When I was a child my mother told me that every time I told a lie I would get a little black mark on my soul. This was a horrendous picture for me and I really believed it (I was a trusting child) but I couldn’t seem to help covering up my misdeeds with those little lies and they just got bigger as I got older. I realised one day that my soul must be completely covered by these little black marks. My conscience was completely severed and I knew there was not much point in even trying to be good any more. I actually tried quite hard to be bad, I enjoyed the notoriety and I thought it would be more profitable… but actually it left me at a very low ebb in life.
I found a way back and it wasn’t by winning a lottery as I had hoped it would be. That is what drives me now to try and help others to grow in all areas of life. My radio program every Thursday morning is all about Personal Growth.
If we are going to the top and want to stay there for any length of time we have to build on good foundations. That means having a clear conscience before all people. The rest of this short essay may seem to you like it concentrates solely on the spiritual aspect of our growth and if you are not a spiritual person then you might assume it’s not for you. You would be right on the first point and I must confess I preached this as a message in church on Easter Sunday morning… but on the second point I am asking for a little leniency from you. The principles are important even if you have no religious affiliation at all.
To be congruent we must keep a clear conscience with all people and whatever your idea of God, even if your god is yourself, you cannot be at odds with him. You must find peace and agreement with yourself in order to have a clear conscience if you are going to enjoy long term success.
The setting is a real life kangaroo court case held in around 60AD and the main characters are the Jewish High Priest and a Jewish lawyer who had originally agreed totally with the High Priest but had changed his point of view to include some new ideas regarding the Messiah they were both looking for. His name was originally Saul of Tarsus but by the time of this event he had changed it to Paul. The bold writing is taken from the Bible, the Book of Acts to be precise and starting at Chapter 23.
23:1 Gazing intently at the high council, Paul began: “Brothers, I have always lived before God with a clear conscience!” Instantly Ananias the high priest commanded those close to Paul to slap him on the mouth. But Paul said to him, “God will slap you, you corrupt hypocrite! What kind of judge are you to break the law yourself by ordering me struck like that?” Those standing near Paul said to him, “Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?” “I’m sorry, brothers. I didn’t realise he was the high priest,”
Paul had been brought before the Jewish leaders charged with bringing Gentiles into the inner court of the Temple, a crime punishable by death. But Paul knew he was innocent and he was ready to give a proper legal defence. The Jewish leaders however were not so keen to give him an honest hearing. They had been dealing with these pesky Christians for almost 30 years by this time and they were just about fed up with them. And in the eyes of the Sanhedrin, Paul and those close to him were the most dangerous faction of all the Christian community. It was bad enough that people revered Jesus as the Messiah and even worshiped Him as God. But Paul was broadening the movement by taking the Gospel to the Gentiles: the strangers, unforgivable! And these people may have been very religious but they had not grasped the concept of forgiveness.
In verse 1 Paul began: “Brothers, I have always lived before God with a clear conscience!”
I would like us to think about that for a moment. Paul said that he had always lived before God with a clear conscience. This is the same man who had stood and watched in full approval as they stoned Stephen, the first Christian Martyr, as you can read in chapter 6. The same man who breathed out murder against every Christian he could find. What did he mean when he talked about a clear conscience?
How would you define a clear conscience?
One person put it this way. “An inner freedom of spirit that comes from knowing that you are right with God and all other men, and that no one can point a finger at you and say, ‘You wronged me, and you never tried to make it right.’”In his first letter to Timothy, Paul tells us that next to our faith, a clear conscience is our most important weapon in the Christian life –
I Tim 1:18 Timothy, my son, here are my instructions for you, based on the prophetic words spoken about you earlier. May they help you fight well in the Lord’s battles. 19 Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked.
Paul was concerned that Timothy should keep his faith to the end, but also that he would maintain a good conscience. Faith in Christ defines a Christian but Paul puts a good conscience as the next most important thing for Timothy suggesting that if our conscience is not clear we will lose our spiritual battle against Satan. Is that what Jesus meant in John 14:30 when he said “…for the prince of this world is coming, and has nothing in me.” Jesus’s conscience was always clear…Satan could not defeat Him. If Satan came for us today, would he find anything in us?…It maybe something nobody else in the world knows, but we know…and that would be enough for Satan to defeat us with it.
Peter tells us that all our telling people about our faith is useless if we don’t have a clear conscience: he writes – Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. 1 Peter 3:15-16
– You can shout your beliefs from the roof tops all you want to, as we often see happening in other faiths too, but when people sense that you don’t have a clear conscience before men they will have cause to speak badly of you, and believe me, they won’t miss their opportunity to do that.
John says that we can’t even pray and be confident of an answer without a clear conscience – which could be translated, if our own hearts condemn us but he writes in his first letter. 1 John 3:21-22 – Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.
I will come back to 1 John 3 to look at those commands but first I want to look at a couple of objections I often hear from Christians who want to enjoy the Christian life don’t want to get right with someone with whom they have a problem. One lady recently pointed out that she had not been a believer at the time of the offence and that she had asked God to forgive her for the things she’d done, and as far as she was concerned, it was under the blood of Christ and so it was over and done with. The other person was not even a Christian, they still carry the emotional wounds of her misdemeanour and quite frankly they don’t care whether God has forgiven her or not. I wonder how she thinks her refusal to make restitution or even to apologise might affect that persons view of the God she now claims to believe in?
In the very next chapter of The book of Acts Paul says, I always try to maintain a clear conscience before God and all people. Acts 24:16 All people he says, not just Christians, and Paul is saying that it is not enough to have a clear conscience before GOD; we must also have a clear conscience before all PEOPLE. Remember the story Jesus told of the prodigal son who had wasted his inheritance and found himself starving in the pig sty
Luke 15:17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”
’When he returned home, he used exactly the same wording he had rehearsed in the pig sty, which is a good lesson for us about the importance of carefully planning what we are going to say when we want to repent, apologise and offer restitution in order to gain a clear conscience. The prodigal son didn’t assume that because he had made things right with God, everything was automatically right with his father. He knew he must get right with his father too if he was to truly have a clear conscience.
There was once a notorious tax collector named Zacchaeus who wanted to see Jesus when He was passing through Jericho one day? He was a short man and he couldn’t see over the crowd so he climbed up into a sycamore tree. Jesus saw him up in that tree and told him to come down. The Pharisees ridiculed Jesus because they said he ate with tax collectors and sinners, and they were right, He did and He was not ashamed of it. He said himself, he came not for the righteous but for sinners and He did go and have lunch in Zacchaeus’s house that very afternoon. Zacchaeus met with God in his own dining room and his life was changed for ever, and the lives of quite a few others as a result.
As the tax collector he had over-charged people as often as he could because he got to keep for himself anything above the official tax. It had made him rich. When he was converted, he didn’t assume that he didn’t have to worry about all the people he had cheated. Because his eyes were open to see God he could also see that he needed to make things right with all those people he had cheated as well. In Luke 19:8 we read: Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” It was then that Jesus responded…in the next verse “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham.
It wasn’t until Zacchaeus resolved to clear his conscience with those he had overcharged that the reality of his salvation was evident. The truth is that we can’t truly have a good conscience before God if we don’t have a good conscience before man. Thats why Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus is saying if you don’t have a clear conscience with another person, then God will not recognise your sacrifice to Him until you are reconciled with that person. Once you have a clear conscience on the horizontal level, with men, you can enjoy fellowship with God on the vertical level. Thats why Jesus taught in that same seminal sermon, when you pray say, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…and since forgiveness is an act of the will, we must also determine to make restitution and seek forgiveness from any against whom we have trespassed…as Zacchaeus determined to do. It’s only when we do this that we can experience full blessing in our lives.
Coming back to 1 John 3, earlier we read verse 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. but let’s carry on now… verse 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. back in verse 16 John had written This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
It’s no small thing to lay our lives down for one another, but it is all we have to do. Paul couldn’t make restitution for Stephen’s death, but he willingly laid down his own life more than once in the same cause…like Stephen he was also stoned and left for dead on at least one occasion…maybe he was dead…maybe he wasn’t… I don’t know, but I know God raised him up… The important thing is this…when Saul persecuted the church he honestly thought he was serving God. I believe there are those today who persecute members of other faiths various ways, in some places even to the point of murder who honestly believe they are serving their God. The identity of their God is a question for another time but it cannot be not the God who laid down His life and commands us only to love Him and to love one another.
Actually Jesus had known this would happen. In John 16:2 He said… “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.” so Paul could honestly say “Brothers, I have always lived before God with a clear conscience!” because he did believe he was doing the work of God by trying to wipe out what they thought to be a heresy that was being called “the way.” But as soon s he knew the truth he became responsible to live a different way. Christians are called to live a different way. We are all stewards of the revelation we have as soon as we have it and we must live according to it.
Look how the high priest responded in our passage. Acts 23:2 Instantly Ananias, the high priest commanded those close to Paul to slap him on the mouth. But Paul said to him, “God will slap you, you corrupt hypocrite! What kind of judge are you to break the law yourself by ordering me struck like that?” Those standing near Paul said to him, “Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?” Listen to Paul’s answer. “I’m sorry, brothers. I didn’t realise he was the high priest,”
Paul new perfectly well who he was…he was dressed like the high priest…he was sat in the position of high priest…everyone was gathered round in reverence for him because he was the high priest…so what was Paul saying? “I’m sorry, brothers. I didn’t realise he was the high priest,” Why? Because his words and his behaviour were not those of a high priest.
What about us? Will people say, I’m sorry I didn’t know you were a Christian. This is purely for the believers of course, if you don’t yet have the revelation of who Christ is you can only be responsible for the revelation that you do have. However , if you are refusing to believe because you don’t want to know: that will not exonerate you at the last judgement. We will all be judged, but those who admitted their guilt on earth and asked for God’s forgiveness in Christ will have the price of all their confessed sin paid for by the death of Christ. If that is still too hard a concept for you to grasp let me recommend you read Lee Strobel’s book “The Case For Christ” or if you are feel the book might be a stretch you can watch the recent film on DVD which is readily available on Amazon.co.uk for less that £8.00. It could be worth much more than money to you. Back to the Christians, will people say, I’m sorry I didn’t know you were a Christian?
We have an advantage over the High Priest…He didn’t have the Holy Spirit to help him because he was not saved… all he had was his Jewish law…but even the high priest was not able to keep the law… That’s why Paul said What kind of judge are you to break the law yourself by ordering me struck like that? According to Paul the high priest was under a curse…he wrote to the Galatians. For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, Chapter 3:10-12
Sadly the high priest was not redeemed…he was trapped under a law that he couldn’t keep. So what then was the purpose of the law. Paul tells us in Galatians 3:23
23 But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
Christian Faith, the kind that changes lives and saves souls is synonymous with Christ. The Bible says there is no other Name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. People try all their lives to keep the law and fail…you may have tried to live by rules and regulations…and it just isn’t working out, you are not alone…all of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, even the high priest…but there is an answer, there is a power that can change your heart in a moment, A transforming power that will continue to work in you for your lifetime.
It’s the same power that hit Zacchaeus that afternoon in Jericho.
The same power that raised Jesus from the dead…
And it is only a sincere prayer away from any of us. You must only believe in your heart that God did raise Jesus from the dead and confess with your mouth that He is Lord over all but especially over you. If you confess your sins and as forgiveness you will receive it from Him immediately and He will give you guidance and ability to get right with all people.