I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:16, NIV)
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). What’s new in the new creation? Becoming a Christian didn’t change the color of my eyes or the sound of my accent. Becoming a Christian does not change your temperament. Shy sinners become shy Christians. Strong-willed sinners become strong-willed Christians. So what changes? And what does not change?
Some years ago, we did a series called “Battles from the Boardroom of the Soul,” in which we pictured your inner life like a boardroom where the great decisions of your life are hammered out. Sitting round the table are your mind, heart, will, conscience, memory, and imagination.
When God regenerates a sinner, he touches every part of his or her inner life. Becoming a new creation means that your mind, heart, will, conscience, memory, and imagination work in a different way.
What is conscience?
I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:16)
Conscience gives you the ability to evaluate your own thoughts and desires. It gives you that capacity to discern what is right and wrong, and to distinguish between what is good and what is best. Without conscience you would be like an animal, acting only on the basis of instinct. Conscience is a wonderful gift from God. It is to be trained, respected, and protected throughout your life.
The English word “conscience” joins “con” (meaning with) and “science” (meaning knowledge). Conscience is the ability to act with knowledge. The way your conscience functions depends on the knowledge that you are working with.
To help us get a handle on conscience and how it functions, I want you to think about an alarm clock. A good alarm clock does two things: It stays quiet when you should be asleep, and it makes a noise when you need to wake up!
That’s how your conscience is supposed to work. Paul says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col. 3:15). When you are on the right path, a good conscience will be at peace. But when you are tempted towards the wrong path, a good conscience will sound the alarm.
The problem with conscience is that, like every other part of your soul, it has been disordered by sin. Rather like an alarm clock, conscience can malfunction in two ways: It can make a noise when it should be silent, or it can be silent when it should be making a noise.
At some time in your life, you will have overslept, turned up late for work, or missed some morning meeting; and with your head hanging, you say, “I’m so sorry I’m late—my alarm didn’t go off!”
My Alarm Didn’t Go Off!
The corrupt conscience
To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. (Titus 1:15)
Picture a teenage boy out with a group of friends. He has never taken drugs before, but his friends have encouraged him to try them.
He knows that drugs are addictive and destructive, and his conscience tells him that taking them is wrong. But there are other pressures. He wants his friends to like him. He is curious. He thinks it can’t hurt this once. So he over-rides his conscience.
In that moment, the boy’s pulse races, his heart pounds, and his hands become sweaty. He experiences a rush of adrenalin, produced by the excitement of over-ruling his conscience.
What he doesn’t see is that in over-ruling his conscience, he diminishes its power. His conscience is weakened. It is less sensitive, and therefore less effective. Next time, the decision to take the drug will be much easier.
Roll the story forward. If that boy repeats his choice and takes the drug again, after a while it will become a pattern in his life. Over time the boy’s conscience changes.
Since it is being over-ruled repeatedly, his conscience stops objecting. The boy’s conscience conforms to the new reality and begins to approve of the drug. After a while he will feel that there is nothing wrong with what he is doing. His “re-educated” conscience now agrees with his decision. The boy’s conscience has been corrupted.
The Bible speaks about this: “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted” (Titus 1:15). Acting against your conscience will bring a change in your inner life. It will change how your conscience functions. A corrupt conscience approves the wrong things.
It’s easy to see how this pattern works in the case of a teenager using drugs. The important point to grasp is that the conscience is corrupted whenever a person acts against it over time. When a person’s conscience is corrupted over time, it can become seared.
The seared conscience
Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. (1 Tim. 4:2)
In the ancient world, doctors would use a hot iron to cauterize a wound. It hardly bears thinking about what this must have been like before anesthetic, but if you had a wound and the bleeding could not be stopped, your best hope was the hot iron pressed on your flesh.
Once you recovered from the pain, you would discover that the bleeding had stopped, but you would also find that you had lost all feeling in the area that had been seared. The hot iron killed off the nerves so that you no longer had feeling where the iron had been applied.
Paul says, “That’s how it is with some people’s conscience.” They have been “seared as with a hot iron” (Eph. 4:19). Their conscience has lost all sensitivity. When that happens, a person can lie, cheat, or steal without their conscience raising any objection. They feel no guilt because their conscience is seared.
Suicide bombers go to their deaths with a clear conscience, believing that what they do will lead to an eternal reward. Jesus spoke about this malfunction of conscience: “A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” (John 16:2).
As he was on the road to Damascus, that’s exactly what Saul of Tarsus thought. Do you think he was worried about doing something wrong? The seared conscience calls evil “good” and good “evil” (Isa. 5:20).
As a man’s deeds grow more evil, his capacity for denial will grow. The more a person engages in sin, the easier it gets to live with it, and those who continue longest in patterns of sin are least sensitive to the sinfulness of their behavior.
People say, “We must all follow our own conscience.” That’s reasonable, and it is right. But remember, if your conscience is calibrated by the wrong values, it will approve the wrong things. If the conscience is seared, it will not be troubled, even by great evil.
Conscience is never the ultimate judge of right and wrong. That’s why Paul says, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:4). Ultimately, all of us must stand, not before the bar of our own conscience, but before the judgment seat of Christ.
There’s a second way in which the conscience can malfunction, and that is by fixing on the wrong things. To use the alarm clock analogy, it goes off at the wrong time. The Bible calls this a “weak” conscience. This is also sometimes called an “oversensitive” conscience.
This is such an important subject that we are going to come back to it next week. If you want to read ahead look at 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14.
How To Get and Keep a Good Conscience
I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:16)
How do you do that? If a conscience has become corrupt, so that it is no longer functioning correctly, how can it become pure? If a conscience has become seared, it has become insensitive, like thick skin. How can it be made sensitive again?
A good conscience is powered by the Spirit: If I take the batteries out of my alarm clock, it will not work. A good conscience is also set by the Word and cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ.
A good conscience is powered by the Holy Spirit
When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment. (John 16:8)
Jesus is speaking about the Holy Spirit. When he comes, when he begins working in your life, what you can expect is that he awakens your conscience.
“He convicts the world of guilt.” We usually think of guilt as a bad thing, but here Jesus Christ is saying that it is good to recognize your true guilt. It is the first sign of hope.
A corrupt conscience doesn’t recognize sin. A seared conscience doesn’t feel guilt. The sinner’s natural condition is to think that he is bound for heaven, when in fact he is bound for hell. When the Holy Spirit comes, he wakens you up to reality. Jesus describes that reality in three ways—sin, righteousness, and judgment:
1. The Holy Spirit convicts of guilt in regard to sin
The first work of the Holy Spirit is deeply disturbing—he activates your conscience. He brings you to a place where you see your own sin.
2. The Holy Spirit convicts of guilt in regard to righteousness
That’s what happened to Paul. He was a moral man who was confident in his own righteousness. But when he encountered the glory of Christ on the Damascus road, he knew he was a sinner, and he felt the weight of his sins in a way he had never experienced before.
You don’t know what righteousness is until you know Jesus. When you get to know him, you see that his righteousness is so far beyond what you have at your best that you haven’t a hope of getting near him.
3. The Holy Spirit convicts of guilt in regard to judgment
There will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:16)
The Holy Spirit convinces of sin and righteousness and judgment. A true Christian wants more of this, not less, because that is what authentic godliness is looking for. It wants to know more of its own sin and more of God’s righteousness, so that it might embrace God’s mercy even more.
Lord, shine Your light into the dark corners of my life:
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)
That was written by a man walking with God.
A good conscience is set by the Word of God
I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:11)
If the alarm clock is to function, it has to be powered, but it also has to be set. A good conscience is powered by the Spirit and set by the Word. Hiding God’s Word in your heart will train your conscience to sound the alarm and keep you from sin.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Bible. If you have never read it right through, I encourage you to do that. There are 22 sections. You could read one each day for the rest of the month. It’s all about one thing: It’s all about what the Word of God can do in your life when you receive it by faith.
Are you hiding God’s word in your heart? Or is it just flitting across your brain? David says, “I have hidden your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (v11). When you take the Word into your mind and heart, it trains your conscience. Your conscience is the counselor of your inner life. This counselor, like every counselor, needs to be trained.
A godly life begins with the Word of God. Here’s how it works: You hide God’s Word in your heart; that Word shapes and strengthens your conscience. And a good conscience is your best defense against sin and temptation. “I have hidden your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (v11). Are you doing that?
A good conscience is cleansed by the blood of Christ
The problem with sacrifices in the Old Testament is that they “were not able to clear the conscience of the worshipper” (Heb. 9:9). Sacrifices in the Old Testament pointed to something far greater. They pointed to the work of Jesus Christ, but in and of themselves, they could not cleanse the conscience:
When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. (Heb. 9:11-13)
How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:14)
This is an amazing promise! Christ cleansing our consciences from acts that lead to death! How does he do it? By the blood of Christ, because on the cross he offered himself unblemished to God! He offered himself—his unblemished, perfect life—as a sacrifice to God for us on account of our sins. Therefore, he alone is able to cleanse our consciences through his blood.
Through the blood of Jesus Christ there is washing, cleansing, forgiving, restoring, renewing for you. The blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin. You can be washed today. You can be cleansed.
Your conscience may have been corrupted, even seared. Christ can make it good. That’s what redemption is all about. It is powered by the Spirit, set by the Word, and cleansed by the blood.
Paul says, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16). Is that what you are doing?