44. Clear Conscience

Meditations in 1 Peter : 44 : A Clear Conscience

1 Pet 3:16,17 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

Conscience is a strange thing. It is that capacity that we humans have to feel guilty, to have this nagging in the back of our mind that something we have done or are about to do is wrong. It is all about right and wrong. The apostle Paul once said, I speak the truth in Christ–I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit,” (Rom 9:10) which is interesting because it implies that for the Christian, the Holy Spirit is an additional aid to our conscience and He also works in the same way to check us. Elsewhere Paul declared, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man,” (Acts 24:16) which suggests that our points of failure can be in respect of the Lord and of people. The non-Christian tends to be aware of conscience in respect of other people but not in respect of God. The Christian’s first port of call in respect of conscience is God.

Paul’s whole discussion in 1 Corinthians, about eating meat sacrificed to idols, indicates that different people can have different levels of conscience awareness. For some eating meat given to idols wasn’t a problem, but to others it was something that really worried them, so not all issues are as clear cut as we might like.

“Keeping a clear conscience” thus means, ensure that there is nothing nagging in the back of your mind that you have done or are doing something wrong. Conscience is like a moral barometer within us that gives us an early warning that we are going off track.

In the context of what Peter has been saying, he now says use your conscience to check out your life in the face of the opposition you may be receiving. He’s spoken of suffering and opposition already in this letter and now he’s just putting a check on us in respect of our behaviour. When he says, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander,” he is assuming that we have checked our consciences and have found that what we have done has been good and right, yet he acknowledges that we can still get opposition even when we do what is right and good. It doesn’t matter, he says, if they speak badly against you, as long as you have checked to make sure that in your own conscience you are sure you have done what is right. Eventually they will be ashamed of what they have said about you; leave it up to God to convict them!

But it is important that you are absolutely sure that you have given them no grounds for saying bad things about you. Sadly that is not always so; Christians do sometimes lay themselves open to criticism because they were casual and careless about their speech or behaviour. We probably all do it at some time – say something about a person or situation, that is not well thought out and so which opens us to criticism. Of course if we are doing things that are morally questionable, then of course we open ourselves to the charge of hypocrisy. Thus this call to check our consciences is a very needy one. Similarly if we respond to opposition using the same weapons of harsh criticism and abuse, that the world uses, then again we are opening ourselves to criticism and further opposition. That surely must be what Peter has in the back of his mind here because he has been counseling us in this letter to respond well to opposition and so if we respond in an un-Christ-like manner we will have put ourselves into the wrong.

There is an interesting point here that needs facing: your conscience can be silent if you are ignorant of God’s will for you. That is why teaching is such an important part of a Christian’s life. That is why Peter is writing this letter. Until we have thought through these things and thought about the way Christ handled opposition, we may not realise that our hostile retaliation to others is not what God desires of us and our conscience may be silent when we are. There may be a disquiet from the Holy Spirit but we may not recognise that. Thus conscience can be enlightened and brought alive by Christian teaching, by the teaching of the New Testament. Is that why sometimes Christians seem to be so little different from other people, because they have not learnt what God’s will for them now is and so their consciences have not been brought into play?

Submitting to God’s will and plans for your life is now a crucial element of your life as a Christian and indeed some times it does seem that God allows us to go through times of persecution and opposition to purify and strengthen us, and so His will in such times is that we get His grace to cope with it. Thus Peter says, It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” There is no blessing or no glory in suffering if you have brought it upon yourself, but if the suffering comes when you are only doing good and right, then that is an opportunity for the Lord to be glorified through your life and for you to receive a new and deeper experience of the Lord’s love and grace as you cope with it. The Lord will be glorified when you receive His love and grace and cope in a Christ-like manner: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” All the heavenly onlookers will see (the rest of the world may not!) and they will realise you are what you are by the love and grace of God and He will be glorified. Hallelujah!  So let’s heed Peter’s teaching and let’s let his words stimulate our consciences to lead us on to better things.

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37. Sin Conscious

Meditations in Romans : 37:  Conscious of Sin

Rom 3:19-20   Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

The human race is a strange animal!  Seriously, when you look at us carefully, there are some things about us that we take so much for granted but which are actually quite strange. They are even more strange if you believed the atheist who says this world is just chance and there is no meaning or purpose behind it. There are two features of every human being that strike me as very strange in the light of that dogma.

The first is the tendency of most people to have a sense of failure or inadequacy. Oh yes, people cover it up and in fact they spend much of their life covering it up, but if you can catch them at a rare moment of honesty they will confess to you that they are not the great person that they would like the world to believe they are. No, they will confess their inadequacies and even their failures (but you will need to get them at a rare point of honesty). All of us have this particular awareness even though, as I’ve said, we go to great lengths to cover it up. Why should people who are, according to the atheist, random acts of chance, worry about such things, but worry we do!

The second strange tendency, which goes with the first one, is the concern to be seen to be good. We feel bad about ourselves deep down, and yet we want everyone to see us NOT as a failure. We want others to see us as successes. We want to be thought of as nice people, good people, people who get it right and do well. Of course those descriptions vary according to the social group we belong to but we know the standards that our particular group has and we want to live up to their standards so they will think well of us. You see it in any and every social grouping, but why should it be if we are just random chance creatures with no meaning or purpose. Everything within us challenges that assessment of us. We measure ourselves and our assessment is important!

Now the Jews of Jesus’ day and Paul’s day, were one such social grouping and within that cultural or social group was a sub-group who made the rest feel it was important to abide by a certain set of life-rules, the Law of Moses. They were the people that people refers to as under the Law.” The Law was the standard by which they assessed one another. If you were good, you kept the Law. For instance Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” (Lk 1:6); that was the assessment of people who knew them and later told Luke about them.  Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father was described as “a righteous man,” (Mt 1:19) which would have meant that he was a man who sought to keep God’s commandments; hence his action in wanting to quietly divorce Mary.

The not-so-nice people of that society didn’t bother about the Law. They were lawbreakers or sinners and were looked down upon by those who did adhere to the Law. Now if you lived in a society where this Law prevailed, where you were very much aware of it, even though others adjudged you righteous, you knew deep down that that meant righteous in most things, for there would always be a little something somewhere where you didn’t come up to the mark. Indeed with some it is difficult to know if you come up to the mark. For instance, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut 6:5)  Could you ever be sure that that was how you truly loved God? You kept the practical commandments you were aware of, but was that enough to ensure you could say that you loved God like this?

Suppose there were laws that you didn’t know about? Perhaps you weren’t keeping them? No, the truth was that you could never boast of being a perfect law-keeper, which is what Paul meant when he said, so that every mouth may be silenced.” Yes, you were never quite certain and so it was better to remain quiet. Yes, you knew that deep down, just like were considered at the beginning of this meditation, you had something that left you feeling inadequate and as such you would be “held accountable to God.” Oh yes, you could never stand before God with a totally clear conscience. You feared that future where you knew that one day you would have to stand before him and be answerable for your imperfection!

Thus Paul can conclude, Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” Yes, if you are going to measure me by the Law I can never say I am totally perfect and therefore I can not say with a clear heart that I am righteous. All focusing on the rules has done, has been to make me more and more aware of the bits where I fall short.

This is it, isn’t it? Whatever set of rules we have to abide by, the Law of Moses or the laws of our little group in society, we fear failure, and we are constantly struggling to achieve approval of others who measure us by the rules, but deep down we know they will judge us because we are not perfect and will fail even their expectations of us! No, if you base life on keeping to a set of rules or even expectations upon you, know that you are doomed to a life of failure and the only way to cope is to pretend you’re not, while all the time knowing you are. What a deception!

28. Righteous

Meditations in Romans : 28 :  Righteous in God’s Sight

Rom 2:12-15 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)

Paul now comes with a clear logical flow of doctrine. Earlier he quoted from the Old Testament: “God will give to each person according to what he has done.” (v.6) and then, “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil.” (v.9). Now he anticipates questions about how sin will be assessed. Will it be according to the Law? What about those who don’t have the Law, the Gentiles? How will God assess them? These are the thoughts that flow through his mind. He lays down a number of principles that we need to look at.

Principle one: If you have the Law you’ll be judged by that; if not, you’ll be judged by another means: All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” i.e. one way or another sin WILL be judged. That’s the first thing to note.

Principle two: It is doers of the Law, not merely hearers of it, who will be declared righteous: For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Merely because the Jews had the Law and were taught it, that did not mean they were automatically righteous. That is what is being inferred here. God gave the Law for it to be obeyed. But what about the Gentiles who don’t have the Law?

Principle three: Even if you don’t have the Law and yet live according to the things found in the Law, it becomes obvious that goodness is a natural thing found by a good conscience. Paul breaks this down into a number of statements: Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves.” i.e. when people outside the Jewish community, who do not know about the Law, do things similar to things found in the requirements of the Law, they show that they have a law within themselves, the law of right and wrong. That is how God has made us: even though they do not have the law, … they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” That is the truth; every person has within them an innate sense of right or wrong and it is shown by the way people try to live according to standards. We don’t live wildly and recklessly, by and large. We live according to various pre-determined standards and by that we show something of God’s design within us, to be moral beings.

This is revealed even more by the awareness of conscience: their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” Conscience is simply that inner awareness that we are moral beings and there are standards to be lived up to, standards that say there is a distinction between right and wrong.

We live in a day of moral relativism in the West, where people say there are no absolutes and that we live according to culture or our times, but the truth is that this is merely an excuse because, in reality, everyone does have standards. We may try to think that we are free and can do whatever we like, but when others start doing whatever they like and it harms us or affects our property we quickly squeal for the Law to come and apprehend those who have hurt or harmed us. We would all say that it is wrong for another to come and murder me or rape me. We all say it is wrong for someone to come and vandalise my car or steal my goods. Oh yes, as soon as it touches our lives these relativistic excuses are rapidly thrust away. They are the play toys of philosophers and those who want to excuse their bad behaviour.

The truth is that the moment you speak about something that “is not right” you reveal that you are a moral being and you have to wonder where that comes from. It is not merely a survival thing because I have so many possessions that if you steal one it does not threaten my survival. No I appeal to a hidden standard that says this is wrong, give me back what you have stolen. Even more we may appeal to the Law of the land to punish the person who took my goods; we appeal in the name of ‘justice’.

No, whether I like it or not I am a moral being. The only trouble is that I don’t even live up to my own standards. I think it is wrong to get angry and upset but I can’t stop myself sometimes. I know it is foolish to worry and get stressed but I can’t stop myself sometimes. Here is the human dilemma that Paul is inching towards: we are moral beings who have standards – whether laid down by God (the Law of Moses), laid down by our society (the law of the land) or laid down by me (my conscience) – but unfortunately we cannot abide by those laws. (Paul will expand on this in Chapter 7). Accept the truth: we all live – or fail to live – according to the rules. We have the rules, fail to keep them, and then feel bad. That is the major human dilemma.  That is the dilemma that the Gospel addresses. Hallelujah!

8. The Pure in Heart

MEDITATIONS IN THE BEATITUDES – 8

Mt 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Many of the key words in the Beatitudes are not words in common usage today. Perhaps this says more about us today than about the beatitudes. The idea of purity, or the word ‘pure’ is one such example. Purity is something that only gets referred to when we are talking about gold or silver, very rarely about qualities of our lives. However, that concept, of purity of gold or silver, does help us understand something more about what is being said in today’s verse. All of the early uses of ‘pure’ in the Bible are to do with “pure gold” that was used in the construction of the tabernacle. Forty times in the historical books in the first half of the Old Testament there are references to “pure gold”, gold without any impurities, the very best, the very finest gold possible. That was to be the quality of material used in connection with the worship place of God.

But our verse refers to purity of heart. Now Vines Expository Dictionary identifies ‘heart’ as meaning, the ‘inner man’ (Deut 30:14), and the seat of ‘desire or inclination’ (Ex 7:14), the ‘emotions’ (Deut 6:5), ‘knowledge and wisdom’ (Deut 8:5), ‘conscience and moral character’ (Job 27:6), ‘rebellion and pride’ (Gen 8:21 ).

Now remember we have said again and again that we must see each verse in context, as a follow on from what has gone before. In the previous meditations we said that there was a submission to the will of God and a desire to receive God’s righteousness, and then having a merciful attitude towards all others as an indication of the reality of understanding of our spiritual poverty and need for God. One of the key verses in the Old Testament that is pertinent here is, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). As we come to God to receive His salvation, the Lord closely examines us to see how effective the convicting work of His Holy Spirit is. Having a merciful attitude towards others is one good indicator, but our attitude towards God is the key thing, and that is where this verse applies.

So, to quote what we said about what we find in Vines Dictionary, the Lord looks on the inner person (as our verse above says). He looks to see the reality of the desire that is there. It is only when our desire for his salvation is pure or real, that He gives it to us, and of course He is the only one who can see that reality. Perhaps that is why some people appear to come to a place of commitment but don’t seem to ‘come through’.

The Lord also looks at the reality of our emotions. How pure are they? Are our tears, tears of remorse, tears of having been found out, revealed for who we are, or are they tears of genuine contrition, tears of anguish over the awfulness of who we are? The Lord alone knows the reality of our emotions at that point.

The Lord also examines our knowledge, the awareness of our state. Some people in big meetings have an emotional experience but there is no content to it. They do not know why they are feeling what they are feeling, but when we truly come to Christ under the conviction of his Holy Spirit, we know that we are sinners, we know that we are lost, we know that we are helpless and we know that only God can help us.

The Lord also looks at our conscience, our desire for moral standing. This is very similar to the previous one – He looks to see that we are going beyond mere emotions, that our cry is a genuine cry from deep down to be put morally right.

Finally the Lord looks deep inside us to see if, at the moment of conviction, there is a genuine dying to the old rebellious nature. When the Lord sees that, He knows that we are truly sincere and willing to forsake the past and let Him bring us a new life.

The second half of the verse gives us an amazing promise: they will see God .. The first implication is that when God sees this heart purity we have been considering, He then reveals Himself to us. By His own Holy Spirit coming to indwell us (Jn 14:17, 1 Cor 3:16) He enables us to have the most intimate relationship possible. “See” in that sense would simply mean ‘experience’. In the longer term, the promise of the New Testament is that when we die we will go to heaven and there we will see the Lord face to face. Purity of heart opens the way for the Lord to bring us His salvation, the ultimate expression of which is eternal life with Him in heaven. Yes, we have years to live out that relationship here on earth and possibly through dreams and visions we will ‘see’ the Lord, but the final outworking of that relationship is a face to face encounter in eternity in heaven. That is our destiny; that is the destiny of those who come to the place of purity of heart.