Watch Your Conscience
No one ever said that living the Christian life is easy. That was certainly true for the great apostle Paul. On more than one occasion Paul landed in trouble with the authorities because of his faith. The incident which is before us today occurs in the 24th chapter of the Book of Acts. There Paul was put on trial for his life because of his belief. The judge in this case was Felix, the Roman Governor. Paul served as his own defense counsel.
In the course of the trial, Paul spoke in his defense, and in that speech he delivered a number of wonderful statements about what the Christian faith is, and about how he practiced it, and about what it meant to him. For our purposes today, however, I want to lift up just one statement that Paul made in his defense. Paul said to Felix: “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward God and toward men.” I believe there is a great lesson for us to learn from those words. I think it behooves us as Christians to understand what conscience is, and to understand how we can take pains to always have a clear conscience. That is the matter I want us to wrestle with today.
At the outset we have to come to one basic understanding. It is this: Conscience is not the voice of God speaking within us. There are some people who would suggest to you that your conscience is in fact the voice of God speaking to you directly. That is not true at all. Conscience is not the voice of God speaking to us. If it were the voice of God speaking to us, then obviously, everyone would hear the same thing from their conscience. The fact is we all hear different things and therefore, the conscience must never be understood as the voice of God speaking in us. Rather, I believe, the conscience is a God-given spiritually sensitive dimension of our human experience which God may occasionally use to speak to us. In other words, conscience is the best in us speaking to the rest in us. In some people, consciences speak magnificently because they have so tuned their spiritual sensor that God is able to use it to speak. In other people, conscience speaks hardly at all because they have taken this spiritual sensor and so covered and banked it and smothered it that it is practically gone. That is why it is so important for us to come to grips with this great word from the apostle Paul and to learn how to always take pains to have a clear conscience. How do you do that? I got to thinking about it and it seems to me that the answer may be revealed in some things that are true about this wristwatch of mine. This watch of mine is a fine watch, it is very good, but it is not automatically dependable. There are certain things which have to be done to this watch in order to be sure that it always reflects to me the accurate time. I want to suggest to you today that what is true for this watch is also true for the human conscience. There are some things that have to be done to our conscience if that conscience is going to speak clearly and accurately to us. I would like to explain to you just what I mean by that.
First, this watch of mine will be of no use to me unless it is set to the correct time.
That is very important. We are blessed that there is a person somewhere, sitting at a transit telescope, tracing the course of the stars as they cross the north-south meridian of the earth. As the stars cross that meridian, the course of the stars is used to determine what we as human beings know as standard time. It is then up to me to be sure that my watch is always set to standard time. Just so, I want to suggest that our conscience must also be properly set. It must be set to divine standard time. Let me try to express it to you this way. Did you happen to read in the paper this last week that the Orlando International Airport is about to install a new landing system called Category III? It sends out electronic beams that lock onto complex equipment on the jets telling them to fly left or right or up or down, thus enabling the planes to land safely in all kinds of weather. As long as the plane stays locked on the beam, it will be guided straight into the airport even when visibility is obscured by the fog. Of course, that is true provided that the beam is coming from the airport. If the beam were coming from the top of a mountain, then following it would cause the plane to crash. In other words, it is the source of the beam that determines the worth of the beam. And that is equally true of the conscience. The worth of the voice of the conscience is determined by the source of that voice. The conscience must be set on the truth of Almighty God or it is not going to be dependable in life. How the conscience is set determines its value.
I don’t know if you are aware of it or not, but the whole Protestant Reformation occurred as a result of a matter of conscience. It happened at the Diet of Worms. A confrontation between two very powerful men. One of them was King Charles V. He was a good man, a sincere man, and he was following his conscience. The difficulty was that his conscience was tuned to the law of the land. The other man was named Martin Luther. He was equally good, equally sincere, but his conscience was tuned differently. He said it himself. Right there before King Charles V, Martin Luther said: “My conscience is captive to the word of God.” That is what made the difference. One man had his conscience tuned to the law of the land, the other man had his conscience tuned to the law of God. And that not only made the difference, it set in motion the sequence of events that became the Protestant Reformation.
The set of the conscience determines the message of the conscience. Even the devil follows his conscience. The problem is that his conscience is so twisted and perverted that it leads him into the evil which is part and parcel of his being. Let me express it this way, using Paul as the example. Paul, when he was Saul earlier in his life, was following his conscience when he set forth from Jerusalem and tried to snuff out the Christian community in the city of Damascus. He was following his conscience. Years later, Paul was also following his conscience when he willingly laid down his life in Rome for the sake of the Christian faith. What was the difference between those two incidents? It was the fact that between the earlier incident and the later incident, he met Jesus Christ. Paul surrendered his entire life to the power of his master. That changed the perspective of his conscience so that his conscience, instead of leading him to be a persecutor and a destroyer of the Christian faith, now began to lead him to be the greatest missionary and the greatest theologian the Church has ever produced. It is simply because once he met Jesus, his conscience was tuned to divine standard time. The worth of the voice of the conscience is going to be determined by the source of that voice. You and I must tune our consciences, we must lock our consciences on to the word of Almighty God, the word of God written in this Bible, the word of God lived in your life and mine. That is a part of what Paul meant when he said: “I always take pains to have a clear conscience.”
Secondly, this watch of mine has to be cleaned periodically by the jeweler.
It is a good watch and it has a very tight case; but no matter how tight it is, dust can eventually work its way into the watch. And if that dust accumulates, it will clog the works of the watch so that it no longer speaks the true time. Again, our conscience is like that. Sin is the dirt which manages to work its way into our conscience. If we permit it to accumulate there, it will settle upon the springs and the fly wheels of truth and the testimony of our conscience will no longer be reliable and accurate.
Lt. Col. Douglas Kelly was the chief psychiatrist at the Nuremberg War Trials after World War II. He spent 80 hours with each Nazi war criminals who were being tried there. After these extensive consultations, he said that he did not consider a single one of those men to be demented or insane, but that they had lost the normal human sense of conscience. One of the Nazis, Herman Goehring, summed it this way: “I have no conscience.” But that wasn’t true. He did have a conscience. It was just that it had become so corroded with evil that its sound could be heard no more. Or when it did speak loudly enough to be heard, it simply echoed the evil with which it had been surrounded.
That is why confession is so important to us as Christians. Confession is that moment when we pour out the dirt that is accumulated, in our lives and permit our Christ to cleanse us. There are two concepts of forgiveness to be found in Scripture. One is the judicial concept. It pictures God as the judge, Christ as the defense attorney, and you and me as the guilty prisoners. Christ defends us, and then He takes the extraordinary step of taking our punishment upon Himself. And we are forgiven, acquitted, set free. But there is another concept of forgiveness as well. It is the medical concept. It pictures sin as a disease which grows and festers down in the core of a person’s character. Jesus, the Great Physician, comes along, and with the sword of His spirit, He cuts down to that malignant evil and excises it. But He not only excises it, He then pours the antiseptic of His truth into the wound. That truth dwelling in a person makes him even stronger than he was before.
That is what happens when we confess our sins. We pour out before God that which we have done but should not have done and that which we have not done but should have done—we pour it out and God’s grace forgives. And as He forgives, He cleanses. And as He cleanses, He seals with His grace the case of our conscience so that it becomes trustworthy, so that it always speaks the voice of truth.
I spoke yesterday in St. Louis, Missouri, at a renewal conference for Presbyterians from all over the country. I was visiting there with a minister friend of Portland, Oregon and he was telling me about an absolutely crazy thing that happened there not long ago. A man was arrested for obeying a road sign. This fellow was on his way home from work and he stopped off at a local bar. He had a touch too much and was driving down one of the busy highways there. Suddenly he stopped his car right in the middle of the highway and was standing on top of it. The traffic was backed up everywhere. The horns were honking and the people were furious and the highway patrol was summoned. The patrolman rushed on the scene and said to him: “Man, what are you doing?” The fellow looked at him and said: “Officer, I’m just obeying that road sign.” The officer walked over and looked at the road sign. It read: “Scenic Outlook—Mt. Hood.”
The conscience delivers signs of guidance to us as we make our way through life. But if we are going to read the signs clearly, then we have to live cleanly. That is a part of what Paul meant when he wrote, “I always take pains to have a clear conscience.”
Thirdly, this watch will do me no good if I never look at it.
Just so, we must learn in all that we do to consult our conscience after it has been set and cleaned. There are two reasons for that. First, it will always lead us aright when we have properly exercised it and tuned it. But also, if we do not consult it now, it will come back later as a terrible judge. The poet puts it this way:
“Conscience, man’s most faithful friend,
Him canst thou comfort, relieve, defend;
But if he will thy friendly checks forego,
Thou art, O woe for him, his deadliest foe.”
Thomas Cranmer, once the Archbishop of Canterbury, had strong leanings toward Protestantism when Queen Mary came to the throne of England. She was Roman Catholic. She began to pressure him about his Protestant beliefs. He proceeded then to write six documents in which he affirmed that this was not so. Those documents were false because he was in truth a Protestant at that time. But he lied. He did not consult his conscience. He wrote what was not true. It did not help him any. He continually was brought to trial. There he delivered himself of a great speech you would do well to read sometime. But the concluding paragraph of that speech is the most splendid part. He said:
“Now I come to that which troubles my conscience more than any other thing that I have said or done in my life. And that is the setting abroad of certain writings which are contrary to the truth, writings which I here and now renounce as having been written by my hand but contrary to the truth that was in my heart. They were written out of fear, written in a vain attempt to save my life. And because this hand of mine has so offended in writing what was contrary to my heart, this hand, if I come to the stake, shall be first burned.”
Cranmer was condemned to die at the stake. When he came to the stake, the fire was started. Immediately, he plunged his right hand into the very midst of the flames and cried: “This was the hand that wrote it, therefore, it shall suffer first.” And he held that hand in the flames until his life was gone.
It is a painful and dreadful thing to consult your conscience too late and then to hear its word of judgment and condemnation. But when you consult your conscience in time, ah—now there is a different story.
You remember Joseph of the Old Testament? In Potiphar’s house, Mrs. Potiphar tried to seduce him. He consulted his conscience and it told him to run away. Mrs. Potiphar lied about what had happened and had Joseph arrested. He was thrown into a dungeon. Did Joseph then say: “Oh, if I had just given in, then all of the wealth of Egypt could have been mine.” He could have said that—but he didn’t. As a matter of fact Scripture records only one sentence about Joseph in that dungeon. It says: “The Lord was with him.”
And that is what makes all the difference, isn’t it? I entreat you then, in the name of Jesus Christ, to exercise yourself to always have a good conscience that it may be strong and clean and true. For then the Lord will be with you, and you will know the peace of God in your heart…