Jim Wilson is the retired director of Community Christian Ministries in Moscow, Idaho. He will be posting regularly, so check back in soon!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Clean, Clear Conscience (part 1)

Each Christian should be ruled by a conscience that is clean, clear, and consistent with Scriptural teaching. Sadly, though, many Christians dull their consciences by not confessing sin—even to the point where the conscience becomes warped or seared.

We begin our new life in Christ by having our conscience cleansed from guilt. It is very clear in Hebrews 9:14 and 10:22 that the blood of Jesus Christ is the means of this cleansing. Once our conscience is clean, Scripture then describes it as good or clear.

The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1 Timothy 1:5 NIV)

...holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. (1 Timothy 1:19 NIV)

They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. (1 Timothy 3:9 NIV)

The relationship between a good, clear conscience and a sincere faith is very important. But when the deep truths of the faith are held in a dogmatic, argumentative manner, the conscience may not be clear. In addition, when faith is abandoned altogether, the conscience becomes not only unclear but seared.

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:1-3 NIV)

As Paul writes to Timothy in the above quote, we, too, can see that an abandoned faith and a seared conscience go together. This results in legalism (i.e., commanded abstinence) because the legalists’ consciences are dulled to the point of being warped.

It is not enough to have a clear conscience before God alone, however. Several different times Paul spoke plainly of his having lived with a good conscience before God. The first time he said it, he was hit in the mouth (Acts 23:1). The second time, before Felix, he added a qualification:

So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:16 NIV)

This second standard, before man, is important. When Paul writes to the church at Corinth about the way he conducts himself with the presentation of the gospel, he says,

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:2 NIV)

God is the author of every man’s conscience. Even when man has deadened and distorted his own conscience, he is still able to appreciate the truth set forth plainly. This is the reason that an unbelieving man may criticize believers who play loose with ethics, are greedy, stretch the truth and sexually misbehave. Whether or not he follows God’s laws himself, he recognizes that these truths ought to be evident in the lives of Christians. For this reason, Paul writes of his manner in presenting the gospel in 1 Thessalonians 2:3-6:

For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed¾God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else. (NIV)

Notice that he did not seek to please men, but he did commend himself to their consciences. Without seeking praise from men, he is seeking to avoid legitimate criticism.

We see Paul living this out by the way he handles the money he collected at Corinth to distribute to the poor believers in Jerusalem.

We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men. (2 Corinthians 8:20-21 NIV)

In 1 Corinthians 8 and again in Romans 14 we find that a conscience geared strictly to a knowledge of absolute right and wrong still does not please God. Not only must we keep a clear conscience before Him and unbelieving man, but our actions should also be determined by the Christian whose conscience isn’t working correctly. We can see this principle again in1 Corinthians 10:25-29:

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake¾the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? (NIV)

This Scriptural requirement is alien to the one who insists on his rights or insists on walking in what he calls liberty or freedom. He may be walking in freedom, but he is not being considerate of or loving toward his fellow Christians. Our love for each other should be far more important than our expression of personal freedom.

If this latter requirement is foreign to your way of thinking, it might be because your conscience is not clean, good, and clear. In order to bring it back to normal working order, ask God to reveal to you compromises you have made.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23, 24 NIV)

By asking God to search the heart, the believer is protected from introspection, which leads to self-condemnation. He also is protected against a complacent refusal to search, which may result in self-justification.

When you are shown sin from the Scriptures or from the Holy Spirit, immediately confess it and forsake it. Continue to do this until your conscience is very sensitive. From then on, you will feel guilt whenever you do sin. This is good because it encourages confessing and forsaking sin as it arises, and it helps keep the conscience what it ought to be.

(An excerpt from On Being a Christian by Jim Wilson)

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