It is vital for every Christian to keep the conscience clear. There are many things of which the world, flesh and devil may accuse us, which may be true or false. To serve well in the church, and shine light on the state, we must know we’ve done right to maintain a vibrant witness. As Paul says to Felix in his trial at Caesarea: “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience both towards God and man.”
Popularly, some call conscience ‘the Policeman of the Soul’. Vine’s Expository Dictionary defines conscience as
"...a co-knowledge with oneself, the witness borne to one’s conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend (learn or understand) the will of God, as that which is designed to govern our desires."
Every person has a God-given conscience – it is seared by sin, cleansed by Christ’s blood, realigned by chastening, and retrained and honed by Scripture.
Paul is speaking in his own defense having been mobbed by the Jews, arrested in the Temple, accused of being a plague, acting as a ringleader, starting a riot and been persecuted by Ananias – at this point in legal proceedings he is responding to Tertullus, the High Priest’s prosecution attorney. Now Paul motions to begin his own defense: he sets out to his adjudicator his devotion to Judaism, before denying unprovable false-charges, and then alluding to his conversion. He proceeds to make this statement about clearing his own conscience.
There are many reasons to keep the conscience clear: guilt avoidance, service paralysis, haunted thoughts, vain regrets, spiritual dryness, power withdrawal, discipline escape; but if we ask why Paul strives to keep a clear conscience, it seems to be clearly related to his hope of the resurrection. This was the great expectation of the Old Testament saints and Second Temple Judaism – that God would raise the dead at the General Resurrection:
Having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust – Acts 24:15
We keep a clear conscience because we will soon stand before God – all men and women from every nation will rise in bodies from their graves and appear before the Judge on that Great and Final Day (unlike most misuses of this word, that Terrible Last Assize, before the throne of Christ, is something that is properly called AWESOME - in its truest, fullest, trembling-in-your-boots sense). As is frequently stated when taking solemn vows (like marriage or ordination), we must always seek to seek, think and act just “as you will answer on the Day of Judgment.” If this reality, which will soon and surely overtake both the living and the dead, does not humble us in the dust and drive us to our knees (to keep the conscience clear), then nothing else probably will. Use this awesome thought of Christ's appearing as a healthy, daily, means of grace in order to deal properly with guilt!
Paul places one word last in sequence in order to emphasize his point. I strive to keep a clear conscience ALWAYS - that's what he really states. It is not an occasional but a regular, continual, practice – the glorious day of Christ made such an impact on his heart that, as often as required, and particularly when accused, or if faced with a moral dilemma, the apostle, by God’s light, was determined to dig down deep - his goal, of course, was to uncover the moral and motive that had determined his course of action in order to do right and purge evil from his heart. It should suffice to say that we should imitate what he states and always keep the conscience clear.
A first-person verb is used ‘I keep my conscience clear.’ Paul does not say he is the 'policeman' of others’ hearts. His great concern in conduct is to guard and watch his own steps. He is not like Pharisees who were expert sawdust spotters. Every morning he took a long hard look at his own moral complexion in the sunlight and mirror of Scripture – was there a spot on his cheek or mote in his own eye that he’d neglected or not spotted? Of course, he is not saying, we don’t need to be sensitive to the conscience of our brothers – he deals with that important point in another place (don’t tramp on fellow believers who cannot buy into your own hobbyhorse opinions that are not clearly founded on Scripture!). However, we do need to pay careful heed and attention to ourselves. Will you dear souls, for your own moral, mental and spiritual health, take care for your account and remember to keep it short?
The ESV phraseology “take pains” is certainly colorful. It could mislead however if we imagine it is a struggling, athletic-arena, metaphor. Perhaps ‘painstaking’ is clearer. My ‘A Greek Reader’s Bible’ footnote has “do my best, engage in, practice.” This spiritual activity certainly can’t be reduced to ‘had a try and failed’ accompanied by a sheepish, irresponsible, shoulder shrug. It would be de-fanged and diminished to shrink this duty to ‘give it a whirl’ or ‘have a bash and see’. Paul, in his defense, clearly implies a measure of success. It’s as if he wants to say:
“Most Excellent Felix, I am able to clear my name, because I always try to make sure, and do my level best, as far as I can, to search my heart and do what’s right.” It is on this basis, I assure you, that I didn’t cause this riot – God is my judge and I hope you see that I’m sincere.”
There needs to be a spiritual rigor in this devotional, moral, task – we cannot answer for anyone else, we are not always able to sustain the peace, other parties and factors may be involved which are beyond our own control or as yet remain concealed: what we can do is, as far as we know, sincerely in our soul, be sure we have taken all necessary steps to make a vigorous, sincere, thorough, effort to live at peace with all men, as far as it depends on us. If the outcome is adverse, make sure like Paul, that you have left no stone unturned in efforts to keep the peace. As the Maori paraphrastic closure of Psalm 19 puts it:
"See if there be some wicked way in me, cleanse me from every sin and set me free."
How can we be rigorous?
There are number of duties and disciplines that we can regularly perform to examine ourselves and search our own heart under the torchlight of the Holy Spirit through Scripture (let me know any glaring admissions or helpful suggestions and I will add them - if I'm spared - to this post to help us all engage this duty better).
1. Read Scripture – especially texts that are contrary or challenging to our feelings or impressions or natural biases and that are relevant and pertinent to the case in question for which we seek a moral answer (or assessment, or direction).
2. Apply Principles – be doers of the Word and not hearers only in order to attempt to shake our hearts free from all self-deception or delusion.
3. Reverse Mistakes – if you happen to uncover some evil moral or motive then put it right as soon and as best as you can if your are still able to rectify the situation: don’t leave the sore to fester or, as the aphorism I learned during my surgical training counsels:
‘Pus about, let it out!’
The conscience can be tender - wounds must not be left to linger.
4. Daily Confession – especially when the conscience is bothered or sensitized or pricked, take to your knees, pray God would search your heart by His Spirit, unfold the situation blow-by-blow to Him, with Scripture open before you: that should help show you were you are really at with this particular petition of concern.
5. Take Pains – not with broad brush-strokes but with a fine-toothed comb, tease out your own gnat of guilt (but don’t swallow the camel). Ask for the Holy Spirit to minister in your heart, saying: "Please shine your search light on my words, acts and thoughts to expose what as yet I cannot see!" Pray ‘If I have done wrong, show me this sin.’ Some of the Psalms are especially good for this.
6. Seek Light – all of us have at least one blind-spot: most of us, perhaps, have unknown, hidden, weaknesses too numerous to count; so ask friends to tell us uncomfortable truths, go to the elder who is not afraid to say what you might not want to hear, and ask the Lord if you still can’t see, but the conscience still is bothered, to bring some providence into your life to pull you up short.
7. Patiently Wait - the answer you see may not appear at once: stay in the prayer posture until the conscience receives disclosure.
8. Loving Course - ask yourself, in light of the self-killing crucified love of Christ: "Is there a better, wiser, kinder, purer course to take which is in keeping with the truth?" If there is, then mortify flesh, humble yourself, and seek the grace to take "a more excellent course."
...And then, and only then, if there is nothing discovered that you can find or change, walk forward in humbly in faith, maintaining a good conscience, beneath the blood of Christ.
There are two key areas, which give comprehensive scope, but provide concentrated focus, that we may never forget but always remember how to relate rightly.
The divine realm requires that we have our conscience cleansed and tenderized by God: we need daily application of the blood of Christ to our conscience, to take hold in faith of God’s promises which assure us of forgiveness – there are many verses in Scripture which pledge pardon to penitent sinners whose conscience is scarred, polluted or defiled like Exodus 34:6-7, Psalm 19:12; 32:1-6, 51:1-12, 130:7-8; Ephesians 1:7 & 1 John 1:9, among numerous others:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness …O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with Him is plentiful redemption. And He Himself will redeem Israel from all his iniquities. He who knew no sin, became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God.
The other realm, of course, is our relationship with man: broken friendships, difficult fellowships, personal grudges are brother-to-brother injuries, or family fall-outs, which act as spots on the conscience to torment if unconfessed or not made-up – Satan can use such blemishes to cripple confident service, assault us when we’re tired or accuse us nearing death. A bit like Macbeth we can try to rub out such hated spots ourselves. Yet the sure, safe, path to avoid vain regrets, or guilt-ridden panic attacks, is to take the skeleton out of the closet and silence the rattling bones by sorting it out (as far as it depends upon us). As in Paul’s case, had he offended the Jews, the matter would have been admitted in the public arena with suitable reparations made to indicate his seriousness (like Zacchaeus) - just as the Law required, which was a sure sign of true repentance.
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold" - Luke 19:8
In our case the matter will often be private – a heart humbled by guilt, corrected by Scripture, and softened by circumstances, when daylight suddenly dawns on the mind, make confessions over a cup of coffee a marvelous way to make up and clear air. It's probably also a good thing not simply to apologize fulsomely but also inquire: "Will you please forgive my offense? I will strive, by grace, never to repeat it again!" After that, we get down on our knees, in a spirit of relief, and seek God-given rest of conscience - the burden tumbles off our shoulders, and rolls off into a cave, never to be seen again, as we linger at Mount Calvary.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.
Did Yom Kippur promise, along with all the other sacrificial rituals in Leviticus, cleansing from sin for all of the People of God? Was the blood sprinkled on the altar a ‘perfect 7’ times and the scapegoat released in the wilderness never to be seen again – Leviticus 16:15-22?
And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins …For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins - Leviticus 16:21 & 30.
Since that was certainly the case, the abounding, eternal, merit of death of Christ on the Cross, designed for cleansing every conscience of all the People of God, as the Mediator of the Elect, and the Great High Priest of the Church, in the far-superior order of Melchizedek, has infinitely greater effect!
How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the Eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot or blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the Living God – Hebrews 9:14.
Through the means of grace, by the light of God’s Word, let the Spirit bring you, to appear kneeling often before the Father - approach, through the blood of Jesus His Son, the throne of Mercy and Grace, to re-make our conscience clean: sweep it clear of every dead work, so you can serve the living God, with boldness and confidence – Hebrews 4:11-16
Wash me… and I shall be whiter than snow …Come now, let us reason together - though your sins are like scarlet they shall be white as snow; though your sins are red like crimson they shall be white as wool - Psalm 51, Isaiah 1