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Faith and a Good Conscience

March 14th, 2017

Holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith… (1 Tim. 1:19 ESV)

which sent you out to battle for the right armed only with your faith and a clear conscience. Some, alas, have laid these simple weapons contemptuously aside and, as far as their faith is concerned have run their ships on the rocks. ( 1 Tim. 1:19 Phillips Translation)

The call of God never comes in a vacuum. Whether the call of God is for salvation, or for deeper discipleship, or to serve the Lord vocationally, there are always personalities, situations, failures, triumphs, strengths, and weaknesses. But what is consistent is that the Lord guides us and teaches us how to follow Him through His Word and by His Spirit. We, in response, must keep faith in Him before us at all times, and keep a clean conscience – that is, we should seek to do right and regularly confess our sins when we have sinned, turning from the unholy behavior and returning to Him as Lord.

Faith always must rest upon a revelation and command of God, so our faith is only as strong as our adherence to His Word is. The more we know the more we are called to obey. “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48 NKJV). Knowledge of God’s Word alone is not enough. It must be knowledge gained with an intent to obey, as it was obedience and not mere knowledge – “teaching them to obey all things whatsoever I have commanded you” – that was given in the Great Commission for the church to teach (Matthew 28:18-20).

There are also “the spiritual forces of evil” at work in this world (Eph. 6:12 ESV). We do have an enemy, an adversary who seeks to trip us up and cause us to sin. Though we may have victory over many temptations, we still find that we fall victim to other temptations. To be tempted is not a sin, for even Christ was tempted. But we cannot assume that there is no spiritual dangers in our world, for there surely are and will be until God calls us home.

This was Paul’s point he was making for Timothy, that even ministers have fallen, have dispensed with a clear conscience and sought to continue to serve God. They thought that as long as they preached the truth, that it did not matter what they did with their personal choices. They fell back upon the grace of God so often, that they began to believe that sin did not matter at all. Eventually they found themselves entrapped in the moral addiction to evil. There is a difference between always trusting in the grace of God, always assuming that God is faithful to His Word, and “presuming upon” His grace with carelessness, with disregard for the impact of our sin – upon ourselves and upon others.

And to seek to follow Christ with a dirty conscience will eventually impact what we say to others about God’s grace. It is a unavoidable reality that when we serve like this, eventually the very message itself that we teach and preach becomes infected with sin, corrupted in some manner. “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7 NKJV).

Sometimes a dirty conscience on the part of a preacher leads him to angrily condemn sin in others, because he is angry with himself. David did this when Nathan the prophet told him the story of the man who stole his neighbor’s little lamb (2 Sam. 12:5-6). In his anger toward this fictitious criminal, David could not see straight because of his anger toward himself, because of the sin that he had not confessed. Only when Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” did David admit his sin and repent.

Sometimes a compromised conscience leads us to be unable to see sin at all, like the church in Corinth, that tolerated that which was intolerable (1 Cor. 5:1-8). Even unbelievers knew that this was wrong – the sin was that someone had taken his father’s wife as his own – but in the midst of their pride, sectarianism, and moral compromises, the church had somehow gotten off course morally. We have all heard people say things like, “Well, I’m not perfect either,” or they quote Jesus out of context, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7), or “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1).

It is one thing to love sinners, to graciously accept those who have sinned and are repentant of their sins, it is one thing to humbly go to the one who is overtaken in a fault and seek to gently restore him to Christ. It is another thing to imagine that sin is nothing at all. If sin is nothing, then grace is unnecessary and Christ died for nothing.

Surely we all stumble at different points. Surely we will all have occasions in our Christian life when we are overtaken in a fault, and when we need to confess our sins to God. Surely we will all be dealing with some personal weaknesses our entire life on earth, that no matter how much we grow spiritually, we will never escape all temptations, nor ever be in a place where we should be anything but humble and repentant. The Christian life is a life of repentance, constantly turning from sin and turning to Christ.

Yet we should also seek to maintain a good conscience, seek to obey the Lord, seek to confess our sins quickly when we do wrong, and seek to know Him better. God will uphold us if we will learn the habit of depending on Him. Do not try to stand in your strength, for you will surely fail. Learn to stand in His, and in His alone. Daily let your motto be “Not I, but Christ.”

To the work slacker Solomon said:

A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man. (Proverb 6:10-11 ESV)

And to the spiritual slacker Peter wrote:

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:8-10 ESV)

As a closing note, it is interesting that Paul used the analogy of a shipwreck for a soul with an unclean conscience. Ships are made to float freely in water, going where the captain of the vessel determines. The analogy is that the Christian life is like this, and that Jesus is our Captain. He leads and guides us in the freedom that belongs to the child of God – freedom from past offenses, freedom from addictions to sin, freedom to serve as He guides and leads. Like a ship free and safe on the ocean, so we are to be like this with God.

Shipwrecks happen, however, when ships have collided with land somewhere. They have run aground or hit a reef that could not be seen from the surface, or let a storm drive them onto rocks. The analogy is that sin is like that – the antithesis of the freedom of the gospel and of the Spirit. If we want freedom and life, follow the will of God and do not let your sin and your lust and our pride steer you onto the rugged rocks of unholiness.

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