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Let’s ask for the Lord’s help. Speak, oh, Lord, we pray that you speak. Speak with clarity, speak with authority, speak with conviction. Let us see our sin, feel the weight of our sin, learn to hate our sin, and turn from our sin to Christ. Do massive heart work in us this morning that we might become more repentant, more holy, and more like Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to 2 Corinthians chapter 1, verse 12. We are taking a very slight break from moving our way through the Gospel of John. My family and I will be taking just a two- or three-day holiday next weekend. We haven’t seen much of anything of this beautiful state except for Mecklenburg County, which is beautiful, we understand, but we are going to head up to Ridge Haven, the PCA camp, for just a few days next weekend and be back next Sunday night for Andy Schuster’s last sermon and reception. But thinking then ahead that I won’t be here to preach Sunday morning, and then the following Sunday, the 29th, will be the Reformation Sunday and Mike Kreuger will be preaching, I thought this is my last chance on Sunday morning in advance of the Reformation anniversary, to say something that ties in with these great events, and this verse, as you’ll see in a moment, does so quite explicitly.
2 Corinthians chapter 1, verse 12: “For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.”
The Reformation began, as it’s usually dated, on October 31, 1517, nearly 500 years ago, when an Augustinian monk and professor, Martin Luther, nailed the 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg. Dramatic scene that we’ve heard of and perhaps seen reenacted in dramatic portrayals. It seems even more dramatic because he’s taking a giant tent spike and putting it into the door at Wittenberg, but it was fairly common. It was sort of the blog post of that day that you would go and you would put up a message there on the door and it would be an invitation to a debate, and quite a debate ensued.
Martin Luther was summoned, eventually, before the Pope at the Diet of Worms in April 1521. And just a word to the wise—if you say the “diet of worms,” people will know that you aren’t quite sure of the German pronunciation, but you’ll be on safer ground if you say the “Diet of Worms,” and if you want to sound very impressive, you can say “Worrrrms” or something and sound very official.
It was January 1521. Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther and called Luther to defend his beliefs before the Holy Roman emperor Charles V. His views had been spreading and growing and developing and all of Europe was in a controversy, and so he rode into the town of Worms in spring of 1521. We think of Luther as bombastic and supremely confident, but he did not come into town confident. On the first day he was so intimidated that his statements could hardly be understood. They were going to excommunicate Luther, from the church, from the Empire, if he would not recant his books, and there he was, standing before the Holy Roman emperor himself. But Luther regained his strength, and summoned up his courage, and the interrogation concluded with these famous words from Luther: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, for going against my conscience is neither safe nor salutary. I can do no other. Here I stand. God help me. Amen.”
They were putting before him the end of his livelihood, perhaps the end of his life, if he would not recant these views, and he stood there famously and said “here I stand, I can do no other.”
On May 26, 1521, the Emperor rendered his decision. Luther was placed under “ban and double ban,” the Edict of Worms enjoined the men and women of the empire. Here’s what it said: “Not to take the aforementioned Martin Luther into your houses, not to receive him at court, to give him neither food nor drink, not to hide him, to afford him no help, following, support, or encouragement, either clandestinely or publicly, through words or works. Where you can get him, seize him and overpower him. You should capture him and send him to us under tightest security.” That was the ban and the double ban for Martin Luther because of his defense and propagation of the Gospel. He was willing to endure this expulsion, suffer this banishment to live a life, at least for a time, as a fugitive, all for the sake of his conscience.
Now when Luther said it is neither right nor proper to go against one’s conscience, he was not thinking of it as we might think of it, as self-autonomous, self-directed, conscience, sort of just whatever I feel like I want to do, but he said his conscience was captive to the Word of God. And so he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” In one sense then, a very real sense, you could say that the history of the Reformation, and indeed the history of the Church and it would not be an exaggeration to say the history of the entire Western world, was changed because Martin Luther failed to disobey his conscience. Martin Luther said “here I stand, I can do other.” He refused to do what he knew in his head and in his heart captive to the Word of God was wrong. Praise God, then, that Luther took his conscience seriously, or you and I might not be here, worshipping in a place like this with these hymns and these doctrines and these truths, so readily and easily at our disposal, if he had not stood fast according to his conscience. And I wonder this morning, if you and I take our consciences quite so seriously.
You notice what Paul says in the verse that we just read. Paul is facing accusations. They think he’s weak, they think he’s fake. They say “you are strong in your letters, but you’re unimpressive in person.” They think he’s fickle. They question his integrity. In their opinion, the Corinthians thought Paul was unstable, double-minded. Look in your Bibles at verse 15: “Because I was sure of this,” he says, “I wanted to come to you first so that you might have a second experience of grace. I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea. Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say yes, yes and no, no at the same time?”
And then go down to verse 23: “But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth.”
Now you have to read as in a mirror to understand the objection here they have to Paul. Paul had told them “I’m going to come and I’m going to visit you.” He says here “I want to give you a second experience of grace.” But something happened in the Corinthian church, probably this business with the man who was caught in an adulterous relationship with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians, something had happened that Paul realized, “If I were to show up at Corinth now, it would not be a pleasant experience.” Not that Paul was afraid of having something unpleasant himself, but he didn’t want this experience with Corinth to be unpleasant. And so he altered his plans, and he decided to write them instead, and come at a subsequent visit, and so the Corinthians are saying, “well, that’s Paul. Paul seemed so impressive in his letters and he’s a big shot, but he won’t come here. And Paul says to us he’s going to visit and then he doesn’t. He says yes, but he means no. He says no, and he means yes.” That’s what Paul’s talking about then he said, “No, I say yes, yes, and my no is no. But my plans had to change because you’ve changed.”
That’s the backdrop to this accusation. The letter, 2 Corinthians, is in large part a response to these charges and this misunderstanding. And here in verse 12, he mentions three things in his defense. First, he mentions simplicity. He says “my motives were pure. I really did desire to see you.” This was not duplicitous, this wasn’t political maneuvering, this wasn’t earthly wisdom. He’ll say, in chapter 4, verse 2, “We’ve renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word. But by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience.” Paul says, “No, I was acting with simplicity. I wasn’t trying to trick you. I’m a straight shooter. I give you an open statement of the truth. That’s my defense.”
Here’s the second thing he says in his defense, not just simplicity, but he behaved with godly sincerity, you see that in the middle of verse 12. In other words, “I was forthright, honest, candid.” Paul didn’t tell them one thing and mean another, he was upright. He wasn’t trying to be coy or evasive. He meant everything he said to the church in Corinth. “And I had to have a change of plans.” You’d think they would understand this, but sometimes we get very, very belligerent. Parents can understand that if you say to your child, who asks “Can we go out for ice cream later today?” and you say “Maybe, I’d like to do that, ” between the “Maybe, I’d like to do that” and landing in your child’s brain, it becomes “I swear upon pain of death and dismemberment, that over valley and weather and lightning and volcanoes, I will bring you safely to ice cream.” So if by the evening you say, “Oh, you know, we didn’t get the house cleaned” or “You didn’t eat your food, we’re not going to get ice cream,” it is the worst of all possible worlds. This is sort of how the Corinthians are asking. Paul had expressed his desire, he said it was a simple plan, it was a sincere plan, but now we have a change of plans.
And then you notice, and here’s where we’re going to focus, the third expression of his defense: “Our boast is this,” he says at the beginning of verse 12, “the testimony of our conscience.” Now you think, “Uh, Paul, I thought we weren’t supposed to boast? Right? Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. Boast only in the cross.” Well, using this language of boasting may be somewhat tongue in cheek. He may be borrowing their own language in an ironic way, the so-called super apostles who were coming along and were making all their boasts of their credentials, and how much they could be charged for their teaching, and how impressive they were, and Paul says, “Look, you want me to boast of something? You want me to be like these false teachers in your midst? Do you want me to have something to show for myself? Well, I’ll tell you want I boast in. I’m going to boast in my conscience. That’s what I have in my corner. Okay? They have their impressive degrees and their learning and their money and their rhetoric and their wisdom and their credentials, I have in my corner my conscience.”
Now notice he doesn’t over-apologize just to get them off his back. He does not offer a pseudo-apology, “I’m sorry if you were offended.” Okay, that’s code for “I’m not really sorry, but get over it. I’m sorry if you were offended.” He doesn’t just sort of throw out an apology that he doesn’t really mean: “All right. Sorrrrryyy.” If your sorry extends syllables, it becomes less genuine. And he doesn’t do as some of us would be tempted to do, and that’s just heap up apologies: “I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it. Oh, I feel so bad, so bad.” Sometimes we just throw out these apologies just as a way to sort of okay, be done with it.
But Paul doesn’t do that. He’s not going to apologize for something that he didn’t feel he had an apology to make. That’s a lesson for us. When people are critical of us, make accusations, we should hear them out, we should be quick to judge ourselves, not our neighbor. We should try to understand where they’re coming from. We want to be teachable and humble. But it is okay, at times, to say, like Paul does here, “Look, I know you’re upset, Corinthians, but God is the final judge here and I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong. My conscience is clean. My boast is my conscience before you. You may want to heap on my guilt and shame, but I’m telling you I did this simply, I did this sincerely, and my conscience is clean.”
More than a dozen times, we find in the New Testament, that writers are making a positive reference to the testimony of their conscience. It’s so common you may have missed it before:
Acts 23:1: “And looking intently at the council, Paul said, ‘brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.'”
Romans 9:1: “I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying. My conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.”
2 Timothy 1:3: “I thank God whom I serve as did my ancestors with a clear conscience.”
Hebrews 13:8: “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.”
The conscience was not the final judge and jury, but according to the New Testament, it is a critical witness to bring to bear. So what, exactly, is the conscience? Here’s my definition, which I try to pull from scripture: The conscience is the faculty within human beings that assesses what is good and what is bad. The conscience is the faculty within human beings that assesses what is good and what is bad.
In Greek, the word translated “conscience” here is “suneidesis,” which can be translated “knowing with.” The Latin word is the same: Conscience; science, knowledge, cone as a prefix meaning “with.” The conscience is how we know something with, how we know something with and about ourselves. The Puritans said conscience is “God’s spy and man’s overseer.” God’s spy and man’s overseer. That faculty within us that assessed right and wrong.
Turn in your Bibles back to Romans chapter 2. You get a clear sense of how the conscience is supposed to function. Romans 2:14-15: “For when Gentiles,” verse 14, “who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” That’s the role of the conscience. The conscience is both a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney. It’s both of those things. So Paul says at times the conscience is a prosecuting attorney, it keeps you up at night, it brings up offenses, it reminds you of your guilt. It’s there to bring your soul before the bar of God’s word and his judgment and say “What about this, what about this?” It’s a prosecuting attorney. “Look at this, look at this. Did you follow the law here? Are you above reproach there?” So it accuses us.
But notice, Paul says at the end of verse 15, it all can excuse us. We don’t think of this sometimes. We think “conscience” and we think that’s just the nagging sense that I’m always failing in life. But the conscience is meant to accuse us and to excuse us. It is a prosecuting attorney, and a defense attorney. The conscience is meant to come to our defense and say, “Now I know that your mom thinks you failed there, and I know that your friends at the party would make you feel like a worthless loser because you’re not agreeing to their party principles, but I’m here to tell you,” the conscience says, “that you’re clean, that you’re right, that you are following God.” It helps you face the accusations of the devil, or your enemies, or slanderers.
So the conscience is both to produce in us a sense of guilt and, on other occasions, to produce a sense of acquittal. It’s the faculty within us which assesses right from wrong. Having a conscience is the mark of being an adult. That’s why Scripture will sometimes speak of children as those who don’t know their right hand from their left, or they don’t know good from evil. The conscience is what separates us from animals.
Remember in Pinocchio, and I’m thinking here of the old Disney cartoon version which gave me many, many nightmares. Gepetto wants his marionette to be a real boy, Pinocchio, and Jiminy Cricket is assigned to be his conscience, and he’s there as his conscience to tell him what’s right and wrong. You remember what happens with Pinocchio? He falls in with the wrong crowd, he ignores his conscience, and then his nose begins to grow. Why? Because his nose grows because lies eventually become as plain as the nose on your face, that’s the imagery. You can keep lying and lying, but eventually your lies will be become as plain as the nose on your face, and it will be obvious to everyone. And then do you remember what happens to Pinocchio? And this is what gave me the nightmares. He starts to turn into a donkey, and he starts to have ears popping out, and he tries to say something and “hee haw” and he covers his mouth and he starts to bray. What’s happening there besides scaring children? He is becoming a beast. Do you see? There is actually some, some interesting world view going on in this Pinocchio. When he has a conscience, he is a real boy, he’s a real live human being. And as he ignores the conscience, he becomes more and more an animal and a beast.
Conscience is indispensable to being a human being that lives the good life, enjoys peace with God, and lives a life pleasing to God. It’s what makes us grown up. It’s what makes us human beings instead of animals. It’s what makes us, according to God’s Word, according to God’s Word, followers of Christ when we do as Luther did and say “here I stand, it is neither right nor proper to go against my conscience, bound by the word of God.” And we don’t think much about the conscience.
I want you to notice several ways in which the conscience can go wrong. Because you may be sitting here and thinking “Okay, well that sounds good, but I know plenty of people who their Jiminy Cricket is telling them to do all sorts of stuff.” Well, the conscience can misfire. Here’s a few ways. First, we can have an evil conscience, what Scripture calls an evil conscience.
Listen to Hebrews 10:22: “Let us draw near with a true heart and full assurance of faith with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed pure with water.” The context is talking about holding fast our confession and doing good works and persevering. An evil conscience in Hebrews is one that accuses you of wrongdoing but the wrong is not dealt with. Your conscience has not been cleansed. Your conscience is clean when you haven’t done something wrong or you immediately come to God to be forgiven when you have. An evil conscience, by contrast, is when you don’t deal with the thing you know is wrong. Your conscience tells you, “You shouldn’t have done that,” and you just say “I don’t want to listen to you, conscience.”
I had, it seems like most of us had, a friend like this growing up. I had a friend, one of my best friends when I was a kid, and he was always just, he was always just about a half step into mischievous things farther along than I was. Now, I might have been that friend for somebody else, but he was that friend for me. You know, little, little boy kinds of things. He wanted to go and, you know, ring the doorbell on somebody’s house and then we run away. Oh, hahahaha. He wanted to go hang out, we’d ride our bikes to the grocery store, and we’d hang out, and we’d just see how long we could eat from all the samples that were out. We would go there on sample day and we’d just have a meal, and we’d just go around and around until finally they said, “You kids, get out of here,” and oh, we were naughty. We were naughty boys. Well, as we got older, it was sort of hmm, my parents wouldn’t let me watch MTV and he was and hmm, mmm, I don’t know. It was just always just sort of a half-step or a step or two farther than I wanted to do. And I remember oftentimes doing something and feeling like, “Oh, I just” and my conscience, “I don’t feel like I should have done that.” But I did it the next time, and rang the doorbell, and ran around, and it’s an evil conscience, telling us, “Hmm, I don’t think that’s a good idea, but let’s push that aside and let’s do it anyways.”
The problem with an evil conscience, besides the obvious problem of sin, is that the more you ignore your guilty conscience, the more in danger you are of this next conscience. So an evil conscience, and here’s the second way a conscience can misfire: A seared conscience. 1 Timothy 4:2 speaks of the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared. So if you have an evil conscience, and you ignore it and you ignore it, you push it aside, Jiminy Cricket, get out of my life, you can then over time develop a seared conscience. That is one that has become cauterized, numb, it can’t feel anymore. It’s like scar tissue. It’s like frostbite.
So here’s the thing about staying out in the cold too long: When you stay out in the cold, at first, I’m talking really, really cold, like below 30, like whoa, cold. Like you’ve got to put a sweater on cold. You go outside, and when it’s really cold and you’re in the snow and your hands at first, they sting and they hurt because it’s so cold out and it’s bitter, but over time, you’re out there long enough, your hands don’t hurt anymore, and that is the temptation to think “I’m fine,” but actually that means things are getting really bad, because you could be in danger of frostbite, because now the nerve endings that were telling your body “Why are you outside? It’s so cold,” now are going dormant and you’re no longer getting the message to your brain that says “cold cold cold.” Frostbite has set in.
And the same thing can happen with the conscience. You ignore it, ignore it, ignore it, and your conscience gets seared. You wonder why some things that you used to feel bad about now you feel perfectly fine with? Well, you’ve just become more enlightened. Mmmm, or your conscience has been numbed, seared. The first time you watched that on the TV and you said “Oh, boy, I can’t believe I’m seeing that,” and now you’ve seen it so often, you’ve seen so many movies like that and so many things like that it doesn’t even bother you anymore. It doesn’t bother you until, you know, your parents walk in or until, you know, grandma and grandpa want to say “what are you watching?” and then all of a sudden your conscience is alert again, but you’ve become numb to it. A seared conscience.
Here’s a third way a conscience can misfire: A defiled conscience. Titus 1:15: “To the pure, all things are pure. But to the defiled, and unbelieving, nothing is pure but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” So this is even one step further. This is now a complete scrambling of what is right and wrong. So the defiled conscience celebrates what is wicked an impure and denigrates what is good. So imagine you’re a college student, and you’re invited to a party, and stuff’s happening there that sometimes happens at college parties, and it’s drinking, and it’s people hooking up, and you know, at first, you feel bad and you do some of it and then you push that aside and then you get seared, and then what happens over time—you could even have a defiled conscience. And you begin to now make fun of the people who don’t do those things, and now the one who is ashamed is the person who comes and doesn’t drink, or the person who says “You know what? I’m not going to go to that party because I know what happens here.” And that happens sometimes. Then your conscience tells you, “Well, oh, boy, I’m such a rotten person” or maybe “I’m so judgmental” or “I don’t know, I’m such a loser and I can’t do this.” Your conscience, instead of convicting you of evil, is convicting you of good. Completely flip-flopped.
And this will happen in our world. In a world that says darkness is light and light is darkness. Your conscience is defiled.
There’s a fourth kind of conscience and it’s in a little different category that these other three. It’s called a weak conscience.
Turn to 1 Corinthians, chapter 8. 1 Corinthians, chapter 8, verse 7. Paul is dealing with this question of food offered to idols. They’re coming out of a context of idolatry, all sorts of sacrifices, and their pagan temples will be offered to idols, but of course, the idol does not really eat it, so the food’s there, and then it goes back into the marketplace to be should. So can you eat this food that had been sacrificed to an idol or is it somehow tainted? And Paul’s argument is, “Well, yes you can eat it because the idol is nothing.” But he understands that for some people, it’s still going to be feel dirty and unclean. So he says in verse 7, “However, not all possess this knowledge, but some through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol and their conscience being weak is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are not worse if we do not eat, no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak, for if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged if his conscience is weak to eat food offered to idols. And so by your knowledge, the weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat lest I make my brother stumble.”
What’s going on here? We sometimes, we misunderstand this language of a stumbling block. We used stumbling block as a synonym for “you do something that I don’t like.” If you do something that I don’t like, that’s a stumbling block to me. A stumbling block is when I stumble over what you’ve done and I’m not happy with it. That’s not what Paul means. A stumbling block is when your freedom in Christ leads someone else to go against their conscience. So the people here are dealing with food sacrificed to idols. Paul says, “Look, if you have knowledge, I’m telling you an idol is nothing. You’re free to eat this meat.” But some people still felt like “Because we used to be idolaters, I just don’t feel good about this, and it’s again my conscience, and Paul, I know you’re telling me that I can do it, but when I eat that meat, I go home and I feel so dirty and unclean and like I’ve sinned against Christ.”
Now Paul says what do you do as that person’s brother or sister in Christ? He says you don’t encourage them to go against their conscience. You don’t walk into the room and say, “Hey, look, it’s just an idol, it’s nothing. Come on, just eat it, just eat it.” So we might use the example of drinking alcohol. Alcohol in moderation is not a sin. Jesus turned water into wine. The Old Testament speaks of wine gladdening the heart. But if somebody felt in their conscience for any number of reasons that it was wrong for them not to do it, now what’s your role as a Christian? “Come on, don’t be such a wimp. Come on, don’t you know this is good, and water into wine. Come on, have a drink.” No, we never want to encourage someone to violate their own conscience. Even if Scripture tells us, “Well, you actually could do that,” causing your brother to stumble is encouraging him to do something that he feels like is not right. So even if you have, you know, a movie that you feel like you can watch, don’t you ever tell your friend “Come on, it’s not so bad,” and she’s feeling like “I don’t know, I just don’t feel like we should watch this.”
Now why is that such a problem? Paul says you can destroy your brother or sister by doing that. Why? Because you are training to ignore their God-given conscience. Paul says even if they can eat meat sacrificed to idols, when you tell them and you parade it on and they’re nervous about it and you’re munching on your hamburger, “mmm mmm, want a bite? Come on.” He says you’re teaching them “Don’t listen to your conscience, ignore your conscience, suppress your conscience.” And so what began as an innocent bit of meat from an idol leads into a patterns of godlessness whereby the Christian no longer pays attention to his conscience. That’s a weak conscience. We accuse ourselves of things that are not inherently blameworthy, and this is a way the conscience misfires, too. You may be overly scrupulous. You may think, “Well, I told her that I said that 10 times, but later I got home and I counted and I think it was only 9.” Or maybe you have a hard time in enjoying the blessing of sex within marriage, because it feels like that’s not conscience, or guilty having a glass of wine, or all you do is ruminate on past failures and mistakes. Or you have a vague, nagging sense of guilt all the time and you don’t know why. Perhaps you’re ignorant of some biblical truth like “meat is okay” or perhaps brought up that certain things are wrong, card playing is wrong, all movies are wrong, and it’s hard to get pat those taboos.
Or perhaps people hold up as a good example someone to be a rule for everyone else. Have you even been in groups like this? And someone mentions, and they don’t mean to do it, but they mention rather triumphantly now they’ve given up TV and they’re never going to watch TV again, or someone says how they’re only going to drink fair trade coffee and sort of the obligation is if you were really spiritual, you would follow this example. And so your conscience is weak. Some of us are by nature people pleasers. Constantly worried about what others are thinking.
Our consciences need to be shaped and formed by the Word of God. Otherwise they will be weak, defiled, seared, evil. The conscience can misfire.
But here’ the goal: The goal is good conscience, or what Scripture sometimes calls a clean conscience. Listen to how important the clean conscience is for the Christian.
Acts 24:16: “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.”
1 Timothy 1:5: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
1 Timothy 3:9: “Deacons must hold to the ministry of the faith, with a clear conscience.
1 Peter 3:16: “Have a good conscience so that when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviors in Christ may be put to shame.”
That’s the goal: To have a clean, a good, conscience. So what do we do as a result?
Let me give you two points of application in closing.
First, turn from sin when your conscience tells you that what you are about to do or what you are doing is wrong. Turn from sin when your conscience tells you what you are about to do or what you are doing is wrong. I feel like many Christians are not taught much about the conscience, and so we don’t do much with the conscience, but God has given us the conscience to direct us and to help us, and you should not ignore your conscience. There may be things that your conscience has been telling you in this past week about the movies you watch, the songs you listen to, the jokes you laugh at. Maybe your conscience has been telling you that the relationship you’re in is not right. You’re a believer; he’s not. Or the things that you’re doing in your relationship are not right. Maybe your conscience has been accusing you that the way you’re talking about your coworker is really gossip. Or no matter how many times you say, well, “let’s pray for her” at your small group that it really is gossip or slanderous conversation. Or maybe our conscience has been accusing you about the way you work, or the nature of your work, or the things you take at work, or perhaps, perhaps there is a sin in your life and it has been kept hidden and buried for a long time, and you were hoping that nobody would now about it, but God knows about it and he is working by his spirit in your conscience. And you’re living a duplicitous life, and maybe only you and the Lord know, but you’re here and you know that what you seem to be to everyone around you is not who you really are, or at least not who you have been. Listen to your conscience. That is a gift from God. Listen to the spirit speaking to your conscience.
The Puritans used to pray that after the sermon the Spirit would preach the sermon to the hearers for the rest of the week. I’m often praying that the Holy Spirit would preach a better sermon than the one I’m capable of giving. Preaching to your conscience, turn from sin.
Here’s the second point: Turn to Christ when your conscience tells you what you’ve already done was wrong. So the first point was you’re about to or you’re in the midst of what your conscience tells you is wrong, turn from it, run from it. Second point: Your conscience is telling you what you have done is wrong, now run to Christ.
1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sin he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Hebrews 9:9: “The gifts and sacrifices in the Old Testament could not perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but the sacrifice of Christ can.”
Hebrews 10:22: “Through the blood of Jesus Christ our hearts can be sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. Our bodies washed with pure water.”
So run to Christ. You don’t think there’s enough blood at the cross to atone for your sin? You think Christ has run out of mercy for your past? You think you’ve exhausted God’s infinite supply of grace? You think that the grace is not amazing enough to save a wretch like you? Run to Christ.
We are, I fear, both too hard and too easy on ourselves. On the one hand, some of us are in danger of morbid introspection. Have you ever tried to peel back the layers of onion of your heart? Why are you doing what you’re doing, and how do I know that I really was doing that from pure motives? And you just keep pulling back, just this introspection until you’re just a mess of constant guilt and shame. I remember a pastoral intern asking me one time, “Pastor Kevin, how do you know when you’re preaching and you’re not preaching so that people will just look at you and like you?” and I said, “I’ll let you know when I figure that out.” Because there’s always some layer of “Okay, now, I think I’m doing that, but why am I really doing it? And maybe I’m deceived in how I’m really doing it,” and some of us we just get over and over, and if we’re not careful, even the beloved Puritans can have that bad effect on us.
J.I. Packer says “morbidity of introspection, the gloomy self-absorption of the man who can never look away from himself, is bad puritanism; the puritans themselves condemned it repeatedly.”
So some of us are too hard on ourselves, we’re constantly just looking and we don’t know the freedom of a clean conscience.
And then there’s the other danger, the danger of ignoring or suppressing the conscience. Some of us here are used to living with feelings of guilt and a low-level sense of spiritual failure. You need to listen to your conscience, instruct your conscience. You need to run to Christ, that you can have a clean conscience. Listen, brothers and sisters, and this will be revolutionary to some of you. The regular state of the Christian should be a clean conscience. You are not meant to go through your days and weeks with a nagging sense that you are a miserable failure. That’s not good Calvinism. That’s not good Reformed theology. And it’s not what God means for us.
Let me just in closing show you from 1 Corinthians, chapter 4, one of the most… When it finally hit me a few years ago, I just thought, “where has this verse been all my life?”
1 Corinthians 4:4, why don’t you go up to verse 3. Okay? People are accusing Paul. Here’s what he says, 1 Corinthians 4:3: “But with me, it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself. But I am not thereby acquitted; it is the Lord who judges me.” That verse 4 is astounding. Paul says “I know you’ve got a problem with me, but I’m not going through my life feeling like a constant failure. I’m not aware of anything against myself.” And you say, “Well, that’s Paul, he was perfect.” No, Paul said he was the chief of sinners. Paul said I do what I don’t want to do. So how could he say he is not aware of anything against himself? Because he ran quickly to Christ when he was convicted of sin.
Now Paul adds at the end of verse 4, “Now, I could be wrong. It’s finally the Lord who is going to judge me or acquit me,” but the normal experience for the Christian should be one of a clean conscience, that you put your head on your pillow at night knowing that you are justified and saved and your heavenly father is pleased with you. Paul is not claiming to be infallible in his self-examination, but he says, “Christian, you ought to be walking in consistent obedience, and so closely with the Spirit and the Word that when you are convicted of sin, you run to Christ, you say Father, forgive me, and he forgives you for the sake of Christ, you receive that, your fellowship is restored, and you live the life of a clean conscience.”
You’re not meant to feel every day “I’m a terrible mother,” every day “I’m just not reading my Bible enough.” Look, if God is convicting you of real sin, then change and repent and come to him. But if not, he means for us to have this remarkable experience that Paul has.
Richard Sibbes, the Puritan, said “Conscience is either the greatest friend or the greatest enemy in the world.” And that’s my question for us. How is your conscience? Is it your enemy this morning? Or is it your friend? Turn from self. Turn from sin. Turn to Christ. Turn to Christ-likeness. Be clean. And boast in your conscience.
Let’s pray. Oh, Lord, some of us have been living too many of our days with a weak conscience, and we have been made to think that somehow it’s the mark of spiritual maturity to feel miserable all the time. Help us, Lord. We want to know this freedom that Paul felt. And then there are others, Lord, surely others in this room who have been far too adept at suppressing the conscience, and we have been ignoring what you have been trying to tell us, and we have become too comfortable with the world. Have mercy, oh, Lord. Prick our conscience. Convict us. May we no longer kick against the goads, but let us run to the cross and find there forgiveness, freedom, healing, cleansing, that only Jesus can bring. In his name we pray. Amen.