March 24, 2002

A CLEAN CONSCIENCE

How much more, then, will the blood of Christ… cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! Hebrews 9:14

A conscience can be a terrible thing.

A pregnant woman found out that her husband had an affair with another woman. She was terribly upset. She didn’t divorce him, but she was furious at him and wanted to make him suffer for his unfaithfulness. Her husband was eager for a baby, so she decided to abort their baby in order to punish her husband for his betrayal. Afterward, though, she felt worse about the abortion than she had felt about her husband’s adultery. The baby’s death was her choice; the guilt of the abortion was hers. So how did she respond? When she got pregnant again, she aborted the second baby too. She explained, “I wanted to be able to hate myself more for what I did to the first baby.” Her guilty conscience drove her to keep adding to her sin and suffering.

Philosopher J. Budziszewski tells this true story in his book The Revenge of Conscience. Budziszewski shows how conscience can be a force not only for good but also for evil. Many of us think conscience is an inner power for good that points to right and opposes wrong. That’s what conscience is designed to be, but when we violate our conscience, something terrible happens. The conscience doesn’t shut down or stay silent. The conscience twists and turns in another direction, often causing worse evil. As Budziszewski puts it, “Pressing down one’s conscience does not make it weak any more than pressing down a wildcat makes it docile. It only makes it violent.”

From Bad to Worse

Conscience is not tame or sleepy. When we do wrong, our conscience does not nap quietly. It claws and scratches and becomes more and more dangerous.

God has written the requirements of his law on every human heart, giving each of us some sense of right and wrong. When we sinners suppress and violate this God-given sense of right and wrong, our thoughts furiously accuse us or else frantically excuse us (Romans 2:15). When our thoughts accuse us, we try to atone for our guilt by inflicting suffering on ourselves or by shifting the blame to others and inflicting suffering on them. When our thoughts excuse us, we twist things in all sorts of ways to make our sin seem good, and that often means declaring a whole sequence of other sins to be good as well.

A case of an accusing conscience is the woman who chose to have an abortion out of anger toward her husband. Her conscience reacted to the abortion by accusing her fiercely, and she ended up punishing herself by aborting another baby that she really wanted, thus becoming a two-time murderer. Her accusing conscience made her worse than if she had no conscience at all.

Conscience can also make us worse in a very different way,  dealing with sin not by accusing but by ­excusing. The sexual revolution is a case in point. Most people and societies have recognized that sex belongs in marriage, a culturally protected, permanent covenant between a man and a woman. When unmarried people suppress their conscience and have sex anyway, the conscience claws around in a frenzy of excuse-making, and before long, other moral standards are shredded. Many young adults excuse sex outside marriage by saying, “We don’t need promises–we’re in love. If we have feelings for each other, we’re as good as married.” But younger teens also have feelings, so sex is okay for them too. Some married adults develop feelings for someone besides their spouse, so adultery is okay for them. Homosexual people have sexual feelings, so sex is okay for them.

Conscience pushes for consistency. If we reject a consistent moral standard, our conscience drives us toward a consistent immoral standard. Conscience can’t quite forget that sex has something to do with marriage. Having rejected God’s law that marriage gives the right to have sex, a warped conscience declares that sex gives the right to be married. Homosexuals must be able to marry with the same cultural status as male-female marriages: employee benefits, government recognition, and church weddings. Once a guilty conscience comes up with the excuse that sexual feelings mean you’re as good as married, then anyone with sexual feelings can get married, including homosexuals.

Conscience then goes a step further and reminds us that marriage is connected with having children, something homosexual relationships will never be able to produce.

But now we are in a box [writes Budziszewski]. We cannot say “therefore homosexuals cannot marry,” because that would strike against the whole teetering structure of rationalizations. Therefore we decree that having been made marriageable, homosexuals must be made procreative; the barren field must seem to bloom. There is, after all, artificial insemination. And there is adoption. So it comes to pass that children are given as a right to those from whom they were once protected as a duty. The normalization of perversion is complete.

God’s requirements “all hang together,” Budziszewski says. “They depend on each other in such a way that we cannot suppress one except by rearranging all the others.” Sin breeds more sin and uses conscience to do so. “Just as a virus cannot reproduce except by commandeering the machinery of a cell, sin cannot reproduce except by taking over the machinery of conscience.”

Sin separates us from God, and a conscience separated from God is almost worse than no conscience at all. The Bible says that when we know something of God but then suppress it, when we know what’s right but do the opposite, God shows his anger by handing us over to our own warped ways, so that we go from bad to worse (Romans 1:18-32). God’s law still speaks, but it just makes us more rebellious (Romans 7:5-11). Our conscience remains powerful, but that power, having become twisted, drives us to be consistently more sinful and more brazen about it.

Eventually, not only do we fear and despise holiness, but we actively parade our sins, praise other sinners, and recruit for even more sinners. Rather than confess the sin of aborting a baby, people rally in support of abortion. Rather than repent of pornography, people claim to be champions for free speech. Rather than lament the shame of perversion, perverts march in parades. Participants in euthanasia kill the weak and miserable and then write articles about it. Those who won’t admit sins are bad often end up on TV talk shows bragging that sins are good. “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such thing deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:32).

Facing the Truth

A bad conscience can become so busy accusing and excusing that it becomes confusing. Even when our conscience excuses us at one level, it accuses us at another level. Even as we trumpet the benefits of sin, a deep-down horror keeps chewing at us. While part of us knows that sin deserves death, part of us pretends not to know, and we become so mixed up we hardly know what is happening. We keep getting more and more miserable, yet we keep praising and promoting the very things that are eating us up as individuals and as a civilization. We praise the very things that are killing us. Sometimes, though, the accusing, excusing, and confusing conscience can’t avoid the truth any longer. Here’s another true story from Budziszewski:

A young woman went to pro-abortion meetings, chanted in a pro-abortion rally, and even gave a speech to a group of people about how her abortion had solved her crisis. Yet her burst of activism coincided with a suicidal depression known only to my friend, a college chaplain. She herself had invested too much in her happy-abortion story to suspect a link; he knew her well enough to suspect what the link might be. “If you hadn’t had the abortion,” he asked her, “when would the child have been born?” The answer was, “Just about now.” The wall of denial collapsed as she made the connection.

She feeling suicidal because she had been homicidal: she had killed her baby, and her guilt was killing her. As long as she suppressed the guilt of her sin and the grief of her baby’s death, her suppressed, distorted conscience drove her to promote abortion. But then the truth broke through and set her free from the need to celebrate and promote evil.

What drives us to suppress conscience in the first place? What makes us think and act as though something evil is good, even when we know deep down that it’s really evil? Why do we lie to ourselves? The simplest answer is that we are at odds with God. We’re against him. But if that’s true, why won’t we simply admit it? Maybe it’s because we don’t dare. What good would it do? It hurts less to excuse our guilt than to admit it, at least in the short run. It’s easier to keep sliding downhill than to turn around. And it’s less frightening to keep pretending the downhill slide is fun than to face the fact that we’re at odds with God and are headed for death and hell.

But what if there’s a way to wash away the guilt? What if there’s a way to go back and start clean? What if there’s a way to be spared the penalty and punishment? Well, even then our pride and stupidity might make us keep sliding further into darkness and destruction. But if we really came to believe that conscience could be cleaned, that sin could be forgiven, and that we could have life instead of death, it would change everything. And the truth of the matter–the truth that sets people free–is that we really can have a clean conscience.

Blood That Cleanses

God knows how to take a dirty conscience and make it clean. The Bible says that “the blood of Christ” will “cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). Jesus poured out his lifeblood when he was nailed to a cross and suffered and died. [This week believers in Christ around the world commemorate Jesus’ death and the outpouring of his blood.] Many great things can be said about the blood of Christ, but one of the greatest is that Jesus’ blood provides a clean conscience. Conscience can be a terrible thing when it’s suppressed and distorted by sin, but with a clean conscience the spell of sin is broken and we are able to serve the living God instead of continuing to rebel against him. Thanks to Jesus’ blood, our conscience can stop accusing, stop excusing, and rest peacefully in God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. Thanks to Jesus’ blood, the conscience at peace can find favor with God and enjoy a new freedom of delighting in God and doing his will.

The Bible teaches that nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash away guilt. The Bible also teaches that there is no guilt too horrible for Jesus’ blood to wash away. The blood of Jesus is the ultimate stain remover. No spot is too bad or too permanent to be cleansed. The Lord says, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). The Bible teaches people of faith to pray, “Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). Scripture envisions heaven full of people who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). Without Jesus blood your conscience can’t possibly become clean, but with Jesus’ blood even the most filthy conscience can become whiter than snow.

Jesus demonstrated this as he hung on a cross between two life-long criminals. One of the criminals went to his death without repentance, cursing Jesus, and he perished forever in his sin. But the other criminal, equally guilt, admitted his evil and asked Jesus for a place in his kingdom. Jesus responded, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). That’s the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood: it can instantly wash a career criminal whiter than snow and give him eternal life in paradise.

Just before Jesus died, he cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30). That wasn’t just an expression of relief that death would bring his suffering to an end. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he meant that he had finished doing everything necessary to make people right with God. He had lived a perfect life, had suffered in place of others and had given his blood to pay for their sins. In the Bible’s original language, the word Jesus used for “it is finished” was commonly used in the business world to mean “paid in full.” Nothing more needed to be done. Nothing more was owed. The debt of sin was paid. Everything that stood between humanity and God was removed, opening the way for full access to God.

Access to God

This was revealed not only in what Jesus said just before he died but also in what happened at the very instant he gave up his spirit. “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51). The veil was of strong material, too strong for any human to tear. It reached high, too high for any human to tear it from the top down. The only hands that could tear that thick veil from top to bottom were the invisible but almighty hands of God.

What was so significant about God tearing that veil apart? Well, for many centuries the Most Holy Place in God’s tabernacle or temple had been off limits to God’s people. This room, the Holy of Holies, was designated as God’s throne room on earth, and a thick veil blocked the entrance. Nobody could go beyond that veil into the Holy of Holies except one person, the high priest, and even he couldn’t enter any time he wanted but could go in only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. (Day of Atonement in the Hebrew language is Yom Kippur.) Before the priest could go into the Holy of Holies, he had to offer an animal sacrifice for his own sins and for the sins of the people, and he had to take some of the blood with him when he went beyond the curtain. Meanwhile, the rest of the people had to remain outside. They never did have access to the Holy of Holies or see inside it.

When Jesus died, God tore that veil apart. He removed the barrier and opened the way to his throne room. He invited people to come to him more confidently and to know him more intimately than had ever been possible before. Now anybody who trusts in Jesus–not just a high priest but anybody–can come to God’s throne, and we can come to him not just once a year but anytime.

We can come to God with a clean conscience through faith in Jesus’ blood, confident that our sins are paid for and washed away. From the moment Jesus died, no more blood from animal sacrifices would ever be needed again. Animal blood had been a temporary payment for sin–God’s way of cleansing his people’s conscience until something better came along–but Christ’s blood was the ultimate, final payment that put an end to all other sacrifices. Ever since that moment when Jesus declared, “It is finished” and God the Father tore the veil to the Holy of Holies, complete cleansing from sin and full access to God have been freely available to all.

In the time before Christ, the old ceremonies and animal sacrifices had provided some relief to guilty consciences and some measure of access to God. “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:14)

A clean conscience is a confident conscience. When you are washed by Jesus’ blood, you don’t have to shrink back from God. Trust the living God, and go directly to him because of what Jesus has done for you. “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, but a new and living way opened for us through the curtain… 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… Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:19-23).

Healthy Relationships

A clean conscience builds healthy relationships–healthy relationships with God and with other people. A clean conscience, freed from accusing or excusing, enables us to rejoice in God rather than be scared of him. We’ve seen how conscience can actually make us worse when it’s suppressed and corrupted, driving us farther and farther in rebellion against God. A clean conscience has the opposite effect, enabling us to enjoy fellowship with God and to obey him gladly.

Conscience also has a powerful impact on relationships with others people. A corrupt conscience brings partners in crime together in alliances where they make each other worse than ever. But a clean conscience builds fellowship with people who encourage us in godliness.

Those who reject Jesus, suppress their conscience, and commit sin often band together with others who commit the same sin. On the day Jesus died, two politicians, Pontius Pilate and Herod, were involved in condemning Jesus to suffer, despite knowing he was not guilty of any charges brought against him. Herod and Pilate suppressed what their conscience was telling them. And as they moved farther than ever from God, they moved closer to each other. “That day Herod and Pilate became friends–before this they had been enemies” (Luke 23:12).

It’s human nature to seek companionship, and guilt drives us toward companions who share the same guilt. Drunkards have drinking buddies. Rebellious teens hang around with other rebels. Homosexuals form “the gay community.” Ruthless business people have clubs of cronies. People involved in euthanasia or mercy killing often feel close to others involved in causing death. In much the same way that Herod and Pilate became friends through rejecting Christ, so other violations of conscience can glue people together in sick, sinful alliances of shared guilt.

But when Christ cleans the conscience, he breaks the bonds of evil alliances and brings us into healthy alliance with God and with people who love God. Those who love Jesus and are washed by his blood are brought together as members of one family, the family of God. When Jesus was suffering and dying, he told his mother Mary to regard his friend John as her son, and he told John to regard Mary as his mother. Ever since then, the risen Christ calls Christians to treat each other as family, to look for ways to “spur one another on to love and good deeds,” to gather together regularly to worship God and to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Do you have a clean conscience? Do you love and serve the living God? Are you part of “the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28)? Do you have relationships with other people based on “love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5)? If not, you need to change. Confess your sins to God. Count on the blood of Christ to wash you and open the way for you to God’s throne room. Ask the Lord to give you a new heart and a clean conscience.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.