Renewing Your Conscience
Psalm 51; Hebrews 10:19-22
July 6, 2003 | Brian Bill
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the handiest hammer in the toolbox when it comes to home repairs. Within a 24-hour period of time several years ago, our toilet started running nonstop, our garage door opener stopped working, and the plumbing under our kitchen sink detonated!
I was really proud of how I handled the situation. When the toilet spazzed out, I solved the problem by turning off the water and instructed our family to use the other bathroom. I was practicing what counselors call “denial.” When the garage door opener stopped working, I unplugged it and told Beth that we now have a manual unit. I showed her how to open and close the door by hand and tried to get her to run out of the house and open the garage for me whenever I blew the horn on my car. Let’s just say that didn’t go over very well! And, when our plumbing exploded by expelling water all over the kitchen, I threw the vise grip on the floor, stormed out of the kitchen and very maturely exclaimed, “Why’d you marry me? I can’t fix anything!”
I was a dangerous man during those 24 hours. My second career as a plumber plummeted and my self-image headed south. One of the most frustrating things for me was that when I tried to make things better, they just got worse. I went to the Hardware Store to buy a replacement part for the toilet only to discover that I bought the wrong one. When I returned it and got the right one, the toilet still leaked. When I tried to tighten the connections on the plumbing under the sink, it only made the water spray out more. And, before I disconnected the garage door opener, I grabbed our favorite kitchen chair to stand on. After I was done, I looked down and saw that I had smeared grease all over it.
Since no one knew that I had taken our best chair out into the garage, I snuck back into the house to look for some spot remover. I grabbed the bottle and some paper towels and tried to wipe off the black grease. Some of it came off, but the harder I rubbed, the deeper the grease worked itself into the chair. I decided to leave it in the garage for the night. I was hoping the stain would somehow miraculously evaporate by morning!
The next morning Beth asked about the chair. I told her that it was a little discolored and that the grease matched the stains on our other furniture. We used that chair for years with the stain serving as a permanent reminder of my brief and unsuccessful foray into home repair.
Can any of you relate to my experience? Let me ask a different question. Have you ever tried to fix some things in your personal life only to make a bigger mess? I suspect that some of you have tried to get rid of some stains from your conscience. Is there something from your past that you’ve been trying to cover up? Perhaps you’re still rubbing at it, hoping it will go away. Or maybe your conscience is weak and you’re not sure if you can even trust it anymore.
In Acts 24:16, the Apostle Paul reminds us that he worked hard to keep his conscience clean: “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.” The word “strive” means “to exercise” or “train.” Are you exercising your conscience so that it is clear before God? Is it pure in your relationships with people? If so, it’s because you’re doing some “heart maintenance.” I applaud you. Keep it up. If you don’t have a clear conscience, then you have some sweating to do this morning as we tackle four repair projects.
Recognizing that I’m in no position to give advice on home repairs, I would instead like to suggest a conscience repair and renewal program. We’ll first work on the “weak” conscience. It can be weak due to our background or because of our behavior. We’ll conclude by going after the “guilty” conscience, recognizing that there is a difference between true guilt and false guilt.
The Weak Conscience
1. A conscience weakened by background.
The early church existed in a culture that sacrificed meat to pagan idols. When people were converted to Christianity from that background they struggled when they observed other believers tearing into a T-bone steak. Was it wrong to eat meat? Some had no problem with this at all, while others felt that by eating meat a person could become spiritually contaminated.
Paul discusses this issue in Romans 14-15 and 1 Corinthians 8. Since we studied the Romans passage in our Body Building series earlier this year, please turn to 1 Corinthians 8:1-8. Paul is appealing to those who had no problem eating this meat by warning them to not become arrogant. We see this in the first two verses: “Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.”
Verse 3 reminds us that we must lovingly serve others and not condemn or be condescending toward those who have weak consciences. In verses 4-6, Paul agrees with the Corinthians that there is nothing wrong with chowing down a cheeseburger. He validates their theology but doesn’t agree with their attitude toward those with weak consciences.
Look at verse 7: “But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” The phrase “so accustomed” refers to habitual ways of thinking and believing. Because of their background, their consciences were crying out and condemning them. In the rest of this passage, Paul challenges believers to not ignore or purposely go against another Christian’s sensitivities, especially if it causes him or her to stumble. He states it strongly in verse 12: “When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.” Love must limit our license. Or, as one pastor titled his sermon: “The Loving Limitation of Liberty.”
Is there anything you can do if your conscience is weak? Does it have to stay that way? Before I suggest a remedy, let me mention three cautions for those of us with weak consciences.
- Be careful about trusting it. Your conscience may speak up about issues that are not moral matters.
- Guard yourself against legalism. A weak conscience is often the result of rigid rules and inflexible prohibitions.
- Refuse to judge others. It’s easy to condemn other Christians who are practicing their liberty by doing things you think are wrong.
REPAIR #1: STUDY SCRIPTURE.
The remedy for those with a weak conscience is to allow the Word of God to reprogram and renew their internal monitor system. Some of you come from a legalistic background that has tainted your view of what is right and wrong. Make sure that you are inputting the Bible into your life on a regular basis.
A clear conscience doesn’t just happen; its something we need to strive for. The good news is that God loves to give us a new beginning as we lean on reliable friends, as we respond to His leading and as we ask Him to give us clean hearts.
Hebrews 5:14 tells us that a diet rich in God’s Word will give us the ability to discern correctly: “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Did you catch that? It’s only by “constant use” of the Bible through individual reading, small group interaction, and congregational preaching that your conscience can go from weak to strong.
2. A conscience weakened by behavior.
Some of us have a weakened conscience because of some things we did in the past, or are still doing in the present. Maybe your conscience is misfiring because of neglect or blatant disregard. Many of you know that I didn’t lead a stellar life before I became a Christian. One of the downsides of doing some of the things I’ve done is that I’ve weakened my conscience. As a result, it isn’t always trustworthy.
REPAIR #2: FIND A FAITHFUL FRIEND.
As a new Christian, I asked my college roommate for advice on different issues I was struggling with. Because he was a committed follower of Christ, he would often challenge me to rethink something I was doing. If your conscience is at all damaged, one of the most important things you can do is to find a faithful friend to help you when you’re faced with difficult choices.
We can all benefit from the insight of other people who are connected to God and in tune with their conscience. Proverbs 13:20: “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.” Proverbs 15:22: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Proverbs 27:9: “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel.” Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Instead of trying to go solo, find a reliable friend who can help you sort things out, and who can help get you back in touch with your conscience.
It’s like the little girl who was asked the question, “What is your conscience?” She thought for a bit and then answered: “Grandma.” To this day, there are still times when my conscience doesn’t seem as sharp as Beth’s. She was raised in a Christian home and didn’t travel in the same circles that I did (she wouldn’t have liked me very much back then). I have consulted her several times about various issues because I know that her conscience fires on all cylinders.
Do you have a reliable friend in your life who can help you sort through what is wrong and what is right? If you do, then ask for some help when you’re faced with an ethical dilemma or moral quandary. If you don’t have a friend like this who can hold you accountable, then I encourage you to find one quick.
The Guilty Conscience
While a weak conscience can come about because of background or behavior, the guilty conscience can be comprised of true guilt or false guilt. Let’s look first at true guilt.
1. True Guilt.
It’s been said that there are few things in life more difficult to bear than a guilty conscience. 1 Samuel 25:31 refers to a conscience stained with guilt as a “staggering burden.” Or as the great philosopher Lucy explained to Charlie Brown after a baseball game: “Sorry I missed that easy fly ball, manager. I thought I had it, but suddenly I remembered all the others I’ve missed, and the past got into my eyes.” Is the past in your eyes this morning? Do you feel the staggering burden of a guilty conscience?
While some counselors and therapists will tell you that all guilt is bad, and should be ignored, the Bible actually says that guilt can be good. A guilty conscience is evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. John MacArthur quotes John Owen who wrote: “Load thy conscience with the guilt of it.” Contrary to the popular wisdom of our day, Owen believed that the pangs of guilt are a natural and healthy consequence of wrongdoing (“The Vanishing Conscience,” Page 165).
That lines up with 2 Corinthians 7:10: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret…” True guilt leads to sorrow which leads to repentance which leads to salvation which leads to a lack of shame. In short, we struggle with guilt because we are guilty. Ecclesiastes 7:20: “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.”
REPAIR #3: COMMIT TO CONFESS.
The only way to get rid of your guilt is make a commitment to confess your sins. A vivid example of this is found in the life of David. To sum up his guilt, he slept with a married woman and then had her husband killed. When he contemplated what he was going to do before he did it, I’m sure his conscience was subtly trying to get his attention. While he was in the middle of his sin, he silenced the alarms. But then, after he committed adultery and murder, God used a faithful friend to re-engage his conscience. This friend did some truth telling with David and kicked his tail. When he was finished, David’s conscience had kicked in again.
David responded to his conscience and confessed what he did to God in Psalm 51:4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” He then pleaded with God for grace in verses 2 and 10: “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a pure heart [that’s another word for ‘conscience’], O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” I love how the Message translation captures this: “Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry…and I’ll come out clean, scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.”
Your stomach keeps score when you swallow your sins
If you feel guilty for something you’ve done or said, don’t bury it or ignore it. The longer you hold it in, the worse you’re going to feel. Your stomach keeps score when you swallow your sins. David described his guilt graphically in Psalm 32:3-5 in the Message: “When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became daylong groans.” The word “groan” was used to describe the roar of a wounded animal, or the growl of a bear. David tells us that his groaning went on all day long, or continuously, without intermission. When we don’t own our sins, our bodies revolt. Instead of happiness, we experience heartache. When we keep our mouths shut, our conscience screams. When we bottle up wrongdoing our bones waste away. Proverbs 28:13: “He who conceals his sins does not prosper.”
David continues: “The pressure never let up; all the juices of my life dried up. Then I let it all out; I said, ‘I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.’ Suddenly the pressure was gone—my guilt dissolved, my sin disappeared.”
If you’re serious about renewing your conscience, then it’s real important that you begin to respond to it. Some of you may think that it’s too late, that you’ve gone too far to make things right now. Friend, you need to know that it’s never too late. Confession is the first place to start and restitution is often the second step.
Let me illustrate this by describing how the lives and consciences of two different people were radically recreated. Though they never met, they have a lot in common. Zach lived during the time of Jesus. Jane is alive today. Zach was a controversial figure who was very well known. Jane is also notorious and familiar to most people.
Zach worked for the Roman Internal Revenue Service. He was in charge of one of the three main offices in the country of Israel about 2000 years ago. His was a top dog, but not very popular. While the IRS will never win a popularity contest today, the chief tax collectors back then were hated and despised. They were known as extortionists and traitors because they overcharged people as a way to increase their own revenue.
One day, Jesus came to the city Zach lived in. Zach had heard of Jesus before, but had never seen him in person. This was now his chance to catch a glimpse of him. But, there was one problem — he was too short to see over the crowd. He then spotted a tree up the road and climbed it so he could get a good look at Jesus.
The Bible says that when Jesus came to the tree Zach was in, he stopped, looked up and said in Luke 19:5: “Zach, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Zach jumped down and escorted Jesus to his house. You can imagine what must have been going through the minds of those in the crowd, “Why would Jesus spend time with such a low-life like Zach? He doesn’t even have a conscience. Jesus is wasting his time.” What they didn’t know is that Jesus is drawn to those with damaged consciences.
After talking with Jesus for a while, Zach stood up and said in verse 8, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” He is now a changed man. As a result of meeting Jesus, his conscience has been renewed and recreated. In the presence of everyone in his house, he declares that he will return whatever he has unlawfully taken from people. This was unheard of! With his conscience now fully operable, Zach decides to pay back double what even the law required!
Now, let’s take a look at Jane. She has had a tough life. She was raped as a teenager, dropped out of high school, and married for a brief time at the age of 16. She regularly abused and dealt illegal drugs. Like Zach, Jane has had an encounter with Jesus that radically changed her life and recreated her conscience. After asking for forgiveness for her moral mess-ups, and receiving Jesus Christ into her life, Jane is now a different person. Oh, by the way, Jane is not her real name. She goes by Norma McCorvey. Do you recognize that name? She is the “Jane Roe” plaintiff of the infamous Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in 1973.
With a recreated conscience, Norma McCorvey has now publicly declared her allegiance to Jesus Christ and to the sanctity of the Preborn. In her book called, “Won By Love,” she writes: “It wasn’t until I had a regenerated heart that the truth of what abortion does could find a place in my intellect. Once that truth took hold, there was no turning back. I’m one hundred percent sold out to Jesus and one hundred percent prolife. No exceptions. No compromises.” The one who sued the government so she could get an abortion, has recently filed a motion in Texas to get her case overturned. At a Senate hearing, she said this: “I am dedicated to spending the rest of my life undoing the law that bears my name.”
2. False Guilt.
Guilt is not a bad thing if it leads you to do the right thing. Unfortunately, many of us suffer from guilt and shame even after we’ve confessed and made restitution. It was Garrison Keilor who said, “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” Those of you who are grimacing under a load of assumed guilt would probably say that guilt is a curse, not a gift. Someone emailed me just last week related to this: “…fighting a condemnation thing of [not] measuring up…is that false guilt…or is that condemnation from Satan…?”
Some of you are so saturated with shame and grilled by guilt that you live under a constant weight of worthlessness. Listen to me carefully. You don’t have to stay that way.
REPAIR #4: GROW IN GRACE.
The remedy for false guilt is to grow in grace. In other words, you and I need to fully understand the fruit of forgiveness. Listen to just two passages, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, and allow these Scriptures to soak up your shame as you focus on the forgiveness of your faults. Psalm 103:10-12: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” And 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
When I was a new believer I can remember having a conversation with an older Christian. I was really down about my sins and wanted to just give up. I was tired of messing up and felt knee high to a grasshopper. After confessing a sin to this friend, she asked me if I had asked God for forgiveness. I assured her that I had. She then asked me if I believed God had forgiven me. I immediately said, “Yes.” And then she asked another question: “Do you forgive yourself?” I shouted out, “No way. I’m a jerk.” She then said something I’ll never forget. It’s still with me 23 years later: “Brian, when you don’t forgive yourself when God has forgiven you, you’re calling Him a liar.”
Sometimes we try to punish ourselves when we sin, don’t we? It’s like we’re trying to pay the price for our sins. Guess what? It’s impossible so we might as well stop trying. Friend, don’t call God a liar. Don’t minimize the blood of Jesus by implying that it’s somehow not enough to purify you from all unrighteousness.
Revelation 12:10 says that Satan is the “accuser of the brethren.” This word “accuse” carries with it the idea of a false accusation. If you are a born again believer, and you regularly commit to confess your sins, then Satan has nothing on you. John 3:18 reminds us that Jesus takes away the stain of shame: “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” Everything Satan says is false because as Jesus said in John 8:44, he is the “father of lies.” He will continually try to sidetrack you with shame so that you are gripped by guilt. Stand firm against Him and don’t give him any ammunition.
Some of you are so tough on yourselves that when you mess up you’re ready to give up. You’re accused by the evil one and by your own heart. The remedy is to grow in grace by standing on the promises of Scripture. Romans 8:1: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.”
On this Independence Day weekend, do you want to find freedom from a weak conscience and a guilty conscience? Then consider making these four repairs:
- Study Scripture
- Find a Faithful Friend
- Commit to Confess
- Grow in Grace
The Bible says that every one of us has a stained conscience. We can’t rub it out, or even cover it up. And we certainly can’t fix it on our own. The stain is too deep and too ugly. When Jesus died on the Cross, He died in our place, as our substitute. Hebrews 9:14 states that “…his blood cleanses our consciences of acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.”
Have you ever asked Jesus to forgive the guilt and shame of your sins? I can think of no better time than now to do just that. Listen to what God says in Isaiah 1:18 from the New Living Translation: “No matter how deep the stain of your sins, I can remove it. I can make you as clean as freshly fallen snow. Even if you are stained as red as crimson, I can make you as white as wool.”
“Lord Jesus, I admit that I’m a sinner and that I’ve been serving myself and not you. I’ve been ignoring my conscience for much too long. I believe that you paid the price for my sins and that you can remove my deep stains. I turn from the way I’ve been living and invite you to come into my life. I receive you as my Savior and my Lord, my Forgiver and Leader. If there’s anything in my life that you don’t like, get rid of it and make me into the person you want me to be. Amen.”
As we prepare to commemorate what Jesus did on the Cross by celebrating communion, listen to how He repairs and renovates the conscience from Hebrews 10:19-23: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.”