“I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience, the way my forefathers did….” (II Timothy 1:3).
A clear conscience is like a clean windshield: You notice it only when something has marred its surface and spoiled your vision. Until your conscience smites you and accuses you of sin, you are hardly aware of its existence.
A clear conscience is a wonderful thing to have. And fairly rare, too, I surmise, if by that term we refer to a blameless life that finds nothing in your past with which to accuse you of–no hypocrisy, insincerity, or double-mindedness. And, may I say, who among us has no failures on our record, no stains of iniquity, no guilt of sin?
“There is none righteous, no, not one.” “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” “If the Lord should mark iniquity, who would stand?” (Romans 3:10,23 and Psalm 130:3) Who indeed? Not me, that’s for sure.
Question: Why does Scripture make such a big deal over a clear conscience?
A clear conscience gives boldness with men and confidence with God. “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (I John 3:21). To the Corinthian congregation, Paul said, “For our proud confidence is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world and especially toward you” (II Corinthians 1:12).
Paul is not claiming perfection, that he has done nothing wrong in his life. He does seem to be saying, however, from the way I read it, that since he began following Jesus, he has gotten it right.
I can’t even say that. My sins–both of commission and omission in the 60+ years I’ve been following Jesus–are more than I can count.
If a clear conscience means no slipups and no rebellions from the moment of salvation forward, I’m in trouble.
But let’s continue….
A clear conscience is something you are unaware of when it’s operating as it should. Let sin enter your life–willful, rebellious sin–and your heart attacks you, your conscience accuses you, and everything spiritual in you grinds to a standstill. At that point, you remember how good a clean conscience felt and you miss it fiercely. (If you do not miss it, if you can sin and continue to believe your fellowship with the Father is unimpeded, count that as a wakeup call that the guidance mechanism in your life is screwed up and is unreliable. “If you are without discipline….then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Hebrews 12:8). Some translations actually say “bastards.”
It is a good thing to sense the heavy conviction of the Holy Spirit when you fall into sin. It is in fact strong evidence you belong to the Lord through faith in Jesus Christ.
Nothing, they say, is more responsible for a clear conscience than a bad memory. That’s probably right. There are clean, redeemed, purified consciences and there are faulty, deceived consciences. When one can do wrong and “still feel all right,” he’s in trouble.
The word “conscience” in both the Greek and the English literally means “to know with.” It’s a good word. However, the conscience is not always a trustworthy guide with which to know the truth. “Let your conscience be your guide” may sound commendable, but since the conscience can be mistaught from childhood, misshaped by culture and twisted by years of sin and rebellion, it’s not always reliable as a counselor, advisor, or guide. Doubtless, there were Communists and Nazis who committed mass murder without the first pang of guilt because they had been conditioned to obey their superior officers without question. Those with true consciences would have gone raving mad after such atrocities.
A good, active, sensitive conscience is a blessing. And, as many have found out, it can be a burden, too, since it puts the brakes on thoughtless plans and selfish intentions.
Our goal–one of many–is to have a pure heart, a clear conscience.
In defending the doctrine he was accused of preaching, Paul said to Felix, the Roman governor: “I do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men” (Acts 24:16).
“The goal of our instruction,” Paul said to Timothy, “is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (I Timothy 1:5). Later, same chapter, he added, “…keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (1:19).
A leading crime-fighter in this country used to say no one ever committed a crime without first justifying it in his own mind. The would-be criminal first conformed the illegal deed with whatever conscience he possessed: he deserved this, society owed it to him, he was retaliating against a former employer, his parents abused him, his wife did not love him, that sort of thing.
But I question whether that is always the case.
In my experience, otherwise faithful men and women who have fallen into trouble with the law (as well as God’s law) did so, not by justifying what they were doing, but by ignoring that inner voice of the Holy Spirit that was protesting every step of the way.
–And so the church treasurer, a deacon with a lifetime of respect within the congregation, is found to have been embezzling funds for years. He knew it was wrong, but learned to ignore the inner protest of the Spirit because he wanted the money.
–The beloved minister who brought so many to Christ was shown on television being arrested for sexual misconduct with minors. What he had preached, he had believed. His sinful, unlawful behavior resulted from his giving in to the lower nature, even though his spirit–his conscience–was doubtless crying out against it.
–The woman who directed the church drama left her husband, the pastor, to take up with a man who had played Christ in the pageants. Later, after the marriage had ended, she repented with a broken heart.
These people had sinned against their own consciences. (More than this, of course, they had sinned against God, we need to affirm. They had violated scripture and broken the most basic law of Scripture, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. But, we are making the point that they also sinned against the spirit within them which was crying out against the evil they were carrying out.)
Later, many of them could be heard saying something similar to what Cain cried as he was banished from the Garden for murdering his brother: “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (Genesis 4:13).
How they missed the purity of the conscience of their former lives. How they longed for the closeness with the Lord, a fellowship they had tossed away so casually to indulge their sinful passions. How they hated the misery they now knew.
It was the filth and degradation and hunger in the hogpen that awakened the conscience of the prodigal (Luke 15:17).
Treasure your heart, my friend. Guard it closely. And when you sin, “keep short accounts with God.” Go immediately and confess, repent, and recommit yourself to Him.
As you go, remember these seven truths…
1) There are no servants of the Lord who have not failed him big time. None. (Bear in mind that ‘big time” is relative. One thing we must never do is compare sins. Nor, we hasten to add, should we repeat that silliness that “all sin is the same.” It is not. Covetousness is not as child abuse, a white lie not equal to adultery. ) Only those who have sinned and know it can appreciate the Lord’s grace and forgiveness.
2) There are no effective servants of the Lord who have not repented of their sin and received great portions of His grace and mercy. If you are searching for an effective preacher of God’s grace and Christ’s gospel with no past blemish, call off your search, friend. That animal does not exist. The most effective proclaimers of God’s mercy are people who know the truth of Romans 5:20–“where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”
3) And–we say to our deep sorrow–there are no redeemed, forgiven, effective servants of the Lord who do not fail Him frequently and who therefore must continually seek His forgiveness and mercy. It is not enough to say we sinned in the past; we failed even this very day to live up to God’s standard in all our ways. “We who are in this body do groan” (II Corinthians 5:2).
Some will say that by this reasoning we are reveling in our license to sin. They could not be further from the truth. We grieve over our sin.
Adrian Rogers said, “The unbeliever leaps into sin and loves it; the believer lapses into sin and loathes it.”
4) However, it should be said that the more you grow in Christ, the more you mature in Christlikeness, the nature of your failings will change and your walk with the Lord will blossom into something increasingly wonderful. The sins of Billy Graham–to use an obvious example–will be different from the failings of a young believer fresh in from the cold.
In commenting on Jacob’s bout with the angel at Jabbok, Warren Wiersbe has said, “At first, a believer wrestles with the devil. As he grows, he wrestles with himself. And finally, in his maturity, he wrestles with God.” (Genesis 32:24ff)
5) In this life you will never outgrow your need for His grace. This is what always makes me suspicious when I find a gospel preacher majoring on the law. “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” (Galatians 3:3)? Not in the least. It’s all of grace, my friend.
6) In this life, you will never escape the need for the benefits of His cross. No preacher should ever get beyond the cross in his messages. “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ….” (Galatians 6:14).
7) Your clear conscience means not that you have done no wrong, but that He has made you so right with the Father. And that, my friend, is a wonderful feeling.
When the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses you from sin–and we mean today, not forty years ago!–you rise from your prayer time with a freshness in your life, a zeal in your service, a love for all people, and a clarity of focus in your preaching/teaching/witness.
“…whom I serve with a clear conscience, the way my forefathers did….” (II Timothy 1:3).
We wonder about Paul’s forefathers, who they were, and how he could make such a glowing statement in their favor. I assume he refers not to his blood relatives, his father and grandfathers, but to the saints of former days whose teachings and prophecies were so used of God to instruct him and bring him to Christ.
I expect these “forefathers” were as human as the rest of us, but they learned to abide in Christ, trusting only in Him and not in their flesh or in their blamelessness.
I’m all for blamelessness, by the way, as we all should be. But I’ve never seen anyone who could claim it except by the precious blood of Jesus Christ by which the world was crucified unto him and he to the world (Galatians 6:14 again).
Let us leave this subject with I John 1:7. “If we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
It’s grace or nothing, friend, for those seeking a pure heart and clean conscience.