelief.”

Now take a case precisely opposite: In ancient times the Jews did that by which it appeared to them that they would contract defilement and guilt-they spared the lives of the enemies which they had taken in battle. Brethren, the eternal law is, that charity is right: and that law is eternally right which says, “Thou shalt love thine enemy.” And had the Jews acted upon this principle they would have done well to spare their enemies: but they did it, thinking it to be wrong, transgressing that law which commanded them to slay their idolatrous enemies-not from generosity, but in stupidity-not from charity, but from lax zeal. And so doing, the act was altogether wrong.

II. Such is the apostle’s exposition of the law of Christian conscience. Let us now, in the second place, consider the applications, both of a personal and of a public nature, which arise out of it.

1. The first application is a personal one. It is this:-Do what seems to you to be right: it is only so that you will at last learn by the grace of God to see clearly what is right. A man thinks within himself that it is God’s law and God’s will that he should act thus and thus. There is nothing possible for us to say, there is no advice for us to give, but this-“You must so act.” He is responsible for the opinions he holds, and still more for the way in which he arrived at them-whether in a slothful and selfish, or in an honest and truth-seeking manner; but being now his soul’s convictions, you can give no other law than this-“You must obey your conscience.” For no man’s conscience gets so seared by doing what is wrong unknowingly, as by doing that which appears to be wrong to his conscience. The Jews’ consciences did not get seared by their slaying the Canaanites, but they did become seared by their failing to do what appeared to them to be right. Therefore, woe to you if you do what others think right, instead of obeying the dictates of your own conscience; woe to you if you allow authority, or prescription, or fashion, or influence, or any other human thing, to interfere with that awful and sacred thing-responsibility. “Every man,” said the apostle, “must give an account of himself to God.”

2. The second application of this principle has reference to others. No doubt, to the large, free, enlightened mind of the Apostle Paul all these scruples and superstitions must have seemed mean, trivial, and small indeed. It was a matter to him of far less importance that truth should be established than that it should be arrived at truly-a matter of far less importance, even, that right should be done than that right should be done rightly. Conscience was far more sacred to him than even liberty-it was to him a prerogative far more precious to assert the rights of Christian conscience than to magnify the privileges of Christian liberty. The scruple may be small and foolish, but it may be impossible to uproot the scruple without tearing up the feeling of the sanctity of conscience, and of reverence to the law of God, associated with this scruple. And therefore the Apostle Paul counsels these men to abridge their Christian liberty, and not to eat of those things which had been sacrificed to idols, but to have compassion upon the scruples of their weaker brethren.

And this, for two reasons. The first of these is a mere reason of Christian feeling. It might cause exquisite pain to sensitive minds to see those things which appeared to them to be wrong, done by Christian brethren. Now you may take a parallel case. It may be, if you will, mere superstition to bow at the name of Jesus. It may be, and no doubt is, founded upon a mistaken interpretation of that passage in the Epistle to the Philippians (ii. 10), which says that “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.” But there are many congregations in which this has been the long-established rule, and there are many Christians who would feel pained to see such a practice discontinued-as if it implied a declension from the reverence due to “that name which is above every name”Now what in this case is the Christian duty? Is it this-to stand upon our Christian liberty? Or is it not rather this-to comply with a prejudice which is manifestly a harmless one, rather than give pain to a Christian brother?

Take another case. It may be a mistaken scruple; but there is no doubt that it causes much pain to many Christians to see a carriage used on the Lord’s day. But you, with higher views of the spirit of Christianity, who know that “the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath”-who can enter more deeply into the truth taught by our blessed Lord, that every day is to be dedicated to Him and consecrated to His service-upon the high principle of Christian liberty you can use your carriage-you can use your liberty. But if there are Christian brethren to whom this would give pain-then I humbly ask you, but most earnestly-What is the duty here? Is it not this-to abridge your Christian liberty-and to go through rain, and mud, and snow, rather than give pain to one Christian conscience?

To give one more instance. The words, and garb, and customs of that sect of Christians called Quakers may be formal enough; founded, no doubt, as in the former case, upon a mistaken interpretation of a passage in the Bible. But they are at least harmless; and have long been associated with the simplicity, and benevolence, and Christian humbleness of this body of Christians-the followers of one who, three hundred years ago, set out upon the glorious enterprise of making all men friends. Now would it be Christian, or would it not rather be something more than unchristian-would it not be gross rudeness and coarse unfeelingness to treat such words, and habits, and customs, with any thing but respect and reverence?

Further: the apostle enjoined this duty upon the Corinthian converts, of abridging their Christian liberty, not merely because it might give pain to indulge it, but also because it might even lead their brethren into sin. For, if any man should eat of the flesh offered to an idol, feeling himself justified by his conscience, it were well: but if any man, overborne by authority or interest, were to do this, not according to conscience, but against it, there would be a distinct and direct act of disobedience-a conflict between his sense of right and the gratification of his appetites, or the power of influence; and then his compliance would as much damage his conscience and moral sense as if the act had been wrong in itself.

In the personal application of these remarks, there are three things which we have to say. The first is this:-Distinguish, I pray you, between this tenderness for a brother’s conscience and mere time-serving. This same apostle whom we here see so gracefully giving way upon the ground of expediency when Christian principles were left entire, was the same who stood firm and strong as a rock when.any thing was demanded which trenched upon Christian principle. When some required, as a matter of necessity for salvation, that these converts should be circumcised, the apostle says-“To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour!” It was not indifference-it was not cowardice-it was not the mere love of peace, purchased by the sacrifice of principle, that prompted this counsel-but it was Christian love-that delicate and Christian love which dreads to tamper with the sanctities of a brother’s conscience.

2. The second thing we have to say is this-that this abridgment of their liberty is a duty more especially incumbent upon all who are possessed of influence. There are some men happily for themselves we may say, who are so insignificant that they can take their course quietly in the valleys of life, and who can exercise the fullest Christian liberty without giving pain to others. But it is the price which all who are possessed of influence must pay-that their acts must be measured, not in themselves, but according to their influence on others. So, my Christian brethren, to bring this matter home to every-day experience and common life, if the landlord uses his authority and influence to induce his tenant to vote against his conscience, it may be he has secured one voice to the principle which is right, or at all events, to that which seemed to him to be right: but he has gained that single voice at the sacrifice and expense of a brother’s soul. Or again-if for the sake of insuring personal politeness and attention, the rich man puts a gratuity into the hand of a servant of some company which has forbidden him to receive it, he gains the attention, he insures the politeness, but he gains it at the sacrifice and expense of a man and a Christian brother.

3. The last remark which we have to make is this: How possible it is to mix together the vigor of a masculine and manly intellect with the tenderness and charity which is taught by the Gospel of Christ. No man ever breathed so freely when on earth the air and atmosphere of heaven as the Apostle Paul-no man ever soared so high above all prejudices, narrowness, littlenesses, scruples, as he: and yet no man ever bound himself as Paul bound himself to the ignorance, the scruples, the prejudices of his brethren. So that what in other cases was infirmity, imbecility, and superstition, gathered round it in his case the pure high spirit of Christian charity and Christian delicacy.

And now, out of the writings, and sayings, and deeds of those who loudly proclaim “the rights of man” and the “rights of liberty,” match us, if you can, with one sentence so sublime, so noble, one that will so stand at the bar of God hereafter, as this single, glorious sentence of his, in which he asserts the rights of Christian conscience above the claims of Christian liberty-“Wherefore if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.”