The Law of Christian Conscience*

Bibliology
Guest Writer Frederick W Robertson

“Therefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world stands, lest I make my brother to offend” (1 Corinthians 8:13).

Preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, England, 25 January 1852

Paul writes to the Corinthians, “As concerning eating things offered in sacrifice to idols, we know that an idol is nothing and that there is no other God but one … However there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol to this hour eat [the sacrifice] as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But meat commends 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 who are weak. For if any man see you who have knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things that are offered to idols; and through your knowledge will the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? When you sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world stands, lest I make my brother to offend” (1 Corinthians 8:4, 7-13).

We have already divided this chapter into two branches—the former containing the difference between Christian knowledge and secular knowledge; the second, 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 recap the principles of that discourse.

Corinth was a coastal city, having a large and free communication with foreign nations, a free interchange of thought among its inhabitants, and a vivid power of communicating philosophy and truth. Now it is plain, that to such a society, and to minds so educated, the gospel of Christ must have presented a peculiar attraction, presenting itself as a law of Christian liberty. And so, in Corinth the gospel had “free course and was glorified” (2 Thessalonians 3:1) and was received with great joy by almost all men, of all classes and sects. A large number of followers attached themselves to the Apostle Paul as the most accredited expounder of Christianity, or what they considered the “royal law of liberty” (cf James 2:8-12). Many received Christianity merely intellectually, not spiritually—not as a life-changing experience that touches the conscience and purifies the affections. Thus, Christian liberty became to them an end in itself. They took Christianity as a license to sin and abused its liberty. They rejoiced in their freedom from the superstitions, ignorance, and scruples that bound their weaker brothers in Christ. They had no charity—not that intense charity that characterized the Apostle Paul. They felt nothing 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, until by degrees their assemblies became a lamentable exhibition of their own depravity, and led to numerous irregularities severely rebuked by the Apostle Paul. Their women, rejoicing in the emancipation that had been given to the Christian community, laid aside the old habits of attire that had been consecrated so long by Grecian and Jewish custom, and appeared with their heads uncovered in the Christian community. Still further, the Lord’s Supper was observed without reverence, and seemed more a meeting for licentious gratification, where “one was hungry, and another was drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:21)—a place in which earthly drunkenness, the carnal enjoyment of the appetites, replaced Christian charity.

The same feeling—this love of mere liberty—liberty in itself—manifested itself in other ways. Holding to this misinterpretation of freedom, the Corinthian Christians taught that the body (that is, the flesh) was the only part of the tripartite person that could sin, that the soul was holy and pure, and that to be free from the body would be entire, perfect, Christian emancipation. And so came in that strange doctrine of immortality that was taught separate from, and in opposition to, the doctrine of the resurrection. They maintained that the soul, justified by the sacrifice of Christ, was no longer capable of sin and that in the evil done by the body the soul had no part. Therefore, sin was something from which a Christian conscience was freed altogether. So when one of their number fell into grievous sin (incest) and committed fornication, “such as was not so much as named among the Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 5:1) instead of being humbled (humiliated) by it, they were “puffed up” (5:2), as if they were exhibiting to the world an enlightened, true, perfect Christianity—liberated from prejudice.

To such a society the Apostle Paul preached—in all its length, breadth, and fullness—the cross of Christ. He taught that knowledge was one thing, that charity was another: that “knowledge puffs up, but charity builds up” (8:1). He reminded them that love was the perfection of knowledge and that there were two kinds of knowledge: one of the intellect and another 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” (8:3).

Here, then, we come to where we left off last Sunday. There are two kinds of knowledge: secular and Christian. Christian knowledge is heart knowledge—to know by love.

Let us now consider the remainder of the chapter of 1 Corinthians 8, which talks about the law of Christian conscience. You will observe that it divides itself into two branches—(1) an exposition of the law itself and (2) the Christian application.

THE LAW OF CHRISTIAN CONSCIENCE

The way in which the apostle expounds the law of Christian conscience is this: Guilt is contracted by the one who transgresses the law of God by doing what he believes is wrong—not so much what is wrong as what appears wrong to him. This is the doctrine laid down in 8:7, 8. The apostle tells the strong-minded Corinthians that the weaker brothers’ superstition is ignorance. “Meat,” he says, “commends us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse,” but “there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol to this hour eat [the sacrifice] as a thing offered to an idol.”

Here, then, is an ignorant, mistaken, ill-formed conscience; and yet Paul goes on to say that this conscience, so ill-informed, yet binds the possessor of it: “and their conscience being weak, is defiled.” There is no harm in eating the flesh of an animal offered to an idol or false god, for a false god is nothing. Yet if any man thought it wrong to eat such [nonkosher] flesh [it was sold in the marketplace (1 Corinthians 10:25, 26)], to him it was wrong, for in that act there would be a deliberate act of transgression against what he perceived as the law of God. It would carry with it all the disobedience, all the guilt, and all the misery of actual sin; or as Paul expresses it, the man’s conscience would be defiled.

Here, then, we arrive at the first distinction—the distinction between absolute right and wrong and relative right and wrong. Absolute right and absolute wrong, like absolute truth, is unalterable in the sight of God. The one absolute right—the charity of God and the sacrifice of Christ—is the sole measure of eternal right. But human right and wrong—that is, the merit or demerit of any action done by any particular man—must be measured not altogether 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. We come into this world with a moral sense or conscience that tells us broadly what is right and what is wrong. Every child can understand this. That charity and self-denial are right is recognized in almost every nation. But the boundaries of these two—when and how far self-denial is right—what are the limits of charity—circumstances determine.

And so it will be found that there are different standards among different nations and in different ages. What, for example, was the standard among the Israelites in the earlier ages, and before their settlement in Canaan, was 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 different from that recognized in the nineteenth century among ourselves. “The times of this ignorance God winked at, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).

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 …. But what I do say is this: that the form and aspect in which deeds appear so vary that men’s opinions are continually changing, and that which is most generous may seem most base, and that which is most base may appear most generous. So, as I have already said, there are two things universally recognized as right by every man whose conscience is not 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 every emotion in almost every age. But the form in which these appear will vary incrementally from the lowest savage to the highest and most enlightened Christian.

In ancient Israel the unwritten law was love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Among the American Indians and at the Cape [of Good Hope, South Africa], 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 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—and he had become absorbed into the divinity.

In ancient Sparta it was the custom to teach children to steal. But it was not stealing that was admired, but dexterity and duplicity. The child was punished only if the theft was discovered, because speed and cunning were warlike virtues, necessary to 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 something of higher importance: the duty of concealment. And so, we come back to the principle we laid down earlier. In every age, among all nations, the same broad principle returns, but the application varies. The conscience may be ill-informed, and in this sense only are right and wrong conventional or cultural—varying with latitude and longitude, depending on chronology and geography.

The principle laid down by the Apostle Paul is this: a man will be judged not altogether by the abstract law of God, not altogether by the rule of absolute right, but also by the law of love and the relative law of conscience. What seems to a man to be right is, in a certain sense, right to him; and what seems to a man to be wrong, in a certain sense, is wrong to him. But “sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Romans 5:13). If a man is ignorant of the law, the offense is not wrong to him. Paul says, “I know, and am persuaded of the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing [no food] unclean of itself: but to him who esteems anything [nonkosher food] to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (14:14; cf Acts 10:15). 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.

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 statement and fact—truth is the correspondence between a man’s soul and reality. It is possible for a man to say that which, unknown to him, is false; and yet, to him, he is telling the truth. It is possible, on the other hand, for a man to utter veracity; and yet, to him, he is lying, because he is being false to himself, to his brother, and to his God ….

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. Yet in the sight of God, and with respect to his eternal destiny, it would be better for a man earnestly, honestly, truly to hold to 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 to Trinitarianism.

Not many years ago the Church of Scotland was severed into two great divisions, and gave to this age a marvelous proof that there is still among us the power of living faith. 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 hope of gaining a livelihood—rather than assert a principle that seemed to them false. 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 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 on 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 …. The Apostle Paul tells us that he was “a blasphemer and a persecutor and injurious” (1 Timothy 1:13), that he did “many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9), that “being exceedingly mad against the disciples, he persecuted them even to strange cities” (26:11). But he tells us further, that “for this cause he obtained mercy, because be did it ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13).

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 they had taken in battle (cf Numbers 31:13-20; Deuteronomy 20:10-18). Brethren, the eternal law is that charity is right: and that law is eternally right that says, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). And if the Jews had acted on this principle [the Beatitudes], they would have done well to spare their enemies: but they did it, thinking it to be wrong, transgressing that law that commanded them to slay their idolatrous enemies. They acted not from generosity, but in stupidity—not from charity, but from lax zeal. And in that sense, the act of sparing was wrong.

THE CHRISTIAN APPLICATION

Such is the apostle’s exposition of the law of Christian conscience. “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient … Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s good … If anyone who believes not invites you to a feast, and you be disposed to go, whatever is set before you eat, asking no question for conscience sakes. If anyone says to you, ‘This is offered in sacrifice to idols,’ eat not for his sake who revealed it, and for conscience—not your conscience, but his conscience …. Give no offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Greeks, nor to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:23-32). Let us now, in the second place, consider the applications, both of a personal and of a public nature, that arise out of ceding our own liberty to a brother’s conscience.

Personal Application

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 manner 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.”

No man’s conscience becomes seared by doing what is wrong unknowingly, but by doing what appears to be wrong to his conscience. The Jews’ conscience was seared not by their sparing their enemies, but by their failing to do as they were instructed. 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, prescription, fashion, 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” (Romans 14:12).

Interpersonal Application

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. Therefore, the Apostle Paul counsels the Corinthian libertines to abridge their Christian liberty, not to eat of those things sacrificed to idols, but to have compassion on the scruples of their weaker brother. And this, for several reasons.

• The first of these is a mere reason of Christian feeling. It might cause exquisite pain to sensitive minds to see things that appeared to them to be wrong done by Christian brethren. It may be, if you will, mere superstition to bow at the name of Jesus. It may be, and no doubt is, founded on a mistaken interpretation of “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow” (Philippians 2:10). But there are many congregations in which kneeling 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” (2:9). Now what in this case is the Christian duty? Is it to stand on our Christian liberty? Or is it not rather to comply with a harmless prejudice rather than hurt 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” (Mark 2:27)—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—on 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 your duty here? Is it not this—to abridge your Christian liberty—and to go through rain, mud, and snow rather than give pain to one Christian conscience?

• To give one more instance. The words, garb, and customs of that sect of Christians called Quakers may be formal enough; founded, no doubt, as in the former case, on a mistaken interpretation of a passage in the Bible. But they are at least harmless, and have long been associated with the simplicity, benevolence, and humility of this body of Christians—the followers of one who, three hundred years ago, set out on the glorious enterprise of making 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, habits, and customs with anything but respect and reverence?

• Further, the apostle enjoined this duty on 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 another to sin. If any man ate of the meat offered to an idol, feeling himself justified by his conscience, he did well; but if any man, overborne by authority or interest, did so against conscience, that 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. Then his compliance would damage his conscience and moral sense as much as if the act had been wrong in itself.

Principle

• 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 on the ground of expediency when Christian principles were left entire, was the same who stood firm and strong as a rock when.anything was demanded that trenched on Christian principle. When some required, as a matter of necessity for salvation, that Gentile converts should be circumcised, the apostle says, “To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour” (Galatians 2:5)! 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 that dreads to tamper with the sanctity of a brother’s conscience.

• This abridgment of the Corinthians’ liberty is a duty more especially incumbent on 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 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 everyday 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 that is right, or at all events, to what 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 that 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.

• How possible it is to mix together the vigor of a masculine and manly intellect with the tenderness and charity that 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 prejudice, narrowness, littleness, 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, 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 Paul’s, in which he asserts the rights of Christian conscience above the claims of Christian liberty—“Therefore if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world stands, lest I make my brother to offend.”

“To him who knows to do good, and does it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Stourhead Garden, Wiltshire, England

*Adapted from Frederick W Robertson [1816-1853], Sermons Preached at Brighton / Third Series (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1884), sermon 16. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

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