“This is our rejoicing, 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.” (2 Corinthians 1:12)
The purpose of the following discourse is to show the nature and basis of a Christian’s joy. We know it is that happiness and peace which arises from the testimony of his conscience, as described here by the Apostle. But in order to better understand this, it will be necessary to weigh all his words in order to know what the conscience is and what its testimony is; and also, how he that has this testimony always rejoices.
First, what are we to understand by conscience? God has made us thinking beings, capable of perceiving the present and looking back on the past. In particular, we are capable of perceiving whatever occurs in our own hearts or lives; of knowing what we feel or do both while it is occurring and when it is past. When we say that man is a conscious being, we mean this: he has a consciousness, or inward perception, of things present and past, relating to himself, and of his own tempers and outward behavior. But conscience implies more than this. It is not only the knowledge of our present life or the memory of our preceding life. To know either past or present things is the least concern of conscience. Its main business is to excuse or accuse, to approve or disapprove, to acquit or condemn. And according to the meaning of the term in Scripture, particularly in the Epistles of St. Paul, we understand that conscience is an ability, implanted by God in every soul, to perceive what is right or wrong in his own heart or life, in his tempers, thoughts, words, and actions.
But what is the rule by which men are to judge between right and wrong? By what is their conscience to be directed? The rule of heathens, as the Apostle teaches elsewhere, is “the law written in their hearts.” “These,” he says, “not having the” outward “law, are a law unto themselves: Who show the work of the law,” that which the outward law requires, “written in their heart;” by the finger of God; “their conscience also bearing witness” whether or not they walk by this rule, “and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing, or even excusing them” (Romans 2:14, 15). But the Christian rule of right and wrong is the Word of God, all that the prophets and “holy men of God” wrote “as they were moved by the Holy Spirit;” all that Scripture which was given by inspiration of God, which is profitable for doctrine, or teaching the will of God; for reproving that which is contrary to it; for correcting error; and for instructing us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). This is a lantern to a Christian’s feet, and a light for all his paths. He calls nothing good except that which is commanded here, either directly or by clear implication; he considers nothing evil except what is forbidden here, either directly or by clear implication. Whatever the Scripture neither forbids nor commands, he believes to be neutral; neither good nor evil in itself. Scripture is the only complete outward rule by which his conscience is to be directed in all things.
And if his conscience is actually directed by Scripture, then he has “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” “A good conscience” is what is referred to elsewhere by the Apostle, “a conscience void of offense.” So, what he at one time expresses in this way, “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1); he denotes at another, “Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward God, and toward men” (24:16). Now in order for this to be true there is required, first, a right understanding of the Word of God, of His “holy, and acceptable and perfect will” for us as it is revealed there. For it is impossible to walk by a rule if we do not know what it means. Second, we need a true knowledge of ourselves; a knowledge both of our hearts and lives, of our inward tempers and outward behavior. If we do not know them, it is not possible for us to compare them with our rule. Third, there is required an agreement of our hearts and lives, of our tempers and conversation, of our thoughts, and words, and actions, with that rule, with the written word of God. Without this, our conscience can only be evil. Fourth, there is required an inward perception of this agreement. We must know that this habitual inward consciousness is a good conscience; or, in the other phrase of the Apostle, “a conscience void of offense toward God and toward men.”
But whoever desires to have a good conscience must lay the right foundation. Let him remember, “Other foundation can no man lay, than that which is laid, even Jesus Christ.” And let him also be mindful, that no man builds on Him except by a living faith, and no man partakes of Christ until he can clearly testify, “The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God;” in Him who is now revealed in my heart; who “loved me, and gave himself for me.” Faith alone is that evidence, that conviction, that demonstration of unseen things. It is by faith that we see all that is in ourselves, even the innermost stirrings of our souls. By this alone can the love of God be “shed abroad in our hearts,” which enables us to love one another as Christ loved us. By this that gracious promise is fulfilled to all the Israel of God, “I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10), bringing their souls into full agreement with His holy law, and “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” And, just as an evil tree bear good fruit, so a good tree cannot bear evil fruit. As the heart of a believer is thoroughly conformed to the rule of God’s commandments, so also is his life, and being aware of this, he can give glory to God, saying with the Apostle, “This is our rejoicing, 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.”
“We have had our conversation.” The Apostle, in the original language, expresses this with one word, but the meaning of it is very broad, taking in our whole conduct, yes, every inward as well as outward circumstance, whether relating to our soul or body. It includes every motion of our heart, of our tongue, of our hands; every part of our body. It extends to all our actions and words; to the use of all our abilities; to the use of every talent we have, with respect either to God or man.
“We have had our conversation in the world;” even in the world of the ungodly. Not only among the children of God but among the children of the devil, among those that live in wickedness. What a world this is! How thoroughly penetrated with the spirit it continually breathes. Just as our God is good, and does good, so the god of this world, and all his children, are evil, and do evil (as far as they are allowed) to all the children of God. Like their father, they are always lying in wait, or “walking about, seeking whom they may devour;” using fraud or force to destroy those who are not of the world; continually warring against our souls with weapons and devices of every kind, working to bring us back into the trap of the devil, and onto the broad road that leads to destruction.
“We have had our conversation,” in such a world, “in simplicity and godly sincerity.” First, in simplicity. This is what our Lord recommends under the name of a “single eye.” “The light of the body,” He said, “is the eye. If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” In other words, what the eye is to the body, the will is to all our words and actions. If then this eye of your soul has a single focus, all of your actions and conversation will be “full of light,” of the light of heaven, of love, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. We become simple of heart when the eye of our mind is fixed on God; when we aim toward God in all things, as our God, our portion, our strength, our happiness, our great reward, in time and eternity. This is simplicity; when a steady view, a single intention of promoting His glory, of doing and allowing His will, floods our soul, fills our heart, and is the constant spring of all our thoughts, desires, and purposes.
Second, “We have had our conversation in the world in godly sincerity.” The difference between simplicity and sincerity seems to be this: simplicity regards the will itself, while sincerity pertains to its action. And this sincerity relates not only to our words, but to all our behavior, as described above. It implies that we speak and do everything to the glory of God; that all of our actions flow in an even stream, always serving this great purpose; and that we are continually moving straight toward God, walking steadily in the paths of justice, mercy, and truth.
This sincerity the Apostle calls, “godly sincerity;” to prevent us from confusing it with the sincerity of the heathens, for they also had a kind of sincerity among them, which they claimed to honor. By calling it the sincerity of God, he also points to the Author of it, the “Father of lights from whom every good and perfect gift descends.”
“Not with fleshly wisdom.” It is as if he said, “We cannot live this way in the world by any natural understanding, or by any naturally acquired knowledge or wisdom. We cannot gain this simplicity or practice this sincerity by good sense or good breeding. It surpasses all our inherent courage and resolve, as well as all our principles of philosophy. The power of custom is not able to train us in this, nor the most developed rules of human education. Neither could I, Paul, ever attain this as long as I was in the flesh, in my natural state, and pursued it only by fleshly, natural wisdom.” Surely, if any man could, Paul might have attained this by natural wisdom, for few, if any, were more highly favored with gifts both of nature and education. Besides his natural abilities, which were not in the least inferior to those of any person then alive, he had all the benefits of learning, studying at the University of Tarsus, and afterwards trained by Gamaliel, one respected both for his knowledge and integrity by the whole Jewish nation. And he had all the possible advantages of religious education, being a Pharisee, and the son of a Pharisee, trained up in the very strictest sect. He had surpassed many by his zeal, and was, “as touching the righteousness of the law, blameless.” But he would never attain this simplicity and godly sincerity in this way. All of it was wasted effort toward that goal. In a deep, piercing sense of this, he cried out, “The things which were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ: Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7, 8).
It was impossible for him attain this except by the “excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ;” that is, “by the grace of God.” “The grace of God” is sometimes to be understood as that free love, that unmerited mercy, by which I, a sinner, through the merits of Christ, am reconciled to God. But here it means the power of God the Holy Spirit, which “worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” As soon as the grace of God in His pardoning love is made known to our souls, the grace of God in the power of His Spirit works there also. Now we can do, through God, what was impossible for man. Now we can do all things in the light and power of that love, through Christ who strengthens us. We now have “the testimony of our conscience,” which we could never have by fleshly wisdom, “that in simplicity and godly sincerity, we have our conversation in the world.”
This is the basis of a Christian’s joy. We can easily see how the one who has this testimony always rejoices. He is able to say, “I rejoice in Him, who, out of His own unmerited love, out of His own free and tender mercy, has called me into this state of salvation where, through His power, I now stand. I rejoice, because His Spirit bears witness to my spirit that I am bought with the blood of the Lamb; and that, believing in Him, I am a member of Christ, a child of God, and an heir of the kingdom of heaven. I rejoice, because the sense of God’s love for me has, by the same Spirit, produced in me love toward Him, and, for His sake, love for every man. I rejoice because He gives me ‘the mind that was in Christ.’ He gives me simplicity, a single motive to love Him with all of my heart; power to focus the loving eye of my soul on Him who ‘loved me, and gave himself for me;’ to aim toward Him alone, and at His glorious will in all I think, or speak, or do. He gives me purity, desiring nothing more than God; ‘crucifying the flesh with its affections and lusts;’ and ‘setting my affections on things above, not on things of the earth.’ He gives me holiness, a recovery of the image of God, a renewal of soul ‘after His likeness.’ And he gives me godly sincerity, directing all my words and actions to contribute to His glory. In this I also rejoice because my conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit, by the light He continuously pours in on it, that I ‘walk worthy of the vocation wherewith I am called;’ that I ‘abstain from all appearance of evil,’ running from sin as from a snake; that, as I have opportunity, I do good, in every possible way, to all men; that I follow my Lord in all my steps, and do what is acceptable in His sight. I rejoice, because I both see and feel, through the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, that all my works are worked in Him, and that it is He who works all my works in me. I rejoice in seeing, through the light of God which shines in my heart, that I have power to walk in His ways; and that by His grace, I do not turn to the right or to the left.”
This is the basis and the nature of that joy by which a mature Christian continually rejoices. And from all of this we may easily reason, first, that this is not a natural joy. It does not arise from any natural cause. It is not from some cause that gives only temporary joy, for the Christian always rejoices. It cannot be due to bodily health and strength, for it is equally strong in sickness and pain, and perhaps even stronger than before. Many Christians never experience anything equal to the joy which filled their soul when their body was almost worn out with pain or consumed with sickness. Least of all can it be attributed to outward prosperity, to the favor of men, or an abundance of worldly goods; for it is especially when their faith has been tested by all kinds of outward afflictions, that the children of God have rejoiced in Him with unspeakable joy. And men have never rejoiced like those who were treated as “the filth and offscouring of the world;” who wandered, being desperately needy; in hunger, in cold, in nakedness; who had trials, not only of “cruel mockings,” but, “moreover of bonds and imprisonments;” who, at last, “counted not their lives dear unto themselves, so they might finish their course with joy.”
Second, from the preceding considerations we may conclude that a Christian’s joy does not arise from any blindness of conscience, from not being able to discern good from evil. Quite the opposite is true, for he was a complete stranger to this joy until the eyes of his understanding were opened; he did not know it until he had spiritual senses, capable of discerning spiritual good and evil. And the eye of his soul was never so keen before. His ability to perceive even the smallest things is quite amazing to the natural man. As a speck of dust is visible in the sunbeam, every speck of sin is visible to him who is walking in the light, in the beams of the uncreated Sun,. Nor does he close the eyes of his conscience any more. His soul is always awake. He is always standing on the tower, listening for what his Lord will say concerning him.
To conclude, Christian joy is joy in obedience; joy in loving God and keeping His commandments. And yet it is not in keeping them as if we were fulfilling the terms of the covenant of works in this way; as if we were to gain pardon and acceptance with God by any works or righteousness of our own. We are already pardoned and accepted through the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. It is not as if we were, by our own obedience, to gain life, freed from the death of sin. We already have this through the grace of God. Us “hath He quickened, who were dead in sins,” and now we are “alive to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” But we rejoice in walking according to the covenant of grace, in holy love and happy obedience. We rejoice in knowing that we are “justified through His grace,” that God has freely reconciled us to himself through the blood of the Lamb,. We run, in the strength which He gives us, in the way of His commandments. We gladly “fight the good fight of faith.” We rejoice to “lay hold of eternal life” through Him who lives in our hearts by faith. This is our joy, that as our “Father worketh hitherto,” so (not by our own might or wisdom, but through the power of His Spirit, freely given in Christ Jesus) we also work the works of God. And may He work in us whatever is pleasing in His sight! To whom be the praise for ever and ever!
This sermon by John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century, edited by Stephen Gibson.