Chapter 3: Training Conscience
Just as we can handle our physical faculties so as to bring them into a good, healthy state, so we can by the grace of God influence our consciences for their good. The Apostle Paul makes frequent reference to the subject of conscience. In Acts 23:1 in his defence he says that he had lived in all good conscience before God until this day. This provoked a sharp reaction because it was a most remarkable and penetrating statement.
Even more striking is his statement in the following chapter, Acts 24:16, when again he tells his accusers, Herein do I exercise myself to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men. His conscience was constantly exercised and in a healthy condition. Do we not know some whose judgment means very little to us because of the way in which their conscience operates, and others for whose judgment we have great respect, for we know how careful they are to please God? How then can we have a healthy conscience?
A good conscience is one that is obeyed and consequently does not condemn us. It is the opposite to an evil conscience, which accuses us. In Acts 26:9 Paul said to Agrippa, I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. He was sincere, his conscience did not condemn him, but he was nevertheless seriously mistaken. His conscience had been wrongly instructed, so that it told him to persecute Christians. It is easy to see why he believed this, when we remember his background and the influences brought to bear upon him. We must be honest with ourselves. Our consciences may not condemn us, when perhaps they should! We may have good consciences and feel as a result that we are on the right path and serving God acceptably in every respect. But we should stand back from ourselves, and consider carefully the influences brought to bear upon us, our background, state of body and mind, and spiritual upbringing. Furthermore we should also consider carefully the kind of spiritual instruction we receive.
We may smile as we look back at periods of church history when Christians held some very quaint views! We may also smile inwardly as we think of fellow believers who have sensitivities which we can see are due to obvious factors. It is not enough for us to have a good conscience. Christians differ enormously on a whole range of matters, very largely because of influences brought to bear upon them. We may notice the hold tradition has on others but have never realised how subject we are to this ourselves! We need a healthy conscience that has been enlightened by constant application of the Word of God.
Paul not only testified to having a good conscience but to exercising it always. Just as exercise is essential to a healthy body so it is to the conscience. For lack of exercise our consciences will most certainly be out of condition, and liable to pick up some virus. One of the symptoms of the spiritual malaise in these days among Evangelicals is the lack of stress upon practical godliness and ethics. We hear much about the gifts of the Spirit, but little about the fruit of the Spirit.
It can be safely said that the majority of Evangelical consciences are lazy. It requires effort to exercise the conscience, and this is unpleasant to the flesh. There are many who will cheerfully go ahead with activities on the basis that they see nothing wrong in them, and that their conscience does not condemn them, as though this were adequate reasoning. It would hardly suit the case of a driver of a car involved in an accident to say he did not see anything coming. The question could be asked, how carefully did you look? The person who sees nothing wrong in conduct which is condemned in Scripture is simply informing us that he is in a very bad spiritual condition, though he may choose to justify his conduct on the basis of his insensitivity.
We are surrounded to so called common-sense Christians who have reacted away from the idea of exercising the conscience. Such people may think of themselves as being very spiritual, indeed, very balanced, and very careful to avoid extremes. But they are simply applying human reasoning to situations which are cases for conscience. They have never tried to work out anything or battle through principles. they have simply followed other men who seem to be spiritually-minded, but have saved themselves the trouble of working out for themselves what God requires of them. They appear on the surface to be sound enough in their views but they lack convictions on almost everything.
They have arrived at similar conclusions as truly spiritual men, but by a different route. Because of this they are liable to jettison their standards when under pressure.
We must ask ourselves, therefore, why we believe what we do and act as we do. Have we worked things out for ourselves? Have we faced up to the issues? Or have we just accepted a ready-made Christian morality? The Church of Rome eliminates the tediousness of the exercise of conscience, and the Evangelical preacher can do the very same thing! He can assert on his own authority, that Christians should or should not do this ad that without demonstrating from the Scriptures what God requires, and opening up Biblical principles for the people of God to apply for themselves.
The common-sense Christian is not greatly concerned to please God but rather to avoid on the one hand an accusing conscience, and on the other a way of life that makes him appear peculiar and awkward.
Paul gave his conscience work to do. He constantly exercised it. He was not content with ignoring it until it shouted at him, but aware that it needed information, guidance and light. So he instructed it. We are exhorted to do this ourselves. In Hebrews 10:22 we are told to draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience. Conscience, for example must be told plainly that the blood of Christ has satisfied the justice of God, and that we have every right to come in full assurance to God. In Johns first epistle we are given many outward proofs of the evidences of saving grace, and we are told to reason with ourselves on the basis of these (1 John 3:19), Hereby we know that we are of the truth and shall assure our hearts before Him (The word assure means persuade).
In this case we instruct our consciences on the basis of the objective tests of the epistle that we are Christians or otherwise. We should not regard assurance as something over which we have no control, and with regard to which we have no responsibility. We should use the Word of God either to strengthen our assurance or to remove it.
As regards our conduct, we must examine it carefully in order to have a joyful certainty that we are doing Gods will. This comes out in Romans 14:22, Happy is he that condemneth not himself in the thing which he alloweth. We should not allow doubts to linger and rob us of our joy. When we exercise our conscience and satisfy it we can have the happiness Paul speaks of.
In 11 Tim. 1:3 Paul speaks of a pure conscience. He had not only obeyed his conscience so that it did not condemn him, but had refined it and purified it. It was well instructed and exercised, and therefore in a healthy condition. In Romans 9:1 Paul refers to the Holy Spirit operating through his conscience, giving testimony to the truth of his statement. This added great weight to his remarks. The influence of a man who has a pure conscience is tremendous.
Just as a healthy man can do more than one who is unfit, so the usefulness of a Christian whose conscience is in good condition is all the greater. Furthermore, Paul insisted in 1 Tim. 3:9 that a deacon must not only believe the truth, but apply it to his own life, holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience. The an who has an intellectual knowledge alone may hold the mystery of the faith, but does not do it in a pure conscience.
Paul urges Timothy (1 Tim. 1:19) to hold faith and a good conscience; both are essential. The child of God must have the doctrine, and he must apply it to himself. Our fathers in the faith in the 17th and 18th Centuries and later have been condemned for giving their consciences too much work to do in terms of self-examination. Whether this is true or not it can certainly be said that we have not given our consciences enough to do! We are used to having everything done for us in these days. The hard work has been taken out of life and, for many, out of the Christian life also.
It is essential that we realise the absolute dependence of our consciences on the Holy Scripture as our infallible guide. This brings home to us the need for the careful interpretation of the Word and the application to the hearers. One of the great weaknesses of our day is that preachers have failed to interpret the Word of God carefully. Instead of the apostolic method of reasoning from the Word in order to convince the hearers that the doctrine was Scriptural, preachers have bee content to assert the truths on their own authority. As a result the hearer accepts what he is told because of his confidence in the preacher rather than his belief in the Scriptures.
Conscience, therefore has not been taught by the Scriptures. This is so widespread that few are awake to its deadly influence. It is hard work for the preacher to prove to his hearers that what he is saying is Biblical, but he must do this if his hearers are to take seriously the fact that the Scriptures alone are their infallible guide.
There is also a widespread failure to apply doctrine and work our Scriptural principles for practical godliness. It is easy to take things for granted. We may think so highly of the preacher that we do not question whether what he is saying is Scriptural. The preacher takes it for granted that his hearers know precisely how the message is to be applied.
The Apostle Paul took nothing for granted. Writing to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:5), he points out that, the end of the commandment is love out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience and faith unfeigned. The Word of God is the instrument God has given us to lead us not only to a grasp of the truth, but to an obedience and fruitfulness that is evident. Our consciences should testify that we are obeying the truth because the fruit of the Spirit is present.
A healthy Christian is one who not only has a clear grasp of the truth, but whose conscience applies it constantly to himself. None of us likes to think that we frequently sin against God, though we all know that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. When did your conscience last point out to you sin in particular? When did you last give it a chance?
When did you last apply the Scriptures that you read or heard to your own case, and challenge yourself in its application? Do you wait for your conscience to shout at you, or for others to condemn you? Or do you see it as a precious faculty that, rightly used, can deliver you from being ashamed at His coming?