A Matter of Conscience
The letter to the Hebrews is book of contrasts between the 'old' and the 'new'. The writer commences by contrasting the ways in which God revealed Himself and His purpose ‑ by prophets and by His Son. He then refers to salvation and worship, law and covenant, priest and sacrifice, to show how much better the new is than the old. The first arrangement foreshadowed the second so that we have a better priest who offers a better sacrifice; a better lawgiver and a better law. The new sacrifice really cleanses sin and enables us to worship in the presence of God wherever we are. The centre of this great and purposeful scheme is Jesus, Lord of glory and God's only Son, who has opened the way for all who will accept Him, to reach the centre of the Universe, to reach the presence of God Himself.
To accept that awe-inspiring invitation, children of Adam, sinful and weak, must first submit to God's way of doing things. He has provided a means of cleansing from sin and reconciliation to Himself through the work that Jesus did while on Earth. That work was the giving of Himself in total obedience to God's will. The satisfying of justice can hardly work in the same way as human law courts although various human expressions and illustrations give us a clue as to what Jesus has done. Those who would "climb to that immortal abode", into the eternal light, must first totally surrender their lives to God and confess total inability to put themselves right with Him. They must accept that the only way to be cleansed, purified and made holy in God's sight is to accept Jesus as the one who redeems and provides a way of escape from a sinful life. Yet every believer knows that even after they have surrendered to God to obey His law they continue to do, say and think the 'unloving' thing, repeatedly every day. But God's plan provides a way out of that also and it is found in 1 John 1.9 "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
That forgiveness and cleansing is real. It is not an ethical fiction because He is faithful and just and He cannot do wrong. We may not understand the judicial mechanisms that bring that cleansing about but we can experience the freedom of conscience which God's forgiveness brings. In fact we can begin to understand what it means to re-educate our conscience so that it become sensitive to our failure to do what God wants us to do ‑ His will. The old system with its high priest and animal sacrifices could not do that however much the sinner wanted to be free(Rom.7).
The word 'conscience' is not easy to define. It is an expression that hardly occurs in the Bible until the time of Paul, and the letters of Peter and James. The Greek word for conscience is 'sunideisis' does not occur in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament used in the New Testament. There are ideas and expressions that appear to have some reference to what we know as 'conscience'. One of the earliest of these is recorded in Gen.42.21 when Joseph's brothers were accused of spying in Egypt. Reuben had realised at the time of the sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelites how wrong it was and as they stood in the Egyptian palace he reminded them of their terrible crime.
Perhaps the life and work of David contain some of the most interesting expression which relate to what we now call conscience. When he was a fugitive from the King, he was hiding in a cave when Saul entered the cave with some of his military men without knowing their 'quarry' was further in than they were. David had the opportunity while the king slept to cut off a piece of the royal garment and then with his men make a get away. When the king eventually came out of the cave his attention was drawn to David at a safe distance. The young man who Saul wanted to kill could have killed the king but would not put forth his hand to slay the Lord's anointed. As it was, David was "stricken to the heart" (NRSV) because he had damaged the clothing of the Lord's anointed.
In the next chapter, with reference to David's altercation with Nabal, Abigail made a valiant effort to pacify David. She referred to the future when David as God's appointed king would not want the memory of 'innocent blood' and said "this shall be no grief unto thee nor offence of heart" (1 Sam.25.31). In the RSV that phrase is translated "no cause for grief or pangs of conscience". In effect this confirms the translation in the previous chapter as 'conscience' for 'heart'. The use of words connected with human life and body is a study in itself and is not always clearly understood.
In the fulness of his life as king, David broke several commandments and behaved in a way toward Bathsheba and her husband Uriah that greatly displeased the Lord (2 Sam.11). He stole his neighbour's wife and then tried to cover his sin with deception. Failing in this attempt he had Uriah placed in a position in battle that was tantamount to murder. The prophet Nathan visited David (2 Sam.12), told the King a parable about a rich man who stole a poor man's solitary lamb in order to provide a meal for a visitor. David said that the man deserved to die and pronounced judgment that he should repay the poor man four-fold. Nathan then said to David "You are the man" and David was overcome with grief. His awakened conscience at last revealed what he had done. His feelings are expressed in Psalm 51 and its sentiments are so often applicable to us. David wanted God to search his heart and he realised that his crime was against God for he had broken four commandments and infringed the covenant. Offence against a fellow Israelite was an offence against God and it is a salutary lesson to us for we too are in covenant with God and our relationship to Him includes all those who are in Christ. We cannot choose our Christian brothers and sisters any more than the those in Israel could choose their fellow-Israelites. Any hurt or offence against those in Christ is an offence against God. We do well to echo the sentiments of Psalm 51 ‑ often.
Later still in David's life, he decided to play the 'numbers game'. And we Christians sometimes in pride do that, about who and what we are. Why David felt he needed a census we are not told. Was it pride or a failure to trust God completely? Even Joab, unpleasant fellow that he could be, tried to dissuade David from numbering his people. The ultimate result was that God punished David in a way that caused suffering to many Israelite subjects and again we are told that "David was stricken to the heart" ‑ another possible reference to conscience.
The wonderful prayers of Nehemiah (1.7), Ezra (9.6) and Daniel (9.3) reveal men of sensitive conscience. They were probably the most upright of men of their generation yet they each in turn expressed their sorrow for the sin of their people in which they felt involved. It is a further evidence of the solidarity of a covenanted people ‑ when one sins they all sin ‑ and there is a need for all to accept blame and responsibility for it.
There are one or two occasions in the Gospels when the idea of conscience appears to be surfacing. Two of these are at the time of the crucifixion. Peter, during the trial before the High Priests denied that he knew Jesus, as the latter had predicted. As the cock crew Jesus words came to Peter and he realised that, in spite of his protests, he had denied his Master. He wept bitterly ‑ were those tears the sign of a deeply troubled conscience? In after days Peter wrote in his first letter, "... baptism which this prefigured now saves you ‑ not as the removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
Judas discovered that he had been terribly wrong to betray an innocent man but his tragedy occurred because he did not know Jesus. Had he have done so he would have gone to him on the cross and begged for forgiveness. Instead he took his own life for in his blind conceit he could see no other course open to him ‑ he will in the resurrection.
The Greek word for 'conscience ‑ 'sunideisis' first occurs in the New Testament in Luke's record of Paul's defence before the Sanhedrin during his last recorded visit to Judea. (Acts 23.1) Paul insists that his conscience is clear and again before Felix at Caesarea he makes the same claim (Acts 24.16). Several times in writing to churches Paul claims to have a clear conscience and urges the brethren to be the same (2 Tim 1.3; 1 Tim.1.19; 2 Cor.4.2)
The 'matter of conscience' figures prominently when Paul is advising the churches at Corinth and Rome concerning the practice of using for food, meat that had been presented to idols as a sacrifice. Paul is aware that eating such food has no spiritual or physical dangers but he urges those who agree with him not to offend or tempt any who do believe it to be wrong to eat such meat.
In making this point concerning this meat sold in the common market but derived from pagan temples, Paul is drawing to us all, a principle concerning unnecessarily offending a fellow Christian's conscience. Such a principle is operative in differences of understanding concerning 'keeping the Lord's day' ‑ not unlike Paul's comments in Romans 14. The principle is that we don't cause others to 'stumble' by doing or saying something which others believe to be wrong. There is freedom in Christ but it is wrong to use that freedom to hurt another's conscience.
Throughout much of Scripture including the whole New Testament, God's people are exhorted ‑ encourage ‑ commanded ‑ to have good will toward the civil government under which they live. Paul makes this doubly clear in Romans 13.5 when he writes that we must be subject to the State not only to avoid God wrath and man's displeasure but for conscience sake. This should be part of our true spiritual moral behaviour and in the end it is like all Biblical rules ‑ it is the most logical way of life.
Writing to Timothy (1 Tim.1.19) Paul urges the young elder of Ephesus to fight the good fight of faith and have a good conscience. In this way he asserts the value of conscience in our Christian life and warns of those who reject conscience. From a human point of view rejecting conscience is to ignore the value of one's upbringing and life's experience. It occurs through blundering through life without proper thought ‑ much more it comes from selfish ambition to get ones own way at any cost. It must be entirely contrary to the Christian faith and the God who leads us from what is wrong to what is right.
So we may return to that text in Hebrews 10.22 where the writer insists "let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." Whatever the problem if our hearts are sincere then our consciences can be clear because of our trust in Jesus Christ.
But we may still be wondering what conscience is. It is not easy to define but it involves a consciousness of sin. In Romans, chapters 1 and 2, Paul discusses the position of the unbelieving Gentiles. They should know the difference between right and wrong because God has placed something of His law in their hearts and Paul reiterates this in Rom.2.15 showing that some Gentiles outside the Law Covenant keep the Law more perfectly than the Jews who had the Law.
From this we may infer that Paul teaches, as indeed do some philosophers in ethics, that conscience is innate ‑ a gift from God with which we are born. It may also be a distinctively human trait which animal do not have because they are 'controlled' by instinct. But people's consciences can differ widely as, for example, in the matter of warfare and whether or not it is right to kill an enemy in time of war. A person's conscience is often regulated by the national and social background of the people among whom that person is brought up. Such a social unit shares common values and prohibitions. The influences of national habits, education, religious beliefs, and even environmental constraints can affect the 'voice of conscience'.
Whatever the natural influences have been, when persons surrender their life to God, then whatever the human weakness and deficiencies, however far steeped in the degrading influences of an evil society, God's work of cleansing through Jesus Christ is totally effective. Sensitivity of conscience may be one of the first signs of the working of the Holy Spirit in the human mind. Many of God's children are slow to enjoy the presence of their Father in their lives and thereby fail to hear His voice in their consciousness. This is not an audible voice but it is more than studying His Word or listening to formal or informal conversations from godly people. This is a deep inner consciousness that God is there, within the heart indicating clearly His will. Our touchstone for every decision and choice. Is God's Word and He does not say anything to our hearts which cannot be supported by the Holy Scriptures.
We live in a very different social and political culture from any who lived in the first century and we need to come to terms with the very varied influences which affect our manner of life ‑ our life style. The massive changes in technology and the media by which we are bombarded every day could, if allowed to do so, erode our sensitivity of conscience. The impact of science, the enormous increase in wealth, the social and actual mobility has completely changed during the twentieth century. What is all this doing to us?
"Whatever is not of faith is sin" wrote Paul to the Roman Church. How much of what we do is "not of faith"? How does that affect the way we get our money ‑ and how we spend it? How does that affect the way we use our leisure time and how we influence other people? What may be perfectly right and justifable for the world may not be for one who has "presented their all to God as a living sacrifice?"
These considerations should not frighten us. Our Heavenly Father is only a prayer away. Jesus bade us to take no anxious thought and described His Father in terms of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. God just longs to talk over with us our concerns ‑ our anxieties and our weakness. He can help us face each problem and He knows all the answers. But we need to take time in this supposedly busy world to be with Him. "Take time to be holy, the world rushes on" ran the old hymnů."spend much time in secret with Jesus alone."
Our consciences should become more sensitive ‑ more aware of what God wants us to be and to do. They should become more adjusted to his utterly pure and upright standard. But he does not expect them to do overtime in worry and uncertainty. God knows us and cares for us ‑ and in the end we must leave all our concerns with Him.
The older order of life within the community of Israel and its covenant could not provide a way of worship to God because it was one of outward appearance and not a change of heart. Through Christ, no matter what we have done to displease Him, there is a way to back to God and so long as we allow conscience to have a voice, we shall always be able to find that way.
There is a door that is always ‑ will always be open until we shut it by destroying our own conscience in persistent sin. But our sins have been paid for in full, there is nothing ‑ nothing that Christ cannot cleanse. We have a conscience regulated by the Gospel which really remains cleansed so long as we turn to Him for forgiveness and that is our privilege until we reach the end of the road.
Search me, O God, and know my heart today;
Try me O Lord and know my thoughts I pray:
See if there be some wicked way in me,
Cleanse me from every sin and set me free.
Mission Praise 587