March 10, 2014 Broadcast

The Question of Conscience

A Message by R.C. Sproul

From the hardest criminal, to the gentlest child, everyone has a conscience. But where does conscience come from? This powerful inner voice helps us know right from wrong. But can we influence it? Or is it unalterable? These are the questions of conscience.

From the series: Building a Christian Conscience

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Awakened Conscience

  2. devotional

    Avoiding a Hardened Conscience

  3. article

    Clean Hands, Clean Heart

The Awakened Conscience

The Scriptures tell us that all men have sinned and stand guilty before God. He proclaims this condemnation not only through His Word, but through the testimony of the conscience—a testimony that can be an irritating whisper in some and an excruciating bellow in others. Martin Luther said, "Although I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt myself to be a sinner before God with a most unquiet conscience. . . .I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners . . . Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience." God used this tormenting conscience in Luther to awaken him to his need of a righteousness outside of himself and to drive him to the Cross.

"Conscience, once awakened by an array of spiritual light, is an awful thing," James Buchanan wrote. As the Holy Spirit shakes our conscience from its slumber, it produces a tenacious testimony of our guilt until we confess and repent before Christ. By the power of the Spirit and the instruction of the Word, the newly active conscience watches for sin and needles us until we confess. Once we have peace with God through Christ, it soothes and comforts as it reminds us that we have forgiveness in Him. The conscience keeps the eye of faith focused on Christ when we are flooded with temptations. When you sin, you know you have an advocate in Christ, and you know you have the freedom to confess and find forgiveness with Him. The unbeliever has no such comfort because his conscience finds no peace in Jesus Christ, only condemnation.

Only by the work of the Holy Spirit can a person's conscience transform from a flood of condemnation into a wellspring of comfort. Only by His power can the mind, the desires, and the will come into harmony in obedience to the will of God. By His Spirit, God applies the work of Christ and awakens the conscience to see the odiousness of sin. By His Spirit, the conscience accepts the judgments of God in faith, understands His law, discerns the motivations of the heart, and executes its duties properly as the sergeant of our souls. The awakened conscience clearly sees sin for what it is, accepts its consequences, finds peace in Christ, and comforts the one who has forgiveness with God.

Avoiding a Hardened Conscience

We are warned not to allow ourselves to become hardened, because if we look at the whole concept of hardening in its biblical perspective, we see that something happens to us through repeated sins. Our consciences become seared. The more we commit a particular sin, the less remorse we feel from it. Our hearts are recalcitrant through repeated disobedience.

When God hardens the heart, all He does is step away and stop striving with us. For example, the first time I commit a particular sin, my conscience bothers me. In His grace, God is convicting me of that evil. God is intruding into my life, trying to persuade me to stop this wickedness. If He wants to harden me, all He has to do is to stop rebuking me, stop nudging me, and just give me enough rope to hang myself.

We see in Scripture that when God hardens hearts, He does not force people to sin; rather, He gives them their freedom to exercise the evil of their own desires (James 1:13–15).

Clean Hands, Clean Heart

Anthony Carter

I had some dental work done recently. Thankfully, I had a good dentist who did his best to make the experience as stress-free as possible. While I did not relish the idea of having to have my tooth operated on, today I am more than thankful for it. During this process, however, I learned something. I learned how long doctors and nurses, especially dentists, are supposed to wash their hands before and after surgery. A minimum of three minutes of scrubbing is required. I don’t think I have ever washed my hands for three minutes. In fact, when I’m hungry and dinner is on the table, three seconds usually suffices.

Nevertheless, it was comforting to know that those who would be touching the inside of my mouth were required to wash and scrub thoroughly. Yet all the scrubbing and washing did raise a question for me. If we can understand the need for cleanliness with doctors, how much more must be the case with those who would serve the Holy God?

The Word of God reminds us that one of the gracious blessings of the blood of Christ is that it cleanses our consciences. It is used in the scrubbing and washing of our consciences and creates clean hands with which we are able to serve and worship the living God. According to Hebrews 9:13–14, “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

The text says that Christ, through His blood, purifies our consciences. The conscience is the place of reality where the truth is told. The conscience is the place out of which guilt arises, where condemnation and liberty fight for the life of a person. We are all seeking to have clear consciences, but the Bible reminds us that we must not only have clear consciences (Acts 24:16; Heb. 13:18) but also clean consciences (Heb. 10:22) — consciences purged from dead deeds so that we might love and worship the living God. Thus, the washing and scrubbing of hands for three minutes or three hours is not paramount, but the washing of the conscience from sin and guilt. This comes only by the blood of Jesus. The blood of Jesus gives us what we most desperately need, namely, clean consciences producing clean hands.

In Psalm 24, the question is raised: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (vv. 3–4). The requirement for ascending to the place of God in worship is that our hands are clean and our hearts purified. The quest ion then becomes, “Who has clean hands and a pure heart?” The answer is Jesus. The only one I know who has such hands and such a heart is Jesus our Lord. The Bible reminds us that He has ascended the holy hill. He has entered the holy place, not by the temporal washing of the blood of goats and calves (Heb. 9:12), but by His own blood. By entering in, He has made a way for you and me to enter in as well (Heb. 10:19).

Does Jesus have clean hands? Yes, and so do all who have been washed in His blood. Is Jesus of a pure heart? Yes, and so are those who have been scrubbed by His blood. Through the blood of Christ, our consciences have been cleared and cleansed. Because of the blood of Christ, we are able to serve and worship God.

Nevertheless, we must remember that we don’t clean our own hands. We don’t free our own consciences. This was the arrogance and condemnation of Pilate. He tried to wash his hands of the guilt of Christ. The Bible says, “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood’” (Matt. 27:24). While the dirt may have been removed from his hands, his conscience could not be cleansed with water. Ironically, the blood that he tried to wash away was the only blood that could have made him clean. Contrast that with Paul, who said that he served and worshiped God with a “clear conscience” (2 Tim. 1:3). The difference is that Pilate proposed to wash himself from the blood of Christ, while Paul knew himself to be washed in the blood of Christ.

If the blood of Christ is required for us to have clear and clean consciences, the questions for you and me are simple: “Have we been to Jesus for His cleansing power? Are we washed in the blood of the Lamb? Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour? Is your conscience washed in the blood of the Lamb?”

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