God, the Only Lord of Conscience
Twenty years ago this past Thursday Kim and I and the kids arrived in Cambodia. Thank you to Hampton Park for entrusting this ministry to us and for faithfully sending us monthly support without a single missed month for 20 years. Thank you for your tens of thousands of prayers for us. Thank you for the sermons that gave us strength and encouragement to not quit. Twenty years ago we could not have imagined what God was going to do among the tribes of NE Cambodia. The people living in the land of the shadow of death, on them a light dawned. The light of the gospel. Thank you for holding the ropes.
I received a priceless gift from God but I didn’t take care of it; I neglected it. A few years ago I began to realize my failure and starting nurturing this priceless gift. The gift is called conscience. I don’t want you to be like me and neglect caring for and nurturing your conscience, and so I preach this morning on God, the Only Lord of Conscience.
There are some subjects in Christianity that are so fertile, so abundantly promising and practical on so many different levels that when you study them you reap a harvest way beyond expectations. It’s like “Buy One Get Ten Free.”
Conscience is one of those subjects. Yet, there is hardly a topic in the Christian church more neglected.
How many of us would ever even think to mention our clean conscience in a testimony? Paul did, repeatedly.
How many of us in mentoring a young Christian would emphasize the necessity of keeping a clean conscience? How many of your mentors have spent time with you talking about conscience?
How many of us knew that getting our conscience under control, that is, under the lordship of Christ, was one of the keys to success in church life and missions?
I was a missionary, yet I didn’t realize that Paul forged an unbreakable link between getting our conscience under the lordship of Christ, and making God famous around the world. That’s tonight’s message.
WHAT IS CONSCIENCE?
Sometimes you read about “human conscience,” as if there’s any other kind. Only humans have conscience. To have a conscience is to be human. Dogs don’t have consciences. It often seems like they do. You’ve seen those pictures on the internet of guilty looking dogs with a sign around their neck: I puked on the bed. Here’s my simpering dog, Lucy, whose tail is fixed permanently between her legs; we think she was abused as a puppy. She looks constantly guilty. But in spite of all appearances, Lucy doesn’t have a conscience, because she doesn’t have the capacity for moral judgment. My cats don’t have a conscience either, but I didn’t need to tell you that. Only humans have this glorious capacity.
1. CONSCIENCE IS A CAPACITY
First of all, conscience is a human capacity. Other human capacities are speech and reason. Not every individual human will achieve speech and reason and conscience—an infant dies before he can communicate, for example. Or these capacities can be lost—someone with dementia can no longer make moral judgments necessary for conscience. But every human has the capacity for conscience.
2. CONSCIENCE IS AN ASPECT OF GOD’S IMAGE
It shouldn’t surprise you that you have a conscience. God is a moral God; you are made in his image; so you must be a moral creature who makes moral judgments. And what is conscience but the shining of the spotlight of your moral judgment back on your own self, your own thoughts, your own actions. It would surprise you if you didn’t judge yourself.
3. CONSCIENCE SEEMS INDEPENDENT
When you think about it, it’s surprising that you would even care about the verdict of your own conscience. Yet you do care—intensely. Many have taken their own lives because of a secret guilt—a sin that no one else knew about except that impossible-to-suppress voice within. Others have gone mad by the tell-tale heartbeat of a conscience that wouldn’t be quiet.
Why should you even care what your conscience says about you? If you heard that a judge was accused of a crime and was going to hear his own case you’d laugh. First he calls the court into session and reads the charges. Then he jumps down into the witness stand to defend himself, then jumps back up to the bench to pronounce himself “not guilty.” What a joke! And yet you judge yourself all the time, and it doesn’t feel like a joke. It’s deadly serious. Why?
The why is a great mystery. No one knows exactly why the conscience feels so much like a legitimate, unbiased third party. But the Puritans, who talked more about conscience than anyone else in church history, explained it by connecting some verses in Romans 1 to some in Romans 2.
The first universal truth about mankind: Romans 1:19-20 “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
The second universal truth about mankind: Romans 2:14-16 “For when Gentiles, 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—on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
So we all have this sense that, though what’s going on in our conscience is a secret—nevertheless, an all-powerful God is in on the secret, and will some day judge those secrets at his great and terrifying tribunal. The Puritans didn’t say that people actually reasoned it out like a syllogism, but that every human nevertheless senses very strongly that he is accountable to God—and that’s what makes the voice of conscience seem like a independent judge instead of a kangaroo court.
4. CONSCIENCE IS AN ON/OFF SWITCH, NOT A DIMMER
Conscience is all about right or wrong, black or white. It doesn’t do gray scale. It doesn’t nuance. It doesn’t say, “It’s complicated.” Conscience leads your thoughts to either “accuse or excuse” (Romans 2:15). Because conscience always wants to make pronouncements of right and wrong, it is of utmost importance that you make sure your conscience standards contain only matters of real right and wrong, as you understand the scripture, not matters of mere opinion. Otherwise matters of mere opinion will receive a guilty verdict.
5. MYOC. (Mind Your Own Conscience) YOUR CONSCIENCE IS FOR YOU AND YOU ONLY
You cannot, must not, force your conscience standards on other people. The scripture forbids this kind of binding of the conscience of others. The next two principles will help us understand why.
6. NO TWO PEOPLE HAVE EXACTLY THE SAME CONSCIENCE
Otherwise we wouldn’t need Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. (slide - Christian Red and Blue)
These red and blue triangles represent Mr. Red’s and Mr. Blue’s consciences. Notice there’s a lot of overlap where they would agree completely—even more than this graphic would indicate. I’ve used the letters A-K to stand for various conscience standards in the consciences of the two. For example, in the purple area of overlap, both Mr. Red and Mr. Blue would agree that they should not do C, D, and E.
Notice that Mr. Red’s conscience won’t let him do A and B. Mr. Blue’s conscience won’t let him do F,G,H,I,J,K. Both of them agree that C, D, and E are prohibited. If you’re Mr. Red, you’ll be shocked that Mr. Blue is oblivious to restriction B. He says, “I can’t believe that Mr. Blue doesn’t buy only fair-trade coffee! Doesn’t he care about downtrodden laborers in South America?!” Mr. Red also sees Mr. Blue assiduously avoiding F,G,H,I,J,K, and he rolls his eyes. “Doesn’t he know that those scruples aren’t even in the Bible!?” Mr. Blue, on the other hand, notices immediately Mr. Red’s complete disregard of laws F,G,H,I,J,K, and mutters, “And he calls himself a Christian.” These differences in conscience cause a significant percentage of problems in any church—another reason to understand conscience.
In reality, the consciences of two believers in a church would overlap much more than this diagram shows, I’m guessing 95%. (By the way, for those listening to a download of this, if you want to see the graphics, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a link.)
7. NO ONE’S CONSCIENCE MATCHES PERFECTLY WITH GOD’S WILL--not on this side of eternity!
When we superimpose this green triangle (which stands for God’s will) on top of Mr. Red’s and Mr. Blue’s consciences, we see immediately that no human being, except the Lord Jesus, has a conscience perfectly aligned with God’s will.
Look long and hard at this slide. Let it burn into your memory. Many of us are having problems in church because we don’t understand this principle. We want others to have the same freedoms as we do (and look down on them if they don’t), or we want others to have exactly the same restrictions as we do (and we judge them if they don’t). We become the standard. It’s “life by my conscience,” not “life by the book.”
Brothers and sisters, not a single person in this room has a conscience that is perfectly aligned with God’s will. No one. Every last one of you has a mistaken conscience at a number of points. There are matters that God wants you to have in your conscience that you are completely oblivious to. And there are matters that are in your conscience that aren’t from God, but it sure feels like they are.
Look at the slide. Mr. Red needs to learn that buying non-fair-trade coffee is NOT a sin in God’s eyes (so Mr. Red is wrong at that point and probably many others), and Mr. Blue needs to learn that G,H,I,J,K aren’t sins in God’s eyes, so Mr. Blue’s conscience is wrong in many areas. And there’s a sin that Mr. Red better be thinking a lot more about, because God sure cares about it (F). And notice that Mr. Blue is dead wrong about A, and they’re both completely blind to L. It doesn’t even show up on either of their radars.
Mr. Red wants to look down on legalistic Mr. Blue. Mr. Blue wants to judge “lawless” Mr. Red. And it’s likely that both of them are thinking about leaving their church and finding one where there is 99% agreement instead of 95% agreement. They might even be willing to split the church over these conscience disagreements. And where does this end? The people in the 99% pure church are looking for a church where there is 99.9% agreement.
O, the poor benighted tribal Christians that I work with in Cambodia who are fresh out of Satanism. They don’t have the luxury of a church on every corner. They can’t just go find another church where everyone thinks just like them and where their disputable conscience issues are even enshrined in the by-laws to ensure that everyone is the same. No. Those poor deprived believers have to learn to welcome and love each other like mature Christians.
(Illustration of helping Jarai decide not to split.)
I beg you, don’t tell them how we mature believers in Greenville do it. May God give us grace to act like the mature Christians we say we are.
8. YOU CAN BREAK YOUR CONSCIENCE
Like all valuable gifts from God, the gift of conscience can be broken. Oddly enough, it can be broken in two very opposite ways: 1) Making it insensitive and 2) making it oversensitive.
1) We make conscience insensitive by refusing to listen to its voice of warning, so that the voice gets quieter and quieter and finally disappears. Paul in 1 Timothy 4:2 says that some false teachers seared their own conscience by refusing to listen to its warnings.
2) We can break our conscience by making it oversensitive, that is, by overpacking it with too many rules that are actually matters of opinion, not right and wrong.
Oddly enough, both kinds of conscience-breakdown can appear in the same people. Paul went on to say in the very next verse, 1 Timothy 4:3, that the same false teachers who had a seared conscience also imposed strict and unnecessary scruples about abstinence from things like marriage and foods. And remember that it was the over-scrupulous Pharisees like Paul who murdered Christ and his followers.
Those 8 principles of conscience finally bring us to...
THE TWO GREAT PRINCIPLES OF CONSCIENCE
There are two principles that rise above the rest and govern them all: 1) God is the only Lord of your conscience, 2) Obey your conscience. We’re going to look at the second one first, because it’s the most obvious.
Principle 2: Obey It!
Even unbelievers know this principle. The Bible says that to go against your conscience when you think it’s warning you correctly is always a sin in God’s eyes. Always. Even if what you’re doing is not actually a sin. Conscience can make a right thing wrong.
I have a Christian friend who came to Greenville for schooling from a country in Asia and was shocked that everybody was drinking root beer. He knew it was non-alcoholic, but the very name made it wrong to drink.
You say, that’s ridiculous. But you can’t say that about someone else’s conscience restrictions. To that person it’s life and death. The second great principle of conscience demands that he obey his conscience, and you must respect that until God guides him to adjust his conscience.
But does this principle, Obey you conscience, mean your conscience is always correct? No. And here is where the first, the greatest, principle of conscience comes in.
This is “the one ring to rule them all and in the conscience bind them.”
Principle 1: God Is the Only Lord of Conscience
—Your conscience is not the Lord of itself—that’s idolatry.
—You are not the lord of your conscience.
—Your parents are not the lord of your conscience (though they are trying their best to help form in you a good conscience, and you do well to obey them when under their care).
—Your pastors are not the lord of your conscience (though they care for your soul and you’d be a fool not to consider their counsel).
—Fellow believers are not the lord of your conscience (though they’ll often pressure you to follow their conscience instead of God’s will). God is the only lord of conscience.
This means that the second principle (Obey it) has one critical limitation. If God, the Lord of your conscience, shows you through his word that your conscience is registering a wrong moral judgment and that you need to adjust it, your conscience must bend to God’s revealed will. You remember the principle that came from Peter’s mouth in Acts 5:29? “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29)? That holds true even when the “man” happens to be you yourself! You must obey God rather than YOU. You must obey God rather than your conscience. If your conscience is so sacrosanct that it’s off-limits even to God, that’s idolatry.
Remember when God came to Peter in a vision and commanded him to eat meat that in the Old Testament was forbidden, but Jesus Christ later allowed. What if Peter decided to listen to his conscience instead of to God when God told him to “Kill and eat!” (Acts 10:9–16)? He would have committed a serious sin. Whenever “Obey conscience!” and “Obey God!” collide, “Obey God!” must come out on top every time. We’re thankful that a Christian with a well-calibrated conscience will rarely have to make that choice.
A WELL-CALIBRATED CONSCIENCE
You know what calibration is? A ship with dozens of sensitive instruments goes to sea for 6 months. The instruments get jostled, subject to heat and electrical surges, static electricity, lightning. So when the ship returns to home port a specialist goes onboard with extremely fine-tuned equipment and re-calibrates all the instruments according to the standards.
To do that you need a standard—a green triangle. If the guy just re-calibrated the instruments to match the ones on other ships, that’s not going to work. But that’s what we do with our conscience standards. Most Christians calibrate their conscience according to what others in their own culture or church do. Does that honor Christ’s lordship over conscience? Does it honor God’s word? No.
A few people are just the opposite. They’re the gadflies. If everyone has a certain scruple, he’s going to have the opposite. He likes to swim against the tide. But that’s not honoring to Christ’s lordship either. You just like being the different.
For some of you, the image of “calibration” is way too geeky and mechanical. So instead, think of your conscience as a beautiful garden that God has prepared for you and given to you as a gift. But life happens, and in the process of growing up in your culture and your family and your church, weeds get in there that shouldn’t be. And some plants that should be in there die. This is out of neglect.
Do you remember from Pastor’s sermon what were the conscience disagreements in Paul’s day?
CONSCIENCE DISAGREEMENTS IN PAUL’S DAY
Almost every church in the Roman empire was a mixture of Jew and Gentile. The Jewish Christians, before putting their faith in Christ Jesus, were very careful to obey as many Old Testament laws as they could, especially the laws about observing holy days and refraining from certain kinds of foods, like meat that was not prepared properly. Now that they were Christian Jews, most of them probably understood that Jesus Christ had changed those food laws (see Mark 7:18-23).
But once you’re a part of a strict religious tradition that goes back a long time (sound familiar?) it’s not so easy to adjust your conscience. Your conscience still condemns you because you’re not quite sure everything is okay now. Plus, since many Jews lived in pagan cities, they could never be sure if the meat in the market was killed in the proper Old Testament way. Worse yet, the meat in the market might have been leftover meat from yesterday’s sacrifices to idols! So a lot of Jewish Christians had just decided to be vegetarians.
The Gentile Christians, on the other hand, didn’t carry with them this burden of strict scrupulousness, a burden that, in the words of Peter himself in Acts 15, the Jewish people themselves were never able to bear. So the Gentiles could eat pretty much whatever they wanted, without their conscience telling them it was wrong.
So it ended up that many of the churches had two groups of Christians, the strong conscience group who were able to eat meat, and the weak conscience group who couldn’t eat meat without some conscience pangs.
If things had just stayed this way, no problem. But sinful human nature likes to win. So it didn’t take long for these differences to cause attitude problems between these two groups.Neither of these two options are pleasing to God. What alarmed Paul was that the division between these two groups usually fell along racial lines.
Satan saw this natural Jew-Gentile gap in the church, and that’s exactly where he brought down his axe, He tempted the weak-conscience (strict) group to think that they were holier than the strong-conscience group, and he tempted the strong-conscience group to look down on the strict group as weak in their faith.
But in some churches it was even worse than what I’ve just described. In some churches, seeds of outright heresy were beginning to germinate on both sides of these issues. That would be the two outside columns on this chart. Let me explain the heresies.
In some churches, like the church at Corinth, some of those in the “strong group” had become over-confident and arrogant with their freedoms, even accepting invitations from their unsaved friends to feast at the banqueting halls that were connected to the pagan temples. This was quite tempting because people back then didn’t get to eat a lot of meat, so this was their protein fix for the entire month. I’m guessing these Christians were attending only for the food and friendship, and didn’t even pay attention to the little opening ceremony that some pagan priest did. He said some meaningless chant and presented some of the meat to some meaningless idol. It didn’t have any more meaning than a prayer before a football game in Texas. But it wasn’t meaningless Paul said in the first half of 1 Coronthians 10. Behind the empty idols are demons vying for our loyalty. Just by being there, he said, these Christians were actually participating in what Paul called demon communion. We have the Lord’s supper, and they have Satan’s supper. (1 Corinthians 10:19-21).
Many years later, these same type of “freedom Christians” went even farther and split away from the true churches and started heretical cults, even going so far as to say that God gave Christians freedom to be sexually immoral! The Bible calls this heresy lawlessness (antinomianism), and the seeds were already forming at Corinth.
After hearing that what are we tempted to say? Yeah, better to err on the overly strict side, right? No! The strict side, the weak-consience side, had its own damnable heresy germinating as well. Read the letters to the Galatians and Colossians. Some of the strict believers started teaching that if people didn’t keep the Old Testament rules about circumcision and food, they couldn’t be Christians! The Bible calls these false teachers Judaizers or “the circumcision group.” It was a heresy that brought down the severest condemnation that Paul could muster: He said, Let them be accursed. Galatians 1.
This is a mess! We have two sides, neither of which have attitudes that are pleasing to God, and that’s causing an ever-widening gap in the middle. What’s Paul to do to keep these churches from splitting into Jew and Gentile? That would be a disaster that would put a lie to the gospel.
Now, Paul’s an apostle; he has unusual authority from Christ, so why doesn’t he just make a new rule about these disagreements on food and holy days, like this: “Everyone must eat meat, since Jesus said that all foods are lawful for Christians to eat.” That was Paul’s own position; he was free to eat and drink whatever he wanted without his conscience condemning him. He had a strong conscience. Romans 14:14 “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself,” 15:1 “We who are strong ought to bear with the weaknesses of the weak.”
But what’s the problem with making a new rule that everyone has to eat meat? Remember the 2nd great principle of conscience? Obey it! It’s dangerous to compel someone to sin against his or her conscience when they’re still not sure about the rightness or wrongness of the issue. Paul told us that people should never sin against their conscience (though it’s wise to learn to train it to match God’s will more accurately).
On the other extreme, Paul could have made the opposite rule: Everyone must refrain from eating meat, just in case someone might get upset or stumble. That’s our fundamentalist solution. Lay down a new rule. But this solution denies the freedom that our Lord himself gave us, and it binds the conscience of people with commandments that are not from God. Do we want to be stricter than God?
So what’s Paul going to do? What would be the glue that Paul would put into this ever-widening gap to keep the churches from splitting on the one hand, and to keep the heresies from forming on the other? It would not be the glue of a new law. It would be the glue of love, the glue of love in Romans 14 that Pastor Conley taught you a few weeks ago. I don’t want your eyes to glaze over at the next chart. In fact, it’s not that complicated. All I’ve done is taken the chart you see here and moved the two left columns farther over to the left and the two right columns farther over to the right and in the middle where the widening gap once was, I’ve placed Paul’s threefold solution.
Paul’s solution of love can be seen in the three middle columns on this chart. Only the three columns in the middle, that I’ve labeled 1, 2 and 3, are pleasing to God whenever there are conscience disagreements in the church, though the center column is the ultimate goal of every mature believer. So I’ll just gray out the previous columns that are not pleasing to God. On any given disagreement over disputable conscience matters, you must land on one of these three positions. God does not let you land on the two columns to the right and judge those with freedoms, nor the two columns to the left and look down on the strict.
Let’s look at each of the 3 columns that are pleasing to God.
Column 1 is a Christian who has a strong, free conscience in a particular area, but he refuses to look down on those who are strict. Instead he welcomes them.
Skipping over the center column, we come to Column 3. This is the Christian who has decided to keep his conscience restrictions in a given matter, but he has made up his mind not to judge those Christians who have freedom. He welcomes them.
The center column is the example of Christ and Paul who put the gospel before anything else. It’s the subject of tonight’s message.
Back to column 1. Here’s what Paul told the strong-conscience Christians in Romans 14: (I’m basically paraphrasing Romans 14 and Pastor Conley’s sermon a few weeks ago):
“You can continue to use your freedom, because, theologically, you’re right about the meat issue. Go ahead and eat meat to the glory of God. BUT, what you can’t do is look down on the strict (despise)....”
(I despised the brother who wasn’t singing a new hymn that Pastor Coleman was teaching us. All of a sudden I felt anger rising up in my heart. I wanted to say, “Get with it, old guy. Not all the good hymns were written in the 1800’s.” That what I felt in my heart. Then the Spirit of Christ smote me and said in my heart, “What a hypocrite, singing praises to me while despising a fellow believer for whom I have died.”)
“....You must welcome the strict. You must learn how to get along with them. Learn and appreciate their sub-culture. You must assume that the strict are being strict for God’s glory, not because they’re neurotic fundamentalists. And one more thing: when you use your freedoms don’t flaunt those freedoms—don’t be “in-their-face” with them—don’t post about them on facebook. When you flaunt your freedoms, you’re not showing love. Most importantly, if your use of freedom emboldens a wavering brother to sin against his conscience, that is a serious sin. The kingdom of God is so much more than your right to eat and drink certain things.” That summarizes the glue of love for the free group.
What’s the glue of love that the Christians with a weak conscience in a particular area must manifest? (Column 3):
“If your strictness is causing you to judge others and bring division to the church, you are sinning and failing to show love. The kingdom of God is about love and righteousness and peace and joy, not about food! (14:17). And one more thing, Stop trying to force others to obey the rules of your own conscience-- “what you believe about these things, keep to yourself and God.” Your conscience is for you, not them. Be convinced about your own personal scruples. If you abstain, abstain with all your might for God’s glory. None of this wavering back and forth like a blade of grass in the wind! Those who disagree with you? Welcome them. Give them the benefit of the doubt: assume that they are exercising their freedoms for God’s glory, not because they’re lawless.” That summarizes the glue of love for the strict group.
As you hear Paul’s exhortations to those weaker and stronger in these disputable conscience issues, you’ve probably already categorized yourself as one or the other. But it’s not that tidy. On any given issue, you are probably weak in conscience compared to someone stronger, and strong in conscience compared to someone weaker—all at the same time.
For example, here’s a chart with four positions on meat (read).
If you’re the person in this chart at position #2 who is free to eat meat sold in the meat market without feeling any need to ask questions, Paul says you must resist the temptation to judge the person who is even freer than you to your left or look down on the person stricter than you to the right.
Not only that, it’s not at all unusual for an individual Christian to have a strong conscience on one issue and a weak conscience on another. My mother-in-law told us that she had a college roommate whose conscience would allow her to play with playing cards but not dominos. Another roommate could enjoy dominos but not playing cards. Needless to say, it was a dull year in the dorm.
What this means is that you have a responsibility to people on both your left and right. You must obey Paul’s exhortations to the strong of conscience and his exhortations to the weak of conscience.
But look at the center column. The center column is the message of Romans 15 and also 1 Cor. 9—and it’s the heartbeat of your pastors in this church. It’s my message tonight. It is the example of Christ (and of Paul as he followed Christ’s example). Our ultimate goal is not simply to stop judging those who are freer than we, or stop looking down on those who are stricter. Our ultimate goal is to follow the example of our Lord Jesus who gave up his rights for others. Jesus joyfully gave up his unbelievable freedom in heaven to come to earth and become a Jew, to submit to a culture not his own, in order to save us (15:3-9). (Tonight’s message). That’s why Paul could say about these matters: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Even though Paul agreed with the free group on theological principle that all food and drink is allowable for a believer (14:14, 20), he was so filled with Christ’s welcoming love that he was happy (not grudging) to give up his freedom in certain situations if that would result in peace within the church and success in winning people to Christ outside the church. He didn’t count his own rights or his own opinions or his own scruples or his own comfort as the most important, but always asked himself these two questions: 1) How does my action affect other believers? and 2) How does my action further the gospel of Christ?
Paul wasn’t always that way.
Just try to imagine the tangled, overgrown conscience of an over-scrupulous Pharisee like Paul on the road to Damascus, with the hundreds of rules that had been added to God’s good commandments. What a mess! He had managed to break his conscience both ways! A life-time of straining out all those gnats had blinded his eyes so that he ended up swallowing the camel of participating in the murder of innocent Stephen.
Yet 20 years after his conversion his conscience is so streamlined that he can glide imperceptibly from culture to culture, and say in 1 Corinthians 9:19ff “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
This would have been impossible 20 years before when his conscience was over-packed with man-made rules.
So what had happened? How did he get from A to B? Evidently, at some point in Paul’s life, he took his conscience, and all his moral judgments, and laid them at the feet of Jesus and asked Jesus 3 questions: What stays? What goes? What’s missing?
Prohibitions about pork? Stays/goes? Goes! Jesus declared all food clean. You can’t become a bad person in God’s sight by eating or drinking something. But when I’m Jerusalem, kosher all the way.
Ritual handwashing? Stays/goes? Goes! But if I get invited to the synagogue ruler’s house...
Telling the truth? Stay or go? stays
Love your enemies? That was missing! He was probably of those who like to say “Love your neighbor but hate your enemy.” Needs to be added.
And he kept doing that until what was left in his moral judgment was as close as he could get to the will of God as he understood it. At least that was his goal.
So what did he do with all those prohibitions that he weeded out of his conscience? Was it party time now? Was it ham wrapped in bacon stuffed with crab every day? No. It was never about him. It was never about food. It was about Jesus and the gospel and winning people to Christ.
Those restrictions that he weeded from his conscience were now the very matters that he could flex on for the sake of the gospel or for the sake of a Christian with a weaker conscience. It was in these matters that he became all things to all people for the sake of the gospel. (Brothers and sisters, you don’t flex on matters of conscience, matters that you are convinced are matters of right or wrong. That’s called sin.)
How about you? Because God is the Lord of your conscience, he expects you, as a mature believer, to do the same thing Paul did, to give your conscience back to God and ask him those three questions: What goes, what stays, and what’s missing?
To live according to your conscience brings great blessing (2nd great principle). But to train your conscience to match God’s truth closer brings even more blessing (1st great principle).
Here’s the big question: How do you know the difference between (1) sinning against your conscience and (2) calibrating your conscience? After all, in both cases you’re telling your conscience to be quiet.
1. You’re sinning against your conscience when you believe your conscience is warning you correctly, but you still don’t listen to it. That’s always a sin, even if what your conscience is forbidding is NOT a sin! If you think that it’s wrong to drink root beer, then you are sinning if you drink root beer. Pastor Mark Dever said, “Conscience cannot make a wrong thing right, but it can make a right thing wrong.” Don’t ever sin against your conscience.
2. You are calibrating your conscience when Christ, the Lord of your conscience, teaches you through his Word that your conscience has been warning you wrongly in a particular area, so you decide to stop listening to its warnings in that one area. This is called calibrating or adjusting or training your conscience, bringing it under the lordship of Christ. It is NOT sinning against it.
Now, in the early stages of calibration, when you say “no” to your conscience, you might feel a pang of conscience. When you drink your first root beer after being convinced by God that it’s okay, your conscience will probably sound an alarm. Ignoring that alarm is not searing her conscience, but calibrating it—bringing it under the lordship of Christ.
Why do a conscience audit? Audits aren’t fun. Calibrating anything is a hassle. And it’s very uncomfortable to adjust your conscience that you’ve been comfortable with all these years. Why not just leave it alone?
And you know what? As long as you’re not looking down on others with stricter scruples, or judging others with fewer scruples, you can leave it alone. Do you know that God will allow a Christian to have a mistaken conscience all his or her life in these disputable matters?! God didn’t tell Paul to command the Roman vegetarians to eat meat. God let them be vegetarians the rest of their lives, even though they didn’t have to be, as long as they didn’t judge others. So, yeah. I guess technically you don’t have to calibrate like Paul did. You don’t have to weed. (Unless you get one of those visions on a rooftop like Peter did.)
And this goes for you with a strong conscience. Maybe you’re saying, “I don’t need to calibrate either. I’m already right about the food issues.”
But what do we give up when we leave the gate of conscience closed even to God?
1. You’re not caring for this gift that God gave you. You’ve let this garden become an overgrown jungle. There are weeds there that have grown into trees that God never intended to be there. And for those of you who tend to have a strong conscience, there are beautiful trees that ought to be there but are not. There are commandments that God wants to be in your conscience, but you can’t see them, because you think you’re right and you haven’t opened your conscience up to God’s teaching. Don’t neglect the priceless gift of conscience.
2. You’re probably limiting your fruitfulness. What if Peter had said to God, “No, it’s very uncomfortable for me to be in the same house with those Gentiles.” I guess someone else would have had the joy of taking the gospel to the first Gentiles. At that point in his life, Peter’s conscience wasn’t pruned enough for maximum fruitfulness.
3. Who are you to decide whether to open your conscience up to God? You’re not the lord of your conscience. Don’t be like Peter who had so put his conscience off limits to God that God had to break the gate down. How much better just to open the gate to Jesus, the Lord of your conscience, and let him do what he wills with what is his!
1. I bet 3/4 of the people in this room have either been judging other Christians with certain freedoms, or looking down on other Christians who don’t have the freedom of conscience to do what you do, or both. You need to repent today.
2. I bet there are at least 50 of you in this room today who have been consistently and repeatedly and wrecklessly sinning against your conscience. You are on the road to ruin, shipwreck, train wreck. Some of you are having affairs, either virtual or actual. You are going to destroy yourself and a lot of other people with you. It would be better if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were cast into the depths of the sea.
I beg you. Repent, turn from your sin. Desire more than anything in life a clean conscience that allows for sweet uninterrupted fellowship with God. And if necessary, come forward and publicly repent and get a clean conscience.
3. For those whose consciences have never once been cleansed by Jesus, Jesus is the only religious leader in human history who ever promised to solve the root problem of a defiled conscience. He did it with his own blood. Human ceremonies, whether the ceremony of Old Testament sacrifice, or New Testament baptism or the Lord’s Supper, these cannot take away sin and cleanse the filthy conscience. Jesus can, Jesus did, Jesus will. Aren’t you tired of that defiled conscience? It will kill you. It will send you to hell. You can be set free today. Right now. Nothing in this world is worth more than a conscience cleansed by the blood of Christ.
Right there in your seat say “Dear Jesus, rescue me from my defiled conscience. Cleanse me. Save me.”
Missionary JD Crowley
HamptonPark Baptist Church
September 28, 2014