7-12-3-3 A Good Conscience "Purged...to serve"
We have a conscience which in God's eyes is cleansed of sin, knowing that our sin has been overcome once and for all, and that we have access to this through baptism. Our hearts were purified by that faith (Acts 15:9); we were cleansed from the conscience of sins (Heb. 9:14); all things became pure to us (Tit. 1:15; Rom. 14:20). This is a good conscience, Biblically defined. When Paul said he had a pure conscience before God, they smote him for blasphemy (Acts 23:1,2); there is an association between a clear conscience and perfection (Heb. 9:9; 10:14). A clear conscience therefore means an awareness that in God's eyes, we have no sin. Thus Paul's conscience could tell him that he was living a life which was a response to his experience of God's grace / forgiveness (2 Cor. 1:12). The conscience works not only negatively; it insists that we do certain things. It may even be that the goads against which Paul was kicking before his conversion were not the pricks of bad conscience, but rather the positive directions from God that he ought to be giving his life to the service of His Son. Whilst we may still have twinges of guilt, and sins to confess, from God's viewpoint the slate is clean, and has been since our baptism. It is impossible to believe this without some kind of response:
- We are purged in our conscience so that we might serve the living God (Heb. 9:14)
- On account of our cleansed conscience, we like the priests " draw nigh" to God (Heb. 10:22); the language (in the LXX) of priestly service
- The result of a good conscience is love- and love isn't inactive (1 Tim. 1:4,5)
- Actions are a proof that we have a good conscience (1 Jn. 3:18-22)
- Having the cleansed conscience of sins compels us to be obedient to Governments (Rom. 13:5)
- Paul served God with his good conscience (2 Tim. 1:3)
- A good way of life and a good conscience are bracketed together in 1 Pet. 3:16
- For the sake of our conscience, we should endure persecution after the pattern of Christ on the cross (1 Pet. 2:19-22). He did not hang there fearing a bad conscience; it was his clear, sinless conscience before God which motivated him to endure.
It ought to be clear from all this that there is a compelling power in realizing our forgiveness; the wonder of the fact that God looks at us as in Christ, as without sin, as having a good conscience cleansed from sin, will of itself constrain us to serve Him. There is, therefore, a link between conscience and behaviour. It isn't so much that we only do certain jobs or refuse army service etc. because we fear a bad conscience, or we fear we might get into a situation where we might get a bad conscience; the surpassing excellence of our experience of God's grace will positively bring forth a way of life in us which of itself precludes certain occupations (e.g. munitions), bearing arms, etc.
The Positive God
The motivation we have for refusing the call of this present, passing world is so great. The glorious, wondrous Truth of our salvation and this " good conscience" is really beyond articulation in human language. If we can just catch sight of it for a moment, if we can see the burning zeal of God Almighty for our salvation, His Name coming from far burning with redemptive zeal, as Isaiah saw it, if we can enter into the passion of the struggling Saviour as He groaned for our forgiveness, or into the power of His resurrection and endless life; then the motivating power will rush through our veins: to rise up and respond, to be separate from this world and separated unto the things of the Kingdom. " We are more than conquerors through him that loved us" . A fine phrase; more than conquerors; not just conquerors. I could heap up example after example of this positive, more than positive, way in which God deals with us.
Paul in Romans does it better than I ever could; his logic is so incisive. He reasons, for example, that if God so loved us that He gave His Son to die in agony for us, before we were born, " while we were yet sinners" , how much more does He show His love to us now that we have accepted the Lord Jesus? And further, if the love of God was shown so powerfully through the death of Christ, how much more (if we can even begin to comprehend it) was achieved through the resurrection? And even yet further (and this is classic Paul), if the gift of His Son on Calvary was the supremest expression of God's love, to give us a place in the Kingdom is absolutely certain; if God didn't spare His Son's death, to have mercy on you and me at the judgment requires far less from Him than what He has already given; and so surely He will give us that place which we seek; and not only a place in the Kingdom, but all things; because the gift of Christ on the cross was the greatest gift, therefore " all things" is less than that, and therefore surely He will give them to those for whom Christ died. And so the logic goes on and on and on. And " what shall we say to these things?" . The answer is- a good conscience.
The very way the Bible is written reflects God's positive attitude towards His people, and His repeated imputation of righteousness to us. Just consider these examples(1):
- The disciples are said not to have believed " for joy" (Lk. 24:41). But the Lord upbraided them for their arrant foolishness and plain unbelief. They slept, we are told, “for sorrow”- when they should have stayed awake as commanded. Despite His peerless faith, the Lord Jesus marvelled at the extent of other's faith (Mt. 8:10); and the Gospels stress how sensitive He was to the faith of others (Mt. 9:2,22,29; 15:28; Mk. 5:34; 10:52; Lk. 7:9,50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42). Yet measured by His standards, they probably hard knew what faith was. Yet He " marvelled" at their faith, even uttering an exclamation, it seems, on one occasion (Mt. 8:10). Their sleepiness is excused in the statement " for their eyes were heavy" (Mk. 14:40), even though their falling asleep at that time was utterly shameful. The chief rulers are described as believing on Christ (Jn. 12:42), even though their faith was such a private affair at that time that it was hardly faith at all. such a Lord of grace gives every reason for us to have a good conscience before Him. Despite the fact that when the crisis of the cross tested their faith, the disciples really didn't believe, the Lord spoke so positively of their faith, despite knowing that they would all scatter from Him: " My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God and do it" (Lk. 8:21). He spoke of how that band of rough, mixed up men were filled with the joy of little bridesmaids because He was among them (Lk. 5:34). Now this is an essay in imputed righteousness. When He most needed them, they fell asleep. Yet He kindly says that their spirit is willing but their flesh was weak (Mk. 14:38); yet elsewhere, the Lord rigorously demonstrates that mental attitudes are inevitably reflected in external behaviour, and therefore the difference between flesh and spirit in this sense is minimal.
- Whether the woman of Mk. 14:8 really understood that she was anointing His body for burial is open to question. But the Lord graciously imputed this motive to her. The women who came to the garden tomb weren't looking for the risen Lord; they came to anoint the body (Mk. 16:3). But their love of the Lord was counted to them as seeking Him (Mt. 28:5).
- Job was anything but patient. “What is mine end, that I should be patient?” (Job 6:11 RV). He justified his “rash” words on account of his sufferings (6:3). “Why should I not be impatient?”, he argues (21:4 RV). And yet…”You have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord, that the Lord is very pitiful” (James 5:11). Surely “the end of the Lord” was that He imputed righteousness to His servant, counting an impatient man as patient? This surely strengthens our faith in His grace, so that we can have the cleansed, good conscience.
- David was, in God's opinion, a man after His own heart, who fulfilled all His will (Acts 13:22). Yet this is the God whose ways are not, and cannot be, ours. Yet this is how humble He is, and how positive His view of a faithful servant.
- At the shores of the Red Sea, it seems Moses' faith wavered, and he prayed something at best inappropriate. All we read is God's response: " Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward" (Ex. 14:15). It seems that Moses' 'cry' isn't recorded- by grace. Likewise it seems Zacharias probably said far more than " Whereby shall I know this?" when Gabriel told him he would soon have a son. It would seem the conversation went on for so long that the people outside wondered why he was staying so long. Presumably he remonstrated with the Angel with other, graciously unrecorded words, and thereby earnt the punishment of dumbness (Lk. 1:18-22).
- The people sacrificed in high places because there was no temple (1 Kings 3:2). But this is really a generous excuse. It wasn’t God’s intention there should be a temple for worship; there was one place where the Name dwelt, therefore the lack of a temple did not justify worshipping in the high places; and several times the people are criticized for doing just this. And yet the record in this place is so positive and almost justifying of the people.
- Israel made a captain and set about to return to Egypt (Neh. 9:17). But this is omitted in the historical record; it simply says that this is what they thought of doing (Num. 14:4). The depth of their apostasy is graciously unrecorded.
- Asa is recorded as serving God just as well as David, when actually this wasn't the case; but God counted him as righteous (1 Kings 15:11). The incomplete faith of men like Baruch was counted as full faith by later inspiration (Jud. 4:8,9 cp. Heb. 11:32). Sometimes the purges of idolatry by the kings is described in undoubtedly exaggerated language- such was God's joy that at least something was being done? Israel never really wholeheartedly committed themselves to Yahweh, and yet 2 Chron. 20:33 positively and hopefully says: " As yet the people had not prepared their hearts unto the God of their fathers" . They never did.
- The Lord saw the zeal of the mixed up, uncertain, misunderstanding disciples as storm troopers taking the city of the Kingdom of God by force- knowing exactly where they were coming from and where they were going (Mt. 11:12).
- The descriptions of the faithful in the Kingdom use language which is surely exaggerated; they overcame even as the Lord overcame (Rev. 3:21). They are described as clothed in white linen, just as was the Victorious Saviour straight after His death (Mt. 27:59). A comparison of our struggles with the Lord in Gethsemane, let alone the cross, reveal that we do not overcome as He did. We have not resisted unto blood in striving against our own sin. We will have the right to the tree of life (Rev. 22:14); yet our salvation is by pure grace alone. We are " meet" to be partakers of the inheritance, we walk worthy of the Lord Jesus unto all pleasing of him (Col. 1:10-12), the labourers receive the penny of salvation, that which is their right (Mt. 20:14). We are either seen as absolutely perfect, or totally wicked, due to God's imputation of righteousness or evil to us (Ps. 37:37). There is no third way. The pure in heart see God, their righteousness (to God) exceeds that of the Pharisees, no part of their body offends them or they pluck it out; they are perfect as their Father is (Mt. 5:8,20,29,48). Every one of the faithful will have a body even now completely full of light, with no part dark (Lk. 11:36); we will walk, even as the Lord walked (1 Jn. 2:6). These impossible standards were surely designed by the Lord to force us towards a real faith in the imputed righteousness which we can glory in; that the Father really does see us as this righteous. Men have risen up to this. David at the end of his life could say that he was upright and had kept himself from his iniquity (2 Sam. 22:21-24). He could only say this by a clear understanding of the concept of imputed righteousness. Paul's claim to have always lived in a pure conscience must be seen in the same way.
The Example Of Israel
" Some" Jews didn't believe (Rom. 3:3); the majority, actually, but the Father is more gentle than that. The whole tragic history of God's relationship with Israel is a sure proof of His essentially positive character. Right at their birth by the Red Sea, the Almighty records that " the people feared Yahweh, and believed Yahweh, and his servant Moses" (Ex. 14:23). No mention is made of the Egyptian idols they were still cuddling (we don't directly learn about them until Ez. 20). Nor of the fact that this " belief" of theirs lasted a mere three days; nor of the fact that they rejected Moses, and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. " There was no strange god" with Israel on their journey (Dt. 32:12); but there were (Am. 5:26). The reconciliation is that God counted as Israel as devoted solely to Him. The Angel told Moses that the people would probably want to come up the mountain, closer to God, when in fact in reality they ran away when they saw the holiness of God; almost suggesting that the Angel over-estimated their spiritual enthusiasm (Ex. 19:21-24 cp. 20:18). Likewise the Angel told Moses that the people would hear him, " and believe thee for ever" (Ex. 19:9). Things turned out the opposite. At this time, God saw no iniquity in Israel (Num. 23:21). He fulfilled His promise at Sinai that if they were obedient, He would make them His people; and He did, counting them as obedient. Yet the events of the intervening forty years hardly sound like Israel being obedient; He " suffered their manners" forty years (Ps. 95:10; Acts 13:18). Yet this is how they were counted (Ex. 19:5 cp. Dt. 27:9). He saw them as a young woman 'going after' Him in the wilderness years, attracted to Him (Jer. 2:2). Even when we do read of the sin of Israel at this time, God grieved over the carcasses of those He slew (Heb. 3:17).
Even when God punished Israel, He seems to later almost take the blame for their judgments; thus He says that He left some of the Canaanite nations in the land to teach Israel battle experience (Jud. 3:2 NIV), whereas elsewhere the presence of those remaining nations is clearly linked to Israel's faithlessness, and their survival in the land was actually part of God's punishment of Israel. He almost excuses Israel's apostasy by saying that they had not seen the great miracles of the Exodus (Jud. 2:7). " The portion of the children of Judah was too much for them" (Josh. 19:9) almost implies God made an error in allocating them too much; when actually the problem was that they lacked the faith to drive out the tribes living there. Likewise " the coast of the children of Dan went out too little for them" (Josh. 19:47), although actually " The Amorites forced the children of Dan into the mountain: for they would not suffer them to come down to the valley" (Jud. 1:34). When Dan fought against Leshem, this one act of obedience is so magnified in Josh. 19:47 to sound as if in their zeal to inherit their territory they actually found they had too little land and therefore attacked Leshem. But actually it was already part of their allotted inheritance. Yet God graciously comments: " all their inheritance had not fallen unto them among the tribes of Israel" (Jud. 18:1). Further such examples at the time of the conquest could be furnished; they are epitomized in the conclusion: " The Lord gave unto Israel all the land...and they possessed it, and dwelt therein...there stood not a man of all their enemies before them" (Josh. 21:43,44). But their enemies did stand before them, they didn't possess all the land. Yet God puts it over so positively, as if it's a story with a happy ending- when actually it's a tragedy. Even when rebuking them, God sees them as in some ways " perfect" (Is. 42:18-20). Israel were like Sodom, and yet they weren't treated like Sodom (Is. 1:9,10). They were Jeshurun, the upright one, but they kicked at God (Dt. 32:15). Their request for a human king was, as God Himself mightily demonstrated to them, an utter rejection of Him, and He grieved because of it. And yet when God gave them a King, He expresses His decision in quite a different tone: " I will send thee a man (Saul)...that he may save my people out of the hand of the Philistines: for I have looked upon my people, because their cry is come unto me" (1 Sam. 9:16). God speaks as if the gift of Saul was akin to the provision of Moses, to save poor Israel from their unwarranted persecution. Actually, Saul was slain by the Philistines- in His foreknowledge, the Almighty knew all about Saul. But in His pure grace, He doesn't reflect this in the way He speaks at this time.
Later, just because Judah were a bit better than Israel, the Spirit says: " Judah yet ruleth with God, and is faithful with the saints" (Hos. 11:12). But just two verses later: " Yahweh hath also a controversy with Judah" (Hos. 12:2). And poor Israel are pitied by the Spirit " as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused" (Is. 54:6). This is incredible. Israel treacherously went after every young man of the nations she saw, it was her who grieved and refused God; and yet here, the gracious Sovereign puts in all round the other way, as if she was the sweet young wife who was refused and subsequently lived life with a broken soul. There is a powerful logic in all this. If this was the love of God for His people Israel, how much more does He love us who at least try to respond through His Son? It is a struggle for us to really believe all this. It was the struggle of the Egyptian shepherd girl of the Song who just couldn't accept Solomon's protestations of love. She felt that her perfume had lost its fragrance (Song 1:12 Heb., cp. Jud. 16:19 Hebrew). She felt ugly before Him, unworthy of His love. And yet she struggled against this sense of unworthiness. She saw His love, and fain would believe it.
But our own experience of God's grace should surely indicate that for us, it needn't be such a struggle. We really can believe it, and have a thoroughly cleansed and good conscience because of it. This God of absolute grace and enthusiasm for our redemption really is our God, and is manifested in our Lord Jesus. When finally He appears, we shall be able to say that " Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him" ; He will be the character that we expect Him to be. The Christian who thinks his Lord is a hard man will find Him like this; but to us who know Him as the Lord of all grace, this is how He will surely be. In the meantime, our experience of Him and His character will in itself lead us to the positive expression of His Name in every aspect of our existence: from our objection to violent military activity, to our speech, even right down to our body language.
(1) There is more discussion of this in Enduring To The End (Endpiece).